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Botanical paintings of plants that once flourished in the Ancient Agora park

About 50 years ago, a garden was created in the Ancient Agora, a beautiful garden with dozens of plants, all native to Greece. Over the years, however, the plants gradually withered and the garden eventually dried out and died. The person who originally created that garden has now decided to bring it to life again in an excellent bilingual (English and Greek) publication of his botanical drawings, titled «The Plants in the Park of the Ancient Agora» (published by the Athens Agricultural University). A giant juniper still standing in the northwestern end of the garden was the last «brushstroke» made by agronomist and honorary lecturer at the Agricultural University Emmanuel Vathis in 1955 when he created the park. The project had taken nearly two years to complete and the result was spectacular. «It was a perfect, natural garden,» Vathis, now aged 93, told Kathimerini. «Unfortunately, it no longer exists.» It was the American Archaeological School, which was excavating the Agora, that undertook to construct the garden in 1953. However, the Americans soon met with obstacles because of the nature of the soil and the problem of finding the right plants. The head of the project, Ralph Griswold, asked the then-rector of the Agricultural University faculty, Professor Vassilis Krimbas, to suggest someone to help them. Krimbas had no hesitation in suggesting Vathis, who was then an assistant professor in the faculty’s forestry department. Vathis spent two winters in the Agora, bringing in dozens of species of plants from Dionysos, Tatoi, Ritsona, from state plant nurseries in Rapentozi and Kounoupies, from many private nurseries, the nursery of the Philodasiki in Kaisariani, and that of Athens Agricultural University. At some point, the planting was completed and the project handed over to the Greek Archaeological Service. «As the years passed, the plants began to wither,» remembers Vathis. «I was furious and went to see the person in charge. He attributed the plants’ condition to disease but it was clear that care of the the garden had been abandoned.» Despite his protests, nothing was done until the service was taken over by archaeologists Georgios Dontas and M. Brouskari, who as Vathis himself says, embarked with great enthusiasm on an effort to salvage the garden from ruin. «It was at that time that the park was at its peak. They resurrected it. I remember I used to go and eat berries from the huge arbutus trees. That lasted for three years. Then things began to decline once again. Valuable trees withered completely, shrubs died and we have now reached a point where anyone who enters the park is disappointed. I recently went there with two friends and I almost cried,» said Vathis. Perhaps that is why he decided to publish the album of botanical drawings of the park’s plants before the last traces of his life’s work withers away and dies. Self-taught, Vathis has great natural talent, according to critic and art historian Athena Schina who wrote the foreword to the album, and he devoted himself to the task with great affection and care. «Vathis’s artistry takes us on a tour… of the apparent to the innermost, from the carefully concealed to the immediately obvious, conveying to us the experiential relationship which he himself has in his explorations and conversations with nature, all the hours and days of the year,» writes Schina. The book includes useful information on each plant and its origins. The rector of the Agricultural University of Athens, Professor Andreas Karamanos, points out that this publication is just a small part of Vathis’s work. Alongside his brilliant career as an agronomist and garden designer, Vathis has, for the past 70 years, been painting native and cultivated plants, mostly from the range of Greek flora, using both the naked eye and the microscope, and focusing also on the pests and diseases that plague them. Many of his paintings hang in the exhibition hall that bears his name in the university’s Forestry Department. A plaque beneath the juniper in the Ancient Agora bears the inscription: «To Mr Emmanuel Vathis for his contribution to establishing the park in the Ancient Agora.» As one admires the paintings on the walls of his small apartment in Kallithea, the first thought that comes to mind is that the greatest honor for Vathis would be the restoration of the park that he created half a century ago. Variety of species Almond, bay, eucalyptus; a total of 43 different species of trees, both evergreen and deciduous, were planted in the park. Among them were planted 73 species of shrubs that provided year-round color. In the new year, it was the rosemary, the globularia that flowered, then the Cistus, Coronilla, Phlomis. As the summer began, it was the turn of the Oleander, Plumbago, Lantana and finally the Arbutus. There were 25 varieties of climbers and trailing plants that covered the ground with their greenery and spread to the tops of nearby trees and shrubs. Among the perennial, bulbous and rhizomatous plants were the anemones, cyclamens, crocuses, flowering in winter, and a little later the asphodels, Irises and Ornithogalum, with the canna lilies and Verbascum toward summer. Another 58 species of annuals covered large areas of the park.