Hagia Sophia’s Hidden History

Posted On November 28, 2018 | 14:07 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Dumbarton Oaks is digitizing original records of Hagia Sophia’s restoration

Earlier this fall, Dumbarton Oaks sent more than 300 notebooks and folders documenting the restoration of Byzantine mosaics to Harvard University Library to be digitized. These drawings and notes exist nowhere else and offer a rare glimpse into important conservation efforts in Turkey in the 1930s through 1950s, predominately at Hagia Sophia. 

“A lot of this work was 50 feet off the ground, because it was done from the scaffolding—two feet from the mosaic. Even if you take pictures of Hagia Sophia today, you’re not going to get the same angle,” explains Bettina Smith, manager of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA), which holds the notebooks.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Hagia Sophia became a mosque, its mosaics covered in plaster. Some 400 years later, Sultan Abdülmecid I commissioned two Swiss-Italian brothers to renovate the mosque—and in doing so, they rediscovered the mosaics. The sultan was so impressed by the golden designs, he ordered all the mosaics restored, according to a book by former Dumbarton Oaks archival curator Natalia Teteriatnikov. Although the mosaics were soon plastered over again to respect Muslim tradition, the tantalizing knowledge of their existence remained.

Then, in 1930, the Massachusetts-born scholar and archaeology lover Thomas Whittemore founded the Byzantine Institute to conserve and study Byzantine art and architecture. Leveraging American, British, and French diplomatic connections, the institute managed to convince the first President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to allow conservation work in Hagia Sophia.

Byzantine Notebook Dailys

Byzantine Institute conservationists kept methodical records, allowing today’s viewers to see the painstaking, days-long process of uncovering a Hagia Sophia mosaic. These particular drawings come from the notebook of Richard Gregory.

For about 20 years, Byzantine Institute workers arrived every spring at Hagia Sophia. They set up lights and scaffolding, methodically divvied up each wall panel, and made daily notes and illustrations of their work. (For details, read this fascinating ICFA blog post.) In 1962, the Byzantine Institute folded due to insufficient funding and transferred its assets—including the fieldwork notebooks—to Dumbarton Oaks.

But why digitize notebooks, out of all the financial records, notes, correspondence, photography, albums, and more that form The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers?

Previous digitization projects focused on Byzantine books that, although rare, could still be found at other libraries. Then former Byzantine Studies Librarian Deborah Brown noticed that, by contrast, the conservation fieldwork notebooks represent a trove of material unique to Dumbarton Oaks.

What’s more, the notebooks are useful to scholars. “It’s been 50 to 70 years since this work was done, so it’s plausible that things have changed,” says Smith. “It’s useful to know what was there before and what was changed.”

Bettina Smith with Byzantine Notebooks

Unlike correspondence, which tucks valuable information into travel narratives, the fieldwork notebooks systematically describe mosaics and their conservation. The Byzantine Institute notebooks lend insight not only into Hagia Sophia but also into places like the Kariye Camii church.

Despite the matter-of-fact tone of the notebooks, there are brief moments of excitement. On July 25, 1939, conservation worker Richard Gregory wrote, “At 5:30 this morning an earthquake shock was felt at my apartment. . . . The shock was not severe, but enough to awaken me and to rattle the doors of the apartment.” (He dutifully noted that the mosaics did not appear damaged.)

This September, Artex art handlers came to the ICFA, packed up Richard Gregory’s notebook and all the others, and transported the collection by truck to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, staff from the Library Imaging Services have begun to unpack, sort, and photograph the notebooks. The process will take the better part of a year.

The dedication and care it takes to preserve something—whether Byzantine mosaics or fieldwork notebooks—might be best summed up by Richard Gregory’s brother William, who scrawled in his notebook on May 28, 1938: “So it must be understood that this work is slow and tedious if we are to do it well and thoroughly.”