A little before noon on Saturday 13 June, in the heart of Athens, the classical carvings known as the Parthenon Marbles were removed from their protective cellophane, to be glimpsed for the first time in the New Acropolis Museum. There in the upper gallery, within view of the sacred rock itself, the icons of ancient Greece will remain.
Antonis Samaras, the tall, urbane Greek minister of culture, ushered me in to see the sculptures, a week before the official opening of their new €130m (£110m) home.
“You are the first one to see them without cellophane,” he said, and added, “and now you can see why there is such a big ‘why’.”
The New Acropolis Museum is a crowning achievement of modern Greek culture – completed after more than 30 years of procrastination and acrimonious debate. It is luminous, cavernous and designed to echo the Golden Age temples. There are few places as stupendous as this. Samaras’s tour, almost two years after my last visit to the then half-finished museum, was a treat I had long looked forward to. And there I was, standing before the sculptures.
“They’re awful, eye-poppingly awful,” I blurted, as Samaras walked around exclaiming: “This one’s English, that one’s authentic, this one’s in the British Museum, that one’s the real thing.”
With more than 60 per cent of Phidias’s monumental frieze on display in Bloomsbury, thanks to Lord Elgin, Athens has had to make do with giant plaster-cast copies, acquired from the British Museum in the 19th century, to narrate the full tale of the frieze’s great Panathenaic Procession.
Museum curators had initially contemplated “touching up” the casts with a patina to make them seem more authentic, but officials finally stuck with the deeply unsettling whiter-than-white finish. Interspersed with Iktinos’s exquisite originals, they stand out like eyesores.
“One of the most important elements of this museum is to show, in total clarity, the truth,” said Samaras. “And the truth is that something is missing and that times have changed, and that even most Britons now believe the marbles should be reunited here in Athens.” Looking up at the light-speckled Parthenon, he continued: “Finally, this demolishes the charge that we don’t have a proper place to display and preserve the sculptures.”
The world’s most famous frieze, amputated against the backdrop of the temple it once adorned, has a peculiar effect. If you are an art lover you want to scream at the pity of it all. If you are English you want to curl up beneath one of the marbles in embarrassment and cry out: “Give them back!”