Byzantine Institute / Hagia Sophia / Thomas Whittemore

Setting the Stage: Background on the Byzantine Institute

Written by Rona Razon, Archivist
Edited by Beth Bayley, Archivist Assistant

Thomas Whittemore’s professional goals had many manifestations, from meeting notes, to gorgeous colored pencil drawings in notebooks, and to oversize watercolor paintings of saints and religious scenes. We are truly excited to be able to share these images and records with researchers.

Collage for the Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Collection

One of the pleasures of working in archives is being able to take a formerly unwieldy collection and turning it into something better, by organizing it physically and intellectually, creating a finding aid, and making the collection accessible to users. ICFA staff have spent more than 2 years doing just that for the collection The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers. Laurian Douthett, former ICFA Archivist Assistant, and I started the assessment and arrangement in September 2010. Based on our findings, we decided to re-organize the collection in chronological order and then by site in order to reassemble its original arrangement and to fully document the Byzantine Institute’s and Dumbarton Oaks’s administrative and fieldwork history.

This collection consists of nearly 80 boxes of correspondence, minutes, financial records, logbooks, research notes, fieldwork notebooks, photographs, drawings, paintings, tracings, films, and many more, all documenting the history and fieldwork activities of the Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks from the 1930s to 2000s.

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Portrait of Thomas Whittemore. From the collection: Thomas Whittemore Papers, ca. 1875-1966. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.

The Byzantine Institute was founded and directed by Thomas Whittemore, who was a former English professor, an amateur archaeologist, an enigmatic global nomad, and the organization’s prime visionary and fundraiser.

While we know very little about how it started, Robert Nelson, professor in the Department of the History of Art at Yale University, believes that Whittemore may have planned the formation of the Byzantine Institute on June 12, 1929, when Whittemore “hosted a dinner for eight friends in Istanbul” at the Hotel Tokatlian on the Grande Rue de Pera (Nelson, Robert, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950, Chicago 2004, p. 172-173). Those eight friends (leading lights of the time such as Charles R. Crane and John Nicholas Brown) eventually became key committee members and possibly benefactors for the Byzantine Institute. Below is a copy of the Institute’s letterhead in 1931 and 1950, showing other prominent names in the fields of academia, business, and Byzantine art:

The mission of the Byzantine Institute was to conserve, restore, study, and document Byzantine monuments, sites, architecture, and arts in the former Byzantine Empire. The Institute carried out this mission from three locations: Boston, MA, Paris, France, and Istanbul, Turkey. Administrative activities primarily centered in Boston, where Institute personnel communicated with fieldworkers in Istanbul and staff members at the Byzantine Institute Library in Paris.

Image

Thomas Whittemore and Byzantine Institute Library staff at the Byzantine Institute Library in Paris, France. From the collection: Thomas Whittemore Papers, ca. 1875-1955. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.

The Byzantine Institute Library in Paris was managed by the staff librarian, Boris Ermoloff, a longtime friend of Whittemore. The library collected publications related to Byzantine studies and provided research services in support of the Institute’s fieldwork projects. By contrast, the office in Istanbul was used as storage for fieldwork equipment and as a temporary residence for Institute and Dumbarton Oaks staff and fieldworkers.

One of the Byzantine Institute’s major projects was the conservation and restoration of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. With the approval of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of the Republic of Turkey, the Institute was given permission to uncover and restore Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine mosaics. These mosaics were covered in plaster by the Ottoman Turks after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. However, in 1847, Sultan Abdülmecid (or Abdul Medjid) commissioned an Italian architect, Gaspare Fossati, and his brother Guiseppe, to clean and restore Hagia Sophia.  According to Natalia Teteriatnikov, the Fossati brothers discovered “by accident [...] the revetments and plaster [and soon after that] a newly uncovered mosaic in the north aisle vault was shown to the sultan” in 1848 (Teteriatnikov, Natalia, Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul: The Fossati Restoration and the Work of the Byzantine Institute, Washington, D.C. 1998, p. 3).

The sultan was greatly impressed with the beauty and glow of the gold cubes that he ordered the brothers to remove the plaster and reveal the Byzantine mosaics, which had been hidden for centuries.  But soon after the mosaics and the newly restored building were revealed, the sultan ordered the brothers to re-plaster the mosaics again “out of respect for Muslim religious customs prohibiting the representation of humans” (ibid, p. 4).

In this lithograph from Aya Sofia, Constantinople: as recently restored by order of H. M. the sultan Abdul-Medjid (London 1852), we see a glimpse of what Hagia Sophia may have looked like in the mid-1800s (for more information, please check http://doconversations.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/fossati/):

Fossati_1

Illustration of the interior of Hagia Sophia in the mid-1800s. Book is available in the Rare Book Collection, Dumbarton Oaks.

Nearly a century later, in mid-1931 and one year after the founding of the Byzantine Institute, Whittemore and his skilled crew were given a permit to uncover, clean, and repair the mosaics. They also documented each mosaic scene to keep track of their work and findings through photography and film, as seen here:

Black and white photographs, Left: Justinian I holding the model of Hagia Sophia in the south vestibule of Hagia Sophia; Right: Maid bathing the Christ Child, detail of the Nativity scene in the exonarthex of Kariye Camii

Hagia Sophia VestibuleKariye Camii

 

Color film stills, Left: Mosaic of Virgin and Christ Child, apse in Hagia Sophia, ca. 1936; Right: Mosaic of Saint John Chrysostom, north tympanum in Hagia Sophia, 1940

Film still of mosaic of Virgin and Christ Child, apse in Hagia Sophia, ca. 1936. From the collection: The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks, Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.Film still of mosaic of Saint John Chrystostom, north tympanum in Hagia Sophia, 1940. From the collection: The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks, Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.

Much like a work schedule today, Whittemore and his staff “[began] at eight in the morning, lunch [was] brought in to the workmen at twelve, and they [resumed] work at one and knock off at five [and] on Friday, instead of Sunday, they [rested],”  according to one of the fieldwork notebooks. Often, Whittemore would send reports on the ongoing work to Seth Gano, the Secretary of the Byzantine Institute. For instance in his letter to Gano on April 17, 1932, Whittemore reported that they have “uncovered the first great cross in the lunette series [and that] the cross is of gorgeous red and emerald green enamel with jeweled extremities in which silver mosaics are introduced.”

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Fieldwork notebook “Constantinople,” March 1932. From the collection: The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.

While Whittemore was busy managing the project, the fieldworkers diligently labored over the mosaics and were each required to maintain a work journal (a tradition that we have also required in our department). In the collection, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, we have over 170 of these fieldwork notebooks, probably the only original records of the restoration of Hagia Sophia’s mosaics.

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Fieldwork notebook “Diary of Work II” by A.T. White, March 1935. From the collection: The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks, Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.

From the 1940s on, the Byzantine Institute also worked on other Byzantine sites in Istanbul, such as Kariye Camii, Molla Zeyrek Camii, Fethiye Camii, and Fenari Isa Camii. After Whittemore’s death in 1950, Paul Atkins Underwood was appointed Fieldwork Director of the Byzantine Institute, and he continued the work begun by Whittemore. Byzantine Institute staff followed the same procedures they had followed in Hagia Sophia, gently conserving and restoring art and architecture, with the ultimate goal of preserving and studying cultural heritage.

Paul Underwood cropped

Paul Underwood, detail from a group portrait, 1950 Byzantine Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks (accession number:  BYZSYMP1950b)

Whittemore had been a very effective fundraiser, but the Institute struggled without him, and in April 1962 it was officially terminated due to insufficient funds. The assets were transferred to Dumbarton Oaks, which continued to support the fieldwork operations until the 2000s. The institutional records and fieldwork materials eventually made their way to ICFA.

As mentioned in the finding aid, between the 1950s and 2000s, Dumbarton Oaks sponsored new fieldwork projects in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey such as: the excavation of the Church of St. Polyeuktos at Saraçhane from 1964 to 1969; the excavations at Kalenderhane Camii from 1966 to 1978; the study of the monastery of St. Abercius at Kurşunlu (Elegmi) in Bithynia from 1962 to 1972; and the restoration of the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in 1968.

Contact sheet, St. Polyeuktos at Saraçhane, 1960. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.

Other fieldwork projects were carried out in Cyprus, including: the church of the Holy Apostles at Perachorio from 1954 to 1960; the north church of St. John Chrysostomos monastery at Koutsovendis from 1963 to 1969; the monastery of Hagios Neophytos near Paphos from 1963 to 1970; the castle of Saranda Kolonnes, also in Paphos, from 1970 to 1983; the Church of the Panagia Phorviotissa at Asinou from 1965 to 1968; the Church of the Panagia tou Arakas near Lagoudera from 1968 to 1973; the Church of the Panagia Amasgou at Monagri from 1969 to 1972; the church of the Panagia Kanakaria at Lythrankomi from 1952 to 1970; the church Panagia Angeloktistos in Kiti in ca. 1970; and the Episcopal Basilica of Kourion from 1974 to 1979. During this period, two additional fieldwork projects were undertaken: excavations at Bargala in Macedonia from 1970 to 1971 and the survey project at Dibsi Faraj in Syria from 1972 to 1974.

BI DO boxes etc 009

Wax imprint of a graffito of a horse, Bargala excavations, 1970. From the collection: The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks, Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.

For more information, please refer to our previous posts:

Special thanks to:

  • Beth Bayley, Archivist Assistant, for completing the archival processing in February 2013.
  • Shalimar White, Manager of ICFA, Günder Varinlioğlu, former ICFA Byzantine Assistant Curator, and Fani Gargova, Byzantine Research Associate, for editing the finding aid.
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5 thoughts on “Setting the Stage: Background on the Byzantine Institute

  1. Pingback: Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Institute – Moving Image Collection | archaeoinaction.info

  2. Pingback: The Byzantine Institute Fieldwork Notebooks | icfa

  3. Pingback: “Earthquakes and war they have survived…” | icfa

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