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Interview with Ioli Kalavrezou, Dumbarton Oaks Professor-in-Residence

Director of Byzantine Studies Margaret Mullett spoke recently with Professor Kalavrezou about her research, and about her time at Dumbarton Oaks both in the past and at present.

Ioli, you have a long association with Dumbarton Oaks and an affection for the place. Can you talk perhaps about your first impression of Dumbarton Oaks? Is it a very different place now from when you arrived as a Junior Fellow in 1974–75?

I was a graduate student at Berkeley when I applied for a junior fellowship. I had no hopes of receiving one, since at that time D.O. was thought to be a place where Harvard students in the Byzantine field came to write their dissertations, and fellowships were very hard to get. I was clearly thrilled to receive a fellowship and even more surprised when I arrived to see where I had landed.

Looking back at those years I can say that being at D.O. gave me a whole new perception of educational institutions in the United States, but also the opportunity to do research at this extraordinary library. I came here at the beginning stages of my dissertation and I believe that having from the start of one’s research such great resources gives one a better footing early on in academia. In addition the scholarly interchange that I encountered in my field --and it is true for all fellows-- opened up new horizons in rethinking my own research.

I always think that I owe D.O. the career I ended up having, when I look back at the first steps of a shy person, learning to discuss my work with others, and gaining a secure footing for what came afterwards. I was also lucky enough to have my fellowship renewed for an additional year, which secured the completion of the dissertation. While in residence this fall, I enjoy the broader intellectual community.

You are an art historian, a practitioner in a discipline which has changed a great deal over that time as well.

Yes, but I started as a classicist/archaeologist. Soon I realized that art history at that time offered a wider scope for interpretation. For example, renaissance art historians were working on topics like patronage (which didn’t happen in Byzantine Studies until the 1980s). After my studies in Germany I went to Berkeley to work with David Wright. Byzantine art history then still focused on iconography and style and not many other tools. Reading what the Byzantines themselves wrote was not encouraged when I was a student. When I began teaching I realized that context was essential to an understanding of the art of a period. Of course we began increasingly to ask different questions, to look at types of objects that had not been given much attention before (steatites rather than ivories in my case). Things which had never been exhibited became part, for example, of the exhibition I organized at Harvard on Byzantine women. As soon as you begin to look outside that narrow visuality into contextual studies, interdisciplinarity makes a library like Dumbarton Oaks essential.

I think of you as someone for whom teaching is very important. Is this what you tell your students?

Undergraduates come with very little grasp of what Byzantium entails, either the period or the art, and my aim is to present fresh challenges, capturing their interest by discussing intriguing and impressive images almost like puzzles to be solved, and we do it together. Graduate students are another matter, and there I need to make sure that they have a broad education and that they have all the languages they need, especially Greek. I encourage them to read the texts (and there are great texts!) and learn from all the disciplines which can be brought to bear on Byzantium. I enjoy having graduate students around me, I like their enthusiasm, and I enjoy working with them as we did for example for the Women exhibition where we had a great collaboration.

But this is a semester without teaching. How are you spending this precious time?

I have returned to an old interest of mine. My master’s thesis was on imperial art, and I published some of it in Dumbarton Oaks Papers. I have continued to work from time to time on the subject, on the imperial mosaics of Hagia Sophia, on relics at the court, and imperial psalters, and the role of personifications in suggesting imperial qualities. More recently I’ve been looking at assemblages of court art (the Khakouli triptych, the Pala Doro) and in them the figure of Alexander the Great. From another angle I’ve looked at pearls and the way they define empire.

You’re going to be talking about heliocentrism in your public lecture on November 15. Is this a continuous feature of Byzantine thinking about the emperor? We tend to think of it as a Hellenistic trait above all.

Well, it is very strong in Constantinian art and then again in the sixth and seventh centuries, with Corippus in particular, and then it becomes prominent again with the Macedonians, I suspect with Basil I at the end of the ninth century. In fact I would suggest that it is after Iconoclasm in the mid-ninth century that the emperor was seen again as a new Constantine and parallel to the sun. I shall trace the story into the twelfth century when we have a range of writings, (acclamations and panegyrics), which touch on the theme—and are visualized in the roundel in the Dumbarton Oaks museum.

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