Yesterday’s browsing through the yellowed pages of an old travel journal has stayed with me, and for much of today the days and hours of those pages have been in and out of my thoughts. Morning following arrival in Athens…
National Archeological Museum… The garden is filled with the busy twitter and warble of birds. Their song plays against the roar and screech of traffic on the crowded road fronting the museum, and while such counterpoint may seem inharmonious, it is in fact, a pleasing combination of sounds. I have always loved the sounds of a big city, and in this case the unexpected mix of birdsong and traffic falls naturally upon the ear, just as in another context, the sight of a 19th century building snuggled up to a modern skyscraper is a picture that can please the eye. The mix is exactly what is so beautiful. My nearby hotel room offers a similar cocktail of night sounds, the dominant voice there however is the dozen or so stray cats who populate the small park below, and whose quarrels I found not so soothing.
The museum building stands just fifty feet from where I sit. It is a huge museum and will require two or three short visits rather than one long and tiring marathon walk through. I expect too, the coolness of the museum interiors will also be a welcome relief from the August sun, and hopefully a balm to an already sun-reddened face.
I spend almost three hours inside the museum. After the first hour, seasonal crowds of tourists begin to dominate the galleries and my concentration wanes. Hard to see why national museums allow booming guided tours in the galleries. This is contrary to the very nature of art appreciation. Why not read a few pages from a book in order to glean some hint of what the art might be, or what it might mean?
The Mycenaean collection is impressive. The death masks, which are shaped from thin sheets of pure gold, are interesting in their lack of true portraiture. They are not portraits at all and are suggestive of only the most general facial features. A guidebook tell me that the splendid golden Mask of Agamemnon was named based upon mistaken identity. The actual king of that name lived 300 years after this death mask was made. There are also some gold drinking cups, simple in design and starkly beautiful—if solid gold can be described as stark.
Wandering through a gallery devoted to grave sculptures I come across an excerpt from Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus. I am unfamiliar with this dialogue, so scribble the words in my notebook. Sophocles is speaking:
‘O beloved Pan and all other gods of this place
grant me that I be made beautiful in my soul within,
and that all external possessions be in harmony with my
inner man. May I consider the wise man rich, and may I
have such wealth as only the self-restrained man can bear or endure.
Do we need anything more Phaedrus?
For me that prayer is enough.’
Later in another gallery, a sculpture from the 3rd century BC holds my attention. It is a statue in marble of a small boy, five or six years old, stroking a goose with his left hand. The guidebook calls it ‘delightful and sensitive,’ and yes, it is that. But it is also enchanting in the subtlety of its modeling. Because it is a child, the strong, sharp lines of muscle are not visible. The figure glows with an almost tactile softness.
Outside the museum a still climbing sun beats down on sidewalks painted in sheets of glare, but I can’t allow myself to be a pantywaist and hide too long inside the cool galleries. Too many things to see, too many things to do. With sunglasses and cap in place, I push on with the sights of a sizzling Athens. Sometime today I must also look for another hotel. I’ve had enough of blood-crazed mosquitoes, yowling cats and rumbling motorcycles, and am ready to pay for air-conditioning.