How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles

In 1801 a British nobleman stripped the Parthenon of many of its sculptures and took them to England. Controversy over their acquisition by the British Museum continues to this day. Was it preservation, or pillage?

During the 1700s, a European Grand Tour was a rite of passage for the sons of wealthy families. Lasting for up to three years, and taking in Switzerland, Paris, and Rome, the high point of this secular pilgrimage for most travelers was Greece. On arriving in Athens, the first sight these young tourists would look for was the Acropolis and its crowning glory: the pillared Parthenon, dedicated to the warrior goddess Athena.

Yet even as the Grand Tour became increasingly popular, laying the foundations for modern tourism, this great monument, studded with the work of the great Athenian sculptor Phidias, was at risk of disappearing entirely. Since the 15th century, Greece had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire, whose troops had converted the Acropolis into a garrison, and whose sultan, Mehmed II, had turned the Parthenon itself into a mosque, complete with a minaret.

In 1687, during a war fought between Venice and the Ottomans, the great monument was used by the Ottomans to store gunpowder. Exposed on the Acropolis, the Parthenon was a highly vulnerable target, and in September that year, a deadly blow fell: A Venetian mortar struck it, causing a colossal explosion that destroyed its roof, leaving only the pediments standing. Later, the Venetian admiral Francesco Morosini tried to remove sculptures in order to take them back to Venice. The pulley he was using broke, and the figures, including a large Poseidon, was smashed to pieces.

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