14th December 2015 Athens, Greece
In Praise of the Benaki Museum
Queen Sophia Avenue leads from Constitution Square to Kostas Varotsos’ glass-sculpted “Runner” at the Hilton. It is a broad street, lined with trees (now being heavily pruned for the winter) and bearing, for much of the day, heavy traffic. The neighbourhood combines something of London’s North and South Kensington. Here are the neo-classical buildings of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Egyptian, French and Italian embassies. My Residence too is located here, next to the Embassy.
It is a smart place.
But it’s also a powerhouse of knowledge. Here, you can profitably lose many hours in the permanent collections of the War Museum, the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art, or in the temporary exhibitions at the B & M Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts and Music. All are captivating at any time of the year.
To my mind, however, the greatest institution of all those found on this avenue is the Benaki Museum, queen of neoclassical town-houses and an unrivalled treasure-store.
This Museum was founded in 1930 by Antonis Benakis, an Alexandrian Greek who had been a lifelong collector. Towards the end of his life, he gifted his family house for the establishment of the museum, which still retains the nucleus of the Benaki collection.
And what a collection it is! The principal collection shows, through objects, the diachronic passage of the Greek world from the Bronze Age to classical times, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine and mediaeval periods, and the centuries of occupation after the fall of Constantinople, until the struggle for independence. The museum has exquisite pots, jewelry, artifacts, icons, clothing, paintings and portraiture. I think it’s the greatest single introduction to the amazing Greek story anywhere.
But the Benaki has not just stood still since the original bequest. From 1973 until earlier this year, it was led by the legendary director, Angelos Delivorrias, whose vision and determination have turned Antonis Benakis’ original bequest into one of Greece’s most exciting cultural clusters.
In addition to the original collection housed on Queen Sophia Avenue, the Benaki now includes an annex for modern exhibitions on Piraeos Street, an Islamic Art collection in the Kerameikos, important literary archives held at the Delta House in Kifissia, the studio of the great artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, and, in the same house on Kriezotou Street, an astonishingly rich and thought-provoking gallery that highlights the intellectual and artistic output of Greece from the end of the Great War until the coup led by the colonels in 1967.
The Benaki Museum throbs with energy and ideas. This year alone, the Museum has celebrated the end of the El Greco 400th anniversary, hosted a wonderful exhibition by the British sculptor Tony Cragg, paid homage to the great Byzantinist Fotis Kontoglou, and is now showing a revelatory exhibition, called “Wor(th)ship”, by the photographer Tassos Vrettos, who has spent the last three years exploring the religious lives of Athens’ migrant communities.
And for the last few years, the Benaki has also possessed one of the most important testimonies to the long and deep British love affair with Greece. In 1996, the great war hero, travel-writer and philhellene Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor and his wife Joan donated their house just outside Kardamyli in the Mani to the Benaki Museum with the intention that ownership would transfer to the museum after the couple’s death. On Sir Patrick’s death in 2011, the Benaki duly acquired the house, and has, ever since, been busy turning Sir Patrick’s bequest into a living legacy.
The house itself is astonishing: surely, one of the most beautiful homes in Greece. At the museum’s invitation, I had the pleasure of visiting it in early June and I recorded some of my impressions in my blog of 3 June. Fund-raising continues, and the Benaki is preparing a volume about Sir Patrick for publication next year. You can find more about the museum’s stewardship of the house and its opening times here.
People sometimes say that Greece lacks strong, independent institutions. The Benaki Museum may be an exception to the rule, but, if so, it is an exceptional exception, for it stands at the peak of Greek culture. I love it. I recommend it to all.