The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture is a jewel in the crown of Athens museums. Located on Vassilis Sofia Avenue just up from Syntagma Square and just down from the chic Kolonaki ‘hood, it’s a beautiful location with great views from the terrace.
The Benaki, as locals call it, is housed in the former Benakis (Μπενακησ) family home and is one of the most gorgeous neoclassical buildings in the city. It was converted to a museum to hold the art collection of Antonis Benakis and donated to the state by Antonis and his sisters around 1930. Named for their father, Emmanuel Benakis, the museum has a wonderful collection of items from ancient times to the 20th century. Antonis worked hard until his death in 1954 to enrich the museum’s collection and to ensure its future financial security.
The collection is incredible. The Greeks’ huge trade network and colonial expansion influenced life and culture as early as the 7th century BC. Visits to the east (Phoenicia) added illustrations of sphynxes and griffins to their iconography. Animals were added as well. In the 5th century BC, when democracy began to emerge, various paintings (vases, cookware, etc) showed images of people … citizens.
One of the things we found fascinating is how the French revolution and its ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity inspired the Greek War of Independence. This too is evident in various pieces. And other, modern, masterpieces abound: El Greco, Dionysos Solomos, and others. Plus costumes from various periods, parlor and salon recreations and a cool collection of Eleftherios Venizelos’ belongings in one corner of the museum, including a pair of his signature round glasses. Venizelos was prime minister of Greece eight times and is credited with being “the maker of modern Greece.” Emmanuel Benakis and Venizelos were close friends.
Post-revolution Greece saw a great deal of benefaction, a tradition that remains strong among Greek communities all over the word. The Benaki museum is a prime example of this. Another interesting post-revolution outcome was the neoclassical movement — i.e., buildings like the Benaki were built all over the city, symbolic of the fresh start that Greece wanted so badly. Out with the oppressive Ottomans; in with the rebirth of Greece’s new capital city with an enlightened look and culture. (Fun fact: as old and as important as Athens is, it was not the capital of Greece until after the revolution. Michael loves to say “fun fact.”).
Neoclassical construction continued into the 1930s, but sadly World War II and the brutal German occupation, followed by the Greek civil war saw many of these buildings damaged and even torn down with the urbanization of Athens after the wars.
The nail in the coffin of neoclassic construction was legislation in the 50s that encouraged Athenians to hand over their family homes in exchange for multi-story, concrete apartments that would replace them. There was so much migration from rural villages to Athens in the 60s and 70s that Athens and its suburbs became a kind of chaotic place that now holds about half of Greece’s entire population.
It’s sad to see these beautiful buildings downtown in such bad shape. While lots of these old mansions have been turned into museums, others just (barely) stand in state of disrepair. There is an effort to preserve them, but the taxes are so high, it’s nearly impossible for average citizens to pay them.
The martis are doing their job: trees are blooming, I’m starting to smell cut grass on my morning runs, and Peter’s neck has turned a pale pink. Two weekends ago we spent most of Saturday afternoon in the square with Thodoris, Mina, Anna, George and Little Katerina to celebrate Thodoris’ name day. The kids scootered and played basketball and soccer, and the adults ate and drank coffee. Saturday night, big Katerina, Sandy and I watched “La Boheme” live from the Met (NYC) at Megaro Mousiki, Athens’ lovely concert hall. Much the same is planned for this weekend; looks like a sunny, warm weekend. Ahhhhh.