By Alexander Clapp
Greece’s bid to reclaim the Parthenon Marbles is about to be taken for a ride. To raise awareness for the repatriation of Greece’s most prized historical relics, Dr Luca Lo Sicco plans to bike next July from the steps of the British Museum in London to the entrance of the Acropolis Museum in Athens. “I strongly feel that there is a moral duty to return to the Marbles to Athens,” writes Sicco, who is currently a professor of fashion at the University of Southampton. “The recent way that certain countries – England, Germany – have been attacking Greece and its crisis is deeply unfair. The European Union is a family. We should be supportive of each other’s difficulties – difficulties that, in this instance, were caused by bankers and corrupt politicians.”
Lord Elgin infamously swiped the Parthenon friezes in the years 1801-12. His original intention was to take plaster casts of the temple’s pediments. Under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Greece, Elgin proceeded to saw off the temple’s sculptures and transport them back to England. The legality of his actions was dubious even in the 19th century. Until his death in 1841, Elgin insisted that his efforts were necessary for preserving what remained of the Parthenon’s statuary. In his own words:
“The Turks have been continually defacing the heads [of the statues]; and in some instances they have actually acknowledged to me that they have pounded down the statues into mortar: it was upon these suggestions, and with these feelings, that I proceeded to remove as much of the sculptures as I conveniently could.”
The friezes were purchased by the British Museum in 1816. Today they are the property of the British public. Over the years other fragments of Parthenon sculptures have come to light in Paris, Palermo, Wurzburg, the Vatican and a handful of English country estates. Since its opening in 2009, the Acropolis Museum in Athens – built for the purpose of housing all the Parthenon’s sculptures in a single place – has gradually reeled in these various fragments. But the British Museum – which houses the vast majority of the Parthenon friezes – shows no sign of submitting to Greek demands. “Elgin Marbles” has become a byword for the contentious debate regarding antiquities repatriation and the role of museums around the world in processing the legacy of cultural imperialism.
Sicco sees himself as uniquely suited to address the Parthenon diaspora because he is the descendant of another diaspora: that of Hellenism. “I’ve been in love with Greek art since I was very young. I was born in Sicily, once part of ‘Greater Greece,’ Megali Ellas, Magna Grecia. The Greek presence in Sicily is everywhere, from Segesta to Siracusa. As a little boy I couldn’t overlook those cultural roots. I took great pride in them.”
In 2008, as the economic crisis began unfolding in Greece, Sicco was the victim of a cruel series of misfortunes. In the space of a single year he lost his job and was diagnosed with cancer. His younger brother committed suicide. His father, grief-stricken, passed away shortly thereafter. “It was the year from hell. But now that my health has fully recovered and I’ve found a part-time job, I’ve decided to do something meaningful. I’ve visited Greece over the years. I’ve made quite a number of Greek friends that have shown me love, care and affection. How could I repay that generosity?” The idea for a bike trip took root. “I’ve always believed that Greece should be in the news for its culture and the fantastic warmth of its people, not because of a deadening economic crisis.”
Sicco has thus far received support from the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. He is seeking additional support from the universities of Athens and Thessaloniki, the Acropolis Museum and the European Parliament. He has already created a Facebook page and Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube accounts. He plans to post daily throughout his journey, which will last some two months. He’ll stop cycling at approximately 4 or 5 each afternoon. Every four days he will rest and catch up on his blogging. He plans to rely on the kindness of locals and other Parthenon enthusiasts for accommodation. “Apart from raising awareness of the need to reunite the Parthenon Marbles, my end goal is to raise money for art students in Greece,” he adds. “I’d like to organize an exhibition in London – a sort of Greek art biennale in London – of works by talented artists, craftsmen and students.”
In recent years the Parthenon debate has taken on unsightly dimensions, involving accusations that Greeks aren’t responsible enough to house their own cultural monuments. Sicco brushes this away as pure nonsense. “I’ve been appalled by the treatment Greece has received from media all around the world and particularly in England. Some articles are nothing short of racist.”
Sicco hopes one day to retire to the small Cycladic island of Anafi. He visited the island a few summers ago while on vacation in Greece. He originally planned to spend the weekend there; he ended up staying more than a month. “A month? You must be the longest-staying tourist Anafi has ever had,” an elderly gentleman told him in a cafe. By next fall, having tirelessly biked the continent for two months, Sicco says that he may just wish to stay in Athens. If he has his way, the Parthenon Marbles will follow suit.