On the fifth floor of the building located at number 4 on Amalias Avenue in Athens (next to Syntagma Square and across the Parliament), there used to be one of the most famous Athenian houses of the 20th century: the residence of Aggelos and Leto Katakouzenos. Once a prominent salon littéraire – a reference point for artists from around the world – it faded into oblivion after the death of its owners and has been recently brought back to life as a home museum through the efforts of Ms Sophia Peloponnissiou.
Aggelos Katakouzenos was born in 1904 in Lesvos island to an upper-middle-class family of timber merchants. Despite his traders’ background, he decided, at an early age, to dedicate his life to psychiatry, inspired by the sight of a woman who, perceived as “possessed”, remained chained in the yard of a monastery, exposed to unkindness and prejudice. He studied in France where he forged some of the strongest bonds of friendship that were to accompany him throughout his life and, in 1932, he returned to Greece where the implementation of psychiatry was still at incunabula. Shortly after his arrival, he met Leto, his future wife, and they got married two years later with an unconventional – at the time – ceremony which included only a handful of friends and a bride dressed in an unusual, dark-coloured garment.
Leto was also from a relatively well-off family who, after having lost their son to typhus, decided to sell their property in Greece and move abroad. As such, Leto grew into a well-travelled, sophisticated lady who could speak four languages fluently, play tennis, dance till the morning and swim for long hours – quite distinct from the typical Athenian women of her era.
The couple initially lived in an apartment in Kolonaki and moved to the house on Amalias Avenue in 1960, where they remained until their death. Aggelos’ career path was occasionally bumpy, especially in the beginning, given the suspicious mentality of his Greek patients, and several disappointments regarding declined opportunities due to what can be described as a “politically hostile” and unfavourable lobby. Even though the Katakouzenos couple was not actively involved in politics, they both belonged to the so-called “1930s generation”: a progressive middle class and an intellectual elite. This cultural group – influenced by the two World Wars, the Greco-Turkish conflicts and the 1922 Asia Minor disaster, the massive waves of immigrants that flooded Greece, and the subsequent socio-economic shifts – remained in contact with the avant-garde movements in western Europe and the United States, and attempted to redefine the Hellenic identity, combining progressiveness with traditionalism, cosmopolitanism with popular art, and patriotism with a moderate revolutionary spirit.
Years passed by, and Aggelos and Leto Katakouzenos were always engaged in the implementation of new initiatives towards the development of artistic bonds and a cultural interchange between Greece and the western world. From the 1950s onwards, Aggelos was recognised as a prominent personality both in his scientific field as well as in the arts and culture. Although he was an elected professor of Psychiatry at the University of Paris, member of the French Academy, Commandeur de la Legion d’ Honneur, founder of the Franco-Hellenic Institute and the Hellenic-American Union, published author of several books on his field, and acclaimed doctor (some of his patients being Aristotelis Onassis, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, or Nikolaos Chatzekyriakos-Gkikas), his worth was never fully acknowledged in his own country. Still, he never left Greece.
Echoing Freud’s example who tried to penetrate the depths of the human psyche through the fields of anthropology and archaeology, Katakouzenos was fascinated by art, especially painting and poetry, in which he found codes he could use to shed light into some of the most obscure niches of the human subconscious. The apartment on Amalias Avenue reflects the couple’s artistic passion and intellectual quests, and the stories that unfolded there – stories we still read in our school books – have been indelibly imprinted on the furniture, the various memorabilia, even the colour of the walls. The energy that reverberates until today among the rooms of the house brings memories – and a few nostalgic tears – to the heart of every Athenian.
The living room is decorated with sets of furniture auctioned from the collection of King George I, a secretaire desk made by Etienne Avril (one of Marie Antoinette’ artisans), an antique “Rosso Antico” marble fireplace, and tables designed by the painter Yiannis Tsarouchis (a close friend of the family). In here, many receptions (like the one in honour of Odysseas Elytis’ Nobel Prize Award) or small exhibitions (like the one organised by Greek painters on the occasion of Marc Chagall’s visit to Greece) have been hosted. The literary meetings held in this comfortable environment were not just casual gatherings among friends: on the contrary, they were properly organised in advance, with a theme on which all participants were prepared, so that the exchange of thoughts and ideas could be meaningful and enriching. Among these walls – painted a pleasant ciel hue as per the recommendation of Tsarouchis, so that the paintings on the walls can stand out even in the twilight – the tunes of Megalos Erotikos were heard for the first time, played at the piano by the composer (Manos Hadjidakis) himself; Andreas Empeirikos read some of his new poems; Giorgos Seferis lingered next to the fireplace; and Chatzekyriakos-Gkikas stayed for six months when, after a fight with his wife, he temporarily left his house and found refuge at his friends’. Paintings by Spyros Vassiliou, Tsarouchis, Chatzikyriakos-Gkikas, Gounaropoulos, and one from Chagall himself complete the ambience which is further reinforced by the view on the Parliament, the Lycabettus hill, the National Garden, and Ymittos Mountain as seen through the veranda windows.
The dining room is dominated by photos of significant moments from the couple’s life. The long table in the middle is new. Back then, the table used to be much smaller, and the diners were rotating seats during the meal so that everyone could have the chance to enjoy in-depth and more intimate discussions with the other participants rather than just the typical socialising chatter. In such cases, despite the presence of a chandelier, the room would be lit only by candlelight which, since the early days of humanity, allows the most resistant thoughts to unfold effortlessly.
Behind the mahogany doors painted by Chatzekyriakos-Gkikas on the theme of the Four Seasons (a “thank you” for the 6-month hospitality), there are the rooms used by the residents of the house. Today, only one – the couple’s bedroom – is open to the public, along with the bathroom (where the visitor can admire the beautiful wall mosaic created by Spyros Vassiliou), and the boudoir of Leto, where, in the iconostasis we can still see the marriage wreaths, bestowed, as per an old Greek tradition, next to the figures of the saints.
The apartment was not just a residence. Part of it also served as an office for Ksatakouzenos’ private practice. There was a separate entrance from the Galleria on Othonos street, leading to the waiting room – furnished with chairs and a couch from Aggelos’ family home – and the main office, of a minimalistic, art nouveau style, loaded with books and papers. A paravan covered with photos of Freud’s office stands on one side, while the walls are decorated with two paintings of Theophilos – a self-taught painter from Lesvos who almost died in obscurity before his great talent was discovered and supported by Aggelos Katakouzenos and his compatriot (and renowned art critic), Teriade.
Time passed by, our tour had finished long ago, and I still lingered in the house, wandering among the rooms in search of the susurrations of its ghosts. Athens – modern and eternal – was glowing through the windows in consonance with the character of the residence and the countenance of the heirlooms left behind. The twilight shades crept on the walls, and I understood what Tsarouchis meant by the ciel hues he had used on which, now, the fading sunlight was tenderly reflected, embracing the works of art, and bringing forward the memory of an almost forgotten sweetness. I do not know if such salons littéraires still exist. Maybe our lifestyle has changed so much that similar gatherings have become outdated. However, the echo of their legacy still resonates with our heart and at nights like this, I stay silent for a few minutes, paying tribute to the collective genius of so many scientists and artists who, accompanied with a glass of wine and the subtle tones of the piano, explored the fabric of social identities, looking for something more profound and holistic. Something of which we can be eternally proud.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Disclaimer: The above information is based on a guided tour and my personal understandings and notes. In case any significant mistake is noticed, please contact me and I will be more than glad to amend.
To explore Athens in more details, complement this article with a visit to Iliou Melathron: one of Athens’ most beautiful mansions, the Forgotten Trails of the Ottoman Era, the beautiful Mets Neighbourhood, and a tour to my seven favourite churches.