Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

Motivation, Methods, and Meaning: Architectural Drawings of Hagia Sophia

Written by Beth Bayley, Archivist Assistant

As we’ve mentioned previously on this blog, Robert Van Nice spent most of his life working on an architectural survey of Hagia Sophia. Van Nice may have been the most dedicated person to ever carry out such a project on the building, but he wasn’t the only one. Wilhelm Salzenberg, a mechanical engineering teacher and a government building official, spent less than a year in Hagia Sophia between 1847 and 1848, publishing a book of plates in 1854.

While it took Van Nice a lifetime and Salzenberg a few months, each man had his own unique motivations for undertaking their architectural surveys. Salzenberg and Van Nice differed in their goals, their audience, and of course, the time in which they were working. The resulting drawings are very different from each other, as seen here:

West view of Hagia Sophia by Wilhelm Salzenberg

West view of Hagia Sophia. Plate from Wilhelm Salzenberg’s Alt-christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel vom V. bis XII. Jahrhundert. Image courtesy of the Cracow University of Technology Digital Library.

West view of Hagia Sophia by Robert Van Nice

West view of Hagia Sophia. Plate from Saint Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey by Robert L. Van Nice. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

Architectural drawings are not supposed to be subjective, but these drawings are as different as the men who drew them – and it’s all because of their motivations.

Since the Fossati Brothers were already in Hagia Sophia in 1847, it seemed like a golden opportunity to draw this lovely building and some of its newly uncovered mosaics. So Salzenberg was sent by the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV to document the building, especially the ornamentation, to bring back ideas for the king to use when designing new buildings in Prussia.

The resulting book, Alt-christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel vom V. bis XII. Jahrhundert,  is very much a product of its time, and of the creator’s motivations. Salzenberg, with his team of engravers, was trying to draw what he saw in the most beautiful way possible. For someone in the middle of the 1800s, one of the things that beauty meant was symmetry (even though Byzantine buildings aren’t symmetrical). The drawings are gorgeous – and the building is gorgeous – but the drawings aren’t always exactly of the building.  Rather than drawing what he saw, Salzenberg drew an idealized representation of Hagia Sophia. He added some features, subtracted others, and exaggerated the building’s perfection.

West view of Hagia Sophia by Wilhelm Salzenberg

View of Hagia Sophia. Plate from Wilhelm Salzenberg’s Alt-christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel vom V. bis XII. Jahrhundert. Image courtesy of the Cracow University of Technology Digital Library.

Decoration in Hagia Sophia, by Wilhelm Salzenberg

Decoration in Hagia Sophia. Plate from Wilhelm Salzenberg’s Alt-christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel vom V. bis XII. Jahrhundert. Image courtesy of the Cracow University of Technology Digital Library.

The motivations of Robert Van Nice, who began his own survey of Hagia Sophia 90 years later, were very different. Van Nice and William Emerson, the Dean of Architecture at MIT who sponsored the project for the first two decades, were interested in a clear and complete architectural survey of the building exactly as it stood. In 1937, the Byzantine Institute, like the Fossatis before them, was already there uncovering and restoring the mosaics, and the presence of the Byzantine Institute facilitated Van Nice’s access. Van Nice put out his architectural drawings in two installments, in 1965 and 1986. And each drawing is startling its precision, right down to the placement of each brick, as seen below.

End walls of buttresses in Hagia Sophia by Robert Van Nice

End walls of buttresses in Hagia Sophia. Plate from Saint Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey by Robert L. Van Nice. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

Salzenberg’s book also included drawings of a few other Byzantine churches and sites (see below), but again, it is useful to look at his motivations. He documented mosaics and masonry to capture bright colors and playful patterns wherever he found them, which would have been especially interesting to his patron, the king.

Decoration in Pantokrator Monastery by Wilhelm Salzenberg

Decoration in Pantokrator Monastery. Plate from Wilhelm Salzenberg’s Alt-christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel vom V. bis XII. Jahrhundert. Image courtesy of the Cracow University of Technology Digital Library.

Van Nice also looked at other churches and sites, photographing other Byzantine buildings in Istanbul. However, he was always motivated by a desire to draw the truth, to draw exactly what was there. Based on our assessment of the collection, we believe that looking at these other buildings gave Van Nice another perspective on his beloved obsession, Hagia Sophia. Van Nice was interested in documentation without hierarchy. Ornament only interested him on an equal level with everything else – like the mason’s marks and the graffiti that he also painstakingly documented.

We can also learn about Van Nice’s motivations from his own words. Van Nice kept a vast collection of research notes, which are now in the collection Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. 1936-1989. Having these notes is like a window to Van Nice’s thoughts, and we can get his perspective on his predecessor. Van Nice, in his notes, certainly gives Salzenberg his due. He calls the 1854 work “obviously, the fundamental document on St. Sophia,” and says that the book represents:

“an immense amount of work for the apparently six months he spent in Ople. More important the ornament he shows is superbly drawn – panels of marble, inlay, opus sectile, mosaic designs, cornice detail, column caps, ornament, etc. In addition planes of walls are set back by shading and exterior views were given life by cast shadows. Color is used in lithograph. We do not have photographs that can show detail as well of all these kinds of decoration. His engravings give an excellent idea of the church as a whole – the colored section being quite special.”

But Van Nice’s own passion for exactitude meant he couldn’t help but enumerate Salzenberg’s flaws. Over several notecards (one of which is titled “CREDIBLITY OF WITNESSES”) he lists some of the problems with Salzenberg’s work:

-Salzenberg, … introduced elements in one buttress that exist in a different one, etc.

-…He completely omitted imported elements projecting from St. Sophia’s east façade.

-His delineation of column caps of gallery bays [was flawed]

-No floor slabs

-No entrances to minarets

-He shows… in placage of soffits of ground level arches of exedrae a kind of overall carved design that doesn’t exist…

-His east façade lacks, for some reason, the small projections along sides of the dome-base.

-He has a well misplaced in the south aisle.

-His squinches are at 45 (degrees) to the dome-base.

-Arches to the west gallery from the side are horizontal instead of rounded.

-Vault thicknesses are exaggerated.

-West semidome is too thick.

Below is an example of one of Van Nice’s many research notecards.

Research notecard from Robert Van Nice's collection

Note that Van Nice wonders about Salzenberg, “Does he, any place, say that parts of his drawings are purely conjectural?” Image from the collection Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. 1936-1989. Courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

Van Nice’s focus was always accuracy, and he was uncomfortable with the idea of “invented” details. He believed in what he was doing, and in his other notes, it is clear that it was very important to him to get the truth down on paper:

“Salzenberg’s conventionalized plans, which make everything symmetrical, ornament regular and repetitive, etc, while introducing…features which simply don’t exist…It seems, therefore, that we would be doing the greatest service if we set down only what we find and separate all conjecture from the main drawings…Thus least we shall not be setting misinformation afloat.”

Here is a comparison of two cutaway views, Van Nice’s positivistic, evidence-based image and Salzenberg’s more fanciful, decoration-focused view:

Longitudinal section looking south, and cutaway isometric view in Hagia Sophia by Robert Van Nice

Longitudinal section looking south, and cutaway isometric view in Hagia Sophia. Plate from Saint Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey by Robert L. Van Nice. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

Mosaic and marble decoration of the bema in Hagia Sophia by Wilhelm Salzenberg

Mosaic and marble decoration of the bema in Hagia Sophia. Plate from Wilhelm Salzenberg’s Alt-christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel vom V. bis XII. Jahrhundert. Image courtesy of the Cracow University of Technology Digital Library.

While thinking about goals and motivations, one final thing to take into account is the time in which these men were working. Salzenberg was bringing images of Hagia Sophia back to people, including a king, who had never seen it. The king was very involved with architecture, personally drawing the buildings he wanted built before giving the sketch to court architects. But the king was also interested in ornamentation, and probably used the mosaics that Salzenberg drew as a model for the mosaics in his own Klosterhof, according to Robert S. Nelson in Hagia Sophia 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument. Sharing images with each other took a lot of time in the mid-1800s, and for Salzenberg, beauty and usability took precedence over accuracy.

Van Nice’s motivations were also influenced by the period in which he was working. The first part of the 20th century was an exciting time – in fact, Van Nice told his own children that he had wanted to be involved with antiquities ever since hearing about the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Van Nice was doing his work in a time when Life magazine was featuring articles and pictures of Byzantine mosaics, so access to information was already very different, and sharing images with each other much quicker. For Van Nice, the point was not just to bring the building to his patrons. Instead, it was a point of pride to be able to deliver drawings of the building exactly as it stood in the 20th century. Van Nice documented for the sake of documentation and knowledge about the building, while Salzenberg was sent to bring back something beautiful and useful.

These two books are not only separated by a century, but by a vast distance of motivation and intention. They now serve to complement each other, and scholars are lucky to have them both.

Salzenberg’s book, Alt-christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel vom V. bis XII. Jahrhundert: auf Befehl seiner Majestät des Königs / aufgenommen und historisch erläutert von W. Salzenberg ; im Anhange, des Silentiarius Paulus Beschreibung der heiligen Sophia und des Ambon, metrisch übersetzt und mit Anmerkungen versehen von Dr. C. W. Kortüm ; herausgegeben von dem Königl. Ministerium für Handel, Gewerbe, und öffentliche Arbeiten. is 20 x 26 inches, and 39 pages of plates. The PDF is available from Cracow University of Technology, and the images used in this post are from their PDF.

Van Nice’s book, Saint Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey, is 23 x 35 inches, and 46 pages of plates.

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One thought on “Motivation, Methods, and Meaning: Architectural Drawings of Hagia Sophia

  1. Pingback: Friday Quick Hits and Varia | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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