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Italy Returns Parthenon Sculpture To Greece Amid Calls For Reunification Of Marbles


Italy has announced it is returning a piece of the Parthenon frieze to Greece in a move of international significance that may stoke the continued debate in the UK over the repatriation of the marbles. The fragment in question is part of a figure covered in fine drapery from the eastern side of the frieze. It is currently housed in the Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo, Sicily and will return to Greece on a four-year loan. 

Italy’s fragment of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon marbles features the foot of a goddess, thought to be either Peitho or Artemis. It was bought by the University of Palermo from the widow of Robert Fagan, who was the British consul for Sicily and Malta, in the early 19th century. The marble artifact will initially be returned to Greece on a four-year loan, although this is intended to be extended for a further four years and eventually even become permanent. The restitution comes as part of a cultural exchange agreement between Sicily and Greece.  

Sicily will receive artifacts from Greece in return for the Parthenon fragment. The Acropolis Museum in Athens will send a 5th century BC statue of the goddess Athena and an 8th century BC amphora to the archeological museum in Palermo. 

Sicily’s councilor for culture Alberto Samonà has emphasized the importance of the scheme. “Sending back to the context of its origins a small but significant fragment belonging to the Parthenon has a very strong symbolic value,” he said. 

Recently, there have been renewed calls for the restitution of the Parthenon marbles, and Samonà added that Italy’s decision was “a response to the international debate.” However, he was careful not to pass judgment on the decision to keep or return elements of the marbles in other countries. 

Britain has famously shown reluctance to return its collection of the marbles, which were removed from Greece in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin. However, the pressure is mounting for the UK to think seriously about repatriation. 

Less than a month ago, former UK culture minister Ed Vaizey fueled the debate over the restitution of Britain’s Parthenon statues when he said on a podcast, “the debate has really moved on. I think I would support the return of the marbles now.” He acknowledged the complexity of the debate, noting that there is a legal argument for keeping the sculptures in Britain because Lord Elgin gained permission from the Turkish army to take the sculptures from the Parthenon in 1801 (a fact previously used by UK prime minister Boris Johnson to claim the marbles should remain in Britain). However, Vaizey concluded, “It is so obvious to me that they are so woven into Greek identity, it would be a wonderful thing if they could be returned.”

In November, the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also renewed appeals for the return of the marbles from Britain, suggesting a loan of some Greek treasures to the British Museum in exchange. In response, Johnson reiterated that the responsibility for making a decision about the repatriation of the marbles belonged to the British Museum trustees. 

Such a marked disinterest in returning the artifacts leaves Britain’s government increasingly out of step with the rest of Europe. There has recently been a spate of returns of looted artifacts by European institutions. In April, Germany announced its intention to return its stolen Benin Bronzes to Nigeria while France followed suit in October by handing back 26 pilfered items to Benin. Will Italy’s decision to return its Parthenon fragment push Britain to rethink its stance?



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