The dear old chestnut of 'giving back' the 'Elgin Marbles' is back in the papers. In some quarters, it is now being linked with the imminent celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the the modern Greek Nation State.
I wrote about all this in some detail a few years ago. I now wish to make two simple points.
(1) 'Classical' Greece was not a Nation State. It was a mosaic of poleis, city-states, composed of cities with their surrounding country. These could be ... and often were ... at war with each other.
Nevertheless, Greeks did have a sense of Greekness. And so there were Panhellenic sanctuaries. For example: that of Olympian Zeus; Delphi ...
Athens was not such a sanctuary. The carvings on the Parthenon related to the mythical history of Athens and of Attica. It celebrated the choice of that particular place to be the possession of Athene.
Only in 1821 was a modern-style Greek Nation State invented, with Athens being declared its "capital".
I do not see how this comparatively recent Nation State has any locus standi in the question of where the Athenian 'Marbles' should live. Perhaps the Mayor of Athens, or the local government of Attica, might do. This would at least be arguable ... which is more than one can say for the views of that silly Mrs Clooney.
(2) The demand for 'return' is, culturally, nothing whatsoever to do with Greece or an admiration for things Hellenic. It relates to the Neo-Classical period of Western European artistic fashion ... the age of Byron and Winckelman and Canova and Flaxman and Thorwaldsen and the Grand Tour and the collecting passions of the Western European aristocracy.
One indication of this fashion was the desire of those collectors for pure white marble. So intense was this quaint superstition that when ancient statues reappeared from the soil, they were badly mistreated. They often showed signs of their original colouring, so to make them fit for the eyes of wealthy collectors, every speck of colour was carefully removed. Our own dreadful Duveen exemplified this sort of cultural imperialism and the perverted taste which went with it.
The entire Acropolis Hill in Athens is itself a grand-scale example of just the same unfortunate vandalism. As it emerged from the Ottoman Empire, the hill was covered with buildings of later date than the Periclean period. The Parthenon was for centuries a Christian church; there were little streets and houses and shops and cafes. All of this was scraped away by an independant Greece which accepted uncritically the Western European cultural myths: that
(a) only Periclean Athens really matters; and
(b) 'classical' art and architecture have to be pure, gleaming white.
THE HUNWICKE SOLUTION: Restore the Parthenon to being an Orthodox Church, Our Lady of Athens. Rebuild the demolished Christian sanctuary and cover the walls of the entire building with mid-Byzantine murals. And have it intensively used for the solemn offering of the Great Sacrifice. Perhaps a monastery should be built to serve this church.
This would be a worthy celebration of the truest Hellenism.