Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

Personal Rewards

We’re still chugging along with the creation of the finding aid, and physically rearranging all of the materials.  These are the last steps, but they are big ones.

One of the nice things about working with this collection is that Van Nice rarely keeps us guessing about things.  The collection is vast and a little hairy, but if you comb through it finely enough, you’re bound to find the answer to pretty much any question.  What did he feel were the personal benefits of his work at  Hagia Sophia? Well, he listed them out in a note, which I’ve reproduced here because of how well it speaks of both him and the nature of his work.

“Personal Rewards

– Satisfaction of working not on a third-rate building, but the greatest.

– of doing at nearly fifty what I set out to do from the age of ten onward– and in a cause I believe in

– of spending time enough in a country to get to know the people

– of working in the footsteps of a great architect

– of knowing the material is correct, and not just approximations

– of being at S.S. long enough to get, for lack of a better word, the “feel” of the building.

– of learning from modern repairs something of the way the construction proceeded in the sixth century, as the scaffold, the making of lead sheets, etc. etc.

-of seeing at first hand the religious differences exemplified by uses the building has at various times been put to.”

I was especially struck by “of being at S.S. [Hagia Sophia] long enough to get…the ‘feel’ of the building.” I have to think that Van Nice must have been the only person in history to spend five decades of his life dedicated to Hagia Sophia, and maybe the only person to have ever truly had a “feel” for it.  Even the original architects had only a feel for the building as it was first conceived, not after the innumerable additions and repairs over the centuries.  The building will continue to change, of course, but the depth of Van Nice’s perspective is incredibly rare.

The list also reflects the fact that working at Hagia Sophia wasn’t just a job.  The professional rewards of “knowing the materials are correct” and “working in the footsteps of a great architect” are balanced by personal ones: “spending enough time in a country to get to know the people,” and “seeing at first hand” the religious diversity that the building encompasses.

I’ve said it before, but Van Nice’s truly holistic interest in and understanding of the building is what really makes his work unique and valuable.  He was never a “scholar” in the traditional sense, and never finished the volume he planned to write on the building, but it’s all of our hope here that by processing and making this collection more accessible, current scholars will gain invaluable insight into one of the most celebrated historical monuments in the world.


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