In a breakthrough arrangement, Italy is returning a section of the Parthenon’s eastern frieze to Greece, perhaps renewing pressure on Britain to restore the 2,500-year-old Parthenon marbles stolen by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century.
The marble piece, which portrays a goddess’s foot, perhaps Peitho or Artemis, peeping out from behind an intricate garment, is now on display at Palermo’s Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum. After Robert Fagan, the British consul for Sicily and Malta, died in 1816, the University of Palermo purchased it from his widow.
The relic is being returned after a four-year loan as part of a cultural exchange arrangement between Sicily and Greece, with the possibility of a four-year extension. The return to Greece, on the other hand, may become permanent.
In exchange, the Acropolis Museum in Athens will loan the Palermo museum a headless figure of the goddess Athena from the 5th century BC, as well as an amphora from the 8th century BC.
The agreement, which involves a cultural exchange between the two institutions, was reached after years of discussions between Sicilian and Greek officials.
“Returning to its origins, a small but significant fragment belonging to the Parthenon has a very strong symbolic value,” said Alberto Samonà, Sicily’s cultural councillor. “It’s also a reaction to the international controversy [over the Parthenon artefacts].” But I’m not going to go into that argument. For us, this is a gesture of brotherhood — Greece and Sicily are two parts of the Mediterranean that share a shared story.”
In 2002 and 2008, the piece was lent to Greece. The current relocation, according to Samonà, may become permanent, but it would be up to the Italian cultural minister to take the necessary steps.
It’s unclear how Fagan, an amateur archaeologist, came to own the fragment, but one theory suggests it was given to him by Elgin, the British aristocrat who excavated the majority of the Parthenon marbles between 1801 and 1804 before selling them to the British Museum in 1816, where they are now on display.
Greece has long sought for the return of the marbles from the United Kingdom. In November, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged that the marbles be returned to Greece, while also proposing to lend the British Museum other Greek historical artifacts. Downing Street responded by stating that the marbles should be returned to the British Museum.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, had previously said that the stones will stay in Britain, claiming that they were legitimately obtained.
Thanks to Angela Giuffrida at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.