The regional archaeological museum of Sicily has shipped a fragment from the Parthenon temple to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where it will remain on long-term loan. Some have interpreted the move as a nudge to encourage the British Museum, which holds the largest collection of Parthenon sculptures outside of Greece, to follow suit.
The fragment in question depicts the right foot and part of the dress of Greek goddess Artemis, whose marble likeness once sat enthroned on the eastern side of the 520-foot Ionic frieze that encircled the temple. The slab was unveiled in a ceremony at the Acropolis Museum today, January 10, and added to its life-sized representation of the Parthenon, which combines both original marbles as well as plaster copies of those still held at the British Museum and other foreign institutions.
Part of the collection of the Antonio Salinas Regional Archeological Museum in Sicily, the small sculpture will be on loan at the Acropolis Museum for the next four years, after which the deal may be renewed one time. In exchange for the coveted fragment, the Italian museum will be lent a statue of Athena dating from the 5th century BCE and a geometric amphora from the 8th century BCE.
The divine foot comes from the collection of the British diplomat and art dealer Robert Fagan, who was appointed consul general for Sicily and Malta in the early 19th century. When he died, his widow sold the slab to the University of Palermo’s Regio Museum, the present-day Salinas Museum. It is unclear how Fagan came to own the fragment.
The Parthenon sculptures are sometimes referred to as the “Elgin Marbles” after the British official who made off with half the lot between 1801 and 1805, when Athens was under Ottoman rule. Although some pieces of displaced Parthenon art are scattered in institutions across Europe, the lion’s share is housed in the British Museum, which lists the works on a “Contested Objects” section of its website while maintaining its unwavering refusal to repatriate them.
Greece has tirelessly called for the Parthenon sculptures’ permanent return, but the UK’s position has barely budged in a debate that goes back decades. Last March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson affirmed the UK government’s stance that the marbles were “legally acquired.” A few months later, however, a spokesperson for Johnson said that “the possession of the marbles is a matter purely for the museum,” shifting the onus to the institution and away from the national government.
Though it’s not exactly an act of unreciprocated generosity, Italy’s temporary loan may pave the way for the fragment’s “indefinite return” to Athens, according to a statement from the Salinas Museum. Some hope the deal will have far greater repercussions, encouraging the UK to make similar moves.
“The agreement of cooperation and goodwill of Palermo and the return of the ‘Fagan fragment’ to the monument to which it belongs, as well as its placement in the Parthenon frieze, to remain there ‘sine die,’ with an act of approval by the Italian Ministry of Culture, could open the way for a similar agreement with an act of approval by the British Parliament,” Nikos Stampolidis, general director of the Acropolis Museum, told Hyperallergic.