The despoliation of the Parthenon: an eyewitness account


by Edward Daniel Clarke

Edited by Jon Corelis

[Edward Daniel Clarke (1769 – 1822) was an English chemist and traveler whose best known work, Travels in various Countries of Europe, Asia and Africa, was extremely popular in Britain and America in the early 19th century.  In this passage from that work, he describes the dismantling of the Parthenon sculptures as he personally witnessed it.  The passage is quoted exactly, except that minor footnotes have been omitted and major ones incorporated into the main text.  The images have been added by me from public domain sources.  Giovanni Battista Lusieri was an Italian artist employed by Lord Elgin in Athens.  Disdar: an Ottoman official. Sarah Siddons: a famous actress.  Canova: an artist.  Telos:  Greek for “enough!” I haven’t been able to identify the Memorandum referred to.]

[Lusieri] became our guide to all the different buildings; and began by shewing us the Parthenon. Some workmen, employed under his direction for the British Ambassador, were then engaged in making preparation, by means of ropes and pulleys, for taking down the metopes, where the sculpture remained the most perfect. The Disdar himself came to view the work, but with evident marks of dissatisfaction; and Lusieri told us that it was with great difficulty he could accomplish this part of his undertaking, from the attachment the Turks entertained towards a building which they had been accustomed to regard with religious veneration, and had converted into a mosque. We confessed that we participated the Moslem feeling in this instance, and would gladly see an order enforced to preserve rather than to destroy such a glorious edifice. After a short time spent in examining the several parts of the temple, one of the workmen came to inform Don Battista [Lusieri] that they were then going to lower one of the metopes. We saw this fine piece of sculpture raised from its station between the triglyphs: but the workmen endeavouring to give it a position adapted to the projected line of descent, a part of the adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery; and down came the fine masses of Pentelican marble, scattering their white fragments with thundering noise among the ruins. The Disdar, seeing this, could no longer restrain his emotions; but actually took his pipe from his mouth, and, letting fall a tear, said, in a most emphatical tone of voice, "Telos!" positively declaring that nothing should induce him to consent to any further dilapidation of the building .


Lusieri's scaffolding Image info

This man was, however, poor, and had a family to support; consequently, he was unable to withstand the temptations which a little money, accompanied by splendid promises, offered to the necessities of his situation. So far from adhering to his resolution, he was afterwards gradually prevailed upon to allow all the finest pieces of sculpture belonging to the Parthenon to be taken down; and succeeding travellers speak with concern of the injuries the building had sustained, exclusively of the loss caused by the removal of the metopes. One example of this nature may be mentioned ; which, while it shews the havoc that has been carried on, will also prove the want of taste and utter barbarism of the undertaking. In one of the angles of the pediment which was over the eastern facade of the temple, there was a horse’s head, supposed to be intended for the horse of Neptune issuing from the earth, when struck by his trident, during his altercation with Minerva for the possession of Attica. The head of this animal had been so judiciously placed by Phidias, that, to a spectator below, it seemed to be rising from an abyss, foaming, and struggling to burst from its confined situation, with a degree of energy suited to the greatness and dignity of its character. All the perspective of the sculpture (if such an expression be admissible), and certainly all the harmony and fitness of its proportions, and all the effect of attitude and force of composition, depended upon the work being viewed precisely at the distance in which Phidias designed that it should be seen. Its removal, therefore, from its situation, amounted to nothing less than its destruction: — take it down, and all the aim of the sculptor is instantly frustrated ! Could any one believe that this was actually done? And that it was done, too, in the name of a nation vain of its distinction in the Fine Arts? Nay more, that in doing this, finding the removal of this piece of sculpture could not be effected without destroying the entire angle of the pediment, the work of destruction was allowed to proceed even to this extent also? Thus the form of the temple has sustained a greater injury than it had already experienced from the Venetian artillery; and the horse’s head has been removed, to be placed where it exhibits nothing of its original effect: like the acquisition said to have been made by another Nobleman, who, being delighted at a puppet-show, bought Punch, and was chagrined to find, when he carried him home, that the figure had lost all its humour.

 The Parthenon after the despoliation Image info

Yet we are seriously told, (Memorandum, p.8, Lond, 1811,) that this mischief has been done with a view to "rescue these specimens of sculpture from impending ruin:" then, why not exert the same influence which was employed in removing them, to induce the Turkish Government to adopt measures for their effectual preservation! Ah no! a wiser scheme was in agitation: it was at first attempted to have them all mended by some modern artist!!! (See Memor, p. 39.) From this calamity they were rescued by the good taste of Canova, (Ibid.) The sight of them (Memor, p 42.) "so rivetted and agitated the feelings of Mrs. Siddons, the pride of theatrical representation, as actually to draw tears from her eyes." And who marvels at such emotion?

Lord Elgin Image info  

“Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee.

Nor feels as lovers o'er the dust they lov'd;

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see

Thy walls defac'd, thy mouldering shrines remov'd

By British hands, which it had best behov'd

To guard those relics— ne'er to be restor'd.

Curst be the hour when from their isle they rov'd,

And once again thy hapless bosom goar'd,

And snatch'd thy shrinking Gods to Northern climes abhorr’d.”

     Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto II.15 Lond. 1812

Looking up, we saw with regret the gap that had been made; which all the ambassadors of the earth, with all the sovereigns they represent, aided by every resource that wealth and talent can now bestow, will never again repair. As to our friend Lusieri it is hardly necessary to exculpate him; because he could only obey the orders he had received, and this he did with manifest reluctance: neither was there a workman employed in the undertaking, among the artists sent out of Rome for that purpose, who did not express his concern that such havoc should be deemed necessary, after moulds and casts had been already made of all the sculpture which it was designed to remove. The author would gladly have avoided the introduction of this subject ; but as he was an eye-witness of these proceedings, it constitutes a part of the duties he has to fulfil in giving the narrative of his travels; and if his work be destined to survive him, it shall not, by its taciturnity with regard to the spoliation of the Athenian temples, seem to indicate any thing like an approval of the measures which have tended so materially towards their destruction.

Clarke's book went through many editions; the above text is quoted from Travels in various Countries of Europe, Asia and Africa by E. D.  Clarke LL.D. Part the Second GREECE EGYPT AND THE HOLY LAND Section the Second Fourth Edition Volume the Sixth London T. Cadell 1818 pp. 223 ff.