By: Nikos Vakalis
On Monday, 16th of January, the participants of the program “Athens: Heritage and Modernity” left the capital of Greece, going back to their countries: Australia, USA, UK… having spent a “full immersion” of 11 days following lectures, visiting museums, walking through archaeological findings, and covering almost 3.000 years of history that the modern city is still sharing – the same vital space.
This sharing entails a continuous grappling with each other, the old and the new, the heritage and the modernity – the name chosen for the program is no accident – with endless ups and downs, a continuous snatching of vital spaces from out of each other’s hands… unstable victories leaning towards one and then the other…
Apparently a very bustling modern city, with the Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon (which can be seen either as a precious crown or, the less optimistic point of view, as a head trying to rise above and breath, struggling to survive) but in reality a place hiding in a tight net of alleys, streets, pedestrian areas, avenues, many interesting remains, historical testimonies from very ancient times to the more recent past, some of them already enhanced and included in organized touristic paths/areas, and others waiting to know their destiny.
When you have a more in-depth knowledge of the problems of this city and the related multi-faceted questions, you understand what a burning issue and a real challenge it is to deal with historical preservation in Athens.
However, a lot has been done in the last few decades – and the EU funds, as well as the financial aid for the Olympic Games, have helped for sure. But a lot is still to be done.
During the program, the lectures were held in a very unique place, the Popular Art Museum annex placed in the very centre of the historical area on the northern side of the Acropolis: the old, recently restored «Bath House of the Winds», built during the late Ottoman period (18th Century). It is a venue rich in emotions with the bath area in the ground floor and the resting rooms upstairs: one of the larger resting rooms hosted the participants and the lecturers.
What has mostly struck the students is to have had the possibility to visit a couple of “behind the scene” situations: one of them is the restoration laboratories of the Byzantine Museum, where we have seen the restorers working on important objects of different typologies – panel paintings, wall paintings, fabrics, stone artifacts, paper, etc.
Then, the most impressive “behind the scene”: the restoration site of the Parthenon – a “mind-blowing experience,” as defined by one of the students in evaluating the program. First of all, it is not easy to be admitted there and, secondly, not many have the opportunity to have an important and internationally known expert that has taken part in the restoration project as a guide.
In my personal opinion, one of the monuments I have enjoyed most is a rare Ottoman period mansion, the Benizelos’. Only a few buildings of this architectural typology have been saved in Athens.
The recently well restored but unfortunately not yet opened to the public Benizelos Mansion permits you to travel back to a period where the testimonies are no longer easy to be found, many of them being victims of negligence brought about by a conscious or an unconscious “damnatio memoriae” against that difficult period of Greek history.