Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Lord Byron’s mourning of the Parthenon Marbles is unlikely to have been read by Auguste Rodin. He was not much of a reader and never visited Greece; instead he enjoyed touring museums and building a collection of antiquities pre-looted by others. The British Museum has made a major exhibition out of this celebrated visitor who preferred marbles to cat mummies.
The publicity for “Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece” assures us that “ancient Greek sculpture inspired Rodin to set a radical new direction for modern art”. This is undoubtedly true as he had been viewing and collecting such items before he made his first trip to London, in 1881. Although he didn’t return for 20 years, he later developed such a liking for the British Museum he described himself as “haunting” the place. He also spoke favourably of the beer at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Rodin’s access to the marbles is a testimonial to the British Museum’s success in guarding Byron’s “relics”. With Brexit-related questions of community in the air, the world’s fourth-most-visited museum is restating its best claim to the marbles. Many more people can admire them in their custom-designed, climate-controlled, free-entry London home than they could in Athens.
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