The Museum of Cycladic Art in central Athens has temporarily transformed the three halls of its central building on Neofytou Douka Street into arts and crafts workshops, named after Athena, Daedalus and Hephaestus, for pottery, marble and metal.
The spaces feature long tables fully equipped with all the tools needed to turn humble base materials into fine works of art, where presentations take place to show the public how ancient sculptors, potters, goldsmiths and bronze workers went about their craft.
There is also an exhibition, which, museum director Nicholas Stampolidis explains, describes the construction of some of the spectacular pieces on display in the museum. It is these 40 pieces that are reproduced in the workshops, allowing museum-goers rare insight into the techniques and methods that were applied.
The initiative belongs to Nikos Papadimitriou, who also curated the exhibition, and the aim is to showcase the skill that went into the wonderful pieces by known and anonymous ancient artisans which have survived to this day.
Admission costs 3.50 euros and is valid all day long, allowing visitors to take as much time as they like wandering from one workshop to the next and viewing the exhibition.
“It is enchanting to see how a pottery wheel helps transform a lump of clay into a vase,” says Stampolidis.
Regular visitors to the museum will remember the bronze shield from the Idaean Cave, found in Eleutherna, now a symbol of the new museum that will be inaugurated at the archaeological site on Crete in June. In the current exhibition, which runs through February 29, they can see how the ancient artifact was made. The replica shield will be put in the place of the original exhibit, which has now returned to Crete.
How did the ancients craft the Cycladic idols? The quality of the rock, almost exclusively marble, was key and this would be whittled by the craftsman with special tools and shaped according to the stone’s natural contours.
Stampolidis explains how the eye-catching gold ornaments we see at the museum were made by cutting a thin leaf of gold into small squares, melting them into pellets and then shaping these into forms. The goldsmith, he says, needed skill not just in producing the material but also in fusing the different elements of a piece together.
Bronzesmiths also had their hands full with “outlining the shapes, turning the sheet inside out and giving it volume and form.” It also required a lot of skill to know how to “divide the surface, particularly when crafting curves for, say, a shield.”
“Experience was not enough” for the potters of ancient times, says Stampolidis, explaining how, while it was key that they knew how to find the right clay and dilute it to its proper consistency, it also took physical labor, requiring “strong legs and hands.”
Museum of Cycladic Art, 4 Neofytou Douka, Kolonaki, tel 210.722.8321. Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.