As part of a historic agreement, an Italian museum is lending Greece a fragment of marble from the eastern frieze of the Parthenon. The announcement comes amid a thorough examination of Britain’s claim to the 2,500-year-old sculptures, which have been held in the British Museum since 1817, following their excavations in Athens by the Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin.
The fragment, which depicts the right foot of the draped figure of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, is currently kept at the Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo, Sicily. It was sold to the University of Palermo by the widow of Robert Fagan, British Consul for Sicily and Malta, after his death in 1816. It is not known how Fagan initially acquired the artifact.
The Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum announced on Wednesday it has signed an agreement with the Acropolis Museum in Athens for a four-year loan in exchange for a loan of a marble statue of Athena dating from the 5th century BCE. and a terracotta vase. dating from the middle of the 8th century BC.
The museum said in a statement that the ultimate goal of the loan program is an “indefinite return” of the fragment to Athens. This could encourage other foreign institutions to help reunite all the fragments of the Parthenon in Greece, according to the museum.
“The return to Athens of this important Parthenon artefact goes in the direction of building a Europe of culture which has its roots in our history and in our identity”, declared Alberto Samonà, municipal councilor for cultural heritage and the identity of Sicily.
Half of the surviving marbles extracted from the Parthenon temple between 1801 and 1804 under the supervision of Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, are kept in the British Museum in London.
The British government has resisted successive calls from Greece for their repatriation. The Greek government said marbles had been looted, a claim the British Museum has repeatedly denied. Greek politicians also rejected the British Museum’s claim that the marbles were best left in London for conservation reasons.
In November, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attempted to negotiate an agreement for the return of the marbles in exchange for a loan of some of Greece’s archaeological treasures to the British Museum. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement the sculptures were acquired under legitimate circumstances during the Ottoman occupation and would remain in Britain.
The Palermo fragment was previously loaned to Athens in 2002 and 2008, but this is the first time the two sides have sought a permanent arrangement. As a frequent target of antique looting, Italy has been active in international repatriation efforts.
“To refer to the context of its origins a small, but significant fragment belonging to the Parthenon has a very strong symbolic value,” Samonà told the Guardian. “It is also a response to the international debate [about the Parthenon Marbles]. But I don’t want to get into this debate. For us, it is a gesture of friendship: Greece and Sicily are two regions of the Mediterranean which share a common history.