ATHENS – It is only the size of a shoebox, carved with the broken foot of an ancient Greek goddess.
But Greece is hoping the 2,500-year-old marble fragment, which arrived on loan from an Italian museum on Monday, can help resolve one of the world’s most thorny cultural heritage disputes and lead to the reunification in Athens of all the Parthenon sculptures, many of which are in the British Museum.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that the Sicilian museum’s gesture “paves the way, I believe, for other museums to move in the same direction”.
“Most important, of course, the British Museum, which must now realize that it is time for the Parthenon marbles … to finally return here, to their natural home,” he added, expressing his gratitude to Italy for the loan.
The fragment was part of a 160-meter-long (520-foot) frieze that circled the outer walls of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom. Much of it was lost in a 17th century bombardment, and around half of the remaining works were removed in the early 19th century by a British diplomat, Lord Elgin. They ended up at the British Museum, which has repeatedly rejected Greek requests for return.
Officially, the A. Salinas archaeological museum in Sicily only lends the foot of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, to Greece for a maximum period of eight years. But the ultimate goal, according to Italian and Greek officials, is his “indefinite return” to Athens. In exchange, Greece will lend important antiques to Italy.
“The solution we have found proves that where there is a will between museums and cultural authorities of two countries, there can be a mutually acceptable solution,” Mitsotakis said during a ceremony at the museum. ‘Acropolis, where the surviving Greek sections of the frieze are inlaid. among the casts of those from London.
Artemis’ foot will nestle like a missing puzzle piece between two original fragments and a copy of a larger section now in London.
Successive Greek governments have pushed for the return of the works of the British Museum, which includes statues from the Parthenon pediments – the gables of the all-marble building. They claim that Elgin illegally sawn off the sculptures, going beyond the terms of a questionable permit granted by Turkish authorities while Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire against his will.
The British Museum rejects this position and, despite indications that British public opinion is favorable to the Greek request, has shown no intention of returning the works definitively.
Mitsotakis raised the issue again during a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London in November. He said on Monday he was “encouraged” by Johnson saying the British government would not oppose a possible deal on the return of the sculptures – if the British Museum and Greece strike one.
The Italian fragment, which measures 31 x 35 centimeters (12 x 14 inches), was acquired under unknown circumstances by the 19th-century British consul in Sicily, Robert Fagan, and his widow sold it to the forerunner of the Sicilian Museum.
Acropolis Museum director Dimitris Pantermalis said the marble foot may have been dislodged from its place in 1687, when a mortar fired by besieging Venetian forces hit the Parthenon, which the Turkish garrison of the Acropolis used as a gunpowder store. But, he said, it was in better condition than the other surviving frieze fragments.
“In all other cases the surface is slightly scratched,” he said. “Here it has the freshness of the original, and that makes us proud.”
The Parthenon was built between 447 and 432 BC and is considered the crowning glory of classical architecture. Although it was successively used as a church and a mosque, it survived virtually intact until the Venetian siege.
The frieze represented a procession in honor of Athena. Some small pieces – and other Parthenon sculptures – can be found in other European museums.
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