The Oaks News
Sergey Ivanov Reconsiders the Unorthodox Saints’ Lives of the Tenth Century
Sergey Ivanov, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in spring 2017, is a professor at the National Research University in Moscow. His recent research has focused on Byzantine hagiography, specifically the lives of two Constantinopolitan saints, Basil the Younger and Niphon. At Dumbarton Oaks, Ivanov will be working on a critical edition of the life of St. Niphon, a narrative he believes is a long-neglected masterpiece of Byzantine literature.
Brief Q&A with Sergey Ivanov
In your talk, you discussed a ban that was placed on the creation of new saints because there had been a sudden proliferation of narratives. I was hoping you could talk more about why and how this ban was enacted.
This is a multifaceted problem, because it derives both from the function of literature and the function of religion, and, generally speaking, the function of society. So really, we should first ask ourselves, why should a society need saints to begin with? There was a time when there were Christians but no saints, so sainthood as a concept is a relatively late phenomenon. Gradually, there emerged a vague feeling within the Christian community that sanctity exists, somehow, in the air, that it’s unleashed suddenly on an individual, sometimes even a person who doesn’t seem to deserve it. But regardless, he is endowed with sanctity.
For example, there is a very important early Byzantine legend about a robber who tries to rob a nunnery. To get inside, he pretends that he’s a wandering beggar so that the nuns will open the gates for him. And meanwhile his fellow robbers are waiting outside—he has to settle inside and open the gates for them. Anyway, when the nuns see the robber, they say, “Oh, a great saint has visited us,” and they prostrate themselves before him. He’s of course disconcerted, protests that they must be mistaken, but they insist—“We can’t make a mistake, you are a great saint!” Eventually he becomes so fed up that he admits he is a robber, to which they reply something along the lines of, “Such humiliation is only proper to great saints—they always take upon themselves the sins of others.” And they proceed to wash his feet, at which point a blind nun who has touched the water suddenly begins to see. Afterwards, the robber recognizes that something bigger than himself is demanding a different life from him, so he promises to become a monk and organize a monastery side by side with the nunnery—and all of his gang, still waiting outside, become his fellow monks.
What does this story tell us? Sanctity is not a decision—it is something unleashed from above. In my opinion, hagiography as literature is secondary to this intimation of culture, which really comes from a deep abyss of unconscious, that is, the societal imagination, where the idea has its roots. For example, we have the story of St. Isidora, a nun who pretended to be insane at a monastery in Tabennisi, in Egypt, and her story looks very much like Cinderella’s. Which comes first, Cinderella or Isidora? It’s difficult to say, because both of these stories were born in the subliterary folk consciousness. Over time this consciousness begins to take the shape of a text, of literature, and then becomes an independent genre with its own rules. But it’s still relying heavily on the same “anticipation of sanctity,” this feeling that somewhere, though we don’t know where, someone, though we don’t know who, is a saint.
And then, for unknown reasons, this hagiographic habit, this anticipation, begins to wane—it wanes as unexpectedly as it emerged, and we feel in the texts a certain half-heartedness. More and more hagiographers resort to the earlier examples, to the saints of old, to martyrs, to hermits, and they even begin to write in certain lives that the saint, our hero, had read the lives of previous saints and decided to conduct himself in a comparable way. So saints are becoming saints because they read the lives of saints—it’s a self-reproducing system. And this is detrimental for hagiography because the narratives become more and more dry; there is no vivid spirit in it anymore.
Eventually the writers—people who otherwise write with inspiration—begin looking for means to circumvent this lack of inner feeling, so some of them start to write psychological prose under the name of vita. Now they write just as though they’re writing novels—the first one, in my opinion, was Niphon, who was an absolutely literary character. Another means of avoiding this lack of inner feeling would be versification, because it’s easier to say nothing in verse than in prose. A third way was compiling huge anthologies, so the saints then come in scores. In my opinion, these processes, which are taking place in the tenth and eleventh centuries, are all interrelated.
The narrative of Niphon’s life, as you described it, is quite strange when compared to the status quo. He wasn’t born a saint, or it didn’t suddenly come upon him, and he goes through these classic trials of concupiscence and so on. You also mentioned that you consider it a masterpiece of Byzantine literature, so I’m wondering what scholarly opinion you would like to see emerge from a reevaluation of Niphon’s life.
Well, Niphon is not alone. He’s a representative of a group of at least four saints—a group that includes Andrew the Fool and Gregentios—who, though they’re not quite as impressive, are still very unorthodox saints. One of them was published on extensively ten years ago, another was published on about twenty years ago, but the remaining two, Basil the Younger and Niphon, still deserve critical publication. I plan to work on commentaries for the forthcoming editions of Niphon’s life, and I think I’ll also contribute to the new publication of the oldest Greek version of the vita of Basil the Younger.
As a final outcome, I hope this work will add to our understanding of the relations between the ordinary hagiography of the tenth century, which is numerous, and this shocking, outstanding group of vitae. I seriously doubt they are a piece of truly vernacular literature; I think those who wrote these texts were very learned people, intentionally writing in lower style. It’s still an open question, of course, but I think someday we’ll be able to answer it.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Dumbarton Oaks Gardens Closed to the Public from July 10, 2017, to March 15, 2018
At Dumbarton Oaks, we are committed to preserving and maintaining our historic gardens and collections to the highest standards, while incorporating technological improvements that will ensure their good repair and longevity. We are just finishing a yearlong renovation of the museum, which will reopen in late April.
The time has now come to undertake large-scale improvements to the gardens’ water-supply network, which dates to the gardens’ original creation in the 1920s. We are therefore obliged to close the gardens to the public from July 10, 2017, to March 15, 2018. We will take this opportunity to enhance storm-water management throughout the property, in keeping with our commitment to sustainability and the environment. We invite you to enjoy the gardens before their temporary closure on July 10; you can purchase a reduced season pass here.
Ximena Chávez Balderas Reinterprets Sacrificial Remains at Tenochtitlan
Ximena Chávez Balderas, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Tulane University, is a Junior Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Her research has focused on funeral rites, the afterlife, and ritual sacrifice in Mesoamerica. Her recent research report, “The Offering of Life: Human and Animal Sacrifice at the West Plaza of the Sacred Precinct, Tenochtitlan,” discussed her fieldwork at the site and her attempts to analyze, via a complex system of classification, general trends in Mesoamerican sacrifice.
Brief Q&A with Ximena Chávez Balderas
What is the significance of the West Plaza as a site? Why is it unique?
The West Plaza was the main plaza of the Sacred Precinct, which means it was at the foot of the Great Temple, or the Templo Mayor, but it also housed several important small religious buildings, like the skull rack and the ballgame. Citizens on the West Plaza were able to view the rituals taking place on top of the Great Temple, so it was an important area in terms of rituals, performances, and public events.
The plaza is connected with sacrifice in a couple of ways. In addition to the skull rack and the ballgame, which is also connected to sacrifice, I suspect that the bodies intended for sacrifice were prepared somewhere near the skull rack. And besides that, all the bones and fragmentary materials were utilized to consecrate sacred spaces in the plaza—essentially, they were putting the energy contained in the bones into the buildings.
Your work utilizes a data-driven approach to studying sacrifice, attempting to find larger trends in the practice. Is this type of approach new?
Well, the Templo Mayor was excavated in 1978. Since then, we’ve seen the creation of the Urban Archaeology Program in 1991, but only in the past ten years have excavations of the main plaza really started up in a very systematized way. Some excavations were conducted there in the sixties, but they were more of a salvage operation—they were working very fast—so we don’t really have a lot of material or information on their work. Now we have a team led by Raúl Barrera, of the Urban Archaeology Program, that’s been working in different areas, but following a systematized methodology.
On the other hand, the Templo Mayor Project is a large, interdisciplinary team, with biologists, conservators, physical anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, and so on. So that’s the difference, really—when you’re working with these big datasets, you really need to be working with a team.
Overall, it’s a very exciting period in terms of archaeological discoveries, but of course it’s a challenge as well. I can remember my first day working with a particular offering that was composed of nine thousand animal bones, and I thought, “I don’t know what to do.” But I knew I had to organize my ideas, I knew I needed to design a methodology, and I knew that would take time. So it was a challenge, but I was happy I was the one doing it—right? Because it’s not only a challenge, it’s our heritage. It’s an enormous responsibility.
At your talk, there were a few questions about blood sacrifice, its significance, and the difficulty of studying it. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
In sacrificial practices, blood had a central role. It was a precious liquid, the essence of the body, and so it was used in a number of specific rituals—the nourishing of crops, for example. But of course, analyzing blood in an archaeological context is not only a challenge, it’s almost impossible. Normally, what we would expect is to have blood on the flint knives used in sacrifices, on the sacrificial stones, in the receptacles that held the blood and hearts after their removal, but it’s actually very hard to find. Part of that is because the site is below the water table, but part of it, too, is because of past archaeological practices. When the Templo Mayor was excavated in the seventies, a lot of the techniques we use today weren’t developed yet, so they weren’t looking for the things we look for, they weren’t treating the objects the way we would treat them. So, for instance, they would often end up cleaning the stones they found.
Right now, we have two sculptures of the god of the underworld that were found in 1994 by the archaeologist Leonardo López Luján, and when he found them he noted a thick layer of brownish soil covering them. He decided to send it for electrophoresis and chemical testing, and eventually they were able to determine that it was blood. That was something that couldn’t have happened during the initial excavation. Now, of course, you need to take samples of everything—not only to use with the techniques that are available at this moment, but thinking about the techniques that might be available in the future. So now we’re much more careful; we save part of the samples we collect for the future.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
James N. Carder (February 2017)
In 2016, the Dumbarton Oaks swimming pool, bathhouse loggia, and the surrounding pavements and walls were completely renovated. As part of this project, the 1935 “Azalea Inscription” on the northwest enclosure wall was reproduced to replicate the original. Because the stucco background of the inscription was badly cracked and spalled, the inscription could not be restored but had to be replaced. To insure an accurate replacement, photographs and measurements were taken and drawings made. Also, the original 1935 Beatrix Farrand workshop drawing for the inscription was consulted to insure that the lettering would not have a mechanical, typographical appearance.
Fragments of the original inscription were salvaged and are now housed in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives.
The inscription was located next to a white azalea in the pool area:
Like the flash of a wing
I came upon
The loveliest thing
As a wounded king
As a dying swan
The verse is the fourth stanza of the poem Reprieve by Joseph Auslander (1897–1965). Auslander, a graduate of Harvard College, was a good friend of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and would become the first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress between 1937 and 1941.
Verena Conley on Exoticism, Europe, and the Jardin d’Essai
Verena Conley teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, and is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. She is currently at work on a project entitled “From Colony to Ecology: Theory and Practice of the Jardin d’Essai,” a celebrated colonial garden in Algiers, and another on “The Care of the Possible: Ecology, Technology, Sensation, Worlds.”
Brief Q&A with Verena Conley
In your talk you mentioned literary perspectives on the garden, specifically the writer André Gide, who I know has a curious little book, The Fruits of the Earth, that talks about gardens. What is his experience with the Jardin d’Essai?
Well it’s a very brief moment—I think it’s in book three, when he travels to North Africa—and he mentions this garden, just in passing, really, and he says he has never tasted fruit, dates, like this before. And the dates that he tastes are probably not indigenous; the trees would have been imported. Gide is one of the first who doesn’t simply say, “Oh, wow, here’s this magnificent tableau.” He actually describes how he moves through the North African landscape, how he experiences it through his senses and how it affects him—what the smells are, the sights, the tastes. Gide’s sensuous text made a big impression on young Jacques Derrida, who says in interviews later on that when he was growing up The Fruits of the Earth was a formative book for him; he said he knew it almost by heart.
And I don’t know if you’ve read Gide’s The Immoralist? There, too, the protagonist goes to North Africa. In the book, the narrator relates how he went south, first to Italy and then to Algeria. He tells his interlocutor how, in the course of his journey, he completely lost himself and sacrificed everything to the senses. And it’s dicey—he has these encounters with young boys—but in The Fruits of the Earth, it’s just a discovery of the landscape, especially gardens, through the senses.
Is the visiting of these gardens a sort of cultural phenomenon? How does Gide relate to that?
There’s this whole obsession in Europe with going south. The north is always seen as a very repressed place; the place of books and culture. As the exotic counterpart, the south is the realm of the body and the senses. In many ways, southern Italy is the same as North Africa—I don’t think Gide necessarily distinguished between the two. But in The Immoralist, you have a married couple, and they go down to a place in Algeria called Biskra. He is sick, but recovers with the help of his wife and the place. But when his wife becomes sick, he loses interest in her; instead he becomes obsessed with a young boy.
In your talk you mentioned the conscious exoticizing of gardens—how is the Jardin d’Essai connected to cultural understandings of the exotic over time?
Colonial gardens—and especially the Jardin d’Essai—are really a way of showcasing empire, of exhibiting what a country possessed from all the different parts of the world. The empire is always global; it’s expansionist, and then it tries to show you, to display, how it possesses all these lands, and how it can take from them and acclimate its new possessions. The creation of the Jardin d’Essai in 1832, that is, two years after the French conquer Algiers, is a clear gesture to mark the territory, to appropriate the land. The Jardin was a farm, a test garden, before it became a garden of acclimation and also a public garden.
The theory of acclimation, as it’s embodied by the garden, will be really important. You know, there was a whole craze in Europe around this theory, which led to the infamous attempts at anthropological and zoological acclimatization that culminated with the exhibits in Paris in the 1930s, where you construct entire street scenes from the colonies to showcase people and animals; and the French and other Europeans walk by and just gaze at them.
To come back to the Jardin d’Essai: it still exists today. A very popular public and botanical garden, it reopened in 2009 after several years of extensive work. It’s also a garden that is popular with artists and intellectuals. Many philosophers, writers, and filmmakers have written about the Jardin (Hélène Cixous, Assia Djébar, Jacques Derrida, and others). It’s now more of an ecological garden where children learn about water conservation, indigenous plants, and the ecological importance of Algeria and the Mediterranean basin.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Agnieszka Szymańska Discusses the Unlikely Design of the Red Monastery
Agnieszka Szymańska, a PhD candidate in art history at Temple University, is a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Her research report, “Divine Spectacle: The Early Byzantine Triconch at the Red Monastery in Egypt,” focused on the titular monastery and its extensive and well-preserved wall paintings. While many early Byzantine religious authorities condemned theatrical performances, as Szymańska argued, the Red Monastery actually emulates the decorative facades of open-air theaters. Attempting to determine why a monastic environment would contain such theatrical structural elements, her talk analyzed the church sanctuary as a vivid backdrop for a spiritual performance known, in literary sources, as divine contemplation.
Brief Q&A with Agnieszka Szymańska
How did you get into studying this particular subject matter? How did you narrow your focus both to the Red Monastery as a site, and then to theatricality as an approach?
Well, I was studying Byzantine art history when I went to Egypt and started doing fieldwork. Egypt didn’t feature prominently in my studies, so I actually wasn’t thinking of it in terms of Byzantium before I went there. My first visit involved archaeological fieldwork, which I had no prior experience with, and that’s when I realized there are actually so many archaeological records for the early Byzantine period that have survived in good condition in Egypt. So it hit me at that moment, there in the desert, that I’d been partially blind to this art-historical paradise!
In Egypt, I was working a lot with ceramics and painted plaster fragments, and the process of reconstructing images with these fragments—handling them, being surrounded by trays filled with hundreds of fragments—really drew my attention to the materiality of wall paintings. And of course, it then made me look at wall paintings in situ from a completely different perspective. I began to look for details that I hadn’t even thought of looking for before.
Eventually I went to the Red Monastery for a visit. I’d heard about this monument before I went, but nothing can prepare you for an in-person visit. So I got there, I saw this building that looks like an ancient Egyptian temple on the outside, and then I entered the sanctuary and—it just blew my mind, the richness of color. And it’s hard to see at first what’s underneath the paint, because it really is astounding. You think, as an art historian, “This is a fifth-century monument, the paintings are sixth century, and they’re virtually intact,” and you just can’t get past that realization for many visits. After a while I became interested in the architectural sculpture underneath the paint, and I began to pay attention to the three-dimensionality of the space. One day I was reading a fourth-century monastic text and I started to ask myself why the monks would have wanted that space to look this particular way. And, for me, the idea of theater—of theatricality and performance—was the way to resolve that question.
Another fellow here, Hendrik Dey, recently gave a research report that mentioned the influence of theatrical structures on the Via Triumphalis in Rome. I’m wondering if this theatrical approach is new in the field?
I think so. Especially for the early Byzantine period, when you don’t have a lot of surviving architectural interiors in which you can immerse yourself and see the intended visual impact of the space and experience it. It’s hard to think about theatricality when you interact with a museum object, or with a painting that’s been removed from its site. But when you find yourself actually inside this unique specimen, this site that looks like a theater covered with paintings that represent theatrical elements, it makes you reevaluate your approach.
For the early Byzantine period, people weren’t looking for this for the simple reason that there was no place to look, not enough had survived. But, generally speaking, I think it’s an exciting line of inquiry that’s garnered more attention in recent years because the larger question is how images functioned within visual culture. In the past, a lot of the academic emphasis has been on visuality, that is, the historical construction of sight. That was focused on the way we see, and the way we’re conditioned to see. But that’s only part of the story. The idea of theatricality and performance includes and encompasses visuality, but it’s also about the body moving in and through the space, about the rituals being performed there, and about the sounds, which we can’t hear now, that were part of the experience. So I think it’s a more comprehensive reconstruction that reintegrates the images with the experiences they intended to create.
Dumbarton Oaks recently held a colloquium on Byzantine monumental painting that touched on many of the same issues as your talk. Did you have any thoughts on the colloquium?
It was very interesting. The first two talks I think were very relevant to my work. I recall that Robert Ousterhout talked about how, with a lot of Byzantine monumental painting, the artists worked separately from the architects. And not only that, but he could also find painters painting over the architecturally sculpted details inside these churches; in fact, they sometimes concealed carved surfaces by smoothing them over with paintings. But with my work, in the Red Monastery triconch, painters actually enhanced the architectural sculpture by outlining it with red bands. And this richly painted sculpture is so vivid that it sometimes overwhelms other aspects of the design. For example, with any of the niches inside the Red Monastery, there’s a figure, a portrait, painted in the back of them, that disappears, partly because they’re surrounded by an explosion of colors and shapes and partly because, from the back of the niche to the colonnade in front of it, there’s a significant distance.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Dumbarton Oaks Acquires Seventeenth-Century Monument Guide
When we think of the Grand Tour, it is the English rather than the Dutch who first come to mind. Yet, seventeenth-century Holland (or, more correctly, the United Provinces) was a rich mercantile empire with trading outposts as far the island of Kyushu in Japan and colonial settlements and plantations, such as Surinam, in South America, India, and Africa. A community of enterprising travelers and cartographers, the Dutch engaged in the exploration of the New World just as they were rediscovering the legacy of classical antiquity. They were thus the principal audience for the Theatrum Civitatum et Admirandorum Italiae, whose first three volumes, originally published in 1663, have recently been acquired by Dumbarton Oaks. Usually translated as the “Town Book of Italy,” this project was a brainchild of the leading Amsterdam mapmaker Johannes Blaeu (1599–1673), who ran one of the city’s largest printing establishments. Published in Latin, which was still the lingua franca at the time, it was intended as a cultural and historical guide as well as a cartographic atlas for the educated elite, curious about the past and present of one of the heartlands of European civilization.
Blaeu’s original idea was an ambitious publication that would have comprised a total of ten volumes, five of which were supposed to deal with the monuments of ancient Rome, organized into specific types, and another five with the main attractions of various states of seventeenth-century Italy. Nine years after the appearance of the three initial volumes, however, his main workshop was destroyed by fire, with much of the material ready for publication irredeemably lost. Blaeu’s heirs continued his work, adding in 1683 two more volumes on Piedmont and Savoy, but were unable to complete the full series. Yet, even in this incomplete form, the “Town Book of Italy” was a success, as attested by subsequent editions produced by other Amsterdam publishers well into the eighteenth century.
The three luxurious volumes at Dumbarton Oaks, bound in the original Dutch vellum with gilt borders, feature over a hundred engraved plates (mostly maps and views), some of which are hand-colored. The first volume, dealing with the cities of the Papal States, is a rich visual and textual introduction to their main monuments and landmarks, beginning with a brief outline of the pivotal historical events, the leading local families, and other important characters, followed by the survey of the principal buildings. Some illustrations also represent major gardens, such as those of Frascati and Tivoli, as well as sacred and devotional sites located in the immediate vicinity.
The second volume, on the monuments of ancient Rome, includes sections on circuses, theaters, and amphitheaters; its important focus, however, is on Egyptian obelisks with meticulously recorded hieroglyphic inscriptions, a source of scholarly fascination throughout the seventeenth century. A special highlight is an account of the moving of the Vatican Obelisk in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the greatest engineering feats of the sixteenth century, carried out in 1586 by the papal architect Domenico Fontana. For Blaeu and his readers, the glory of the ancient Rome, therefore, was always interlaced with the achievements of the modern city.
Finally, the third volume, which deals with Naples and Sicily, pays much attention to the natural attractions of these regions, especially the unique geology and vegetation in the areas of volcanic activity, such as Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields.
For Dumbarton Oaks, the acquisition of these three fascinating volumes coincides with the increasing focus of its Garden and Landscape Studies program on urban landscape studies, supported by a generous grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. By putting this rare and incredibly rich resource at the service of scholarship, we hope to promote a deeper understanding of the intricate and dynamic relationships that exist between the natural environment and urban form, putting them in a broad historical perspective.
Authors Strassberg and Whiteman Recognized for Contribution to Garden History and Landscape Studies
Dumbarton Oaks Publications is pleased to announce that Richard E. Strassberg and Stephen H. Whiteman, authors of Thirty-Six Views: The Kangxi Emperor’s Mountain Estate in Poetry and Prints, have been awarded the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize from the Foundation for Landscape Studies. The award is given to books that break new ground in method or interpretation and that contribute to the intellectual vitality of garden history and landscape studies. This is a prestigious award, and we could not be more pleased and proud of the volume and the authors who envisioned and created it.
Thirty-Six Views presents for the first time a complete, annotated translation of the Imperial Poems on the Mountain Estate for Escaping the Heat (Yuzhi Bishu shanzhuang shi), originally published by the Kangxi emperor in 1712. The emperor published this unprecedented book to commemorate his recently completed summer palace; it contained poems and descriptions of thirty-six of the palace’s most scenic views. He was closely involved in the production of the book and ordered several of his outstanding court artists—the painter Shen Yu and the engravers Zhu Gui and Mei Yufeng—to produce woodblock prints of the Thirty-Six Views, which set a new standard for topographical illustration. He also ordered Matteo Ripa, an Italian missionary serving as a court artist, to translate these images into the medium of copperplate engraving, which introduced this technique to China. Ripa’s hybridized interpretations soon began to circulate in Europe and influenced contemporary aesthetic debates about the nature and virtues of the Chinese garden. This unique artistic collaboration between a Chinese emperor and a western missionary-artist marked a significant moment in intercultural imagination, production, and transmission during an earlier phase of globalization.
Richard E. Strassberg received his PhD in East Asian Studies from Princeton University and served as a Professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He specializes in traditional Chinese literature, with a particular interest in landscape and garden culture. He has served as an adjunct curator at the Pacific Asia Museum and was a senior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. He is currently a member of the advisory committee for the Liu Fang Yuan Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Stephen H. Whiteman is Lecturer in Asian Art at The University of Sydney, Australia. He received his doctorate in art history from Stanford University and has been the recipient of fellowships from Dumbarton Oaks, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. His essays on garden history and historiography have been published in Ars Orientalis, Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, and the anthology Chinese History in Geographic Perspective.
Strassberg and Whiteman have been invited to be guests at the Foundation’s 2017 Place Maker I Place Keeper benefit on May 10, where Thirty-Six Views and their valuable contribution to the field will be recognized.
Abbey Stockstill Probes the Hidden History of Urban Development
Abbey Stockstill is a sixth-year PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. She received her BA in 2011 from the University of Pennsylvania in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and is currently a Tyler fellow here at Dumbarton Oaks.
Stockstill’s research report, “Crafting an Imperial Berber Identity: The Almohads and the Urban Landscape of Marrakech,” outlined the interactions between two successive dynasties, the Almoravids and the Almohads, on the urban development of Marrakech. Her work focuses on the repurposing of existing architectural structures—buildings, walls, fountains—and the underlying thought processes that determined the use, and reuse, of these elements in the formative years of urban development in Marrakech.
A Brief Q&A with Abbey Stockstill
How did you shift your research focus from urbanism and architecture to ecology and landscape?
Well, I’m trained as an architectural historian, so I didn’t really consider urbanism and landscape to be a key component of this material until I did a landscape workshop here in November 2015. John Beardsley and Anatole Tchikine had put together a workshop for graduate students, both in art history and landscape studies, to come and talk about how the two fields come together. One of the takeaways from that project was that architectural historians are always looking at this material as an object, while landscape historians think in a completely different way. After that I kept thinking about how better to integrate this material and to think about urban landscape more holistically, rather than as a compendium of different sites. I’m still working on that integration, and for this material in particular it’s just not very well served by that traditional way we look at architectural history.
Your talk touched upon the ways in which cities can be structured by ceremony—the qibla, for instance, has to be incorporated into the design of the city. What is the mediation between practical and ritual concerns? And was there anyone in charge of mediation, of keeping track of that?
To start, I’ve been really influenced by Paula Sanders’s work on Fatimid Cairo. She’s written how the Fatimid caliphs employed ceremony in very public ways, both as imperial propaganda and as religious performance, so there are a lot of resonances in my own work with the theory and way she addressed ceremony.
In the particular case of Marrakech, I haven’t seen anything in the records specifically talking about individuals organizing these ceremonies, but there must have been, and that’s something I’m still working on as part of the dissertation. But I think the key to a lot of this is that it’s not entirely religious, and it’s not entirely political, either—the two were very much integrated, political legitimacy and religious authority were very much tied together within the dynastic conception of the Almohad. That’s true specifically of the Almohad, but it’s also true in general in this period and region.
I find the repurposing of hallowed spaces fascinating. But are there problems that arise from this? How do you balance holding onto these traditional structures while also allowing the city to expand naturally?
One of the things that’s so unique about Marrakech is that by the time the Almohads arrive there, it’s still a relatively new city—it had only been founded about a hundred and twenty years earlier. So there aren’t a lot of urban remains to contend with, and they really do have the room to make their own mark on the city. Now, that said, they sort of follow a precedent of systematic removal of architectural reminders of the dynasty that came before. This happens again and again and again with successive dynasties. They come in and destroy, for instance, the palaces built by the previous dynasty. But destroying mosques is a contentious topic, with worries about sacred space, and in Marrakech this is exactly how they approach the Almoravid reminders. It’s actually unclear in the primary sources whether they completely destroy the Almoravid mosque or merely close it and let it fall into disrepair—a sort of passive destruction, if you will.
But with the palace they take very specific reminders and employ them in their own architecture. The palace itself was destroyed, but one wall remained that was the original qibla wall in the first mosque. There’s also a system of cisterns and fountains from the previous palace that they end up using for their mosque fountains, rather than trying to completely destroy those. They’re very smart about the reuse of materials. It’s a very conscious adoption of previous dynastic architectural reminders. And then, later, one of the things that I find so fascinating is that it never has this moment of being completely destroyed. The first one falls into disrepair, but we know that it exists—and the Almohad palace is destroyed but that whole area is continually rebuilt. So there’s something in the topography, or there’s something in the urban relationship between royal and public, that makes that space and that part of the city retain a connotation of sanctity and empire.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Saskia de Wit Contextualizes the Metropolitan Garden in Landscape Studies
Consider the following six gardens: Tofuku-ji Hoto in Kyoto, St. Catherine’s College Quadrangle at Oxford University, the pocket-sized Paley Park in New York, a reflection pool on Bainbridge Island just outside Seattle, the Garden of Birds on the A837 motorway in southwestern France, and a man-made geyser in a suburb of Germany.
To most people, this is just an eclectic list of destinations. But to Saskia de Wit, who is an assistant professor at the University of Technology in Delft in the Netherlands, as well as a recent one-month research awardee at Dumbarton Oaks, these gardens are the “smallest reflections of landscapes” and as such afford insights into the significance of place in design.
In a swift yet incisive presentation that launched this semester’s Mellon Midday Dialogues, de Wit examined how these six gardens represent not only the many different ways in which humans have transformed the physical world, but also their designers’ sensitivity to their particular contexts.
Landscape scholars incessantly debate the concept of “place.” To some, it is inseparable from what is known as genius loci, a term taken from Roman religion that connotes a site-specific atmosphere. To others, it is about creating new possibilities and new ways of experiencing space. For de Wit, though, place always starts with what is already there, and reveals something about the site that we do not already know or see.
If de Wit is particular about her definition of place, it’s because, to her, even the word “particular” is important. “Every one of these places is unique,” de Wit remarked. “I can analyze ten more, and they’ll all be different.”
Indeed, seen through her perceptive eyes, each of the six projects revealed itself to be uniquely adapted to its urban setting. Paley Park, for example, has been shaped as much by active landscape design as by the aftereffects of New York’s fervent development—squeezed into an undeveloped plot, the park feels like an oasis in the surrounding urban space.
But de Wit isn’t just interested in theory. In addition to her role as an educator and scholar, de Wit also boasts a portfolio of realized garden designs located throughout the Netherlands. It’s no surprise, then, that she’s attuned to the sensory experience of walking through places—an aspect that is not always emphasized in previous scholarship.
To make her points clearer, de Wit focused on the geyser park in Germany, properly known as the Wasserkrater. The park, which sits between existing suburban houses, belongs to what de Wit calls a “suburban field,” or a large area of generic and scattered urbanization.
Instead of superimposing a design onto the landscape, the designers, working with natural fault lines beneath the site, created a geyser that draws attention to the geological properties of the location. As a result, a visit to the Wasserkrater involves more than just the sense of sight (the tall column of water erupting into the air). The smell of spring water, the moisture condensing on one’s skin, and the boom of the artificially induced eruptions become inextricably twined.
Ultimately, de Wit’s goals are as multifaceted as the subjects of her investigation. “I think of my work as serving two purposes,” she concluded. “On one hand, it provides a set of tools—or rather, ideas—for practicing landscape architects. On the other, it is a reflection on the metropolitan landscape.”
Hendrik Dey Investigates the Via Triumphalis in Medieval Rome
Hendrik Dey, a professor of art history at Hunter College, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. His research focuses on architecture and urbanism in the Latin West in late antiquity, with particular emphasis on the reshaping of Roman urban paradigms by the ideological and practical considerations of late antiquity. Dey’s recent research report, “Walking in the Footsteps of Giants: The Triumphal Way in Byzantine Rome,” analyzed the repurposing of the famous parade route during the period of Byzantine rule at Rome from the sixth to the eighth century. At a time when most of the city was depopulated and decrepit, Dey argued, the church and Byzantine administration sought to preserve and embellish the Via Triumphalis to serve their own purposes.
Brief Q&A with Hendrik Dey
In your talk you mentioned the work of Richard Krautheimer. For the uninitiated, myself among them, who was Krautheimer? What was the significance of his work, and how do you relate to it?
Richard Krautheimer was a German Jew who immigrated to the United States in the thirties, when he was already a distinguished scholar. He taught at various places in America, eventually ending up at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He’s famous for being the lead author of the five-volume Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae, the compendium of all medieval churches in the city of Rome, which was written in Latin. He was the undisputed expert on churches in the city of Rome, and when he was eighty-three, in 1980, he published a shorter, more accessible book, Rome: Profile of a City, 312–1308, which is his kind of synthesis, in some way, of a thousand years of medieval Roman topography and history of art and architecture. Then he went on to live until he was ninety-seven years old, and taught three generations of students—Krautheimer students, and their students, are everywhere around the world.
So he wrote this great book about medieval Rome, and people are still reading it today. But he wrote it in the seventies, which was just before people started doing serious medieval archaeology in Rome, so he could really only talk about the extant remains of the middle ages, in particular churches and monasteries. But forty years of medieval archaeology have told us all kinds of things—the shape of the city, where most people were living, how they were living—that Krautheimer had no idea about. He didn’t know where people were living in medieval Rome; he thought that most people were living on a tiny bend of the Tiber River in the sixth century. They weren’t; they were scattered all over the place. He didn’t know what people’s houses looked like in the early middle ages, because no early medieval houses had been found.
So I don’t want to say anything about churches. Krautheimer forgot more about churches than I’ll ever know. I’d like this to be a complement to Krautheimer. I’d like to do the rest of life in medieval Rome, daily secular civic life: how and where people were living and fighting and working and producing and eating and interacting with each other, outside of the church.
In broad terms, what was the purpose of revitalizing the Triumphal Way?
I think the purpose was to use what you already have in Rome, and what you have is a particularly beautiful, monumental, and architecturally distinguished parade street. In the early middle ages, you don’t have anything like the resources to maintain or even populate most of the city, so the people in charge—the civic administration, the representatives of the Byzantine administration—focus their efforts on the areas where they think that they can derive particular benefit from repairing and reusing. So if you want it to look as though Rome is still glorious, as though the city you minister is still directly tied to the majesty of what it was when it was ancient Rome, then the best place to do that is the Triumphal Way.
So the Byzantine administrators appropriate that space, and when they move the organs of civic government—the prisons, the places for judicial assemblies, the places where judges are, where ceremonial implements are kept—they put them in close proximity to that particular road, so that on the days when you have both civic and religious processions, the spectacle of the ancient city is as close to undiminished as it could possibly be. But if you go behind those colonnades, it’s a different story, and this is why colonnades are so useful; they’re the perfect screen for all the squalor and degradation and depopulation which is happening behind them. But within the monumental contours of the parade route things look like they’re just about as great as ever.
I’m interested in elements of the city that have been forgotten over time. In your talk, you discussed structures and locations—the Tarentum, the Porticus Crinorum—that seem to be symbolic points along the Triumphal Way, but you go about their meaning through etymological routes. How much of the uncertainty as to their true meaning and significance is modern, and how much was present back in late antiquity?
Well, we have to define our periods here. In the fourth century, which is still basically ancient Rome, people still understood the original significance of everything, and in the sixth and seventh and eight centuries, there was certainly more of a direct connection to ancient Rome. But names like the Porticus Crinorum only show up in the twelfth century. Now, that’s not to say they didn’t exist in the eighth century. I think that they probably did. One of the points I was trying to make in my talk is that, by the twelfth century, memories of the ancient city and ancient topography and ancient institutions are sometimes wildly fanciful. Sometimes they’re not, sometimes people remember what these things originally were. But very often they don’t.
We actually have good sources for this. There are guidebooks or compendia of the sights of Rome that are compiled starting in the twelfth century in which you get long accounts of all of these ancient buildings, some of which are identified correctly, and some of which are completely fantastic things. For instance, here was a dining room made entirely out of glass and crystal that spun to mirror the course of the stars through the sky; here there used to be a dragon, and so on. So I have to use a lot of twelfth-century sources because the sources for the tenth and eleventh centuries are basically nonexistent. To get at the seventh and eighth centuries, I need to look at both what was there before and, in some ways more importantly, what was there after, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and see if there are reasons for imagining that the kind of stories and institutions that are described then can plausibly be put further back in time. So you have to put together these chains of conjecture, and some of them will be plausible, and some of them won’t be.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
James N. Carder (January 2017)
Over the years, many maps and plans have been made of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Some of these have artistic embellishments that attempt to capture something of the gardens’ character rather than merely outline the garden spaces. The latest of these is a watercolor rendering prepared for the Dumbarton Oaks website by Spencer Lenfield, Postgraduate Media Research Fellow. The map captures the colors seen in the gardens throughout the seasons: the hot pink of Plumb Walk, the yellow of Forsythia Dell, and the reds and oranges of autumn foliage. The map serves to help web visitors virtually explore the gardens:
In 1935, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, the founders of Dumbarton Oaks, also sponsored artful renderings of the gardens. They commissioned the Czech-American artist, Rudolph Ruzicka (1883–1978), to make the first map of the gardens. Ruzicka included vignettes of plant materials within the map and framed the map with thirty-eight depictions of garden spaces, hardscape elements, and furniture, as they existed at the time. He labeled the garden areas and depictions, providing the canonical names that continue to be employed.
Also in 1935, the Blisses commissioned the cartographer, Ernest Clegg (1876–1954), to paint a bird’s-eye view of the house and garden to be installed in the overmantel frame of the Renaissance fireplace in their music room. Clegg worked in ink, watercolor, and gouache and employed aerial photographs of the gardens that the Blisses had had made for this project. A digital reproduction of this map now hangs in the overmantel in order to help preserve the original artwork from further fading and deterioration.
We are pleased to welcome Saskia de Wit who joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a one-month research awardee from January 9 to February 7, 2017.
Saskia de Wit is an assistant professor at the University of Technology in Delft, where she helped establish a master track in landscape architecture and now teaches landscape architecture, planting design, landscape theory, and history. She also leads her own office, Saskia de Wit Garden and Landscape, with realized works in the Netherlands and Switzerland.
While studying for her master’s degree in landscape architecture at Wageningen University, she was introduced to the notion of landscape architecture as a transformation of the existing landscape. During an exchange year at Delft University, architecture and an integral connection to urbanism were added. Her interests in both the garden and the characteristics of landscape are expressed in several books, papers, and articles, notably The Enclosed Garden (coauthor Rob Aben; 010 Publishers, 1999), and Dutch Lowlands: Morphogenesis of a Cultural Landscape (SUN Publishers, 2009). Gradually her focus deepened on the garden as the most condensed expression of landscape—as a core of the discipline of landscape architecture—and in 2014 she finished her PhD research on “Hidden Landscapes: The Metropolitan Garden and the Genius Loci.”
Currently she is working on transforming her PhD research into a book for a broader audience. While at Dumbarton Oaks, she will be working on two essays on the role of interstitial spaces in the metropolitan landscape and on the sensorial properties of place. These notions come together in her understanding that interstitial spaces might hold keys for opening up often-hidden landscape qualities “underneath” the metropolitan tissue, qualities that can be defined as “place,” if they can be perceived as such.
New from Dumbarton Oaks Publications: The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century
A Swiss doctor pens the first survey of Russia’s fauna. A British opium trader builds an opulent garden with plants culled from Indian and Chinese ports of call on land bought from the Maori in New Zealand. A Mongol monk writes a medical manual in Tibetan on the fringes of the Qing Empire. A Prussian naturalist takes field notes on Peruvian rafts used to haul massive loads of fruit up rivers.
Welcome to the world of The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century, where plants prove even more globally mobile than the people and politics that set them in motion. Imperial geopolitics meets the systematic study of plants—transformed by new discoveries, inventions, and taxonomies—in this book of essays by sixteen scholars working across five continents. Plants were the focus of cutting-edge experimentation, and botany was big business. Opium could build, or topple, a nation; so could the ginseng that cured an addiction. The ability to identify, document, ship, and transplant the right plants built fortunes and projected power. Trading in plants and exploiting their properties became a key way to grow and run an empire.
The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century investigates the ambitions of the nations that sought to use this power; documents some of the “agents of empire” who were its sometimes ambivalent enablers; charts the routes traced by people and plants around the globe; and examines how people and nations alike used plants to fashion identities for themselves. Featuring 183 full-color illustrations reproduced at high quality from prints, books, and paintings, many drawn from the rich collections of the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection, this book also highlights the artistic merits of the thousands of botanical publications of this age of empires.
The book grew out of a symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2013 to celebrate the Rare Book Library’s fiftieth anniversary. Editors Yota Batsaki, Sarah Burke Cahalan, and Anatole Tchikine have brought together contributors from disciplines that include landscape architecture, media studies, comparative literature, archaeology, history, and art history. Readers can also sample its contents through an extensive online exhibit developed in conjunction with the 2013 symposium. Together, The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century and the accompanying exhibit provide indispensable resources for anyone interested in the history of science, the eighteenth century, imperial studies, and the history of globalization.
Lori Diel Parses the Images and Enigmas of the Codex Mexicanus
Lori Diel, a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an associate professor in art history at Texas Christian University, where she has taught a variety of courses on Mesoamerican, South American, and Mexican art from preconquest times to the present. She has also written articles on the representation of women in Aztec art.
Much of Diel’s recent research has centered around the Codex Mexicanus, an early colonial Mexican pictorial manuscript currently held in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Richly illustrated and ripe for interpretation, the codex lends itself to a variety of studies, as Diel demonstrated in her recent research report, “An Aztec History Painting in the Codex Mexicanus.”
Brief Q&A with Lori Diel
You were a summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 2012, and you were working with the Codex Mexicanus then as well. How has your work with the codex changed over time? How have your perceptions of it altered?
Well, I had just started working with it in 2011, so when I was here in 2012 I was still trying to figure out what was important. Usually you have to have a theory when you start working with an object, and at the time I had a lot of assumptions about the codex.
For one, I thought it had been made in Tlatelolco, but the more time I spent with it the more I realized that Tlatelolco was the wrong city—there were more signs telling me it had been made in Tenochtitlan.
You just have to spend so much time with the object, there’s so much to learn, especially in a codex of this size, and after you’ve spent a while with it you begin to notice certain things. Early on I was focusing more on the Christian elements of the codex, but now I work more with the Aztec parts, and I’d say broadly speaking, since 2012, I’ve become more interested in the historical aspects of the codex and the context of early colonial Mexico.
The Codex Mexicanus contains a royal genealogy that is exclusive—it makes a claim about an ancient and exclusive tradition. But the Christian images the codex contains seem to suggest an element of inclusion, of cultural synthesis. What’s the dynamic at work here?
Well, the creators of the codex were Christians, and I think they were fully converted, in that they wanted to embrace this tradition and incorporate it into their culture. At the same time, they didn’t want to forget their own tradition, so there was an effort to maintain it.
What’s interesting is that at the time the codex was made the native nobles had really lost control of the government, so emphasizing this royal genealogy was an attempt to build up that tradition and restore it. And of course, they were comparing the Aztec past to Spain, which had the Habsburg line—in a sense, they were exalting their own sphere of power.
How was the codex produced? Was it a workshop-type environment, with strong organization, or something more diffuse?
Well, that’s the big mystery. We don’t really know the logistics of its creation.
I suspect it was produced in a workshop, but the interesting thing is, it’s clearly been updated over time. There’s one section, the zodiac section, that appears to have been added in, and the community knew that whoever was in charge of the codex could consult it and run the charts if someone were sick or if any information was needed. So really it was a living document.
We don’t really know its whereabouts for many years, until about 1820 to 1840, when a French collector is traveling through Mexico and picks it up and eventually sells it in France—and then of course it ends up at Bibliothèque Nationale.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Jan Haenraets Discusses the History and Preservation of Mughal Gardens
Jan Haenraets, a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016, is a landscape architect and preservation specialist. In addition to serving as Head of Gardens and Designed Landscapes of the National Trust for Scotland, he was recently appointed as a professor at the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University. Previously he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.
Much of Haenraets’s academic research has focused on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir. At Dumbarton Oaks, he has been examining the wider context and significance of the valley-wide network of the gardens, a substructure that, he contends, has largely been ignored in past studies. Haenraet’s research has often abetted his work advising conservation and preservation projects.
Brief Q&A with Jan Haenraets
In your talk you described a “network” that has been lost and forgotten, which goes against traditional conceptions of the Mughal gardens. What are some other common conceptions about the gardens that you’ve encountered in your work?
So, with the idea of the network, I’m basically trying to correct history, because a lot of scholars have strong preconceptions about gardens as single, or singular, things. People think they stand on their own, and though a city might have a lot of gardens, we don’t know how they’re connected to each other. In some cases we might have an idea, but in Kashmir, where a lot of my work is focused, we don’t really know. That’s why I’m fascinated by the bigger picture; there’s almost a need to rewrite the history of the Mughal gardens in the whole subcontinent.
That was the focus of my lecture, but there are of course things I didn’t speak about, like the link to paradise. If we look at any book on Islamic gardens and their tradition, there’s a strong reference to the representation of paradise. Many of these gardens are in desert areas, or very arid dry regions, and so if you have within that region a secluded little island, walled and irrigated, with some green lush vegetation, that becomes a kind of paradise.
In the case of Kashmir, the interesting thing is that when you arrive in the valley, because it’s so fertile, it’s almost as if you’re already in a paradise. Why would you need a garden? So it’s a little ironic with Kashmir.
In the history books, when people write about Islamic gardens, the standard idea is of a rectangular garden with a cross axis—the tomb garden is a typical example—with a design that very much looks inward. You look inward to the central tomb which stands above the rivers, and it’s all very symbolic.
But when you look at Kashmir, this conception doesn’t necessarily apply, because they don’t often strictly implement the charbagh [quadrilateral garden layout] anymore, because of the topography of the region. Instead they start stretching it and working with it, and the garden becomes a platform from which you look outward, into the paradise around you, and the landscape outside.
You’re actually involved with the preservation of some Mughal gardens. How has your research into these lost networks affected your preservation work? Has it facilitated it, impeded it?
Well, it has made it more difficult in a sense. I should say, I started working in Kashmir by assisting INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, which has chapters throughout India. I started helping the Kashmir chapter, and they were doing some conservation work for the government, which runs the well-known sites. So they have these walled-off, well-known sites which they can ticket for about ten rupees or so; it’s very accessible to the common man.
The local chapter was focusing on some of these famous sites, employing architects on some of the key structures, and then around that the department of floriculture did its floriculture-flowery thing, which, I should say, is very European and bright, like British planting beds. And so that’s their focus, and when I was asked to assist with some of the famous sites, to give them some ideas about what they should do in the wider garden, they didn’t even realize how big that garden was. They’d asked me to give some input about what should be planted in the garden, and I complicated that, I said, “We can’t just answer that question without understanding more.” So in that sense it makes conservation more complicated, because we don’t have a few gardens, we have so many more, a network.
That’s why I’d like to tell this story in book form, to capture the bigger picture, because I think it needs to be understood and reintroduced into the traditional history and understanding of the Mughal gardens. I think right now a lot of preservationists don’t have the expertise to deal with the network of gardens, and there’s also a fairly corrupt system which allows the demolition of even protected areas. So what will really happen with the gardens? I can’t say. But it’s a typical argument, that if we don’t understand the issue we’ll never be able to solve it.
I hope at some point there will be a certain recognition, that conservation will become less complicated—I mean, if you look at some of the sites I discussed, today, there are local people just growing vegetables there, and they have an orchard on the side. And I think they’re the most charming ones.
Of course there are issues with things falling apart, the building not being maintained, but in some way it’s still a form of low-key preservation, while with the famous sites they’re overdoing it, they’re turning these sites into tourist attractions. They’re developing things, they’re destroying things, they’re polishing these buildings up in a way that they never would have looked, so that history is unreadable. Dereliction, after all, is a very beautiful layer of history, which is interesting to preserve as well. If you’ve had three hundred years of dereliction or slow decline, why would we need to erase that?
It might be wishful thinking, but I would like conservationists to understand the significance of this network of sites and to try to retain that in a simpler way. They shouldn’t feel forced to turn everything into a tourist attraction, or subject it to museumification and beautification with all these flowers and so on. They’re spending so much time implanting little floral arrangements, cutting the lawns and so on—there’s no need, they never would have gotten on like that in the past. It would have been wild flowers or something much simpler. And I guess, in that sense, my research could make conservation a little easier.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Eric Dyrdahl Investigates Pre-Columbian Craft Production in Ecuador
Eric Dyrdahl, an archaeology graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, was a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016. His dissertation research focuses on craft production in the Late Formative period (about 800–400 BCE) in the Imbabura region of Ecuador. In addition to working in Ecuador, he has conducted obsidian characterization research in central Mexico.
Dyrdahl’s research report detailed the history of the Las Orquídeas site and his work excavating it. In the course of his research, Dyrdahl has unearthed countless beads, ceramics, and ornaments made from animal bones and shells in different stages of production—evidence of a complex and systematic approach to the creation of craft items that Dyrdahl intends to study in greater depth.
A Brief Q&A with Eric Dyrhdahl
In your research, you work with fragments—beads, ceramics, and so on. What are the other sources you’re using to make sense of this welter of crafts?
So, beyond artifactual remains? Well, it’s about two thousand years later, but there are ethnohistoric accounts of traders in Ecuador, especially in the area where I work. So I’m certainly looking at those models, and thinking archaeologically, “How would these appear? What kind of evidence are we going to have depending on this model?” And I’m testing those against the actual evidence that I have to see which seems most plausible.
But otherwise . . . well, in some of the other research reports we’ve seen recently, the fellows have analyzed codices and other things. I don’t really have anything like that to bring to bear. What I’m working with is a little too old.
In your talk you mentioned recognizing craft items that have shown up in other regions after what was probably a laborious process of transference. How do you trace these crafts? What makes them unique and identifiable?
It’s the form, primarily. One of the things that I need to do going forward, which I haven’t been able to do as much of as I would like, is to actually see these materials from other areas in person and compare production techniques, to see if they’re using the same methods for perforating beads and forming edges and so on. That would be the best indicator of shared production.
But the unfortunate truth is that, for so many of these types of artifacts, we know so little about their origins and the full spread of production. Las Orquídeas is one area where these things are being produced, but there could be a lot of other sites that we simply haven’t found yet. So there’s a lot of network analysis that needs to be done before we can understand the connections between the sites that have been studied from this period. From there it would be much easier to look at forms and production techniques and begin to connect the dots.
You mentioned that your site contains a lot of different artifacts at different stages of production, that there’s a fair bit of standardization to the process of production. But you also discussed a whalebone artifact, which is a bit of an anomalous material. How did the artisans react to working with this strange material? How did it fit into the process of production?
One of the nice things about studying the process is that there are a number of tasks that actually overlap. So if you know how to work shell, and you can perforate shell, you can perforate stone. Similarly, if you know how to work with animal bone—and they’re making animal bone tools— you can work with this whale ivory. That’s one of the reasons I’m taking a more holistic approach in thinking about the whole range of artifacts, versus just picking out the Spondylus beads, for instance. Once we take this broader perspective we start to see the great overlap between a lot of these tasks, and that a lot of these crafts aren’t actually indicators of some kind of specialization—the idea that, well, this person knows how to work whale ivory, and so only this person can do it.
One of the things I do is experimental archaeology, so I try to replicate some of the things I find. I’m not the best artisan in the world, that’s for certain, but you begin to understand that even though these things are important and impressive, they wouldn’t necessarily have required much specialized knowledge. Working with these materials, even though it would have been tedious and difficult, does not necessarily mean that the process of producing these artifacts was complex.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Dumbarton Oaks Acquires a New Collection of Images
There are a few quirky constants that show up in Frank Kidner’s photographs of the Syrian countryside. He snaps errant debris that he describes, in a sharp script penned along the rims of his slides, as “decorative rubble.” He photographs children playing among the ruins. He looks for wild flowers, anomalous blooms in the dry hills of the Belus Massif.
Though none of these is the main focus of the collection. A self-described shutterbug, Kidner made six trips to Syria in the 1990s to document, in vivid color photography, the architectural remains of the country, eventually narrowing his focus to the Belus Massif, a limestone plateau in northwestern Syria. The final collection, which numbers more than nine thousand slides, was recently acquired by the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks.
The acquisition of Kidner’s collection is significant for a number of reasons. In addition to more than doubling the ICFA’s current holdings of Syrian images, it documents in rich detail countless sites, many of which have been fundamentally altered or completely destroyed in the years since Kidner’s photographs were taken. The collection’s vast scope also makes it a fundamentally adaptable resource, capable of being utilized in any number of projects, and the images themselves are beautiful and crisp, ripe for perusing.
The images center on the Dead Cities, a group of around seven hundred former settlements situated on the Belus Massif that exhibit a wealth of well-preserved architectural remains. So called for their abandonment in the eighth through tenth centuries, the Dead Cities provide a unique vision of late antique rural life, one that was remarkably prosperous and trade-driven, though not quite urban. As a result, the region serves as an excellent location for the study of largescale transition.
Kidner initially became interested in the Dead Cities after his first trip to Syria in 1993, which was largely a sightseeing excursion. Returning to the states and his professorship at San Francisco State University, where he has taught classes on the early history of Christianity, Kidner began to research work that had been done on Christianity in the area. In the process he stumbled upon a photograph-laden study written by the Princeton professor Howard Crosby Butler in the early twentieth century that catalyzed his interest: “It was very fragile, very brittle, down on a triple folio shelf—I checked it out and kept it at my home for years and years.”
Kidner’s photographic work in the region was driven by a desire to investigate the introduction of Christianity and the ways in which it adapted itself to the region’s preexisting architecture. “I tried to look at the built environment as a source for understanding how it was that Christianity managed to insert itself into these communities,” Kidner says. Since the villages of the Belus Massif were built around the same time that Christianity was making inroads into the region, their physical remains afford a unique perspective on the process of conversion.
Kidner’s fieldwork and photographs eventually resulted in a paper, “Christianizing the Syrian Countryside: An Archaeological and Architectural Approach,” which serves as an illuminating entrée into the collection. In essence, the paper argues that the manner in which preexisting structures were converted into Christian churches quite clearly delineates local attitudes toward the new religion.
Part of Kidner’s anthropological approach posits that architecture is a peculiar form of language, one that is ever-present and wheedling, suffusing the lived space of the environment and sending out ideological information constantly. This sense of totality also pervades his slides, which systematically document structures from every angle and distance; focused attention is given to each tumbled pediment, every shattered column.
St. Simeon’s Monastery, a sprawling complex located about twenty miles northwest of Aleppo, receives just such a treatment from Kidner’s lens. It is captured at a distance, a mere smudge on the horizon; its facades are shot, as well as its baptistery and the innards of these structures; bemas and transepts are painstakingly documented; apses and friezes and narthices are snapped up in turn. Over three hundred slides are dedicated to the compound’s details, many of which are treated from multiple angles and in multiple lights.
Beyond the temples and farmsteads lie the fields, which Kidner captures now and again, snapping the deeply lichened stretch of an old stone wall or handing the camera off to pose by a beaten track running along and through the stony heights of the massif. There is a timelessness to the landscape and its simpler elements that at times runs counter to Kidner’s other errant shots, which often capture fleeting phenomena embedded among the ruins.
“There are two things that are sort of off the track as far as the built environment is concerned,” Kidner says. “You have the hollyhocks and pictures of wildflowers—I’ve been a gardener all my life—and then you have the kids. And looking back now, I think in a way they’re the most poignant aspect of the collection. God knows they’re all grown up now; God knows what has happened to them.”
In the course of his travels, Kidner met the children—or, as the scribblings on his slides deem them, “moppets”—of the region. “I’d start photographing, and these kids would pop up, and trail around after me, and ask if I could take a picture of them.” Often enough, his visit to the site would end with an improvised shoot, the kids bunching themselves together against ancient walls buttressed with concrete or else standing aloof and alone, a little wary of the man with the camera, a little curious about the device itself.
All in all, Kidner’s collection straddles the gap between the personal and the historical. Images of St. Simeon’s Monastery rub shoulders with those of thick-stalked, vibrant hollyhocks, while imposing stone walls contrast with the sunsets Kidner describes as his “Condé Nast” photos. Even in the collection’s ostensible focus—the architectural images—it’s not simply academic thoroughness that drives the photographing of the built environment, but curiosity, and a predisposition to the contemplation of ruins.
Look even briefly at Kidner’s shot of arcosolia (recesses, typically above ground, used for entombment) in the mortuary chapel at St. Simeon’s monastery, and it quickly becomes clear that a somber mood has overtaken the documentary drive; the gaping hollows and the mineral stains bearding the walls evoke a sense of ancient emptiness, one that is both difficult to fathom and hard to shake.
Kidner’s own old preoccupations emerge in these moments. “I certainly had an interest from the time I was quite a small kid in seeing old things, and not necessarily old things in museums,” he says. “I would pester my parents, when we were out on a drive, to stop if there was an old Wells Fargo station, or, in California, a few Gold Rush things.”
It’s not difficult to picture Kidner pausing over the crossed lintels and intricately carved stonework strewn about the grounds at Qirqbizeh, a site west of Aleppo. The images that emerge are of stones among stones, singled out more than anything else for the delight they give, the mandala-like finery set into their weathered faces.
In short, Kidner’s collection is alternatingly comprehensive and composite; it obsesses over monumental arches one moment and drifts off among the flowers in the next. The vivid reality of its shots, charged with an almost unearthly color, brings to life a moment in time that is frequently undercut by a sense of absence.
In a distant image of St. Simeon’s taken from the nearby site of Takleh, the zigzag of a road dominates the background, while a stone wall interrupts the foreground. In the middle of the image spread fields that were once worked and might be worked still. It is a view of many worlds held together by space and the miracle of a well-composed shot.
James N. Carder (December 2016)
Dumbarton Oaks has a long-standing tradition of getting into the seasonal spirit by throwing a holiday party. Staff, fellows, friends, and family all attend and for several hours enjoy food, drink, and lively conversation in the splendor of the historic music room. In 1998, during the tenure of Director Ned Keenan (Edward L. Keenan, 1935–2015), Santa Claus made an unexpected appearance at the holiday party. Ned, dressed in suit and tie, had just left the room after greeting his guests when Santa walked down the music room stairs followed by a DO head security officer carrying, of all things, a piñata. Upon entering the music room, Santa exclaimed, predictably, “ho-ho-ho!” He waved to the party guests, wished them all the very best of the season, and then invited the children in attendance out to the music room terrace.
There they took turns swinging a stick at the piñata—a feat made all the more difficult by the unpredictable position of the ever-moving bear—until the inevitable occurred, and all were happy with gifts and candies.
With hindsight, Santa’s appearance at Dumbarton Oaks seems foreordained. Where else would the spirit of Nicholas of Myra, the fourth-century Greek saint and bishop, arrive with a piñata, the offshoot of the clay pot that the Aztecs had broken with a club in mid-December to honor the birthday of the god Huitzilopochtli? The Dumbarton Oaks Archives has images (analog and digital) of holiday parties from 1996 to the present.
We are pleased to welcome Tristan Schmidt, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident from December 1 to 14. Schmidt is a doctoral student in Byzantine studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. He is currently working in the Research Training Group 1876, “Early Concepts of Man and Nature,” on his doctoral thesis about animal imagery in the discourse about the emperor in court literature under the Komnenoi, Angeloi, and early Laskarids. The work is supervised by Johannes Pahlitzsch and Sabine Obermaier.
Prior to this, Schmidt studied history and political science at the University of Mainz and spent half a year at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He has also worked on Byzantine hospitals and philanthropic institutions, law of inheritance in eleventh century testaments, and the Mediterranean policy of the Holy Roman and the Byzantine Empires in the twelfth century. He is also interested in the cultural, economic, and political function of middle and late Byzantine aristocracy.