Pope Francis will return to Greek hands three 2,500-year-old pieces of the Parthenon that have been in the papal collections of the Vatican Museums for two centuries, the Vatican said in a statement on Friday.
The fragments — a head of a horse, a head of a boy and a bearded male head — will become the property of Archbishop Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, the statement added.
Most surviving fragments of the Acropolis temple are owned by the Greek state and displayed in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Although the Vatican fragments will belong to the church rather than the state, a museum spokeswoman said they would be “reunited in their positions,” helping to breach a palpable void in the reconstructed monument that Greeks feel almost viscerally.
The Acropolis Museum spokeswoman said she did not know when the artifacts would return to Greece, but hoped the exchange would take place soon.
It was also unclear when the archbishop would give, or loan, the Vatican fragments to the Acropolis Museum. The archbishop’s office did not immediately respond to a request for additional information, but in a statement, the archbishop thanked the pope with “sincere gratitude and emotion,” and his office said that the “details of the completion of this generous and highly symbolic act” would be clarified with the competent authorities in the near future.
The pope’s gesture comes amid reports of negotiations between Greece and Britain on a potential deal for the return of other temple fragments that were removed by a British aristocrat in the 19th century and that are held by the British Museum in London. Those artifacts, which are a centerpiece of the museum’s collection, are probably the world’s most famous disputed museum items.
The Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports welcomed the pope’s “generous” decision and said in a statement that it gave a boost to Greece’s ongoing efforts to get back the marbles.
Giandomenico Spinola, the head of the Vatican Museums’ archaeology department, said the pope had personally decided to return the fragments after meeting with Archbishop Ieronymos during a trip to Athens in December 2021.
Initially, officials from the Vatican and Acropolis museums had envisaged a long-term loan of the pieces, then Francis “decided to donate the works outright,” Mr. Spinola said. As a donation, the return should be seen outside of any debate on the restitution of the marbles at the British Museum, Mr. Spinola added.
The Vatican fragments were removed from the Parthenon long before the disputed items in the British Museum. Two most likely arrived in Rome at the end of the 18th century, after being traded by antiques dealers, and were purchased by the Vatican Museums in 1803; the other was removed from the temple in 1688 and entered into the collections in the early 19th century.
In 2008, the Vatican lent the fragment of the young boy to the Acropolis Museum for a one-year loan that was extended to two years. The fragments are currently being cleaned and studied in a Vatican restoration laboratory.
The pope’s donation turns up the pressure on the British Museum to act over the Parthenon sculptures in its collection, which Greece for decades has asked to be returned.
According to Ta Nea, a Greek newspaper, Greece’s government has been holding “exploratory talks” with George Osborne, the British Museum’s chair of trustees, over the fate of the fragments since November 2021. (A British Museum spokesman declined to comment on whether the meetings had taken place.)
It is unclear, however, whether the museum is willing to relinquish ownership of the marbles, or is even able to do so — something demanded by Greece, which has ruled out the option of accepting the sculptures back as loans. Under British law, the British Museum cannot remove items from its collection unless they are “unfit to be retained.”
British Museum officials told local news outlets this year that they wanted to create what they called a “Parthenon partnership” in which artifacts would be on loan back and forth between London and Athens, but in November, Mr. Osborne said that he did not want to break up the museum’s collection.
“We hear the voices calling for restitution,” he said in a speech at the museum last month, “but creating this global British Museum was the dedicated work of many generations.”
He added, “Dismantling it must not become the careless act of a single generation.”
In January this year, a fragment from the Parthenon that for more than 200 years had been in the Antonino Salinas museum in Palermo, Sicily, was returned to Greece. Five months later, the fragment was “permanently reunited in the east frieze of the Parthenon at the Acropolis Museum, where it belongs forever,” the museum said at the time.
“Italy is at the forefront of affirming the principle of restitution of cultural property to reunite historical and artistic heritage with the places and peoples of origin,” Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister at the time, said in a statement.
By giving the fragment back, “we wanted to give a strong signal of friendship and closeness to Greece,” he said.
Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from London.