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The Treatises of Melchior Guilandino

Dumbarton Oaks acquires sixteenth-century botanical texts

Posted on Aug 15, 2017 04:07 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Treatises of Melchior Guilandino

In the middle of the sixteenth century, Melchior Guilandino journeyed east. As he made his way into Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, he hoped to discover new botanical specimens and, perhaps, to disprove, merely by his absence, the rumors back home that had begun to cast his relationship with the eminent anatomist Gabriele Falloppio in a scurrilous light.

Whether it was love or duty that drew Falloppio—already famous for his pioneering studies of the female reproductive system, among other advancements—to pay the price of two hundred scudi for the freedom of Guilandino when the herbalist was captured by pirates off the coast of Africa is difficult to say. Regardless, back in Europe, they were never parted again; their remains lie next to each other in the General’s Cloister of the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua.

It was after returning to Europe that Guilandino, previously an itinerant Italian herbalist, wrote two botanical treatises, copies of which were recently acquired by Dumbarton Oaks: On Pliny’s Natural History and Botanical Observations

On Pliny’s Natural History analyzes the Roman naturalist’s encyclopedic tome. Its careful examination of chapters and passages from Pliny that focus on medicinal plants and herbs parallels contemporary attempts to revitalize the materia medica. Other scholars, like Guilandino’s occasional rival Pietro Mattioli, had diagnosed the ignorance and disorder typifying sixteenth-century medical practice, especially as it related to botanical cures; many palliative plants mentioned in writers like Pliny and Dioscorides were no longer identifiable, or were sometimes being called by the names of entirely different plants, leading to pharmaceutical concoctions that were placebos at best, and poisonous at worst.

The two volumes also exhibit the influence of Guilandino’s disastrous though ultimately productive trip abroad, which was itself an example of the rising tide of botanical expeditions. On Pliny’s Natural History features a discussion of papyrus and Egyptian flora, which Guilandino had personally encountered, while Botanical Observations collects the observations Guilandino made during his voyage. Taking the form of a series of letters written to fellow naturalists (five of which find Guilandino commenting rather acerbically on the work of Mattioli), Botanical Observations delves richly into botanical nomenclature, providing deep insight into the intricacies of naming that occupied naturalists in the sixteenth century.

The title pages of the two volumes, which are otherwise unillustrated, feature woodcut devices that, though simple, are striking in their clarity and precision. Above the scrawled signature of the French scholar Étienne Baluz (1630–1718), from whose library Dumbarton Oaks’s copy of On Pliny’s Natural History comes, a bear rampant is set within a simple escutcheon that is itself encircled by an oval motif. The title page of Botanical Observations bears an image of the goddess Athena, elaborately garbed, grasping an olive tree by its branch.

In 1561, four years after the publication of Botanical Observations, Guilandino was appointed prefect of the botanical garden at Padua. Falloppio died the very next year, sending Guilandino into deep despair. Nevertheless, his commitment to his work continued until the end of his own life, for a 1591 catalog of the garden, compiled two years after Guilandino’s death, lists nearly twelve hundred plants in its living collection.

In addition to his celebrated reign over the botanical garden of Padua, Guilandino was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Padua—a remarkable rise for the herbalist who had grown up Melchior Wieland in poor circumstances in Königsberg.

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Dumbarton Oaks at Kalamazoo

Paper proposals for four sponsored sessions at the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies due September 15

Posted on Aug 11, 2017 09:56 AM by Lain Wilson |
Dumbarton Oaks at Kalamazoo

Dumbarton Oaks and the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) are sponsoring or cosponsoring four sessions of papers and a film screening and roundtable discussion at the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University on May 10–13, 2018. Paper proposals are due September 15, 2017.

Topics in Byzantine Sigillography

Lead seals constitute one of the most important and numerous sources for Byzantine social and administrative history, and they are fundamental for the study of the aristocracy, of provincial and palatine institutions, and of personal piety. Seals themselves are also an object of inquiry, and research over the past half-century into their production and use has allowed scholars to employ them as primary sources in more varied and nuanced ways. Despite their importance as both historical sources as well as relatively prevalent Byzantine artifacts, seals rarely form the focus of sessions at general conferences for medieval and Byzantine studies. In addition to sigillographers and Byzantinists, we hope that this session will draw other medievalists, who may learn more about the specific methods of Byzantine sigillography, and who may provide insight into comparative approaches in medieval studies. This proposed session is open to papers that study seals from a material perspective, as well as to those whose argument is based primarily on evidence from lead seals.

Submit proposals to Jonathan Shea at

Topics in Byzantine Numismatics

Cosponsored with Princeton University Numismatic Collection

Byzantine numismatics is one of the oldest disciplines of Byzantine studies, one that has contributed not only to economic but also social, religious, commercial, and institutional history. As mass-produced, widely circulated, objects created by the Byzantine government, coins shed light on the priorities of individual rulers as well as dynasties. As artifacts with an archaeological context, coins allow us to analyze evolving economies, exchange networks, spheres of economic influence, and the movement of goods and individuals. Byzantine numismatics is a flourishing subset of the wider discipline which compliments and extends other areas of inquiry, and is of relevance not only to Byzantinists, but all those who study the medieval world. The proposed sessions are open to papers that study coins and seals from a material perspective, as well as to those whose argument is based primarily on evidence from coins and seals. In addition to sigillographers, numismatists, and Byzantinists, we hope that these sessions will draw other medievalists, who may learn more about these fascinating artifacts of Byzantine material culture, and who may provide insight into comparable approaches in medieval studies.

Submit proposals to Jonathan Shea at

Teaching with Translations

As medievalists we place a premium on original-language research, and yet in the classroom we habitually rely on translations. Today the pedagogic side of this divide is undergoing revolutionary changes thanks to the proliferation of translations in print and on the internet. This new range of choices forces us to confront questions about the role of translation in the classroom. To choose between, let’s say, a poetic paraphrase and a literal prose rendering is to privilege one pedagogic method over another.

It’s not that such questions have never crossed our minds before, but they had less urgency when teachers had fewer alternatives. The pedagogy is implicit, for example, when instructors single out key words in the original for special explication, which has the advantage of putting our training to good use. As a time-honored tactic the rhetorical move of saying “let me tell you what this word really means” has the appeal, for students, of gaining privileged access to inside knowledge, but at the same moment it generates a shared suspicion because the translation doesn’t convey what the original says.

This session has both a theoretical and practical focus. What is the role of translation in the classroom? Is one kind of translation preferable to others? How does the relation between original and translation change from one discipline to another? From one genre to another? Is there an advantage to showing the original along with the translation even if students lack the competence to read it?

Submit proposals to Daniel Donoghue at

Encountering Muhammad in the Latin West

Sponsored by Platinum Latin

“Encountering Muhammad in the Latin West” is inspired by the forthcoming publication in the DOML series of Julian Yolles’s Latin Lives of Muhammad. The panel will examine the nature of Christian Latin encounters with Muhammad, exploring in the process how Latin Christians understood such concepts as “religion” and “heresy,” how they viewed the origins of Islam in relation to that of Christianity, what sorts of engagement with cultural and religious “Others” they promoted, and how the image of Muhammad in medieval sources became the predominant model for Early Modern authors. While the panel will focus primarily on textual encounters, the appearance of such confrontations in literature, art, and religious polemic, and across such diverse regions as medieval Iberia, France, Italy, and the Crusader States, should make this panel relevant to a wide range of medievalists, including scholars of history, literature, religious studies, art history, and intellectual history.

Submit proposals to Gregory Hays at

Juggling the Middle Ages

sponsored by the Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University

The objective of this event is to bring home the values of studying medievalism and of integrating that study with medieval studies. The heart of this event will be a screening, roughly one-half hour long, of two clips from the early 1950s. The first will be the Terrytoons cartoon of R. O. Blechman’s “The Juggler of Our Lady,” the second the same story as performed on The Fred Waring Show. Ziolkowski will introduce the medieval story (first attested as an Old French poem and later as a Latin exemplum) and its modern reception (concentrating upon the scholarship of Gaston Paris, short story of Anatole France, opera of Jules Massenet, and later versions). The upcoming exhibition Juggling the Middle Ages that will debut at Dumbarton Oaks in DC from October 2018 through February 2019 also will be briefly introduced. The rest of the session will be given over to a roundtable on medievalism, taking the screening as its point of departure, with Richard Utz (Georgia Institute of Technology) and Elizabeth Emery (Montclair State University). 

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Rethinking Empire

The 2017 Byzantine Studies symposium

Posted on Aug 10, 2017 04:30 PM by Bailey Trela |
Rethinking Empire

Published a little more than a century ago, C. P. Cavafy’s haunting allegorical poem Waiting for the Barbarians is a particularly malleable elegy.

Set in a nebulous, vaguely imperial state on the day it is to be turned over to an encroaching barbarian horde, the poem describes the pendulous moment of transition when the pomp of rhetoric and glamor of an empire ascendant have given way to uncertainty, hollow dread, and ceaseless, destabilizing questioning. The purpose, meaning, and identify of the particular state is no longer the important concern; rather, the notion of empire itself, once so solid and a priori, has come into question. The poem might very well serve as a shorthand description for the aims of Dumbarton Oaks’s most recent Byzantine Studies symposium.

“Rethinking Empire,” held at Dumbarton Oaks between April 21 and 22, 2017, sought to situate Byzantine studies within a broader historical discussion, taken up by scholars of other hegemonic civilizations in recent years, about the nature of empire and imperialism as they’ve existed across different periods and geographical areas. Primarily, the symposium was aimed at interrogating Byzantine culture and imperial institutions, relations between core and periphery, and questions of ethnic diversity and territoriality. Coinciding with the centenary of the First World War, it was also concerned with comparisons over time and across space, and the competitive dynamics of imperial powers.

Former Director of Byzantine Studies Elena Boeck set the course for the symposium’s proceedings, describing their focus on the manner in which imperial identity was articulated and the mechanism of authority, and, on the other hand, the substructure beneath it all—the bureaucrats, image-makers, and lecturers who supported the empire.

The day’s lectures began with two brief presentations delivered by cosymposiarchs Paul Magdalino, of the University of St Andrews, and Dimiter Angelov, of Harvard University. Magdalino’s talk sounded the necessity for rethinking empire, calling it a “necessary step in the exploration of Byzantine political identity.” Examining the political states, or empires, that existed in the years leading up to the First World War, Magdalino teased out the remnants of the Roman conception of empire as they manifested in, among other things, architectural presentation.

The monumental architecture of capital cities was, and still is, dominated by triumphal columns and arches, and imperial leaders still claimed descent from Rome in their titles, like kaiser and czar, that are vernacular derivatives of caesar. As Magdalino attested, successful definitions of empire tend to involve comparison, and in that vein, he contended that kingship and empire are inseparable. The ritual consecration and establishment of heirs central to kingship are a first step in the establishment of empire.

Dimiter Angelov’s talk followed by attempting to define empire in a much more literal sense. His lecture analyzed the conceptual vocabulary of statehood. Examining the relative prominence of terms like arche and basileia, Angelov asserted that the diversity of appellations, and the lack of consensus on which to use and when, is revealing. Among the nuances of usage discussed by Angelov were the rise in frequency of basileia in the ninth century as a response to Charlemagne’s rule in the west, the relative rarity of autokratoria, and the perennial popularity of arche—used by Thucydides to describe the Athenian Empire, the persistence of arche in Byzantium marked a desire to claim continuity with the ancient world.

The symposium’s proceedings were divided into five thematic sections, the first of which, on “The Roman and Late Antique Matrix,” was chaired by John Duffy, of Harvard University. Emma Dench, also of Harvard University, examined contemporary scholarly approaches to understanding how the “premodern empire” of Rome functioned. Limning the history of traditional thought that viewed the Roman Empire as a singular belief system—and empire itself as a conversion process—Dench described the consequences of these theories. When one considers the Roman Empire as a belief system, with individual buy-in, rather than as a top-down model of ruling, Dench explained, the distance between rulers and subjects is minimized, and the importance of power structures is downplayed.

The next lecture, delivered by Sylvain Destephen, of the University of Paris, sought to analyze the effect of the gradual sedenterization of Byzantine emperors on imperial authority. Over time, Destephen explained, the figure of the peripatetic emperor—continuously travelling across the empire for diplomatic purposes and to reinforce hegemony visually—began to disappear, as imperial sojourns after 450 were limited more and more to the areas directly surrounding Constantinople. Various developments in the administrative structure of the empire, including a complex system of grants and privileges that helped to bolster authority in the provinces, led to the obsolescence of showy manifestations of dynastic legitimacy. In effect, as Destephen concluded, the emperor went unseen because there was no longer a need to be seen.

Ruth Macrides, of the University of Birmingham, chaired the next session, on “Territoriality and Ethnicity.” John Haldon, of Princeton University, began the afternoon’s talks by asking whether the realities of the Byzantine Empire’s geographical layout corresponded with how the empire perceived its borders. Haldon argued that eastern Romans understood their empire as a territorial entity with fluctuating boundaries whose mission was to reclaim lands lost to other powers and, in so doing, extend the territorial sway of Christianity. Over time, as the empire contracted, it still made concerted efforts to fit its conception of its imperial self to the territorial circumstances it found itself in.  

Tapping into a subject that would recur throughout the symposium—the status and role of the Byzantine Empire’s provincial elite—Vivien Prigent, of the French National Center for Scientific Research, outlined the ways in which Byzantium, using local elites, managed a relatively small pool of resources and ever-decreasing territorial holdings. The lynchpin of imperial control, as Prigent argued, was the locally supreme, nonaristocratic official who most likely would have held little sway in Constantinopolitan society. Using surviving seals to gauge the proliferation of titles and the number of provincial elites from the seventh to the eleventh century, Prigent described the complex relationship between local elites—who wanted their property protected and their power legitimated—and the imperial center of Byzantium, which linked an increasingly state-dependent elite to destabilization of the empire.

Questions of identity—the identity of an empire, and the identities of groups living within and constituting the empire—were central to the symposium. Accordingly, Anthony Kaldellis, of the Ohio State University, delivered the final lecture of the day, which asked a simply worded, though difficult to solve, question: Was Byzantium a multiethnic empire? Positing that one of the best methods for inserting Byzantine studies into the broader imperial turn in historical studies is to focus on the concept of ethnicity, Kaldellis began by outlining some of the difficulties in discussing ethnicity in Byzantium.

Previous studies documenting an alleged ethnic diversity, Kaldellis argued, in reality simply pointed to nonresidential communities as evidence of this diversity: prisoners of war, foreign ambassadors, itinerant merchants, and a small Muslim community, also possibly mercantile. Once this “Potemkin diversity” is brushed aside, Kaldellis claimed, it becomes clear that Byzantium, as a culture, has been denuded of its ethnic connotations—the Romans of Byzantium, as contemporary sources make clear, were once seen as an ethnic group.

Michael McCormick, of Harvard University, served as commentator for the first day of the symposium, leading a nearly hour-long discussion session on the day’s proceedings.

The second day of the symposium was given over to comparative approaches. Derek Krueger, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, chaired the day’s first thematic section, on early medieval empires in the Roman world. Jennifer Davis, of the Catholic University of America, began with a talk entitled “Rethinking Empire: The Carolingian Perspective.” Charlemagne’s reign, Davis contended, was shaped by the process of empire itself—rather than imposing policies from a center onto a periphery, Charlemagne employed a heuristic approach to empire, starting from pragmatics and developing policy from there. In the realm of political economy, for instance, there is little to no evidence of consistent, direct taxation in the Carolingian world. Rather, Davis said, the Carolingians combined multiple sources of irregular income, including tributes and plunder, that only became significant when aggregated.

Angel Nikolov, of the University of Sofia, continued to expand the territorial reach of the symposium, examining the conversion of Bulgaria into an Orthodox empire at the turn of the tenth century. His talk centered around Symeon I, the Bulgarian emperor who oversaw an escalation of military and political conflicts with the Byzantine Empire. Nikolov traced the origins of Symeon’s policies to those of his father, Boris-Michael, who converted the Bulgarians to Christianity, and the formative years he spent as a youth in Constantinople in the 870s.

As Nikolov demonstrated, Symeon was driven by a desire to supplant Byzantium as the center of eastern Christendom, a goal that manifested in such initiatives as the construction of churches and the prolific translation of patristic texts. Ultimately, Nikolov contended, a reinterpretation of the imperial project of Symeon I is overdue. For Symeon I, empire was not simply an instrument to abet the expansionist policies of his forebears, but a method of formalizing Bulgaria’s status as a religious center and, thereby, laying claim to the reins of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The next thematic section, chaired by Ioli Kalavrezou, of Harvard University, examined the culture of empire. Neils Gaul, of the University of Edinburgh, returned to one of the well-trod legends of Byzantium: its sprawling, top-heavy, and hopelessly complex bureaucracy. Analyzing the roles civil servants played as “agents of empire,” Gaul discussed the recruitment and educational practices that helped to develop the bureaucracy from the seventh century on. Trained in the basics of rhetoric and classicizing grammar (and aided in this process by schedography, the learning of impromptu rhetoric), budding civil servants were often put to display their learning in both written and oral form. Indeed, as Gaul explained, surviving evidence suggests that students were subject to elaborate and ceremonial oral entrance exams before they were allowed to enter the ranks of officeholders. Such contests, at least by the twelfth century, were even presided over by the emperor—though it’s likely, Gaul ceded, that a senior civil servant was tasked with the actual examination.

Civil servants were relied upon to link the empire, and to some degree, as Gaul attested, their reach defined the rather porous borders of the eastern Roman politeia. In this vein, the day’s proceedings continued with a more focused rumination on the nature of borders, delivered by Annabel Wharton, of Duke University. Centering her talk on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and attempts, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to replicate it in the form of texts, diagrams, drawings, and models, Wharton interrogated the significance of imperial peripheries, positing that these liminal spaces, rather than simply offering up their resources to imperial centers, can in fact define and challenge them.

In particular, Wharton analyzed the drawings of the Franciscan father Bernardino Amico, whose elaborate and precise architectural renderings of the Holy Sepulchre amounted to a printed walking tour. Employing craftsmen in Bethlehem, Amico even produced three-dimensional models of the structure, made of polished olive wood and camel bone and inlaid with mother-of-pearl—exploring the scaled models was, in a way, a surrogate pilgrimage. Throughout her talk, Wharton sought to draw parallels between the mimetic possession of the Holy Sepulchre, as offered by Amico’s artifices, and the general Christian desire to reclaim the Holy Land—a desire manifested, from time to time in history, by the violence of the crusades.

The symposium’s final thematic section was chaired by Robert Ousterhout, of the University of Pennsylvania, and focused on comparative contexts. In his talk, “The Long and Winding Road to Empire,” Cemal Kafadar, of Harvard University, looked at evidence for the gradual transformation of the Ottoman state into an empire over the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Kafadar began his exploration by analyzing transformations in the usage, over time, of the epithet “Rumi,” which denoted an individual from Rûm—that is, Rome.

With time, as Kafadar explained, “Rumi” began to be used to refer Muslims living in the (former) lands of Rûm; by the early thirteenth century, it was being used to describe Turkish-speaking Muslim urbanites and to distinguish them from Turks who had remained, so to speak, “ethnic.” As Kafadar made clear, his analysis arose from instances of Ottoman self-representation. Around 1500, he pointed out, Ottoman authors began to write collective biographies of the poets and artists of Rûm—in their own critical discourse, they began to speak of concepts like Rumi temperament, Rumi nature, Rumi manner, and Rumi comportment. As Kafadar argued, the development of the sense of empire was tied to this emotional and affective relation to the inhabited lands themselves.

Continuing the emphasis on comparative contexts, Michael Puett, of Harvard University, delivered an analysis of a rarely considered pairing of empires: those of Chinese late antiquity and the early Byzantine Empire. While comparisons between the Roman Empire and the Han dynasty of China have long fascinated scholars, Puett argued that subsequent regional empires, though less studied comparatively, share striking similarities, not the least of which is a traditionally skewed historical perspective. Just as the narrative of the fall of the Roman Empire has resulted, in part, from a later dominant western Europe reading history backward, so the history of China’s other regions has been elided by the latterly dominant southern coastal regions.

Running through a sketch of Chinese imperial history, Puett touched upon a number of familiar strategies in the consolidation of power, including the creation of a bureaucratic class to undercut aristocratic power. Eventually, as the imperial system overtook China, a new cosmological and ritual viewpoint superseded the paradigm of the divine right of kings; the ruler, rather than being a divine figure, was demoted, and became simply a son of heaven. Consequentially, as Puett explained, in a move redolent of the Byzantine emperors’ gradual confinement to Constantinople, rulers could no longer move through the entire realm or offer sacrifices in the provinces; this practice was instead enacted by local elites.

Paul Magdalino delivered the final lecture of the symposium, a wide-ranging reflection on the religious dimension of empire entitled “Rethinking Theocracy.” As Magdalino contended, the development of theocracy required monotheism; while countless political regimes throughout history have acknowledged the sovereignty of supernatural power, it is only beneath the brace of monotheism that the political articulation of obedience to an all-powerful deity is truly exemplified—and, thus, theocratic. Centering his discussion on the conversion of Constantine and his attempts to Christianize the cult of the Roman emperor, Magdalino described the “ideological repackaging” of the Roman state within an aura of sacredness, and the rhetorical articulation of this process.

The development of Byzantine theocracy, as Magdalino evinced, amounted to a repackaging of empire as an anticipation of the kingdom of God. It was deeply eschatological, an orientation that had its strengths in maintaining order but that lost its appeal when the end of the world lost its urgency. For theocratic Byzantium, inheriting the kingdom was more important than conquering the world.

Hearkening back to his previous talk, which had opened the symposium, Magdalino closed by reflecting on the concept of the “elect nation,” its remarkable success, and its cultural and historical survival into the modern age. In doing so, he touched upon nationalism, the perpetual play of borders, and the motifs developed by the Byzantine theocratic regime that have been redeployed, time and again, to justify empires.

Following Magdalino’s lecture, Maya Jasanoff, of Harvard University, served as commentator, leading a discussion that, while focusing on the second day’s talks, ranged over the entirety of the symposium’s proceedings—that is, centuries, continents, and empires.

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Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities

The 2017 Garden and Landscape Studies symposium

Posted on Aug 10, 2017 04:30 PM by Bailey Trela |
Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities

On May 5 and 6, Dumbarton Oaks hosted the 2017 Garden and Landscape Studies symposium, “Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities.” Organized by Georges Farhat, of the University of Toronto, and Garden and Landscape Studies Director John Beardsley, the symposium set out to examine processes of urbanization in pre-industrial environments, questioning longstanding definitions of urbanism and ranging across continents and centuries in search of a renewed understanding of how early urban environments formed, developed, and interacted with the natural world.

The symposium began with opening remarks by Beardsley and Farhat. Describing our historical moment as an urban one, with half of the world’s population firmly ensconced in cities, Beardsley suggested that “one of the great challenges of our age” will be the managing of these cities, and the social and spatial inequity their forms produce, into the future. Farhat argued that the phasing-out of traditional conceptions of urban landscape, premised as they often are “on late Western divides, like rural and urban, that prove less and less applicable in our age,” has generated a need to interrogate these outmoded theories, to determine whether they might be tweaked and salvaged—to examine, for instance, if and how “nature-culture binaries might remain efficient” to address developing urban landscape regimes.

The symposium, divided into six thematic sections, kicked off by examining “Invisible Ecologies.” In his talk, entitled “What Constituted Cahokian Urbanism?,” Timothy Pauketat, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined the pre-industrial landscape of the titular Pre-Columbian site, one of the few large urban sites in North America. Pauketat argued that the environment of Cahokia, as experienced by its residents at the time, could best be understood as an “affective field” of natural materials and phenomena that pulled its human inhabitants into strange new relationships.

Located across the Mississippi River from the modern location of St. Louis, Missouri, Cahokia was ascendant during a medieval warm period. Its inhabitants lived in a “muddy, pernicious climate, where rain fell in torrents and without cessation.” Their lives were richly interwoven with the natural world: “the auditory effects of frogs” in the surrounding marshland, the frequent environmental signs that harbingered rain, the haloes that hovered round the moon all contributed to a pre-industrial landscape that, in the words of Pauketat, “embodied non-human agencies.” Ultimately, Pauketat posited that the materiality of the city—made of wood, not stone—might indicate its extemporality. In other words, the relatively porous city of Cahokia, home to insects and waterfowl and amphibians whose numbers rivaled its human inhabitants, might have been intentionally fleeting. “It might have been made to be forgotten, and left behind,” Pauketat explained. Such an inbuilt mechanism, he closed, would have acted as a “material dimension of the short-term prophetic movements” that periodically reoriented the spiritual aims of the city and its inhabitants.

Suzanne Preston Blier, of Harvard University, continued the day’s proceedings with a similar emphasis on materiality. Her talk, “Walls that Speak: Landscape Factors in Early West African Urban Centers,” looked primarily at the emergence of planned walled cities in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Nigeria, particularly the ways such cities conformed to preexisting landscapes and incorporated them into their eventual designs. While we customarily think of walls as defensive entities, Blier argued that what was held inside the walls of West Africa was ultimately more important than what fell outside of them. Proceeding from several case studies, including later developments in Ketu, a site located in the modern-day Republic of Benin, and cities in the Kingdom of Dahomey (which existed from around 1600 to 1894), Blier analyzed the complex inward divisions along political, economic, and religious lines that arose behind city walls and ordered life within them. Dwelling on Ile-Ife, in Nigeria, Blier traced its development, including its planning by King Obalufon, the production of Ife glass in the fourteenth century, and the environmental factors, like the large hill it rests on and the marshes that surround it, that altered its development. After noting the tendency within similar cities to divide the walled-in space according to sovereign deities or the movement of annual ceremonies, Blier closed by proposing a shorthand definition for urbanism: “the encoding of a belief system in spatial form.”

The complexity of internal ecologies was likewise a theme pursued by Priyaleen Singh, of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. Her talk, “The Weave of Natural and Cultural Ecology: Ekamrakshetra—The Historic Temple Town of Bhubaneswar, India,” examined the evolution of public space over hundreds years at the site of Bhubaneswar in east India. Initially developed from the sixth to ninth centuries CE as a pilgrimage center, the greater part of the town’s present urban form descends from this period. As a result, the “sacred geography” of the space—its arrangement of temples and stone water tanks—came to determine the arrangement of social life. “Temple festivals guided the community life, in fact the temples were the epitome of social and cultural life,” Singh explained. “The open-space systems” where socializing took place “were informed by and structured around the temples.”

Redesigned after Indian independence by the German planner Otto Koenigsberger, the city “literally turned its back on the old town,” and assumed secularized Western forms. “The old town was based on human movement and scale,” Singh explained, “its open spaces blurring the boundaries of work and recreation.” Under the spatial regime of the new design, new road networks created barriers to water flow, frustrating the ecological balance the temple-based life had fostered. Public spaces were reduced to traffic islands; pools putrefied, and some of the abandoned tanks today face the threat of being replaced with parking lots. Arguing that “living historic towns and cities embody timeless concepts of sustainability” that are currently reentering scholarly and design vocabulary, Singh closed by advocating for the benefits of a socialist ecological perspective, one that recognizes the profound “synergy between natural and cultural ecology” and that is “worshipful, rather than religious, valuing nature and the options it offers for a better way of life.

Hendrik Dey, of Hunter College, the City University of New York, continued the day’s interest in the alteration of ceremonial space. His talk, “Landscape Change and Ceremonial Praxis in Medieval Rome from the Via Triumphalis to the Via Papalis,” uncovered the repurposing and restructuring of monumental corridors in Rome in the late antique and medieval periods. Around 500 CE, as Dey explained, “the bones of the ancient city [were] still there,” though they were occupied by a dramatically diminished population: “The built environment of Rome is so comparatively massive that it can be treated almost like a geographical factor, a natural occurrence.” The Via Triumphalis, or Triumphal Way, the central parade route in Rome, steadily accreted “a strange assemblage of monumental architecture,” porticoes and arcades that served to mask the decline tucked just out of sight. It was only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the Via Triumphalis was abandoned as the central route for ceremonial processions in favor of the Via Papalis; the bulk of Dey’s talk was devoted to excavating the environmental and human factors, including increased flooding and human activity, that precipitated this switchover.

In the next talk, “The Phnom Kulen’s Capital: A Singular and Early Case of Urban Planning in Ancient Cambodia,” J.B. Chevance, of the Archaeology and Development Foundation’s Phnom Kulen Program, sought to uncover ancient landscapes near Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer Empire. While scholarly research has often focused on the standing temples of Angkor, most notably Angkor Wat, recent research, aided by technological advances including the LiDAR surveying method, has made a number of important discoveries, including an early urban network located on the top of the Phnom Kulen massif, roughly forty kilometers north-east of Angkor. While the agrarian plain of Angkor has long been subject to spatial modification, the mountainous terrain of Phnom Kulen, and its quickly abandoned development, has left researchers a unique snapshot of urban adaptation to a constraining environment. Chevance’s talk set out to schematize the more than twenty square miles of urban landscape left at Phnom Kulen, focusing on water elements within the landscape—the dikes, canals, dams, and ponds that allowed for the cultivation of rice and moved outward along a strict geometric design from the source of the Angkorian hydrographic network at Phnom Kulen.

Christophe Pottier, of the Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, Paris, also discussed the Angkor civilization, aiming, like Chevance, to move beyond traditional conceptions of Angkorian urban environments that were evolved mostly by studying monumental remains. Likewise utilizing remote sensing techniques (aerial photographs, satellite imagery, and LiDAR), Pottier described recent research that has looked at the “human and environmental context” of the temples, that is, the networks of sites and infrastructure surrounding the temples that have, in the past, gone unseen and unconsidered. Within this larger spatial perspective, Pottier showed, new aspects of Angkorian civilization come under consideration, including habitat densities, hydraulic and agrarian systems, and pathways of production. Since the 1990s, when new surveying methods became widely available, a different narrative of Angkorian urbanism has emerged, one in which monumental temples appear as the spectacular outgrowths of a complex engineered environment developed over centuries yet always capable of altering itself and adapting permanent sites, like the temples, to its new form. Rather than exhibit a clear and periodic sequence of urban development, with large but fleeting secular and religious centers cropping up over time, Pottier contended that Angkorian civilization was typified by a “resilient” and large low-density urbanism.

Timothy Murtha, of the Pennsylvania State University, closed the first day of the symposium with a talk that considered the fluidity of the meaning of “urban.” “Landscape and City in the Ancient Maya Lowlands: Regionalism, Settlement, and Ecology” countered the “low-density” narrative of Mayan cities, with Murtha arguing instead that they are now largely considered urban—though he added that “what urban means in this context is highly debated.” As new urban models are developed by scholars, population estimates for the Maya continue to rise, though Murtha contended that normative conceptions of pre-industrial urbanism, which link population density to sustainability, shouldn’t define the way we analyze the Mesoamerican urban tradition. Describing his method as “landscape regionalism,” Murtha explained the importance of studying Classic Mayan cities, like Tikal and Caracol, with an eye for how region—the spatial patterns of land, water, and agrarian systems—is expressed within the cities. Ultimately, Murtha concluded, Mayan cities might best be described as “landscape mosaics.”

The symposium’s second day commenced with a pair of talks on the subject of water management. In “Monsoon Landscapes and Flexible Provisioning in the Early Historic Cities of the Indian Subcontinent,” Monica L. Smith, of the University of California, Los Angeles, discussed early landscape management practices in the monsoon belt of Asia. Focusing on three ancient sites—Kausambi on the Ganges plain, Sisupalgarh in eastern India, and Anuradhapura—Smith traced the ways in which knowledge of regular annual flooding (so-called “normal floods”) allowed for the development of distinct agricultural strategies. These strategies in turn produced an infrastructure comprised of both permanent and temporary structures; reservoirs were permanent, while land boundaries and bunds (embankments) often disappeared in the summer rains, and were continually being rebuilt.

Jordan Pickett, of the University of Michigan, next delivered “Hydraulic Landscapes of Roman and Byzantine Cities,” which looked at Roman methods of water management from the first to third centuries CE, before moving on to examine shifts in these inherited methods from the fourth through eighth centuries. As Picket explained, differing approaches to water management in fact signaled broader ideological shifts in governance and imperial self-perception. The freighting-in of distant spring water via visually imposing aqueducts, and its eventual public display in the form of fountains and baths, served as a manifestation of power and linked territorial hinterlands to the burgeoning cities in a plan redolent of the network of cities that typified the High Roman Empire. Late antiquity, however, saw a reversal of Roman hydraulic orthodoxy; as aqueducts became more difficult to manage with the broader collapse of imperial structure, cities began to rely on stored water, or were simply subjected to resettlement. These changes also saw a reversal in the hierarchy of water-source potability; where once aqueducts had “produced the miracle, or thalma, of flowing spring water where it did not naturally belong,” spring water lost ground to the rising importance of stored water.

In an elemental shift, J. Cameron Monroe, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, began the symposium’s section on urban forests. “Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Cities and Their Hinterlands in Tropical West Africa” suggested once again that the study of pre-industrial cities stands to benefit from an emphasis on the “broader constellation of settlements” that contribute to urban sites. Limning preexisting scholarly opinions that have posited sub-Saharan Africa as inherently unable to support autochthonous urban development, Monroe asserted that while the influence of external forces—Near Eastern and European contact—was undeniable and integral in the development of urban centers, deeply rooted archaeological evidence suggests that homegrown urban networks existed and contributed to urban development. Urban centers were profoundly integrated with rural hinterlands in a “dendritic pattern,” Monroe claimed, though research into these networks has been hampered by a relative paucity of sites because of dense vegetation and poor site preservation.

In “Xingu Garden Cities: Domesticated Forests of the Southern Amazon’s ‘Arc of Fire,’” Michael Heckenberger, of the University of Florida, proposed approaching the unique landscape configurations present in tropical environs by using the pioneering work of British urban planner Ebenezer Howard. Howard’s 1902 tract Garden Cities of To-morrow considered the city as an “organism,” or “organic form,” a conceptual tilt that Heckenberger believes works well with Amazonian urban environments, which, because of the aggressive and unceasing growth of flora, were not so much carved out of the surrounding environment as “woven” into it. Nature was not tamed, but nurtured, and the urban planning that resulted—dense networks of roads, for instance, that worked with and around the encompassing forest—enacted this shift. Heckenberger closed by suggesting that this pre-industrial approach to living with Amazonian flora could provide insights into modern dilemmas of biodiversity and sustainability as they pertain to the Amazon.

Jason Ur, of Harvard University, continued the reevaluation of early urban models in his talk, “Space and Structure in Early Mesopotamian Cities.” While the development of Mesopotamian urbanism has long been treated as a “classic” model standing in contradistinction to the diversity of urban forms present in other early cities, Ur contended that this view of Mesopotamia is deeply reductive. Drawing inferences from new research at sites in Syria and Iraq dating from the late fifth to the early first millennium BCE, Ur traced the transition from Ubaid village societies through more extensive and nonnucleated constructs to the initial strains of truly urban environs. While Ubaid sites are rarely larger than a few hectares and, like Tell Surezha, appear in field surveys and satellite imagery as “small vertical mounds,” other sites, like Khirbat al-Fakhar, extend beyond a core of mounds to take up roughly three hundred hectares. Questions of settlement density gave way to matters of urban planning as Ur analyzed the great Sumerian city-states where “powerful elite forces reacted to emergent forces.” A city wall commissioned by a king, for instance, was a response to emergent urbanism, while also further accelerating bottom-up urban growth.

Alan L. Kolata, of the University of Chicago, delivered the final talk of the symposium. “The Autopoietic City: Landscape, Science, and Society in the Pre-Industrial World” repurposed a term first introduced in the 1970s by biologists and used by them to distinguish between living and nonliving entities, applying it instead to cities. Centering his discussion on the indigenous cities of the Americas, Kolata contended that a city is “an open and self-reproducing system” that is nevertheless enmeshed in complex connective webs with its surrounding hinterlands and other cities. While his talk sought to examine the ways in which pre-industrial cities integrated natural resources and social processes of production on “an expansive, landscape-scale”—for instance, the reticulated canal and aqueduct system through which the Chimú maximized their economic production—Kolata ceded the occasional deficiencies of the autopoietic view. “Autopoiesis frames society in totally macro terms,” he explained. “The challenge for us in analyzing cities is to integrate or at least to juxtapose in productive ways the macrosociological features of urban life with the microrealities of lived human experience.”

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New Acquisition: Le Temple du Soleil

James N. Carder (August 2017)

Posted on Aug 10, 2017 03:50 PM by James N. Carder |
New Acquisition: Le Temple du Soleil

Hergé, Le Temple du Soleil (Paris: Casterman, 1977). Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.EP.BK.0559.

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives Ephemera Collection recently acquired an adventure comic book set in Peru and involving the ancient Inca civilization. Le Temple du Soleil (The Temple of the Sun) is the fourteenth book in the comic series Les Aventures de Tintin (The Adventures of Tintin), created by the Belgian illustrator Georges Prosper Remi (1907–1983), known as Hergé. First published in serial format between 1946 and 1948, Le Temple du Soleil was a continuation of Les Sept Boules de Cristal (The Seven Crystal Balls), and was first published in book format in 1949. The Ephemera Collection copy is from the 1977 reprinting.

Le Temple du Soleil finds the boy hero, Tintin, and Captain Haddock in Peru in search of Professor Tournesol. As the adventure unfolds, a young Quechua Indian, Zorrino, reveals the existence of the temple of the sun, the last retreat of the ancient Inca civilization, where Tournesol is held prisoner and condemned to be sacrificed. Captain Haddock, Tintin, and Tintin’s dog, Milou, enter the temple but are taken prisoner themselves by the Incas. However, they are saved from sacrifice by a providential solar eclipse which Tintin proclaims he has brought about. They leave the temple promising never to reveal its existence.

In Le Temple du Soleil, Hergé fairly accurately depicted Inca artifacts and costumes due to his use of available scholarly books, including Conrad de Meyendorff’s 1909 L'Empire du soleil: Pérou et Bolivie. Hergé especially borrowed from the engravings in Charles Wiener’s 1888 Pérou et Bolivie, including the image of the creator god Viracocha from the sun gate at Tiahuanaco. He also relied on the illustrations in two National Geographic articles of February 1938 (73, no.2): “The Incas: Empire Builders of the Andes” and “In the Realm of the Sons of the Sun (Incas),” which reproduced eight paintings by H. M. Herget representing “scenes of pre-Columbian life.”

Viracocha Engraving by Charles Wiener.   Tintin, Captain Haddock, and Milou break into the Temple of the Sun.

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New Acquisition: Loire Valley Poster

James N. Carder (July 2017)

Posted on Jul 26, 2017 11:53 AM by James N. Carder |
New Acquisition: Loire Valley Poster

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives Ephemera Project has acquired a poster promoting train and bus visits to the Loire Valley in France. Designed in 1967 by the graphic artist Bernard Villemot (1911–1989) for the SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français), France’s national state-owned railway company, the poster foregrounds one of the Renaissance formal gardens at the Château de Villandry. Seen in the distance across the Loire Valley is the Château de Chaumont, relocated by the artist from its true location further down the river. The Château de Villandry and its gardens were arguably the star venue of tourism in the Loire Valley as it regained momentum in the mid-twentieth century. The poster’s purpose was to further increase visitation to the area by means of the formal garden image’s allure.

Villandry had been acquired in 1906 by the Spanish doctor Joachim Carvallo (1869–1936). Between 1908 and 1918, he restored the chateau and transformed the then-existing English-style informal gardens into formal gardens more consistent with the history of the chateau. For his Renaissance garden reconstructions, Carvallo employed the sixteenth-century book Les dessins des plus excellents bâtiments de France by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, a copy of which is also in the Rare Book Collection at Dumbarton Oaks.

The poster’s artist, Bernard Villemot,  was a graphic artist who, between 1932 and 1934, had studied in Paris with the artist Paul Colin. In the mid-1940s, he began designing posters, including a famous series of travel posters for Air France. Villemot is known in France as one of the last great poster artists of the twentieth century and for his ability to distill an advertising message to a memorable image with simple elegant lines and bold colors. Three books have been published that survey his art: Jean-Francois Bazin, Les affiches de Villemot, (1985); Guillaume Villemot, Villemot: l’affiche de A à Z (2005); and George H. Bon Salle, Embracing an Icon: the Posters of Bernard Villemot (2015).

Château de Villandry Renaissance garden as it exists today Château de Villandry Renaissance garden as it exists today.


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The Records of Life

Dumbarton Oaks acquires colonial Latin American manuscripts

Posted on Jul 18, 2017 03:46 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Records of Life

We’re excited to announce the acquisition of two richly documentary colonial Latin American manuscripts. Featuring vivid illustrations and painstakingly detailed maps, the manuscripts contain enough material to satisfy a bevy of research interests and pursuits.

Relación de gobierno del Excmo. Sor. Virrey del Perú Frey D. Francisco Gil de Tobada y Lemus is a work whose extensive title does a good job of encapsulating its reach. Composed by Francisco Gil de Taboada y Lemos, the governor of the Viceroyalty of Peru from 1790 to 1796, as a detailed report on the operations of the colony, the text was meant to provide the viceroy’s successor, the Irish-born Spanish colonial administrator Ambrosio O’Higgins, with a guidebook of the region, in the hope of ensuring a fluid transition.

While such transitional reports were not uncommon, the sheer length of this piece and its comprehensive detail of colonial life makes the Relación de gobierno a sui generis acquisition. In it, carefully sketched charts abound, and while customary tabulations of population, natural resources, and tax collecting fill up much of the page space, Taboada y Lemos’s other inclusions offer insight into a naturally curious personality bent on fully educating his successor.

In addition to copious notes on the organization of the hacienda system and a discussion of the operation of the Inquisition in the Viceroyalty, for instance, Taboada y Lemos includes descriptions of Lima and of the commerce, mineral wealth, and architecture of Peru. Two well-preserved folding leaves reveal colorful fine-lined illustrations of the twelve indigenous ethnic groups of Peru as they were understood by the colonial power at the time. Variously cross-legged, bow-wielding, or pointing, garbed in light cloth or tunics or capacious furs, the detailed figures show differences chosen by the eye of the colonizer—a thin waist tightly bound in woven material; broad, muscular shoulders; pale white skin—standing out.

These images, executed by an unknown hand, are kept company by two fold-out maps at the end of the text showing the interior of Peru and the west coast of South America—depicted, curiously, horizontally. Drawn in lines faded, blurred, and expanded with age, the maps yet offer up the familiar names of mountain ranges, rivers, and cities.

The second manuscript is an eighteenth-century ejecutoria, a certificate that legally accredits the nobility of a family or individual. A petition of sorts, the ejecutoria is concerned with the title and coat of arms granted by Prince Philip II of Spain in a 1545 cédula (order or decree) to Felipe Tupac Inca Yupanqui and Gonzalo Uchu Hualpa as grandsons of the Inca emperor Tupac Inca Yupanqui. The provenance of this particular ejecutoria, however, is unknown.

In 1800, María Joaquina Inca, claiming descent from the royal families of Mexico and Peru, submitted a series of documents to the Council of the Indies, among them a similar ejecutoria now held in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. It was common practice to create a copy when drafting these application packages in case anything should happen to the documents sent to court. Thus, it’s possible that the ejecutoria acquired by Dumbarton Oaks is the personal copy of Maria Joaquina Inca, or one that belonged to her family. Support for this theory comes from the illustrations in the ejecutoria, which remain bound to the text, meaning the manuscript was likely never held in a state archive, where images were often removed and catalogued separately.

The images in question are full-page illustrations. Two facing illustrations depict the coat of arms granted to the descendants of Gonzalo Uchu Hualpa and Felipe Tupac Inca Yupanqui. Crowns and helmets and castles blare out from a majestic red ground decorated with light blue vine-like tracery; a golden mask dangles from a chain formed by twelve pairs of crowned snakes. Notably, Inca symbols (crimson tassels, for example) are mingled with Spanish (the helmet, the castle, the crown).

A full-length portrait of Tupac Inca Yupanqui, flanked by two figures who are likely his descendants Gonzalo Uchu Hualpa and Felipe Tupac Inca Yupanqui, occupies a full page. Standing in a mountainous landscape, Yupanqui is garbed in a regal tunic (uncu), a headdress (mascaypacha) and a red cloak (llakota), and covered in gold—gold kneepads, headdress, earmuffs, and weapons.

The ejecutoria is a particularly valuable acquisition because it contains far more than document-collections of the sort typically do. Whereas many collections simply comprise the cédula describing the coat of arms to be granted once proof of lineage is provided, the Dumbarton Oaks ejecutoria contains the surrounding necessary documents—in short, it is claim and proof. Accordingly, scattered throughout the manuscript are carefully constructed stamps and signatures so elaborate they sometimes seem absentmindedly scrawled curlicues.

Both “new” manuscripts offer up an abundance of information that still needs much sifting. Francisco Gil de Taboada y Lemos’s report, oddly prolix and encompassing, provides a stunning firsthand account of the particularities of governing a colonial state, while the ejecutoria—thanks to the differences from its official counterpart, and its relation to previous applications—is ripe for comparative research and studies of the evolution of self-representation.

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Celil Refik Kaya

Third recipient of Early-Career Musician Residency

Posted on Jul 18, 2017 03:40 PM by Bailey Trela |
Celil Refik Kaya

We’re pleased to announce Celil Refik Kaya as the third recipient of the Early-Career Musician Residency, which provides time and resources to young musicians and composers who show promise in transmitting traditions of classical music to younger generations. The residency was previously held by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and violinist Caroline Adelaide Shaw and opera composer Matthew Aucoin.

Photo by Orhan Cem Çetin, courtesy of Celil Refik Kaya.

Kaya, trained as a classical guitarist from the age of six, has studied with the Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin and in the studio of Michael Newman, himself a disciple of Andrés Segovia. A prolific and decorated performer, Kaya has received numerous prizes at international competitions, including first prize in the 2012 JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition. As a soloist, Kaya tours internationally and in the United States, working with a number of professional orchestras, including the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Brevard Festival Orchestra, and the Istanbul State Symphony. Over the course of his career, he has presented the premieres of concertos by artists like Roberto Sierra and Suleyman Alnitemiz.

Kaya comes to Dumbarton Oaks from the University of Texas at Austin, where, as the recipient of a Harrington Fellowship, he is pursuing his PhD in the studio of guitarist Adam Holzman. When his residency begins this fall, he will continue work on a number of compositional and recording projects, cataloguing and publishing an ever-growing oeuvre of compositions while working on an upcoming CD. (His first CD, released by Naxos in 2016, explores the guitar music of the Argentinian guitarist and composer Jorge Morel, with whom Kaya maintains a close working relationship.)

This balancing act between performance and composition manifests in his concerts, which typically include one or two of his own pieces. Likewise, when Kaya sits down to compose, the resulting works bear a number of disparate influences. “I usually write in different styles,” he explains. “Sometimes I’m using quarter tones—sometimes I’m working in a more neo-romantic style. I’m also writing for different combinations of instruments, like kota and guitar, or rebab and guitar. I recently wrote a piece performed at the Sydney Opera House that was based on a Japanese folk song, so there was a story embedded in the piece that would attract the audience.” Making use of familiar elements to introduce audiences to unfamiliar styles is a common tactic of Kaya’s: “I try to mix different concepts according to the circumstances.”

For Kaya, a willingness to mix and experiment while staying grounded in the tradition of Western classical music is paramount to revitalizing interest in the genre. Ultimately, in his opinion, classical music “should be something people can relate to,” neither too modern and abstract nor trapped “in the style of an era remote from the present.” Kaya believes engagement should be a central goal of classical music, and that “the best way of continuing the Western classical music tradition and of influencing the audience is performing not just the works that only the composer will understand and appreciate, but works that the audience can grasp and appreciate as well.”

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In Praise of Everyone

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library adds two new volumes

Posted on Jul 11, 2017 03:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
In Praise of Everyone

We’re excited to announce the publication of two new volumes in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series: the Latin Poems of Venantius Fortunatus, and a selection of six Christian novels from the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes. Both texts, in full English translation for the first time, trace the lives of political and religious figures, with special attention to women testing the gender boundaries of their societies.

Christian Novels from the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes, edited and translated by Stratis Papaioannou, director of the program of medieval studies at Brown University, brings together six narratives that were not so much written by Metaphrastes as heavily revised and standardized.

The contemporary fame of Symeon Metaphrastes was difficult to match. As Papaioannou attests in his introduction, more than seven hundred surviving manuscripts contain different segments of the tenth-century Menologion, and even four hundred years after his death, pilgrims flocked to Constantinople to visit Metaphrastes’s relics.

Metaphrastes—whose name refers to his mastery of the practice of metaphrasis, the rewriting, in a rhetorical register, of preexisting stories and texts—owes his popularity in part to the political and ideological significance of his literary project. Papaioannou explains that “Metaphrastes’s Menologion fits well into a period when the Byzantine ruling elite encouraged efforts to reorganize and essentially reinvent the early Byzantine tradition for ideological purposes, for internal consumption as well as for cultural export.” The standardizing of religious narratives—likely done in a workshop, with various assistants laboring under style guidelines—served the broader imperial project.

Biographically, little is known about Symeon Metaphrastes. It seems likely that references in the historical literature placing him, later in life, as a high-level functionary in the imperial court are largely accurate; drafting the ten-volume Menologion would have required the powerful patronage that such a position afforded. Otherwise, Metaphrastes comes down to us as a bundle of stylistic quirks—a careful attention to rhythm and wordplay, vivid descriptions that lean melodramatic—on full display in the six Christian novels excerpted in the present volume.

But what is a Christian novel? The “Christian” part of the equation, as Papaioannou sees it, is self-evident in a collection of hagiographical texts, where “the reader is confronted with [Christianity] at every turn of the page.” The applicability of “novel,” he says, derives first from the fictional nature of the subjects—they are largely imaginary, not historical—and, more importantly, from traits like rhetorical forms and narrative patterns that link Metaphrastes’s tales to the late antique Greek novel. Beyond this, the six chosen tales share an interest in the lives of rebellious women who push back against the bounds of social expectations. For instance, Saint Ioustina, one of the protagonists of the first novel in the collection, ignores familial and societal pressures to pursue her commitment to the Christian faith. When, already sworn to the nunnery, she is abducted by her spurned suitor Aglaïdas and a gang of ruffians, the following scene plays out:

As soon as news of this outrageous daring spread in the city and to the household of [Ioustina’s] mother, many strong men, armed with weapons, rushed to meet the brigands. With their appearance alone, they made those appalling abductors flee out of sight—not so much because they yielded to force but rather because they were driven powerfully away by the shame of the deed. Yet Aglaïdas (as his passion was more violent than any feeling of shame) cared neither for the swords nor the crowd nor anything else; instead, he embraced the maiden and was ready to suffer anything rather than be separated from her. Ioustina became instantly like Joseph, that most chaste and most courageous man; holding the sign of the cross before her like a weapon—not against Aglaïdas, but rather against the one who was stealthily attempting to wage war against her through him—, she immediately repelled and pushed back that abominable man. She also poured all sorts of curses upon him and rained blows and spittle upon his face that deserved it.

Like a scene from an old western, the anecdote combines melodrama and acts of derring-do; Ioustina becomes a scrappy heroine, both brave and wise, sensing the presence of greater evil behind the deeds of Aglaïdas.

The Poems of Venantius Fortunatus, edited and translated by Michael Roberts, the Robert Rich Professor of Latin at Wesleyan University, are similarly focused on the lives of individuals. Born in Italy around the year 530, Fortunatus’s poetry, preserved in twelve books collected in this volume, nevertheless found its true subject in the people of his adoptive homeland, Gaul. His poems, varying dramatically in length, take many forms, most frequently panegyrics to the virtues of ecclesiastical or political figures.

Fortunatus often ordered the poems in each book by the status of their subjects; Book III, as Roberts points out, moves along a steady declivity from bishops to deacons. Yet Fortunatus does experiment from time to time with a broader set of subjects. He often praises the buildings about him—especially when doing so is an effective way of praising the buildings’ owners. A poem on Vitalis, Bishop of Ravenna, begins with a sturdy description of a church: “The mighty church is aglow, finished with panels of metal, where without any night day is always present. With its perpetual light the very site bids welcome to God, that he may lovingly enter his home with gracious step.” Of the fourteen poems concerned with Leontius of Bordeaux, Roberts writes, three are dedicated to “describing villas owned by the bishop and the landscape in which they are set,” which conveys “a sense of the status of the villa owner and the order and prosperity his episcopal oversight provides.”

Like the Menologion, the Poems sometimes concern themselves with rebellious women. Fortunatus dedicates a group of poems to the women of the Convent of the Holy Cross in Poitiers—notably, its founder, Radegund, Thuringian princess and erstwhile wife of Chlothar I. Radegund, a friend to both Fortunatus and his mentor and patron Gregory of Tours, is celebrated in early poems as a royal ascetic; in later poems, Fortunatus explores his more intimate personal relationship with her.

Roberts notes that the poems also have their comic moments, displaying a humor that “typically . . . derives from the poet’s supposed appetite for food and drink.” Singling out a scene in which Fortunatus attends a “lavish banquet provided by Mummolenus, an important figure at Sigibert’s court,” Roberts writes of how “Fortunatus suffers an attack of indigestion that he compares, in Virgilian language, to a storm at sea or the blast of a bellows.” The passage, imaginative and rife with overstatement and ironic solemnity, is a sterling example of self-deprecating humor:

Large platters were piled high with generous helpings; the dish was laden and piled up like a hillside. A mountain reared on every side, with a kind of valley in the middle, a convenient space for a fish to pursue its course. It swam in a world where oil was water, where the dish was turf, and the table took the place of the sea. Before anything else, though, I was presented with delicate fruit that bear the name “Persian” in common parlance. He grew weary with the giving (but I did not grow weary of eating), as he urged me on with his words, pressing on me more food. Soon enough my belly suddenly grew large as if I was about to give birth, and I marveled that my stomach had so swelled in size. Inside thunderclaps sounded with varied reports; east wind and south were throwing my belly into turmoil. Not so is the sand stirred up by the storms of Aeolus nor a ship driven adrift on the sea so shivered, not so are bellows inflated by the blast of winds, the instruments the fire-scorched smith uses to service his hammers.

Accustomed to describing others, Fortunatus eschews self-reflection in depicting himself. He finds convivial foibles and a dash of absurdity, nothing too laudable. And yet, the beauty of the language, the playfulness of the register, and the ease with which he slips into it—the pleasure taken in writing, the adroitness of the execution—are a song of praise in their own right.

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Jan Ziolkowski Elected to the American Philosophical Society

Posted on Jul 06, 2017 10:11 AM by Press |
Jan Ziolkowski Elected to the American Philosophical Society

Jan Ziolkowski, director of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection and Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin at Harvard University, has been elected to the American Philosophical Society. The oldest learned society in the United States, it was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin for the purpose of “promoting useful knowledge.” The Society has inducted 5,573 members since its inception.

Jan Ziolkowski (AB Princeton University, PhD University of Cambridge) has focused his research and teaching on the literature of the Latin Middle Ages. Within medieval literature his special interests have included the classical tradition, the grammatical and rhetorical tradition, the appropriation of folktales into Latin, and Germanic epic in Latin language. More comparatively, he has developed broad interests in medieval revivalism down to the present day. At Harvard he has chaired the Department of Comparative Literature, the Committee on Medieval Studies, and (fleetingly) the Department of the Classics. He founded the Medieval Studies Seminar, which continues to hold regular meetings open to the public in the Barker Center. Ziolkowski teaches courses mainly in classics (medieval Latin) and medieval studies. He also currently directs Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, a Harvard center in Washington, DC, with programs in Byzantine studies, Pre-Columbian studies, and garden and landscape studies.

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Dumbarton Oaks Newsletters

James N. Carder (June 2017)

Posted on Jun 27, 2017 11:17 AM by James N. Carder |
Dumbarton Oaks Newsletters

The newsletter that you are reading, The Oaks News: A Monthly Bulletin from Dumbarton Oaks, is the latest in a succession of news bulletins dating back to 1941 that have been published at Dumbarton Oaks. The Oaks News had its first digital issue in February 2012 and continues to be published monthly for the staff, alumni, and friends of Dumbarton Oaks in order to inform them of the institution's varied activities in all departments. Copies of all newsletters, both historic and current and both in print and digital formats, are preserved in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives.


The Underworld Courier Vol. I, No. I (January 11, 1941) The Underworld Courier Vol. I, No. I (January 11, 1941)

The earliest newsletter, the Underworld Courier, was a private publication produced by Dumbarton Oaks staff to keep the founders, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, then residing in California, abreast of developments and happenings at the nascent research library and collection. Twenty-one issues were printed between January and November 1941.


Dumbarton Oaks Newsletter Vol. I, No. 1 (January 1979) Dumbarton Oaks Newsletter Vol. I, No. 1 (January 1979)

Between January 1979 and April 1982, nine issues of the Dumbarton Oaks Newsletter were produced for staff. The 1979 issues are interesting as they chronicle the ever-increasing need for library shelving space, a need that was never completely solved until the completion in 2005 of the Robert Venturi-designed library. As construction began to install third-floor shelving stacks in the Main House, the newsletter of January 1979 stated:

It’s estimated that the renovated third floor stacks, the compact shelving in the basement, together with shelving in the Reading Room, Reference Room, Catalogue Room, second floor halls and the Library offices, will accommodate close to 130,000 volumes. This will allow for a growth of approximately 40,000 volumes, which means that at the average annual growth rate of 2,500 volumes, the Byzantine Library Collection will have enough space for about sixteen years. As far as the future in concerned, we can safely predict that with new technologies, especially microform holdings of periodicals, more space can be obtained after the initial sixteen years’ growth will be used up. [Vol. I, no. 1 (January 1979)]

A hiatus in newsletter production occurred between 1982 and 1994, at which time the Byzantine Studies program began publishing its own digital newsletter, first annually and later intermittently until its last issue in January 2015. Similarly, the Garden and Landscape Studies program initiated Landscape Matters: News from GLS @ Dumbarton Oaks in 2008. This annual digital publication occurs each fall.


In the Know at D.O. Newsletter, Vol 1, No. 1 (July 2009) In the Know at D.O. Newsletter, Vol 1, No. 1 (July 2009)

In July 2009, the first institutional digital newsletter was launched, In the Know at D.O., which was issued monthly until February 2013.

And most recently, the Dumbarton Oaks Communications Manager began publishing a digital staff newsletter on April 14, 2017, the Director's Office Weekly Bulletin.

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Esclarmonde – Byzantine Empress and Sorceress

James N. Carder (May 2017)

Posted on May 18, 2017 03:30 PM by James N. Carder |
Esclarmonde – Byzantine Empress and Sorceress

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives Ephemera Collection has acquired an 1889 poster made for the opera Esclarmonde by Jules Massenet. The opera was commissioned for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris and starred the American soprano Sybil Sanderson in the title role.

Sybil Sanderson as Esclarmonde, 1889 Sybil Sanderson as Esclarmonde, 1889

The opera’s libretto, written in prose by Alfred Blau and versified by Louis Ferdinand de Gramont in 1882, was based on a twelfth-century chivalric tale, Parthénopéus de Blois, which Blau had rediscovered in 1871. However, in Parthénopéus, the protagonist empress-sorceress is named Melior; Blau borrowed Esclarmonde’s name from a thirteenth-century French epic, Huon de Bordeaux, where Esclarmonde is the daughter of the emir of Babylon.

In the opera, Esclarmonde is a Byzantine empress and sorceress who is in love with the French knight Roland, Count of Blois. She uses her magic powers to transfer Roland to an island where she joins him nightly, hiding behind a veil to conceal her identity. When the king of France offers Roland the hand of his daughter in marriage, Esclarmonde falsely believes herself betrayed and, cursing Roland, surrounds herself with a ring of fire and demons. Later, her father offers her in marriage to the victor of a chivalric tournament, and that victor turns out to be Roland who happily becomes the empress’ valiant consort.

The Art Nouveau-style poster, designed in 1889 by the artist Auguste-François Gorguet, depicts Esclarmonde in a Byzantine-inspired costume with a jewel-encrusted loros panel and a crown reminiscent of the coronation crown of the Russian czarina, Catherine the Great. The color lithograph (chromolithograph) poster was published by Georges Hartmann, who was also the exclusive publisher of Massenet’s scores between 1870 and 1891.

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Grammars of the Former World

Rare Book Collection acquires Andreas Sennert’s seventeenth-century lexicographical studies

Posted on May 17, 2017 11:15 AM by Bailey Trela |
Grammars of the Former World

Most of the pages are uniform. The Latin text unfolds in a carefully sculpted type, serifs jutting or drooping from the aged ink. On certain pages, though, a sudden order breaks out: charts align the flowing forms of various languages, and the text transcends, for a moment, its didactic purpose.

Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to announce the acquisition of a compendium of pioneering works on Semitic languages penned, primarily, by the seventeenth-century librarian, theologian, and philologist Andreas Sennert. The book, which contains four philological studies by Sennert and one by his mentor, Martin Trost, encapsulates a unique scholarly moment: the burgeoning European interest, post-Reformation, in Hebrew and Jewish studies, and the new awareness of the interplay between theology and philology that subsequently arose.

Sennert’s works, bundled together in the acquisition, include the Chaldaismus & Syriasmus of 1651, focusing on Chaldean and Syriac, and the Arabismus, a 1658 study of Arabic. When the Rabbinismus, which concerns itself with the usage of Hebrew in Talmudic commentaries, was published in 1666, the printed sheets from the first editions of Sennert’s two previous studies were rebound with new preliminaries, meaning that the 1666 editions included in the recent acquisition are, in fact, first editions masquerading as later reprintings.

Rounding out the compendium are Martin Trost’s Grammatica Ebraea, first published in 1627, and Sennert’s Schediasmus, a sort of philological salmagundi surveying a wide number of languages, including Samaritan, Persian, Ethiopic, Coptic, and Armenian.

In one sense, the acquisition reflects the passions of an individual. Sennert (1606–1689), the son of a physician, studied at a number of prominent universities, including those at Leipzig, Jena, and Leiden, where, working under the Dutch mathematician Jacob Golius, he first learned the Arabic language. Settling down to a long administrative and academic career at the University of Wittenberg, Sennert continuously advocated for the study of Semitic languages. Driven by a desire to open up the writings of the Arab world to the academic minds of Europe, including philosophers and theologians, Sennert developed a large collection of Arabic and rabbinic literature while serving as university librarian.

At the same time, Sennert’s treatises are indicative of larger trends in European philological studies, including the growing academic interest in Hebrew studies from the fifteenth century on. Within this field, Sennert is often seen as one of the progenitors of the comparative approach to philology—an approach exemplified by the recently acquired volume. And yet, while Sennert is often described as having liberated philological studies from the religious and theological concerns that had hobbled the discipline, his texts bear witness to a curious theoretical disjunction.

“There was actually a debate that came out of the medieval period, and that’s picked up in Sennert, that tried to determine what the first language spoken by humans was—the language of Adam and Eve,” explains John Zaleski, a Tyler fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. “What’s fascinating is to see Sennert’s critical and philological comparisons between these languages—what we would consider a more scientific approach to linguistics—juxtaposed with this section on the Adamic language, which we wouldn’t really consider critical philology at all.”

The volumes also correspond to developments in typography. The elegant arabesques of four of the volume’s works were provided by Hiob Wilhelm Fincelius, whose printing offices stocked Arabic, Syriac, Greek, and Hebrew types—a relative rarity at the time. By the time Sennert’s Schediasmus was printed in 1681 by the university press at Wittenberg, the need for Ethiopic and Samaritan types was being filled by the famed Leipzig typefounder Anton Janson, who had for years been offering a uniquely wide array of oriental types on the open market.

For all that the studies contain, the physical book is surprisingly small. In fact, at first glance, it seems exactly like a modern textbook, with a relatively unadorned cover and spine and pages that, barring the bends of the various scripts, offer instruction in a visually spare layout. Here and there, however, elegant woodcut tailpieces stain the page, along with designs derived from cast fleurons—calling back to an age when the history of language was treated with mystical reverence.

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On Mysticism and Materiality

Visiting Scholar Racha Kirakosian examines the fabric of medieval mysticism

Posted on May 17, 2017 11:15 AM by Bailey Trela |
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On Mysticism and Materiality

Between March 15 and April 12, 2017, Dumbarton Oaks hosted Professor Racha Kirakosian as a Director’s Visiting Scholar. Kirakosian holds a joint appointment in the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department and the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard, and also serves on the Committee on Medieval Studies.

Kirakosian’s publications include studies of medieval German mysticism, female sanctity, and medieval law. She has written on the life and works of the female mystic Christina of Hane—her revised critical edition and analytic study of Christina’s Life will soon be published by De Gruyter—and is currently working on the late medieval reception of St. Gertrude of Helfta. At Dumbarton Oaks, Kirakosian pursued her research into the interplay between material culture and mysticism, delivering a talk on the material phenomena underpinning the life of Gertrude of Helfta.


Q&A with Racha Kirakosian

Part of your work is concerned with rethinking prejudices about female mysticism and female sanctity in the middle ages, so I wanted to ask you: What are some of these common prejudices that pervade the culture at that time, and that might be present in scholarship as well?

For a long time, so-called “female mysticism” was associated with what was deemed “practical” mysticism—“practical” because it contrasted with scholasticism, which was more traditionally “male.” Part of this classification stemmed from the notion that women were more engaged in a bodily experience of the divine, that their bodies were the medium of the divine encounter. This is one of the huge prejudices in the field, and one that you still encounter. It led, of course, to research that is focused on the body—what’s called “somatic mysticism.”

The thing is, though, you obviously find somatic mysticism in male authors and with male mystics, and of course you also have female mystics and visionaries who are highly intellectual. So these binaries of Latin-male-scholastic and vernacular-female-practical don’t hold when you actually look at the sources. And then, manuscript evidence is often so complex that you can’t even begin to think of the author’s gender or how this interacts with the subject’s gender—do we have a male author writing about a female mystic, or vice versa? What I try to do in my research is to work with the material as much as possible, so I follow the approach of material philology, which means you try to look at each manuscript as an individual piece of full-value evidence.


When did you begin working with Christina of Hane?

Well, the short version is that I settled on Christina after looking at the texts that I could work on. There’s an anthology that describes some of these texts, written in the 1990s by Kurt Ruh, an expert in the field, that talks about Christina of Hane. It basically says that the text bears many surprises, but is also kind of boring. I found this contradictory statement intriguing and challenging. In the four-page description written by this scholar, he claims that the theologically more interesting part of Christina’s life must have been written by a man, because surely a woman wouldn’t have known of such theology. And I just thought, “Wow. What a statement,” because that reading is so bound up with the stereotypes of nearly nineteenth-century scholarship: the reason so many texts associated with women weren’t actually studied is because they were considered low.

Here at Dumbarton Oaks, I was talking with one of the junior fellows in Byzantine Studies, Mihail Mitrea, about gendered writing and reading in the Middle Ages and how there’s an awareness, at that time, of a certain female and a certain male style. He was saying that in the eastern tradition—in Byzantium—women authors would only quote the Bible. That was their universe, whereas men would quote scholars and the classical literature and so on. So there’s an awareness, already, of a sort of gendered writing. But I’m not sure if this analysis actually holds up. When I think about my next book, on Gertrude of Helfta, and I see how erudite the nuns were—well, yes, of course they did not quote Aristotle, of course they quote what they have access to, and of course that will be the Church fathers and the Scriptures. But it will also be, for instance, Bernard of Clairvaux.

I think questions of gender can be very fruitful, but they can also cause damage if they’re projected onto the material, that is, if they don’t naturally arise from it. Gendered reading has been productive and good. But if readings are taken too far, if they aren’t questioned enough, they can sometimes begin to unfairly dominate a subject. You begin to think, “Really? Is that what female mysticism is all about?”


The narrative of Christina of Hane is often described as having a very erratic structure composed of discrete sections. You’ve also said that the language itself is very difficult—would you mind explaining what that means on the page?

There are these three, what Ruh called “blocks,” in the text. In the beginning, the text is structured as a hagiography, so it starts as the life of a saint, and then it moves into dialogues, in which you hear mainly one voice (in the text, God’s voice), and Christina, the bride, is mute most of the time. Then, in the end, you’ve got something that’s nearly a theological treatise. So there are structural difficulties with the text, and that was one of the reasons it got sort of sidelined. There was the assumption that a scribe had compiled sources in a bad way, so to speak, that they failed to smooth out the text, that they didn’t know how to put it all together. But that puts authorial intention into play, in the sense that, well, there were different sources going around, it might have been impossible for a scribe to put it all together. What I’m interested in looking at is the text’s effect as it is. I don’t want to judge the text, but I do want to see what it’s doing—and if you work like that, then it’s actually quite fascinating how the text develops, because the sections aren’t as clear-cut as you might think.

The beginning section takes you through a personal account of Christina’s life, where the hagiographical tone lets you know what to expect. Then the text moves into the dialogue section, where, in a way, the reader is constantly being addressed. God addresses Christina, with “you.” When the reader actually performs this, there’s a curious effect—you as the reader are totally engaged in the relationship between God and the soul, you are immersed. Finally, in the last section, you hear Christina’s voice, and she’s elaborating on highly theological questions—the Trinity, the birth of the Son, how time collapses between history and liturgical repetition, the birth of the soul.

The typical judgment has been that the text itself is a fragment, because it ends on something like, “the soul that is able to see God is dead of all sins, and it has no name, just as God has no name, it is dead in itself, etc.” Now, this “etc.” is fascinating: it’s an open ending, which I think pairs well with this idea of emulation that is present at the end of the text. Christina is speaking of herself as the soul, so in a way there’s a distance between the narrator, Christina, and her soul—which, in the process of reading, also becomes every reader. So just thinking of the effects, I find this ending strategically strong.


What have you been working on while at Dumbarton Oaks?

I’ve been working on a few aspects of my second book, which deals with the late medieval German reception of Gertrude the Great, a thirteenth-century mystic. I have moved on since my last book, but I still want to follow this idea of material philology, so, for instance, the talk I recently gave on textiles helped me to wrap my head around a chapter I’m currently working on, and how to structure it around textual evidence. I think it’s mesmerizing how some of the visions in the German text become nearly palpable in their material imagery. One of my chapters will look at dissemination—how the material filtered down from the Latin to the German, what sort of passages are transmitted, which manuscripts they appear in, and so on.

I was recently giving a talk at Yale as part of their Medieval Studies Lectures series, focusing on one of my chapters, which centers around the idea of what I call the “Ontology of the Book”—that is, how the book comes into being on a very material level on the one hand, and, on the other, how in later vernacular text versions the book idea is transposed to a more virtual level where the text production enters the mystical program. There are also going to be other chapters, one of which links the passion and the imitation of Christ’s passion to textuality—Gertrude's revelations are really rich in this regard.


You’re really working with two types, or levels, of materiality: the book itself, the physical manuscript, and then, within the narratives, the material descriptions—the layering of a dress, for instance. How do you relate the two? How do you think about their interactions?

The first thing is that there are manuscripts. That’s really the point of departure, because it’s the material evidence that we’ve got. We don’t have the dresses, we don’t have the jewels that are mentioned in the text, but we do have the manuscripts. So for the book I’m writing now, the first three chapters are concerned with the actual, physically transmitted books, i.e., manuscripts that have come down to us. The next chapter will look at money and prayers, because in Gertrude of Helfta there’s this connection—prayers are treated as a currency. They are something to pay your debts with, to pay another’s debts with. You can pay them into an account; they can accumulate interest. The vocabularies of money and banking allow us to think of something that’s ordinarily highly immaterial—words, prayers, devotion—as something incredibly material. And when you read this you realize, that’s how it made sense for them; that’s how they understood, and grasped, these immaterial values.

The last chapter will focus on textiles, and will deal with the description of the dresses and other fabrics in Gertrude of Helfta, of course, which I dwelled on in my talk. But I’ll also link back to this idea of words transforming into another value—for example, how praying is like weaving. My hope is that in the book’s conclusion I can actually link text and textile, and the fabricating of the text, and how words create texture.


I was wondering if you could talk about your style of reading these texts, and how you go about entering them. It seems to me to be a highly literary approach, with a large emphasis on literary detail.

Believe it or not, I try to avoid using the term “literature.” I prefer to say “texts,” because so much damage has been done by deeming certain things “literature,” or talking about “literary studies.” This is something that goes back to nineteenth-century academic politics, when everything that entered the canon did so because it was considered aesthetically fine enough. It became “literature,” and everything else was sort of tossed out, and given to other disciplines. And that’s exactly how many of the texts that I work on ended up nowhere. The term “literature” often automatically ascribes an aesthetic value to texts—I talk about textual studies, or textual analysis, instead. Similarly, the term “metaphor” can be less useful than misleading. In a way, it presumes that behind the image is a higher meaning, and that’s what we should be focused on, whereas when you look at many medieval mystical texts, you realize it’s really about the image, the material image itself. In my work, I’m trying to move away from a Cartesian mindset that places matter behind meaning. The texts I work with transcend this division anyway.

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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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The Tastes of Youth

Hartmut Troll traces the development of Germany’s first “English” gardener

Posted on May 11, 2017 12:44 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Tastes of Youth

Hartmut Troll, a landscape architect and honorary professor at Heidelberg University, is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in spring 2017. In his recent research report, “Nature as Model, Taste and Convenience as Measure: The Position of Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell within Garden Theory,” Troll described his work studying the garden pioneer, who is considered the founder of the classical English gardening tradition in Germany.

Brief Q&A with Hartmut Troll

In the late eighteenth century, Sckell visits France and England as part of his apprenticeship. What is the gardening milieu that he moves in?

So, this is all taking place around the time of the Enlightenment, which brings a large shift in the general attitude to nature. I tried to emphasize in my talk that even with the late French garden, the attitude to nature is different, evolving. Nature comes first; art follows on its heels.

In England, the new attitude, or taste, finds its expression in a new manner of gardening that has its model in painting. The first attempts in England to develop this style are what we would call today a transition style. It still has avenues, but less symmetry, and more free-flowing elements begin to creep in—there are some passes that wind like a serpentine, and eventually they stop cutting and trimming the trees, to gain another natural feature.

But it’s one thing to have a different attitude, to say, “My interest goes beyond the border of the former garden, it has started to bore me, there are beautiful images outside of the garden, I want to get closer to this idea.” It’s another thing entirely to create that idea, to bring it into physical existence. The first person who develops what we might call professional rules that determine how this new style should be laid out is William Kent, a professional painter who adapts the rules of painting to the act of gardening.

But Sckell goes to France first. Officially, he’s sent to learn the science of botany, how to cultivate the famous fruit trees of France. The physiocratic idea behind it is to return and make the country more beautiful, even more edible, to make it richer in terms of farming and food production. While there, he also gets in touch with the gardens of the genius Le Nôtre, and till the end of his life he never loses his appreciation. He loved the magnitude, the magnificence of these allées and avenues; to him, they are great, and when he begins to develop his own concept of landscape he adapts their monumental scale. But we have to recognize, at the time he’s interacting with Le Nôtre’s gardens, they’re almost one hundred years old. The trees have changed and grown, so have the plants—it’s a different appearance to the French classic period.

And afterward he went to England, and there’s a certain perspective that Sckell brings to his observations. He was ordered to be trained in the new manner of designing gardens in accord with the principle of nature. And of course, Sckell comes from a gardening family, and I think his interest in adapting new gardening knowledge derives from this tradition, this lineage. All in all, travel is incredibly important for a gardener. If you are not sponsored, you’ll often pay for your own travels—it creates a sort of professional pedigree, allows you to secure a better job, to become the chief court gardener, rather than simply a worker in the gardens.


Your research centers around the book that Sckell writes at the end of his life—how does this book relate to what he experiences in England?

Sckell is in England in the late eighteenth century, when new styles are developing freely. Lancelot Brown, the English garden landscape designer, is at the peak of his career. He was the first true professional, the one who got closest to the pattern of nature. William Chambers, his coeval, is in competition with him—so you have a swirl of theories, of competing viewpoints. Almost fifty years later, in the theoretical text that he writes at the end of his life, Sckell refers to this exact conflict; he quotes Chambers’s criticism of Lancelot Brown, and it runs for almost two pages. This, I should say, is an extraordinarily rare rhetorical move, because Sckell never quotes, except a little poetry here and there. Though he refers to almost thirty artists, painters, poets, architects, and garden designers, it’s always in a thematic way. Sckell designs the parameters of his art along Chambers’s criticism, and it’s a key point of his position that also illustrates the differences, and similarities, that his work shares with painting.

Part of my research involves analyzing Sckell’s writing and determining who is influencing him, and when. If you look at the text, you see that it’s exactly the discussion that’s occurring when Sckell stayed in England as a young gardener. But when he comes back to Germany, it seems that he doesn’t adapt his English-affected knowledge to his work with landscape gardening. He doesn’t interact with the ongoing English discussion; it doesn’t touch him at all. After he leaves England and the famous battle between Chambers and Brown, there takes place the even more famous struggle about the so-called picturesque garden place, but this is ignored by Sckell to some extent, even though these arguments are very important for the aesthetic and theoretical developments of the English garden.

And what this means is that his theoretical preferences were formed very early in his career, his aesthetic sense was forged at this relatively early stage in the English landscape debate. So he leaves England, and begins his career, and forty years later, when he sits down to write his theoretical book, the theory of art he espouses is very much tied to those formative years. There are many ways to prove this—for instance, he refers to William Hogarth and his ideas on beauty, which are still relevant in the later 1700s, when Sckell is in England, but have begun to seem outmoded by the time Sckell is writing his book. His theory seems to be affected by these early theoretical positions but is mainly based on, and develops from, his own long-term experiences as a landscape gardener. It is the high-grade personal position of an artist at the end of his life.

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The Gardens Online

Abbey Stockstill adds to web-based garden research tool

Posted on May 11, 2017 12:44 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Gardens Online

There’s a paucity of gardens in North Africa, but as Abbey Stockstill’s work is showing, that doesn’t mean the histories of lives lived in tune with the region’s unique landscape haven’t left their traces.  

For her institutional project, Stockstill, a Tyler fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, has been working with the Middle East Garden Traditions project. This web-based research tool, organized and hosted by Dumbarton Oaks, offers rigorous and well-researched information on gardens in the Islamic world to scholars in the early stages of research or course planning. The project, undertaken in the main between 2004 and 2007, provides selected bibliographies, catalogs, and glossaries for a number of sites that existed under dynasties including the Ummayad, Abbasid, and Safavid, as well as in al-Andalus.

Stockstill, whose academic research centers around the urban development of Marrakesh, has added to this resource a number of North African entries, as well as essays on hydraulics and hydrology and the Atlas Mountains. Focusing on North Africa—her regional forte, and until recently a lacuna in the catalog—has led Stockstill to reevaluate, in part, the scope of the project. “There aren’t too many gardens, extant or otherwise, in North Africa, so what I’ve started working on is more of a study of how the region uses its landscape,” Stockstill explains.

That means Stockstill has been researching the complex relationships between resident populations and the North African landscape rather than individual sites. For an entry on the Atlas and Rif Mountains, for example, she has been looking at agricultural patterns, phenomena like transhumance and seasonal migration, and hydrology and water management. “There’s a city on the southern side of the High Atlas mountain range called Sijilmasa that was once a major trade route stop,” she explains. “So that entry is focusing on the role of oases in facilitating trade—and of course, that expands out into questions of how open space and water are managed. It’s a way of thinking about landscaping and ‘garden’ spaces more holistically.”

These holistic concerns extend even to the few specific, or “traditional,” sites that she’s investigating. Stockstill is currently writing about a series of funerary gardens and the phenomenon, which they typify, of “externalized funerary complexes.” In Rabat, she explains, there’s a garden called the Chellah that was once a Roman city. When the space eventually fell into ruin, it was converted in the fifteenth century into a necropolis. “The really fascinating thing about is that the open air spaces surrounding the graves have been cultivated—they were designed to be visited,” Stockstill says. “Eventually there’s a whole economy that springs up around providing spaces where pilgrims can stay when they come to receive blessings. It’s almost like a tourist industry.”

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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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What We Learned in the Gardens

Nathalie Miraval reflects on programming for second-graders and cultivating a sense of wonder

Posted on May 10, 2017 03:05 PM by Nathalie Miraval |
What We Learned in the Gardens

“You know, they aren’t that bad when you look at them up close.”

“They look like gummy worms!”

“I want to take them home, and take care of them as pets.”

To the parents and guardians of second-graders at Hyde-Addison Elementary School: My apologies if maggots crept their way into your living room.

First, a little background: In October 2016, Dumbarton Oaks launched a pilot garden program for Hyde-Addison’s two second-grade classes as part of a growing long-term partnership with the local school. The visits to the gardens were designed to supplement students’ science education with hands-on activities related to concepts they’d engaged with in the classroom.

I had the privilege of designing the programming, with the help of a number of other Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows, and when it came time to implement the lesson plans, I personally led the sessions, creating a mobile classroom in the gardens. Over the course of six sessions, I watched as students observed, touched, smelled, picked, planted, dug, and drew their way through the gardens’ numerous rooms. Ever curious, the students inquired about Japanese maples (does Dumbarton Oaks have them?), hawks (where do they sleep?), leaf miners (do they only live in boxwood leaves?), rabies (how and why?), and the gift shop (can we visit?). At the same time, their perpetual questioning started to rub off on me; I began to reflect on nature and my relationship to it. I began to wonder when it became a relationship at all—when nature became something, a substance separate from myself.

Our programming was designed with this sense of separation in mind. We wanted students to interact closely and physically with dirt and pollen, leaves and flowers, insects and fungi. During their first visit, students got to uproot whole zinnias and touch their roots, stems, leaves, and flowers. Then, as an experiment in observation, the students drew their own sketches. To learn about pollination in our second session, they watched as bees and butterflies transferred pollen among the asters and dahlias in the Herbaceous Borders. Our final fall visit focused on photosynthesis; with the help of greenhouse specialist Melissa Brizer, students planted zinnia seeds in Dixie cups and took them back to their science classroom to observe as they grew.

Like the bulbs resting beneath the garden, our programming lay dormant during the winter months. Once the gelid air gave way to the warmer breezes of March, however, the students resumed their visits. They sat under the garden’s cherry blossom trees as Tyler Fellow Deirdre Moore and I taught them about producers, consumers, and decomposers. Strangely, I noticed that the students were less excited by the bursts of pink and white petals above them than they were by the more banal producer that surrounded them where they sat—the grass. I was baffled. Over one million visitors descend on the nation’s capital every year to see the blossoms at peak bloom, and these students had some of the best seats in the house. But, I realized, you can’t roll around in a cherry tree, and as their science teacher Adam Severs reminded me, lawns aren’t a given in the District. 

I think it was this moment that led me to reflect on my own childhood, and, by extension, the nature of our mission at Dumbarton Oaks, and the ways in which we’re able to serve our community. I grew up in Colorado, where purple mountain majesties mark the West, and cornfields and cornfields and cornfields stretch away to the East. As humans are wont to do with what they don’t yet recognize as beautiful, I took my exposure to nature—to rivers and reservoirs, to arid summers and their ochre plains filled with coteries of prairie dogs—for granted. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined a home without grass, drives without the front range, summers without fishing or foraging, capturing and climbing.

Moving to the East Coast for college undid my indifference to the mundane beauty that had surrounded me. As I arrived in Cambridge, the thrill of the new consumed me. I ogled the neo-Georgian architecture in awe, and found the green baths of elms, birches, oaks, and maples invigorating. Part of me even thought this new space was better, that between the crenellated red-brick sidewalks and the rich façades of old apartment buildings opportunity happened, developed, thrived. Cambridge had history, intellectualism, character. Colorado had suburban sameness. But, as I came to realize with time, sameness made me different. I began to appreciate the comfort and safety that come with repetition—with the continuous existence of mountains, and the reliable, unending change of plants. 

These were the changes I wanted the children to see. Over the course of their visits, as the gardens underwent alterations both subtle and sweeping, I tried to draw their eyes to the Forsythia Dell, for instance, as it leapt from static brown into vibrant yellow and then calm green; to the tulips rising like wands where zinnias had once been in the Herbaceous Borders; to the wave of blossoming that overtook Crabapple Hill.

Beside these changes, I wanted them to notice small, particular things. When we learned about pests and decomposers and their role in the food chain, Marc Vedder, a pest-control manager at Dumbarton Oaks, helped the children to tear open boxwood leaves, revealing the glowing orange maggots that lived inside. Leaf miner larvae are shut-ins; they feed on the upper and lower surfaces of leaves before pupating and transforming into flies. (I should also point out, for the sake of any concerned parents, that without its snug leafy home the maggot dies.) Enthralled, the students suddenly transformed into proprietors and staked their claims to these pests: “Mine is wiggly!”—“Mine is sleeping!”


The more closely you look at things, the more familiar they become. Yet every now and then, you’ll find a secret strangeness in a thing’s details. Inside the Gardeners’ Lodge, the second-graders examined their new orange friends under a microscope. One student exclaimed that the magnified pests didn’t look so much like nauseating vermin anymore—instead they resembled confectionery treats, bright and bulbous. The students also confronted one of their greatest fears: the bumblebee. Beneath the enlarging gaze of the microscope, the pollen hidden in a bumblebee’s fur suddenly becomes visible—when you look at them up close, they really aren’t that bad.

Being close to nature should involve learning how to care for it, and also recognizing our own impact, known or not, on the world around us. Our last session focused on composting, learning how good soil takes care of plants, their insect helpers, and gardens in general. Students learned what can and cannot go into a compost pile. Cardboard, yes; pizza, no—because, as one astute student observed, “pizza is junk food, and we want to give our plants healthy food, just like we need.”

Using compost from our Kitchen Gardens, the students planted their own sunflowers. Horticulturalist Luis Marmol and I showed the students a print by Basilius Besler and asked them to look closer and closer at the helianthus (that is, the sunflower) until they noticed that the center, surrounded by bright yellow petals, consisted of hundreds of florets. Sunflowers, we explained to little sounds of wonder, are actually clusters of flowers.

Luis Marmol teaching with sunflower

All gardens take work to maintain, but Dumbarton Oaks’ gardeners work harder than most to protect the historical fabric of the landscape, while also adapting to climatic and technological changes. I wanted the students to see how much care the gardeners put into making the garden beautiful, and how beautiful it is to take care of a garden, of a sunflower. It’s valuable for the students to understand how photosynthesis and good soil help a sunflower grow. But I secretly hope that having one of their own might help them understand the values of responsibility that underlie our interactions with the natural world.

Environmental issues can sometimes be tricky to grasp, because they’re so large, because they’re everywhere, because they always appear to be happening elsewhere. I want to believe that the earth isn’t meant to die, ever. But I recently visited Colorado and saw, with quivering concern, that the reservoirs were smaller, the rivers thinner, the prairie dogs fewer. When you’re literally grounded in the study of gardens, and the earth, and the actual soil, I like to think that these issues become a little more real and maybe a little more personal.

I know these are issues that are important to me. As someone absorbed in the humanities, I think a lot about big concepts like Truth and Reality and Meaning. For instance: I cannot say if the world is for us. I have trouble seeing it as an object of consumption, even though I engage in, and benefit from, its objectification and consumption. At the same time, I believe in our responsibility to care for our surroundings, if only because our survival is deeply connected to the space in which we live. We are not apart from the world, but a part of it. We depend on pollination, decomposition, and photosynthesis for the food we eat and the air we breathe. But beyond this, beyond the tangible things that insects and plants do for us, I believe we should respect all the members of our lived community, no matter how small or different, invisible or inane their presence. Maybe that’s an obvious truth, but that just means it’s more easily forgotten.

What will these eight-year olds remember of the gardens when they are twenty-five?  I hope that fond memories—or even just their remnants—of learning among the chrysanthemums and wisteria, alongside worms and not-so-scary-after-all bees, linger throughout their lives. Above all, I hope they retain their sense of wonder. Because, in my mind, wonder, knowledge, and action are inextricably linked, and though it’s true that wonder can come from the grand, sweeping beauty of a lovely view, I know that often the sharpest sense of awe, the memory that sticks with us, comes from discovering the particular—touching the worm, seeing the roots, planting the flower.

I find myself wondering about my wonder: When did worms stop being interesting? When did insects become scary? When did I forget that I was made of the sun?

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