The heart of present day Athens is fashionable Plateia Syntagmatos which lies below the imposing mass of the Old Royal Palace. Plateia Syntagmatos, which translated means Constitution Square, commemorates the constitution granted by Othon I in a proclamation from the balcony of the Palace on the night of 3rd September 1843.
The OLD ROYAL PALACE, which since 1935 has housed the Parliament, was designed as the residence of King Othon, at his own and his father’s expense, by the Bavarian architect Friedrich Garther and built between 1834 and 1842.
At the foot of the west facade of the Old Palace is a large square bounded on three sides by walls on which, in evocation of the ancient custom of hanging the victor’s shield in the temple, are set bronze shields flanked by the names of the many victories won by Hellenic arms since National Independence. Built into the center of the retaining wall is the TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, a relief impressive in its simplicity, which depicts a dying hoplite. This work is by the sculptors Constantinos Demetriades (1881-1943) and Phokion Rok (1886-1942), and was unveiled on 25th March (National Independence Day) 1932.
South of Plateia Syntagmatos lies Leophoros Amalias, which is so called after King Othon’s consort, who, with the horticulturist Friedrich Schmiedt, created the delectable retreat adjoining the Old Royal Palace that we know today as the NATIONAL GARDEN. The National Garden is open daily from sunrise to sunset and the shade of its multitudinous trees provides a cool and peaceful oasis in the heart of the city.
On the east side of the Garden are the busts of Capodistrias and Jean-Gabriel Eynard, a great Swiss philhellene who donated large sums of money to the cause of Greek Independence. Both these busts are the work of the famous Pelopennesian loannis Kossos. Other busts in the National Garden are those of three leading Greek poets of the 19th century: Dionysius Solomos of Zante, who is considered the national poet; Aristotle Valaoritis, also a native of the Ionian Islands, and Jean Moreas, which was the nom-de-plume of loannis Papadiamantopoulos, an Athenian who lived the greater part of his life in Paris.
Contiguous to the National Garden is a large public park called ZAPPEION after the brothers Evangelos and Constantinos Zappas of Epirus, who donated it with its splendid exhibition hall to the Nation. On either side of the entrance to the exhibition hall stand statues of the donors, that of Evangelos by loannis Kossos; that of Constantinos by Georgios Vroutos. Among the many pieces of statuary by famous sculptors is the bust of loannis Varvakis by the master Leonidas Drossis. Varvakis is best known as the founder of the renowned boys’ school, the Lykeion Varvakeion, for the endowment of which he bequeathed his huge fortune. Other busts include those of Constantinos Paparrighopoulos, the greatest historian of Modern Greece, of Stephan Dragoumis, the most prominent political personality during the Macedonian struggle (1903-1909), and of George Souris, the leading satirical poet of his times.
A short distance from Plateia Syntagmatos, on the right of Odhos Panepistimiou, we come to a Renaissance edifice of Italian inspiration. This is the NUMISMATIC MUSEUM, which contains a rich collection of Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins, cameos and seal-stones. Built by the noted architect Erst Ziller in 1878, it was the private residence of the illustrious archaeologist Henry Schliemann.
Still keeping on the right-hand side we come to a five-storeyed building situated at the corner of this street and Odhos Omirou. Here are the premises of the ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY, built entirely in marble. The classical motif of the magnificent bronze door with its richly painted and gilded surround and the ceiling coffered in a delicate blue and gold deserve the greatest admiration. Besides creating the first National Archaeological Museum the Society, which was founded in 1837, has excavated sites all over the country.
Immediately after the Archaeological Society’s premises stands the ROMAN CATHOLIC CATHEDRAL. As the Latin inscription shows, the cathedral was begun in 1853, completed in 1887, and dedicated to St. Dionysius Areopagite. It is a three-naved basilica designed by Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), Bavarian Court architect and master-plan ner of modern Athens, and built under the direction of Lysander Kaftanzoglou (1811-1885), the outstanding Greek architect of the period.
Adjoining this edifice is the OPHTHALMIC HOSPITAL, a Byzantine-style construction designed by Theophil Hansen (1813-1891, the younger of two Danish brothers, both distinguished architects), in 1847, and completed by Lysander Kaftanzoglou four years later.
Just beyond the Ophthalmic Hospital is an ensemble of neo-Classical buildings: on the right the Academy, in the middle the University, and on the left the National Library. All three were gifts to the Nation from wealthy patriots; they are the most sumptuous monuments of Modern Greece.
The HELLENIC ACADEMY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES, a meticulously accurate reproduction of an edifice of the Classical period erected in the graceful Ionic order by Theophil Hansen at the expense of Baron Georgios Sinas, was begun in 1859 and completed in 1875.
The nine sculptured pediments and all the statues before the Academy are the work of the Athenian master Leonidas Drossis. The relief in the central pediment, which portrays The Birth of Athena, and the two gigantic statues of Apollo (right) and Athena (left) standing on tall columns, one on either side of the principal facade, are particularly impressive. The seated figures flanking the short flight of steps leading to the portico represent the philosophers Socrates (right) and Plato (left).
The portico consists of a double row of columns. The coffered ceiling is painted in bright blue and gold and the door opening into the vestibule has a surround of classical inspiration executed in brilliant color and gilding. A statue of the donor Baron Sinas stands on the right of the vestibule, while the interior of the Academy Hall is decorated with eight superb panels by the Oldenburg painter Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1916), depicting scenes from the Myth of Prometheus.
Visitors to the University will be surprised to see a statue of William Ewart Gladstone, standing on the right of the lawn surrounding the forecourt. The dedication on the plinth of this statue immortalizes the prominent part played by the great British statesman in the deliverance of Epirus and Thessaly from Turkish oppression, and their return to the Motherland in 1881.
The statues at the top of the steps leading to the entrance commemorate the great philologist Korais (1748-1833), ardent patriot and “father” of the Modern Greek literary language (right), and Capodistrias (1776-1831), first Head of State (1827-1831) and one of the major architects of modern Greece.
The UNIVERSITY OF ATHENS was founded in 1836, and was initially established in a large house which Schaubert and Cleanthes had built in Plaka (the old quarter of Athens) when they first came to Athens in 1831. This building, at the corner of Odhos Prytaneiou and Odhos Tholou, is still standing and is converted into a museum devoted to the earlier history of the University. The present University buildings were designed by Christian Hansen and the foundation stone laid by King Othon in 1839. The central building was ready for use in 1842, but owing to lack of funds, the buildings as a whole were not completed until 1850.
A colonnade with a handsome portico in Pentelic marble fronted by two Ionic columns with gilded capitals, and a coffered ceiling in blue and gold in harmony with the classical motif of a painted and gilded door surround, gives access to the interior of the main building.
On the upper part of the wall a fresco by the celebrated Austrian painter Karl Rahl (1812-1865) shows the resurgence of arts and sciences under King Othon. Statues of two national heroes, Patriarch Grigorios and the martyred poet Rhigas Pheraios, stand respectively at the right and left angles of the facade.
The NATIONAL LIBRARY, which is built of Pentelic marble on a foundation of poros, consists of a central building in the form of a Doric temple, with two wings. It was planned by Theophil Hansen in 1887 and the work executed under the supervision of Ernst Ziller, at the expense of the Valianos brothers of Cephalonia in 1901. A statue of one of these munificent benefactors, Panayis, stands outside the central building, and those of his two brothers Andreas and Maris inside the entrance hall. All three statues are the work of Georgios Bonanos.
The eminent philologist Andreas Moustoxidis on the island of Aegina formed the nucleus of the Library in 1827. The books were brought to Athens in 1833 and stored in the beautiful church of St. Eleutherius (the “Little Cathedral”). In 1842 they were removed to the first floor of the central building of the University – which had just been completed – where they remained until the National Library was inaugurated in 1903.
In recent years many fine nineteenth century buildings have been demolished and unimaginative concrete structures built on the sites, so that with the exception of the Ionian Bank of Greece on one corner of Odhos Pezmazoglou and the former buildings of the Arsakeion College for Girls (founded in 1836) on the other corner over the Doric portico, built at the expense of Apostolos Arsakis of Epirus in 1848, nothing remains of the splendid buildings that once lined both sides of this street of central Athens.