Recently, we were asked for a contribution to an online article about museums in European cities. The idea was that we should present an individual “must-see” object of our choice, with a concise explanation as to why we think that one thing in question would be worth an entire trip.
With so many great places on our itineraries, we didn’t find it easy to pick just one…
After a little reflection, we decided to settle for Athens. There are at least three good reasons for that choice. First of all, the Greek capital contains an extraordinary wealth of archaeological exhibits and extraordinary artefacts. Secondly, we have recently prepared our Exploring Athens tour our first tour focusing on that great city and its surroundings. Last but not least, the enormous effort made by the Greek state in the last decade-and-a-half in terms of renovating its archaeological museums and reorganising their exhibits has been immensely successful: in our opinion, Greece should be considered the world standard for modern archaeological exhibition design, and many of the Athens Museums are among the key examples of this.
Being resident in Athens and, moreover, being a great admirer of all its museums, I found it difficult to settle for just one object. Instead, I opted for preparing a “shortlist”, a selection of thirteen pieces from eleven museums in Athens and Attica, each of which is especially interesting, intriguing, fascinating, revealing – or simply beautiful – and each of which, by itself, makes for a good reason to visit Athens.
Here they are, in reverse chronological order, from the most recent to the most ancient:
1. Serenity and splendour
Wood-panelled interior from Siatista, late 18th century
Elegant and beautiful, ornate and intricate, atmospheric and serene, this is the first-floor reception room from an affluent trading family’s mansion in Siatista, Western Macedonia. Reflecting the rich tradition of craftsmanship and artistry thriving in the Ottoman-occupied Balkans, it is among the most emblematic of the many fascinating and unexpected treasures on display in the Benaki Museum. There are actually two such interiors, placed opposite one another, making the Benaki’s gallery 18 one of the most memorable sights in Athens.
2. Byzantine dignity
Icon of St. Catherine of Alexandria, 14th century
Byzantine and Christian Museum
The icon, from Verroia in Northern Greece, depicts St. Catherine, one of the main saints in Greek Orthodoxy. She is depicted as a noble lady, clothed in fine garments and bedecked in rich jewellery, as would befit a Byzantine princess at the time of the icon’s creation. Along with the Byzantine and Christian Museum‘s many other icons, frescoes and sculptures, the piece serves as an access point to the oft-neglected Byzantine tradition.
Portrait of a Hellenistic ruler, late 2nd century AD
New Acropolis Museum
This strikingly personal portrait of a young man, and I have to say: with great hair, probably depicts the obscure king Sauromates II, who ruled the Bosporan Kingdom, basically the area we now know as Crimea (Ukraine) around 200 AD, as a Roman client state. Drawing on the superb materials available in the area and on the long tradition of marble sculpting in Athens, it represents the highest achievements of Roman sculpture, as well as the 2nd century renaissance of Athens as a centre of culture and art. Made of a single block of marble, it is astonishingly successful in representing the different textures of the subject’s flesh and hair in intimate detail.
4. Ahead of its time
Antikythera Mechanism, ca. 100 BC(?)
National Archaeological Museum
This extraordinarily complex device of interlocking cogwheels, found among the remains of a shipwreck and apparently used to synchronise various ancient calendar systems, can be described as the earliest known clockwork-like mechanism or even the oldest surviving mechanical computer. It is the sole material witness to a much broader range of Hellenistic technological achievement, otherwise virtually unknown to us. Even in the National Archaeological Museum, which houses the world’s largest collections of ancient Greek art and artefacts, it is an outstanding object.
5. Group shot of an ancient Greek family
Votive relief, ca. 340 BC
Archaeological Museum at Vravrona (Brauron)
Dedicated by one Aristonike, wife of Antiphates, this is an extraordinary relief, a high quality piece of sculpture depicting an act of religious worship. Shown are three generations of Aristonike’s family, plus a slave or servant, approaching the goddess Artemis along with the bull they are going to sacrifice to her. It is but one example of the excellent exhibit of finds on display at the rural sanctuary’s site museum.
6. Meeting a Classical Athenian
Grave goods and marble stele from the grave of Eupheros, ca. 415 BC
Buried in the Kerameikos, the great Classical cemetery of Athens, Eupheros died at an early age, between 9 and 15 years, as indicated by his skeletal remains. His fine gravestone depicts him in idealised form as a young man and athlete. Fascinatingly, the assemblage of grave offerings that accompanied him is also on display, including funerary vessels, but also personal effects such as a little monkey figurine and a bronze strigil, a tool used by athletes to scrape their bodies clean after exercise.
7. Politics in action
Ostraka, early 5th century BC
These seemingly harmless objects, simple pottery sherds (ostraka) with the names of important Athenian politicians of the Classical period scratched into them, stand witness to one of the most striking aspects of the extraordinary democratic system developed in Athens in the 5th century BC. Once a year, all citizens were asked to vote on who was the most ambitious, and thus the most dangerous, among them. The “winner” would be ostracised, i.e. banished from the city, and thus its politics, for a decade. The Agora Museum, in the rebuilt stoa of Attalos, contains much fascinating material connected with daily and political life in ancient Athens.
8. What makes the world go round
Silver Tetradrachm from Skione, Macedon, ca. 475 BC
Nearly modernist in appearance, this coin, one of thousands in the collection of the Numismatic Museum, actually depicts the prow of an ancient warship. The city of Skione thus honoured its mythical founder Protesilaos, who was believed to have been the first of the Greeks to reach the shore at the beginning of the Trojan War. The object is an example of the highly refined micro-sculpture that characterises ancient coins, and also of the rich complexity of the subject matter depicted on them.
9. Mediterranean beauty
Kore with Almond-Shaped Eyes, ca. 500 BC.
New Acropolis Museum
This wonderful representation of Mediterranean female beauty was only seen by ancient eyes for two decades, from its creation until the Persian destruction of the Athenian Acropolis in 480 BC. With her expressive face, carefully rendered garments and elaborately braided hair, in places preserving traces of the original paint, she is one of the most beautiful examples of a kore, the typical idealised statues of girls (which is what the term means) that adorned Greek sanctuaries in the 6th century BC. In the Acropolis Museum, she shares a gallery with many of her “sisters” and other wonderful samples of Archaic art.
10. Sole survivor
Piraeus Apollo, ca. 530 BC
Piraeus Archaeological Museum
The male equivalent to the kore is the kouros, the typical Archaic statue of an idealised nude young man in a fairly static posture. While most surviving examples are of stone, this astonishing item is the only complete bronze kouros found so far, thought to depict the god Apollo. It was found as part of a cache, buried alongside no less than three(!) similarly well-preserved bronze statues, all of which are on display in Piraeus Museum.
11. Art and epic
Detail of a proto-Attic neck amphora, ca. 660 BC
Eleusis Archaeological Museum.
This bold and striking image pinpoints a landmark in the development of Greek culture: it is one of the earliest identifiable scenes from mythology explicitly depicted in Greek art. What is shown is the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemos by Odysseus and his men, as recounted in Homer’s Odyssey, which had been committed to writing only a few generations earlier. It was used as the container for the burial of a small child in the cemetery of Eleusis, a small town outside Athens that was to become a religious centre of enormous significance over the coming centuries.
12. The youth of art and the art of youth
Boxing Boys Fresco from Akrotiri on Santorini/Thera, ca. 1600 BC
National Archaeological Museum
Depicting two young boys boxing and, around the corner, two young male gazelles locking horns, this beautiful wall painting from the Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri on Santorini/Thera in the Cyclades islands of the Aegean is not just a striking specimen of one of the earliest elaborate art styles in Europe. It can also be read as one of the oldest comments on male competitive behaviour. It was preserved when the entire settlement of Akrotiri was buried in ashes as the result of a massive volcanic eruption.
13. Full circle – where prehistory meets modern art
Cycladic figurine of the Spedos variety, ca. 2500 BC
Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art
Mysterious and strangely modern-looking, this highly stylised female figurine stands for a whole group of such objects, produced in the Cycladic islands in the 3rd millennium BC. Perfect in its simplicity of form and in the use of Cycladic marble, a material that is both tactile and visually highly attractive, it is an iconic item. The striking clarity of the sculpture is in stark contrast with the ongoing mystery surrounding the use and purpose of Cycladic figurines. The Goulandris Museum is the key collection of these intriguing objects.
Interested? Next June, we will show nearly all of these wonderful pieces, and a lot more, to our guests when visiting the Athens museums on our first Exploring Athens tour. [2015 update: we now run the tour annually; in 2016, it will be in May.]