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The Athenian Trilogy is one of these attractions of Athens that you’ll rarely hear locals talking about. In fact, while walking through the city center of Athens, you’ll hardly notice anyone taking the time to admire the magnificent complex that stands amidst the traffic and the crowds of Panepistimiou street, just a few minutes away from Syntagma Square.
So what exactly is the Athenian Trilogy?
It’s a quintessential example of neoclassical architecture in Athens that stands against the backdrop of a rapidly expanding modern metropolis. This wonderful 3-building complex encompasses the University of Athens, the Academy, and the National Library.
The buildings -as well as the impressive statues of Athena and Apollo that stand guards at their facades- look like they were left behind by ancient Greeks to serve as a reminder of the city’s erstwhile glory. In reality, however, they are much more modern than they look.
In this article, we’ll go over the history of the Athenian Trilogy and the neoclassical jewels of the city: the Academy, the National Library, and the University of Athens.
Neoclassical architecture in Athens
The term Neoclassical refers to the artistic movement that sprouted in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe. Its architectural aspect focused on reviving the styles of classical-era Greece and the Roman Empire.
Gradually, the movement became very popular both throughout Europe and in Greece.
It wasn’t long after that Athens started showing signs of embracing the new trend with different kinds of new impressive buildings popping up around the city.
You can still find many examples of neoclassical architecture in Athens like the beautiful mansions in the neighborhood of Plaka, King Otto’s former Royal Palace which eventually became home to the Greek Parliament, the famous Zappeion Hall, the National Historical Museum, and of course, the buildings of the Athenian Trilogy complex: the National Library, the University of Athens and the Academy.
A brief history of the Athenian Trilogy
Athens was chosen as the capital city of Greece shortly after the country gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire.
It was then that Bavarian-born Otto found himself on the throne, anointed King of Greece. Among King Otto’s first remarks about the new capital was that it bore no resemblance or connection to the notion of Athens as the birthplace of western civilization and the cradle of democracy.
Hence, he decided that a large-scale renovation was long overdue.
His intention was to revamp the city center of Athens with majestic buildings while building a bridge to the past, a connection between the modern capital city of Athens and ancient Athens, home to some of the renowned scientists and philosophers.
With that purpose in mind, he called upon two of the most famous architects of the time: Danish brothers Christian and Theophil Hansen, both avid admirers of the Greek classical era and experts on neoclassical aesthetics.
Initially, the project was funded by King Otto himself and undertaken by the Hansen brothers who proved to be more than ambitious with their vision of the city.
The construction of the Athenian Trilogy began around 1864 but it was immediately apparent that this task would require more than a few talented architects with private funds.
Soon enough, artists from all around Europe -including Theophil Hansen’s student Ernst Ziller– found themselves working feverishly in Athens while Greek businessmen and merchants from around the globe took over a significant part of financing the enormous project.
The construction of the three buildings was complete several decades after their conception, around 1890, and the result was nothing less than stunning.
It was evident that the Athenian Trilogy was an ode to neoclassical architecture that would withstand the test of time and become a monument to be celebrated even centuries later.
Indeed, the University of Athens, the Academy, and the National Library still stand today in downtown Athens as some of the city’s most important architectural feats and beloved attractions.
The University of Athens
The University of Athens, or “Panepistimio” as locals call it, is the building standing in the middle of the three.
It was the first to be built and thus gave its name to the street (and later on to the metro station as well) that runs from Syntagma to Omonoia Square.
Its building was designed by Christian Hansen who chose a simpler, more humble approach for the university in comparison to the other two buildings on its sides.
Yet, its interior is decorated by a colossal 45-meter mural designed by Carl Rahl and Eduard Lebiedzki that is both extravagant and pompous.
It depicts King Otto surrounded by the personified concepts of science and art wearing classical-era Greek vestments.
At the entrance of the building, you’ll see five different statues of five different but equally important men in the shaping of Athens as a modern capital city.
From left to right, the statutes depict philhellene William Ewart Gladstone, the scholar Adamantios Korais who spearheaded Greek Enlightenment, the first governor of Greece Ioannis Kapodistrias, politician and strategist Rigas Feraios who contributed greatly to the Greek War of Independence and finally Gregory the Fifth, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who was executed for joining the revolt against the Ottoman Empire.
Nowadays, the building of the University of Athens is home to the institution’s administrative offices and it also serves as a grandiose backdrop to the university’s ceremonies and official events.
The National Library of Athens
On the left side of the University of Athens, we find the National Library of Athens, designed by Theophil Hansen and constructed during the last decade of the 19th century with the purpose of preserving the intellectual heritage of Greece.
Its building features a splendid blend of Doric elements, minimalist aesthetics, and simple, straight lines that create a beautiful contrast with the impressive Renaissance-style staircase that leads up to the entrance.
Parts of the National Library of Athens were built with the famous white Pentelic marble, the same material that was used in the construction of some of the city’s most important monuments that date back to the 5th century like the Parthenon and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
At the building’s central front side, you’ll find a statue depicting Panagis Valianos, a Greek benefactor who played a crucial role in both financings the National Library of Athens and the process of donating it to the Greek state later on.
Until recently, in 2017, the National Library was in charge of safeguarding, preserving, and exhibiting over 2 million books, manuscripts, and periodicals.
Unfortunately, nowadays, it is not open to visitors. Nevertheless, the treasures it holds are still accessible through Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center as an open archive.
The Academy of Athens
The Academy of Athens stands on the far-right end of the Athenian Trilogy complex. Its construction lasted a little less than three decades, from 1859 to 1885.
The building of the Academy of Athens is the result of a collective effort by architects Theophile Hansen and Ernst Ziller who were responsible for its design, sculptor Leonidas Drosis and painter Christian Griepenkerl who undertook the challenging task of decorating its interior and exterior with elegant artworks and magnate Simon Sinas who financed the largest part of the project.
The Academy of Athens was built with the purpose of resembling the Propylaea of the Acropolis, the imposing gateway to Acropolis Hill.
Its impeccable design with the use of Pentelic marble has made the building a world-renowned monument, widely considered to be one of the best examples of neoclassical architecture on the globe.
Inside the Academy of Athens, in the western wing, you’ll find a gigantic mural designed by Griepenkerl and inspired by Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound that narrates the myth of Prometheus in a magnificent retelling of the famous tragedy.
On the outside, you’ll get the chance to marvel at Socrates and Plato, the most important philosophers in Greek history, on each side of the building.
On the front, the statues of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Apollo, the god of light, rise high above the hustle and bustle of the city’s traffic to remind us that this is the same city that gave birth to democracy and the western civilization – just like King Otto intended.
Enjoy a private tour by the side of a local history expert! Visit iconic sites and hear stories and tales of Greek mythology from your local tour guide.
How to get to the Athenian Trilogy
Getting to and from the Athenian Trilogy is quite easy, as the beautiful complex is located in the heart of Athens.
You can easily get there on foot from Syntagma Square or Omonoia Square by walking up or down Panepistimiou street respectively.
If you want to use the metro, just get off at Syntagma metro station (blue line), Omonoia metro station (red and green line), or Panepistimio metro station (red line) – the last being obviously the closest to the complex.
In summary, the Athenian Trilogy is a place of contradictions: the marvelous complex is a neoclassical oasis in the city center of a busy metropolis, while its buildings are both world-renowned monuments and some of the most frequently overlooked attractions in Athens.
And even though you can’t possibly miss it while walking around downtown Athens, we can’t help but recommend that you take the time to admire its gorgeous buildings on your next trip to Athens.
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