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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

Esclarmonde Poster by Auguste-François Gorguet, 1889. Dumbarton Oaks Archives Ephemera Collection (AR.EP.PS.0556)

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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All the Green Things 

Gareth Doherty presents an ethnographic account of landscape in Bahrain 

All the Green Things 

Not every green is equally green. Case in point: While Bahraini date palms and golf courses are both green, the former have a grayish tint, the latter a verdant sheen. In our own ecologically sensitive time, we also frequently speak of the color in a different way—what’s good for the environment is “green.” In that sense of “greenness,” what the date palms lack in luminosity, they make up for in sustainability (as measured in water consumption). 

In his recent Mellon Midday Dialogue, Gareth Doherty, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, examined precisely these ambiguities within the spectrum of green. In content and style, the talk drew from his recent publication, “Paradoxes of Green: Landscape of a City-State.” 

Doherty, who trained as a landscape architect before completing his doctoral studies, had initially set out to study the landscape of Bahrain. But after arriving, he discovered that the concept of “landscape,” a word that entered English through the Middle Dutch landskip, has no strict equivalent in Arabic. Instead of “landscape,” the locals spoke of “greenery.” 

Thus, Doherty dropped the lens of landscape theory, and instead began to scrutinize the material stuff that made up the “greenery,” a readjustment that produced a new perspicuity in Doherty’s looking. For example, the lush lawns featured in advertisements for villa estates began to jar with the arid sand dunes that spread out across the island. This contrast, in Doherty’s eyes, underscores the mismatch between “greening” (essentially, planting greenery) in the name of ecological sustainability, and the unsustainable practice of watering lawns with energy-intensive, desalinated water.  

Expanding on the misplaced connection between greenery and sustainability, Doherty compared a set of satellite images from recent decades. Since the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the population of Bahrain has grown more than fifteenfold, resulting in the loss of more than 350,000 date palms, a native species that has symbolized Bahraini heritage for centuries. Lands that once stood in the cool shade of swaying palm leaves are now buried beneath roof tiles coated in bright green paint. 

Doherty supplemented these macroscopic views with minute, pedestrian-level observations drawn from a year of walking through the community he studied and talking to its residents. To better capture the views from the ground, Doherty even expanded his skill set to include sketching, photographing, and watercolor painting. What resulted was a reservoir of everyday vignettes that no satellite camera could capture.  

In one instance, Doherty poignantly recounted the gathering of a family of farmers whose house was slated for demolition. Though the house was more economically valuable, they didn’t gather to mourn its loss, but rather the loss of the date palm that had withstood the sandstorms of the previous two hundred years. In Bahrain, as Doherty pointed out, trees are such an intimate part of agrarian life that farmers often name them.   

Maybe it’s because green is such an elementary color that most people rarely think about all its manifestations. In a way, Doherty’s talk was aimed chiefly at counteracting this common view, arguing that, for all its ecological associations, “green” is not without its contradictions and connotations—that, depending on how you look at it, a lawn is both green and not green. 


Find out about other Mellon Midday Dialogues.

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2017–2018 Fellows and Project Grants

Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to announce the fellows and project grants for the upcoming academic year

2017–2018 Fellows and Project Grants


Paolo Angelini, KU Leuven (Fall)
Byzantine Studies
Introduction to the Medieval Legal History of the Southern Slavs

Gideon Avni, Israel Antiquities Authority and Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Byzantine Studies
Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Fourth to Eleventh Century: Archaeological Research and Urban Context

Stephanos Efthymiadis, Open University of Cyprus
Byzantine Studies
Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, 537–1204: Political, Social, and Urban History

Romy Hecht, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Garden and Landscape Studies
Botanical Practices and Urban Reform in Postcolonial Santiago, Chile

Steve Kosiba, University of Minnesota
Pre-Columbian Studies
Becoming Inca: Landscape Construction and Subject Creation in Ancient Cuzco

Michael Lee, University of Virginia (Spring)
Garden and Landscape Studies
German Landscape and the Aesthetics of Administration: Peter Joseph Lenné and His Circle, 1815–1848

Jerry Moore, California State University, Dominguez Hills (Fall)
Pre-Columbian Studies
Ancient Andean Houses: Dynamics of Domestic Space in South America

Kelly Presutti, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Garden and Landscape Studies
Terroir after the Terror: Landscape and Representation in Nineteenth-Century France

Denis Ribouillault, Université de Montréal (Fall)
Garden and Landscape Studies
Gardens of the Heavens: Astronomy and the Science of Time in the Gardens of Papal Rome

Alexis Torrance, University of Notre Dame
Byzantine Studies
The Human Ideal in Byzantine Theology

Bernd Andreas Vest
Byzantine Studies
The Urban Space of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, 638–1268

Alexandra Vukovich, University of Cambridge (Spring)
Byzantine Studies
Byzantine Imitative and Appropriative Coins, Fifth to Thirteenth Century

Alan Walmsley, Macquarie University
Byzantine Studies
Syria-Palestine in the Seventh Century: Aspects of Byzantine Continuity

Junior Fellows

Thalia Allington-Wood, University College London (Spring)
Garden and Landscape Studies
Garden Politics: Italian Renaissance Gardens in Postwar Italy

Christopher Bonura, University of California, Berkeley
Byzantine Studies
The Apocalypse of Methodius of Patara: History and Prophecy in the Christian Encounter with Islam

Gabriela Cervantes, University of Pittsburgh
Pre-Columbian Studies
The Sican Capital: Urban Organization in Pre-Columbian Peru

Mary Kelly, Tulane University
Pre-Columbian Studies
Speech Carved in Stone: Language Variation among the Ancient Lowland Maya

Scott Kennedy, Ohio State University
Byzantine Studies
Thucydides and Herodotus in the Late Antique and Byzantine Rhetorical Tradition

Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire, Tulane University
Pre-Columbian Studies
Palatial Politics: The Classic Maya Royal Court at La Corona, Guatemala

Ivan Marić, University of Edinburgh
Byzantine Studies
Imperial Ideology after Iconoclasm: Negotiating the Limits of Imperial Power in Byzantium, 843–913 

Luis Muro, Stanford University
Pre-Columbian Studies
Moche Spectacles of Death: Performance, Corporality, and Political Power in the Jequetepeque Valley, Peru

Nicholas Serrano, North Carolina State University
Garden and Landscape Studies
Ideologies of Nature in the Landscape Architecture and Urban Development of the Postwar American South, 1955–1975

Shannon Steiner, Bryn Mawr College
Byzantine Studies
Byzantine Enamel and the Aesthetics of Technological Power, Ninth to Fifteenth Century

Kaja Tally-Schumacher, Cornell University (Fall)
Garden and Landscape Studies
Cultivating Empire: Transplanting and Translating Rome

William R. Tyler Fellows

Ari Caramanica
Pre-Columbian Studies
The Forgotten Landscapes of the Peruvian North Coast: Cupisnique, Moche, and Chimu Peripheral Occupation

Philip Gant
Garden and Landscape Studies
Temple Litigation and Korea’s Long Nineteenth Century

Polina Ivanova
Byzantine Studies
From Byzantium’s East to Iran’s West: Economic Change and the Rise of Cities in Medieval Asia Minor, 1000–1400

Jake Ransohoff
Byzantine Studies
Vision and Punishment: Blinding in the Byzantine World

Abbey Stockstill
Garden and Landscape Studies
Crafting an Identity: Landscape and Urbanism in Almohad Marrakech

John Zaleski
Byzantine Studies
Asceticism in the Eastern Mediterranean, Seventh through Ninth Century

Mellon Fellows in Urban Landscape Studies

Basak Durgun, George Mason University
Cultural Politics of Urban Green Spaces: The Production and Reorganization of Istanbul’s Parks and Gardens

Jacob Boswell, The Ohio State University
Changing Climates: Social Imaginaries of Climate Modification in the United States

John King, San Francisco Chronicle
New Forms of Urban Public Space and the Publics That They Serve

Maria Taylor, University of Michigan
Between Town and Country: The Soviet City-Landscape Nexus in Global Perspective

Summer Fellows

Agnieszka Brylak, University of Warsaw
Pre-Columbian Studies
Buffoons and Sorcerers: The Merging of Witchcraft and Entertainment in Colonial Sources on Prehispanic Nahuas

Beatrice Caseau, Université Paris-Sorbonne and Labex RESMED
Byzantine Studies
Kissing in Byzantium

Jean-Claude Cheynet, Université Paris-Sorbonne
Byzantine Studies
The Byzantine Family of the Chrysobergai

Rebecca Falcasantos, Providence College
Byzantine Studies
Constantinople: Ritual, Violence, and Memory in the Making of a Christian Imperial Capital

Erlend Johnson, Tulane University
Pre-Columbian Studies
The Integrative Strategies of the Classic Maya Copan Polity on Its Southeastern Frontier

Dimitri Korobeinikov, University at Albany
Byzantine Studies
Unpublished Armenian, Syriac, and Arabic Seals from the Zacos Collection: A Case Study of the Border Zone

Maria Parani, University of Cyprus
Byzantine Studies
The Date and Context of Vat. gr. 1851: The Evidence of Its Miniatures Reconsidered

Alan Ross, University of Southampton
Byzantine Studies
In Praise of Constantius: Greek Panegyrical Literature in the Early Byzantine Empire

Claudio Schiano, Università degli Studi di Bari Aldo Moro
Byzantine Studies
The Tritheist Controversy on Resurrection: New Evidence on John Philoponus’s Opponents

John Schwaller, University at Albany
Pre-Columbian Studies
The Rituals of the Aztec Month of Panquetzaliztli

Humanities Fellows

Andrés Álvarez Dávila, Dumbarton Oaks/Folger Shakespeare Library

Erica Eisen, Dumbarton Oaks/George Washington Museum and Textile Museum

Michael Kennedy-Yoon, Dumbarton Oaks/National Museum of Natural History

Adela Kim, Dumbarton Oaks/National Gallery of Art

Abby Westover, Dumbarton Oaks/Folger Shakespeare Library

Faye Zhang, Dumbarton Oaks/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Early-Career Musician

Celil Refik Kaya, Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin

Project Grants

Alessandra Ricci, Koç University
Byzantine Studies
Recovering Middle Byzantine Architecture in Istanbul: Excavation of the Church at Küçükyalı

Nikolaos Tsivikis, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz
Byzantine Studies
The Early Christian Domus Ecclesia at Messene, Peloponnese

Felix Arnold, German Archaeological Institute
Garden and Landscape Studies
The Islamic Gardens of Córdoba (Spain): A Geophysical Survey at Madinat al-Zahra

Brian Palmer, Virginia Commonwealth University
Garden and Landscape Studies
Reclaiming an Outdoor Archive

Maureece Levin, Stanford University
Garden and Landscape Studies
An Archaeology of Plant Food Production on Pingelap Atoll

Scott Hutson, University of Kentucky
Pre-Columbian Studies
Salvaging Sources of Power at Uci, Yucatan, Mexico

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Mapping Cultural Philanthropy

Dumbarton Oaks launches online resource

Posted on Apr 14, 2017 01:45 PM by Bailey Trela |
Mapping Cultural Philanthropy

Museums mark the streets. Their names are familiar; emblazoned on brick walls or carved into stone plinths, they summon up notions of extensive collections, tastefully displayed, that emanate the mute grandeur of faits accomplis. The beauty of the objects seems to seal them in the moment. But we hardly give a thought to the personal passions that chose this painting, that vase, or the quirks and whims that stocked the galleries and that, in many cases, still guide the collections.

The effort to examine the founding philosophies of some of Washington, D.C.’s renowned cultural institutions is at the heart of Dumbarton Oaks’ Mapping Cultural Philanthropy project, which launched earlier this year. The project, in development since 2016, presents an online mapping tool featuring rigorously researched entries on institutions like the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. The entries describe not only the institutions and collections themselves, but also the personalities—grand or self-effacing, minutely focused or broadly piqued—that brought them into existence.

“What we’re not doing, by design, is chronicling people that gave a lot of money but otherwise weren’t impassioned about their collecting,” Dumbarton Oaks Archivist James Carder, who has supervised the project since its inception, explains. “To make our list you really do have to have had a passion for the arts, theater, music—anything in the arts and humanities. And you have to have made it happen in a public way.”

Teasing out the little-known backstories of D.C.’s museums and collections reveals a web of philanthropic activity. As Carder explains, the project, initiated by Director Jan Ziolkowski, sprang from a desire to contextualize the beginnings of Dumbarton Oaks and similar institutions in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. “We wanted to map what had happened in Washington, D.C., not only to better understand who the Blisses were and what milieu they moved in,” Carder says, “but also to show that Washington was an important nexus for, frankly, wealthy and passionate collectors who wanted to make those collections part of the public landscape.”

In many ways, the private philanthropy of the mid-twentieth century continued the thread of nineteenth-century philanthropic endeavors, though this began to change as the century waned. In charting this evolution, the project gels nicely with recent efforts by Dumbarton Oaks, including its Wintersession course for undergraduates, to examine the changing face of philanthropy in the twenty-first century. “In the last part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, philanthropy has started to be redefined,” Carder explains. “We’ve entered into questions of effective altruism, so that private philanthropy has started to move away from the arts and humanities and into different, perfectly valid, and perfectly respectable fields, like medicine or education.”

The long-term project has seen contributions from a number of people, including a team of four interns during the summer of 2016. Recently, Humanities Fellow Priya Menon has worked to standardize some of the preexisting profiles in the catalog while also writing entries of her own. Her work has marked a shift into present-day studies, with a deeper focus on the use of primary sources. In developing an entry on the National Museum of Women in the Arts, for example, she had the opportunity to interview the collection’s founder, Wilhelmina Holladay, and has worked with other oral histories to develop profiles of more recently established cultural institutions.

“We’re really looking at private collections that eventually became public,” Menon explains, “and I’ve found that the project actually demonstrates that the public and the private can intersect in ways that are productive and even beautiful, and that care for future generations’ well-being—and that they’ve been doing this for a considerable length of time within the realm of art.”

Carder similarly pinpoints part of the project’s value in its illumination of the past and present, of the evolution of cultural philanthropy over time, and what these can tell us about the current climate of cultural institutions in D.C. The funding of a gallery or museum is typically piecemeal and complex. In addition to the legacy of the founding gift (which might include hobbling stipulations that disallow, for instance, the loaning of objects), many institutions run on a budget comprised of private donations, soft money made from museum shops, and, of course, federal money. “How all of that’s managed—and how the missions of these institutions are going to be effected—is really going to be fairly interesting in the coming years,” Carder says. “There are a number of institutions anticipating large cuts in federal funding. Right now, of course, these are just guesstimates—but who knows?”

After its launch, the project will continue to expand, adding new entries at a regular pace. Though the site’s current entries have benefitted from the use of secondary sources that lay out general histories and missions—prefaces to catalogs, for instance, or book-length studies of collectors like William Wilson Corcoran—future profiles will wade into what Carder deems “potentially problematic areas.” As the project shifts focus to more modern institutions and collectors, secondary sources will of course dry up, though all that means is a challenge, and the need to dig a little deeper. With plans to look at the founder of the Washington School of Ballet and a number of collectors who gave important instruments to the Library of Congress, future profiles will have to derive a little more from research and footwork, like the interview recently conducted with Holladay—“which is really the right way to go,” Carder says with a chuckle, “because she’s alive.”

The standardizing of the profiles—making sure one biographical section isn’t five paragraphs longer than another—has been helped along by Lain Wilson. As Digital Content Manager at Dumbarton Oaks, Wilson has helped advise the project, editing profiles and managing its design process. As Carder explains, “He’s been invaluable in terms of taking our suggestions and talking reality, and consistency, and length, and graphic style, and all the things that our pie-in-the-sky ideas hadn’t considered.” The result is a fluid interface—produced by Image Conscious Studios, an external firm—that will also double as the first phase in a broader restyling of Dumbarton Oaks’ main website.

As Wilson explains, the diversity of the project—its contributors, subjects, presentation, and approach—is built into its design. “The idea was always to have a flagship project that would run across several years and involve multiple cohorts of fellows and interns,” Wilson says. “The goal of building a project that speaks to Dumbarton Oaks’ institutional mission and history, and puts it in a broader context of cultural philanthropy in the D.C. area, is well served by many hands.”

Freer, Sackler, Folger, Corcoran—names that dot the map and bear stories of individuals with singular passions. As the Mapping Cultural Philanthropy project launches—and in the months ahead—they’ll share the digital grid with institutions like the Textile Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Phillips Collection, and—of course—Dumbarton Oaks.


Explore the project

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City Water/City Life

Upcoming exhibit showcases the history of waterfronts in urban design

Posted on Apr 10, 2017 03:34 PM by Bailey Trela |
City Water/City Life

There’s a peculiar vibrancy associated with water in the city. Images of strollers on Florence’s lungarni, or riverside paths, seem to encapsulate the practice of restorative leisure, while the canals of Amsterdam, photographed or painstakingly penciled in, gesture at a hybrid state between coziness and mobility. City water—channeled, controlled, incorporated—seems to posit a different way of being: life, lived harmoniously, on the edge of two elements.

City Water/City Life, which opens on April 25, will use contemporary photographs as well as prints and images from Dumbarton Oaks’ Rare Book Collection to trace the development of water elements in three historic cities—Paris, Amsterdam, and Florence—and their interaction with social and cultural milieus. The exhibit was curated by Humanities Fellow John Wang and advised by GLS Director John Beardsley and Assistant Director Anatole Tchikine.

Planning for the exhibit began back in September, as Wang, working closely with Dumbarton Oaks’ rare book librarian Linda Lott, set about acquainting himself with the Rare Book Collection: “The first step was just figuring out what was there, what you might consider for an exhibition, what types of themes might naturally emerge.” Eventually, a watery motif began to evolve: “We had these wonderful pictures of Amsterdam, Florence, Paris, all of which were capital cities at one point, and all of which had, and still have, prominent water elements—so that became its own way of looking at urban landscape.”

“Today we tend to think of water as an ecological problem—we might be concerned about rising sea levels, for instance—but in these three cases waterfront developments are deeply tied in with social and economic developments,” Wang explains. “One goal of the exhibit is to highlight how urban waters can change and influence, in multifaceted ways, the planning of a city.”

Paris, represented in the exhibit by two separate volumes, is an excellent case study in the influence of urban waters on city design. The first volume in the exhibit, featuring works by the printmaker Gabriel Perelle and his sons, Adam and Nicolas, dates from the mid-seventeenth century; the second, by Jacques Rigaud, is from the eighteenth century. “You end up with this really nice one-century comparison,” Wang explains. “In the earlier volume, the river is crowded with barges and these signs of commercial activity, whereas in the second volume, the river becomes cleaner, more picturesque—a shift begins to emerge, from Paris as a commercial center to a cultural center.”

Images featured in the exhibit range from the idyllic to the technical. Giuseppe Zocchi’s engravings of eighteenth-century Florence, for instance, depict a period when the Arno began to take on a more prominent role in civic life. “There are a lot of scenes of promenading along the river, aristocrats in their carriages, and so on,” Wang says. “They’re beautiful prints in their own right, but they’re also executed in this strict documentary style—they’re artistic and historical at the same time.” In contrast, one of the volumes focusing on Amsterdam—a compendium of prints by different engravers—examines the construction of the city’s famous dikes and the process of land reclamation from the angle of hydraulic engineering.

In examining the uses of water through time, the exhibit leaps forward three centuries by incorporating contemporary photographs. Sometimes, the interactions of water and culture have led to devastation. A picture of Florence, for instance, captures the destruction wrought by the 1966 flooding of the Arno, which irreparably damaged millions of artworks and rare books.

At other times, water carries its culture backward, returning to old solutions. Along the canals of Amsterdam, history curiously recurs: “For Amsterdam, we have an image of contemporary houseboats, and there’s a whole story behind that,” Wang explains. “In the postwar period, during a housing shortage, barges started to be converted into dwellings, as a sort of emergency solution. Now, that same process is looked on as an innovative solution to the problem the city still has of housing its growing population.”

The combination of historical and contemporary perspectives is aimed at bolstering analysis of this notoriously mutable element. In line with this objective, the exhibit has been designed in conjunction with two upcoming events. The D.C. Water Atlas, an online map of the D.C. watershed created by Dumbarton Oaks Tyler Fellow John Davis, is expected to launch this summer, while the 2017 Garden and Landscape Studies Symposium, “Landscape of Pre-Industrial Cities,” which will take place May 5–6, reflects on many of the same themes.

Between the exhibit, project, and symposium, the subject of city water—no less protean than beautiful—will certainly get its due.

Image: An engraving of activity on the Arno by Giuseppe Zocchi, from a volume in the Rare Book Room.

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Farewell to the Freeways

Margot Lystra talks urban design in 1960s San Francisco

Farewell to the Freeways

Consideration was given, first and foremost, to the trees.

As the fledgling firm of Lawrence Halprin & Associates drafted its designs for the San Francisco Panhandle freeway, a decided bias began to appear. In their renderings, vigorous trees occluded the hypothetical tableaux and the proposed manmade structures that should have been centered. This choice subtly asserted the primacy of the individual’s experience of the space. It was, in a way, a revolt.

As Margot Lystra explained in her recent Mellon Midday Dialogue, the debate surrounding the decision to build a freeway through the Panhandle park in San Francisco managed to anticipate later shifts in the conception of urban space—including turns to environmentalism and a focus on collective experience that have come to be seen as central to urban planning.

Though “freeway” and “cultural catalyst” aren’t typically synonymous, Lystra, a PhD candidate in the History of Architecture and Urban Development at Cornell University and one-month research award recipient in Garden and Landscape Studies, sought to weld the terms together by tracing the hullabaloo around San Francisco’s freeway plans in the early 1960s. Much of her talk followed the efforts of the aforementioned Halprin & Associates, which was founded by Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect whose projects pioneered attention to human scale and social impact. As Lystra described it: “They were trying to develop ways of thinking about the space that were technical and actionable, but that still captured the sensorial, lived experience of being there.”

Under the aegis of Halprin’s firm, the urban fabric of San Francisco was quickly redefined in terms of community. In a report on the aesthetics of urban freeways, Halprin & Associates shifted the project’s focus to the environment around the freeway, rather than the structure itself. Defining the urban texture of the area in broad spatial categories, the firm’s newly developed conception of the environment as “something lived,” rather than a dry spatial descriptor, began to assert more control over their designs.

When state engineers eventually got their hands on the report, Lystra said, they were careful to remove Halprin’s use of the word “environment,” though they weren’t able to elide his views on space and design, which permeated the project. Whenever he had the chance—in meetings, at work—Halprin used and emphasized the word “environment,” reminding those around him of the vetoed lodestar that still guided their work. 

Eventually, as public hearings got under way and the public learned of the proposed plans, a staunch resistance emerged. Editorials in local newspapers bemoaned the loss of trees that would accompany the freeway’s development, wildly estimating the numbers to be chopped down, while “Save the Park” rallies were held, replete with signs, marching, and maudlin folksingers.

At the second public hearing on the issue, community members began to articulate “surprisingly complex functional-spatial connections,” as Lystra put it. Some attendees argued that the park’s racially integrated playground, one of the few in the city, was a powerful source of unity in the community. Others touched on the critical role the park’s trees played in dampening the coastal winds that roared over the city. When the displacement of black families that would occur with the freeway’s construction was broached, it caused one community member to solemnly proclaim: “If you’re gonna plan, plan for all of us.”

The freeway plans were eventually scrapped. Lystra’s talk, however, was less interested in the mechanics of revolt than the theoretical reverberations that ran through the country in the 1960s and 1970s as more and more cities, inspired by the San Francisco debacle, began to sideline their freeway development plans.

As Lystra described it, communities across the nation, aided by the discourse of the San Francisco debates, began to view the urban milieu as collective and fundamentally shared space. It could no longer be considered a conjunction of discrete structures, but rather became—had to become—“a great functioning whole.”


Find out about other Mellon Midday Dialogues.

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Secrets in the Soil

Eduardo Neves delivers public lecture in Pre-Columbian Studies

Posted on Apr 05, 2017 03:05 PM by Bailey Trela |
Secrets in the Soil

There are, unsurprisingly, mysteries buried in the dark earth of the Amazon.

The soil doesn’t simply hide fragments of the region’s past. According to Eduardo Neves, it’s a narrative in its own right. The terra preta (literally, “black soil”) of the Amazonian basin—which derives its distinctive color from the charcoal, bone, and manure worked into it by indigenous peoples over thousands of years—can, when properly studied, serve as a catalog of agricultural history.

Neves, a professor of archaeology at the University of São Paolo, Brazil, recently delivered a public lecture at Dumbarton Oaks that outlined the history of Amazonian archaeology and the suppositions that have driven it up until now. At the same time, his talk proposed new theoretical perspectives from which to approach the field. Seeking to “interrogate archaeology,” Neves fought back against the “paradigm of marginality” he believes has wrongly cast the region as an infertile zone unable to support large populations.

Neves began the lecture by describing the incredible diversity of the Amazon basin. Occupying roughly the same amount of land as the continental United States, the basin plays host to a variety of biomes and seven distinct language families that comprise among themselves hundreds of native languages. This parallel between the environment and its human inhabitants was, in a way, the crux of Neves’s larger argument; as he would go on to assert, the lush biodiversity of the region is partly a result of the diverse human activities undertaken there in the Pre-Columbian past.

Neves then took a brief detour to outline previous scholarship, focusing on Betty Meggers’s 1971 text Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, a pioneering work in the field of cultural ecology. Meggers had argued that because the tropical soil in the basin was so acidic, the most effective approach to cultivation was slash-and-burn agriculture. This, combined with the main crop of manioc, or cassava, which grows quickly but is low in protein, forced early populations to move about frequently, preventing the establishment of large settlements. 

The new consensus, one that Neves supports, contends that modern biomes in the Amazon basin are formed by ancient populations, and that the landscape itself, not merely the soil, was shaped by indigenous peoples. Much of the evidence for these claims, according to Neves, starts to appear in the stratigraphic record roughly 2,500 years ago, as the result of population growth and a settlement boom. Singling out the occupations at Pocó-Açutuba, Neves emphasized the stability and fertility of the terra preta, which contains ceramic sherds. According to Neves, Pre-Columbian indigenous peoples didn’t necessarily have to bow down before environmental limitations—they were very much capable of overcoming them.

But what, exactly, is the evidence for these claims? When excavating, Neves searches for both organic macroremains—chunks of preserved plant matter, like a corncob, that are visible to the naked eye—and microremains, miniscule fragments of wild rice or squash that require the aid of a microscope to discern. An even more telling trace comes in the form of phytoliths, small mineral bodies (most often of silica) that form inside a plant and are later fossilized, allowing them to survive when other organic evidence has decayed.

By searching for evidence like this, Neves has been able to discover signs of plant cultivation stretching back to the mid-Holocene period (6000–2000 BC). At Teotônio, a site located in the Upper Rio Madeira region of Brazil, Neves and his colleagues found evidence of the non-domesticated management of palms from approximately 6,500 years ago—findings that push back the oldest proven occupation date at the site by some three thousand years.

Neves spent perhaps the most time discussing another mid-Holocene site, Monte Castelo, located on the Guaporé River. Still occupied by the Tupari people, the remote site’s extensive shell midden was first excavated in 1983, though it wasn’t until thirty years later, with the aid of grant money, that Neves was able to visit the site.

In the wet season, as the high grasses flood, the midden is turned into an island; Neves and his team were forced to paddle to the large mound, but the effort was worth it. Over time, the large amount of shells buried in the midden have created a relatively neutral pH level in the surrounding soil, Neves explained, lending it remarkable preservative properties. Organic remains abound, and ceramic discoveries that appear to date from roughly 5,200 years ago would be among some of the earliest in the Americas.

After an intense discussion of the evidence, Neves offered a simple segue: “So what?” Monte Castello, as Neves explained, is not unique; sites like it are to be found throughout the tropical lowlands. The consequence of these findings, Neves believes, is that the old unified narrative of the Neolithic period is falling apart. “Ceramics, we are beginning to see, are not necessarily tied to farming,” Neves explained. They often predate the development of agriculture, and evidence of their production can be found far from traditional agricultural cradles.

This argument flowed naturally into a larger distinction Neves evinced, that between agriculture and domestication. “Domestication and cultivation may not be processes that, necessarily, lead to the development of agriculture,” Neves contended. Rather than way stations on a clearly defined road of cultural development, they might be ends in themselves. To encapsulate this state, Neves coined the phrase “the permanent incipient.”

It’s a conceptual turn that, Neves is convinced, would go a long way toward overturning “the notions of absence, uncompletedness, and emptiness” that seem to undergird the study of Pre-Columbian societies. When the nineteenth-century Brazilian historian Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen declared that “for such people, who still live in childhood, there is no History, only Ethnography,” he was speaking within a developmental framework that Neves considers obsolete.

Neves ended his talk by letting loose, so to speak, and examining other sites with a more casual, broadly interrogative tone. He dwelled on the magnificent goldwork discovered in Tolima, Colombia, and displayed LiDAR images (a method of surveying that uses laser light to create highly detailed maps) of a site in northern Colombia where clearly designed manmade shapes are visible in the earth. The images, projected onto a screen, gradually zoomed out, and the individual geoglyphs gave way to a sprawl of overlapping shapes like a jumbled cipher.

As Neves evinced, there are still mysteries in the soil.

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The Lost Archive

Anna Leone revisits the excavation history of Dibsi Faraj

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

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

Brief Q&A with Anna Leone

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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Building the Invisible

Mellon outreach activates teens’ humanistic imaginations

Building the Invisible

You pass by the same park every day. It seems unmoving, unchanging, as if it has been there forever. How do you learn to see not what it is—what you know it has always been—but what it was in the past and what it might be? How do you teach others to appreciate its history and to imagine it in a more ambitious, innovative, and creative way?

Over the past two years, Jeanne Haffner, Mellon postdoctoral fellow in urban landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, has been building collaborative initiatives that foster humanistically grounded design skills in teenagers from Washington, D.C. Haffner’s programs connect Dumbarton Oaks’ resources in Garden and Landscape Studies (GLS) to two other educational institutions in the District: Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School and the National Building Museum’s Design Apprenticeship Program. Phelps High School is a public magnet school with strengths in math and science education; Dumbarton Oaks works with its architecture and landscape classes on a set of design challenges and field trips over the year. The National Building Museum’s apprentice program teaches thirty teenagers design fundamentals and tool skills while developing real-world projects over the course of nine five-hour Saturday sessions per semester; Haffner participates in select sessions as a teacher, mentor, and design critic.

She explains that the students in both programs often have strong technical abilities and practical intuitions, but thinking about design as a humanistic and artistic activity breaks new ground with them. For example, in late September 2016, Phelps High School students visited Dumbarton Oaks to learn about hydrology in its gardens, culminating with an activity: how would you redesign the irrigation in the Ellipse, with its double-ring of thirsty hornbeam trees? Haffner and the students discussed how climate change has caused problems with the irrigation system: because storms have grown heavier, rains don’t permeate the soil as much as they used to. “They had great questions—very logical questions about the trees, their needs, the pipes,” she recalls. “But they tend to think more like engineers than like landscape designers.” To point out the wide range of ways the space has been imagined over the decades, she showed them Farrand’s very different original design for the Ellipse, which led to a discussion about design history and how the use of different types of trees and other vegetation can give an area a completely different feeling.

Dumbarton Oaks, as a research center in the humanities, has the ability to complement the school’s curriculum by teaching the students how to see beyond the expectations and assumptions that the present time and culture have imparted. Haffner wants to help them see that “landscape design has an aesthetic component and is informed by ideas and techniques that have histories. They obviously have a strong science background. So I try to balance this important perspective with other, more humanistic, concerns. My aim is to make them aware that their own designs, like all designs, are subjective and tied to values. Far from being objective and scientific, their designs reflect cultural expectations about how humans should interact with nature, and these ideas about naturalness are historically rooted.”

In the 2015–16 school year, Haffner launched programming with a number of one-time workshops; in 2016–17, she is steering the initiative toward a more sustained, yearlong curriculum built around multiple workshops and field trips. In addition to Phelps High School’s workshop at Dumbarton Oaks, GLS facilitated a tour of the National Zoo with its landscape architect, Jennifer Daniels, and is working with the students on a monthly basis from February to May to redesign a community garden in northeast D.C.’s Kingman Park. Haffner explains that the project is an ambitious conceptual challenge: “How do you include a toolshed, stormwater management, plantings—on a hillside? The soil at the site is also toxic, meaning you need to use raised plant beds.” Haffner, along with John Beardsley, director of GLS, and Jane Padelford, GLS program coordinator, are participating in midterm and final design reviews with the school, lending professional expertise to the school’s curriculum.

At the National Building Museum, GLS is also helping highlight the historical and cultural facets of landscape design by focusing on the city the students know best—Washington itself—and showing not just what it is, but also what it might have been. As a complement to a current exhibition on the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, Haffner created a tour of the show that highlighted the contrast between Halprin’s unrealized plan for the Anacostia riverfront in the 1960s, the current reality of the riverfront, and plans for how modern architects would like to transform the area in years to come. “The Anacostia riverfront worked well as an example because many of the students reside there. It made Halprin’s work feel closer to home.”  

Haffner hopes that the Dumbarton Oaks and Mellon Foundation initiatives will help change students’ sense of what architecture and design aim to do as disciplines, and broaden their conceptions of what they’re doing from the very beginning. “It’s difficult to teach both the technical and social aspects of design simultaneously. They’re beginners. So they need a simple model,” she acknowledges. “But I think the social, cultural, and historical aspects of landscape can and should be integrated into design pedagogy from the start, right up front—not added in at the end.”

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