Lusieri: The Curse on the Artist Who Ruined the Parthenon

FILE - A great number of visitors attended the archaeological site of the Acropolis, Athens, May 10, 2017. Photo:Eurokinissi/Giannis Panagopoulos

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was the man who initially had the idea of removing the Parthenon sculptures, the correct expression being looting. His idea destroyed his career as an artist. More than that his work was lost at sea.

Lusieri was originally employed by Lord Elgin to make drawings of the Acropolis and to employ moulders who were to create casts of Parthenon sculptures.

He was a topographical and archaeological painter born in Rome in 1754. By 1782, he moved to Naples, where he concentrated on views of Mount Vesuvius. At that time, the volcano was quite active and his paintings sold well, particularly to English visitors. The poet Lord Byron described him as “an Italian painter of the first eminence,” although he may have been biased, because Byron was the good friend of Nicolo Giraud, Lusieri’s brother-in-law. For art critics today he is a minor master but a technical genius.

Anyway, he loved ancient monuments and created many watercolour studies of buildings and landscapes in Italy and Sicily. “It is very true that according to present styles [romanticism] pictures are produced which are created in the main part from imagination, but this way of operating I detest [as] one should faithfully imitate nature.” In Italy he met Lord Elgin, who had considered a number of possible artists for his trip to Turkey and Greece. One of them was JMW Turner, who was then not so known. Although Luisieri didn’t speak a word of English, and his contract was written in French, he was offered the post of painter in residence at a salary of £200 per year.

By 1799, Lusieri was running Elgin’s team of draftsmen, sculptors, and architects in Greece and Turkey.

He was the one who persuaded Elgin to remove the sculptures. It is said that he told Lord Elgin that they’d better take the Parthenon marbles to Great Britain in order to protect them from local Turkish opportunists, who were breaking off bits to sell to visitors. Of course Elgin agreed. He had his own reasons. One of them is that he wanted to decorate the villa of his wife-to-be in Scotland. Lusieri’s role was instrumental in the process of removal of the marbles and sculptures from the Parthenon, as he supervised the whole project.

Lusieri was an ambitious artist, who wanted to become famous, but his idea was fatal for his career as a painter. He had little time for making art and most of his watercolors remained unfinished. Surprisingly enough the man who ruined Parthenon and supervised in 1801 the removal of the sculptures at a cost of £70,000, was a great lover of antiquities. His love is clearly shown in his paintings. As Edward Daniel Clarke (1769-1822), an English travel writer, observed “such was the extraordinary scale and application shown in the designs he was been completing, that every grace and beauty of the sculpture, every fair and exquisite proportion, every trace of the injuries of time had effected upon the building, every vein of marble, were visible in the drawing; and in such perfection, that even the nature and qualities of the stone itself might be recognised in the contour.” He also wrote as an eyewitness, that the Disdar, the Ottoman official on the scene, who attempted to stop the removal of the marbles, was bribed.

Later on, Lusieri claimed that had he not worked for Elgin, he would have achieved fame as an artist and could have influenced the British watercolor school. The fact is that he stayed in Athens long after Lord Elgin left. In his home below the Acropolis continued to draw until his death. He ended up suffering from rheumatism and died the year the Greek Independence War began, in 1821.

He didn’t live to see that, seven years later, in 1828, all of the works from this period were to be lost at sea. The “Cambria,” the ship carrying them, was wrecked off the coast of Crete. For an artist losing his creations is a curse. Was it the curse of Athena? His reputation was already diminishing at his death and – after his work was lost – never recovered.

On June 2 the New Acropolis Museum celebrates eight years of operation, from its opening in 2009. In 2016, the Acropolis Museum ranked 9th in the Trip Advisor’s Travellers Choice Awards of the 25 Best Museums in the World for 2016 and counts millions of visitors. Nearly 4,000 objects are exhibited over an area of 14.000 square metres. Yet the looted Parthenon Marbles are missing. Returning the sculptures is not only moral, but it will boost tourism, a mainstay of the Greek economy.

1 Comment

  1. The wannabe famous artist
    Giovanni Battista Lusieri
    Convinced then “lord Elgin”
    To loot the marbles in a hurry.

    Only to be outdone by the “Doge”
    Francesco Morosini ‘red top to toe’
    Who fired the infamous fortunate shot
    And nothing was left to loot no more.

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