By Beth Bayley, former Byzantine Archives Assistant (2012-2014)
No matter how complete a collection may seem, it will always only tell part of the story. But it’s a part that opens up infinite possibilities.
While processing the Robert Van Nice letters, I noticed something small, but special – a possible hint at a larger way of viewing the collection. Both Robert and Betty Van Nice used particular turns of phrase in letters to friends. Perhaps it was representative of the time, or maybe a more personal or regional habit, but both the Van Nices would pepper their letters with references to forces larger than themselves. Phrases like “kind fates must have whispered to you,” “the decision is in the lap of the gods,” “we are still attended by a benevolent fate,” and “kismet has intervened to alter our careful plans” appear throughout their correspondence. Phrases like these are apt reminders that circumstances aren’t always within our control – at least, the Van Nices didn’t think so.
But if perhaps we can’t control our lives, we certainly can control how we respond to the things that happen to us. As a child in 1922, Van Nice heard about the discovery King Tut’s tomb by Howard Carter and George Herbert. Van Nice decided then that he, too, wanted to see the world, with all its potential discoveries and adventures. The adventure that life gave him, by way of William Emerson, was a survey of Hagia Sophia, beginning in 1937. Emerson chose Van Nice to do the project for a reason. To Emerson, Van Nice was a bright young man interested in travel and who had the character to do a thorough job at whatever task he was set to. And that character is what kept him with it for nearly 50 years. Hagia Sophia “happened to” Van Nice, and he responded wholeheartedly – yet with humility. He wasn’t a Byzantinist or even an academic – he was an architect with an archaeological bent, a surplus of determination, and a sense of adventure. Fate handed him this building, and he responded by making sure its story was recorded.
The Robert Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers contains this story: all of Van Nice’s drawings, photographs, notes, correspondence, research, drafts, and articles about Hagia Sophia. These dozens of boxes were preliminarily assessed and processed by Dumbarton Oaks staff sometime in the 1990s, and again between 2010 and 2011 by Rona Razon and Shalimar White. The collection was given a thorough assessment and rearrangement by ICFA intern Clare Moran between 2011 and 2012. While surveying the collection, Moran kept a processing blog, which became our current ICFA departmental blog. And finally from 2012 to 2014, I took Clare’s survey and added descriptions for each folder of correspondence, research notes, photographs, and drawings, and finalized the collection arrangement. Then, Fani Gargova and Rona Razon looked at the resulting finding aid through the lenses of a Byzantine subject specialist and an experienced archivist.
Since so many staff members in ICFA have had a hand in processing this collection, we have grown attached to Van Nice over the past few years. He means a lot to our department for a few reasons, one of which is illustrated by this chart of hours spent on each plate:
This chart shows exactly how long it took Van Nice and his team to draw each plate for his book Saint Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey. To quantify and illustrate his time and work in such a way is so typical of Van Nice. He was passionate and dedicated, and very willing to spend time on the details. Hagia Sophia may be immense, but nothing was too small for Van Nice to photograph, to note, and to ruminate on.
ICFA staff wanted to be meticulous in our work on the collection to do justice to how consistently meticulous Van Nice always was. Reading through his correspondence makes it possible to trace the course of his life, from young man to old, but always concerned about getting the work done. Van Nice himself once said that his dedication to the building verged on a monomania. But without his obsession, the world would be lacking an incredible portrait of Hagia Sophia. This portrait may also be the most complete portrait of a building ever created. By thoroughly documenting (and crawling all over) the entire building, Van Nice was able to capture and describe locations in Hagia Sophia that even surprised the Byzantine art historians among us. We are so excited to see what historians and architects will make of the collection.
Van Nice’s dedication continues to inspire ICFA. Although we finally released the finding aid last week, in many ways it feels like the work is only beginning. There are so many other stories to be found in this collection – as many nooks and crannies as in the building itself.
For most of Van Nice’s adult life, he thought about writing a book. He certainly wanted there to be some kind of text to accompany the plates, and he planned this text with colleagues, but there are elements in the collection that suggest another kind of book. One colleague at Dumbarton Oaks once gave him translations labeled “for your secret history” (a reference to Procopius). Even the folder that held the man-hours chart above contained a jokey note – “a reference book instead of a novel.” I might be wrong, but I’d venture to say that the idea of containing the building in one book was so daunting as to be impossible. The survey of Hagia Sophia can barely be contained in the dozens of boxes in ICFA – and these boxes are just the archive. As much as we’d like it to be, the archive is never the whole story. It will always only be part of the story – but we need these parts to approach a whole.
Robert Van Nice did his part by dedicating his life to his work on Hagia Sophia. ICFA tried to do our part by making his collection accessible. And the book remains, waiting to be written.