(It has been brought to my attention that some of you may not be familiar with the film Never on Sunday starring Melina Mercouri. In that case, do go out and rent it. It will be a good introduction to the Greek spirit as well as explaining the title of this post.)
So, as those of you who have friended my husband already know, we spent a month in Greece. Since he is reporting as a sequential narrative, I’m going to try and extract the essence in some essays. If you want the chronological version, you should friend him at– jon_decles
For the most part things went well. We saw:
- 30 temples,
- 11 acropoli (cliff with citadel atop it, as in “The Acropolis”)
- 3 battlefields
- 5 stadia
- 7 theatres
- 9 museums
Greece has a lot of museums, and many of them are open. The major archaeological sites have museums attached to them, and many towns have their own museums as well. Because they mostly close on Mondays (I suppose the staff have to rest sometime), it helps to have something else to do on that day. Go to the seashore. Not every exhibit has a label, but they are in both Greek and English. Mostly. For some museum reviews and pictures, see the rest of this post.
If you are taking pictures, it’s a good idea to list and label them each evening, as after the 3rd museum it gets hard to remember which bronze figurine or architectural fragment is which. One survival plan is to focus on certain classes of objects, such as Mycenean Octopus pots
or ceramic cookware.
Most museums have the occasional bench so you can sit down. Do not sit down in one of the chairs by a doorway. It is there for the guard who is watching to make sure you don’t do anything inappropriate with the antiquities. Most museums also have clean bathrooms. This can be important. In Athens, the Museum of the Agora is in a building called the “Stoa (a colonnade) of Attalos”,
which was completely reconstructed in the 50’s by the American School of Athens. They also added the “Bathroom of the Americans”. Both are worth a visit.
The Museum in Epidauros is small, and many of the statues are copies of originals which are now in the National Museum in Athens. The site, however, is unique, including a theatre with the world’s best acoustics. When you stand in the center and speak, not only can everyone in the stands hear you, you can hear yourself as if you were wearing a mike. In the photo, Don is declaiming.
The finds from Nestor’s Palace are in the museum at ‘Hora, where you can also see archaeologists (or students) at work cataloguing finds.
The Museum at Olympia is new and attractive and full of goodies, not to mention air-conditioned. Olympia also has a Museum of the Olympic Games with some very interesting exhibits and information on early sports, though some pieces have been loaned to China for the summer.
Even little Ithaki, which may or may not be the Ithaca of Odysseus, has a tiny museum with parking for about one car at a time. They had a fragment of a ceramic mask possibly used in ritual with a dedication to Odysseus, who apparently had a cult there. The museum at Delphi is impressive, though its exhibits can only begin to give an idea of the treasures that were once offered there. As at Delos, there were so many offerings that cities built separate buildings—treasuries, to contain them. The museum in Santorini only has a few of the famous Akrotiri frescoes (the rest are in Athens), but an exhibit of reconstructions of the frescoes at a conference center in town had them all (and was open on Monday!)
We didn’t have time to visit the museum on Delos (the site really requires two days to fully explore). For some reason the museum at Marathon won’t let you photograph the neo-Egyptian statues, which is a pity, since one of them showed Isis as she is described by Apuleius, and I am still trying to figure out the knot that holds her mantle closed. The National Museum in Athens is the great-grandmother of them all, and requires at least 8 hours to just look at everything, much less study. Wear comfortable shoes.
Many museums have a star exhibit, and it is always a thrill to see in the flesh, or at least in the stone, an image you’ve encountered in photos so many times before. In Olympia, it is the Hermes of Praxiteles. The statue shows him holding the infant Dionysos. His expression is serene but watchful, as if he is remembering what he got into as a baby and wondering just how much trouble his new brother is going to be. He has a room all to himself, and you can walk around the statue and admire him from every angle. Praxiteles is considered to be one of the greatest sculptors of the classical period, and he certainly succeeded in portraying divine perfection. The back view is slanted because it was the only way to get him all in the the picture.
The most famous piece in Delphi is the bronze Charioteer, although since it no doubt celebrated a victory at Olympia, one might have expected to see it there. All that remains is the charioteer himself and a few pieces that have enabled them to guess at the positions of the horses. Most descriptions state that this is the moment of victory, and wonder why he doesn’t look more excited. Don and I felt that it was more likely to portray the start of the race. Rather than a detached serenity, we thought the expression showed the moment at which all forces are focused before releasing them in the race. The charioteer is simultaneously aware of everything around him and totally centered, gathering his chi.
The National Museum in Athens is so big and rich that no single exhibit can dominate. What it does really well is to display material from different periods in separate rooms so that one can get a good sense of how styles changed. The display of kouros (young men)and korai (young women) makes this clear. The photos show sketches of the sequence of development, followed by a good example of each.
These statues were apparently funeral monuments. The early pieces are intentionally static, with both bodies and faces idealized, showing the Divine Essence rather than the human individual. One can see them as an evolution from the abstraction of Cycladic art.
Gradually, although the perfection remains, the figures become more and more realistic until they are portraits. Perhaps the most amusing piece was an elaborate Roman period statue of Dionysos swathed in grapes and intended for use as a table support. One hopes it was at least a glass table top.
For me, the most moving exhibit was the bas-relief of Demeter, Koré, and Iacchos from Eleusis. I hadn’t realized how big it is—the relief itself is as tall as a normal interior wall—or how perfect.
Things We Have Learned about Greek Museums, #1:
- Most museums are closed on Mondays.
- Most sites close at 3 p.m.
- Many small museums may be closed. Period.
- Most museums will let you photograph the exhibits without flash.
- Some museums will not let you pose with the statues.
- Museum snack shops charge double what you would pay in town, but the food is usually good.