Assessment / Byzantine Institute / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice / Thomas Whittemore

Character Study

Though Van Nice was generally a mild-mannered and even-tempered man, he was occasionally unable to conceal his contempt for a few choice individuals.  Despite their shared interest in Hagia Sofia, Thomas Whittemore (scholar, archaeologist, and founder of the Byzantine Institute) was one of these choice individuals.   Speculation as to why is easy if one knows a bit about the personalities of both men.  Whittemore had a strong character and was a bit of a wild card; he jumped from a career as an English professor, to a humanitarian aid worker founding a school for the education of exiled Russian youth, to an archaeologist, all with seeming ease.  He had a taste for lavishness and high society, boasted many friends in high places, and never had much trouble securing funds from wealthy donors for his various projects.  Van Nice, on the other hand, was constantly in need of funding for his projects, yet bristled at the thought of having to take another prime minister or foreign prince on a tour of Hagia Sophia–he was much more content to work quietly and diligently on his own and in the company of his trusted assistants.  In many ways, Van Nice’s relative sobriety was in direct opposition to Whittemore’s flash.

Because of his notoriety, it was often Whittemore’s name that was readily associated with archaeological work at Hagia Sophia; Van Nice occasionally complains in his correspondence of constantly being taken to be a part of Whittemore’s team, when in fact he conducted his own work on Hagia Sophia completely independently.

Turkey, Istanbul, Hagia Sophia view from northeast with Thomas Whittemore in the foreground. Unpublished LIFE photograph by Dimitri Kessel, ca. 1940s

Whittemore and an assistant on the roof of the Little Aya Sofya mosque, undated.

Whittemore’s life story is a fascinating one–his close relationship with the first Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk may have influenced Atatürk’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia from an operating mosque to a museum.  This move allowed architects and historians to study its structure in detail for the first time in the building’s history.

A portrait of Whittemore by Henri Matisse.

When Whittemore died suddenly in 1950, Van Nice summed up his feelings to a friend as follows:

“T.W.’s collapse in a corridor of the State Department (he is one of the lucky few who literally drop dead in their tracks) was in character with the guiding rule of his life: ‘If we can’t go first class, we won’t go at all.’ Despite being primitive enough to know my friends from natural enemies, I have always admitted that he was an original.  The part he played, the way he played it, every word and gesture – all were carefully studied for effect, but if he had a prototype I could never find him.  My feeling, inspired by Churchill, that never in the history of archaeological endeavor have so many done so little with so much is borne out by the chaos left at his sudden demise.” Jul. 19, 1950.

Despite this somewhat ambivalent attempt at cordiality, Van Nice couldn’t resist going on to poke a bit of fun at the aftermath of Whittemore’s death.  He gleefully wrote to many friends, in the same practiced words, of how the Bishop of Barbados who was supposed to officiate the funeral  never showed up, and further, how the lawyer who was supposed to read Whittemore’s will to members of an alleged elite “fictional” board of the Byzantine Institute appointed by Whittemore, also failed to appear.

One would think that if any building could accomodate two great minds like Van Nice’s and Whittemore’s, it would be Hagia Sophia.  Yet it seems as if even the building that remained the largest on the planet for over eight centuries was too cramped to comfortably contain the personalities of these two men.

The images in this post can be found at the Image Collection and Fieldwork Archive (ICFA) at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections in Washington, D.C.

6 thoughts on “Character Study

  1. I don’t know who clmoran is, but I think he/she has written a very accurate, though perhaps unduly tame, description of my father. Not only was he not an academic, he had a kind of westward-ho-the-wagons loathing for academia. He had great respect and admiration for a number of true scholars, (Şevcenko, Kitzinger, Underwood, etc.) but they were exceptions to his general disdain. mvn

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