The Oaks News
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.
Andrea Cuomo on Greek Scholia and Byzantine Pedagogy
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.
The New Pollinator Garden at Dumbarton Oaks
Over the past year, the garden staff has installed a new pollinator garden in the swale near the garden offices. Deirdre Moore, Tyler fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies, designed the garden to attract a range of pollinators, include several monarch butterflies, which hatched from eggs as caterpillars, formed chrysalises, and then emerged as adults this past fall. Watch video of these life stages of the monarch butterfly shot here at Dumbarton Oaks, and look at a photo slideshow (above) of the development of the new garden.
Bliss Symposium Award Recipients Cabelle Ahn and Carlo Urmy Reflect on the Garden and Landscape Studies Colloquium on Hubert Robert
The Bliss Symposium Awards provide Harvard graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to travel to Dumbarton Oaks and participate in the annual symposia or colloquia in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian Studies. Two recent award recipients, Cabelle Ahn and Carlo Urmy, attended the Garden and Landscape Studies colloquium on “Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture,” which took place on September 27. They reflect on the colloquium and their visit to Dumbarton Oaks below.
PhD candidate, History of Art and Architecture
The colloquium was an invigorating addition to the recent exhibition on Hubert Robert at the National Gallery of Art. The talks were as diverse as Robert’s own artistic practices, and the speakers illuminated Robert’s multifaceted engagement with history, antiquities, and landscape and garden design. The speakers simultaneously explored and expanded the boundaries of the French picturesque, a term mostly associated with English gardens except for Claude-Henri Watelet’s Essai sur Jardins (1774). Joseph Disponzio contextualized Robert’s work within eighteenth-century continental picturesque garden theories, and Gabriel Wick highlighted Robert’s sequencing of natural spaces in relation to eighteenth-century antiquarianism. John Pinto additionally located Robert’s artistic activities alongside those of his contemporaries in the historic and ruinous environs of Rome. Other speakers introduced refreshing approaches to Robert’s projects: Susan Taylor-Leduc reconsidered rocks as a medium that intimated the temporality of sculpture, and Elizabeth Hyde undertook a close analysis of the inventory of plants in the royal gardens. Sarah Catala’s talk on Robert’s drawings in relation to women amateurs was particularly fruitful for my own research on eighteenth-century French drawings. For me, it was an immensely productive day that reframed my experience of Robert’s oeuvre. The conference offered tantalizing glimpses into novel approaches to the art of Hubert Robert and eighteenth-century French visual culture.
MLA candidate, Graduate School of Design
I was honored to be able to attend the special colloquium on the work of Hubert Robert, in conjunction with the exhibition of his work at the National Gallery. The assembled panelists presented a number of interesting perspectives of Robert’s work, particularly in relation to his involvement in garden design and improvement projects. As an aspiring landscape architect with a background in art history, this conversation was of particular interest to me, with many of the speakers discussing—and at times complicating—the relationship between picturesque painting and the developing field of landscape architecture. Joseph Disponzio’s talk on the relationship between Robert and Jean-Marie Morel was particularly illuminating on this subject, as were John Pinto’s discussion of Robert’s relationship to ruins and Elizabeth Hyde’s talk on eighteenth-century French horticulture. The closing conversation attempted to find commonalities and connections between the growing scientific understanding visible in the work of Morel and the historicist themes in Robert’s paintings and garden designs.
Beyond the subject matter addressed in the colloquium itself, it was a distinct pleasure to make my first visit to Dumbarton Oaks. I was struck by the wide variety of disciplines and methods encompassed within the department of Garden and Landscape Studies, which speaks to the depth and relevance of the field itself. And while I wasn’t able to visit the museum or main house, it was amazing to be able to spend even an hour in Farrand’s gardens, and I hope to return very soon.
Adam Goldwyn Pushes Ecocriticism Back to Byzantium
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.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
We are pleased to welcome Beth Meyer, who will be joining Dumbarton Oaks as a visiting scholar from November 1 to November 30, 2016.
Professor Meyer is widely recognized for her theoretical writings about the intersection of modern conceptions and experiences of nature, environmental ethics, and contemporary landscape design. Her recent publications include “Sustaining Beauty. The Performance of Appearance,” “Slow Landscape. A New Erotics of Sustainability,” “Grafting, Splicing, Hybridizing: Strange Beauties of the Australian Garden,” and “Beyond Sustaining Beauty: Musings on a Manifesto.” During a 2016–17 sabbatical, she is completing a book manuscript, The Margins of Modernity. Theories and Practices of Landscape Architecture.
In 2015, Meyer founded the UVA Center for Cultural Landscapes, a transdisciplinary initiative. Since Meyer’s graduate studies in landscape architecture and historic preservation, she has been fascinated by the thick description of landscapes—places replete with cultural memories and biophysical processes. This perspective has afforded her opportunities to research, interpret, plan, and design significant cultural landscapes such as the UVA Academical Village (EDAW 1980s), Bryant Park in NYC (Laurie Olin 1980s), the Wellesley College campus outside of Boston (MVVA 1990s), the St. Louis Gateway Arch Grounds, a modernist memorial landscape designed by Saarinen and Kiley (MVVA 2000s), and the White House Kitchen Garden (NPS 2016).
Meyer is a registered landscape architect who has worked for EDAW, Hanna/Olin, and Michael Vergason. She taught at Cornell University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design before joining the UVA faculty, in 1993, where she teaches design studios and theory courses. She has served as the dean of the School of Architecture as well as the chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture. Meyer currently holds a Presidential appointment to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a seven-member design review board responsible for the monumental core and significant public spaces of Washington, D.C.
LANE BAKER (NOVEMBER 2016)
Scholars typically study significant objects that were made to last—books, artworks, buildings, inscriptions, etc. More often than not, these objects have been made by and for the elite. The general population tends to leave a more ephemeral record. “Ephemera” are historical artifacts that were never meant to be preserved and may come in many forms, e.g., postcards, stamps, playbills, flyers, catalogs, and more. These commonplace objects offer unique glimpses into everyday life and culture, revealing dimensions of the past that scholarly documents might obscure or overlook. Since 2015, the Dumbarton Oaks Archives has been collecting historical ephemera relevant to the institution’s research interests of Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies. Most of these items date to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were created primarily for audiences in the United States and western Europe. They offer us insight as to how the general population encountered and learned something about the Byzantine Empire, Pre-Columbian cultures, and garden and landscape design and horticulture.
The following are three examples from the collection.
In 1916, a tourist in Constantinople bought this postcard. It depicts the interior of “the Mosque of St. Sophia,” thereby at once evincing the city’s blend of Byzantine and Islamic cultures. The colors, which have been layered on a black-and-white photograph, paint a fanciful portrait of the Byzantine building. For many people in the west, such imaginative images would have been their first exposure to the exotic grandeur of Byzantium.
The Swiss chocolatier Toblerone created this stamp as part of its larger “Temples and Churches” stamp series (1920s). It depicts an imaginary “Temple of the Aztecs,” taking cues from a variety of real Mesoamerican temples. Like many of Toblerone’s earliest advertisements, this stamp is written in Ido, a constructed language for international communication. The same spirit of internationalism that spurred the creation of these artificial languages also led advertisers to appeal to the recipients’ interest in far-off and exotic locales like those of the Pre-Columbian world.
In 1914, a prospective home gardener picked up this eye-catching pamphlet. Distributed by Maryland arborists J. G. Harrison and Sons, the pamphlet claims that trees from Harrisons’ Nursery benefited from an ideal climate and healthy soil. It lists the prices of many different species, from fruit trees to ornamentals. In the early twentieth century, ornamental and orchard gardens became something that ordinary people could afford. Pamphlets like this one document that transition, showcasing the ways that arborists reached out to novices hoping to craft their own landscapes.
The Dumbarton Oaks Ephemera Collection is an ongoing project, presently numbering some five hundred objects. Coming soon is a website featuring the collection as well as a special exhibition, which will open in the new year.
Florin Curta on Byzantium and 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.
Sonja Dümpelmann on the History of Street Trees
Walking along a residential street in the middle of a city, you might briefly consider the shade-casting branches of overhanging trees, or the sough of leaves mingling with the whir of distant traffic. You probably wouldn’t reflect, however, on the embattled histories of individual trees, the aesthetic theories that (often literally) helped to shape them, or the intricacies of city-planning that either frustrated or ensured their existences.
Sonja Dümpelmann thinks about just these things.
On October 19, Dümpelmann, a landscape historian and associate professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, as well as a senior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, delivered a lecture as part of the Mellon Midday Dialogue series which outlined her recent research into the history of street tree planting and its relation to urban development.
Though the book Dümpelmann hopes to write on the subject will focus on twentieth-century Berlin and New York, her talk, “Street Tree Stories: On the Politics of Nature in the City,” stepped further into the past in order to examine the curious and oftentimes dramatic stories that have sprung up around urban trees.
Historically, trees have been prone to personification. In ancient times dryads roamed the earth in the guise of beautiful women; when spotted, they swiftly transformed themselves into oaks. Even today, as Dümpelmann explained, a bit of paganism resurfaces in the wintertime as children pack snowballs onto trees, forming eyes, a nose, a winning grin.
In simple terms, this mythological baggage means that, in more recent times, trees have often functioned as epicenters of emotion. Place a tree in the middle of the city, as Dümpelmann illustrated with a series of anecdotes, and the emotions tend to run even higher.
Dümpelmann recounted the story, preserved in a newspaper snippet from 1897, of the Matthews family, who woke one morning to find that a telephone company had dug three postholes in the front yard of their home in Brooklyn. When the family members learned that the company planned to topple their large shade tree to make room for a skein of telephone wires, they promptly leapt into the postholes and refused to budge.
As cities continued to grow in complexity in the early twentieth century, conflicts concerning their trees turned theoretical and oftentimes scientific. The science of arboriculture spread, and the position of city forester became professionalized.
What is the ideal tree, its type, its shape? While cottonwoods, as some argued, were initially appealing, their cloudy seedpods had a tendency to stick to the clothing of those passing under them. At the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris, the newly invented dendroscope—basically a large wire cookie cutter for trees—promised uniformity in the pruning of trees, and came in a variety of ovoid iterations.
Displaying images from pruning manuals and handbooks, Dümpelmann explained that the process of standardization, made manifest in the Victorian-era innovation of the dendroscope, presaged the widespread practice of arboriculture. With time, aesthetic concerns gave way to concerns over the interactions of architecture and verdure, and even to questions of public health.
In the early years of the twentieth century, street trees had become such a prominent concern that rampant debate about their pros and cons could materialize even in the literary realm. To close her presentation, Dümpelmann read an exchange of poems between a leading arboriculturist and a writer for The New Yorker. Pithy, humorous, and mutually dismissive, like parodies of pastoral verse, the poems nevertheless encapsulated the fervent hopes and beliefs sprouting from the contentious trunks of the city’s trees.
Pre-Columbian Studies Junior Fellow Jessica MacLellan on Maya Stone Platforms and the Organization of Community
Jessica MacLellan, a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Arizona. In her research report, entitled “Households, Ritual, and the Origins of Social Complexity,” MacLellan provided a brief summa of Mayan archaeology—its past, aims, and current state—before segueing into a description of her fieldwork with the Karinel Group, a suite of settlements in Ceibal, Guatemala.
At the Karinel Group, MacLellan has helped to unearth evidence of stone platforms, carved from the bedrock of the region, that seem to have served a number of purposes. While some evidently formed the floors of homes, others appear to have been used as stages for the enactment of rituals. MacLellan intends to use these platforms, along with other archaeological evidence from the site, including pottery caches, to answer a number of questions about the links between domesticity, ritual, and ancestor worship.
A Brief Q&A with Jessica MacLellan
When you were laying out the theoretical basis of your research, you said that ritual, specifically the way you’re looking at it, can be both inclusive and exclusive. Could you elaborate on that?
Sure. So one of the main traditional focuses in anthropology, archaeology, history, is studying ritual as a means to bring people together—I think Durkheim is the main theorist on that, and then there’s this idea of “communitas,” which is Victor Turner—but basically, a lot of people see ritual as bringing communities together. And yet, at the same time, whenever you have these formal ritualized practices, there have to be individuals with specialized knowledge of the rules and special responsibilities. So the idea is that, even from the beginning, in very simple egalitarian societies, there are people who are ritual specialists, and as societies become more complex, there’s a potential for those people to move up in the hierarchy, so that eventually you end up with things like divine kingship, which the Maya have, which is kingship based on ties to the gods and the ability to communicate with the gods, with commoners supposedly lacking that direct link.
In your talk, you focused on the connection between permanent settlements and ritual. What explains that connection?
Well, the way that I look at ritual, it’s not really tied to simpler or mobile societies versus settlements—you can actually see ritual even today in our modern societies—and the main theorist that I use are usually sociologists, so they’re actually looking at the much more recent past. Ritual can mean a lot of different things, and it’s kind of an intentionally vague term, but it’s appropriate when we don’t want to use the word “religion.” This is useful during the time period I’m working with: I don’t have any texts, and I don’t want to impose beliefs or meanings on the people because I don’t know what they were thinking, obviously, we just have little bits of their trash and their architecture. But by focusing on the physical actions they took, on their interaction with the material world, on rituals—well, it’s a little bit easier than focusing on meaning, on symbols, and I think we can avoid putting our own western perceptions on people by focusing more on their actions. So I don’t think that ritual is necessarily tied to this idea of sedentary groups, or not sedentary groups, but you definitely expect changes in ritual when you have changes in social structure.
I’m curious about how the carving of the stone platforms occurred. What tools were being used? What processes?
That’s a good question. We haven’t actually been able to see this happen ethnographically, but it does seem to have happened at a lot of archeological sites in the Maya area, and we do know that they didn’t have any metal, so obviously they wouldn’t have metal shovels or hoes or rakes. They would have probably been using wooden tools made out of the trees around them, or possibly stone tools. It must have required a large group of people, so again we have this idea of bringing the community together, of creating a community through work. And something like creating a plaza could be a very ritualized act, and they also created house platforms that way, so it probably required somebody organizing them. This again gives you the idea that there’s somebody who’s maybe gaining a higher position in this society, because they can bring together these groups of people and start this process. But why they wanted to do it? I still don’t know.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Garden and Landscape Studies 2016 Colloquium on Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture
On Tuesday, September 27, the Garden and Landscape Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, held its annual fall colloquium. Entitled “Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture,” the colloquium, which featured six speakers, sought to examine the artistic and cultural contexts of the French painter and landscape designer’s work. The colloquium was held in conjunction with the exhibition Hubert Robert, 1733–1808, on view at the National Gallery from June 26 to October 2. (Dumbarton Oaks has a set of four pendant paintings by Robert.)
After brief welcoming remarks from John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Therese O’Malley, associate dean of the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, spoke of the long history of collaboration between the National Gallery and Dumbarton Oaks, and cited the current colloquium as a welcome effort to revivify relations between the institutions.
Sarah Catalla, a PhD candidate in art history at the Université Lille III and a Mellon Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, began the day’s presentations by examining a lesser-known aspect of Robert’s work. Her talk, “Hubert Robert and the Amateurs: From ‘Educating the Eye’ to Composing the Landscape,” sought to foreground Robert’s time as an instructor of drawing to aristocratic amateurs.
In the course of her talk, she suggested not only that this endeavor helped, in a professional sense, to secure Robert connections with wealthy patrons, but also that it molded his understanding of the potentialities of the picturesque style and helped to shape his latter-day style.
Drawing on a rich corpus of sketches and drawings, Catalla discussed how the practices of teaching, touring, and sketching were linked with the evolution of Robert’s garden interventions. She limned the amateur milieu prevailing at the time—in which the work of women amateurs was granted equal value—and raised settings and themes that would recur throughout the day, including the Tour de Guy at La Roche-Guyon, an important site in Robert’s career as landscape designer.
Dovetailing with the theme of an amateur milieu, Gabriel Wick’s presentation, “Between Artifact and Artifice: Hubert Robert and the Mise-en-Scène of History in the Aristocratic Garden,” charted Robert’s development during a period in which he helped to compose a series of landscape gardens for aristocratic amateurs.
At the outset of his presentation, Wick, a PhD candidate in history and cultural geography at University of London, Queen Mary, attempted to parse the precise nature of Robert’s involvement in the design of several landmark sites: Ermenonville, La Roche-Guyon, Betz, and La Chapelle-Godefroy. This is a difficult task, as Robert rarely worked alone, but often undertook his interventions with others, including, in one instance, a team of antiquarians and theorists.
Engaging in his own theoretical discussion, Wick went underground in an effort to explore Robert’s construction of false historical palimpsests. Highlighting the underground passageway, implemented by Robert, that connected the Tour de Guy with the main estate at La Roche-Guyon, Wick suggested that the motif of underground passageways was a significant one for Robert. Like the passageway at La Roche-Guyon, the series of grotto chambers implemented at Méréville implied a historical narrative of great age in the grounds.
Describing Robert as a “specialist in distressing and displacing,” Wick explained that in constructing simulacra of age for aristocrats, Robert helped them to reinforce their historical lineage, putting the landscape garden to sociopolitical use.
A theme that quickly emerged from the day’s proceedings was the difficulty of classifying Robert’s work as a landscape designer, a thread taken up by Joseph Disponzio in his presentation, “Neither Painter nor Gardener Be: Hubert Robert and Eighteenth-Century French Picturesque Garden Theory.”
After a brief sketch of perceptions of Robert’s work throughout the years, leading all the way up to the twentieth century, Disponzio, a preservation landscape architect with New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, segued into an analysis of Robert’s anomalous position with regard to French picturesque garden theory.
Despite the majority of his design work taking place after an explosion of theoretical texts in the 1770s, Robert’s efforts were nevertheless at odds with the dominant theories expounded by these tracts, which posited that landscape design and landscape painting were not, in fact, twinned arts, but were instead deeply at odds with one another.
Analyzing Robert’s design work through the lens of its conflict with theory, Disponzio’s talk presented a picture of a well-admired designer who nevertheless stood apart from many picturesque trends. Though it is often easy to classify his work as falling within the French picturesque, Disponzio contended that he was an artist whose approach to garden design was always, first and foremost, through the canvas.
If, during his lifetime, Robert often seemed misplaced in his theories and vocations, it was a theme that carried through to the appointments he received, as Susan Taylor-Leduc, dean of Parsons Paris, the European campus of the New School, explained in her talk, “Designing in Rock: Hubert Robert and the Politics of the French Picturesque.”
When, in 1778, Robert accepted the title of Dessinateur des Jardins du Roi from the French monarchy, he filled a vacancy left by the famed formalist Le Nôtre in 1700—a designer with views nearly antipodal to his own.
Setting out to elucidate the subtle political messages encoded in Robert’s work for the French monarchy—that is, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—Taylor-Leduc’s talk primarily traced Robert’s work with stone. Though the Baths of Apollo, situated at Versailles, were considered a failure by contemporary critics, Taylor-Leduc identifies the display as a node of political allegory, in which the transmutability of stone, embodied in the contrast between natural rock and statuary, played an important role.
Elizabeth Hyde, an associate professor and assistant chair in the department of history at Kean University, went on to develop similar themes in her presentation, “‘Such Things as Would Enrich France,’ or Planting the Eighteenth-Century French Garden.” Focusing on Robert’s use of foliage in his designs, Hyde emphasized early on that though Robert demonstrated little knowledge of plant life itself—his depictions in his paintings often lack any botanical precision—plantations were nevertheless key to the political messages his work evinced.
Commissioned to record in painting the replanting of the gardens of Versailles, Robert’s depictions of the felling of barren and frequently lopsided trees corresponded to his use of overgrown vegetation in his famous capricci. For Hyde, these depictions display a political consciousness to Robert’s work; as she suggested, the decaying foliage Robert painted seemed to embody a starkly linear conception of time that contrasted sharply with the cyclical time—or rather timelessness—redolent of the age of the Sun King.
The French picturesque, as Hyde suggested, sought to evince the twinned concepts of renewal and timelessness, and, in order to do this, gardeners had to reach beyond the borders of their own state. Hyde detailed the far-flung botanizing missions undertaken by royal gardeners in this period, an expeditionary effort perhaps epitomized by the botanist André Michaux, who established botanical gardens in what are now New Jersey and South Carolina.
In concluding the colloquium, John Pinto, emeritus professor in the history of architecture at Princeton University, returned to the heart of Robert’s fame in a presentation aptly titled “Robert des Ruines: Landscape and Antiquity.” Echoing Catalla’s presentation, Pinto emphasized Robert’s time in Italy (1754–65) and the sketchbooks he completed there—which Robert referred to as promenades—in the development of Robert’s later aesthetic.
Presenting the painter’s Italian years as an apprenticeship of sorts, when Robert interacted with contemporaries like Gian Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Pinto compared Robert’s work to that of his contemporaries. Piranesi’s depictions were darker, of course, though Robert’s interest in “the tenebrous interiors of imaginary ruins” and his belief in the expressive nature of ruins could be traced to the Italian artist’s influence.
Though Robert’s painting is inventive and oftentimes fantastical in its blending of settings and transposing of monuments, Pinto made a point of emphasizing, through a series of anecdotes, Robert’s physical engagement with his subjects. Robert, accompanied by a coterie of fellow painters, was said to have once thrown an apple over a barren arch and, charging through the connecting ruins, to have caught it on the tip of a penknife.
In his spry youth, he was also known to climb the fading monuments he encountered, shimmying up columns and resting at perilous heights—an experience curiously echoed by his painting L’Accident. On the canvas a yearning suitor, having gathered a bouquet from atop a decayed temple, falls through the air, betrayed by a crumbling capital—and the somber ache of ruins is made tragically manifest.
Meredith Miller on Confronting Climate Change through Design
On Wednesday, October 5, Meredith Miller, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, delivered the first of the year’s Mellon Midday Dialogues. The series, which serves to highlight urban aspects of landscape studies, will continue throughout the academic year.
Miller’s talk, “Making Post Rock: Material Research through Design,” reflected her longstanding interest in the intersections of architecture and ecology. Recently, Miller has undertaken a series of projects aimed at confronting global climate change through the lens of its representation.
How can one effectively represent such a largescale phenomenon? Is it possible to make the crisis, which can seem both temporally and spatially abstract, more concrete, more urgent, and thereby more tractable? In attempting to answer these questions, Miller has focused her research and design efforts on a modern oddity: plastiglomerates.
The crude, amorphous lumps—“perhaps the first material of the Anthropocene age,” as Miller puts it—most often form when natural materials (sand, stone, wood) and bits of man-made waste accrete around a base of molten plastic. Constituting an entirely new class of material, plastiglomerates are highly variable in structure: some are formed by beach campfires, while others are produced in the middle of the ocean in large floating landfills, where the crushing pressure of tidal currents combines with UV radiation to slowly glue together detritus.
As a result, a plastiglomerate may simply consist of three detergent bottles warped together, though the masses can also appear subtler and eerily natural, like a dirtied clump of pumice or a volcanic stone. Because plastiglomerates have such a curious provenance and appearance, they offer unique design opportunities.
As Miller asserted in her talk, plastiglomerates have the potential, when used in construction, to tether the idea of climate change more solidly to the resulting structure. Because plastiglomerates are neither wholly man-made nor entirely natural—because they embody, in a strictly physical way, the often nebulous interactions between humans and the environment—Miller believes they are a promising starting point for representing climate change through architecture.
Working with a team of designers, Miller has experimented with creating her own plastiglomerates, which, by and large, are more photogenic than the “naturally” occurring specimens. Miller’s creations, which she calls “post rock,” are typically of a uniform color, their surfaces smooth and often gleaming, though familiar shapes (bottles, cups, furniture) are still discernible beneath the gloss.
In closing her presentation, Miller dwelt on the models that she and her teammates recently designed for a proposed installation at the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit, Michigan. Not quite sculptures and not quite buildings, the models strike a middling note: like the material out of which they are made, they are at once attractive and unsettling. Some—earth-toned, pitted and rough, with geometric portals and windows—seem to suggest caves, and the distant origins of the human race. And yet others—white, cloudlike, almost lunar—gesture forward, into the perilous future and outside the world that made them.
Byzantine Studies Fellow Eleni Kefala on Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason
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.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Dumbarton Oaks in the News, October 2016
Watch the London Review of Books’ video feature on Letters of a Dead Man with reviewer Nicholas Penny, former director of the National Gallery in London. Penny also published a review of the book in the pages of the LRB in June. In a separate review of the same volume, Gillian Mawrey writes in the July issue of the Historic Garden Review: “This splendid modern edition has scholarly appendages which fill in the background without slowing the racy tone.”
Former junior fellow Andrew Hamilton, currently in the Society of Fellows at Princeton University, gave this talk at Yale University Art Gallery on the royal Inca tunic in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, in conjunction with the gallery’s exhibit Weaving and the Social World: 3,000 Years of Ancient Andean Textiles. Thanks to the Art Gallery, you can now watch it on YouTube.
DCist raves about our gardens: “The real magic . . . is getting lost in the labyrinth of gardens. Romantics, (non-commercial) photographers, and anyone still pining after The Secret Garden won’t be disappointed by the idyllic grounds.”
Pre-Columbian Studies Fellow Brian Bauer on the Wari Empire
Brian Bauer, a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an adjunct curator at the Field Museum in Chicago. Over nearly three decades, as an anthropological archaeologist with a particular love of archaeological surveys, he has published and worked extensively on the Inca, with special attention to the city of Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire. At Dumbarton Oaks, however, he is turning his attention to the Wari, an imperial state that flourished in the Andean highlands from roughly 600 to 1000 AD—four centuries before the rise of the Inca.
In his research report, titled “The Lord of Vilcabamba,” which was the first at Dumbarton Oaks this academic year, Bauer described the work he plans to undertake, sketching a portrait of Wari scholarship’s rapid and ongoing evolution: the Wari were only identified as an empire in the 1950s, and archaeological work was interrupted for more than a decade by the operations of the Shining Path in Peru. From a heavily walled capital in Ayacucho, the Wari projected power through administrative centers in Viracochapampa and Pikillacta—sites remarkable for their rectilinear planning.
Vilcabamba, long known as the last holdout of the Incas after the arrival of the Spaniards, has been more recently revealed (by Javier Fonseca) to be a Wari site as well. Located downriver from Machu Picchu, Vilcabamba is badly looted, but has the most elaborate Wari tomb ever found, probably belonging to a provincial ruler who was interred with a large pectoral, death mask, cinnabar, and other high-status objects. Bauer will be reevaluating the Wari and their empire through the finds at Vilcabamba and will also work on a history of the Wari’s D-shaped temples with Dr. Maeve Skidmore, a former junior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks.
A Brief Q&A with Brian Bauer
Do we have a sense of what the origins of the Wari were?
It’s getting clearer, now that archaeologists are digging at the site of Wari itself. There seems to be an even earlier civilization in the valley—unfortunately, we don’t have many carbon-14 dates. But it seems that the Wari are from the Ayacucho area, and they’re the end product of five or six hundred years of cultural development. It looks like, around 200 AD, a critical mass of people accumulates in the area and begins to develop what we now call Wari culture.
You’re generally very interested in state formation and consolidation of state power. What’s your sense of why political organization coalesced when and how it did for the Wari?
I’m a strong believer in population levels, and that as societies become bigger and bigger, it becomes advantageous to organize those populations in different ways. As populations increase, some things get more and more scarce, so a lot of rules begin to kick in, and a few people end up controlling access to power, prestige, and wealth. So I see population level as the critical variable.
On a different note, you brought in so many wonderful artifacts, many of which were metal, that I found myself wondering: what characterizes Wari metallurgy?
I’m very new to this! I’d be curious to see how much copper production predates the Wari. Because I think, at least in the highlands, we probably have just a scattering of some copper tools before the Wari. And I think that under the Wari, you can really begin to talk about large-scale metal production. There are very few articles (I was chasing down a few today) on Wari production of metals. So far, most people dig a site and add an appendix that says, “By the way, we found twelve pins and three things we’re not sure about.” So I think the site of Vilcabamba will be interesting because it has a large collection of Wari metal. And it’s different from other sites, since it also contains a lot of very impressive silver items. The Wari silver is just gorgeous—the artistry is fantastic. And while there’s good Wari metalwork in various museums, the fact that we are getting these items from clear Wari contexts is important.
Dumbarton Oaks’ New Director of Byzantine Studies
“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.”
James N. Carder (October 2016)
Even after the availability of color photography and, later, the advent of the digital image, a number of artist-photographers have continued to work with black-and-white film stock. They also continue to develop their art in darkrooms, usually employing either the silver gelatin process or the more matte platinum/palladium process. These artists use these media in many cases so that they can better manipulate the image in a printmaking-like manner and create rich tonal effects that range from bright white to velvet black.
Over the years, the archives and House Collection have received black-and-white images that were photographed in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Recently, for example, Julia Cart, a photographer based in Charleston, South Carolina, sent the archives files of garden images that she took in 2002 with a vintage Rolleiflex camera. Ms. Cart works exclusively in film, using antique, large-format cameras. She has said that she is, “above all, a respectful student of natural light.”
In 1999, the artist Tanya Marcuse also photographed in the gardens using black-and-white film. Although she often works in color and in a large-scale format, her Dumbarton Oaks images were created in small scale (approximately 10 by 12 centimeters) using the platinum/palladium process and involving closely cropped and detail imagery. She generously gave prints to the House Collection.
Dumbarton Oaks’ staff photographer, Joe Mills, is also a photography artist who often uses black-and-white photography to create photomontages and collages in a surrealist style. In 1979, he took haunting images in the gardens, and, in 1995, he offered prints of this series to the House Collection.
New Titles in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library Series
In October, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library will add two new volumes to its catalog of historic texts, both of which are concerned, either directly or obliquely, with the power of rhetoric and the act of rewriting.
The Rhetorical Exercises of Nikephoros Basilakes, written sometime in the twelfth century by the eponymous Byzantine aristocrat and pedagogue, encapsulates a new trend in education that arose in the medieval period. Short and rhetorically dense, the exercises were meant to replace the intensive study of complete ancient texts that had dominated aristocratic education for more than a thousand years.
The exercises, or progymnasmata, are presented in seven categories of distinct rhetorical styles: fables, narrations, maxims, refutations, confirmations, encomia, and ethopoeiae. By far the largest portion of the book is taken up by the ethopoeiae, speeches delivered by historical or mythological figures in which the personalities respond to a challenging situation, and in the process reveal a sliver of their character, a glimpse of their emotional state, or both.
Though ostensibly didactic, the exercises, crisply translated by Jeffrey Beneker and Craig A. Gibson, are also consistently entertaining and offbeat. In their idiosyncrasy, they aid the impression, established by the volume’s introduction, that Basilakes was a shameless self-aggrandizer. “According to his own testimony,” Beneker and Gibson write, “Basilakes was a very successful teacher, whose popularity attracted the envy of the patriarch.”
Besides elaborating the field of schedography (the method of studying short texts), Basilakes is notable for the “artistic blending of pagan and Christian sources and worldviews” that informs his compendium; a Biblical story is just as likely as the tale of Phaëton to prove the author’s point.
Reading the Rhetorical Exercises, one quickly senses that Basilakes was a clever man. His exercises blur thematic and tonal boundaries, as if he wants to assure readers that complexity can arise even in his truncated, prefabricated texts. The ethopoeiae in particular touch on themes as diverse as art and nature, chastity and desire, and the theatrical grounding of day-to-day existence.
There is, too, a wry bluntness, most prevalent in his fables, that can seem off-putting if one expects to find an Aesopic neatness and refinement in the exercises. For instance, Basilakes writes of a lion who becomes enchanted by a beautiful girl and asks for her hand in marriage. At first the story seems a fairy tale, until reality sets in, and the lion wonders if the girl’s father will consent to being called the “father-in-law of a lion.”
Practical, humdrum matters, absurd as they may seem, take over. The arc of the fable is wholly unpredictable, and the eventual moral of the lovelorn lion’s tale—“Do not trust your enemies too readily”—is so broad that the tale that precedes begins to seem more of a gymnastic experiment, as though Basilakes were flexing his creative powers, attempting to see how strange he can make the elaboration of a commonplace.
In a similar vein, The Old English History of the World, edited and translated by Malcolm R. Godden, exhibits another author confident in his refashioning of ancient tales.
Orosius, a scholar and cleric, wrote his Seven Books of History against the Pagans in the early fifth century. Similar to Augustine’s City of God, the Seven Books sought to rebut claims that Rome’s decline had been caused by the abandonment of traditional paganism.
Nearly five hundred years later, the chronicle was translated into Old English by an anonymous author (or authors)—though “translated” is a generous term. Readers who pause over the table of contents may note, for instance, that Orosius’s famous Seven Books have been whittled down to a less imposing six. When the anonymous Anglo-Saxon—whom Godden, in his introduction, dubs “Osric”—produced his work in the tenth century, he didn’t so much translate Orosius as revise, excise, and thoroughly transmute the text.
Assuming in his readership a familiarity with Roman history and ancient matters, Osric retained a basic description of events from the Seven Books, while cutting liberally from Orosius’s commentary. At other points, he embellished, inserting dramatic speeches on a whim. All in all, Osric’s alterations are best summarized by the phrase “imaginative dramatization,” as Godden contends. Motives, outcomes, and explanations are added for color and detail.
Among Osric’s evident fascinations were military strategy and the customs of other cultures. And yet, while he delights in describing the ploys and plots of various wily generals, he also makes a point of bemoaning the terrors and tragedies of war. At one point in his history, in a fitting flight of fancy, the city of Babylon plaintively describes its own fall.
Osric revels in these peculiarities. While his narrative strategies may be lively and imaginative, the details he chooses to highlight—strange goings-on that are nevertheless dealt with objectively—form the backbone of the text. In writing of the burial practices of the Ests, a Baltic-region tribe often associated (whether accurately or not) with the modern-day region of Estonia, he describes, simply and with light wonder, what might be magic, or simply misunderstanding:
It is the practice among the Ests that everyone, whatever their country, must be cremated. If a single bone is found unburned, a heavy penalty is exacted. Among the Ests there is a community that can make things cold. The dead bodies lie uncremated for so long without rotting because these people create a chill in them. If you put out two vessels full of ale or water, they make one of them freeze solid, whether it is summer or winter.
Three Young Humanists from Harvard Arrive for a Year of Practical Learning and Career Preparation
Dumbarton Oaks is launching a new fellowship program this academic year designed to bridge the gap between college and career for three talented young humanists. The Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellowships will place each of three recent graduates from Harvard College at a partnering cultural institution in Washington, D.C., for the fall term, where they will acquire skills relating to their long-term interests. In the spring term, they will return to Dumbarton Oaks to collaborate on a project that applies those skills for the remainder of the year.
“We felt that the humanities needed special support and attention” among the postgraduate opportunities already available at Harvard, says Jan Ziolkowski, director of Dumbarton Oaks. “One of the distinctive opportunities that we can afford is the chance to learn through working. There are many undergraduates who crave to know what goes on behind the curtains in a number of extremely attractive fields, like publications, museums, and archives—and we’re uniquely positioned to assemble a group of people to learn from mentors at a variety of career stages.”
In this inaugural year, Dumbarton Oaks’ partners include the National Gallery of Art, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum. Fellows live at Dumbarton Oaks and participate in weekly research reports as well as the other events for the institute’s fellowship community. In addition, the institute will host a series of six talks throughout the year where notable humanists—including documentarians, archivists, writers, and scholars—will speak about their own career paths and the state of the humanities now.
The first cohort of Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellows’ interests range widely. Rebecca Rosen, who will begin the year at the George Washington University and the Textile Museums, is interested in conservation and curation, as well as questions of gender and the distinction between art and craft as they pertain to textiles and the decorative arts. She majored in neurobiology in college, but by her senior year found herself wanting more and more to work with culture. She grew up sewing with her mother, and in her junior year took a course on quilts and quilt-making that helped her see textiles and craft works as objects for serious inquiry: “It was very accessible, but we were also doing real intellectual work.” By her senior spring, she was considering leaving science to work with culture instead. “I read an article about how conservators repaired a Monet painting that someone had punched a hole in, and I knew, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do!’” she recalls. “I love fine detail work and working on one square inch of something for hours and hours, as well as being able to bring art to an audience.” Rosen comes into the fellowship after spending a year after graduation working in jobs that included furniture repair and ephemera acquisitions for a vintage art company. She adds, “I’m really looking forward to looking at how museums work and learning what I can be a part of, as well as bringing to light art and stories that might otherwise go unseen and untold.” At Dumbarton Oaks, Rosen will be working with museum director Gudrun Bühl.
Priyanka Menon, who will be embedded at the Folger Shakespeare Library this fall, is equally at home in the worlds of mathematics, social thought, and intellectual history. She wrote a thesis in math on ultrafilters—a concept important to the subfields of logic and topology that she describes as “a structured way to capture all the elements in a set.” Menon worked on a theorem about voting on ranked preferences called Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which uses ultrafilters in its proof—varying it to apply to contrasting kinds of sets, such as finite vs. infinite sets. Although the math is very abstract, the implications affect major questions in social and political thought, like whether the decisions of the living can or should bind the not-yet-born. “What I like about that thesis is that you’re working on very technical math at the foundations of logic, set theory, math itself,” Menon notes, “but you somehow still end up having knowledge that relates to ethical and normative questions directly or indirectly.” Menon also studied with historians Samuel Moyn and Sunil Amrith, and has done extensive work on twentieth-century Indian intellectual history, particularly on the concept of nature in the writings of both Gandhi and his critics. She is interested in the possibility of future work in history, political thought, and the legal academy. “I like math because it’s so abstract and the ideas are so pure,” she says, “and that blends so easily with intellectual history. I hesitate to say that I’m moving from the sciences to the humanities, or moving away from any field permanently. I’m interested in the middle ground, what I call the ‘fruitful cross-pollination’—finding unexpected connections and applications.” During her fellowship, Menon will work on Dumbarton Oaks’ ongoing project on mapping the history of cultural philanthropy and its effects on the city of Washington, D.C., with archivist James Carder.
John Wang, who grew up in Hong Kong, says that after taking mainly math, science, and language classes in high school, the first real humanities class that he took in his freshman year at Harvard transformed him: a class on American art and modernity taught by art historian Jennifer Roberts. “That was the first time that I saw art as not just about taste, but also society, culture, history, economics; I think the whole idea of ‘modernity’ first came to me through that class, too.” Though his strong interest and extensive coursework in social theory and intellectual history at first led him to declare a major in social studies, in the end he settled on art history, where he pursued the specialized track in architecture studies, taking architecture classes at the Graduate School of Design along the way. For Wang, who will be working at the National Gallery of Art in the first half of the year, both scholarship and artistic practice are entwined with questions of ethics and society—as are museums and the role they play in communities. “In the Renaissance or Imperial China, humanistic questions were thought to be part and parcel of how society should be—not a scientific or administrative question, but rather issues of how and what we should think,” he explains. “I see museum-going as more than just a recreational activity. I think there’s a strong civic dimension to it that fosters better citizenship and helps us be better people.” A practicing architectural designer in his own right, Wang’s design for a garden installation on the grounds of the Radcliffe Institute was recently selected from more than forty submissions. It uses granite blocks and wooden benches to echo the footprint of houses that Radcliffe College once used as classrooms—“an attempt to approach design practice with a more historical and humanistic bent,” he says. Wang also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity at Harvard, as well as the Phillips Brooks House Association’s Chinatown afterschool program. At Dumbarton Oaks, Wang will work with John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies.
Ziolkowski says that Dumbarton Oaks wants the fellowship to open up opportunities of all kinds, but impart a lifelong love of the humanities in particular. “If we get people to go into the humanities, that’s great. If they go into something else, but carry away good experiences, have learned from it, and can advocate for a liberal arts education who have an impact on other people, that’s great as well. We want to do everything Dumbarton Oaks can to help present the case for the arts and humanities, which is best presented by fostering people who love them, are willing to commit to parts of their lives to them, and speak about them.”
We are pleased to welcome Roxanne Radpour, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident until the end of September. Roxanne is a doctoral candidate in the materials science and engineering department at the University of California, Los Angeles.
She works in the Archaeomaterials Group at UCLA with Professor Ioanna Kakoulli studying archaeological and cultural heritage materials using analytical imaging and spectroscopy techniques. Her PhD research is focused on the application of advanced imaging technologies to characterize the surfaces and subsurfaces of objects in order to understand their materials, provenance, and condition. In October 2016, with the support of a Fulbright Fellowship and the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, Roxanne will be embarking on a research project in Cyprus to conduct an extensive analytical study of ancient rock-cut tomb wall paintings from the Hellenistic and Byzantine time periods.