Why Would Someone Do That to Melina?

Melina Merkouri (Mercouri) was an iconic presence both theatrically and politically not just in Greece but throughout the world. Many of her films are considered classics of world cinema, her recordings – she was no singer but damn she was a communicator – are still being sold, her theatrical appearances were proof of her magnetism and her fight for a free Greece reached the world. When she became Minister of Culture her achievements were many.

I have my own little bit of personal history with her – a brief meeting that enchanted me and that made me fall forever in love with her.

Its only right that there be a monument to her in Athens and though it is not in the most conspicuous of places – opposite the entrance to the Temple of Zeus on a busy street – it was a fine tribute to a great woman. You will notice the past tense – was – because for some reason someone has defaced the bust erected to celebrate her life and achievements. I don’t know what possessed someone to inflict damage on it and smash the nose. Was it the deliberate act of someone who disagreed with her politically and for whom she was no hero? Or was it – as so often happens in Roma – the thoughtless act of a drunken youth out on a binge to whom she meant nothing, just a piece of someone else’s property to be vandalized?

Whatever the reason I first noticed the damage over a year ago. A whole year ago! Surely someone in government – federal, state or municipal – can have something done to repair the damage. This woman who, when she was stripped of her citizenship by the Generals, proudly proclaimed “I was born a Greek! I will die a Greek!” deserves better from the country she loved and served.

24 ottobre – Sant’Antonio Maria Claret y Clara

Images of Athens

This distinguished looking member of the Orthodox clergy was sitting at the table near to mine at the Metropole Cafe in Cathedral Square this morning. I thought he had that sort of, at the least, Old Testament prophet look if not, at the most, “God the Father” himself from a few of the paintings I’ve seen around.

But I was not the only one impressed – an North American couple (that is the gentleman in white) of East Indian origin off one of the cruise ships were fascinated by him. There were some desperate attempts to communicate and some intriguing pantomimes and finally Spiros, one of the waiters was dragged into the little scenario playing out beside me.

“Tell him he has a divine look,” the woman commanded in a tone that was not to be denied. “Tell him he’s divine!”

The message was convey to the rather bemused clergyman who accepted it with a gracious nod – am I just imagining that his wife giggled a bit?

“We want his blessing,” said the husband while making a vague sign of benediction in the direction of his wife and himself.

“No I want him to place his hands on my head,” insisted the wife. “I want a proper blessing!”

Poor Spiros communicated this rather unusual request as the husband pulled the priest up to his feet, grabbed his hands and placed them on his wife’s head. The priest muttered something in Greek – it could have been a blessing. Then repeated it for the man. The wife kissed his hand as did the husband and faces beaming they took their leave, turning to wave several times as they headed towards the Cathedral.

The priest sat down, gave me a “I’m not sure what just went on here” look and dipping his napkin in some water wiped off his hands. I am not at all sure he was that happy but there were two radiant people basking in the glow of his “blessing”. And, no doubt, this evening, at dinner, they’ll be recounting the experience to their table mates.

21 ottobre – San Gaspare del Bufalo

The Glory That Is Greece – The Byzantine and Christian Museum I

The current glory of Greece is, of course, the new Acropolis Museum. When we were in Athens last November they were allowing viewings of the facility as exhibitions were being put in place and even empty the interior was impressive. It is all raked glass floors, stone, multi levels and natural light illuminating an incredible collection of the glories of Ancient Greece. Sadly the exterior looks, as our friend Fotis suggests, like an alien space craft has landed in the middle of town. It just doesn’t fit and we won’t even go into the argument raging about destroying two historical houses to improve the view from the restaurant.

Laurent spent a few hours there the second day he was in Athens and was mightily impressed with both the collection and the displays. I decided that since I was only there for the weekend I would restrict myself to a Saturday morning snack with Fotis on the restaurant terrace. The entrance fee, until the end of the year, is 1 euro – so just popping in for a coffee and a salad is not a big deal. I will wait until a weekday on our next trip to view the collection at my leisure.

However one museum I wasn’t going to pass up this time was the Byzantine and Christian Museum. I had gone looking for it in November and totally missed the huge signs indicating the entrance on the hoardings that hide it during extensive renovation. Founded in 1914 it is, perhaps, one of the finest collections of Byzantine art in the world. And as with most of the museums I have visited in Greece the curating and displays are amongst the finest I’ve seen anywhere. And it is staffed with pleasant and knowledgeable people who acknowledge your presence with pleasure – such a nice change from the glowering attendant who knows you are only there to steal their national treasures.

And national treasures they have!

As he did in so many places in the Byzantine world, Justinian greets you as you enter. Mosaics filled palaces, churches and public buildings throughout Byzantium and the Emperor featured in a good many of them.
The Orpheus legend was quickly associated with Christ in the early church – the descent into Hades being the link. This Orpheus has charmed many of the beasts of the field, fowls of the air and a few other strange creatures. But the lion killing the deer has yet to hear his music. That image – a hart being killed by a lion appears in many carvings of the period.
Clothing is perhaps the hardest thing to preserve given that fibers decay quickly however this 6-7th century liturgical robe is still in good condition. The embroidery, though not as elaborate as later examples, has the naive charm of folk art.
This child’s tunic is wool and dates from the 6th century. As do the leather shoes, the small child’s pair are unadorned but the adults are decorated with gold leaf.
I find the sculpture of the period – both the figurative and the abstract – fascinating. Again there is that image of the hart being attacked this time by a leopard. Often the faces have been hacked away either during one of the Iconoclastic periods or one of the Islamic invasions. I particularly like the work in archways and door lintels – often abstract or as here representing scenes from the Nativity.

And even the utilitarian can be made interesting – that little figure is actually a unit of weight measurement. And this candle holder has been turned into a miniature mobile to adorn the sanctuary of a church.

The Museum is housed in a lovely villa setting with the permanent collection in one building and special exhibits in another. I’ll try and post something later this week about Refugee Art – an interesting but terribly sad display of objects from the forced migration of Greeks from Asia Minor in 1923.

25 luglio – San Giacomo il Maggiore

Dionysos Areopagitou 17

17 Dionysos AreopagitouYesterday afternoon as we strolled along Dionysos Areopagitou on the south side of the Acropolis we were recalling the first time we walked along there in 1998. It was a busy main street open to traffic and a horror to try and cross. Now it is a wide pedestrian boulevard with treed slopes and marble stairs giving entrance to the site. The south side of the street is lined with stylish row houses – including the Embassy of Spain – many in Art Deco or Neo-Classical style. With the building of the new Acropolis Museum the Greek Government has delisted two of these buildings – Number 17 and 19 – and are set to demolish them. They block the view from the Museum terraces (and more importantly the new restaurant) to the eponymous site.Doorway Nbr 17caryatidscaryatidsI am no expert of architecture but I think Number 17 is an incredible example of Art Deco, one of the loveliest I’ve seen. And though the style of the facade is Deco the features are pure Athenian – symmetrical coloured marble panels, two caryatids supporting and lighting the entrance way and two mythological mosaics at the roof line. They are a perfect early 20th century interpretation of Classic Greek design.
Jason and the ArgonautsOedipeusThere has been an effort on an International level to save these houses that, though not as venerable as their neighbour across the street, still are a piece of Athenian history. Unfortunately our Greek is almost – okay completely – non-existent so we could not tell from the information posted on the door if the preservation campaign has had any success.

As interesting as the new museum is – and I’ll be writing more about it tomorrow – it would be a shame to see this lovely building destroyed for the sake of a dining room view.

27 novembre – San Primitivo