This week I’ve been looking at Van Nice’s vast collection of notes, all taken on small sheets of paper and organized meticulously in alphabetical order by category. They have been fascinating to flip through, refining and reinforcing my understanding of his relationship with Hagia Sophia and the fieldwork that he did there.
Above all, his notes reveal what may best be described as both the breadth and narrowness of his interests. On the one hand, there is hardly a single line in the entire collection, notes included, that isn’t in some way connected to his work at Hagia Sophia. On the other hand, his notes clearly demonstrate that Van Nice took careful study of every single aspect of the building, from its structure, to the quality of the soil on which it was built, to the creatures that called it home.
One of the notes in the “Animals” section struck me as a particularly good example of this:
“It might be possible to attempt an explanation of the life support system of inhabitants of the building-to find whether there are enough kinds of victims and predators to be self-supporting.”
I think this note is wonderful for a few reasons. First, I love the idea of an ancient building as a independent biological entity. The image is lovely, if unlikely. I also like it because it speaks volumes about Van Nice’s respect for the building, and about the intricacy and life that he saw in it. His approach to Hagia Sophia was never one of just an architect, but also one of an historian, an anthropologist, a biologist, a geologist, a metallurgist, a mason, and so on. Everything, from individual carved inscriptions, to supporting beams, to the pigeons on the roof, were a part of this system and affected how Van Nice saw it and studied it.
This is what I think makes the Robert Van Nice collection so astounding. It is, in effect, a more accurate and detailed view of one of the most important buildings in architectural history than even first-hand experience can give. Without decades of dedicated, detailed work and permission from the authorities that be, there is no way that anyone could go to Hagia Sophia and see what they could see if they were to look at this collection.
The rest of the staff and I were reminded of this fact yet again when we were going through some of the over-sized rubbings and drawings that are included in this collection. In addition to the dozens of individual rubbings of ancient graffiti and inscriptions and taken at Hagia Sophia, there was a large scale map with a key that told the reader where exactly in the building each one of those rubbings was taken, and what language it was in. The amount of information in that one sheet of paper alone is incredible.
Or, for example, there are the rubbings taken of the mason’s marks, the wall carvings, and the timber beam carvings, all of which give the reader a up-close and perfectly-to-scale look at parts of the building that would be completely inaccessible to the average visitor. It’s as if the entire building has been recorded in some form or another in this collection.
Between the photographs, the detailed plans, the rubbings, and the notes, everything is accounted for. A former assistant of Van Nice’s once remarked that there are probably 200 PhD’s waiting to be written from the collection, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.