Sicily lives long in the Greek cultural imagination. Described by Homer as the “island of the sun” Sicily was a significant part of the Ancient Greek world and is home to some of the best-preserved Doric temples dedicated to the Greek gods, including the goddess Athena herself.
Those ancient ties have now been strengthened with the announcement of a new cultural agreement between Sicily and Greece that will hopefully lead to the permanent repatriation of a fragment of the Parthenon frieze to the Acropolis Museum in Athens after more than 200 years. In exchange Greece has sent an exquisite fifth century BC statue of the goddess Athena to the Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo by way of reciprocal loan.
The Palermo fragment, which had been acquired by a former British Consul to Sicily, Robert Fagan, at around the time Lord Elgin’s men were looting the Parthenon, was placed in the East Frieze of the Parthenon in the Acropolis Museum alongside the seated goddesses of Demeter and Artemis as they watch the annual Panathenaic procession in honor of the city’s patron, the goddess Athena.
Then, in a reciprocal ceremony in early February, the Greek Culture Minister, Dr Lina Mendoni, together with the Director of the Acropolis Museum, Professor Nikolaos Stampolidis, unveiled the Athena statue which will grace the museum in Sicily for four years.
The symbolism of this cultural exchange cannot be overstated. The British Museum, backed by a British cultural establishment that still clings to the so-called Elgin Marbles as a symbol of British cultural superiority and imperial ascendancy, has continuously refused to engage with the Greeks to discuss ways of reuniting in Athens, within view of the Parthenon, the dismembered Phidian forms taken by Elgin. On several occasions the Greek side has offered to send to the British Museum by way of long-term reciprocal loans other rare Classical antiquities which have not previously left Greece in the hope eventually to bring together all the known surviving sculptural elements of the Parthenon.
The Sicilian deal has paved the way.
In Athens, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hailed the return of the Palermo fragment and recalled the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee’s sternly-worded decision in late 2021 criticising the UK Government’s stance and urging that it enter into a bona fide dialogue with the Greeks over their legitimate claim rather than hiding behind the curatorial veil of the British Museum Trustees.
The speeches in Palermo were no less emphatic.
The arrival in Palermo of the statue of Athena was made possible following intricate diplomacy. Under the 2004 Italian Code of the Cultural and Landscape Heritage, the permanent export of protected movable cultural property from Italy is generally prohibited but under Article 67 it can be permitted in the implementation of cultural accords with foreign museums under reciprocity agreements, for an agreed duration which must not exceed four years (with the option to extend for a further four years).
It is apparent that the Sicilian authorities are keen to regularise this agreement and to make the transfer permanent in recognition of the rich cultural and historical relationship between the Sikeliotes and the Greeks. The director of the Museum Antonino Salinas, Dr Caterina Greco, underlined this increasing cultural cooperation and spoke of initiatives in the future based on the ancient substratum of Greek colonisation that from the 8th century BC connected Sicily forever with the Greek homeland.
The Deputy Minister of Culture of Italy, Lucia Borgonzoni, commented that the world deserves to see the sculptures of the Parthenon reunited. The Italian Deputy Minister noted that the transfer of the Palermo fragment was in the form of a temporary deposit now but explained that they were working at the Ministry so that the fragment stays in Athens forever.
The Assistant of Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity, Dr. Alberto Samonà added that Sicily is taking the first step today and expressed the hope that other countries will follow this example to build a new humanism of culture.
Dr Mendoni later met with the Italian Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini who confirmed the excellent bilateral relations between Italy and Greece and their shared understanding of the international protection of historical and cultural heritage.
The Italian Culture Minister announced that he was strongly committed to expediting the release and permanent repatriation to the Acropolis Museum of the Fagan Parthenon fragment through a process initiated at the request of the Region of Sicily and to be finalised in the Commission for the Recovery and Return of Cultural Property set up at the Italian Ministry of Culture.
In her speech on the unveiling of the Athena statue, Dr Mendoni warmly thanked the Italian authorities and noted the historical significance of the agreement which indicates the path that the British Museum can follow. The Greek Culture Minister also took the opportunity once again to clearly enunciate the position of the Greek Government, declaring that the return and reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens is a moral obligation for all of Europe in the context of protecting its common cultural heritage. And she responded directly and firmly to the oft-repeated UK claim that the Elgin Marbles were legally acquired:
"Greece does not recognise any right of ownership, possession and exploitation of these. On the contrary, it is constitutionally obliged and morally justified in demanding and striving for their final, permanent and irrevocable return by any legal and available means, in order to restore justice and the moral order and chiefly to restore the integrity of the monument.”
Whilst Greece continues to mount a cultural diplomatic offensive, it is simply incorrect to contend – as some do - that the current Greek authorities believe that only cultural diplomacy can lead to a satisfactory agreement with Great Britain and the British Museum. As both the Greek Prime Minister and Cultural Minister have asserted, Greece will pursue the ultimate reunification of the Parthenon sculptures by any means at its disposal, including resort to the appropriate legal or judicial processes if necessary.
The notion that this is a purely moral or ethical problem, with no jurisprudential dimension, is fallacious, particularly as one of the central tenets of the argument in support of reunification is that the sculptures were illegally taken in the first place and their continued retention in the Duveen Gallery is forever tainted by that illegality.
Greece and Italy are to be applauded for this enlightened cultural exchange agreement which highlights the rich heritage that both binds and defines the two nation states. The Fagan fragment is reunited in Athens whilst the goddess Athena is once again a god of the Sicilians with the installation of her exquisite sculpture in Palermo.
The Greek Gods are starting to make their way home.