The Benaki Museum – A beacon of culture in the heart of Athens

In Vasilissis Sofias Avenue [Λεωφόρος Βασιλίσσης Σοφίας-Queen Sofia Avenue], one of the city’s most prestigious road arteries, overlooking the National Gardens and within walking distance of Athens’ heart and soul, the Syntagma Square, sits prominently the Benaki Museum.

Founded by Antonis Benakis (Alexandria 1873 – 1954 Athens)  an art collector and benefactor, scion of a distinguished family of the Greek diaspora who, following his family’s tradition in benefaction, converted his paternal house into a museum, furnished it with his own collections and endowed it to the Greek State, in 1930.

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The exterior of the Benaki Museum before 1930, when it was still the home of the Benaki family. © Benaki Museum, Photographic Archive

Today the museum’s collections, workshops and other services (Library, Archives, Conservation etc.) are accessible through a network of satellite buildings across the city, a decentralization made necessary by the ever growing collection of artworks and cultural activities of the institution.

Its core, however, remains the splendid neoclassical building in Vasilissis Sofias Avenue. A walk along its clean-lined, well lit, high-ceilinged rooms will bring you along Hellenic history and culture from antiquity to the rise and fall of Byzantium, from the Ottoman occupation to the modern, independent state of Greece.

The collection is formed through contributions by Greek and foreign donors, historically important family heirlooms and from the reserves of other museums. The objects are arranged chronologically and geographically in, what is described on the museum’s website, a ”spectacular historical panorama”. A befitting statement, every word of it is true!

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Clay ”frying-pan” vessel from Euboea, Early Cycladic I-II period. These vessels might have been used in everyday life or for rituals, but their real purpose is unknown

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Votive bust of a goddess. Earrings were affixed to her ear lobes. 350-300 BC

When we visited in June, we found some strange ”visitors” among the antiquities. They were works by Costas Paniaras, an artist who, for 30 years has been working on variations of the 350-325 BC head from Tegea in Arcadia exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, once identified with Hygieia (Ὑγιεία-Health).  The contemporary works were juxtaposed with historical artefacts creating an interesting dialogue and evoking the fundamental human need of good health.

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Costas Paliaras – Hygieia – Mixed media

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At the end of our visit, I was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions: amazement  and – why not admit it – a sense of pride at the expertise, the elaborate design, the forward thinking, the ingenuity, the cultural diversity, the complex and rich history of Hellenism, a heritage bestowed for the benefit of generations to come. And yet, observing the socioeconomic meltdown Greece is facing today, I have to wonder – what the hell happened to this country? Where did we go so very, very wrong?

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Marble fragment of the scene of dexiosis (farewell scene) from an Attic grave relief. Lat 4th c. BC

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In the middle, triple funerary ring of gold, set with beads of glass paste. From Egypt (?), 5th c.

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Gold medallion with relief bust of the goddess Athena. The mesh of surrounding chains indicates that it was used as a hair ornament (worn over the hair at the nape of the neck). Thessaly, 2nd c. BC

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Gold wreath of oak leaves and flowers. Late 4th – early 3rd c. BC

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Map of Greece, late 17th – early 18th c. Egg tempera on wood. Rare cartographic document annotated in Italian, should be associated with Venice’s efforts to repossess the territories annexed by the Ottomans

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Reception room from a mansion in Kozani, Macedonia, mid-18th c. Entirely wood carved, gilded, silvered and painted

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Part of the painted ceiling from an 18th c. mansion in Kastoria, Macedonia

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A rare survivor of a type of costume in western Renaissance style, worn in the Aegean islands during their occupation by the Franks. From Crete, 17th c.

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Urban costume of Sifnos Island, Cyclades

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Bridal costume of Attica

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Rare bridal costume known as the ”golden attire”, worn in the villages of Attica after the liberation of Greece from the Turks

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If your way brings you to Athens don’t miss the Benaki. Even if you hate museums, I promise you these will be a few hours of  your trip well worth spending.  And because walking through history can be exhausting, leave enough  time to rest over a refreshment or lunch on the coolest, quietest and shadiest veranda-with-a-view, in the whole of Athens. You will find it on the second  floor overlooking the National Gardens.

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The Benaki Museum,
Main Building,
1 Koumbari St. & Vas. Sofias Ave.
Athens

More on the museum’s history, permanent collection, exhibitions, events & opening hours, on www.benaki.gr

Shared photo credits (Lia & Konstantinos)

Athens, 18 June 2015

 

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4 thoughts on “The Benaki Museum – A beacon of culture in the heart of Athens

  1. Beautiful and really impressive. It is indeed an incredible heritage, that of your country. To your question about when did Greece go so wrong, I guess over such a long time, many countries have have their peak and their lowest point. Greece’s peak was incredibly high. Most nations never lived such a period of excellence at such level. Give time to the countries that are now ruling the world and you’ll see.

    • I guess what really bothers me is that along our long history, we Greeks have inevitably been ”corrupted” by various factors – external and inherent – so much so, that we became a totally different people. And I’m not sure I like the people we became. But, I I agree, what goes around comes around and things must get worse before they can get better. xxx

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