Return to the Parthenon Chapter 1

Chapter One


In the Ospedale San Antonio on the outskirts of Rome there was an atmosphere of blind panic. The staff were nonplussed and embarrassed. The police were furious.

A high profile patient had simply disappeared, despite being under 24 hour guard and, in the opinion of the medical staff, not yet fit to be discharged and returned to the custody of the prison service.

How on earth Giovanni Lucca could have escaped puzzled Capitano Gino Frisoni back in Sardinia when the news reached him. He had personally seen Lucca arrested and transferred to the hospital on the mainland. He was then the responsibility of the local force. Now it seemed Lucca had simply walked out of the building in the early morning without anyone noticing!

Frisoni couldn't help smiling to himself at the sheer inventiveness of the man. He had been in a bad way when he was transported to the hospital. Two gunshot wounds – one in the leg and another, much more serious, in the stomach.

That one should have been fatal – he was sure Isabella Marquessa thought it was when she shot him. But Lucca had had the luck of the devil. The bullet missed his vital organs. The paramedics on the spot managed to control the loss of blood, and against the odds, Lucca survived.

He had clearly recovered more quickly than the doctors had realised, strongly enough to leave the hospital without help. He always had been a cunning devil and a bit of play acting was well within his compass.

Frisoni took another sip of the wine he had poured himself earlier before the phone call came through. He hated being interrupted during a meal, but the news had been important enough for him to make an exception and leave the table to take the call.

At first when he returned and resumed his place he remained silent, but the guests and his family realised he had received important news and pressed him so much to tell them, that in the end he gave in and told them of Lucca's escape.

This had immediately caused an animated and lively discussion, which Frisoni had largely ignored until someone suggested the doctors or medical staff had been bribed to help Lucca escape. How on earth could he have managed it otherwise, they argued? He had hardly recovered from his injuries and in theory was being guarded day and night.

Frisoni sighed and silently agreed with them. How was he going to be able to explain this to his French and Greek colleagues! The circumstances of the escape were all too stereotypically Italian, he reflected ruefully. Although he knew Pierre Rousseau would sympathise in a slightly arch French way, he could already hear the gales of Greek laughter with which Antonia Antoniarchis would greet the news. At least neither of them would blame him personally.

He realised he had been so lost in thought that he was neglecting his guests – a thought brought even more home to him as he received a sharp kick on the chins from his wife. Shrugging off his reaction to the news he smiled, accepted more wine from his neighbour at table and rejoined the family party in spirit as well in body.

He would telephone Pierre and Antonia later. Hospitality to his guests was more important.

*

The scene in the harbour in Piraeus in the late summer of 1802 was as chaotic as usual. The masts and rigging of the merchant ships blackly criss-crossed the early morning sky and the pennants on the British warships fluttered in the light breeze. HMS Mentor leaned against the quay at a slight angle due to the low September tides and lack of water in that part of the harbour. A stack of heavy wooden crates stood near the edge of the quay. The local workers who had hauled them all the way from the Parthenon had unloaded them from the carts and were now standing around waiting for further instructions.

Giovanni Lusieri stood contemplating the scene. He was tired and frustrated. The whole operation had not been easy, in fact it had been a nightmare. Firstly, obtaining permission from the Sultan to remove the sculptures, had dragged on for months. Then there had been so many people to satisfy financially – he would not have accepted the word bribe – just for doing their job. The sheer physical difficulty of cutting the carvings down from the ruin had finally been overcome and in the spring he had been able to send word to Lord Elgin in Constantinople that the first group of sculptures was now safely packed and ready for carting to the port.

Elgin had immediately hurried over to Athens and personally supervised the removal and crating up of the magnificent horse's head from the Chariot of the Waning Moon.

Clearly delighted with the progress his team had made, he congratulated them, left Lusieri with enough cash and gifts to offer to the officials in Athens and Piraeus, and set off on another tour of Greece to identify more places to dig and collect artefacts.

Lusieri was aware many more crates would arrive in the port in the following months, but his priority now was to see the first seventeen crates containing some of the best sculptures safely loaded on board the Mentor. Later, larger ships would be needed, but for the moment that was not his concern.

He could see cabin lights coming on on board the Mentor and walked slowly across the quay towards the ship. The marine on early morning sentry duty warily watched him approach, but then saluted as he recognised the man Lord Elgin had put in charge of the complicated task of bringing the sculptures to England. Lusieri hardly noticed the man's reaction, lost in thought as he was.

He knew the captain of the Mentor would receive him well on board, even at this early hour, but he was aware the cargo he was proposing would be at the limit of what the small vessel could carry. Somehow he would have to persuade him of the urgency of the operation. For the moment the French were on the back foot, after their defeat in Aboukir Bay at the hands of Admiral Nelson and the subsequent surrender of Cairo to the British only the previous June, but the situation could change at any time. It was essential these first crates should get to England as soon as possible.

The sentry pushed the wooden gangway across to the harbour wall and Lusieri gingerly crossed over and jumped down onto the sloping deck. Then he was escorted to the captain's cabin. The sentry knocked on the door.

What is it?”

Signor Lusieri to see you, Captain.”

Immediately the cabin door was flung open, the marine snapped to attention and stepped aside to let Lusieri pass. Captain Armstrong acknowledged the salute automatically and put out his hand.

Enter and welcome my dear Lusieri. Won't you join me for breakfast?”

Lusieri bent his head to enter the small cabin and squeezed into the space at the side of the table, reflecting that such exiguous quarters were not for him.

The two men said nothing for a moment while the captain poured coffee for his guest and Lusieri helped himself to the bread and cheese on the table in front of him. He had risen early and the smell of coffee had reawakened his appetite.

So, my friend, you look tired. Is the work done? There are many crates stacked on the quay.”

They are all for shipping to England, Captain,” said Lusieri coming straight to the point.

Mine is a small ship and will be severely compromised if we take all the crates at once. It would be too dangerous. I can take half now, but will have to return for the rest.”

Our orders come straight from The Ambassador, Lord Elgin himself,” he replied holding out a letter. “You are to take them all.”

Captain Armstrong took up a knife, slit the envelope open, removed the letter and held it out in front of him. Lusieri watched as the expression on the captain's face hardened and he slowly lowered the sheet of paper.

I thought the original intention was to make drawings and take plaster casts of the sculptures? I watched the crates being unloaded from the carts. I judge they are of great weight. So what do they contain – certainly not just drawings!”

Lord Elgin obtained permission to remove the sculptures themselves. They must be taken to England with all speed. Yours is the only ship available,” Lusieri replied feeling more and more uncomfortable about the demands he was making.

Captain Armstrong shrugged his shoulders and looked at Lusieri.

I will obey my orders and I do not blame the messenger, but I will convey my apprehension to the Admiralty. My ship is not fit to carry such a large cargo. We will have to reduce the quantity of supplies we carry which will mean an increased number of stops on the voyage home in order to re-provision the ship. Being sure the port is friendly to us will be another concern. I cannot reduce our armaments, so there is no alternative.”

The two men knew there was nothing more to be said on the matter and the conversation turned to more mundane matters. Finally they both stood up, each to organise and give orders for his side of the loading operation to start.



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