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Naming Stones

Dumbarton Oaks acquires 18th-century Japanese garden scroll

Posted on Nov 29, 2017 04:04 PM by Bailey Trela |
Naming Stones

A little more than sixteen feet in length, Kyogoku dono sanseki no zu (The Kyogoku Residence Garden Scroll) is a rare 18th-century Japanese garden design scroll containing thirteen ink paintings of rock gardens. The simple, detached landscapes are painted in subdued shades of green, grey, yellow, and brown, and are heavily annotated with gardening advice and the names of particular structures.

More specifically, the scroll depicts tsukiyama, hill gardens, a style that places carefully chosen stones in a tended environment of sand, water, and unassuming vegetation. The name, which refers to the artificial hills often featured in these gardens, was at one point nearly synonymous with landscape gardening itself in Japan: the title of Tsukiyama teizouden, a 1735 manual on the craft written by the garden designer Kitamura Enkin, takes “tsukiyama” and “garden” to mean roughly the same thing.

In conjunction with Enkin’s text, the Kyogoku scroll sheds light on Japanese garden design culture during the Edo period (1603–1868). Tsukiyama teizouden ranges widely in its subject matter, reworking and synthesizing preexisting manuals while offering information on, among other subjects, the training of pine trees and goldfish husbandry. Its notes on tea gardens reflect a rising taste for the relatively simple style, unsurprising given the increasing number of commoners, like merchants and farmers, who found themselves able to afford personal gardens during the Edo period.

The Kyogoku scroll acts a bit as an instruction manual, offering clear depictions of particular gardens while inserting practical advice that alternates between the precise and the colloquial. The scroll’s image of an “east-facing garden,” for instance, advises that a waterfall should be no taller than sixty centimeters, while text for the “north-facing garden,” abundantly stippled with rocks, reminds the peruser not to overfill the space with stones.

Ultimately, though, the stones make the scene. Carefully selected for their size, shape, and color, and sometimes laboriously transported from distant points of origin, the stones in these illuminated gardens have clearly taken up the bulk of the painter’s care. While the rounded hills and wispy flora present few particular traits, the stones are clearly delineated and present an astonishing variety of types. The importance placed on the choice and arrangement of stones in the garden is exemplified by the practice of naming the stones.

The names given to the stones in the Kyogoku scroll fit the patterns of stone-naming in the broader tradition of Japanese gardening. Beneath, above, and to the sides of the stones, the names explain their function, their position in the landscape, their shape, their resemblance to other objects, or the particular deity whose attributes they embody. In the scroll’s first garden, for instance, the characters announce the “water god rock,” the “morningstar rock,” and the “rock that came down the stream.”

The gardens illustrated in the scroll typify traditional categories of hill garden, for instance, the wide river style, which emphasizes a low waterfall and the use of worn river boulders, and the mountain torrent style, in which stones are carefully placed at the waterfall’s base and throughout the stream to create a rushing, cascading effect.

Despite its age, the Kyogoku scroll has been remarkably well preserved. Other than some minor worming towards its end, the scroll is undamaged, its scenes complete, their muted tones perhaps even gaining from the aged paper of their ground.

 

Please visit our library pages for information about how to access materials in our Rare Book Collection.

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The Benton Gospels

Dumbarton Oaks Museum acquires rare Greek manuscript

Posted on Sep 20, 2017 03:58 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Benton Gospels

With support from the B. H. Breslauer Foundation, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum has acquired an early 10th-century Greek manuscript of historic and scholarly significance. Known as Minuscule 669 or the Benton Gospels, this Byzantine codex contains the partial text of the four Gospels of the New Testament. Brought to the United States in 1844 by Reverend George Benton, an Episcopal minister, it is likely the oldest Byzantine gospel book in the US.

It provides insight into Byzantine manuscript illumination and calligraphy, such as the use of an unusual script known as bouletée élancée. Only about thirty manuscripts written in bouletée élancée are known. Scholar Nadezhda Kavrus-Hoffmann has written a detailed codicological and paleographic study of the Benton Gospels, which is planned for publication in an upcoming volume of the Dumbarton Oaks Papers.

In addition to the Benton Gospels, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum holds five illuminated biblical and liturgical Byzantine manuscripts dating from the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. Access to the Benton Gospels at Dumbarton Oaks offers unparalleled opportunities to scholars conducting paleographic, iconographic, codicological, and biblical research, since the institution is uniquely suited to conduct and facilitate specialized inquiry and interpretation in those fields.

Dumbarton Oaks holds the premier collection of scholarly literature on the transmission of the Bible in Greek and seeks to expand the scope of sources available to scholars. Byzantium’s role in preserving and transmitting early versions of New Testament texts continues to be a prime subject of research and scholarly discussion. Dumbarton Oaks’ focused collecting seeks to advance rigorous and detailed study of topics in the aid of understanding the complexity of human thought and activity.

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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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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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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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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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A New Old View

Dumbarton Oaks Acquires Seventeenth-Century Monument Guide

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Anatole Tchikine |
A New Old View

When we think of the Grand Tour, it is the English rather than the Dutch who first come to mind. Yet, seventeenth-century Holland (or, more correctly, the United Provinces) was a rich mercantile empire with trading outposts as far the island of Kyushu in Japan and colonial settlements and plantations, such as Surinam, in South America, India, and Africa. A community of enterprising travelers and cartographers, the Dutch engaged in the exploration of the New World just as they were rediscovering the legacy of classical antiquity. They were thus the principal audience for the Theatrum Civitatum et Admirandorum Italiae, whose first three volumes, originally published in 1663, have recently been acquired by Dumbarton Oaks. Usually translated as the “Town Book of Italy,” this project was a brainchild of the leading Amsterdam mapmaker Johannes Blaeu (1599–1673), who ran one of the city’s largest printing establishments. Published in Latin, which was still the lingua franca at the time, it was intended as a cultural and historical guide as well as a cartographic atlas for the educated elite, curious about the past and present of one of the heartlands of European civilization.

Blaeu, Rome Map This highly detailed color map shows noteworthy monuments of ancient Rome.

Blaeu’s original idea was an ambitious publication that would have comprised a total of ten volumes, five of which were supposed to deal with the monuments of ancient Rome, organized into specific types, and another five with the main attractions of various states of seventeenth-century Italy. Nine years after the appearance of the three initial volumes, however, his main workshop was destroyed by fire, with much of the material ready for publication irredeemably lost. Blaeu’s heirs continued his work, adding in 1683 two more volumes on Piedmont and Savoy, but were unable to complete the full series. Yet, even in this incomplete form, the “Town Book of Italy” was a success, as attested by subsequent editions produced by other Amsterdam publishers well into the eighteenth century.

Blaeu, Roma Nova The volume on the Papal States features this highly detailed depiction of seventeenth-century Rome.

The three luxurious volumes at Dumbarton Oaks, bound in the original Dutch vellum with gilt borders, feature over a hundred engraved plates (mostly maps and views), some of which are hand-colored. The first volume, dealing with the cities of the Papal States, is a rich visual and textual introduction to their main monuments and landmarks, beginning with a brief outline of the pivotal historical events, the leading local families, and other important characters, followed by the survey of the principal buildings. Some illustrations also represent major gardens, such as those of Frascati and Tivoli, as well as sacred and devotional sites located in the immediate vicinity.

Blaeu, Tivoli This print, from the first volume on the Papal States, depicts the waterfalls of Tivoli. Though most of the books’ text is in Latin, this illustration is titled in Italian.

The second volume, on the monuments of ancient Rome, includes sections on circuses, theaters, and amphitheaters; its important focus, however, is on Egyptian obelisks with meticulously recorded hieroglyphic inscriptions, a source of scholarly fascination throughout the seventeenth century. A special highlight is an account of the moving of the Vatican Obelisk in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the greatest engineering feats of the sixteenth century, carried out in 1586 by the papal architect Domenico Fontana. For Blaeu and his readers, the glory of the ancient Rome, therefore, was always interlaced with the achievements of the modern city.

Blaeu, Obelisk A four-leaf-wide pull-out section illustrates the moving of the Vatican Obelisk.

Finally, the third volume, which deals with Naples and Sicily, pays much attention to the natural attractions of these regions, especially the unique geology and vegetation in the areas of volcanic activity, such as Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields.

Blaeu, Naples The books feature beautiful typography, most in early modern Latin, as here: “Neapolis [modern-day Naples] is a highly celebrated city, situated on the coast of the sea and at the bases of the loveliest of hills—no wonder, then, that even in ancient times there were those who lived there.”

Blaeu, Vesuvius The workshop somewhat fancifully depicted the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, with peasants fleeing in the foreground.

For Dumbarton Oaks, the acquisition of these three fascinating volumes coincides with the increasing focus of its Garden and Landscape Studies program on urban landscape studies, supported by a generous grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. By putting this rare and incredibly rich resource at the service of scholarship, we hope to promote a deeper understanding of the intricate and dynamic relationships that exist between the natural environment and urban form, putting them in a broad historical perspective.

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The Ruins of Syria

Dumbarton Oaks Acquires a New Collection of Images

The Ruins of Syria

There are a few quirky constants that show up in Frank Kidner’s photographs of the Syrian countryside. He snaps errant debris that he describes, in a sharp script penned along the rims of his slides, as “decorative rubble.” He photographs children playing among the ruins. He looks for wild flowers, anomalous blooms in the dry hills of the Belus Massif.

Though none of these is the main focus of the collection. A self-described shutterbug, Kidner made six trips to Syria in the 1990s to document, in vivid color photography, the architectural remains of the country, eventually narrowing his focus to the Belus Massif, a limestone plateau in northwestern Syria. The final collection, which numbers more than nine thousand slides, was recently acquired by the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks.

The acquisition of Kidner’s collection is significant for a number of reasons. In addition to more than doubling the ICFA’s current holdings of Syrian images, it documents in rich detail countless sites, many of which have been fundamentally altered or completely destroyed in the years since Kidner’s photographs were taken. The collection’s vast scope also makes it a fundamentally adaptable resource, capable of being utilized in any number of projects, and the images themselves are beautiful and crisp, ripe for perusing.

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

The images center on the Dead Cities, a group of around seven hundred former settlements situated on the Belus Massif that exhibit a wealth of well-preserved architectural remains. So called for their abandonment in the eighth through tenth centuries, the Dead Cities provide a unique vision of late antique rural life, one that was remarkably prosperous and trade-driven, though not quite urban. As a result, the region serves as an excellent location for the study of largescale transition.

Kidner initially became interested in the Dead Cities after his first trip to Syria in 1993, which was largely a sightseeing excursion. Returning to the states and his professorship at San Francisco State University, where he has taught classes on the early history of Christianity, Kidner began to research work that had been done on Christianity in the area. In the process he stumbled upon a photograph-laden study written by the Princeton professor Howard Crosby Butler in the early twentieth century that catalyzed his interest: “It was very fragile, very brittle, down on a triple folio shelf—I checked it out and kept it at my home for years and years.”

Kidner’s photographic work in the region was driven by a desire to investigate the introduction of Christianity and the ways in which it adapted itself to the region’s preexisting architecture. “I tried to look at the built environment as a source for understanding how it was that Christianity managed to insert itself into these communities,” Kidner says. Since the villages of the Belus Massif were built around the same time that Christianity was making inroads into the region, their physical remains afford a unique perspective on the process of conversion.

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

Kidner’s fieldwork and photographs eventually resulted in a paper, “Christianizing the Syrian Countryside: An Archaeological and Architectural Approach,” which serves as an illuminating entrée into the collection. In essence, the paper argues that the manner in which preexisting structures were converted into Christian churches quite clearly delineates local attitudes toward the new religion.

Part of Kidner’s anthropological approach posits that architecture is a peculiar form of language, one that is ever-present and wheedling, suffusing the lived space of the environment and sending out ideological information constantly. This sense of totality also pervades his slides, which systematically document structures from every angle and distance; focused attention is given to each tumbled pediment, every shattered column.

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

St. Simeon’s Monastery, a sprawling complex located about twenty miles northwest of Aleppo, receives just such a treatment from Kidner’s lens. It is captured at a distance, a mere smudge on the horizon; its facades are shot, as well as its baptistery and the innards of these structures; bemas and transepts are painstakingly documented; apses and friezes and narthices are snapped up in turn. Over three hundred slides are dedicated to the compound’s details, many of which are treated from multiple angles and in multiple lights.

Beyond the temples and farmsteads lie the fields, which Kidner captures now and again, snapping the deeply lichened stretch of an old stone wall or handing the camera off to pose by a beaten track running along and through the stony heights of the massif. There is a timelessness to the landscape and its simpler elements that at times runs counter to Kidner’s other errant shots, which often capture fleeting phenomena embedded among the ruins.  

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

“There are two things that are sort of off the track as far as the built environment is concerned,” Kidner says. “You have the hollyhocks and pictures of wildflowers—I’ve been a gardener all my life—and then you have the kids. And looking back now, I think in a way they’re the most poignant aspect of the collection. God knows they’re all grown up now; God knows what has happened to them.”

In the course of his travels, Kidner met the children—or, as the scribblings on his slides deem them, “moppets”—of the region. “I’d start photographing, and these kids would pop up, and trail around after me, and ask if I could take a picture of them.” Often enough, his visit to the site would end with an improvised shoot, the kids bunching themselves together against ancient walls buttressed with concrete or else standing aloof and alone, a little wary of the man with the camera, a little curious about the device itself.

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

All in all, Kidner’s collection straddles the gap between the personal and the historical. Images of St. Simeon’s Monastery rub shoulders with those of thick-stalked, vibrant hollyhocks, while imposing stone walls contrast with the sunsets Kidner describes as his “Condé Nast” photos. Even in the collection’s ostensible focus—the architectural images—it’s not simply academic thoroughness that drives the photographing of the built environment, but curiosity, and a predisposition to the contemplation of ruins.

Look even briefly at Kidner’s shot of arcosolia (recesses, typically above ground, used for entombment) in the mortuary chapel at St. Simeon’s monastery, and it quickly becomes clear that a somber mood has overtaken the documentary drive; the gaping hollows and the mineral stains bearding the walls evoke a sense of ancient emptiness, one that is both difficult to fathom and hard to shake.

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

Kidner’s own old preoccupations emerge in these moments. “I certainly had an interest from the time I was quite a small kid in seeing old things, and not necessarily old things in museums,” he says. “I would pester my parents, when we were out on a drive, to stop if there was an old Wells Fargo station, or, in California, a few Gold Rush things.”

It’s not difficult to picture Kidner pausing over the crossed lintels and intricately carved stonework strewn about the grounds at Qirqbizeh, a site west of Aleppo. The images that emerge are of stones among stones, singled out more than anything else for the delight they give, the mandala-like finery set into their weathered faces.

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

In short, Kidner’s collection is alternatingly comprehensive and composite; it obsesses over monumental arches one moment and drifts off among the flowers in the next. The vivid reality of its shots, charged with an almost unearthly color, brings to life a moment in time that is frequently undercut by a sense of absence.

In a distant image of St. Simeon’s taken from the nearby site of Takleh, the zigzag of a road dominates the background, while a stone wall interrupts the foreground. In the middle of the image spread fields that were once worked and might be worked still. It is a view of many worlds held together by space and the miracle of a well-composed shot.

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

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