You would think that a building that had existed for over 2000 years in a large city and in pretty much continuous use wouldn’t have many secrets. And yet, Van Nice was able to make a few discoveries during his time at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul that went beyond his goal of a structural analysis. Besides exposing a few previously forgotten spaces (underground tunnels, chambers), Van Nice was instrumental in uncovering the famous mosaic of Emperor Alexander, a valuable piece of history thought to be completely lost.
The portrait of Alexander was sketched by the Italien architect Gaspere Fossati in 1849 when he and his brother, Giuseppe, were asked to undertake some repairs throughout the building. This included uncovering and then recovering the Byzantine-era, Christian mosaics with plaster, since the building was then functioning as a mosque. (Note: this is a intriguing story in and of itself–involving international politics, copyright battles, and the fascinating figure of the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I. Look out for a future blog post with more details…)
Despite having seen these sketches, Thomas Whittemore and other scholars searched in vain for the mosaic, and concluded that it must have been destroyed in an earthquake. It was, in fact, a visit to an archive in Switzerland by Mr. Van Nice that led to its rediscovery. Van Nice was studying a collection of Fossati’s drawings in Bellinzona, and came across some very faint pencil annotations in the margin of a water color sketch which gave information about the precise location of the mosaic as Fossati saw it. As with all great treasure hunts, there was even a plan of Hagia Sophia with a small cross marking the location of the mosaic.
In 1959, when Paul Underwood and Ernest Hawkins (of the Byzantine Institute) followed up on Van Nice’s tip, they found the mosaic covered with a thin coat of plaster and paint. Little by little, this was chipped away, and the portrait of the emperor was revealed.
With so few large scale Byzantine mosaics surviving in good condition, this really was a valuable find. And we have Van Nice’s sharp eyes and attention to detail to thank for it!
To see more images of the mosaic uncovering done by the Byzantine Institute in 1959, click here.