NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF ATHENS
Petit Futé's opinion on NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF ATHENS
It takes 3 hours to go around this impressive national museum. Completed in 1888 and renovated in 2004, it houses an extraordinary collection tracing the richness of Greek civilization since Neolithic times.
Prehistoric collection: ground floor, rooms 3, 4, 5, 6.
Start with these rooms retracing the three major cultures of Greece that succeeded one another between the 7th millennium and 1100 BC: Neolithic, Cycladic and Mycenaean arts.
Room 5: collection of objects or figurines in clay, stone or bone from the Neolithic Age (from -6600 to -3300 BC) to the Bronze Age (from 3300 to -2000 BC). The Neolithic Age saw the appearance of agriculture, the domestication of animals and the first fixed settlements.
Among the objects coming from the sites of Sesklo (Thessaly) and Dimini, one can admire the great terracotta idol of the seated man, coming from Thessaly. It is probably a deity symbolizing fertility (no. 5894). Among the female idols that represent the great goddess, the Kourotrophos, nurturing mother (no. 5937), is of great beauty.
Room 6: superb collection of statuettes, figurines and vases from the Cyclades dating from the Bronze Age. Coming from cemeteries or dwellings, the marble figurines and bronze tools or weapons bear witness to the development of metallurgy around 3000 BC, particularly in the islands, which were of particular significance. In the background, on the right, there are flute and harp players whose three-dimensional statuettes express a perfect mastery of space. The marble statue of a woman crossing her arms is also very characteristic of Cycladic sculpture. In the background, on the left, are displayed the finds made in Phylakopi, one of the leading centres of the Cyclades.
Rooms 3 and 4: they contain an impressive collection of objects representative of the Mycenaean civilization (16th century BC - 11th century BC), mostly found in tombs in Mycenae. They demonstrate the progress of this civilization in terms of art (working with gold, stone or ivory): jewellery, painting, metallurgy but also language. It is at the same time a refinement, a greatness and a taste for war that we are given to see. The objects are grouped by localities.
The first locality is Mycenae, whose treasures are exhibited opposite the entrance to the gallery. First are the excavations in circles A and B, among which are the famous funerary masks made of fine gold leaf used to cover the faces of the dead chiefs (showcase 27, opposite the entrance). Among them, the mask of Agamemnon (no. 624, showcase 3 on the left) was wrongly attributed by Schliemann to the Homeric hero: in reality, this mask covered the face of a king who was at least three centuries older than Agamemnon; the silver rhyton (vessel used for libations) in the shape of a bull's head (no. 384, showcase 18 to the right of the entrance) bearing horns and a gold rosette. As with all the animals depicted, it suggests an impression of mobility, with a repetition of motifs such as the spiral (symbol of the eternal flow of life), the rosette, the lily; a rock-crystal vase (no. 8638, showcase 5) in the pure form of a duck. It is a work of rare finesse at a time when massive warrior art has replaced Cretan euphoria. Then come the excavations of the chamber and tholos tombs of Mycenae, mainly vases made of metal, stone or clay, gold jewellery, semi-precious stones. Objects from the citadel of Mycenae occupy the centre of the room. One should not miss the Warriors' Vase (no. 1426, right wall a little further on), which depicts six armed warriors going to war. A woman on the left is waving goodbye to them, no doubt they are leaving for a long time; the ivory group (no. 7711, window 30 in the centre) consisting of two goddesses and a young god in their middle; the wall paintings (including no. 11670, left wall), including the superb fresco depicting a goddess standing out against a blue background. The woman, in profile, seems to ignore the viewer, who is alone in front of the disconcerting delicacy of her features. These paintings were particularly important since they come from a cult home in Mycenae.
In the rest of the room, objects from other localities such as Tirynthe or Pilos will be discovered. From the latter come the linear B shelves (display case 9, right wall) in clay, burnt by the fire in Nestor's palace. One should also not fail to admire the gold bowls (n° 1758 and n° 1759), which are breathtaking for the richness and precision of the engraved relief. There is a scene of bull capture.
Sculpture collection: ground floor, rooms 7 to 35. These rooms house one of the largest collections of ancient bronzes, mostly small statues or votive figurines given as offerings in shrines. They allow us to follow the evolution of art from the geometrical period to the Roman period.
Room 7: it contains works in the maze style, probably created by the famous architect Daedalus, such as the metopes of the temple of Athena in Mycenaeus or the three statues of seated women. The female statue No. 1 could represent Artemis. It is in any case the first stone statue ever made in life-size.
Rooms 8 to 13: a group of archaic sculptures from the 7th century to 480 BC representing young ephebes(kouros) and young girls(korê). In Room 8, the korê Phrasikleia (no. 4889, on the left) superbly expresses pain and lost beauty, two themes linked to death since this statue was erected on a tomb. Room 10 bears witness to the evolution of the cult of the dead from the 7th century onwards. The fragment of stele representing a young man in profile (no. 38) thus illustrates the mastery of the projection of the face on the round surface, itself in relief. In Room 11, one can clearly see the progress made, particularly in the expressiveness of the facial features, which now form part of an overall dynamic. This is clearly visible in room 13 with the relief of Hoplitodromos (no. 1959), a naked young man wearing a helmet, probably a dancer in movement, since his body seems to be dragged to the right and to precede the movement of his head. In the same room, the most recent of the kouros is Aristodikos (no. 3938) which dates from 500 BC. The short hair, the floating arms and the large musculature already foreshadow a completely different style, that of the classical period.
Rooms 14 and 15: this is the so-called "severe style" period, which extends from about 480 to 450 BC. This is clearly illustrated in Room 14, particularly with the votive relief of Sounion (no. 3344), depicting a young athlete wearing a crown. In the centre of Room 15, it is hard to miss the Zeus or Poseidon of Artemission (no. 15161), a superb 2-metre-high statue that was fished out of the sea near Artemission. According to the legend, the Romans had stolen it from the temple dedicated to the god of the Sea who, in revenge, sank their boat.
Room 16: marble stelae and funerary vases from the Peloponnesian War (430-420 BC). On the occasion of this war, the stelae reappear, first with one or two figures in slight relief, then with substantial proportions. The reliefs are very realistic, especially on the Lekythos vase (no. 4485) showing the dead woman led by Hermes to Hades.
Room 17: fragments of marble metopes representing an Amazonomachia and a marble statue of Hera from the Heraion in Argos. Among the many reliefs on display, the disfiguring Dionysus slumped on a sofa (no. 1500), surrounded by three actors wearing masks, is not to be missed. It could be a sculpture dedicated to a performance of Euripides' famous play Les Bacchantes.
Room 18: Interesting, it bears witness to the evolution of the cult of the dead at the beginning of the 4th century BC. The stele of Hegeso (no. 3624) expresses this separation between the young deceased sitting on a chair and her maid who hands her the jewellery box from which the deceased takes a trinket.
Rooms 19 and 20: copies of the statues from the5th century BC, lost when they were transferred to Rome, at the time when Greece became a province of the Roman Empire, are exhibited here. The originals were in bronze, the copies in marble. Do not miss the statuette of Athena Varvakeion, a miniature replica of the chryselephantine statue of the Parthenon.
Rooms 21, 34 and 35: these rooms, which serve as a little passage, have the disadvantage of presenting the objects in a non-chronological order. Artemission's Jockey, the museum's flagship work, surprises by the realism of expression and the tension that animates the young rider and his mount.
Room 22: a large architectural ensemble of sculptures from the Temple of Asklepios in Epidaurus. The east pediment represents the fall of Troy and the west pediment a scene of amazonomachy. One will notice the movement and acrobatics that the young women perform on the backs of horses (sailors?).
Rooms 23 and 24: another interesting testimony to the evolution of stelae towards the end of the 4th century BC. The stelae are increasingly opulent and monumental, life-size, with great precision in the rendering of feelings such as sorrow or sadness.
Rooms 25 to 27: these are long narrow galleries strewn with ex-votos for secondary deities such as Pan or the Nymphs. Room 26 allows us to see Asklepios and his family (no. 1402) and the famous snake (no. 2565), the current emblem of the caduceus.
Room 28: the last great funerary monuments from the end of the 4th century are displayed here, such as the one of Aristonaute found in the Ceramics Cemetery (n° 738, on the left as you enter). Indeed, in view of the increasing extravagance and cost of these ever larger monuments, a law was passed in 317 BC to prohibit the construction of funerary monuments in the cemeteries of Athens! The bronze ephebe of Marathon, attributed to Praxiteles, and the bronze ephebe of Anticythera are not to be missed.
Rooms 29 and 30: these are the times of Alexander the Great, marked by the fact that artists no longer wanted to work in large sites. Many works from this period were found in Asia Minor, in places where artists went to exercise their talents. Many workshops were set up in the islands, emphasizing realism, size and movement. Three centuries of gigantism can therefore be admired in these two rooms. In room 30, the admirable representation of Aphrodite, Pan and Eros escapes from the exhibition; it is of great beauty.
Rooms 31 to 33: These rooms bear witness to the expansion of the Roman Empire in Greece between the 2nd century and 31 BC. Art adapted or was adapted accordingly. Room 31 gives a glimpse from the reign of Augustus to that of Domitian. In Room 32, dedicated to the 2nd century AD, how can one not fall under the spell of the sweet portrait of Antinous (no. 417), the favourite of Emperor Hadrian?
Bronze collection: ground floor, rooms 36 to 39.
Room 36: at the entrance, first of all the little horse and its rider from the sanctuary of Zeus in Dodone and the statuette of a woman carrying a dove from Mount Pindos. In showcase 1, on the right as you enter, there are numerous tablets of the decrees of the proxenia, which guaranteed certain citizens and their descendants privileges such as exemption from taxes and protection in times of war and peace. In showcase 4, numerous bronze figurines, statuettes of animals, men and women such as Aphrodite, Athena, Heracles or a boxer, as well as medical instruments. Outside (no. 25), the bronze Pied Piper is a small masterpiece. In showcase 6, dumbbells in the shape of a boar offered to Zeus by an athlete. In showcase 8, a statue of a tired menagerie can be seen. In front of showcase 9, Zeus holds a lightning bolt in a threatening manner.
Room 37: In showcase 10, the details of the process of making the statues using the wax method can be seen. Also not to be missed is the statue of a flutist from Samos (no. 16513), where the strings holding the flute are still visible, and the astrolabe (no. 15087), an ingenious and complex system of wheels and pulleys for calculating the calendar and signs of the zodiac.
Rooms 38 and 39: an Athena from the5th century, found at the Acropolis, or the astonishing Anticythère machine, with gears, which could perhaps be a navigational tool... This collection of statues and steles is presented in chronological order from the 7th century BC to the5th century AD. It makes it possible to follow, in an overwhelming summary, the evolution of the birth of artistic expression. Over time, inexpressive faces acquire personality.
Egyptian Collection: ground floor, rooms 40 and 41. Interesting and unique Egyptian collection in Greece. Objects dating from 5000 BC and up to the Roman conquest, including papyrus, sarcophagi, mummies, etc., collected by two Greeks from Egypt and then donated to the museum.
Stathatos Collection: ground floor, room 42. A superb private collection not to be missed if you have time. Nearly 1,000 minor objects from the Bronze Age to the post-Byzantine period are on display. In showcase 1, don't miss the Minoan stone vase characteristic of geometric and archaic vases. In showcase 26, in the centre of the room, the impressive Karpenissi treasure.
Vase collection: first floor, rooms 49 to 56. A collection of great richness, especially in the quantity and quality of geometric vases found in cemeteries or sanctuaries. They are presented in chronological order, retracing the history of Greek pottery between the 11th and 4th centuries BC.
Rooms 49 to 51: these show numerous vases from the geometric period (1100 to 700 BC). The first century of this period is characterised by vases with simple motifs, decorated with concentric circles, zigzags, lozenges or triangles. In the 9th century meanders and cruciforms were added, while in the 8th century human beings appeared. They are depicted engaging in naval battles, duels or chariot races, as superbly expressed in vase no. 990 in Room 50. From about 700 to 630 B.C., art became more oriental and decorations were freed from all symmetry in favour of wild animals or flower ornaments. This was also the birth of the technique of polychromy, which consists of depicting scenes in black but emphasising the outlines by incision or painting them in white or purple. To get an idea of this, don't miss, in room 51, the showcases 21 to 27 as well as a masterpiece of the period: the vase representing on its upper part Heracles, winner of the centaur Nessos, and on its lower part the three Gorgonians (no. 1002).
Rooms 52 to 55: there are many vases from the early 6th century BC, mainly from Attica, where there were many potters and vase painters. Do not miss, in display case 56 in Room 53, the recovered parts of vases given as offerings in the sanctuary of Athena at the Acropolis. As early as 530 BC, a new technique appeared: the rim of the vase is painted black and the figures retain the colour of red clay, while the remaining details are finely painted in black. Far from being mutually exclusive, the two techniques coexisted.
Room 56: there are numerous 'red silhouette' vases from the late5th and early 4th centuries BC. At the entrance to the room, admire the grace and refinement of the vases from the classical period through the works of the painter known as Eretria.
Information on NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF ATHENS
Between April and October, Tuesday from 12:30 to 20:00, Wednesday to Monday from 8:00 to 20:00. Admission: 10 €
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