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Lights in the Dark

Paul Magdalino Delivers Public Lecture in Byzantine Studies

Posted on May 16, 2017 01:49 PM by Lain Wilson |
Lights in the Dark

When it comes to the seventh and eighth centuries in Byzantium—despite persistent attempts to illuminate the historical void—Paul Magdalino believes “darkness is still a rather appropriate description.”

In a recent lecture delivered at Dumbarton Oaks in conjunction with the Byzantine Studies program, Professor Magdalino sought to shed “material light” on these tenebrous centuries by analyzing the findings of recent excavations, among them a Byzantine port discovered in 2004 in the Yenikapı quarter of Istanbul.

The Byzantine Empire, and Constantinople in particular, was beset by a cavalcade of woes in the seventh and eighth centuries. Accordingly, Magdalino began his lecture by running through the miserable list: invasion, loss of territory, plague, violent regime change, the siege of the capital in 717–18, the devastating earthquake of 740, and, of course, iconoclasm—“which, if you happen to like icons, was a bit of a bad thing,” Magdalino added.

“Darkness” meant more than the merely grim, however. As Magdalino contended, “We are also largely in the dark when it comes to the seventh and eighth centuries.” Source material is at an all-time low, with much of it comprised by two rather “laconic” histories dating from the end of the period. These centuries are also some of the least rich in material artifacts; the modest amount of architecture that remains is, in conjunction with written sources, like “adding a dash of water to whisky to bring out the flavor.”

Much of Magdalino’s talk was concerned with repopulation and regeneration, which were central concerns of the Byzantine Empire in the seventh and eighth centuries. As Magdalino explained, the city of Constantinople was “a theater of power, alive with ceremonies.” Justinian II (685–95 and 705–11) created new ceremonial venues as part of a larger project to revive the empire and restore it to its former glories, while Constantine V (741–75), in addition to repairing crumbling aqueducts, attempted to repopulate the city after its decimation by plague.

In order to demonstrate how the complexities—political, ideological, and economic—of this period of Byzantine history could manifest in the built environment, Magdalino dwelt on the checkered history of the Hagia Eirene. Originally built in the fourth century, the structure burned down during the Nika revolt of 532. It was rebuilt in 548 only to be felled, once again, by an earthquake in 740. The church was restored under the reign of the arch-iconoclast Constantine V—hence the aniconic nature of its interior decorations, which include frescoes and mosaics.

That’s the traditional narrative, anyway. As Magdalino pointed out, recent developments in dendrochronology have pushed back aspects of the reconstruction, moving them into the reign of Empress Eirene, who, though officially reigning from 797 to 802, held power in some form from the 780s onward. The implications of these findings shed a significant amount of light on the priorities of Byzantium in the eighth century, Magdalino asserted. To start with the obvious: If a church could spend roughly sixty years in ruins, then church construction and maintenance were clearly not priorities in the eighth century.

These findings also highlight the status of icons at the end of the eighth century. The Second Council of Nicaea, convoked in part by Eirene in 787, officially restored the use and veneration of icons. With this in mind, the continued dominance of aniconic decorations in the church suggests that even ten years after the council, when the church was being renovated, the reintroduction of icons into Byzantine society was still proceeding rather cautiously.

The third point Magdalino stressed centered on the Short History of Nikephoros I, who lived from 758 to 828. The history, which ends with the year 769, describes the earthquake of 740 and its devastating effects on the built environment, but gives only one structure’s proper name: Hagia Eirene. In Magdalino’s interpretation, owing to the homonymity of church and empress, this singling out might be read as a “subtle encomium” to Eirene.

Magdalino then moved on to the Yenikapı quarter of Istanbul, where, since 2004, excavation efforts have been laying bare the largest man-made port in Constantinople, a site that contains, among other remains, thirty-seven shipwrecks. Because most of the jetties were made of wood, dendrochronology has allowed the construction of the jetties to be dated to the reign of Eirene. And yet, despite emerging information and continued excavation, the purpose of the port—what functions and communities it served—has remained unclear.

Answers to this fundamental question, Magdalino believes, are likely to be found in a nearby palace complex, also constructed—or rather reconstructed—under Eirene. The structure, likely a renovation of a Theodosian palace, served several purposes for the empress: it stored her gold, provided living spaces, contained workshops, and, more generally, acted as an economic center, boasting bakeries, a granary, and other production-oriented elements. Magdalino’s conclusion? The Yenikapı port was likely a surprisingly focused shipping center, tailored to the transportation needs of Eirene’s palace complex. 

At the end of his talk, Magdalino returned to the questions of repopulation and regeneration, which necessarily come with “ideological fanfare.” After an outbreak of plague in the middle of the eighth century, the reign of Constantine V was primarily focused on repopulation, Magdalino asserted; among other initiatives, Constantine V brought families from Greece who were skilled at shipping and settled them in harbor areas.

It was Eirene who turned her attention to the built environment, developing the physical power of her palace complex and refurbishing the Theodosian infrastructure that undergirt it. Ultimately, Magdalino closed, “the structures at Yenikapı show that regeneration in the seventh and eighth centuries was economic, and not just ideological.”

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In the Shadow of a Cathedral

Nicolas Beaudry Investigates a Lived Space of Byllis, Albania

Posted on May 11, 2017 12:43 PM by Bailey Trela |
In the Shadow of a Cathedral

Nicolas Beaudry, a professor in the Department of Literature and Humanities at the University of Quebec at Rimouski, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in spring 2017. For more than a decade, Beaudry has worked on the site of Byllis, an ancient city located in modern-day Albania. His recent research report delivered an archaeological study of the city’s episcopal quarter, examining the everyday uses of a space adjacent to the city’s cathedral, which included production of goods like wine and oil.

Brief Q&A with Nicolas Beaudry

What’s it like to work with the same site for such a long period of time?

Working long-term on a site is a different experience from working for a few seasons. Not only are you learning about the site—obviously your knowledge of the site is going to increase—but your perceptions of the site are also changing over time, and so are your research questions, your methods and your strategies. You are changing too, the people around you are changing and keeping a team together for a long period may be a challenge. But I had the privilege of working with a team of dedicated colleagues and we all have learned a lot from each other.

 

How is the space in the episcopal quarter divided up? Is that a common structure? The courtyard structure, the cathedral?

Bishoprics have been studied mostly as religious centers, as seats of power, or as architectural features in the urban landscape. The layout of the episcopal quarter is not necessarily unique. It’s not that surprising to find habitat and production facilities adjoining a cathedral, which is what we have at Byllis, but the areas where they concentrate lie in the shadow of monumental architecture. What we’re focusing on are spaces and functions that have not received all the attention I think they deserve.

 

What’s the evidence for winemaking, or other processes of production, that you’ve found? How do you determine what’s being made in this space?

Most production processes are known from textual sources, ethnography, and archeology. Architectural features can be the most obvious clues to the function of a space: a building which includes treading vats, a fermentation tank, and containers for fermentation and storage was obviously a winery. But the archaeological record may also include the tools, the raw materials, the products, and the waste of production activities. The production of olive oil at Byllis is attested by an olive mill, by press weights, and by botanical remains, while animal husbandry is documented by architectural features and faunal remains. A whole range of material evidence confirms that one of the rooms was devoted to the preparation of food.

 

I’m interested in the divide between social archaeology and monumental archaeology. How did you get into social archaeology and why do you find it interesting?

Classical archaeology has a long tradition of focusing on monumental architecture. But monuments are social productions and they are agents of social life, so an archaeology focused on monuments and an archaeology focused on social issues are not mutually exclusive. In Byllis I worked on an episcopal complex, but backstage, at the opposite end of the monumental façade of the cathedral, where the life and work of a small society maintained the bishopric as a social and economic agent. This is where discrete, mundane daily practices occurred, this is where lives were lived; investigating these practices is a way to relate to and understand this past society.

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Going Out into the Desert

John Zaleski Investigates the Syriac Ascetic Tradition

Posted on May 11, 2017 12:42 PM by Bailey Trela |
Going Out into the Desert

John Zaleski, a PhD candidate in medieval studies at Harvard, is currently a Tyler fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. His research employs a comparative approach to examine the dynamic interactions between Christianity and Islam in the medieval Middle East. “Asceticism East of Byzantium,” his recent research report, traced his work with Syriac Christian and early Muslim ascetic literature from the seventh to ninth century.

Brief Q&A with John Zaleski

In your talk, you described the “spirituality of dehydration” and the act of denying oneself water. I’m wondering if avoiding liquids, and not just food, becomes a more potent aspect of this asceticism, and if it’s connected to any environmental factors, like a dryer climate, for instance.

Well, to start, it’s an idea that you see in later Syriac monastic sources. Generally, I’ve started to look at eighth- and ninth-century texts and the ways in which they talk about restrictions on food and water intake, and what I’ve found is that they do it in terms that are very similar to those used in the Greek monastic literature and in the commentarial literature. The basic idea is that by restricting food and drink, which of course are a constant source of temptation, you actually create physiological changes in your body which will help you attain the real goal, which is to overcome, or, more precisely, to redirect, your desires toward God. Now, whether it has anything to do with climate—I think there is sort of an indirect connection in the sense that early monasticism began in the desert, but it was as much an imaginary desert as a real one.

These monks—and this continues in the Syriac tradition—see themselves as, in their words, “going out into the desert.” The idea is that you leave society, you leave the city to go out into the desert, and that’s where you’re able to confront your own passions, as well as the demons that have been obstructing you. You’re battling both internal and external forces, and you have to go out into the desert to confront them. So it’s difficult to say, because quite literally they’re in a dry environment, but the desert is also an ideal, which they’re trying to internalize in their own bodies by “drying” out the lusts of the body. At the same time, I think we have to be careful of overplaying the desert environment aspect of it. I think it’s equally important to look at the ways these monks are interacting with people from the cities, the monasteries, and developing urban environments.

 

I was wondering if you could talk more about Muslim asceticism as an urban phenomenon, which you discussed in your talk.

Well, generally speaking, Muslim asceticism is an urban phenomenon, which stems from the fact that early Islam is predominantly urban. In Mesopotamia in the early Islamic period, for instance, the physical arrangement of the population demonstrates this. Again, Muslims are a minority, but they’re concentrated in cities, and the countryside is then primarily Christian, or pagan, or non-Muslim. You do have communities of Muslim devout that are set up away from the cities, but that’s the exception. Practicing piety, including ascetic piety, for the most part takes place within the cities, where Muslims are living.

 

Does that mean, with these urban monasteries, that you see less of an emphasis on production?

Not really. Production is still important—they become very important centers for wine production, for example. Now, just because Muslims aren’t supposed to produce wine, that doesn’t mean they don’t consume wine. It’s a common misconception that because it was against Islamic law that nobody was drinking wine. Quite the contrary, both Muslims and Christians go to the monasteries in order to drink wine. And then in the countryside you still have agricultural production going on—that continues to be important for eastern Christian monasticism.  

 

Why is it handier, or best, to work with the commentarial literature that springs up around these texts?

I think a lot of people have been interested in the connections between early Islamic and eastern Christian religious practices—theology in general, and asceticism and mysticism in particular. There’s a tendency, when people are interested in these comparisons, to compare early Islamic sources to the Greek and Latin ascetic materials that we’re more familiar with in more broad terms. The commentaries really teach us how to understand the Syriac ascetic and mystic tradition in relation to its Greek sources. In my view, Syriac asceticism, or rather monastic and ascetic Syriac authors, become by the seventh century very closely engaged with Greek traditions. Looking at how they’re explicitly commenting on, and interpreting, Greek sources allows us to talk about that, more so than if we’re just trying to talk about structural and thematic parallels between Syriac and Greek sources.

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The Lost Archive

Anna Leone Revisits the Excavation History of Dibsi Faraj

Posted on Apr 05, 2017 02:52 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Lost Archive

Anna Leone, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and a reader in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, studies the now-submerged site of Dibsi Faraj through the lens of a rediscovered archive. The site, a fortified citadel located on the Euphrates, was excavated in the early 1970s by Richard Harper and his team, a project that was heavily funded by Dumbarton Oaks. Recently, an extensive archive of fieldwork was discovered in Harper’s garage. Leone has been working with the archive to reconstitute the project narrative and reevaluate discoveries at the site.

Brief Q&A with Anna Leone

You talked about the mass of boxes that was discovered in this garage. What’s it like to go through those boxes, after all that time has passed?

It was a very interesting experience to go through the life of someone, and to try to find information about their past work. Now I know Richard Harper.

The archive also contained a lot of personal material—letters to his wife, and so forth. I asked Harper’s daughter about it, whether she wanted to keep it, and she said she already had a house full of personal things. She didn’t want to deal with any more. She said, “Keep what you think is interesting and send it to me, and just throw away everything else.” But that was a bit difficult, to decide what his daughter would have liked to keep.

There were other things, too—a small diary that his wife started to write when she joined him at the site. The title was something like, Life of the Wife of an Archaeologist in Syria. I think she might have been influenced by Agatha Christie, who was married to the archaeologist Max Mallowan. A lot of her stories are in fact influenced by archaeology and the life she had following him from site to site. And so I found all these notes about her experience in the middle of nowhere, with nothing, without knowing what she was going to do, or how she was going to manage to live there for three years. It was fascinating.

 

I was hoping you could talk about the process of, forty years down the line, reconstructing a project narrative from a collection of field notes, finds, and so on.

In terms of the story of the project, it was rather simple to construct, because Harper kept all of the letters he wrote, and all their answers. Beyond that, it was talking to people. I went to speak to Cyril Mango, for instance, because he had chosen the site all those years ago. The web was a great resource for finding people who’d worked at the site. I found a man who’d done his undergraduate research on human bones and who’s now a doctor, and then a woman who worked on the site until 1980 who now lives in the UK. In 2015, she came back to the States for her college reunion, and there was an interview with her where she said she’d spent seven years in Turkey working on these finds. So I contacted the college and got in touch with her. The thing was, since working at the site, she’d gotten married and changed her surname, but the reunion, of course, used her original name; so suddenly I found her.

The whole process has been very systematic. We’ve digitized a lot of the materials, maps, photographs, excavation notes, finds, and drawings. Thanks to a grant, I’ve been able to employ several people, so there’s someone working on the stratigraphic sequence for all the areas, and then organizing the finds, creating the metadata. We have an MA course in conservation and they do projects reassembling full pots or glass vessels—and in the meantime I get all this material. My final aim would be, if possible, to have an exhibition on this excavation. But for now I’m just trying to put it all together, to understand what happened in the first century, the second, and so on, up until the site’s abandonment in the twelfth century.

 

You made the claim at the end of your talk that this settlement actually begins to be fortified under the rule of Anastasius I (491–518), as opposed to under Justinian I (527–565). Is that entirely your claim? How do you go about making new claims from this old material?

The problem was that Harper didn’t work out the stratigraphic sequence, so his interpretations are based on what textual sources are telling him. Procopius says that Justinian fortified Neocaesarea, so Harper decided, quite logically, that this site was Neocaesarea. I’m not sure it is, though. We have fragments of this large inscription dated to Anastasius I that suggests that he built, or at least started to build, the fortifications at the site. That’s actually a revision happening in other excavations as well, like Resafa, which is further south, or Dara.

There’s no doubt that Anastasius had a very great interest in this area, because his plan was to reconquer the East, and this was certainly the first step to the East. I don’t deny that Justinian certainly did something for the site; Anastasius died in 518, and it’s possible that he never finished this project. But, given the archaeological evidence we have, Anastasius was responsible for the first big action at the site.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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Micha Lazarus Joins Byzantine Studies as a One-Month Research Award Recipient

Posted on Mar 22, 2017 01:14 PM by Lain Wilson |

We are pleased to welcome Micha Lazarus, who joins Byzantine Studies as a one-month research award recipient this March. Lazarus is a Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, working on the influence of classical poetics on Renaissance English literature.

Lazarus received degrees from Oxford (BA Hons), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of California, Berkeley (MA), before returning to Oxford for a DPhil on the reception of Aristotle’s Poetics in Renaissance England, several decades before it is usually thought to have become available. Since then he has taught Renaissance literature at both Oxford and Cambridge, and is expanding his thesis into a monograph for Oxford University Press. His work at Dumbarton Oaks will explore Greek imperial and Byzantine rhetoric as the dominant disciplinary context through which the Poetics circulated in Renaissance Europe for the first fifty years of its life in print.

Micha has published several articles on Renaissance literature and criticism, new manuscript discoveries, and the classical tradition, focusing in particular on the influence of Greek in sixteenth-century England. In 2012, he was awarded the Gordon Duff Prize in book history, and, in 2016, held a research fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, for work on Aldus Manutius. He is coinvestigator on English Renaissance Poetics Online, a digital project mapping the influence of classical and Renaissance poetics in English writing from 1500 to 1700, and this year is convening “Poetics before Modernity,” a seminar series exploring new work on Western literary theory from its ancient beginnings to 1700.

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Restoring a Village

Michail Kappas Visualizes and Preserves the Greek Village of Kastania

Posted on Mar 16, 2017 11:07 AM by Bailey Trela |
Restoring a Village

Michail Kappas is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Since 2005, he has worked as an archaeologist in the Ephorate of Antiquities of Messenia, Peloponnese, in Greece, where he currently holds the position of the Director of the Department of Byzantine Monuments. He has supervised an extensive restoration program of more than forty churches, monasteries, and castles in the region. His recent research report detailed his restoration work, and the academic research supporting it, at the village of Kastania.

A Brief Q&A with Michail Kappas

How did you get attracted to Kastania? Why did you choose to work with it, and how did you start?

Kastania has an amazing concentration of Byzantine monuments, and yet it’s still a nice village—because it’s quite isolated, it hasn’t been changed by tourism, so the village identity is still preserved there. I think it’s important to study the secret core of the Byzantine economy—that is, the village’s role in agricultural production—and to see how this primary level of economic activity affects the artistic environment of the village. It’s interesting to consider how everyday life, in terms of economic and production cycles, affected a village’s worship, its rituals, and so on. To that end, Kastania is a nice case study, because it combines religious sites, private houses, and agricultural facilities.

As far as how I started working with Kastania: I was responsible for the restoration of the monuments in this village, and there were a few of great importance that were in a very bad state of preservation, so I had to make several visits to document the monumental environment and find sources to start researching the restoration projects. That whole process—getting our hands on permissions and studies, finding funding and laborers, developing a plan—took something like six or seven years.

 

In your talk you mentioned some confrontations with the villagers and having to convince some members of the community to send of the town’s objects for restoration. Could you talk more about that?

That was a difficult process. At the beginning, when we started getting objects from the village in order to conserve them, all the old ladies thought we were going to grab the objects from the village and put them in a museum. So, initially, they were hostile. They locked the churches, they had all the men form a defensive wall to prevent us from getting at some of the objects—the police actually had to help us do our job, they had to escort us. We were acting on behalf of the state, we were state employees: the preservation of cultural heritage is our main duty. When the villagers realized that our purpose was to conserve the objects, after they saw that we actually were returning the objects and putting them back in the churches, and they could continue their worship, their attitude changed. They realized we were only trying to keep the cultural heritage of the village in the village.

But there were other conflicts, too. Apart from restoring the monuments, our duty is to control the building activity within the village, which means enforcing rules about where and what the villagers can build. As you might imagine, this policy provokes a lot of conflict. So we try to keep a balance—we had to show the villagers that we weren’t there to control them, but to preserve their cultural heritage.

 

I’m really interested in the process of doing architectural restoration and basing it off of textual sources—how do you go about this? How do you determine what a building should look like from a text?

There is no connection between textual sources and buildings. It’s very rare to find specific descriptions in Byzantine sources that give details about a building precise enough to allow you to visualize it. So the study of buildings is based on the study of Byzantine architecture, a discipline that goes back almost a century and a half; it’s probably the best-studied aspect of Byzantine civilization. We have books on the subject from the 1850s up to recent times, which really help to define the evolution of Byzantine architecture from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. They break down the buildings into morphology, typologies—specific layers of analysis that help us to determine what the authentic structure is.

You have to study the building, and document it through excavation and through precise drawings. It’s very important to understand that the building carries many, many levels of information, because it’s been used for so many centuries. Once you’ve identified the repairs to the structure, and once you’ve found the different phases of the building, you then have a narrative of its history—and of course, the building echoes the people who built it, the people that used it. By trying to understand the history of a building in its village context, you actually come to an understanding—if it’s a church, for example—of the flock that used it.

In most cases, we do have the churches. As you can imagine, houses were much less sturdily built. The houses that exist now in the village generally date from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, but when we do excavations, we often find traces of previous houses—Byzantine houses that actually had a similar design. But when you’re studying a building, whether secular or ecclesiastical, you have to define its use through the centuries, and then make a decision as far as restoration is concerned—what specific phase is important? What do you have to sacrifice? There are interventions that have added up over the years that actually cause, I would say, less authenticity in the monument. But of course, once you start working on a monument, you inevitably lose part of its authenticity—even the fact that the building looks old, well, after the restoration, it doesn’t look old anymore.

But we do have to restore, we have to stabilize this history—because otherwise it might collapse. We might lose it.

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Teaching a Younger Crowd

Teaching Fellows’ Day Invites Undergraduates to Consider Byzantium Anew

Posted on Mar 02, 2017 11:15 AM by Bailey Trela |
Teaching a Younger Crowd

For a Saturday morning, the Oak Room was surprisingly chockablock. Seats, set in rows that stretched the full length of the space, bore a crowd of nearly one hundred people. The attendees hailed from a variety of D.C. institutions.

On February 25, Dumbarton Oaks held its seventh annual Teaching Fellows’ Day. The event, which is organized by Dumbarton Oaks’ postdoctoral teaching fellows in Byzantine studies, invites students from D.C.-area universities to introduce them to research and resources at Dumbarton Oaks through scholarly presentations and gallery tours.

This year, the day took as its theme the nature of capital cities and their place at the center of the artistic, political, and administrative life of empires. “At the Center of Empire” examined these matters through the lens of Constantinople, while at the same time foregrounding Dumbarton Oaks’ own resources, collections, and contributions to the field of Byzantine studies.

In his opening remarks, Director Jan Ziolkowski contrasted the “huffing and puffing of empty manipulation” that frequently characterized the Byzantine bureaucracy with the abundance of “real people with real passion and talent” working at Dumbarton Oaks, and in the field at large. Elena Boeck, director of Byzantine Studies, followed suit in her remarks, adjuring “potential future Byzantinists” in the audience “to come to the good side.”

The morning was given over to a series of three talks that focused on the relationship between the capital city of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire. In “Reflections of a Capital City,” Elizabeth Dospel Williams, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine art history at Dumbarton Oaks and George Washington University, began the scholarly proceedings by attempting to provide a “vivid vision of early Constantinople—its monuments, its arts, and its culture.”

The difficulty in reconstructing the past in a convincing, even realistic manner, as Williams asserted, is that we can only access the past through its fragments. “And the thing is, very few artifacts can be linked with absolute certainty to production in Constantinople,” she explained. “Almost all our objects and evidence have been found outside” of the capital. She went on to examine commercial interactions between Byzantium and Europe through the lens of silks and their production, in the process utilizing objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection.

In his paper, Jonathan Shea, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine history at George Washington University and Dumbarton Oaks, analyzed the Byzantine bureaucracy and conflicts between the urban and provincial parts of the empire. Shea described the eleventh and twelfth centuries as “a little odd,” a time when “the first grumblings of the system of government being broken began to emerge.”

Shea described a reckless granting of titles that eventually snowballed out of control. As more and more titles, each with their attendant payment of gold, were granted, the government was forced to devalue its money, at which point people began to demand newer, grander titles (with grander payments of gold). Throughout his talk, though especially in his discussion of titles, Shea utilized the collection of Byzantine seals at Dumbarton Oaks, tracking the appearance of new titles and descriptions in the seals to determine large-scale shifts in administrative power.

Nathanael Aschenbrenner, a Tyler Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks and PhD candidate in the history department at Harvard, delivered the final talk of the morning, “From Imperial City to Urban Empire.” He brought the day’s theme to a very literal conclusion, examining how, in the fifteenth century, Constantinople slowly morphed from the capital of the Byzantine Empire to the empire itself. As the empire lost large swaths of territory and saw its political influence in the region shrink accordingly, it was forced to redefine what “empire” meant, not only in the political sense, but also ideologically and metaphysically.

The event itself attracted a variety of students at different stages in their academic careers, each of them seeking to get something different out of the day. Marcellino Velasquez, for instance, a freshman at George Washington University, was excited to engage with those resources and aspects of the institution that might typically be more difficult to access: “It’s a unique opportunity—I knew we’d be able to see things we wouldn’t usually be able to see.”

Though he hasn’t decided on a major yet, Velasquez is confident he’ll be choosing between history and architecture, or some combination of the two. To that end, the day offered a chance to engage with a subject that—with its emphasis on basilicas, monumental painting, and the built environment of late antiquity—often straddles the two fields.

“I think Byzantine history is really interesting,” Velasquez said, pinpointing the morning lectures as particularly piquant. “I never knew the dynamics of their politics, how these emperors each came to power and overhauled the system of government, changing it to their own tastes, to work for them, obviously.”

For others, the day was an opportunity to explore established interests. Luke Garoufalis, a sophomore at George Washington currently enrolled in two of Jonathan Shea’s classes, traces his interest in Byzantium to his Greek heritage: “I remember my family always talking a lot about it (they still do), and then I learned about it in church school—so I’ve really always had an interest in Byzantium.”

Several of the talks, seeking a relevance to current political events, drew comparisons between the Byzantine past and the current political climate in America; it was an effort that Garoufalis found intriguing. “To learn about this exclusionary system set up in Byzantium, a system that’s very focused on the capital, and then this feeling of revolt against that setup—I think there are definitely connections there, and perspectives to be gained.”

Erin Haas, a freshman at George Washington, is planning to double major in history and art history. She wants to concentrate her studies on the Middle East, pursuing an interest that she developed in high school. Though Haas had never heard of Dumbarton Oaks before, she was excited to learn about the institution and its own specialties.

The afternoon was given over to a series of gallery tours and informal lectures on various projects currently ongoing at Dumbarton Oaks. Students explored museum storage, visited the special collections, listened to curators, and learned about publication initiatives and educational programming—and, ideally, learned a little bit more about the inner workings of an institution that, though not nearly as complex as the empires it studies, combines a diverse bevy of projects and approaches in the service of scholarship.

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Imagining the Empress

The Ephemera Collection Expands in an Upcoming Exhibit

Posted on Mar 01, 2017 11:39 AM by Bailey Trela |
Imagining the Empress

It was “the supreme spectacle of the age,” according to one effusive advertisement. In 1922, the Astor Theater in New York screened Theodora, an Italian silent film about the scandalous life of the eponymous sixth-century Byzantine empress. The film featured live lions, a cast of twenty-five thousand people, and reconstructed Byzantine architecture, sculpture, and mosaics. Most important, however, was the “love-mad woman” at the heart of it all.

This film, like several others of its day, was born from a larger western fascination with the empress Theodora. In the early 1880s, average people in Europe and North America became increasingly interested in the aesthetics and style of Byzantium. The French playwright Victorien Sardou propelled the empire into the mainstream with his sensational 1884 play Théodora, which starred the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt as the empress and boasted extravagant sets and costumes. The following decades saw Theodora transformed from an obscure historical figure to an icon of fashion, theater, and film. Her face appeared on postcards, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Many westerners received their first exposure to the Byzantine world through these imaginative renderings of Theodora.

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives is excited to announce the arrival of a new exhibit focusing on this cultural phenomenon. Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922, was curated by Lane Baker, postgraduate fellow in ephemera, in conjunction with the Dumbarton Oaks Archives’ Ephemera Collection, a new and growing assemblage of historical ephemera related to the institution’s three programs of study. The exhibit aims to expose viewers to the ways in which a single historical figure infiltrated popular culture and helped bring an awareness of Byzantium—albeit a skewed one—to the general populace.

Though Dumbarton Oaks began acquiring ephemera in 2015 and has continued at a steady pace since then, the collection’s focus on Theodora is a new phenomenon. In fact, many of the objects on display, which range from buttons to postcards to theater programs, are new acquisitions. “Part of the idea behind the exhibit was to assess the collection as a whole,” Baker explains. “We wanted to find interesting themes in what we already had, and then pursue more focused acquisitions from there.”

Of course, ephemera present their own unique curatorial challenges. “When you’re working with these disparate types of materials—buttons, postcards, newspaper advertisements—it’s difficult to tie them together in a compelling way,” Baker says. In the early stages of planning, Baker researched methods of displaying ephemera and other exhibitions that had effectively utilized the fleeting materials. Ultimately, he decided that an exhibit that relied solely on one type of object (like postcards) would be difficult to pull off.

Instead, Baker opted for a chronological approach, capable of encompassing a wide array of materials. “Essentially, the exhibit moves from the foundations of the Theodora craze, in Sardou’s play, all the way to the conclusion of the craze, with film posters from the 1920s,” he explains.

This broadened purview means the exhibit can include anything, from a set of cameo-bearing buttons—designed as party-going accessories that were meant to be affixed to a sash—to an elegant 1902 play program for Sardou’s Théodora, designed by the famed jeweler and artist René Lalique.

The program, as Baker explains, is a curio. “In a lot of ways, it’s really different from what we’d expect from a program—it has concept sketches, costume models, set designs, small bits of sheet music, some of Sardou’s notes. It’s sort of a behind-the-scenes view of the play.” The program’s assortment of background trivia that gesture at the mechanics of Sardou’s spectacle emphasizes that the play, like the larger Theodora phenomenon, was about the larger world of Byzantium as well.

“I think Theodora, as an idea and a cultural phenomenon, really captures a good idea of what ephemera can be, and what they can express,” Baker says. Not only did the empress-craze find its way into the manifold crannies of consumer culture—it also found there, in each postcard and button, a unique, and often beautiful, expression.

 

Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922 will be on display at Dumbarton Oaks in the Orientation Gallery when the museum reopens in spring 2017. In the meantime, interested readers can browse selections from the ephemera collection.

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No New Saints

Sergey Ivanov Reconsiders the Unorthodox Saints’ Lives of the Tenth Century

Posted on Feb 21, 2017 02:20 PM by Bailey Trela |
No New Saints

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.

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The Monks at the Theater

Agnieszka Szymańska Discusses the Unlikely Design of the Red Monastery

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Monks at the Theater

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.

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Refinding the Way

Hendrik Dey Investigates the Via Triumphalis in Medieval Rome

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
Refinding the Way

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.

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The Ruins of Syria

Dumbarton Oaks Acquires a New Collection of Images

The Ruins of Syria

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.

Syria 95.XVIII.5 Monumental arches at St. Simeon’s Monastery.

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.

Syria 95.XVIII.34 South Basilica at St. Simeon’s Monastery.

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.

Syria 95.XIV.18 An andron or tavern located in Serjilla, southwest of Aleppo.

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.  

Syria 95.XVI.43 Hollyhocks outside the Temple of Zeus Baotocecian at Husn Suleiman.

“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.

Syria 96.XLVII.13 “Moppets” in the ruins in the Jebel Barisha area.

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.

Syria 95.XVIII.92 Arcosolia tombs in the mortuary chapel at St. Simeon’s Monastery.

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.

Syria 96.XLI.12 A lintel with cross outside the church at Qirq Bizeh.

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.

Syria 95.XVIII.1 St. Simeon’s Monastery from Takleh.

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Tristan Schmidt Joins Byzantine Studies as a Short-Term Predoctoral Resident

Posted on Dec 05, 2016 04:05 PM by Press |
Tristan Schmidt Joins Byzantine Studies as a Short-Term Predoctoral Resident

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. 

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Anthi Andronikou Joins Byzantine Studies as a One-Month Research Award Recipient

Posted on Nov 28, 2016 10:20 AM by Press |
Anthi Andronikou Joins Byzantine Studies as a One-Month Research Award Recipient

We are pleased to welcome Anthi Andronikou, who joins Byzantine Studies as a One-Month Research Award recipient from November 16 to December 15. The award at Dumbarton Oaks will grant Anthi access to material in the Byzantine Collection and the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, and will ensure the successful completion of her project on “Venice before Venice: Serenissima's Visual Culture in Pre-Venetian Cyprus.”

After completing her BA (ptychion) in art history and archaeology from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2004, Andronikou received an MPhil in Byzantine art history and archaeology at the same institution. Andronikou also holds an MLitt in late medieval and Renaissance Italian art from the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews. In 2015, she completed her PhD at St Andrews with a thesis entitled “Italy and Cyprus: Cross-Currents in Visual Culture (Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries).”

During her studies, Andronikou participated in several excavations in Cyprus and Greece. For her doctoral thesis, she traveled widely across Italy and Cyprus and took part in several conferences and workshops. She received the Rome Award from the British School at Rome in 2014, and she is currently participating in the early-career research grant on “Art of the Crusades: A Re-Evaluation,” led by the SOAS Institute and the Getty Foundation. Currently, she is working as a tutor at the School of Art History at St Andrews and is coediting, with Peter Humfrey, a volume dedicated to the mythological works of a private collection.

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Raf Praet Joins Byzantine Studies as a Short-Term Predoctoral Resident

Posted on Nov 10, 2016 01:55 PM by Press |
Raf Praet Joins Byzantine Studies as a Short-Term Predoctoral Resident

We are pleased to welcome Raf Praet, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident from November 3 to November 15, 2016. Praet is a doctoral student at the University of Groningen, under the supervision of Jan Willem Drijvers and Peter Van Nuffelen. His dissertation, “Finding the Present in the Distant Past: The Cultural Meaning of Antiquarianism in Late Antiquity (476–602 AD),” explores why antiquarianism became such a popular way to deal with the distant past in late antiquity, especially in the works of John Lydus, John Malalas, and Cassiodorus.

Praet studied classics at Ghent University, after which he worked, from 2011 to 2013, as a research assistant under the supervision of Kristoffel Demoen for the Database of Byzantine Book Epigrams, a collaboration between the University of Groningen and Ghent University. In addition to his doctoral research, he is also a member of the Late Antique Historiography research group.

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Reading the Notemakers

Andrea Cuomo on Greek Scholia and Byzantine Pedagogy

Posted on Nov 10, 2016 10:25 AM by Bailey Trela |
Reading the Notemakers

Andrea Cuomo, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Byzantine Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. On November 2, he delivered a research report entitled “The Editing of Greek Scholia and the Study of Medieval Greek Literature,” in which he examined elite educational practices in Byzantium during the Middle Ages.

An essential component of elite education was learning to read, write, cite, and allude to Attic Greek, a task that was aided by editions of the classics bearing detailed scholia, or annotations. In his talk, Cuomo described the production of scholia and their use as learning mechanisms in the Byzantine Empire. Contending that the Byzantine schooling system represented neither sterile erudition nor a cult of the past, he questioned how Byzantines used and related to this tradition, and how modern scholars might go about producing critical editions of these texts.

A Brief Q&A with Andrea Cuomo

In your talk you spoke about the grammarian Manuel Moschopoulos. For the layperson: who was Moschopoulos? 

Unfortunately, Moschopoulos—the author whose textbook I am trying to edit—is a shadow figure. He’s known to classical philologists because we know that he worked on all the classics, and we can infer something about his life from his work. So we know he was teaching at the school at a monastery in Constantinople, when suddenly, in the first decade of the fourteenth century, he disappeared. And we don’t know what happened. We know that he was probably involved in some conspiracy against the emperor, because he was imprisoned, and in 1306 he disappears, either because he died, or . . . well, we really don’t know. Like I said, he’s really a shadow figure, and we only know what we can infer from what’s left.

 

What exactly are scholia and why are they important?

They are important for two reasons. At that time, for the Byzantines, scholia were central because the Byzantines wanted to learn Attic Greek—the Greek of the Greek classics. Since they were learning it as a foreign language, they needed the scholia—just like if you want to learn Shakespeare, you need not only the text, but also a gloss for every word. Unlike glosses, though, scholia were a little bit longer than just a synonym. They sometimes rephrased difficult passages, but always with the aim of providing students with good examples to imitate when writing on their own. So really, they were useful tools with the pragmatic, tangible, concrete target of learning.

Sometimes, and this is probably what’s more interesting for our sensibility, these scholia give us parallels, or they’ll say, for instance, “Don’t imitate the style of this person,” and they quote an author. So we can also begin to grasp Byzantine aesthetic judgment on literature.

For us, they’re important because they tag a lot of words and a lot of syntactic constructions, so to speak, and if we follow the tagging as a contemporary Byzantine tagging system, we can end up interpreting Byzantine texts in an interesting way. For instance, if I have the text of a Byzantine author, who I know used scholia to learn Greek, then we can verify whether he was following these rules. And we can also tell whether he was switching into a lower or a higher register, always following this contemporary tag. So, our interpretation will be not anachronistic.

And the scholia can even help us classicists, or other people in the humanities, to understand the status of education: Whey would a grown-up society like Byzantium in its last two centuries learn this language? They knew that they were studying the past, but they actualized it, and they said, “It’s important for us; we are that.” So in a way, we can also use this kind of research to explain the importance of classics nowadays—I don’t necessarily like this approach, but at least I understand it can be useful.

 

When you have this group of people, almost a workshop, producing one set of scholia, what does that do to the idea of authorship? Is it a joint authorship? What is interesting or exciting about trying to discern the individual scholiasts behind the words?

It’s a very difficult question, because we all imagine the idea of authorship, and for many kinds of works it is easy to understand the concept—for a historiographic work, for a novel—but for this material it’s very difficult. So there are a couple of things we need to consider. First, they were comments that originated in a school—and as I tried to point out in my talk, this school had a chair, who was Maximos Planoudes, and he had his assistant, and they all surely promoted and contributed to the creation of this scholiastic corpus. Books were very rare then, and I think that if there was one, they annotated it jointly. That’s the first part: already at the very beginning of this corpus there was a joint authorship.

But really, for us, it doesn’t matter who wrote exactly which scholia. What’s more interesting to know is how they were transmitted, which is the second part of authorship. Scribes were more autonomous when they had to copy material. For example, when they copy Herodotus, they are very faithful, as if they were copying the Bible; but when they copy scholia, they may decide to omit or add one scholion, and so in a sense the scribes are also our authors. The question is: If I produce a critical edition, should I publish only what is original, or should I give you the idea of every single manuscript? To answer your question, I don’t believe the individual authorship matters with scholia. The point is how these scholia worked and their impact on learning. 

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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Ecologies of the Former World

Adam Goldwyn Pushes Ecocriticism Back to Byzantium

Posted on Nov 01, 2016 01:00 PM by Bailey Trela |
Ecologies of the Former World

Adam Goldwyn, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an assistant professor of medieval literature and English at North Dakota State University. His intellectual interests include classical reception and comparative approaches to medieval literature, though recently he has begun to work with a new theoretical approach to the past: ecocriticism.

As Goldwyn explained in his talk, “Byzantine Ecocriticism: Humans, Nature, and Power in the Medieval Greek Romance,” he first came to be interested in ecocriticism while teaching a literary seminar. After analyzing Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, a student asked Goldwyn whether the Greeks had had greater imaginations than modern people; it was difficult for him to imagine the cosmos carved on a shield, and when he looked at the stars he saw only dots. In attempting to answer the student’s question, Goldwyn read up on light pollution and its effects on the night sky; the melding of literary and environmental concerns catalyzed his interest in ecocritical studies.

Goldwyn began his lecture by explaining the basic tenets of ecocriticism and the related school of ecofeminism. As an approach to literary analysis, ecocriticism seeks to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of humanity’s interactions with the natural environment. Though initially developed as a framework for understanding industrial and postindustrial societies Goldwyn has sought to push its reach backward in time by applying an ecocritical approach to classical and medieval texts, including Ho Polemos tes Troados, a Greek translation of the Old French Roman de Troie, in an attempt to develop an understanding of Byzantine environmental ideology.

A Brief Q&A with Adam Goldwyn

During your lecture, you did some rereadings of myths from an ecocritical perspective: Medea as an environmental shaper, Jason as a pillager who steals the natural resource of the golden fleece. Are there other myths or texts that you’ve had intriguing ecocritical readings of, or that you thought lent themselves well to the theory?

One of the things that makes myths so interesting is that they’re often about these very early human-nature encounters, before the relation has been solidified by society. So you have things, for instance, like the labors of Hercules, which is a man wearing a lion skin, going around and imposing a human, civilized order on the world through, among other things, the killing of really powerful monsters or unusual kinds of creatures. So I think that the Hercules myth, as the human conquest of nature, is one. I certainly think that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is quite interesting—and recently controversial, because of some of the issues around divine-human sex and the issue of consent. But people transforming back and forth between animals and humans, and between humans and plants, makes you think about the borders between humans and gods. It turns out the borders between these seemingly fixed categories are very fluid. I think that that opens up a lot of space for thinking about ideologies, value systems, and what it means to be a plant, an animal, a certain kind of animal—a monstrous animal or a cute animal or a dangerous animal—or a god or a human. I mean, what’s human about animals, and what’s divine about humans?


One of the main tenets of ecofeminism as you described it is that oppression based on things like race, class, gender, and sexuality stems from the tendency to oppress nature. Is there a goal in ecocriticism to return to a state where the boundaries between humans and nature aren’t as clear?

That’s a tough question, and I think it’s helpful to talk about humanism. Before, you had God at the center of the universe—this is like the geocentric model of the universe—and then Galileo comes along as a humanist, and humans become the center of the epistemological world. Humanism is, in a sense, the study of humans at the center of things. Ecocritics point out that we can move away from thinking about humans as the center, and instead think about humans as part of a linked network of equally important and equally autonomous creatures. And we come to realize that something as small as a honeybee turns out to be a cornerstone of global ecology. So, post-humanist thinking, or transhumanist thinking, decenters the human and thinks of the world more as a networked web of symbiotic interconnections.


You’re pushing ecocriticism into the past and using it to study Byzantium. What is the backflow? How can Byzantium end up affecting ecocriticism?

There are a couple of things I can think of. One: Ecocriticism has largely been a project of the West, and predominantly of Anglophone scholarship. So even in ecocriticism, you have mostly scholars in the U.S. or England writing about ecocriticism from their own perspective, and writing mostly about contemporary or even medieval English literature. So we can end up bringing in a comparative context.

I think another thing that’s really important is to see how much ecocriticism suffers from a presentist view. Of course we’re in a new environment, or moment, because of anthropogenic climate change, but when we push back and develop Byzantine and medieval ecocriticism, and ancient ecocriticism and Biblical ecocriticism, and see how far we can push it back, we begin to see that the ideologies that underlie these things in fact go quite far back. We’ve inherited a system of environmental beliefs and attitudes that may not have been so bad when they developed, when you only had a couple hundred thousand humans and all they had were stone tools. You could have an ideology of deforestation then because you didn’t really have the technological means to accomplish it. But now, we have the same ideology, but the consequences are radically different, because you can cut down hundreds of acres of rain forest in a day or a week. Trying to push back the chain of ideologies that got us to where we are is really important for thinking about the contemporary moment.

 

A lot of the textual excerpts you read that were about Medea mentioned her education in magic—I believe one even referred to “liberal studies.” I’m wondering if you could talk about this connection between education, magic, women, and ideologies.

The etymology of liberal arts is, basically, the education that a free person would have needed, so in some sense of course education is that which a free man—and emphasis on the man when we’re talking about Rome—would need. One of the things that ecocritics and ecofeminists often discuss is the different environmental ideologies between men and women, and how nature itself is often given a feminine gender. And there’s a problematic but somewhat commonplace binary that men have an environmental ideology of exploitation (think hunting), whereas women have an environmental ideology of sustainability or care (think of gathering, or gardening, as opposed to hunting). I mean, it’s a little bit of a gender-essentialist perspective, but by educating women, by bringing them into environmental discourse, I think that we can shift from a certain kind of male-dominated narrative about how we should treat the environment to one that’s dominated more by care, nurture, and sustainability. 

 

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Looking for the Nomads

Florin Curta on Byzantium and the Nomads

Posted on Oct 31, 2016 10:35 AM by Bailey Trela |
Looking for the Nomads

On the outskirts of empires, history is harder to come by. As cities give way to wilderness and stonework cedes its place to weaker materials, traces become rarer, stories disappear. But then, what about the people who won’t settle down, who have no homes at all?

Though Florin Curta admits nomads have long been the bugbears of historians everywhere, he’s still determined to investigate their interactions with the Byzantine empire. On October 13, Curta, a professor of medieval history and archaeology at the University of Florida, delivered the Byzantine studies program’s annual public lecture.

At the beginning of his talk, “An Uneasy Relation: Byzantium and the Nomads,” Curta foregrounded broad epistemic concerns centering around the issues of naming and identity. What, he asked, constituted “Europe” in the age of Byzantium? How was it understood and imagined? Deceptively simple questions followed: What, after all, is a nomad? And what does it mean to be nomadic?

Curta’s lecture first sought to answer these questions on Byzantine terms. Utilizing contemporary written sources that documented imperial interactions with nomads from the steppe lands, Curta evoked the Byzantine conception of nomadic peoples while emphasizing a key difficulty in studying them.

These external accounts of nomadic culture, as Curta showed, were often content to record with the broad brush of stereotype. Descriptions of nomadic peoples produced in Byzantium often drew from a long history of depiction, cribbing from the writings of older authors. Herodotus’s descriptions of the Scythians, for instance, were frequently used as a template when writing about nomads; Procopius’s descriptions of the Huns were often similarly recycled.

Whether this distorted image of steppe nomads served a political purpose or was simply a failure of established interpretative tools, it remains a misrepresentation that in recent years has been more and more belied by archaeological evidence. In the course of his talk, Professor Curta delineated the advances in bioarchaeology and the changes in methodology that have led researchers to question the clear-cut classification of nomadic peoples into preconceived ethnic categories.

Opposing the supposition that nomadism makes people disappear from history, Curta emphasized a nuanced approach to the study of nomadic peoples, one that benefits from uneasiness. Just as simplified ethnographic classification in Byzantine times had done away with the nuances of nomadic life, an emphasis on clear boundaries between Byzantium and the nomads in modern scholarship has frustrated the study of nomadic peoples. Processes that might not typically be associated with nomads—sedentization, conversion, and assimilation—are in fact rich terrains of study, Curta contended.

At the end of his talk, Curta obliged the audience with a moment of crowd service. After deconstructing common perceptions of nomadic peoples, he displayed a stock image of a Pecheneg warrior astride a horse, his outflung arm straddled by a vicious-looking hawk, his mount’s head adorned with a leather chanfron. The image hovered on the screen, colorful, striking, and questionably real.

 

Video: Florin Curta, “Looking for the Nomads”

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“The World Upside Down”

Byzantine Studies Fellow Eleni Kefala on Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason

Posted on Oct 12, 2016 12:05 PM by Bailey Trela |
“The World Upside Down”

Eleni Kefala, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is associate professor in the School of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews. Though her previous research has centered on Spanish American literature and the visual arts, her work at Dumbarton Oaks will attempt to bridge, for the first time, Pre-Columbian and Byzantine studies in the context of her new interdisciplinary project “Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” which itself builds on her latest monograph, Five and One Theses on Modernity.

In her research report, titled “The Vanquished: Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” Kefala first established a complex and guiding theoretical framework. Citing a long list of writers, philosophers, and cultural theorists that included Immanuel Kant, Fredric Jameson, Enrique Dussel, and Edward Said, Kefala provided a cultural critique of concepts like modernity, progress, and enlightenment, and of discursive constructions of Byzantium and Pre-Columbian America in order to explain the rationale of her project.

A Brief Q&A with Eleni Kefala

In your presentation you displayed a complex theoretical apparatus. Now that you’re at Dumbarton Oaks, how do you come down from that apparatus and start digging around in the particulars?

The idea of a comparative study of Byzantium and America came as I was writing two theoretical chapters on “modernity” and its “others” for the purposes of a monograph I’ve just finished, Five and One Theses on Modernity. What I presented at Dumbarton Oaks was a rough summary of the most relevant findings of the first part of the book, which I call “Excursus on Modernity.” So what I was aiming at, and basically what I’m interested in, is what the moderns, while trying to define their own “modernity,” had to say about Amerindians, on the one hand, and Byzantium on the other. The ultimate end of this investigation is to explore the discursive mechanisms whereby these civilizations were epistemically and culturally subalternized, especially (but not only) during the Enlightenment, and seeing to what extent these mechanisms are actually with us today. What I will be doing here at Dumbarton Oaks is something slightly different, which is going to be, hopefully, the first chapter of a monograph on Byzantium and America before and after the Enlightenment. Although the book will be about how the west discursively constructed those “premoderns” from the Renaissance on, the first chapter will actually look at the point of view of the Byzantines and the Amerindians—that is, the point of view of the defeated, how they saw the conquest. For instance, the Aymara in what is today Bolivia and Peru referred to the so-called “discovery” of the Americas as Pachacuti, meaning “the world upside down.” So I want to look at the perspectives of the people who were conquered in both cases.

 

You talked about trauma theory and memory studies, a lot of which seems to develop in the twentieth century. So how do you adapt these studies to the fifteenth century, to very foreign cultures?

You always have to be very careful. If we go back to the term theory, what does it mean? Theōria—from theōreō, meaning to consider, to observe, to theorize—gives you the opportunity to look at something in a more comprehensive way. Theory, as Deleuze once said, is a box of tools. So I would like to look at particular instances of “postmemory”—Hirsch’s idea, which she’s using with reference to the Holocaust to explain how cultural trauma or memory can be transmitted from generation to generation through texts, images, and behaviors, but which I think could be a useful tool when it comes to looking at poems written by scholars or anonymous people after these conquests. For instance, I’d like to look at issues of cultural trauma, memory, and postmemory in the thrēnoi, or laments, for the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and in the Cantares mexicanos, especially the icnocuicatl, the “songs of sorrow,” which were composed by Mexica poets soon after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The same applies to theories of hybridity and cultural translation.

We should use these terms with caution, but we can use them, because the mechanisms of cultural production—whether this is now or during the Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, or the Ottoman Empire, etc.—the way that culture is produced, has not changed much. Culture can be the product of dialogue, or clash, but it’s definitely the product of the encounter between different cultural systems, which produces something new. This “new” is then essentialized, its identity becomes identifiable, and then it meets and clashes with something else to produce some other newness, etc., etc. Of course, each case comes with its own specificities, both in terms of time and space, but this is how culture moves, how culture changes, let’s say. So yes: caution. But I don’t think that we should be terrorized by the idea that one could use contemporary theorizations to shed light on previous periods, in the same way that we are not terrorized by the idea that theories of the past can still be useful and relevant to us today. For example, during the discussion I borrowed Borges’s theorization of “thinking” as selection and abstraction. I could see that many colleagues in the audience immediately appreciated the reference. Borges talks about this in a story called “Funes the Memorious,” which was published in 1942. Is what he says less useful or relevant to us today just because he said it in 1942?

 

There was a lot of focus in your presentation on scientific advances, medical advancements, and the idea of progress. Where did that emphasis come from?

If you are interested in the concept of “modernity,” as I was when writing the “excursus,” you eventually have to look at what comes before it, and what comes before it, in time, is the middle ages. In terms of space, it’s the non-European cultures—in this case, obviously, the Amerindian civilizations, since I agree with scholars like Dussel that modernity begins in 1492 with the conquest of America. Now the idea of progress is fully fleshed out during the Enlightenment, with thinkers like Kant and Fontenelle, who eventually breaks with the cyclical notion of history, and progress is seen in the future, not in the past. And then you start looking at the real notion of progress—what did they mean by progress? Even a strong supporter of the idea of progress like Fontenelle says that he doesn’t believe in the idea of moral progress—who can ever argue that we’re morally more advanced than people that lived in previous times? And then the notion of artistic or aesthetic progress also is very difficult to grasp—who can say that our aesthetic tastes today are more advanced than, for instance, the abstraction of Byzantine art? So once you try to disentangle this whole literature about progress, then you can only end up with the notion of technological and scientific progress. And then you have to problematize the moderns’ view that the idea of scientific and technological progress, or sometimes even the thing itself, was absent from premodern or non-modern cultures, as was supposedly the case of Byzantium.

 

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Introducing Elena Boeck

Dumbarton Oaks’ New Director of Byzantine Studies

Posted on Sep 28, 2016 11:25 AM by Bailey Trela |
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Introducing Elena Boeck

“Strange images find me,” says Elena Boeck. She pauses briefly before continuing: “I think I have a natural affinity for outlying images.”

“Strange” and “outlying,” “liminal” and “borderline”—these words crop up frequently when Boeck, who recently began her five-year tenure as director of Byzantine Studies, speaks of her work. Perhaps because her research centers on the odd, out-of-place, and oftentimes mysterious visual clue, her way of speaking is staunchly investigative; her sentences advance steadily and logically, extended every now and then by a favorite phrase: “This is why . . .”

Professor Boeck comes to Dumbarton Oaks from DePaul University, where she holds a professorship in art history. She received her BA in that subject in 1996 at Boston University, followed by an MA and PhD at Yale. After completing her PhD in 2003, Boeck quickly settled at DePaul, where she has taught in various capacities since 2004. In addition to her scholarly work, Boeck brings strong administrative experience to her directorship at Dumbarton Oaks; she served as principal organizer of the 2011 Byzantine Studies Conference, and as a member of the governing board of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America between 2008 and 2012. (Having reassumed this position in 2015, she will now serve until 2019.)

Boeck, who hails from Riga, Latvia, originally intended to study physics before coming to the United States to pursue her undergraduate studies. But once she arrived, a natural inclination to the study of images drove her to major in art history. (Her conversion to Byzantine art history came later, during a trip to Istanbul).

Despite what might seem a jarring shift, she insists there are strong parallels between the fields: “In physics, one studies laws which have been made manifest in physical form . . . and the same thing applies to art history. Objects have a created reality, but there are laws and rules and there are structures—the creator’s intellectual processes—which bring them into existence.”

Boeck’s fascination with the hidden origins of images, and her belief that precise ideological structures often stand behind the art that surrounds us, are perhaps not so surprising, given the environment of her youth. “The other side of the story,” Boeck says, matter-of-factly, when explaining her proclivity to art history, “is that I grew up in the Soviet Union; I’ve seen images and the way images are used for political purposes—and one understands how to read these kinds of narratives, and what to do with them.”

Boeck’s approach to the visual is undergirded by a healthy skepticism, a natural corollary to recent trends in Byzantine studies. Although Byzantine culture has long been recognized as a “distorting mirror,” Boeck writes in her 2015 study Imagining the Byzantine Past that “only recently have that mirror’s characteristics started to fascinate as much as its distortions.” Though the positivist fact-mining that dominated manuscript studies in the first half of the twentieth century can still yield useful historical information, Boeck’s work arises from the more subjective sphere of rhetorical nuances and narrative strategies.

As a result, her work can be both precise and expansive, detail-oriented and theoretically minded. In her own words: “I’m an art historian, but I think about myself as doing intellectual history.” In line with this self-assessment, Imagining the Byzantine Past showcases her method of working backward and outward from discrete visual curios to develop a convincing revision of historiographical approaches to Byzantium.

“Byzantinists love the Skylitzes manuscript so much that they don’t want to look at it critically,” she says of one of the central object-studies in Imagining the Byzantine Past. “Because it is so vivid and so rich, it has to be the reality.” And yet Boeck concludes that the Skylitzes manuscript, commissioned by Roger II of Sicily in the mid-twelfth century, is in fact a purposive construct, designed in opposition to the Byzantine cultural model.

Setting the Skylitzes manuscript against another, more laudatory manuscript—an adaptation of the Manasses chronicle, produced for Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria in the mid-fourteenth century—Imagining the Byzantine Past attempts to display the deliberate and exploitative nature of both works. One is valedictory, one denunciative; one aims to condemn, the other to incorporate—and yet, as Boeck insists, both are suffused with a creative energy, both fundamentally aware of the power to be gained in co-opting history: “They take the foundation—the texts—and they completely transform them.”

Disjunction—between image and text, between truth and narrative, between cultural centers and their peripheries—orders much of Boeck’s scholarship. At the most particular level, this disjunction is evident in the befuddling images that offer glimpses of obscured ideologies: a saint who should know better raises his robes and exposes himself; an iconoclast, denounced by the accompanying text, appears, improperly haloed; a Virgin figure, holding her child, sprouts, for no obvious reason, a third hand.

But more broadly speaking, these visual oddities offer a portal on conflicting historical frameworks that Boeck has worked tirelessly to unearth and interrogate. “As scholars, we all operate with a sense or set of assumptions . . . we create our own versions of Byzantium, and our own interests drive us,” she says. “When we come across images or objects which defy these cultural assumptions—that’s when people have to articulate what they expect from images.”

Boeck is open about her own expectations, as well as the sympathy for peripheral things that often structures her work. (Imagining the Byzantine Past acknowledges its genesis is owed, in part, to its author’s youthful experiences “on the fringes of a collapsing empire.”) Her theoretical background shines through in her choice of words; the language of obliquity—“decenter,” “othered,” and, of course, “periphery”—reigns when she muses on narratives of Byzantium.

And while, couched in these terms, Boeck’s concerns may seem intimidating, they translate easily into her coming work at Dumbarton Oaks. As Boeck sees it, Byzantine studies today is frequently interested in cross-cultural discussions that in turn reevaluate the very meaning of “Byzantium.” Though Boeck can cede that Byzantium has been consistently “othered” in the past and left out of “standard narratives of history,” it is an observation that is quickly tailed by further questions: “What do we call the center? And how do we define the margins, or the borderlands of Byzantium?”

“A simple example: there are modern-day countries which claim Byzantium as part of their national heritage, so in these countries Byzantium is in some ways written into history—it becomes part of standard textbooks. And people who come to it when it’s not part of their tradition, of course, will focus on other aspects of Byzantium—and so, we get different versions of Byzantium.”

One of the most valuable aspects of Dumbarton Oaks, Boeck acknowledges, is its ability “to get different people with different views of Byzantium together, to get them talking more.” In many ways Boeck’s work can be seen as an effort at disentangling—but in order to disentangle, one first has to recognize there’s a tangle at all. At Dumbarton Oaks, Boeck hopes to continue the healthy confluence of different constructs, narratives, and “assumptions” that abets scholarship of all types. In addition, she’ll aim to maintain the institution’s current spate of programming and fellowships—initiatives that Boeck herself can be thankful for.

Boeck previously spent time at Dumbarton Oaks as a junior fellow in the 2001–2002 academic year, an interval she remembers fondly: “It was such a good environment. You put books all around yourself, and you know Hector provided lunches—so it’s life completely worry-free, and you just write.”

More than a decade later, her office space has increased, though she is still surrounded by books, folders, files. Right now, in between her manifold duties—editing the Dumbarton Oaks Papers, working on budgets, coordinating programming—Boeck is composing a cultural biography of the Column of Justinian, which stood in Constantinople from the sixth to the fifteenth century. She’ll be attempting to prove that the column was the “greatest” monument of Constantinople throughout its long existence.

In the midst of describing this study, she pauses for a brief aside that seems telling: “Byzantinists,” she allows—with an air that seems to add, so it goes—“will not necessarily be happy with it.”

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