While walking amidst the bustling streets of Athens’ modern neighbourhoods, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the traffic and noise or distracted by the stores’ flamboyant windows and, hence, miss some of the city’s most precious gems. But if, when ambling down Panepistimiou Str., a stroller cranes to look a bit higher than eye-level, she will discover the arched verandas with the Ionic colonnades and painted ceilings that decorate the façade of one of Athens’ most beautiful 19th-century mansions: “Iliou Melathron”.
The name translates into “The Palace of Ilion” – “Ilion” being the pre-classical name of the city of Troy in Asia Minor. Although today the building acts as Athens’ Numismatic Museum hosting one of the most interesting collections of coins in the world, it was originally built at the end of the 19th century by the German architect Ernst Ziller to house the family of another German, Heinrich Schliemann.
Just around 50 years after the founding of the first Greek State (following the Independence War against the Ottoman Empire) and the proclamation of Athens as the capital of the new country, the town – which, despite its heavy heritage, had little more to show beyond the ancient ruins around the Acropolis hill – was still trying to find its identity. As its population grew and expanded beyond the old neighbourhoods, new buildings of a neoclassical architecture sprouted by the sides of the streets that remain even today as the main arteries of the modern city. Ernst Ziller, a famous architect of that era, represents one of the leading figures in the development of Athens’ countenance. He designed several churches, public buildings, monuments, houses, even graves, his style combining architectural elements and designs from ancient Greece, the Roman era, and the Renaissance. Iliou Melathron – or Schliemann’s Mansion, as it is also known – is one of the best samples of his work. Given the massive demolition of neoclassical buildings in Athens during the construction frenzy of the 1960s, we are very fortunate this edifice was spared and, today, we can still admire its splendour.
Heinrich Schliemann was a businessman who, despite his humble origins, had managed by the age of 40 to accumulate a substantial fortune and, after an adventurous life spanning across the continents, he decided to settle in the land that was dearest to his heart: Greece. An avid lover of Homer and the pre-historic era of the Greek civilisation, he financed the archaeological excavations in the sites of Pınarbaşı in modern Turkey, as well as in Peloponnese in Greece, discovering the ruins of ancient Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns respectively, giving, thus, ground to the belief that the epic poems Iliad and Aeneid were not just fiction but, instead, were based on some historical facts. Despite his zeal and passion, though, Schliemann was not an archaeologist, and his undeniable contribution has been shadowed by numerous destructions during the excavating process, and several arbitrary assumptions that were, nevertheless, indelibly registered in the mind and heart of the future generations. Until today, we refer to Schliemann’s findings with the names the ambitious explorer assigned to them, even though scientific and historical analyses have confirmed his hypotheses to be wrong.
The mansion, built between 1878 and 1880, reflects Ziller’s genius and reveals his owner’s character and philosophy. In the apogee of his life, Schliemann wished to highlight most tangibly his wealth (especially as opposed to his poor beginnings), his successes on the archaeological field, and his love for the Ancient Greek civilisation. So, in January 1881, he officially opened the doors of his new house and moved there with his family: the 30-years-younger Sophia Engastromenos (a well-educated Greek lady who shared her husband’s archaeological passion) and their two kids: Agamemnon and Andromache.
The building is almost a perfect square surrounded by a garden on the three of its four sides. As per Ziller’s usual practice, it follows an eclectic style, combining elements from Ancient Greece (evident in the statues that decorated the perimeter of the roof), the Roman era (represented in the painted walls and the colors that imitated the recent – at that time – discoveries in Pompeii), and the Renaissance (including the vaulted verandas, the painted ceilings, and the glamorous, two-sided marble staircase that leads to the main entrance).
The garden remains today a welcoming haven in the middle of the city’s buzz, and one can enjoy a cup of coffee, a snack, or even a concert in a summer night, surrounded by the statues which, in the beginning of the 20th century, when the mansion finally passed to the hands of the Greek State, were lowered from their original pedestals on the roof and were hidden among the trees, since their nakedness was considered scandalous for the conservative Athenian society of the time.
Walking up the stairs, one enters the first level of the mansion, where the Schliemanns welcomed their friends and hosted their events. The floors of each hall are decorated with elaborate mosaics made by Italian craftsmen and depict geometric designs, the sacred symbol of the swastika, or some of the owner’s archaeological findings. The walls and ceilings are painted by the Slovenian artist Yuri Subic portraying moments from the excavations in Troy and Mycenae and figures or myths from the Ancient Greek mythology, complemented with quotes from Homer or other Greek texts – all in the original language which Schliemann had mastered many years ago. The acanthus-decorated ceiling-edges cover pipes used for the circulation of warm and cold air – a revolutionary, at the time, air-conditioning system. These pipes traverse the whole building, ensuring that the temperature inside is always pleasant. Each room also has a big fireplace, and the windows are covered with roll-up shutters – another innovation, as opposed to the folding, wooden shutters that were traditionally used.
Moving towards the second floor – where the private rooms of the family were located – one cannot but admire the wide, luxurious staircase with the beautiful barrister that is a piece of art on its own.
On this upper floor, the walls are decorated with inspirational quotes (always in Greek) whose purpose was to keep educating the family on the values in life. Schliemann’s library is labelled “Sanatorium for the Soul”, and similar headlines are found above the door of every room. The ceiling of the son’s room has a representation of Ganymede’s myth, while the daughter’s room, as well as the playroom, have been painted in bright red and blue respectively – reminiscing the houses of Pompeii.
The Schliemann family continued to live in the mansion even after the death of the father until, in 1927, the building passed on to the Greek State. For many years, it served as the offices of the Supreme Court, during which time the naked figures on the walls were covered with paper (some of these pieces of paper have been left after the renovation to remind the visitors of that era), and many destructions occurred due to the intense use of the facilities. In 1984 though, the edifice was renovated, and its beauty shone again, while the collection of the Numismatic Museum was transferred to its halls.
The last memory one holds from this visit is the magnificent cast-iron fence that separates the property from the rest of the city. It was mastered by craftsmen in Piraeus and highlights sphinxes, owls (the sacred bird of Goddess Athena and the city of Athens), and the protective symbol of the swastika.
Leaving the building, the visitor cannot but contemplate on the fact that this mansion – which was built in Athens by a German architect for a German businessman, combines the craftsmanship of the Italians for the floors, the Greeks for the iron-cast fences, the Slovenians for the wall paintings, and the Americans for the fireplaces, while using architectural elements from several eras – is an everlasting reminder that culture always unites people. After all, it is only through culture and creative experimentation that we can explore the essence of our individual and collective human identity.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless otherwise stated)