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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
The Benaki Museum,
1 Koumbari St. & Vas. Sofias Ave.
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