Vatican’s Return to Greece of Parthenon Marble Pieces: Gift or Loan?

December 20, 2022

ATHENS – After all the fanfare that Greece would be getting back from the Vatican three 2,500-year-old fragments taken from the Parthenon, it’s still unclear whether it will be a loan or an outright return.

They have been in the papal collections of the Vatican Museums for two centuries, the Vatican said in a statement about the fragments — a head of a horse, a head of a boy and a bearded male head.

They will become the property of Archbishop Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, the statement added although most of the surviving pieces are owned by the Greek state and displayed in the Acropolis Museum.

A museum spokeswoman said they would be “reunited in their positions,” said the New York Times in a report that indicated there’s no timeline for the return nor what the conditions would be.

The Archbishop’s office didn’t respond to the newspaper’s request for an explanation, only that the Pope was thanked “sincere gratitude and emotion,” and that the “details of the completion of this generous and highly symbolic act” would be clarified at some point.

The offer had been seen as yet again another hope that the stolen Parthenon Marbles housed in the British Museum, ripped off 200 years earlier by Lord Elgin, who said he had the permission of the occupying Ottoman Empire, which had no rights to ownership.

The Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports welcomed the pope’s “generous” decision and said in a statement that it gave a boost to Greece’s ongoing efforts to get back the marbles although that’s been said many times before.

Giandomenico Spinola, the head of the Vatican Museums’ archaeology department, said the Pope had personally decided to return the fragments after meeting with Archbishop Ieronymos during a trip to Athens in December 2021.

Initially, officials from the Vatican and Acropolis museums had envisaged a long-term loan of the pieces, then Francis “decided to donate the works outright,” Spinola said, but that he didn’t want it be an arguing point over the marbles in the British Museum.

There was no explanation either between the apparent contradiction of wanting to work out the terms or if it is, indeed, a gift and outright donation without any strings attached.

The Vatican fragments were removed from the Parthenon long before those in the British Museum, the report said, adding that they were taken to Rome – it wasn’t said by whom – at the end of the 18th Century.

That was after being traded by and were purchased by the Vatican Museums in 1803, two decades before Elgin stole what he took, later selling to the British Museum when he got into financial trouble.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had been in secret talks with the British Museum Chairman George Osborne – who said any “partnership” over the marbles would be based on a loan and Greece stipulating they belong to the museum.

In January this year, a fragment from the Parthenon that for more than 200 years had been in the Antonino Salinas museum in Palermo, Sicily, was returned to Greece. Five months later, the fragment was “permanently reunited in the east frieze of the Parthenon at the Acropolis Museum, where it belongs forever,” the museum had said then.


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