Ernst Ziller’s house acquires a new role

Adamp mysterious air rises from the closed up house with the caryatids at 6 Mavromichalis Street in downtown Athens. Now covered with burlap and buttressed for the safety of passers-by, this house played a fascinating role in Athenian life from 1880 to 1930, which makes its later dilapidation all the more tragic. Few know its story; some have heard that it was the house of Ernst Ziller; but very few guess that, despite depredations, the interior still boasts marvelous decoration, wood carvings, painted ceilings, fireplaces, a chapel with a striking dome and mosaics. It is a unique mixture of neoclassical nobility and traditional Greek style. In this house, the idiosyncratic European Renaissance outlook of the Saxon Ernst Ziller later encountered the Greek-focused approach of Aristotelis Zachos and Angeliki Hadzimichali. Ziller’s house, which was bought by the patrician banker and art lover Dionysios Loverdos, has been Greek state property for the past 13 years. In keeping with the wishes of Loverdos’s daughters, Maria Loverdou and Ioanna Vassileiadou, the house belongs to the state and is managed by the Culture Ministry on behalf of the Byzantine and Christian Museum. Notable collection The museum was the natural recipient, since Loverdos (1987-1934) had a notable collection of icons and other works of art. The owner of more than 600 valuable icons, he made his house into a museum in 1930. The Byzantine Museum has high hopes for Ziller’s house and is trying to speed up procedures so as to secure funds from the Fourth Community Support Framework. Dimitris Constantios, the museum’s director, is ready since architect Lazaros Georgakopoulos has completed the proposal for the building. The next step is for the ministry’s restoration and conservation directorates to draw up studies. «The Loverdos family performed a service to the Greek State and endowed it with cultural goods of great significance and untold financial worth,» said Constantios. «It is a shame not to put such a mansion to use.» The restoration directorate has already completed the proposal for the study, which is budgeted at 800,000 euros. The project will be assigned according to the new law covering such matters, then funding will be approved for work to go ahead. «We will found our first annex at the Ziller-Loverdos Mansion,» said Constantios, whose targets have included the museum’s successful overtures to the public. «This building is in the center of Athens among university faculties, bookstores, and cafes full of students. We want to start a paper museum there, not of the classical type, but a modern, innovative one that we hope will attract specialists and young people.» The new museum will house the Byzantine Museum’s permanent collection of some 6,000 manuscripts and paper objects – plans, sketches for murals, prints and manuscripts. It will also be home to the museum’s significant historical and photographic archives (among recent acquisitions are the 65,000 negatives of Fotis Zachariou). «It will be a museum about the art of writing and the history of the image,» said Constantios, «from documents to the digital era. I hope young people will be fascinated by the connection between parchment and computers.» The new museum will have a cafe on the terrace which might become a meeting point for young people, a shop, and a space for temporary exhibitions. The Ziller-Loverdos Mansion is the sole example in Athens of a blend of two eras and two ideological and aesthetic concepts. As the Ziller house, built 1882-85, it had the seductive grandeur that the German architect conferred on the buildings he designed. There is a restrained extroversion to the facade with its caryatids and classical composition, and European prosperity inside with elaborate fireplaces, painted ceilings and a carved wooden staircase. Ziller lived in the house until 1912 and there is a record of how the house looked at the Benaki Museum’s Center for the Documentation of Neoclassical Architecture. But by 1911, the house was already the property of the Greek General Insurance Company (whose rusty sign can be found on many old buildings) and in 1912 Loverdos bought it at auction to use as a residence. Loverdos’s love of Byzantine art and Greek history coincided with the «return to the roots» movement of the time, of which Macedonian architect Aristotelis Zachos and pioneering folklorist Angeliki Hadzimichali were leading representatives. The latter two were strong personalities who rallied like-minded artists and intellectuals to save folk culture, in which few people had shown any interest prior to the 1920s. In contrast to urban neoclassicism, their new perception of what it was to be Greek had a holistic approach to life and art that was reflected dramatically in the interior of the Loverdos residence. The alterations that Zachos made to order for Loverdos left a spontaneous, albeit cerebral, Greek aura, with Macedonian woodcarvings, and Byzantine mosaics where Ziller’s bourgeois aesthetics had once dominated. Well-known artists such as Dimitris Pelekasis worked on the domes, the mosaic floors and conservation of pictures. Loverdos’s ambitions for the house came to an end with his early death in 1934.

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