Fooled you, didn’t I? Actually, this photograph depicts not the handsome actor but me. It was taken this morning off the terrace of the Acropolis Museum, and that’s where Mr Clooney comes in.
But first things first. The museum is the most amazing structure of this kind I’ve ever seen, and certainly the newest. No major Athenian museum predates the 1970s, but the Acropolis museum is barely 10 years old.
Its 25,000 square metres are used with little regard for economy of space: only three floors are taken up by exhibits and, since there aren’t many of them, they’re hardly crowded. The third floor is entirely given to a full-size replica of the Parthenon frieze, as it was before most of its marble bas reliefs were removed by Lord Elgin.
The frieze features the few remaining originals, mostly depicting Greek chaps fighting centaurs, and quite a bit more blanks filled in by the poorly done plaster casts of the marbles now adorning the British Museum. The plaster casts are accompanied by write-ups stopping just short of diatribes accusing Lord Elgin of theft.
There’s a movement under way to return the Elgin marbles where they once belonged, or rather to the museum next door. The movement is spearheaded by Amal Clooney, George’s heavily pregnant wife, whose restless conscience easily embraces any cause, worthy or otherwise. George himself is adding the weight of his celebrity status to the undertaking, and one can only guess his motives.
Solidarity with his wife must figure most prominently for, had he remained single, George probably wouldn’t know the Elgin marbles from the ones children play with. Just a couple of years ago he spoke with well-rehearsed passion about the urgent need to return the marbles to “the Pantheon”. Pantheon, Parthenon, what the hell does it matter as long as the cause is just and offers good photo ops?
Then again, George may sense inner kinship with centaurs, himself fitting the technical definition of one: half man, half horse’s arse. Mercifully, however, he limits himself to broad strokes only, leaving it for Amal to sweat out the legalities, which are far from straightforward.
I’m not going to argue the intricacies of the international law involved, simply because, not being a celebrity, I only ever try to talk about things I know at least something about.
However, I’m willing to accept that the Greeks may have a valid legal claim to get their marbles back. Then again, they may not. What is absolutely undeniable is that, in view of their history, our moral right to the sculptures is unimpeachable.
The Earl of Elgin first got involved with them in 1799, when he was appointed His Majesty’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Greece was then part.
Upon his arrival he went into the archives and noticed that many of the sculptures listed were no longer extant. An utterly civilised man, Lord Elgin decided to finance the salvation effort, starting with cataloguing the sculptures in the Parthenon and elsewhere in the Acropolis.
He then discovered that the Turks, whose reverence for such things wasn’t the same as Lord Elgin’s, were burning the marble sculptures to obtain lime for construction purposes. Aghast, Lord Elgin began to have the sculptures removed in 1801, completing the project in 1812.
This cost him £70,000 (almost £70 million in today’s inflated cash), a huge outlay partly offset when Lord Elgin sold the sculptures to the British Museum. That he was driven not only by aesthetic appreciation but also by patriotism is evident from the fact that he rejected much higher offers from Napoleon and others.
It’s a fair bet that, had the marbles remained in Greece, which is to say in the Ottoman Empire, they wouldn’t have survived. As it is, they delight six million people every year, all of whom ought to be grateful to Lord Elgin.
Since viewing the exhibits didn’t take long, I had plenty of time on my hands to ponder the fate of the marbles before going on one last walk in Athens. Striking out west, we walked along a pleasant residential street lined with orange trees bending under the weight of fruit. I nicked an orange out of curiosity, wondering how come I was the only one with such larcenous inclinations.
When we passed a street market, where the very same oranges were selling at 40p a kilo, I stopped wondering. As we walked, the centre of Athens was overflown by some 20 fighter-bombers flying nap-of-the-earth at supersonic speeds, complete with deafening booms.
Back in the First World, city centres are spared such entertainment, but Athenians didn’t bat an eye. In their long history they’ve seen worse.