Assistants / Dumbarton Oaks Fellows / Hagia Sophia / Oral History / Photographs / Robert College / Robert Van Nice

Santa Sophia, Santa Sophia!

In October, we had the pleasure of meeting Robert Van Nice, Jr. and his wife, Dee, who came to visit ICFA and view the Van Nice archive. You might remember Bob, Jr. from his youthful drawing of Hagia Sophia, which was somewhat more abstract than the precise and meticulous architectural drawings of Robert Van Nice, Sr. Well before his arrival to ICFA, Bob and his sister Molly had been crucial to the Van Nice project, having tracked down their father’s former assistants from Robert College and helping us get in touch them. Everyone we talked to noted Bob’s resemblance to his father, so we were all eager to meet him and see if we could recognize Van Nice’s likeness in his son. We were not disappointed. Bob was unfailingly gracious as we peppered him with questions and even agreed to allow us to record an oral history with him.

Recording an oral history with Robert Van Nice, Jr.

Recording an oral history with Robert Van Nice, Jr.

Within minutes, Bob had us laughing with new stories about his father’s adventures in Hagia Sophia and the abysmal working conditions he endured. Van Nice’s tools – as we know from his assistants – were primitive to say the least: measuring tape, long sticks, plumb and line, ladders, paper, and pencil.

Van Nice would draw at a table that he built himself from plywood and a couple of saw horses, working by the light of a single light bulb that hung from the ceiling on the gallery level. In the winter time, there was no heat, and as the days grew shorter, even that one light source seemed to grow dimmer and dimmer.

Van Nice's drafting area in the Gallery level of Hagia Sophia. You can just make out the faint glow of the light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Photo courtesy of Evgeni Vernigora.

Van Nice’s drafting area in the Gallery level of Hagia Sophia. You can just make out the faint glow of the light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Van Nice's Robert College assistants hard at work in the gallery level. That one light bulb is visible in the center foreground. Photograph courtesy of Evgeni Vernigora.

Van Nice’s Robert College assistants hard at work in the gallery level. That one light bulb is visible in the center foreground. Photograph courtesy of Evgeni Vernigora.

And then there were his nemeses, those critters that Clare told us about. When we showed Bob some of these pictures, he revealed that Van Nice had been plagued by the animals of Hagia Sophia. He often came home and told his children stories about the rats and birds who routinely stole his erasers and other drafting tools. It got so bad that he had to devise a paper cover for the drafting table and drape it over to protect his work while he was away. In retrospect, the photograph that we shared last year of a scarecrow leaning against the table makes much more sense. It’s also evidence that Van Nice had to get pretty crafty to outwit his tiny foes.

A makeshift scare-crow to protect the drawings from curious creatures.

A scarecrow posing as Van Nice to protect his drawings from small poachers.

And the shot of a cute bird “inspecting” Van Nice’s drawings? A nefarious thief caught red-handed.

A crow inspecting the architects' work. Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

A bird caught in the act of absconding with Van Nice’s drafting tools.

Double Centre Theodolite Wild T1 manufactured by Wild Heerbrugg Ltd. in Switzerland.

Double Centre Theodolite Wild T1 manufactured by Wild Heerbrugg Ltd. in Switzerland.

In light of these privations, Bob noted that 1951 was a banner year for Van Nice due to the acquisition of a theodolite, a surveying instrument for measuring horizontal and vertical angles. This Double Centre Theodolite Wild T1 allowed Van Nice to make precise measurements from a distance, rather than having to scramble into high, awkward, or otherwise dangerous areas within the building. You can see the theodolite in action here. This was a step up for Van Nice and he treasured the instrument for its dependability and elegant design. In 1955, Van Nice ordered a beam compass from the same manufacturer, Wild Heerbrugg Ltd. In his letter of inquiry, Van Nice included the following update on his prized theodolite:

You may be interested to learn that the T-1 you sent by Swissair, in 1951, has proved to be thoroughly dependable in every way, and its diagonal eyepieces, which enable me to plot the exact sections of elements inaccessible to direct measurement, are an indispensable aid to our exhaustive investigation of the structure of the great mosque of Hagia Sophia.

To Bob and his sisters, Molly and Barbara, Hagia Sophia was almost like another sibling. Van Nice would tell stories about his work there and when they visited their father, they would have free reign to wander through the building. They knew Hagia Sophia so intimately that they called her Sophie. At home, the family collected views and images of dear Sophie, a tradition that Bob continues to this day. During his visit, Bob described a set of color snapshots that he is currently going through at home, which sound rather magical.

During his Istanbul fieldwork, Van Nice would typically commute from a rented apartment at Robert College in Bebek by taking the ferry from the Rumeli Hisar stop. Every day, Van Nice would take photographs from the ferry to document his daily commute, whether the water-borne traffic along the Bosphorus or activity along the shore. Collectively, these views of Istanbul record Van Nice’s daily transit over many years, on sunny days or misty mornings, under storm clouds or clear skies, through summer haze or winter frost… every day on the way to see Sophie.

And one day was more special than others. Or at least Van Nice thought so. We showed Bob some letters where Van Nice described a fateful boat ride that the family took in 1955, a couple of days before departing after three years of living in Istanbul. In a letter to William Emerson, his mentor and sponsor, Van Nice recalled:

Rob grew an inch and five eights between March and June and passed Betty in height before he left. He also, and this I think is important, swam the Bosphorus two mornings before they left. Not bad for a thirteen-year-old, for it’s a long pull, and the rest of the family must have looked pretty comfortable to him as he trudged along at five in the morning, to avoid shipping on this busy waterway, and we sat in a rowboat.

Van Nice mentioned Bob’s epic swim in at least two other letters to friends. To Boris Ermoloff at the Byzantine Library in Paris, he even noted that

I’m glad to report that our son, Bob who is only thirteen and nearly as tall as I am, swam the Bosphorus two days before they left. This, like the work at St. Sophia, is something that no one can take from him: at thirteen he swam the Bosphorus.

Bob told us that he did remember the swim, albeit vaguely, and he hadn’t thought it was such an accomplishment. That Van Nice likened Bob’s feat to his own work at Hagia Sophia came as something of a surprise to Bob, but not to us.

For, if there’s anything that we’ve learned over the course of the past year, Van Nice noticed things. Usually little things. Small measurements. Tiny fragments. Tidbits of information. And he appreciated them, because he could piece them together into a larger whole to create meaning. In the case of Sophie, minute measurements and calculations scribbled on sheets in Van Nice’s miniscule handwriting were elements to be transformed into magnificent drawings that could express the epic grandeur of a great building.

Bob and Dee Van Nice and Shalimar White admiring Robert Van Nice's draftsmanship.

Bob and Dee Van Nice and Shalimar White admiring Robert Van Nice’s draftsmanship.

One photograph per day over several years could eventually encompass a comprehensive vision of a great city. And Bob’s plucky swim at 13 was one of the building blocks of the forthright and gracious man we met in October.

Bob Van Nice visiting ICFA in October 2012.

Another Bob – Robert Ousterhout, one of the current fellows at Dumbarton Oaks – had the same impression of the elder Van Nice as a serious, down-to-earth, and kind man. As a Junior Fellow at DO in 1980-81, Ousterhout found an affinity with Van Nice, having also grown up in an immigrant Dutch family in Oregon. In 1981, on the occasion of the departure of one of Van Nice’s draftsmen, the Junior Fellows serenaded the St. Sophia team with a song they had written in honor of Van Nice. Ousterhout remembered that their only accompaniment was a musical wrist watch worn by a member of the archives staff.

 As luck would have it, back in April, George Majeska – another former DO Junior Fellow, 1965-67 – delivered materials that he had been given from Van Nice’s office. Thanks to Majeska and Van Nice – master of documentation and minute detail – we have recovered the original lyrics and melody of the song. Van Nice annotated the following lyrics thusly: “Sung by Bob Ousterhout, John Baldovin and others on Friday, July 24, ’81, the day Howard Trevellian left.” Now, with the help of the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox, you can sing along, too…

(To the tune of Santa Lucia)
Isidore of Milet,
Anthemius of Tralles:
They built a monument
By Justinian’s palace.
Hung by a golden chain
A dome of wondrous fame!
Santa Sophia, Santa Sophia.

They were mechanikoi,
Not architects perhaps,
So they grew panicky
When the great dome collapsed.
They should have sought advice
From Mr. Bob Van Nice.
Santa Sophia, Santa Sophia!

Ousterhout recalled that he had never seen Van Nice laugh as much as he did that day. We feel lucky to have heard at least an echo of Van Nice’s laughter during our day with Bob. Through Bob’s efforts, we have learned so much more about his father and his work than the records and drawings in the archive could ever reveal alone. And, we’ve come closer than most to knowing Sophie as well as Bob and his family have come to know her. For this, we are immensely grateful.


5 thoughts on “Santa Sophia, Santa Sophia!

  1. Pingback: Santa Sophia, Santa Sophia! « 7artesliberales

  2. Pingback: The Basically Byzantine Singers | Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives

  3. Pingback: The Hagia Sophia Lives Online | DO/Conversations

  4. Pingback: The Human in “Humanities” | Dumbarton Oaks Interns

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