Even though I don’t think I’ve come across even one letter that does not in some way mention, refer to, or indirectly involve Van Nice’s work at Hagia Sophia, it is rare to find a quote in which Van Nice actually explains what it is about the building that captivated him so much. Perhaps this is because those who knew him were already well aware, or perhaps it was because he felt the importance of the building was self-evident. In any case, it is always interesting to come upon the rare moments where Van Nice’s admiration for Hagia Sophia gushes out. In a letter to a friend in 1955, Van Nice described a long list of “repairs” that the government was making to the building, most of which he felt were brutishly done and/or unnecessary. To reassure his correspondent, he wrote:
“But don’t worry about the building. My regard for it increases from year to year as I see what it has had to put up with. In spite of surface irritations like the removal of stucco, and small men constantly picking at it, and others, like myself, prying into its secrets, it will survive. I often think that the great story is not going to come from the facts I struggle to set down but from its monumental indifference to what men have done to it and said about it, not to mention earthquakes, storms, conversions, wars, and, more recently as part of a long succession of similar events, savage riots.”
Van Nice was an interesting figure in the context of the academic circles he swam in because he was not actually a scholar, in the usual sense. He was an architect, not a historian, by training, and though he obviously knew a great deal about the history of Hagia Sophia, he was generally much more interested in it as an independent structural object. Many of us who have ever taken history or art history classes are used to thinking of structures as they relate to the people that used them, the cultures that built them, to time periods, religious practices, historical events, natural disasters, and so on. This quote is a vivid illustration of Van Nice’s relative indifference to these historical concerns, which seem to simply hang on the structure like cobwebs, not affecting the true form and identity of the building in any significant way. His regard for Hagia Sophia as an object removed from human affairs, capable, even, of keeping secrets from us, makes his approach to studying the building a unique one. He had a respect for the building that went beyond the typical awe at its dimensions, complexity, and age, which translated itself into the incredibly high quality of the architectural survey he produced.
The following images come from the collection of photographs produced during the Byzantine Institute’s restoration of the mosaics at Hagia Sophia fom 1931-1964. They were chosen to illustrate the scale of the building compared to human efforts to change its surfaces, and also as they give a better feel for what the building looked like at the time that Van Nice was working there. As I come to the photographs in Van Nice’s own collection, I hope to share many of those, as well.
For the full set of images see the Conservation of Hagia Sophia mosaics, Istanbul, 1931-1964 collection at Harvard University’s Visual Information Access site, http://via.lib.harvard.edu/.