The Parthenon in Ruins
Nicholas Reeves and Dyfri Williams
British Museum Magazine 57 (spring/summer 2007), pp. 36-38

Nick Reeves and Dyfri Williams tell the story of the mortar bomb that blew up the Parthenon.

At about 7 o`clock on the evening of 26 September 1687 a mortar bomb fired from a Venetian battery besieging the Acropolis of Athens struck the gunpowder stored inside the Parthenon. The powder ignited and the centre of the building blew up, killing the three hundred Turkish women and children who were taking refuge inside. The resulting fire raged for a further two days, and the great temple of Athena Parthenos, the Parthenon, was reduced to a ruin.

A recent discovery in the Myers Museum at Eton College has brought to light an evocative testimony to this terrible event: a fragment of a Venetian mortar bomb. Brought back from a trip to Greece by Philip T. Godsal, an old Etonian (1863-9), the label, still attached to the fragment, identifies it as `a piece of a shell found on the top of the Parthenon having been used by the Venetians against it`. That it might indeed be the bomb that blew up the Parthenon has been confirmed by Nicholas Hall of the Royal Armouries, who has identified it as a 2 cwt, two-handled mortar bomb of 17th-century Venetian type.

What were the events that led to the catastrophic bombardment of the Parthenon, and what was its place in the colourful history of this greatest of all Greek temples? As the central monument built by the democratic city-state of Athens under its leader Perikles, the Parthenon
is now renowned around the world. Yet 2,000 years after its creation, at the time of the Venetian siege of the Acropolis, the world was a different place: the Greek lands were a western outpost of the Ottoman Empire and the stage for a fierce battle between the great powers of West and East. In 1683, following the failure of an Ottoman attack on Vienna, a Holy Alliance between Austria and Poland was formed with the purpose of winning back the European parts of the Ottoman Empire. In the following year Venice was persuaded to join. The highly experienced Venetian Captain-General, Francesco Morosini, who had had to preside in 1669 over the surrender of Crete, Venice`s most important colony, was given overall command of a force of mercenaries drawn from many nations. In early 1685 Morosini, already aged 64, embarked from the Molo to lead his armada out of the Bacino di San Marco, heading for Greece. His force quickly captured the strategically important island of Leukas. From there they headed to the Peloponnese and further successes, culminating in the capture of Corinth.

Morosini`s expeditionary force reached the Piraeus on 21 September 1687. Count Koenigsmark was in command of the landing forces and, with the help of the local Greeks, he set up a number of batteries of cannons and mortars close to the western end of the Acropolis and to the north. Antonio Mutoni, Count of San Felice, was in charge of the bombisti, the mortars; his subordinate was one Leandro. The systematic bombardment began on 24 September, and on the evening of the third day a mortar bomb went through one of the windows cut through the frieze around the cella (main chamber) of the Parthenon. Whether it was Mutoni, Leandro, or an unnamed officer from Lueneburg, who aimed and fired the fateful heavy mortar shell is uncertain. The results, however, were clear for all to see: the Turkish gunpowder store exploded and tore out the heart of this extraordinary survival of Classical Athens.

This was not the end, however, of the damage done to the Parthenon by Morosini and his forces. After their victory, the Venetians decided to winter in Athens. During this period Morosini sent a full dispatch to Venice concerning the antiquities in the city and having `observed with pleasure the famous ancient monuments`, subsequently received authority to `remove and send to us whatever may be judged of best quality and most artistic`. The plundering eye of the Venetian fell upon the better preserved statues from the west pediment of the Parthenon, especially the two horses from Athena`s chariot that he hoped would rival the great bronze horses removed from Constantinople in 1204. His attempt tragically failed and the sculptures fell to the ground, where some of their broken fragments were to be excavated by Lord Elgin`s team in 1801.

Disappointed with this outcome, Morosini comforted himself with the removal of other antiquities, in particular two large lions, the famous one from the Piraeus which gave its name to the port, Porto Leone, and a reclining example from near the road that led down towards it. Both now sit outside the Arsenale in Venice. His fellow officers and members of the expedition also carried off fragments, including two heads from a metope, taken home by the Danish naval officer, one Moritz Hartmann, and now in Copenhagen`s National Museum, and the so-called Laborde head from one of the pediments, transported back to Venice by Felice San Gallo, Morosini`s own secretary, and now in the Louvre.

In terms of death and destruction, it had been a grisly victory, and it would ultimately be in vain, for in early April 1688, with Morosini elected Doge in absentia, the Venetians abandoned Athens and the Ottoman Turks once again took control. The destruction wreaked by the Venetian mortar bomb, however, was but one in a long series of vicissitudes that the Parthenon had already had to endure after the acme of Classical Athens. As early as 262 AD it was probably set on fire by the invading Heruli and suffered further a century later when a series of devastating earthquakes occurred across the Mediterranean. When, perhaps in the late 5th or early 6th century AD, the temple was converted into a Christian church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the addition of a semicircular apse to the east end resulted in the removal and destruction of the central part of the east pediment. In addition, three windows were cut through the sculptured frieze on the long north and south sides, while most of the metopes on the outside of the temple were deliberately defaced, especially at either end and on the
more visible long north side. At some point in the 12th century, the apse was enlarged into a semi-hexagonal form and decorated with a glass mosaic image of the Virgin Mary and Child: this development caused the removal of the central sections of the east frieze.
In 1204 Athens was taken by the forces of the Fourth Crusade and `the most blest and illustrious sanctuary in Athens desecrated and despoiled`. The western Catholic `Franks` subsequently controlled Athens for the next 250 years - first the French, then the Catalans and finally the Florentines. The Parthenon had by this time become the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady and had gained, in the south-west corner, a tower with an internal staircase. In 1456 the city was again captured, this time by the Ottoman Turks and the temple was converted into a mosque. To the top of the rectangular `Frankish` tower was now also added a minaret to call the faithful to prayer. Inside, the altar was removed and the Christian frescoes whitewashed. Athens was to remain part of the Ottoman Empire for the next 350 years and some time after the catastrophic explosion of 1687, probably in the early decades of the 18th century, a small mosque was built from the rubble in the centre of the cella.

The second half of the 18th century saw a steady procession of visitors to the Acropolis, some intent on recording what they saw for posterity, others in preserving its monuments by other more interventionist means. From 1785, L-F-S Fauvel, acting as agent of the French Ambassador to the Ottoman Porte at Constantinople, was given permission to excavate and remove material from the Acropolis. It seems, however, that both Fauvel and others also attempted to remove metopes from the building without permission.

In July 1801 Lord Elgin, British Ambassador Extraordinary in Constantinople, was granted permission, in the form of what was then commonly called a firman, to excavate on the Acropolis and to remove `any pieces of stone with inscriptions, and figures` that he wished. The background to the request for such a firman was the report of the Rev Philip Hunt, Elgin`s chaplain, who had seen the damage done to the monuments of Athens and elsewhere during the last half century or so, not just by travellers but also by the inhabitants, either to secure building material or metal or to satisfy their superstitious suspicions. The granting of the request was the result of the high regard in which the British, and Lord Elgin in particular, were held, following the expedition against the French who had seized Egypt, then also a part of the Ottoman Empire. The firman itself was carried to Athens by an Ottoman emissary who outranked all the officials in Athens, one Raschid Aga. It was he who negotiated its implementation and agreed the removal of sculptures from the building itself. All the sculptures from the Parthenon that Lord Elgin brought back were purchased by the British Museum in 1816 and are on permanent display in the Duveen Gallery.

A further chapter in the history of the Parthenon began with the Greek War of Independence. In 1822, during the siege of the Acropolis, parts of the cella walls were pulled down by the Turkish defenders to get at the lead fill around the clamps that held the blocks together - in order to make new bullets! Following the Turkish garrison`s eventual handover of the Acropolis to the Bavarian army in April 1833, the little mosque and most other traces of the later history of the Parthenon - whether Orthodox, Latin or Ottoman - began to be systematically removed as the European philhellenism that had set Greece free sought to recreate Greece`s classical past, a support for the new nation state. This clearing of the post-classical monuments from the site continued to be the key driver, so that Kavvadias, Ephor of Antiquities, could proudly announce in 1890 that `thus does Greece deliver the Acropolis back to the civilised world, cleansed of all barbaric additions`.

Only after the earthquake of 1894 was serious consideration given to the safety of the overall structure of the Parthenon. This resulted in the initiation of a restoration project carried out under the direction of Nikolaos Balanos, which, in the end, proved disastrous: the iron clamps used were not sealed in lead in the ancient manner and as a result these corroded and in time burst open the marble blocks. In 1975, following critical reports from UNESCO experts in 1968-9, a new project was initiated which is still ongoing. Carried out under the highest standards of archaeological and scientific supervision, it will in due course result in the transformation of the site and its monuments. Indeed, this transformation will go a long way towards remedying the earlier obliteration of the post¬classical history of the monument, for the team of scholars who have worked on the Acropolis over the last thirty years have brought to light much new and important information on those colourful years. At last, we will be able to know something of the many different roles and meanings that the Parthenon had in the long centuries after it was built, chapters in its history that had for so long been forgotten.

By kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College, a central episode in the later history of the Parthenon will now also be told at the British Museum, in the shape of the remains of the `Parthenon Bomb`, which is now placed on long-term loan in close proximity to those great sculptures that 320 years ago it came so frighteningly close to destroying forever.


Fragment of a mortar bomb. Eton College (photo courtesy of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College)
Bombardment of the Acropolis drawn by GM Verneda, 1687 (from Fanelli. 1707)
A stack of 17th-century Venetian mortar bombs, Monte Carlo (photo ©Nicholas Hall, Keeper of Artillery, Tower of London)
Francesco Morosini (from Fanelli, 1707)
The entrance to the Arsenal in Venice, drawing by Jean Faure, 1831
Two heads from a metope, now in Copenhagen (from Broensted, 1830)
West end of the Parthenon, with the little mosque inside, watercolour by William Pars, 1765
Gold mosaic tesserae found at the east end of the Parthenon by Thomas Burgon between 1804 and 1814, 12th century