Abstract: Lord Elgin and the Parthenon Marbles: Two Hundred Years of Controversy


Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, who had been appointed the English ambassador to the Ottoman court, was responsible for the removal of many of the sculpted statues and reliefs from the Parthenon. Lord Elgin’s purpose was to enlighten European culture by bringing to London examples of the best sculpture from Athens, the birthplace of the Classical style in the fifth-century BC.  In the early nineteenth century few people had the opportunity to see the remains of ancient Athens in person, because Greece was under the domination of the Turks, and was therefore still terra incognita. Although his original intent was not to remove, but to study the Parthenon marbles, Elgin did become zealous in seeking to acquire the sculpture.  In part, his motivation was spurred on by the knowledge that Napoleon’s agents were also actively seeking to acquire the marbles.  Elgin’s zeal—along with well-placed bribes—allowed his own agents to proceed beyond the original limits of his permit granted by the Turkish authorities. Regardless of his motivations, Elgin’s despoiling of the Parthenon has stirred up a modern-day controversy concerning the legalities of his actions.

This lecture explores the personal life and troubled career of Lord Elgin, the activities in Athens, the prominent role his wife, Lady Nesbit, played in the affair, and the controversy spurred by his actions over the legal ownership of the marbles.  Also Dr. Hoff will outline the state of current discussions of both the Greek government and the British Museum, the home of the Marbles since the early 19th century, in the continuing saga of their ownership.

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