In London in the summer of 1808, a famous prize fighter named Gregson spent two hours striking poses beside ancient Greek statues in a temporary museum near Piccadilly. Artists and gentlemen paid five shillings each to compare Gregson's naked body with the sculptures in the collection that Lord Elgin had recently brought from the Parthenon in Athens. A month later, during three boxing matches on the same site, connoisseurs watched contemporary human muscles in action beside muscles carved from marble in the fifth century BC.
The unveiling of those Greek sculptures was a famous and astonishing event. Artists found them soul-shaking. Benjamin West, the American who at 70 was one of England's leading painters, said the Greek art taught him so much that he yearned to begin his career again. This exhilarating moment in cultural history provides an engaging passage in William St. Clair's Lord Elgin & the Marbles: The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures (Oxford, 419 pages, $36.50). It's also an unusually pleasant anecdote in an account dominated by greed, rancour and bitter disappointment.
Has any masterpiece in history suffered so much indignity as the Parthenon? It's as if a perverse god had ordered the greatest Athenian temple to serve as a one-building compendium of civilization's mistakes. In the sixth century, Christians tore part of it down so they could make it a Byzantine church. The Turks added a minaret in the 15th century, converted it into a mosque and later used it as a gunpowder storehouse during their war with Venice. One day in 1667 a Venetian cannon's direct hit blew off the roof and demolished much of the art. Then local builders began grinding down the sculptures to make mortar. Eventually Lord Elgin arrived.
In 1799, Lord Elgin (father of the Elgin who became governor-general of Canada) turned his ambassador's job at Constantinople into a chance to build an unparallelled art collection. He originally planned to collect only copies of Greek art, but his employees discovered that the actual sculptures could be bought. Certainly the corrupt Ottoman governors of Greece didn't mind. Elgin's men started tearing huge chunks off the building, and shipping dozens of masterpieces and hundreds of lesser objects to England.
But the marbles were a financial calamity for Lord Elgin. He claimed, with justice, that he saved much of the art from total destruction or dispersal, but even in his own time he was called a culture thief. Clever, vicious Lord Byron made fun in verse of Elgin's syphilis-ravaged nose while describing his treasures as "mutilated blocks of art." Elgin spent a fortune shipping the sculpture to England, and recovered only part of it when the government reluctantly purchased the collection in 1816. He died in debt in 1841.
Recent Greek governments have demanded that Britain send the whole collection back. St. Clair comes down on the Greek side, partly because the art has sometimes been carelessly handled: In the 1930s, under Lord Duveen, many sculptures were cleaned in a way that damaged their surfaces. Another argument for returning them is that they can be understood best in the city that also contains the Parthenon (still there, of course, pathetic but recognizable). On the other side, the arguments are stronger. Far more people enjoy them at the British Museum, and returning them would create a hideous precedent. If the Elgin Marbles go to Athens, museums all over the world will soon be packing up treasures for return to their "true" homes.
This rich story of majestic art and ignoble politics deserves to be embodied in a masterpiece. William St. Clair lacks the wit and poise to write such a book, but what he's given us -- a much expanded version of a work originally published in 1967 -- is wonderfully rewarding.
Closing it, I thought of Daniel Bell's remark that a good book, unlike a good meal, should always leave us wanting more. It should open onto other books. St. Clair's readers may well find they need to know more about Phidias, the Parthenon's main sculptor; about the sacrifice of the daughters of King Erechtheus, which may or may not be the main subject Phidias was addressing; about the Ottoman empire's grotesque style of government; about Byron and the Romantic rediscovery of Greece in the 19th century; and perhaps even about Napoleon, the titan who lurks offstage, a constant source of menace, through much of this sordid and enthralling tale.