Assessment / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

A Large and Dangerous Kaleidoscope

The conditions under which Van Nice and his team of assistants worked at Hagia Sophia are a continual source of wonder for me.  I’ve already mentioned that it was not unheard of to wake up to his soap having been nibbled at by rats, his desk and drawing papers smeared with the blood of an injured cat, or the remains of a mouse scattered around the floor. Van Nice often had a hard time finding local students who were up to the task of assisting him because not only did he insist that they be well trained in architectural drawing, but they also had to be comfortable with heights, and physically sturdy enough to withstand long hours in unpleasant conditions.

I found a few notes in his collection of research materials which list the qualities that Van Nice felt were necessary for the accomplishment of fieldwork.  They sound humorous, but to be honest, I have a feeling he was being completely serious.  The note, titled:  “FIELDWORK: Requisite qualifications for fieldwork, few of which are covered by college courses or tested by College Boards” suggests that the most effective fieldworker will have:

“The impulses, if not experience of, a:  knot-tier, porch-climber (second-story man), cave-dropper, House-breaker, Home-wrecker (in the sense of absences), lock-picker, cliff-hanger, shop-lifter, pocket-picker, food-taster”

While I’m not quite sure why the qualities of a “food-taster” or “shop-lifter” are especially relevant, most of these make perfect sense given the incredibly ambitious nature of Van Nice’s project.  To completely survey a building as huge as Hagia Sophia is one thing, but Hagia Sophia isn’t just any big building.  It’s a building whose basic defining feature is the marvel that it still stands despite quick and irregular construction, and centuries worth of damage and partial collapse from earthquakes.  Spending decades rappelling around a thing whose structural integrity is something of a historical curiosity is best done with finesse and skill.

A worker, either an assistant of Van Nice’s or a repairman, scales one of the minarets of Hagia Sophia. Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

But even the most experienced porch-climbing, cave-dropping, pocket-picking, food-taster could not always escape what Van Nice calls “Hazards and roadblocks on the job,” which include, among others:

“Possible falls from ledges or ladders.

Innumerable visitors official and otherwise

Dampness, dust, expansion of paper and change of texture

Wind—fouling plumbs and lines, tearing drawings

Darkness-in winter, light only 10:00 to 4:00

Cold-down to 43 degrees inside in winter

Pools of water at intersections of traverses

Garbage, like dead cats, rat skeletons, pigeon droppings at survey setups

Loss of electric power

Locked in after working late

Loss of time because guards couldn’t find right key”

A worker crouched on the roof of Hagia Sophia, with scaffolding. Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

Taking a break on the roof. Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

The difficulty of dealing with these hazards was increased by the fears that Van Nice noted in some of the men he employed.  These fears, both idiosyncratic and very reasonable, include:


Of heights; 

Of sap of fig trees; 

Of touching lead roofs for fear of poison

Of incrustations of pigeon droppings, dirt in general

Of articulated skeleton-the student I sent into the S.W. Buttress saw these human bones held together with brass wire—and left the job too late in the season for me to find a replacement.

Of sitting on cold marble

Of impure drinking water”

Van Nice once wrote that working in Hagia Sophia was “like working in a large and dangerous kaleidoscope.”  That seems exactly right, to me.

4 thoughts on “A Large and Dangerous Kaleidoscope

  1. Pingback: Behind the Scenes | The Robert L. Van Nice Collection

  2. Robert van Nice wrote me several times when I was a kid and encouraged my interest in Byzantine things – especially Hagia Sophia. It’s so funny I can remember the exact words of one of them – something like “there is much more we can learn about Hagia Sophia and there are more mysteries to solve.” followed by encouragement to study hard. I was brave enough to talk with him on the phone and he was kind and patient with me when he found out how old I really was.

    • Bob–thank you for your comment! We’re thrilled to hear about your interest in Hagia Sophia and the contact you had with Van Nice. Your story supports our impression that he was very generous with his time and always happy to engage with people who were as interested in the building as he was.

  3. Pingback: Behind the Scenes | Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives

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