The long-awaited homecoming of a marble fragment, polished to adorn the Parthenon but long exiled in Italy, should “open the way” for other masterpieces to join the monument, the Greek prime minister said.
While presenting the artwork at the Acropolis Museum, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said its restitution, sealed in a groundbreaking agreement between Sicily and Athens, offered a model for reaching similar agreements, for example with the United Kingdom.
“I believe this important step today opens the way for other museums to move in a similar direction,” he told attendees at Monday’s ceremony. “The most important thing, of course, is that the British Museum must understand that the time has come for the Parthenon marbles … to finally return here, to their natural home.”
The exquisite piece is barely the size of a shoe box. Carved 2,500 years ago, it represents the foot of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, peeking out from under an elaborate robe. The fragment once embellished the eastern part of the monumental frieze of the Parthenon temple, long considered the highlight of classical art.
The treasure was returned to Greece last week by the Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Sicily, apparently as part of a cultural exchange.
Under the agreement, it was agreed that the loan, which matures in 2026, could be extended for another four years. In exchange, Athens has lent to the Museum of Palermo a beheaded statue of the goddess Athena from the 5th century BC and an amphora from the 8th century BC.
But Culture Ministry officials acknowledged that negotiations were underway to ensure that the artifact’s repatriation would be “indefinite”, which would amount to additional pressure on the British Museum to do the same.
More than half of what survives from the 160-meter-long frieze is on display in London. Lord Elgin, then Britain’s ambassador to the Sublime Gate, had the sculptures ripped from the monument more than 200 years ago before selling them, bankrupt and dejected, to the British Museum in 1816.
Eight museums in Europe house other parts of the frieze; the Acropolis Museum in Athens, custom built to display the treasures, exhibits a value of about 50 meters.
Mitsotakis, who has reinvigorated Greece’s decades-long campaign for the reunification of antiquities in Athens, made the restitution of marbles the central theme of his first Downing Street talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in November.
Athens has long argued that the marbles were stolen by Elgin at a time when stateless Greece was under Ottoman rule.
Although he was once a passionate advocate for the sculpture’s return to the country, Johnson has changed course, insisting that the carvings were legally acquired. He rejected Mitsotakis’s claim that the dispute should be resolved as an intergovernmental matter and said it was a matter for the British Museum to discuss.
But the Greek leader said on Monday that Athens was unfazed in its battle to recover the treasures and that the agreement with the Palermo museum showed that where there was a will, a “mutually acceptable solution” could be found. Athens has offered to give London antiques that had never before left Greece in exchange for the masterpieces.
“I am particularly encouraged by the fact that the majority of British people seem to support our demand,” Mitsotakis said, referring to successive polls that have shown that the majority of UK citizens believe that the marbles should be returned to Athens.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism