Athens is mostly known around the world for its classical period ruins, such as the Parthenon, the Erecthion, the temple of Hephaestus in the Ancient Agora and so on and so forth. But how about the excellent specimens of neoclassical architecture it boasts, situated in the very heart of a modern city? Doesn’t ring any bells? Well, let us enlighten you then. Neoclassical is the type of architectural and artistic movement that bloomed around the 18th and 19th century in Europe and elsewhere as an effort to revive the classical forms of the Greek antiquity and the subsequent Roman Empire. In Greece as well, this type of architecture was very popular in the 19th and early 20th century, with many examples still standing today, such as the numerous neoklassika (mansions of these type) in the Plaka area, our Parliament building (previously the Royal Palace), the old Parliament House (now the National Historical Museum) the Zappeion Mansion, and of course the best examples of all: The Athenian Trilogy in Panepistimiou str., including the National Library, the University of Athens and the Academy.
The National Library
National Library of Athens - credits: Anastasios71/Shutterstock.com
Situated on the far left end of the complex, the National Library was designed by the Danish architect Theophil Hansen and constructed in the years 1888-1902. It has elements of the Doric Order, characterised by its austerity of form, simplicity and clear-cut lines as well as a double renaissance-type staircase leading to its impressive entrance. The famous white pentelic marble (from the mountain Penteli), that was used in the construction of the masterpieces of the 5th century BC, was also used in the National Library 2,300 years later. Talk about continuity in art indeed! And what about the serious looking statue that holds such a central position at the base of the building? It is Panagis Valianos, who along with many other benefactors financed and donated the National Gallery to the Greek state. Up until 2017, the National Library, held something like 2,000,000 books and periodicals and over 4,500 manuscripts. As of this year, the historical building will close its doors to the public but the contents will remain an open archive to the public using the brand new facilities of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center.
The Univeristy of Athens
The University of Athens - credits: Anastasios71/Shutterstock.com
The University of Athens or Panepistimion in Greek, lies at the heart of the Trilogy. It's the first one to have been constructed, back in 1864, and also the reason behind Panepistimiou street's name (literally University street) and the metro stop, Panepistimio right outside. It's the only one out of the three to have been designed by Christian Hansen, brother to Theophile, the original architect of the other two. Nowadays, this building houses some administrative offices but it's also where official and graduation ceremonies for all the different departments of the first and oldest university in Greece-the National And Kapodistrian University- take place. This building is another example of neoclassical architecture, but compared to the other two somewhat simpler in style. Around the entrance we see many different statues of men, five to be precise. The first one depicts the philhellene William Ewart Gladstone, a symbol of close ties between Europe and Greece. Second is Adamantios Korais, a leading figure during the Greek Enlightenment and also an important scholar and writer. Third is Ioannis Kapodistrias, first governor of Greece and a very charismatic political figure after whom the university is named. Fourth is Rigas Feraios, a writer and political thinker who played a major role and died in the war of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. The fifth is the Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory the Fifth who was sent to the gallows by the Ottomans as a result of the Greeks' revolt against their rule in 1821.
Academy of Athens - credits: lornet/Shutterstock.com
The final building on our list is the Academy building. It was constructed in 1859-1885 and it's a result of the combined efforts and inspirations of architects Theophile Hansen and Ernst Ziller, as well as the sculptors Leonidas Drosis and Christian Griepenkerl. Again, fine pentelic marble was used here, while the main source of financing was a rich family by the name of Sina. The Academy is build in resemblance of the Propylaea of the Acropolis (the entrance to the sacred hill) and it's considered by many as the best example of neoclassical architecture in the world. Inside the building, there is an extensive mural depicting the myth of Promytheas painted in chronological order, as to inform the viewer of the story narrated to us by Aeschylus in his famous tragedy. On each side of the building we see Plato and Socrates, the two great philosophers who along with Aristotle laid the foundations of Western thought and civilisation. Rising higher than the roof itself, the ancient protectors of Wisdom and Light, Athena and Apollo watch tirelessly over their ancient city and their former subjects, still protecting and enlightening us in our endeavours, hopefully not begrudging us our change of ways.
Thus our introduction to the Athenian Trilogy completed. Expand your knowledge andbetter your understanding of the neoclassical movement in Athens, with our Athens City Highlights Tour. Whether you are an art and architecture enthusiast or just a novice, eager to discover more, this tour is a great opportunity to learn everything about the neoclassical movement in Athens, but maybe more importantly all about the life and history in the late 19th and 20th century in the Greek capital.