21 January 2020
6 reasons to go to the Benaki museum
There’s more to Athens than just the Acropolis! During your visit to the Greek capital, take a few hours to visit the Benaki Museum, a gigantic cabinet of curiosities featuring a unique panorama of Greek jewelry.
1/ The Benaki Museum, the Greek Victoria & Albert
Originally, this building was the family home of Antonis Benakis, a wealthy merchant and member of the Greek diaspora in Egypt. In 1931, this passionate collector converted it into a museum housing some of the 500,000 Greek objects he collected during his travels. “He wanted to create the Greek equivalent of the Victoria & Albert museum,” explains Irini Papageorgiou, the curator of the Ancient Department. It includes 20,000 vases, precious textiles, icons, sculptures, paintings, and cabinets making it “a unique panorama of the country’s art from prehistory to the 20th century,” in the words of director George Manginis. There are other Benaki museums in Athens, including one devoted to Islamic arts.
2/ An exceptional panorama of Greek jewelry
On three floors, the collection of jewels unfurls chronologically, winding from prehistoric times to the War of Independence via Byzantine art and the Ottoman period. Among the oldest jewels is a pendant made of a simple pierced shell. Between the two awaits is a festival of treasures: crowns of leaves in chased gold, earrings in the shape of a crescent moon or decorated with Eros, lyres, etc., honorary decorations, geometric or serpentine bracelets, a cache-chignon decorated with a sculpted bust, a pectoral cross, long necklaces in openwork gold beads, etc. Many are incredibly modern and could be worn today. Connoisseurs of contemporary creation will recognize their influences.
3/ The modern jewels of the Benaki Museum, a unique ensemble
Here, modern does not mean contemporary: the term is juxtaposed rather with Classical styles and refers to creations made starting in the 15th century. The jewelry, often made of colored glass, fake coins, gold-plated silver or enamel, bears witness to the many influences generated by the country’s eventful history. An entire showcase is devoted to 18th-century jewelry in the shape of cloisonné enamel ship, probably made by Greek craftsmen living in Venice. Large earrings are inspired by the Byzantine pendants hanging from the imperial diadem. “Coral jewelry appeared with the Greek minorities coming from Turkey after the Treaty of Lausanne in 1922,” explains curator Xenia Politou of the Neo-Hellenic Department.
4/ A collection of magnificent belts
The modern section opens with belts – an essential element of Greek costumes since the days of Antiquity. And there are dozens of them, each as splendid as the next. The neo-Hellenic creations mix Byzantine and Islamic traditions. Enormous and finely wrought, their shapes represent porcelain discs or leaves, in embossed silver, filigree, chiseled, fire-gilded or nielloed, i.e. worked with black enamel. Also embedded are elements of coral and malachite in rosette form. They reminded me of the creation presented in the exhibitions of creations by Bulgari, whose founder came from Epirus in north-western Greece.
5/ Wedding costume jewelry
The superb idea of the Benaki Museum is to present some of these modern jewels on traditional wedding costumes. They come from all regions of Greece: Epirus, Thrace, Corfu, Thessaly, the Ionian Islands and Macedonia. The beautiful belts draped the belly to promote fertility. The bracelets were always worn in pairs. Brooches held the scarf in place. Huge earrings were hung on each side of the headdress. The back of the dress was often fitted with charms whose tinkling served to ward off the evil eye.
6/ The view from the restaurant
On the third floor of the Benaki Museum, take a break at the restaurant with its views of the capital and of the back of the Parthenon.
Thanks to the Hellenic Cultural Center (Paris) and to Aegean Airlines
Greece: what you need to know about the jewelry of Antiquity