submitted by Odyssey Magazine on 26.02.2007
The Benaki Legacy
January/February 2006. pp. 48-50
Antonis Benakis bequeathed more than his impressive art collection to Greece: he established an institution that symbolizes the idealism, romance, and generosity of the diaspora Greeks.
By Athena Vorillas
His pockets were rich: filled with treasures like rocks, sponges, maybe a chewed piece of gum, and always that crystal triangle piece from the church chandelier that would shine brilliantly when held up to the sun, wrote the Greek novelist Penelope Delta of her brother, Antonis Benakis.
A practical joker who rarely escaped scoldings or having his ears pulled, Benakis showed early on that he was a curious person, full of energy and life; someone who liked to get into everything. He had charisma, a big heart, and an omnipresent up-to-something stare. This gentleman and benefactor of early-twentieth-century Greece, founder of its first private museum, The Benaki Museum, and league of boy scouts; this art collector, philanthropist, yachtsman, army volunteer, son, father, husband, Greek of the diaspora who elicited feelings of “hero worship” from his siblings, indeed had rich pockets. And he found many ways of sharing their contents.
Antonis Benakis & his sister Penelope in Alexandria in 1891
His generosity was inherited from his family and cultivated by his upbringing. Working and living in Athens, Greece, and Alexandria, Egypt, the Benaki family started a profound legacy of cultural, poutcal, and social ethos that continues to blossom in Greece today.
Born 1873 into a wealthy and prominent Greek family, Benakis and his siblings carried on the tradition of giving, instilled in them, no doubt, by their parents, Emmanuel and Virginia. With roots in the southern Peloponnese region of Messinia, Emmanuel was horn on the island of Syros and studied in England. His sharp mind and entrepreneurial skills led him to the cotton trade of Alexandria in 1865 and his heart to a wealthy young bride, Virginia Choremi. They had six children, hut became spiritual parents to thousands of others by way of their many charitable gifts to The Benaki Orphanage in Alexandria, the American College of Greece in Athens, the Greek Red Cross and numerous philanthropic organizations. A distingtiished citizen of the Greek and greater Egyptian communities, Emmanuel held positions as advisor and member of the National Bank of Egypt and the National insurance Companies of Egypt; he was also president of the Greek community of Alexandria. Later, his close friendship with Eleftherios Venizelos, the pre-eminent statesman of modern Greece, led Emmanuel to relocate his family to Greece where he assumed several positions in the Venizelos cabinet and served as Mayor of Athens from 1914 to 1915.
The Benaki mansion in 1911. When it was still the Benaki family residence
This was the social environment in which Trelantonis, or ‘crazy Antonis” as his sister Penelope Delta dubbed him in a best-selling children’s book inspired by his antics, grew up and developed his own philanthropic activities as well as a passion for collecting art.
Being raised in an affluent and noble milieu gave Benakis an advantage as a collector and as a benefactor. His travels in the late-1800s and early 1900s read like the itinerary of a modern-day jet-setter: he studied in Egypt, Athens, and London; spent his summers shuttling between Alexandria, Piraeus, and the Aegean island of Chios; pursued business ventures in Liverpool, Africa, and the Middle East. As a young man, he enlisted as a volunteer in the Greek-Turkish conflicts of 1897 and 1912-1913. Along the way, his pockets of treasures evolved from rocks, sponges, and chewed gum to works of Islamic and Coptic art; Byzantine, post-Byzantine and Greek folk art and handicrafts; coarse-flaked Paleolithic stone tools from central Greece; embroidered icons from eighteenth-century Ankara; and weapons, uniforms, and paintings from the Greek independence revolt of 1821.
Realizing the potential of his son’s art collection and its impact on the modern Greek art world, Emmanuel — with the consent of all the Benaki children — donated the family’s stately neoclassical mansion at the corner of Vassilissis Sofias and Koumbari to the Greek state to house the growing art collection. In 1927, Benakis, then in his mid-fifties and a successful businessman left Alexandria to make Athens his permanent home and the museum his primary priority. Three years later, the Benaki Musettm opened at the former Benaki home, present location of the main museum in which the core collection is exhibited.
“After four hundred years of slavery and years of bloody war, Greece, a newly-independent country in 1830, needed these types of people,” writes the museum’s curator Angelos Delivorrias in a biography of Antonis Benakis. “He was not just your common everyday benefactor that helped Greece get on its feet, hut the last of those few that did not keep anything for themselves.”
Before founding a private museum to house his massive collection, Benakis donated works to the National Art Gallery in Athens, the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the National Archaeological Museum, and the Museum of Thessaloniki as well as the British Museum in London and the Museum of Arabic Art in Cairo. But establishing his own museum allowed him to he more directly involved with the works he had collected. During World War II and the Nazi occupation of Athens, the then-sixty-six-year-old Benakis even pulled up his sleeves and spent several days packing the museum’s collectibles for safe hiding.
Antonis Benakis observing a case which contains ancient greek jewelry,1940-1950. Benaki Museum Historical Archives
When Benakis died in 1954, the museum’s holdings numbered 26,666 objects, 10,410 books and manuscripts, and 146 archival units of historical documents, according to the museum’s official guide written by Delivorrias. Benakis was an avid collector of Chinese and Islamic art, and as a collector of Greek art, Benakis’s primary interest was in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine era. Antiquities comprise the smallest section of the museums exhibits, however, the pottery, figurines, jewelry, and tools are representative of their respective periods, allowing the museum to present a timeline of Greek history spanning the prehistoric era to the nineteenth century, with eclectic glimpses into the twentieth.
“In my experience, the Greeks of the diaspora who have become major art collectors have certainly responded to their cultural heritage in the works they have sought for their collections. However, I have also found them often very open to other artistic traditions, especially ones that remind them in some way of their own past,” says Dr. Helen Evans, Curator for Byzantine Art, The Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
2nd century BC, gold wreath. Benaki Museum
“Emmanuel and Antonis Benakis encouraged wider interest in all aspects of Byzantine and post-Byzantine culture through their interest in their ctoltural heritage,” she adds. “Antonis Benakis, for example, was a member of the Greek scientific committee for the first International Exhibition on Byzantine Art, which was held in Paris in 1931.”
The museum’s continued growth after Benakis’s death is tribute to his legacy as a collector. By 2000, when the museum reopened after a complete renovation and reorganization, its holdings of art objects alone had grown to 45,000 items —testament to Delivorrias’s steadfastness and inspiration, as well as his abilities as a fundraiser who managed to increase the number of donations and grants to the museum. “The expansion of the Benaki Museum reflects the courageous vision of the museum s hoard and its director Angelos Delivorrias and the quality of staff whom Professor Delivorrias brought together to create the newly expanded museum at the Benaki home,” says Evans.
Benakis’s granddaughter Aimilia Yeroulanou, president of the museum’s Board of Trustees, agrees. “Mr. Delivorrias has become part of the family,” she says. “He has been the major force and inspiration behind the growth of the museum today.”
The “museum” today has metamorphosed into an institution that includes a Museum of Islamic Art (one of the few in Europe), the Cultural Center and modern art museum on Odos Pireos, and several annexes housing photographic and historical archives. A gallery dedicated to the works of Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas is being created in the renowned Greek artist’s former archer, currently under renovation, while the plans for future expansion include establishing a Museum of Toys, Games, and Childhood. “They have shown what a great impact a collection with vision and taste can have for the benefit of the general public,” says Carlos Picon, Curator in Charge, Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The apparent growth and evolution of the flagship Benaki Museum and its many contemporary satellite museums comes at a time when post-Olympics Athens is enjoying a renaissance of sorts as a major player in the modern “Meccas” of European metropohises. And the Benaki family, in collaboration with Delivorrias, continues to play an instrumental role in the city’s dynamic evolution.
“My grandfather would have been proud,” says Yeroulanou. “[But] Greek art is very, very strong to depend on just one person. Each person helps build by placing just one stone. Antonis Benakis did a great deed by establishing this museum. But the strength of Hellenistic art and Hehlenism is greater than any one person.”
From the Benaki Museum website:
Antonis Benakis, scion of one of the leading families of the Greek diaspora, was born in Alexandria in 1873. He was witness to the vibrant tradition of national benefaction which, from the earliest years of Greek independence, was so clearly manifest amongst the Greek communities abroad.
Benakis began his career as a collector in Alexandria, gradually reaching the decision to donate his collections to the Greek state, an idea which became reality after he settled permanently in Athens in 1926.
The world in which Antonis Benakis moved was shaped in a period when the drive to extend the boundaries of the Greek state was as much an element of contemporary society as the parallel ideologies of urban development and enlightenment through education. Benakis' proverbial generosity towards other cultural institutions and undertakings was indicative of this.
His personality was formed within a family environment which nourished such ideals, and which also fostered the exceptional literary talents of his sister, Penelope Delta (1874-1929), whose stories have been familiar to generations of Greek children.
It is certain that Antonis Benakis, the founder of the Benaki Museum, was also influenced by the example of his father Emmanuel Benakis (1843-1929). A close friend and colleague of the great statesman Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936), Emmanuel Benakis placed his fortune at the disposal of numerous charitable foundations and likewise contributed to the settlement of refugees in the aftermath of the catastrophe in Asia Minor.
Within this context, the nature of Antonis Benakis' benefaction becomes self-evident. Its most salient feature remains the fact that during his own lifetime Benakis donated the museum he created to the Greek state. Of equal importance was his continuous involvement, until his death in 1954, in enriching and improving the organisation of the museum's holdings, and his role in ensuring its financial security.
Antonis Benakis in 1950, examining a gold kylix from Dendra in the Argolid. Cover page of the Odyssey Magazine article. 2006
Antonis Benakis in 1950, examining a gold kylix from Dendra in the Argolid. Sans wording from the article
The Main Building
The Benaki Museum is housed in one of the few neoclassical buildings which has withstood the aesthetic changes of post-war Athens. It is located in a particularly attractive setting in the historic centre of the city, exactly opposite the greenery of the National Gardens and the grounds of the Presidential Palace, and near related institutions such as the Museum of Cycladic Art and the Byzantine Museum of Athens.
The Benaki Museum occupies a composite architectural grouping which has undergone many changes throughout its history:
The original building, 1910
The first extension in 1930
The El.Venizelos - D.Kyriazis expansion, 1965
The wing of El.Stathatos'donation, 1968-73
The new wing of the Benaki Museum 1867-1868
The original core of the architectural grouping is built, comprising a much simpler and differently laid out house than the present structure.
The property is bought by Emmanuel Benakis upon the permanent establishment of his family in Athens.
The building is extended through the addition of a ballroom and service quarters designed by the well-known architect Anastasios Metaxas, who was also responsible for the restoration of the Panathenaic Stadium.
Another wing is added to the building by Anastasios Metaxas in order to meet the requirements resulting from its transformation into a museum.
The exhibition space of the Museum is enlarged by the architect E. Vourekas in order to house the historic heirlooms of Eleftherios Venizelos on the ground floor and the Damianos Kyriazis Collection on the first floor.
A new extension is made to the basement by the architect E. Vourekas in order to house the Eleni Stathatou donation.
The Stamatios Dekozis-Vouros Foundation funds the addition of a new wing occupied by lecture rooms, spaces for temporary exhibitions and a cafe.
Work begins on a major expansion of the Museum space through the construction of a five-storey wing with three basements located on the west side of its grounds, exceeding the height of the additions of 1968 and 1973, and planned by the architect A. S. Kalligas.
The work on the new wing is completed, doubling the Museum's available space to 7000 m2 on five integrated interior floor levels and two basements.
Benaki Museum expands
Inside the Benaki Museum
The Museum Today
Over the past two decades, the Benaki Museum has experienced a significant increase in the number of its objects, staff, visitors and activities. This has led to a redefinition of its role as a museum, taking into account the demands of contemporary society and the need to ensure and faciliate the Museum’s future operation.
In the light of past developments and current opinions, it was deemed necessary to divide the Museum’s collections and services into several different entities.
This will be accomplished by moving the Museum’s Islamic collection to a group of buildings in the Kerameikos district of Athens which were donated by Lambros Eftaxias and which are presently undergoing restoration, by moving the Department of Historical Archives to the house of Penelope Delta in Kifissia which was donated by Alexandra Papadopoulou, by moving the Museum’s collection of children’s Toys ang Games to the neo-Gothic mansion, left to the Museum by Vera Kouloura, and by moving the Photographic Archive to the apartment donated by Penelope Vlangali and Mary Carolou.
This reorganisation of the Museum’s structure has been influenced by contemporary trends towards decentralisation, which is realised in this case by the creation of a series of separate but interrelated annexes.
The well-known neoclassical mansion of the Benaki Museum continues to be the focal point of this new structure. It has nevertheless undergone thorough modernisation and has been extended through the addition of a new wing. This building will provide a home for the Greek collections of the Museum, offering visitors a rare opportunity to form a complete and uninterrupted picture of the historical evolution of the Greek people.
Benaki Museum. Exterior. 2007
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