Parthenon fragment to return from Italy on long-term loan

ROME (AP) – Italy is planning to return a fragment of the fifth-century-BC Parthenon Marbles to Greece on a 99-year loan, possibly as early as next month, officials said on Wednesday. The return of the piece – part of the statue of Peitho, goddess of persuasion and seduction – is likely to reopen the decades-long debate over ownership of the Parthenon Marbles, including the famed «Elgin Marbles.» Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi may hand the fragment over to Greek authorities in exchange for another piece during a November 6 state visit, said an official from his office, Elisabetta Santini. Ciampi has spearheaded the initiative to return the fragment, currently housed in a Sicilian museum. Final approval must come from the autonomous Sicilian government, which has sovereignty over the island’s cultural heritage. Fabio Granata, cultural commissioner for Sicily, said the Sicilians were on board with the plan and that he would meet next week with Italian Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani to finalize details on the return. «From the beginning, we have been ready to exchange our fragment with another exhibit to be chosen by a commission of archaeologists,» he said on Wednesday. «After an informal meeting with the president on Monday, we decided the initiative should take the form of a long-term loan of 99 years, in order not to upset the archaeological community,» he said. The Greek Ministry of Culture said earlier this week it was waiting for official notification from Italy about the proposal. Greek Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos has said in the past that Greece would accept a long-term loan of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum. The fragment in Italy depicts Peitho’s foot peeking out from under her elaborate tunic. It was originally located on the eastern side of the Parthenon, the main temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, on the Acropolis in Athens. The irregular chunk of marble, about 35 centimeters high and 34 centimeters wide (14 inches high and 13.6 inches wide), was purchased by the University of Palermo between 1818 and 1820 from the widow of Robert Fagan, the British consul for Sicily and Malta. It is not known how Fagan, an amateur archaeologist, acquired the piece. Other pieces of the Parthenon frieze, carved by Pheidias in the fifth century BC, are disseminated throughout various European museums. The bulk of the statues were excavated by Lord Elgin in 1806 and sold to the British Museum in London in 1816, where they are currently on display. Although small in size, Peitho’s foot is bound to reopen the decades-long controversy on the ownership of the marbles. Greek authorities, now hoping to reassemble the frieze in time for the 2004 Olympics, have long demanded that Britain return the Elgin collection to Athens. However, most experts believe even a single precedent, such as the restitution of Peitho’s foot, might trigger an infinite chain of claims from museums worldwide. As a result, many Italian archaeologists, as well as the staff at the Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo, which houses the fragment, strongly oppose handing it over. «We are always ready to lend exhibits or to allow copies to be made, but this kind of initiative can only impoverish our museum and deprive us of a piece that is part of our collection’s identity,» said Agata Villa, director of the classical archaeology department at the museum. She dismissed the significance of receiving a new exhibit in exchange for the piece. «I believe this to be an anti-cultural initiative,» she said. «An archaeological find is valuable only when it’s part of the history and identity of the museum.» Still, authorities believe returning the fragment of the goddess might be the symbolic gesture needed to encourage other countries to hand back long-lost pieces of Italian art. «We are particularly interested in the return of the Venus of Morgantina, a fifth-century-AD statue stolen from Sicily (in 1988) and bought by the Paul Getty Museum in California,» Granata said.