The real reason the British government took a decade to purchase the Parthenon sculptures had less to do with Lord Elgin than with European understanding of antique art.

When the marbles arrived in Britain, public reaction ranged from sheer ecstasy to outright hostility. On seeing the collection for the first time, the great Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova regretted that he was too old to begin his career all over again. Benjamin West, president of the Royal Academy, described the Selene horse head from the east pediment (see photo of marble horse head) as a miracle of “living flesh turned to stone.” At the same time, Richard Payne Knight, leader of the prestigious Society of Dilettanti and England’s most respected classical connoisseur, disparaged the Parthenon marbles as second-rate sculptures. And Elgin’s severest critic, the Romantic poet Lord Byron, assailed him repeatedly in poetic diatribes for profaning an ancient sanctuary. To Byron, the desecrated marbles became “Phidian freaks, misshapen monuments and maim’d antiques.”

Prior to Elgin’s removal of the marbles, they were known to the Western world only through written descriptions and drawings rendered by travelers to Greece. Made while the marbles were still in place, on the heights of the temple where the sculptures could hardly be seen, these accounts and images were riddled with errors. The first important series of drawings of the Parthenon sculptures was made in the late 17th century by a French (or Flemish) artist referred to as Jacques Carrey. They are now the sole surviving images of many sculptures that were destroyed soon thereafter. Considering that they were made from ground level, the drawings are a technical tour de force. Nonetheless, Carrey’s flamboyant hand endows his figures with an extravagant musculature and modeling more typical of the late Hellenistic period than of the Greek Classical period.

More blunders followed. In 1676, French archaeologist Jacob Spon and his English traveling companion, George Wheler, mistook two seated figures in the north corner of the west pediment for the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his Empress Sabina. Believing that the Parthenon heads (which were extant at the time, though they have since been lost) resembled portraits of the emperor and his wife on Roman coins, Spon and Wheler argued that all the pediment figures were Roman replacements of Greek originals. In the philhellenic climate of the later 18th century, the assignment of the Parthenon sculptures to imperial Rome, rather than to republican Athens, was tantamount to the kiss of death.

Richard Payne Knight evoked the misinformation of Spon and Wheler to denigrate the marbles publicly—before he had even seen them. At a dinner party given by Lord Elgin, Knight shouted across the table:

You have lost your labour, my lord Elgin, your marbles are overrated—they are not Greek, they are Roman, of the time of Hadrian when he restored the Parthenon.

Lord Elgin’s original intention was to have the marbles restored, and he asked the sculptor Antonio Canova to undertake the project. With a wisdom for which we can all be grateful, Canova set a precedent concerning the sanctity of archaeological treasures by responding that it would be sacrilege for him to touch the Elgin Marbles with a chisel. John Flaxman, the most renowned sculptor in Britain, who was often called the “English Phidias,” also refused to restore them. How lucky we are that no one else agreed to do it!

Beyond the sanctity of the objects themselves, there is another reason we should be grateful that the marbles were left untouched. Any restoration work would certainly have been guided by prevailing ideas about classical aesthetics. But these are the very ideas the Elgin Marbles were about to revolutionize.

One of the clearest expressions of what classicism meant in 18th-century England is found in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s third discourse to the students of the Royal Academy:

All the arts receive their perfection from an ideal beauty superior to what is found in individual nature and the whole beauty and grandeur of the art consists in being able to get above all singular forms, local customs, particularities and details of every kind.

This goal of rendering an abstract perfection of form by eliminating the imperfections of empirical reality was called, in Neoclassical parlance, the beau ideal. The phrase conjures up visions of consummate grace and beauty, reserved for gods in marble rather than for mortals in flesh.

But there was one thing wrong with this premise. There were no Greek originals by which to validate beau-idealism. Knowledge of Greek art from the Periclean period was based entirely on later Greco-Roman copies of lost Greek originals. This is what misled Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the great 18th-century classical scholar. He adored the suave forms, slick surfaces and sweet sensuality of the Apollo Belvedere (above)—taking these qualities as proof of the statue’s abstract sublimity instead of as evidence that it was just a copy. His view that the beau ideal, as expressed in the Apollo Belvedere, represented the summit of Greek classical style went unchallenged until the 19th-century arrival of the Elgin Marbles.

But once the marbles were displayed to the London public, leading English artists marveled at how harmoniously the Phidian sculptors had joined the lofty graces of the gods with the flesh and blood of ordinary men and women. Without sacrificing their essential nobility of form, the Periclean Olympians unabashedly displayed bones inside bodies, wrinkles of flesh, muscles distorted by strain, and even veins beneath the skin.

Such “unclassical” realism within an ideal form completely overturned the academic assumption that “high art” and “low nature” were fundamentally incompatible in the classical style. The Elgin Marbles disposed, once and for all, of the beau ideal’s central tenet: that the imperfections of nature had to be eliminated to achieve sublime beauty of form.

Perhaps the most moving tribute to the Elgin Marbles came from a young painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon. In his autobiography, Haydon describes his first sight of the collection at Park Lane, his words tumbling out in an almost uncontrollable torrent:

The first thing I fixed my eyes on was the wrist of a figure in one of the female groups in which were visible the radius and ulna. I was astonished, for I had never seen them hinted at in any female wrist in the antique. I darted my eye to the elbow and saw the outer condyle [protusion of bone] visibly affecting the shape as in nature. My heart beat! If I had seen nothing else I had beheld sufficient to keep me to nature for the rest of my life. But when I turned to Theseus [above] and saw that every form was altered by action or repose—when I saw that the two sides of his back varied, one side stretched from the shoulder blade being pulled forward, and the other side compressed from the shoulder blade being pushed close to the spine as he rested on his elbow, and the belly flat because the bowels fell into the pelvis as he sat—and when turning to the Ilissus I saw the belly protruding from the figure lying on its side—when I saw, in fact, the most heroic style of art combined with all the essential detail of actual life … I felt as if a divine truth had blazed inwardly upon my mind.

What so amazed Haydon was that the Parthenon sculptures showed not only internal human anatomy, but the functional effects of movement and action in transforming anatomical appearance. He realized that in true Greek art even the gods, however ideal, were not above the laws of physics. This idea of “anatomy in operation,” as he called it, was a stunning innovation of the Phidian school. But its presence in Greek art of this period was completely unknown before the arrival of the Elgin Marbles, because such penetrating fidelity to nature was precisely what had been eliminated in all the Roman copies.

In the end, the Elgin Marbles radically transformed our understanding of classicism. They clarified the difference between original Greek sculpture and later Roman copies. They shifted the peak of stylistic development from the later periods of antiquity back to the Periclean era and the Phidian school. They set a universal precedent against the restoration of originals. And they firmly established the principle, now universally observed, of nationalizing historical art treasures.

But there was one failure. The marbles did not inspire a Phidian Renaissance, as so many expected they would. They arrived too late to reshape the course of European art. Enshrined in the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles have been venerated by all, but emulated by few.