Dodwell: Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece (1819)

During his first trip to Greece in 1801, Edward Dodwell was a witness to the removal of the Parthenon friezes by Lord Elgin’s agents. In his travelogue, he severely condemns Elgin’s intervention on the ancient Greek monuments of the Athenian Acropolis, echoing positions held in European artistic and intellectual circles that denounced the British ambassador’s deed as vandalism and theft. Dodwell is one of the rare observers to also document the indignation of the local inhabitants of Athens, both Greeks and Turks, triggered by Elgin’s appropriation of the sculptures.

commented by Eleonora Vratskidou

Original text   Brief biography   Commentary   Sources and literature

Chapter XI: The Parthenon. Sculpture taken down, and part of the temple destroyed. Bad effects of the dilapidation upon the minds of the inhabitants

from: Edward Dodwell, Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece, during the years 1801, 1805, and 1806, 2 vols. London, 1819 – vol. 1, pp. 322–326.

LATE SPOLIATION OF PARTHENON ‒ During my first tour to Greece I had the inexpressible mortification of being present when the Parthenon was despoiled of its finest sculpture, and when some of its architectural members were thrown to the ground. I saw several metopæ at the south-east extremity of the temple taken down. They were fixed in between the triglyphs as in a groove; and in order to lift them up, it was necessary to throw to the ground the magnificent cornice by which they were covered. The south-east angle of the pediment shared the same fate; and instead of the picturesque beauty and high preservation in which I first saw it, it is now comparatively reduced to a state of shattered desolation.

Some drawings which I made on the spot, before as well as after that event, skew the objects which have been taken away or destroyed, and the lamentable contrast between the present and the former appearance of those venerable and glorious monuments of antiquity! [1]

It is painful to reflect that these trophies of human genius, which had resisted the silent decay of time, during a period of more than twenty-two centuries, which had escaped the destructive fury of the Ikonoklasts, the inconsiderate rapacity of the Venetians, and the barbarous violence of the Mohamedans, should at last have been doomed to experience the devastating outrage which will never cease to be deplored. Independent of the moral blame which must neces­sarily attach to such an act, the authority of the example may henceforth be pleaded as a precedent, and employed as an apology for similar depredations. The Athenian temples will thus probably be destroyed for the sake of their ornaments; which, instead of remaining in their original places, as the property of all nations, will be appropriated by the strongest. When we come to trace the causes which led to this scene of havoc and destruction, the greater share of the odium will naturally, and not unjustly, be referred to those [323] INDIGNATION OF THE ATHENIANS who first exhibited the example of such unhallowed violations of all that the feeling of genuine taste respects and consecrates. But while we indignantly reprove and deeply regret the irreparable damage that has been done to the Athenian monuments, we must not overlook the advantage which the fine arts in our country will derive from the introduction of such inestimable specimens of Grecian art. But though we make this concession, we cannot omit to observe, that had the temples been left untouched, and had that sculpture only been removed which had already fallen, our Museum would still have been enriched with sufficient specimens for the improvement of the national taste, while casts would have answered every purpose of those originals, of which the temples have been sacrilegiously deprived.

On the northern side of the Parthenon, nineteen metopæ, and the greater part of the Panathenaic procession in low relief, fell, when the Acropolis was besieged by the Venetians.[2] Most of the metopæ are missing on the southern side, and a great quantity of the low relief; the latter has also fallen with the wall of the cella at the eastern extremity. Great part of that admirable sculpture yet remains buried under the large masses of columns and architraves, by the removal of which they will probably at some future time be brought to light. These precious relics might have been dug up and added to our collection without injuring the temple. It is indeed impossible to suppress the feelings of regret which must arise in the breast of every traveller, who has seen these temples before and since their late dilapidation! nor have I any hesitation in declaring, that the Athenians in general, nay, even the Turks themselves, did lament the ruin that was committed; and loudly and openly blamed their sovereign for the permission he had granted. I was on the spot at the time, and had an opportunity of observing, and indeed of participating, in the sentiment of indignation which such conduct universally inspired. The whole [324] proceeding was so unpopular in Athens, that it was necessary to pay the labourers more than their usual profits before any could be prevailed upon to assist in this work of profanation.

The insulated example of the single sculptured marble which was taken from the temple by the Count de Choiseul Gouffier, and of one of the metopæ which was broken in attempting its removal is adduced as a palliation of the subsequent dilapidations; but it can never excuse the wanton destruction that ensued ; and which I have reason to believe, would not have been carried to such an extraordinary excess, had the person for whom they were re-moved been present at the time. But the management of the whole affair was in fact committed to the hands of mercenary and interested persons, and executed with all the unprincipled licentiousness of subordinate and hireling agents. The temples were entirely at their mercy! and while we grant them the negative merit of not having levelled every thing with the ground, we cannot but execrate that spirit of insensate barbarism which prompted them to shatter and mutilate, to pillage and overturn, the noble works which the lofty mind of Pericles had ordered, and the unrivalled genius of Phidias and of Iktinos had executed. It is an incontestible (sic) fact, that the magnificent monuments of the Athenian Acropolis suffered more in that single dilapidating year,[3] than during the whole preceding century. The Venetians inflicted the first fatal blow upon the Parthenon, when they besieged Athens in 1687. Their artillery laid part of the inimitable structure in ruins. The labours of Iktinos, of Phidias, and of Kallikrates, were disregarded in the rage of war; and for many years they were exposed in scattered heaps to the slow but certain destruction of Turkish ignorance. Large masses of Pentelic marble were broken into smaller pieces for the construction of the miserable cottages of the garrison; while others, and particularly the bas-reliefs, were burnt into lime; for the Turks are said to have preferred for that purpose [325] a sculptured block to a plain one, though the material was the same. Such is the pleasure with which uncivilized ignorance or frantic superstition, destroyed in a moment the works of years, and the admiration of ages!

The Venetians who besieged the Acropolis and ruined the Parthenon, caused some statues to be detached from the western pediment; but as the machinery was imperfect, those valuable remains fell to the ground, and were irreparably, injured. I was present when some of these fragments were dug up, particularly the Torso, called Victory without wings, which is now in the British Museum.

The world, is certainly indebted to those who saved these fallen fragments from destruction; but the Turks did not ruin the buildings which were still standing, unless on some urgent occasion—such as the reparation of the fort; and for this purpose they threw down part of the Propylæn columns, as I have already mentioned. Without however wishing to palliate either Turkish or British dilapidation, it must be recollected, that the former merely followed one of the parts of the trinoda necessitas of the Roman law code. »Pontium constructio, arcium reparatio, et expeditio contra hostem.« For which purposes it was lawful to destroy edifices of any kind. But the metopæ of the Parthenon were out of their reach, and I never heard an instance of their firing at them, which it is said they did as an amusement. On the contrary, the Parthenon is regarded with respect not only by the Greeks but by the Turks; for it was dedicated to Saint  George, when it became a Christian church; and was converted into a mosque when Athens fell under the Turkish dominion. The head of the male figure in the western tympanon, which is said to have been knocked off by a Turk, is in my possession. I received it four years afterwards from a soldier of the garrison, who assured me that it was detached by a sailor, who was however neither a Greek nor a Turk; and the same thing was told me by the British agent, who was present at the time it was broken off. If indeed Turks were inured to habits of capricious ravage and wanton spoliation, the Caryatides which are exposed to the attacks [326] even of children in the Acropolis, would not so long have escaped without destruction. But though they have not been secured like the Parthenon by any thing like religious feeling, the were not only never assailed by violence, but attracted universal admiration by the beauty of their forms. When the Turks have destroyed any ancient remains, in Athens or in other parts of Greece, they have always been impelled by some purpose of utility or necessity, and not incited by the mere ardor spoliandi, the instinctive desire of mischief and devastation, which has falsely been laid to their charge.

[1] Some of these drawings will be given in my folio work, Views in Greece, which will con­sist of coloured engravings, representing the most interesting architectural remains and cele­brated localities in that country.

[2] In the year 1687.

[3] 1801.

Brief biography

Edward Dodwell (1777/78–1832) was a classical scholar and traveller who wrote extensively on topography and antiquities. Born into a wealthy family, he was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and started travelling after graduating in 1800. He toured Greece twice, in 1801 and in 1805-1806, accompanied by the Italian artist Simone Pomardi (1760-1830). Collaborating closely, Pomardi and Dodwell, a draughtsman himself, made an impressive total of 1,000 drawings and watercolours, which today form the biggest known body of images from Ottoman Greece during the two decades that preceded the Greek War of Independence. After 1801, Dodwell settled in Italy, spending time in Paris for research and returning to England only occasionally. He published an illustrated account of his trips to Greece in 1819. His important collection, made through purchases and occasional excavations, contained mainly vases and coins and was eventually bought by King Ludwig of Bavaria, today forming part of the Antikensammlungen in Munich.

Commentary – »Destruction of the Parthenon, Indignation of the Athenians«

As was often the case in travelogues of Greece from this period, Dodwell interrupts his topographical and archaeological description of the Acropolis in order to comment on the most recent »spoliation« of its ancient monuments by Lord Elgin’s expedition and his removal of major architectural sculptures. Dodwell’s account is among the harshest in condemning the appropriation of the sculptures which, according to the English traveller, belong to their original setting and are »the property of all nations«. Elgin’s intervention on the temples comes as the culminating point in a list of previous destruction by various invaders from Byzantine times on ‒ Ikonoklasts (sic), Venetians, Mohamedans‒, all of which seem to have proved finally less barbarous and less damaging in defacing the monuments than that by this ambassador of a civilized nation. It is extremely interesting to observe the rich and emotionally loaded vocabulary Dodwell uses for describing both Lord Elgin’s undertaking itself (spoliation, despoiled, devastating outrage, depredations, havoc and destruction, irreparable damage, sacrilegiously deprived, injuring, dilapidation, wanton destruction, to shatter and mutilate, to pillage and overturn) and the reactions it provokes or should provoke (inexpressible mortification, never cease to be deplored, odium, indignantly reprove, deeply regret, feelings of regret, sentiment of indignation).

Harsh as he may sound regarding the »late dilapidation« of the Athenian monuments, Dodwell does acknowledge the benefits for the arts and scholarship that Great Britain could reap from the dislocation of the sculptural fragments – Dodwell writes three years after the purchase of the marbles by the British government and their installation in the British Museum. He does insist nonetheless that detaching the sculptures and architectural parts from the buildings was not necessary: employing archaeological reasoning, he points out alternative means that could have been used (e.g. excavations in particular areas) in order to obtain valuable pieces of the Parthenon that had already fallen, instead of »injuring the temple«. He thus discredits the whole rationale of Elgin’s undertaking and the lack of informed consideration in the archaeological procedures. At the same time, he seems to exonerate Lord Elgin himself, absent during the operations – the British ambassador remains indeed unnamed through the whole passage –, putting the blame almost entirely on »the unprincipled licentiousness of subordinate and hireling agents«. The target is most probably the Neapolitan painter and architect Giovanni Battista Lusieri, who was the head of Elgin’s expedition. While present in Athens during the same time and both eager to obtain antiquities, Dodwell and Lusieri seem to have been on bad terms, as is also testified in Lusieri’s private correspondence (Williams, 2001, pp. 148–150).

After speaking of his own »inexpressible mortification« at the sight of the Parthenon’s »despoliation« and the »feelings of regret which must arise at the heart of each traveller« who visited the »mutilated« monument, Dodwell goes on to speak of the widely shared »indignation« of the inhabitants of Athens, both Greeks and Turks, towards the taking of the sculptures. Implicit in the author’s narration is a hierarchy of the actors involved – first mentioned are travellers like himself and then the locals –, but at the same time there is also a clear graduation in the intensity of reactions, from the foreigner’s regret or even mortification to the indignation of the locals and their solicitations against the political power that allowed Elgin’s intervention. Lusieri’s private correspondence testifies to the unrest that followed the removal of the sculptures, particularly that of the Caryatid from the Erechtheion, which caused no less that »a small revolution in both the town and the castle« (Lusieri, cited in Williams, 2001, p. 139). Dodwell was however one of the very rare authors to go public on the intense local distress that Elgin’s operation provoked, as well as on the strong attachment of the inhabitants of Athens to the antiquities of the Acropolis. As such, Dodwell’s account was, interestingly, included as an exhibit in the show at the Neue Galerie in Kassel during the last documenta exhibition (April-September 2017). Dodwell’s testimony was appropriated by the curatorial team of documenta 14 as an example of local resistance against cultural colonialism, in a tightly interwoven critical display that sought to register forgotten incidents of looting, oppression and resistance, conjuring the legacies of European colonialism and establishing parallels between the acquisition of the Elgin marbles and cases of colonial expropriation such as the Benin bronzes (Vratskidou, 2018).

The phrasing Dodwell adopts (»nor have I any hesitation in declaring«) in order to introduce his comment on the local reactions against Elgin’s expedition implies that other observers tended to downplay the discomfort of the Athenian inhabitants, describing rather the apathy or disinterest of local populations in antiquities and the lack of any kind of opposition to their removal. Indeed, many commentators insist on the ignorance of the locals regarding the historical and aesthetic significance of ancient artefacts, and report superstitions about enchanted antiquities and perceptions of the statues as animated beings capable of agency and emotive expression. Adopting an orientalising or broadly colonial gaze on local populations, most writers qualify their engagements with the statues as products of a superstitious, »primitive« mind and dismiss their practices in the name of both the rational, enlightened subject and of the new modes of appreciation of such artefacts fostered by the emergence of aesthetics, art history and the public museum. Such accounts of local perceptions of antiquities indirectly affirm the cultural supremacy of the Westerners and their rightful claim to be custodians of the remnants of the classical past (Hamilakis, 2008, p. 3; Gotsi, 2015, p. 65). Unlike other authors such as Hobhouse, Douglas, Clarke or Dupré, Dodwell makes no mention of such superstitious attitudes. Regarding the Caryatides in particular, he moreover extends dominant western European modes of appreciation to the locals, insisting that the »universal admiration« the sculpted female figures inspired in the inhabitants of Athens was due to »the beauty of their forms«.

Adopting an intertextual perspective, it is interesting to juxtapose a passage from John Cam Hobhouse’s travelogue A Journey through Albania (1813) with Dodwell’s account:

Some Greeks, in our time, conveying a chest from Athens to Piraeus, containing part of the Elgin marbles, threw it down, and could not for some time be prevailed upon to touch it, again affirming, they heard the Arabim crying out, and groaning for his fellow-spirits detained in bondage in the Acropolis.

(Hobhouse, 1813, 1, p. 348)


The whole proceeding was so unpopular in Athens, that it was necessary to pay the labourers more than their usual profits before any could be prevailed upon to assist in this work of profanation.

(Dodwell, 1819, 1, p. 323–324)

The presence of the verb »prevailed upon« in both extracts almost calls for a reading of Dodwell’s comment on the augmented payment needed to persuade the locals to collaborate in a »work of profanation« as a response to Hobhouse’s account. In the latter, the workers are presented as superstitious, scared away by the bewitched sculptures, any agency of resistance to their removal being absorbed by the statues themselves. And while one could read this from a Freudian perspective as an interesting case of transfer in the context of a traumatic experience (Cf. Gotsi, 2015, p. 67), Dodwell opts rather for a more rational version of the events. In Dodwell’s account, the lament for the loss of the beloved sculptures is not projected to the sculptures themselves but is attributed to and enacted by the local populations themselves.

Quite remarkable is also Dodwell’s engagement in favour of the Turks. He devotes more than a page to a critical examination of the alleged raw desire for destruction attributed to them, emphasising in italics stereotypical views of Turkish attitudes that he wishes to counter (»are said«, »is said«). Dodwell argues that the destruction of several ancient buildings by the Turks – of which he diligently gives a list further in the text – was always motivated by some particular purpose and tends to support their legitimacy by appealing to the Roman law code. Dodwell seems to be refuting allegations that appeared abundantly in the Memorandum on the Subject of the Earl of Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece, composed by Elgin’s Secretary William Richard Hamilton (Memorandum, 1810, p. 6–8), a major document in defense of the ambassador’s activities in Greece. To support his case, Dodwell also mobilises his own experience regarding the acquisition of a marble head from the west pediment of the Parthenon, an indirect tribute to his own collecting activity, which, unlike Elgin’s practices, concerned only already detached items. In denying the gratuitous ardor spoliandi attributed to the Turks, he actually overturns one of the typical mitigating arguments in favour of the removal of the architectural sculptures from the Acropolis, that is the assumption that if the marbles had not been transferred to London, they would have been destroyed by the Turks: a seminal argument expounded by Lord Elgin himself both in his Memorandum and in the Select Committee Report that investigated the debated purchase of the marbles by the British government in 1816 (Williams, 2001, 117).

Eleonora Vratskidou is Visiting Professor at the Institut für Kunstwissenschaft und historische Urbanistik, Technische Universität Berlin.

Sources and literature

Georgia Gotsi, »›Ο θρήνος των Καρυατίδων‹: βιογραφία μιας παράδοσης (1803-1902) [‘Τhe lament of the Caryatides’: biography of a tradition (1803-1902)]«, 1 (2015), pp. 55104, available online.

John Cam Hobhouse, A Journey through Albania and other Provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia to Constantinople, during the years 1809 and 1810, 2 vols. London 1813.

Yannis Hamiliakis, The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece, Oxford 2007.

Yannis Hamiliakis, »Decolonising Greek Archaeology: Indigenous Archaeologies, Modernist Archaeology and the Post-Colonial Critique«, in: Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos, A Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth Century Greece, Athens, 2008, pp. 111.

Yannis Hamiliakis, »Indigenous Archaeologies in Ottoman Greece«, in: Zainab Bahrani,  Zeynep Çelik, and Edhem Eldem, Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914, Istanbul 2011, pp. 49-69.

Memorandum on the Subject of the Earl of Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece. London 1810.

Dyfri Williams, »›Of Publick utility and publick property‹: Lord Elgin and the Parthenon Sculptures«, in: Athéna Tsingarida and Donna Kurtz(eds.), Appropriating Antiquity. Saisir l’Antique: collections et collectionneurs d’antiques en Belgique et en Grande-Bretagne au XIXe siècle,  Bruxelles 2001, pp.103164.

Eleonora Vratskidou, »Stories of wheels within wheels: looted art at documenta 14«, in: Journal for Art Market Studies, 2, no. 2 (2018), available online.

Cite this article as:
Dodwell: Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece (1819), commented by Eleonora Vratskidou, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike,, published 29.10.2018.

nach oben