History of the Marbles

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Locating the Bribeable Dignitary

The Athenians were thrilled with the arrival in 1800 of the Elgin team hoping it would create jobs and bring money to the city. Amongst them was the Reverend Philip Hunt - a deft negotiator consumed by an insatiable appetite for Greek antiquities - and the Italian Giovani Batista Lusieri - a professional landscape painter, in charge of the whole project.

To start with, Lord Elgin's aims were modest: as Britain's ambassador he used his considerable influence with the Sultan to be allowed to draw and make casts of the Parthenon sculptures. He wished to bring such sketches and casts back to Britain so as to improve artistic appreciation and taste among his countrymen. However, the more he busied himself with this project the more he realised that under the eminently bribeable Ottoman officialdom in charge, the Parthenon sculptures were there not only for copying but also for the taking.

The two Ottoman dignitaries mentioned in the correspondence of the team members were the Voivode, governor of Athens, and the Disdar, the military governor of the Acropolis, then a publicly owned military complex under the authority of the Sultan himself. Intrigued by the fascination the Acropolis exerted on Western visitors these two were not averse to sell them the odd piece of it but kept quiet about it lest they lose their heads (literally).

With such a Damocles' sword over him, the Disdar was prepared to sell access to the Acropolis but when it came to allow the Elgin team to sketch, including perhaps the military fortifications and even spy on women in the Ottoman houses visible from the Acropolis, he drew the line. He demanded a firman (Sultan's decree). Lord Elgin In Constantinople started to work hard to obtain one.

In February 1801, six whole months after their arrival in Athens, Lord Elgin's artists were finally allowed on to the Acropolis. However, when the scaffolding was erected and the moulders were ready to start work, the Disdar took fright and banned access to the site until the promised firman was securely in his hands.