Of Marbles, Midas and the Mona Lisa

I’m reading a book at the moment: ‘Greece, The Hidden Centuries’, by historian David Brewer. It’s subtitled, ‘Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to Greek Independence.’ Brewer is a classics scholar with a particular interest in the history of Greece, and this book raises many issues that challenge received wisdom. Perhaps I’ll review the book in another post – but for now I want to focus on the chapter entitled ‘Travellers to Greece’, which deals with visitors from Western Europe during the two hundred years from the late 16th to the late 18th century.
Brewer notes that, from the late 17th century, as interest grew in Greek antiquities, the removal to England and France of whatever could be moved became a kind of competition between the two nations. Even at that time there seems to have been some argument about whether collectors were saving the monuments from destruction, or simply looting, and wreaking their own destruction in the process. Possibly the most famous of these uplifted treasures is the collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, sometimes known as the Elgin Marbles, after the English Lord who arranged and financed their removal to London. Brewer ventures his opinion that the controversial statuary should be returned to Greece.
No doubt the UK Government, and the curators of the British Museum, where the Parthenon marbles are displayed, will be in no hurry to acquiesce in this matter. An entire new gallery was added to the iconic museum in 1937, solely for the purpose of displaying these priceless relics of ancient Greece. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, I would like to take this opportunity to commend officials of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who have decided to make an important gesture in the controversial field of relocating antiquities. It seems that the museum had acquired twenty-four pieces of ancient jewellery back in 1966, at a time when museums generally were rather less fussy about checking the provenance of purchases. Recent study of the items has suggested that they could originate from the city of Troy, now in northwest Turkey.
King Midas of Gordion,
with his golden daughter
Apparently a deal has been worked out between the American museum and the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry, providing for the jewellery to be loaned indefinitely to Turkey. Archeologists from Pennsylvania University have been working on excavations at Troy, and Gordion, some seventy kilometres from the Turkish capital, Ankara, and the institution is planning an exhibition of artefacts from the latter site. The Turkish Government continues to support the archeological work, and will allow the loan of treasures from Gordion for the exhibition.
Gordion was the capital of ancient Phrygia, a kingdom at its height during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. Its wealth became proverbial, and one of its kings, Midas, is remembered for his ill-considered wish to turn everything to gold with the touch of a finger. Excavations at the city have recently unearthed a tomb believed to be that of Midas’s father, so the exhibition should generate considerable interest.
Not all attempts to repatriate archeological treasures, unfortunately, meet with such amicable resolution. It is reported that the Italian National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage have petitioned the French Government for the return of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Da Vinci was, of course, Italian, and is believed to have painted his best-known work in Florence between 1503 and 1506, so you might think the NCHCEH have a case.
Sad to say, such matters are rarely so simple. Some years ago, while on a cycling holiday in France, I found myself in a Val de Loire town called Amboise, where I paid a visit to the main attraction, the Chateau de Clos Lucé. I was fascinated to learn that da Vinci had spent the last three years of his life here, at the invitation of the French King Francis I. International travel was not so easy in those days, and the great artist, at the age of 64, made the journey from Italy, over the Alps, on a donkey, with the Mona Lisa, and a couple of other prized paintings, in his saddle bags. Of course, a royal invitation is hard to turn down, more especially in the 16th century, but still, it’s a big trip for an old guy, huh! One reason the offer seemed particularly attractive was that Leonardo just wasn’t getting the commissions in his homeland that he once had. A couple of younger rivals, Michelangelo and Raphael had apparently sidelined him.
So, there it is, in France, the Mona Lisa – where it has been for nigh on five hundred years. It has moved around a bit from one royal palace to another, to safe places in time of war, on loan to the Uffizi Art Gallery in Florence, and even to a thief’s apartment for a couple of years.  These days you can see it hanging in the Louvre in Paris – and I have a strong suspicion that the Italians’ chances of getting it back are on a par with the likelihood of the Brits’ handing back the Parthenon marbles.


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