Rebuild Aristotle’s Lyceum

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In 1996, as construction workers cleared a site in downtown Athens for the foundations of a new Museum of Modern Art, they found traces of a large structure sitting on the bedrock. A building had occupied this same spot some two-and-a-half thousand years earlier, when it was part of a wooded sanctuary outside the origi- nal city walls, on the banks of the River Ilissos. The excavation uncovered the remains of a gymnasium, a wrestling arena, changing rooms and baths. This had been a place for athletics and exercise, where the young men of Athens had trained to become soldiers and citizens. …

An ancient gymnasium in Athens? Achh! Let ‘er rip. Cart away the sweat-stained artifacts. Build your Εθνικό Μουσείο Σύγχρονης Τέχνης, with my blessing.

But wait. Not so fast.

… [I]t was much more than just a centre for physical improve- ment. The archaeologists soon realised that they had found one of the most significant sites in all of western European intellectual culture, a site referred to continually by history’s greatest philo- sophers: the Lyceum of Aristotle. The world’s first university.

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Aristotle

The passages, from James Crawford’s Fallen Glories, which I mentioned in my post “Rebuild the Roman Forum,” left me filled with anxiety for the fate of the remains of the Lyceum of Aristotle. The vision of its rubble bulldozed aside to make way for a Museum of Modern Art (Εθνικό Μουσείο Σύγχρονης Τέχνης), no doubt designed to poke out the eyes of the spinning shades of the Father of Western Philosophy (a title he shares with his own tutor, Plato, whose eyes would also be at risk) and the teacher of Alexander the Great (ditto).

Thankfully, my expectation, though validated by the history of brutality as the operating system of modern architecture, was too dire. The new building was cancelled, the museum’s art stored at a temporary site nearby, and, even though not everyone agrees that the exact site of Aristotle’s Lyceum was truly identified, the excavation continued.

Alas, nothing was found of notable architectural value farther back than Roman times, and what was found was no more than the lower walls and foundations. Since Greece is no longer an empire and Athens no longer a wealthy city-state, a dig is not a done deal. The history of the site after its discovery in 1996 is described by David John in his Cheshire Cat Blog, with copious text, notes, maps and photos. Fascinating. He expresses an infinitude of frustration (or shall we say patience) at the slow pace of progress. At last, the excavation was complete. Of the results, he wrote in 2013:

[D]isappointingly, the archaeological finds at the gymnasium site proved meagre: only the foundations and lower courses of walls of the wrestling area (palaestra) and library and part of a baths from the Roman period were uncovered; there appeared to be no sign of statues, inscriptions or any significant evidence of the site as the ancient sanctuary of Apollo Lykeios, after whom the Lyceum (Λύκειον, Lykeion) was named, or as a gathering place for philosophers; and unfortunately, no treasures, revelations or “astonishing discoveries.” So far, very little has been published about the excavation finds in English, which can only be taken as a discouraging sign.

David John leaves room, however, for hope that a restoration is in the works:

Several times after this author had heard that the site would be opened he dutifully traipsed along to only to find the same fence screening a closed building site on which nothing whatsoever was happening. In September 2010 a press release by the official Athens News Agency stated that the restoration work was finally – really, really, really – about to begin. However, when I visited the site again in May 2011 there had been no discernible progress.

Restoration? Does David John mean the restoration of the ruins, if such a project makes any sense, or the rebuilding of the Lyceum? The latter, I hope. There was not enough left in the way of ruins for the average visitor, or evidently even a scholar, to feel the frisson of ancient history upon this sacred ground. (Much the same might be said of Penn Station.) Although a pleasant garden has been created next to the Lyceum site, the remains seem to be a perfect example of a ruin that could and should be rebuilt without thwarting what intellectual pleasure a ruin might have aroused. Thankfully, at any rate, the bulldozers of the modernists have been sent packing. That is a victory, in itself, of beauty and history over ugliness and nihilism.

(I am not sure how much is known through contemporary texts or drawings of how the Lyceum of Aristotle actually looked. The closest apparent attempt at a visual reconstruction that I could find is from, I think, a video game, “Call to Power 2: Aristotle’s Lyceum.” That image is on top of this post. Below is an unidentified painting from the schoolworkhelper.net website, said to show the inside of the Lyceum, though it looks bigger than the Lyceum as portrayed by the gamers. Go figure.)

[Numerous gentle readers have informed me that the painting below is Raphael’s “School of Athens,” with the structure comprising parts of St. Peter’s. Was the blogger unaware of this fact, or aware of it and, in the absence of an actual illustration of the Lyceum, making a joke.)

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Interior of the Lyceum of Aristotle. (schoolworkhelper.net)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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