Greek god turning heads in Russia

ST PETERSBURG – The white flowers in the vase placed in front of the headless reclining sculpture were a sign of honor and respect, I learnt during a recent visit to the formerly imperial, later revolutionary and currently federal Russian city. Nevertheless, in its present form, cut off from the western pediment of the Parthenon centuries ago, the statue appeared particularly lonesome in the middle of lilac marble Hall No 108, known as the Roman Yard, in the New Hermitage last Saturday. News of the sculpture’s arrival as a “gift” commemorating the Russian museum’s foundation by voracious art lover Catherine the Great in 1764 had already made headlines across the world the day before.

Visitors’ faces seemed to light up as they entered the hall. How much did they know about what stood in front of them? “A masterpiece is being loaned by the British Museum on the occasion of the State Hermitage’s 250th anniversary” was all the information available online. Not a word on the work’s true identity: the river god Ilissos, sculpted under the supervision of master artist Phidias about 2,500 years ago, a piece extracted from its original position, from where Ilissos observed the power struggle between the goddess Athena and god Poseidon over control of the city which eventually earned the former’s name.

While some spoke of international political games and others mentioned the diplomacy of art played out by the two museums’ directors, no doubt the issue of the Greek god’s journey from the British Museum – the first Parthenon sculpture to obtain this sort of tourist visa – to the banks of the River Neva sparked heated discussion, causing national annoyance across Greece, a country which continues its fight for the return of the Marbles and their final placement in a designated area at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Back in Russia’s cultural capital, an explanatory plaque in English in Hall 108 noted the work had been one of the “sculptures rescued by Lord Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century.” In comments made last week, British Museum director Neil MacGregor noted that the cultural organization’s “trustees have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments.”

Some wondered whether Greece could and should seek the masterpiece’s repatriation through legal means, while others called on Russian President Vladimir Putin – the globe’s most powerful man according to Time magazine – not to allow Ilissos to travel back to London but for the statue to be returned to its homeland.

Seeking a comment from the Russian museum’s press office earlier on Saturday, I was told to forward a written request. I did so and in a quick e-mail asked Hermitage officials why the museum was hosting a Parthenon sculpture, as opposed to any other artifact that might have traveled from London. No answer had come through by late last night.

Meanwhile, dozens of schoolchildren were roaming the corridors of the Hermitage’s antiquities halls that morning, while music from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” could be heard at the museum’s entrance on Palace Square, where preparations for celebrations taking place that same evening were being finalized.

Ilissos is set to remain on display until January 18, his presence already turning into a global cultural reality show as well as a platform for plenty of emotional talk, such as comments made by Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who in a recent article in the Telegraph noted, “It is the British Museum’s freedom to loan Ilissus to Russia – even in this wretched period – that shows exactly why the Elgin Marbles belong and shall remain in London.”

Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, meanwhile, has commented that he hoped the British “gift” would not hurt the institution’s relations with Greece’s museums in view of the Greek-Russian friendship year coming up in 2016.

Last Saturday, Olga and Lyubov, both from St Petersburg, came to the Hermitage to admire the Greek god. “It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to see this masterpiece in our city for the museum’s birthday,” they told me. Had they ever visited Greece? “No but of course we would like to come and see the Acropolis,” they almost said in unison.

[Kathimerini English Edition]