Parthenon frieze turns up in Staten Island

Not the original, of course — much of that was butchered and stolen by Lord Elgin 200 years ago and the rest remains in place under assault by Athenian pollution — but castings made from the original 19th century molds were rescued from the library of the Staten Island Academy in 1960 by two College of Staten Island professors.

“It’s a 19th-century footprint long before air pollution and anything else that would change the surface,” said Katherine Schwab, an associate professor of art history at Fairfield University in Connecticut, which also has plaster slabs depicting the frieze. “They can look at the plaster casts and in some cases see details no longer there.”

How the casts found their way to Staten Island remains something of a mystery. It is known, however, that the works were made by a Boston firm called P. P. Caproni & Brother that did work for East Coast museums and universities and that fashioned the casts from 19th-century British molds taken directly from the Parthenon.

Somehow, the casts wound up in the library of the Staten Island Academy, a private school. William Winter, a New York theater critic, dedicated the library to his 13-year-old son, Arthur, who had died in a sledding accident in 1886. Because “Ivanhoe” had been the child’s favorite book, the school’s library had been decorated to replicate the frieze-adorned study of the book’s author, Sir Walter Scott. When the academy moved to Dongan Hills in 1970, the reliefs stayed behind in the abandoned school.

The castings were somewhat neglected until recently, but now, thanks to the efforts of history professor Sandra Gambetti, they are being lovingly restored. For more details and some fantastic pictures of the casts and restoration process, see The Parthenon at CSI.

6 thoughts on “Parthenon frieze turns up in Staten Island

  1. Hmm! I actually prefer the look of the before restoration casts. Not that I don’t like the cleaned up casts.

    1. I don’t mind the rescued-from-a-burned-building look either, but it’s not healthy for the long-term survival of the casts. Besides, it’s not like they’ve looked like this for hundreds of years or anything. They’re relatively young.

  2. I’ll bet the casts were specified or donated by the architect of the library, Charles Rich. There were versions or segments of the frieze on the front of the Berkeley School in Manhattan, inside the auditorium of the Veltin School on 74th, inside the Peddie School’s Annenberg Hall, and in the club room of College Hall at Dartmouth, all educational buildings that Rich designed.

  3. The Parthenon marbles were not stolen by Elgin – he bought them from the then legitimate Government.

    Actually it could also be argued that he saved them since the Athenians of the time had found that ancient marble made good mortar for building and large amounts of Classical Greek sculpture was ground down. This is the reason why none of the lower, more easily accessible pieces survive and why all of the statues that had once stood around the walls have disappeared.

    1. There are serious questions as to the legality of the firman Elgin acquired. The original document is lost and the British Museum only has an Italian translation of it they acquired 8 years ago. Even if that translation is accurate in all particulars, it was issued by the Acting Grand Vizier, not the Sultan. By Ottoman law, firmans could only be issued by the Sultan himself, had to be signed with his seal and an invocation to God. The so-called firman in the British Museum has none of those elements. Even at the time there were significant doubts about whether Elgin had proper authorization, see the Adair letter, for example.

      Then there’s the matter of what exactly was authorized. The document gave him permission to make moulds of the frieze and to remove pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures. He had to bribe officials very heavily to ensure they read that authorization so broadly as to cover him removing 80 meters of the frieze to decorate his estate in Scotland.

      As for the theory that Elgin’s action preserved the marbles, I’d find it more persuasive if he hadn’t hacked them off the Parthenon with little care for their long-term stability or the underlying structure’s. Even after he sold them to the British Museum, they were hardly treated with kid gloves. British Museum “conservators” used wire brushes and strong acids to clean to surface, destroying all remnants of the original polychrome paint and causing irreparable damage to the marble surface.

      Meanwhile, the 50 meters of the frieze left behind in Athens have fared significantly better over the years. If you go to the new Acropolis Museum today, you’ll see first of all that it’s in good condition, all things told, despite the dangers that putatively drove Elgin to help himself to the frieze. There are significant sections of surviving paint and the patina of the surface is the rich gold it should be rather than the blinding white of the poor tortured marbles in the BM. The sad truth is, even millennia of war, pollution, vandalism and neglect do more for the stability of ancient marble than invasive interventions. Conservators today know that. Elgin did not, nor did the classicists at the BM who projected their expectations onto reality and thereby destroyed history.

  4. the stunning lesson here, is that early into the 21st century the strong remnants of colonialist and imperialist Britannia continues to overshadow the professions of archaeology and art history at the storied British Museum. if the parthenon were in china, you can be sure that like Hong Kong, the british would have surrendered the Parthenon friezes late in the 20th century.

    Instead the British Museum continues to operate by the imperialist and colonialist rules it invented for itself in the 18th and 19th centuries. it is sad that even the museum professionals on staff at the British Museum are corrupted by this same behavior, and, as well, apparently a majority of the classics, archaeological and art historical community in Britain.

    it should, and hopefully does shame the entire community of art history and art museum specialists in and outside of Britain who are putting up with the poppycock that Britain has any real legal, moral or professional ethical claim on what could be argued easily as western civilizations, most perfect and famous building and public art works program.

    in 1900 it would have been hard for Britain to grasp losing its empire long before the years 2000. for now its still hard for Britain to grasp it will lose the Parthenon Friezes that it has no moral, ethical or legal claim on, and that the physical evidence shows it has cared for badly, with damage to the surfaces of the parthenon sculptures in its care, as opposed to the remaining architectural, and sculptural friezes that remained in situ on the parthenon!

    Bad form Britain, British Museum and the professional scholars, staff and archaeologists who don;t have the ethical and moral compass and seemingly lack the requisite principles supposedly adopted by their professions to protect works of art and the archaeological sites that they were created as an intrinsic part of.

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