Greek gods come home

Sicily lives for a long time in the Greek cultural imagination. Described by Homer as “the island of the sun”, Sicily was an important part of the ancient Greek world and is home to some of the best preserved Doric temples dedicated to Greek gods, including the goddess Athena herself.

Unveiling of the goddess Athena in Palermo

These ancient ties have now been strengthened with the announcement of a new cultural agreement between Sicily and Greece which will hopefully lead to the permanent repatriation of a fragment of the Parthenon frieze to the Acropolis Museum in Athens. after more than 200 years. In exchange, Greece sent a superb statue of the goddess Athena from the 5th century BC. at the Regional Archaeological Museum of Salinas in Palermo as a reciprocal loan.

The Palermo Fragment, which had been acquired by a former British Consul in Sicily, Robert Fagan, around the time Lord Elgin’s men were looting the Parthenon, has been placed in the east frieze of the Parthenon in the Acropolis Museum alongside the seated goddesses of Demeter and Artemis as they watch the annual Panathenaic procession in honor of the city’s patron, the goddess Athena.

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The Palermo Fragment

Then, in a reciprocal ceremony in early February, the Greek Minister of Culture, Dr Lina Mendoni, and the Director of the Acropolis Museum, Professor Nikolaos Stampolidis, unveiled the statue of Athena which will adorn the museum in Sicily for four years.

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The sculpture of Athena is dressed in a peplos that envelops her curves and covered with a protective mantle.

The symbolism of this cultural exchange cannot be overstated. The British Museum, backed by a British cultural establishment that still clings to the so-called Elgin Marbles as a symbol of British cultural superiority and imperial ascendancy, has always refused to engage with the Greeks to discuss ways to assemble in Athens, given the Parthenon, the dismembered Phidian forms taken by Elgin. On several occasions, the Greek side offered to send to the British Museum, through long-term reciprocal loans, other rare classical antiquities which had not previously left Greece in the hope of eventually collecting all the known sculptural elements of the Parthenon.

The Sicilian agreement paved the way.

In Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomed the return of the Palermo fragment and recalled the harsh decision of the Intergovernmental Committee of UNESCO at the end of 2021 criticizing the position of the British government and urging it to engage in a real dialogue with the Greeks on their rightful claim rather than hiding behind the curatorial veil of the trustees of the British Museum.

The Palermo speeches were no less emphatic.

The arrival in Palermo of the statue of Athena was made possible thanks to a complex diplomacy. Under the Italian Code of Cultural and Landscape Heritage of 2004, the permanent export of protected movable cultural property from Italy is generally prohibited, but under Article 67 it may be permitted in the implementation of cultural agreements with foreign museums within the framework of reciprocal agreements, for an agreed duration. which must not exceed four years (with the possibility of extension for another four years).

It is obvious that the Sicilian authorities are keen to regularize this agreement and make the transfer permanent in recognition of the rich cultural and historical relationship between Sikeliots and Greeks. The Director of the Antonino Salinas Museum, Dr. Caterina Greco, highlighted this growing cultural cooperation and spoke of future initiatives based on the ancient substrate of Greek colonization which, from the 8th century BC, forever linked the Sicily to the Greek homeland.

Italian Deputy Culture Minister Lucia Borgonzoni said the world deserved to see the Parthenon sculptures together. The Italian deputy minister noted that the transfer of the fragment from Palermo was now done in the form of a temporary deposit, but explained that they were working at the ministry so that the fragment would remain in Athens forever.

The cultural heritage and Sicilian identity assistant, Dr. Alberto Samonà, added that today Sicily is taking the first step and expressed the hope that other countries will follow this example to build a new humanism of Culture.

Dr Mendoni then met with the Italian Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, who confirmed the excellent bilateral relations between Italy and Greece and their common understanding of the international protection of historical and cultural heritage.

The Italian Minister of Culture has announced that he is firmly committed to expediting the release and permanent repatriation to the Acropolis Museum of the fragment of the Parthenon Fagan through a process initiated at the request of the Region of Sicily and to be finalized within the Commission for recovery and return. of cultural property set up at the Italian Ministry of Culture.

Greek Minister of Culture, Dr Lina Mendoni

In his speech on the unveiling of the Athena statue, Dr Mendoni warmly thanked the Italian authorities and underlined the historic significance of the agreement which points the way the British Museum can follow. The Greek Minister of Culture also took the opportunity to clearly state the position of the Greek government, stating that the return and reunification of the Parthenon sculptures in Athens is a moral obligation for all of Europe as part of the protection of its common cultural heritage. And she responded directly and firmly to the oft-repeated claim by the UK that the Elgin Marbles had been lawfully acquired:

“Greece does not recognize any right of ownership, possession and exploitation over them. On the contrary, it is constitutionally obliged and morally justified to demand and fight for their final, permanent and irrevocable restitution by all legal and available means, in order to restore justice and moral order and mainly to restore the integrity of the monument.

As Greece continues to mount a cultural diplomatic offensive, it is simply wrong to claim – as some do – that the current Greek authorities believe that only cultural diplomacy can lead to a satisfactory agreement with Britain and the British Museum. As affirmed by the Greek Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture, Greece will pursue the ultimate reunification of the Parthenon sculptures by all means at its disposal, including the use of appropriate legal or judicial procedures if necessary.

The idea that this is a purely moral or ethical problem, without a jurisprudential dimension, is fallacious, especially since one of the central points of the argument in favor of reunification is that the sculptures have were taken illegally in the first place and their continued preservation in the Duveen Gallery is forever tainted by that illegality.

Greece and Italy are to be applauded for this informed cultural exchange agreement that highlights the rich heritage that both binds and defines the two nation states. The Fagan fragment is reunited in Athens while the goddess Athena once again becomes a god of the Sicilians with the installation of her exquisite sculpture in Palermo.

The Greek gods begin to return home.

George Vardas is Deputy Chairman of the Australian Parthenon Committee and
Co-founder, of the Acropolis research group

Acropolis Museum, Ancient Greek World, Artemis, Athens, British Museum, British Museum Trustees, Dario Franceschini, Demeter, Dr Lina Mendoni, Goddess Athena, Greece, Greek Culture, Greek Gods, Greek History, Homer, Lord Elgin, frieze of the Parthenon, Parthenon Sculptues, Professor Nikolaos Stampolidis, Robert Fagan, Regional Archaeological Museum of Salinas, Sicily, UNESCO, UNESCO I

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