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Bliss-Tyler Correspondence: Excerpts about Tyler’s Travels

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, the founders of Dumbarton Oaks, and their close friend and art adviser, Royall Tyler, and his wife, Elisina, maintained an active correspondence between 1902 and 1953. Many of these letters document the formation of the Blisses’ art collection. They also discuss contemporary history, literature and poetry, music, politics, and expatriate life.

The fully transcribed and annotated correspondence is available here.

Many of Royall Tyler’s most substantial letters to the Blisses related his experiences traveling. In these colorful letters, Tyler not only recounted his impressions on the people he met but also his reactions to the art and architecture of the regions he visited. The following are illustrated excerpts from travels related in four letters. Click “Read the full letter” before each excerpt to access notes and historical introductions.

Bulgaria, October 1927

Excerpt from letter of Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 24, 1927. Read the full letter.

I have just returned from Constantinople, dearest Mildred, and must tell you something of my stay there and of my journey in Bulgaria, or I shall burst.

Hayford and I took the boat here and eased down the Danube to Lom Polanka, which is in Bulgaria and a short night by train from Sofia.Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It was a two days’ trip on the boat, quite comfortable, and on the second day one passes through magnificent gorges, with crags rising sheer 300 metres and another story a little further back 600 metres. One sees the remains of the road TrajanTrajan (53–117), Roman emperor between 98 and 117. built; in several places, for hundreds of yards at a time, it was carried on beams fitted into holes cut in the face of the rock a couple of yards above the water-level. There is a great inscription,The “Tabula Traiana” which measures 4 m x 1.75 m, commemorates the completion of Trajan’s military road and is located near Ogradina, Serbia, on the Serbian side of the Danube River facing Romania. It reads: IMP. CAESAR. DIVI. NERVAE. F / NERVA TRAIANVS. AVG. GERM / PONTIF MAXIMUS TRIB POT IIII / PATER PATRIAE COS III / MONTIBVUS EXCISI(s) ANCO(ni)BVS / SVBLAT(i)S VIA(m) F(ecit). [Emperor Caesar son of the divine Nerva, Nerva Trajan, the Augustus, Germanicus, Pontifex Maximus, invested for the fourth time as Tribune, Father of the Fatherland, Consul for the third time, excavating mountain rocks and using wood beams has made this road.] still perfectly legible, in which Trajan recorded how he vanquished river and mountain in order to conquer DaciaDacia, the land inhabited by the Dacians, a branch of the Tracians. Dacia was bounded in the south by the Danube River or, at its greatest extent, by the Haemus Mountains (the Balkan Mountains). In the east, Dacia was bounded by the Black Sea and the Dniester River. Ancient Dacia corresponds to the present-day countries of Romania and Moldova as well as to smaller parts of Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, and the Ukraine. The Dacian Wars (101–102 and 105–106) were two military campaigns fought between the Roman Empire and Dacia during Emperor Trajan’s rule. (103 A.D.). Very wild and primitive country; the peasants all in white or brightly coloured costumes woven by themselves.

Tabula Traiana
Tabula Traiana

Sofia is not at all a bad little place. The League Commissioner there, Charron,René Charron, the League of Nations Finance Committee’s Commissioner to Bulgaria (1926–1932). Charron became an assistant (number 492, codename “Boatman”) to Allen Dulles during the Second World War. See Allen Welsh Dulles and Neal H. Petersen, From Hitler’s Doorstep: The Wartime Intelligence Reports of Allen Dulles, 1942–1945 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 625. is a great friend of mine, and Wilson,Charles Stetson Wilson (1873–1947), the U.S. minister to Bulgaria (1921–1928). our Minister, is a cousin of Hayford’s. Charron looked after us beautifully. The museumThe National Archaeological Museum, Sofia (Национален археологически музей). has a lot of Byz. stuff of great interest to us, as well as other exciting things, for instance, a gold treasure,The identity of this gold treasure is uncertain. It may be the Valchitran Treasure, discovered in 1924 (not during the First World War) with a total weight of 12.5 kg (not 20 kg). It is usually dated ca. 1300 BCE. discovered during the war and weighing over 20 kilos, consisting of huge massive drinking vessels in solid gold with silver niello of a very strange style. Opinions on it vary from Neolithic (Bégouen)Count Henri Bégouen (1863–1956), a French archaeologist and a lecturer on prehistory at the Université de Toulouse. to Mycenaean (S. Reinach)Salomon Reinach (1858–1932), a French archaeologist and a keeper at the National Museum of Antiquities at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. and early Bulgarian, perhaps 7th–8th cent, of our era (Peirce and Tyler). There’s so little ornament that it’s very hard to make a case, but what little there is seems to us to belong to the Barbarian-Provincial-Byzantine world of the Nagy Szent Miklos treasure in Vienna,The Nagy St. Miklos (Nagyszentmiklós) treasure is a collection of twenty-three early medieval gold vessels, variously dated between the sixth and tenth centuries, found in 1799 in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, in the Habsburg Empire (modern Sânnicolau Mare, Romania). The treasure was transferred to the Imperial Collection (now Kunsthistorisches Museum), Vienna. which all now agree about.

The Boulgres“Bulgarians.” gave us one of the Museum officials to pilot us about the country, and a very good, serviceable fellow he is. We saw, in four days, plus 4 in and round Sofia, very nearly all there is to see, by working pretty hard, travelling by night in a sleeper and motoring a lot in the day. Much of the stuff is wretched, and it was not really surprising to find, where the arch-fumiste Diehl“The arch-humbug Diehl.” Charles Diehl. describes “un ensemble important de fresques du XIe-XIIe”“An important ensemble of frescos of the 11th–12th centuries.” nothing but the lowest sort of XVIII and even XIX (Batschkovo).The Batschkovo Monastery, founded in 1083 in the valley of the Chepelare River. TirnovoVeliko Tŭrnovo, the fortified former capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and the seat of the Bulgarian patriarch. is a wash out, except (geographically) for its extraordinary double-meander, and as far as one can judge by existing remains, the Bulgarian empire of the late Xllth–late XlVth was a one-horse affair.

But we were altogether unprepared for the stupendous vestiges of the first Bulgarian empire: late VIIth–late Xth.The First Bulgarian Empire or the Danubian Bulgar Khanate was founded ca. 680 by Bulgars in the northeastern Balkans, territory conquered from the Byzantine Empire. This medieval state was ruled by hereditary emperors until the early eleventh century, when in 1014 the Byzantine Emperor Basil II defeated the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion. The excavations of the Churches at PreslavPreslav, the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 893 and 972. At the royal monastery in Preslev, more than two thousand whole or fragmented tiles have been discovered. and PatleinaPatleina, a monastery dedicated to St. Panteleimon. and the fortress-palace at Plishka [sic]Pliska (Pliskusa), the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 681 and 893. show how absolutely Byzantine the art of that Empire was, and throw much new light on the character of Byz. keramics (entre autre“Among other things.”) of the time.See Paul Stephenson, Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900–1204 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). For the Byzantine ceramics from this area, see D. Talbot Rice, “Byzantine Polychrome Pottery,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 61, no. 357 (December 1932), 281–86. At Patleina, they have found an over-life sized head of a saint in glazed tiles,St. Theodore Icon from the Patleina Monastery, ninth–tenth century, made from twenty-one terracotta tiles, National Archaeological Museum, Preslav, Bulgaria. See The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, AD 843–1261, ed. Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997), 329. very fine indeed and entirely new as regards technique, which can’t be later than the reign of Ximisus (late Xth)John I Tzimiskes, brother-in-law of the Byzantine emperor Romanos II Porphyrogennetos, was emperor between 969 and 976. In a series of campaigns on the lower Danube in 970–971, he captured the Bulgarian emperor Boris II and proclaimed the annexation of Bulgaria. who destroyed Patleina. But the great surprise was the colossal cliff relief at Madara:The “Madara Horseman” is a large rock relief carved on the Madara Plateau east of Shuman in northeastern Bulgaria, near the village of Madara. The relief is now generally dated to ca. 710 and to the reign of the Bulgar khan Tervel (ca. 695–718), suggesting that the horseman portrays Tervel thrusting a spear into a lion. The image may also represent the Bulgar god Tangra, an image type based on the Thracian Hero God. The inscriptions probably date to several periods, those of Tervel, Krum (796–814), and Omurtag (814–831). The “Madara Horseman” may commemorate Tervel’s victory in 708 over the Byzantines at the Battle of Anchialus. See Veselin Beshevliev, Die protobulgarische Periode der bulgarischen Geschichte (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1981), 170, 473–74, ill. 38, pl. 22, and ill. 77, pl. 49. In 811, the emperor Nikephoros I invaded Bulgaria and sacked the capital Pliska, defeating Krum. On Nikephoros’s retreat, however, Krum ambushed the Byzantine army in the mountain, and Nikephoros was killed in the battle. See UNESCO, “Madara Rider.” 35 metres from the ground on the face of a 100 metres-high cliff, the equestrian figure of the Sublime Kahn Krum, accompanied by the lion and the dog which were regarded as sacred by the pagan Bulgars. The relief was carved, as a long Greek inscription cut on the rock beside it tells, by order of the Sublime Khan Omurtog to commemorate Khan Krum’s (Omurtog’s father’s) defeat of the Byzantine army under Nicephorus I (A.D. 811) who was killed in the battle in a gorge not far from where the relief stands.

The “Madara Horseman”
The “Madara Horseman”

The character of the relief is also absolutely Byzantine—though the way it is placed and the scale give it something of a Sassanian look—and this is of enormous interest as it is the only big piece of Byz. sculpture of that period that has survived. We always felt sure that sometime we’d come across big Byz. sculpture of the VIII–IX, but we thought it would emerge from excavations at C’ple. and never dreamed that we’d find it on the desolate and eagle-haunted Cliffs of Madara. Madara is a strange, almost terrifying place, with pairs of real eagles always circling about the cliffs, in the face of which there are countless dwellings, cut no one knows when or by whom, as the eagles have removed whatever vestiges may have been left in the chambers. At one place, where there are abundant springs, the cliff forms as it were a mighty apse of almost regular semi-dome shape, 50 metres high and 100 wide at the base. I don’t think I’ve ever, anywhere, seen nature and man combine to produce such an awe-inspiring whole.

Of course the dear Boulgres“Bulgarians.” stick to it that the relief proves that their ancestors brought with them to the Balkans a highly developed art, related with that of Persia, and owing nothing to Byzantium. They don’t draw attention to two huge stone magots,The sculptures that he refers to have not been identified. now in the museum at Preslav, which were found in Bulgar tumuli and undoubtedly represent what the Boulgre was capable of in the way of sculpture. Not only the Greek inscription, but the character of the relief (I had a very good spy-glass and was able to examine it well) show that it is Byzantine. There are many small fragments in the Museum at C’ple and elsewhere—set into Top Kapu gateThe Top Kapu (also known as the Cannon Gate and the St. Romanus Gate), the site of the defeat of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, by Mohammed the Conqueror on May 29, 1453. for instance, of very closely similar style. Only the huge scale of the relief has prevented people from noticing this so far—such people as have seen it, that is, for Madara isn’t exactly accessible. Choumen (Chumla) is the nearest station, and that is 12 hours by rail from Sofia.

From the top of the Madara cliff one sees the ruins of the huge fortress-palace,The Madara fortress (called Matora) was probably first constructed in the fourth century and rebuilt during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396). It continued in use through 1386. built of superb masonry, blocks a good 6 ft. long by 2 or 3 high and deep, and one has an impression that will last of the grandeur and might of that barbaric Bulgar kingdom which gave the Byzantine Empire a run for its money, defeated and slew a Byz. Emperor and mortally wounded his son and heir,Nikephoros I was killed in 811 at the Battle of Pliska. In 811, the emperor Nikephoros I invaded Bulgaria and sacked the capital Pliska, defeating Krum. On Nikephoros’s retreat, however, Krum ambushed the Byzantine army in the mountain, and Nikephoros was killed in the battle. His son, Stauakios, was paralyzed by a sword wound near the neck at the same battle. but, artistically speaking, was conquered by Byzantium even before it became Christian about A.D. 860. The whole country-side is covered with tumuli of which only a very few have been opened—our cicerone told us there were several thousands of them.

We ended our tour at Philippopoli—and in the Museum there found a most beautiful Byz. Xth bronze relief of the Virgin,The Virgin Elleusa, bronze, fourteenth century, The Regional Archaeological Museum, Plovdiv, Bulgaria. a perfect marvel, alone well worth the journey. The poor boobs in the museum think it’s made of lead and pay no attention to it! I expect that if one were for any time in Bulgaria one would have opportunities. As it is, Hayford got some very rare and valuable Byz. coins for nothing. By the way, we aren’t telling anyone that the ground looks promising there, as we’d be sorry to see Kalebdjian set up a consulate in Bulgaria.

Istanbul, October 1927

Excerpt from letter of Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 24, 1927. Read the full letter.

Then Constantinople!

We were there ten days. Fortunately Hayford had been there for a month a few years ago, so we wasted no time.

C’ple is a formidable experience. Sta SophiaThe church of Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) was built in Constantinople (Istanbul) between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. It was the largest church in the world for nearly a thousand years. far surpassed all I had expected. It is the grandest building man ever made; altogether unimaginable and incredible. The scale is terrific: 65 metres sous-oeuvre“At the base.” in the main cupola, and it looks even more. When one stands there, with the colossal dome and the semi-domes billowing away far over one’s head, it is as if one were inside a monstrous great balloon, straining at its moorings and about to soar off into the sky. This effect is partly due to the fact that there are 40 windows very close one to the next round the base of the great cupola, and the narrow spaces between them are as it were the cords and hausers that tie the balloon down to earth.

Exterior view from grounds, 1948, MS.BZ.004-03-01-02-001-032, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
Exterior view from grounds, 1948, MS.BZ.004-03-01-02-001-032, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

The lighting is so marvellously devised that the interior is suffused with a light of its own, equally bright (or dim) in all parts of the Church—or nearly so. One has to pause and calculate to tell which way the light is coming from. And the acoustics! One isn’t allowed in Sta Sophia when the Moslem offices are going on, but on several occasions there was an ulemaAn ulema, an educated Muslim legal scholar or clergyman. softly chanting verses from the Koran near the mihrabMihrab, the niche in a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca, toward which Muslims pray. The present Hagia Sophia marble mihrab dates to the mid-nineteenth century.—and his voice was almost equally audible all over the building: one had trouble in discovering where he was, just as I often was puzzled to know which side the sun was coming from.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul: Light Study, Narthex, and South Vestibule Mosaics, 1936–40, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, MS.BZ.004-02-04, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

Up to the level of the tribunes, the walls are wainscoted with verde-antico, Westphalia-ham and other marble, and the columns are verde-antico or red porphyry.Verde antico (“antique green”), a serpentine marble quarried in Thessaly, Greece. Porphyry is a purple igneous rock quarried in eastern Egypt. Both verde antico (sometimes called green porphyry) and porphyry had been associated with imperial use since Roman times. The marble columns at Hagia Sophia mostly were reused from pagan temples in western Anatolia. The colour is determined by these stones and is, on the whole, something between olive-leaf and pistacchio. The soffits and vaults and upper wall-spaces are of course covered with mosaic, and, though the Turk covers it all with a dirty yellow wash, he is slack about keeping it up and in many places the mosaic shows through—much more than has been noticed by the writers on Sta Sophia. In places there’s no wash at all. The mosaics date, we think, all from the latter part of the IXth cent., when the images quarrelThe two periods of Byzantine iconoclasm—imperial bans on religious images—were 730–787 and 814–842. was drawing to a close. There are hardly any traces of figures visible—and there don’t seem to be many hidden away. The bulk of the decoration is formed by crosses and scrolls and such-like of very beautiful character, with a liberal use of silver-cubes.

Of course the Turk has done much to deface Sta Sophia. Worst of all are the colossal round wooden shields with Koran texts, white on dark green, fixed to the faces of each of the 8 main piers.The eight leather and wood disks or medallions were added in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The pulpits etc are all miserable, and the carpets nothing. If one allows the Turk’s contribution to prey sufficiently on one’s mind, one finds Sta Sophia looking like a huge circus on an off-day. The low hanging lamps are the trapezes, the Turks’ junk is the clown-stands etc and the very carpets are like circus carpets, and the unearthly, ethereal dome turns into a Barnum and Bailey tent. My God, I would like to see the Turk thrown out of Constantinople!—but then Sta Sophia would be exposed to the zeal of restorers and filled with modern Orthodox bondieuserie.“Religious knick-knacks.” Probably any change is for the worse. Only there is the horrible thought that, according to engineers, the dome is in perillous [sic] condition, and the Turk may be trusted to do nothing to save it. There were a couple or men hoisting up bags of cement by a hand-pulley, and I expect that rate of progression represents the Turks’ top speed.

N. V. Artamonoff, Exterior view of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, Istanbul, 1938, MS.BZ.012-02-03-05-020-004, Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. 1936–1989, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
N. V. Artamonoff, Exterior view of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, Istanbul, 1938, MS.BZ.012-02-03-05-020-004, Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. 1936–1989, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

Then, apart from Sta Sophia, there are such things as “little Sta Sophia” (the Ch. of SS Sergius and Bacchus)The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, also known as the Little Hagia Sophia, was built between 527 and 536 and was something of a model for the larger Hagia Sophia. It also was converted into a mosque ca. 1506–1513 during the Ottoman Empire. which is only little in comparison with S. Sophia, than which it is a little earlier. A very lovely church also, with most beautiful capitals and columns. The capitals indeed are better than those in big S. Sophia, where the scale is so big that the size of the capital becomes rather too much for the VI cent, system of ornament. Again, a very marvellously arranged light. Another church still, St. Irene,The fourth-century church of Hagia Eirene (or Irene) was restored by the emperor Justinian in 548, after it was burned down during the Nike revolt of 532. It was again restored in the eight century after an earthquake. When Royall Tyler saw it, the former church had been used as a military museum since 1908. of the same period, has suffered much more, but preserves much of the ancient fabric.

Scattered about StamboulStamboul here designates the old town city center of Constantinople. In 1928, the name was first officially used to designate the entire city. there are many other churches, now mosques, with much or little of the original Byz. building about them. Then there are the superb walls running from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn.The defensive stone walls of Constantinople were initially built by the emperor Constantine after the founding of the city in the fourth century. A double line of walls was built in the fifth century, due to the city’s expansion. The area of Galata was fortified with walls under the emperor Justinian in the sixth century. The defenses thus enclosed Constantinople from the Bosphorus (the navigable strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara that separates the European part of modern Turkey—Thrace—from the Asian part—Anatolia) to the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus forming a harbor.

There are several museums of enormous interest—the most surprising one to me was the Efkaf, or Museum of Pious Foundations,The Evkaf Museum (the Museum of the Administration of Pious Foundations or Evkaf-I Islamiye Müzesi) was opened in 1914 to protect objects of artistic value, especially carpets, that were used in mosques. It was located in the soup kitchen building of the Süleymaniye Mosque complex. It was reorganized as the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Türk ve Islam Müzesi) in 1927. See Kurt Erdmann, Seven Hundred Years of Oriental Carpets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 105–11. where there is a stunning collection of about 100 Anatolian and a few Persian carpets of the XV and XVI centuries—they fairly leave one gasping, I can assure you. Also lots of exquisite Persian painted MSS.

The great trouble at C’ple is that one has to live in Pera,The district of Pera (Beyoğlu) is located in what is known as the European side of Istanbul and on the opposite side of the Golden Horn from the old town city center. The Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus gave Pera to the Republic of Genoa in 1273 in return for Genoa’s support after the Fourth Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. It became a thriving center for European merchants. which is miles away from StamboulStamboul designated the old town city center of Constantinople. In 1928, the name was first officially used to designate the entire city. where everything one wants to see is, along a horrible street full of trams and traffic and the most raucous and strident motor horns I’ve ever heard anywhere. One’s nerves are all jangled by the time one has passed this ordeal. We used to spend the entire day in Stamboul, eating in unpromising Greek restaurants where the food is really delicious, and so reduced the number of times we did the trip to two daily. But that’s two too much, and one of my chief bones to pick with the Turk is that he hasn’t allowed a hotel to be built in Stamboul, where there are quantities of superb sites going begging, with splendid views over the Bosphorus, and quite close to Sta Sophia and lots of the things one wants to be near. Altogether, the Turk .... especially now that he’s dressed himself in modern clothes and pretends to be just like any other European, one has less patience with his incredible ways than one had when he was openly an Oriental. He has turned the main streets of Stamboul into something like the E. Side or Fall River.East side of Manhattan in New York, and Fall River, Massachusetts. It really is the limit that in Constantinople, the city with the finest sea-board in the world, one should nowhere be able to get to the water’s edge, which is devoted to dead-dog factories and sewage and every imaginable and unimaginable filth.

Mount Athos, Greece, November 1933

Excerpt from letter of Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, November 27, 1933. Read the full letter.

I’ve just had a great experience, dearest Mildred, and, as usual, must tell you about it. “Usual” isn’t quite the word, for such experiences as this come rarely, but when they come, I want to run to you with them.

I’ve just spent 6 full days on Mt. Athos.Mount Athos, a mountain on a peninsula in Macedonia, Greece, that is known as the “Holy Mountain” due to the twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries located there. AvenolJoseph Louis Anne Avenol (1879–1952), a French diplomat who served as the second general secretary of the League of Nations between 1933 and 1940. asked me to go as observer to the Balkan Conference at Saloniki,The fourth Balkan Conference (Conference Balkanique) was held in Thessaloniki on November 5–12, 1933. and as I felt very tired, eyes especially, when I left here, I took a bit of leave after the Conference was over, and went to the Holy Mountain.

It turned out to be quite different from the accounts I had heard of it. I had been told that the monasteries had masses of Byz. treasures, of the most magnificent quality, and that the frescoes in the Churches were a revelation, without having seen which one couldn’t hope to understand later Byz. art. I had also been told that one had better take one’s own food with one, as what one got there was filthily prepared and indeed dangerous, and that one would be devoured unless one slept in a bug-proof bag. Well—as to the material side, I decided to risk it, and took no food of any kind with me—and I found I fared quite tolerably well. In fact I’ve often fared worse in Hungary; for the Greek monks, at any rate, if they see one in difficulties, never press one to eat, whereas the hospitable provincial Hunk ladies, and sometimes even the Budapestians, make an awful fuss and are insulted unless one consumes large quantities of what they offer one. As for bugs, etc, I took various powders and fumigators, and tho’ it was very warm I didn’t have to use any of them—didn’t get so much as a flea bite. I’m sure the beds are often buggy, but there are, at any rate in the 3 monasteries I slept in, a few clean rooms, and if one gets one of them one is all right.

Then as to the art treasures. I hadn’t really expected much from the frescoes, but reality failed even to come up to that little. They are dark and murky, they sprawl all over the interior of the churches, very few of them are above the level of tolerable industrial bondieuseriesDevotional church ornaments, especially those having little artistic value. in the pre-machine age, and there isn’t one of them that I’d cross the street to look at again. There are a few at the Lavra,The Monastery of Great Lavra, the first monastery built on Mount Athos and founded in 963 by Athanasios the Athonite. dating perhaps from the XIVe, the most pretentious are of the XVIe—unless the Greeks are right in dating PanselinosManuel Panselinos, a painter that has been associated with frescoes and icons of ca. 1300, but from sources that are no earlier than the seventeenth century. See Anthony Cutler, “Panselinos, Manuel,” The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. At Mount Athos, his work has been associated with the artist or artists who painted the Church of the Protaton of Karyes, the katholikon of Vatopedi (including two icons of Saint Demetrios and Saint George), and the katholikon of the Great Lavra (including a portable icon of Saint Demetrios). See also Dimitrios Salpistis and Euthymios Tsigardas, et al., Manuel Panselinos from the Holy Church of the Protaton (Athens: Hagioritiki Estia, 2003). XIVe, which I don’t believe—and most of them have been gone over in the early XIXe. There is only one church which has preserved any wall-mosaic, the Catholikon of Vatopédi,The Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos, Greece, was founded in the later tenth century. The katholikon has mosaics dated to the eleventh or twelfth century. and there isn’t much of that, nor is it of the first quality.

You will be wondering, as you read this, where my great experience comes in. It was two-fold, even three-fold. First, nature; second the survival to the present day of such a marvellous specimen of Eastern monastic life, unchanged in its essentials for a thousand years, and third the painted MSS in some of the Monasteries, particularly the Lavra, where there are 25 or so painted MSS, of which some 8 or 10 are of the first-rate importance, and 3 represent a school, dating in all probability from the Iconoclastic age, which Hayford and I have felt sure existed but of which we have never before been able to find any first-rate representatives, and even humble representatives are very rare—so rare and humble that they have escaped attention so far.

But what a place Athos is! As you know, the Holy Mountain is an autonomous monkish State, depending for spiritual matters on the Patriarch of Constantinople, for temporal on the Greek Republic. It enjoys exemption from customs duties, and from the ordinary taxes. It comprises the whole of the eastern prong of the Chalcidian trident, which is some 50 miles long and only 3–5 broad. This promontory is very low at its base, so low that Xerxes cut a canal through it (I appreciated why Xerxes did this when I tried to go round the cape in a fishing boat); and thereafter develops a backbone which rises, in jagged masses, higher and higher as it proceeds towards the end of the peninsula, where it soars up to just short of 2000 metres in the Holy Mountain Athos itself: a most noble peak.

Mount Athos
Mount Athos

The peninsula is scarred and seamed with ravines, in which torrents brawl over the granite. It is covered with maquis of dwarf thorny oak, arbousier, holly and such like evergreen growths. Here and there are pockets of earth, or even an expanse of hillside, on which big trees grow: chestnuts, oaks, asiatic plane-trees (with the very deeply cut leaves as on Persian miniatures). Near the monasteries, every bit of cultivable ground is taken advantage of: there are olive groves, vineyards, orchards with apple and cherry trees. Few oranges, except in the sheltered courts of the monasteries. Vegetable gardens, of course.

No women, no female animals (en principe)“In principal.” but one sees plenty of cats and kittens, not a few dogs, I saw sows and litters of piglets. There are hens and chickens, not in the monasteries but in farms depending on them. But no cows, sheep or goats. No mares or she-asses. No milk or yoghourt—the latter a very serious deprivation in those climes.

There are no roads for vehicles: only bridle paths, and even those are in a shocking state: one doesn’t know whether they are worse paved or unpaved. And one can rarely seek smoother ground off them, for they are usually cut through maquis so close that one couldn’t advance a yard in an hour.

At this season the arbousiersThe arbousier (Arbutus unedo), a tree with strawberry-like fruit. with which the maquis is studded are hung with their rather strawberry-like fruit, of all shades from canary-yellow to flaming scarlet, and also bear their waxy white flowers: the whole incredibly gay and sparkling in the sunlight. More brilliant in colour than the arbousiers I’ve seen in Spain, S. France or Italy. On the ground there are clumps of wild cyclamen, that most graceful and lovely of flowers. Also a big misty-blue campanula, rather coarse, and humbler flowers.

This is undoubtedly the time of year to go to Athos, for there are plenty of grapes, apples, tomatoes, cabbages and other vegetables to eat, and though the flowers in Spring must be marvellous I can’t believe that anything could be more intoxicating than those arbousiers, with their brilliantly coloured fruit, or more touching than the cyclamen. However, I was told I had great luck, for in Nov. there are often rains and fogs, and I had lovely weather, so warm that when I bathed in the sea I couldnt lie in the sun for more than 10 minutes at a time, though I’m a hardened sun-bather. Late October would perhaps be the safest season.

Such meat as one gets is old goat, and I didn’t even attempt to eat it. And there is hardly any fresh fish—apparently because the water off the shores of Athos is very deep, and theres nothing for fish to feed on. One does get some salt cod, not very good, but it’s better to stick to fruit and vegetables, and now and then an egg. The bread is good—whole wheat bread baked on the spot. The olives, unfortunately, aren’t very good, having huge stones and thick skins, but their flavour is all right.

It appears that holy men started living as anchorites on Athos as early as the IIIe cent., and that their number increased, and also the varieties of forms of association, until in the Xe cent. St. Athanasius the AthoniteAthanasios the Athonite (also known as Athanasios of Trebizond, ca. 920–ca. 1000), a monk who went to Mount Athos in 958 and organized the hermits there into what would become the monastic community of the Great Lavra, which Athanasios built with the financial assistance of the emperor Nikephoros Phokas (ca. 912–969). The monastery was dedicated in 963. induced Nikephoros PhocasNikephoros II Phokas (ca. 912–969), Byzantine emperor between 963 and 969. Very devout, he helped the monk Athanasios found the Great Lavra monastery on Mount Athos. to clear out the lay population altogether, and unified the monastic organisation of the religious, which up to that time had no doubt been chaotic. It was St Athanasius himself who founded the Great Lavra as a model to be followed by the other houses, and to this day the Lavra is to the others—say as Harvard is to other American Universities: not the biggest, probably not the richest, but possessed of a tradition, a dignity which the others don’t have. The Lavra is most beautifully placed on the S.E. flank of the headland, about 200 metres above the sea, with the mountain Athos rising behind it to 1926 metres. The spot was chosen with care and great discernment by St. Athanasius himself, having all due regard to exposure, air-currents, soil and water supply, which is abundant, so much so that it is carried in pipes, by its own impetus, up to the top floor of the monastery and runs there night and day from taps that don’t shut. It turns the oil mill, and could perfectly well generate electricity, if the genius of the Lavra allowed it. As it is, there is only electricity at Vatopédi, which is the richest and most mundane of the monasteries, a regular Athenian Monte-Carlo, where they have an electric light plant worked by imported coal.

The Lavra is surrounded by olive-groves, and gardens on little terraces, and it has depending upon it many farms, little prieurés“Priories.” occupied by from 2 or 3 to 30 or 40 monks who lead the life of Greek peasants.

Monks eating in the refectory (interior of the Trapeza, looking West), St. Panteleimon Monastery, 1923, Thomas Whittemore Papers, ca. 1875-1966, MS.BZ.013, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
Monks eating in the refectory (interior of the Trapeza, looking West), St. Panteleimon Monastery, 1923, Thomas Whittemore Papers, ca. 1875-1966, MS.BZ.013, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

Besides the Lavra, there are 19 other monasteries on the Holy Mountain, and each one has a greater or smaller number of dependencies, skites as they are called. The Lavra itself has about 200 monks, and Vatopédi about as many. The biggest monastery is the Russian, St. Panteléimon, where there were once 1500 and still are nearly 400. All are Greek except 3: St. Panteléimon (Russian), Chilandári (Serbian) and Zográphou (Bulgarian).

Originally, each monastery or foundation by Byz. Emperor, Serb Tsar or whoever the pious founder, received grants of lands, scattered all over the former Byz. empire, the Balkans including Rumania, and Russia, the whole orthodox world, in fact. The Turk respected these pious foundations, and under his rule—which lasted till 1912—the Holy Mountain did pretty well. The World War laid a heavy tax on it: the Russian foundation, which at its zenith represented 1/3 of the whole population of Athos, lost all its property in Russia, and is now, apparently, doomed to disappear, as the Gk. Govt. (partly out of fear of Bolschevik propoganda) does not allow new arrivals from Russia to join the community. Then the various land-reform measures adopted in the various Balkan countries have resulted in the loss of most of the monasteries’ property outside Athos: without compensation in the case of Roumania, Serbia and Bulgaria, and with some compensation in that of Greece.

In these circumstances the Holy Mountain cannot support the numbers of monks it formerly nourished: estimated at some 5000 before the war, of which 30% Russians. At present the number seems (no one knows exactly) to be about 2500, and the total no. of Russians (about 30%=) 800: 400 at St. Panteléimon and 400 in the various skites belonging to it.

Assuming that the Russian community is reduced eventually to a couple of hundred, the monks might be stabilised round 2000, and I should think Athos would be able to support that number by its own resources. It grows all its food except wheat, and it exports enough wood to pay for that. Then there are the offerings of pilgrims and the private property of a certain number of the monks, which I dare say provide for their clothes and boots. They don’t spend anything on razors, shaving soap or shaving brushes, very little on soap and nothing on eau-de-cologne.

There are two types of monastic organisation, both under the general Basilian rule: a) the Cenobiac, each monastery being ruled by one Abbot, whom all have to obey, and b) the idiorythmic (from idios = own and rythmos = rule) ruled by a council of half a dozen members of the community. The Cenobiac rule is much the stricter: the monks are not allowed to keep any private property, whereas the idiorythmic may. Also the rule of life is stricter with the Cenobiac, and the night offices have to be attended by all, except in cases where a dispensation is obtained for some special reason.

All the monasteries except the giddy Vatopédi have stuck to the Old Style Calendar, and all without exception keep the Byzantine time: i.e. the day begins at sunset: zero o’clock changes by a few minutes every day. Matins begin at 5 or 6 o’clock (i.e. our 1 or 2 a.m. at the time of year I was there) and last 3 hours, after which there is Mass. In practice this means that for most of the monks there are two periods of rest: one from after Mass, towards the end of the night, for a few hours, and one from soon after sunset until towards 1 a.m.

Group portrait with Protos and the monastic government, Karyes, Mount Athos, 1923, Thomas Whittemore Papers, ca. 1875–1966, MS.BZ.013, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
Group portrait with Protos and the monastic government, Karyes, Mount Athos, 1923, Thomas Whittemore Papers, ca. 1875–1966, MS.BZ.013, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

The affairs of the Holy Mountain as a whole are managed by a Synod of 20 members, one from each monastery, which resides at the little capital: Karyés, the only approach to a town on Athos, where there is no monastery, but shops, pharmacies and administrative offices, 2 filthy inns, a P.T.T. and a poste de gendarmerie grecque,“Greek police station.” and another of the special gendarmerie of the Holy Mountain, under the orders of the Synod. Karyés is also the seat of the representative of the Greek Govt., who has the title of Governor but depends not on the Ministry of Interior but on that of For. Affairs, and is regarded by the Synod as a diplomatic agent. He seldom remains in office more than 5 or 6 months: the lack of female society, together with the incredible disputes that are continually going on between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Synod, and between individual monasteries and the synod, and between one monastery and another, in which the Governor, Greek tho’ he be, always gets involved, making life so odious that by that time he’d rather lose all prospect of a job than continue to reside on the Holy mountain.

The distances between most of the monasteries look like nothing on the map, but as the Holy Mountain is so mountainous and ravined it takes a long time to cover the ground on mule back, or on foot. Much the best way to visit most of the monasteries, weather permitting, is to take a fishing-boat fitted up with a motor.

I landed, the journey from Saloniki taking one night, at the little port of the Holy Mountain, Daphni, at 4.30 a.m. one fine morning, long before sunrise, happily by a calm sea, for the steamer doesn’t even anchor and one climbs down a rickety ladder to a row-boat, carrying one’s own belongings. The only other visitor to Athos arriving by that boat was the Minister of For. Affairs of Abyssinia,Heruy Welde Sellase (1878–1938), a prolific writer and the minister of foreign affairs of Ethiopia (known often as Abyssinia) between 1930 and 1937. as black as one’s hat, who is a great theologian in his own land and was visiting places mentioned by St. Paul (e.g. Saloniki). His only European language was a little English. We made friends, waited together for dawn, and then set out on mules for Karyés, where every visitor to the Holy Mountain has first of all to present himself to the Synod, and obtain a pass-port which he must show at each Monastery—where he may then expect hospitality. We were sumptuously entertained by the Holy Synod at lunch, and afterwards rode on to Vatopédi, on the other (E) side of the peninsula. The holy men of Athos, seeing me arrive with the black Excellence, very naturally assumed that I was his little friend—a relationship not unknown on Athos—and I had a great time explaining, at each halt, in my Greek, that I did not belong to him. He left Athos next day.

From Vatopédi, where I spent 2 nights, I visited, by mule, EsphigménouThe Esphigmenou monastery, the northernmost of the Mount Athos monasteries, dates to the late tenth century. and ChilandáriHilandar monastery, a Serbian Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos founded in 1198 by the Archbishop Saint Sava and his father, Prince Stefan Nemanja. (Ch = jota). Then I hired a fishing boat, and visited Ivíron,The Holy Monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos was built under the supervision of Ioannes the Iberian and Tornikios between 980 and 983 for Iberian clergy. StavronikítiThe Stavronikita monastery on Mount Athos, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. It was built on a site first used by monks as early as the tenth century, although the monastery was not consecrated until 1536. and on to the Lavra, where I also stayed 2 nights, hoping to be able to double the cape and see a lot of monasteries on the W. coast by boat. However, a big wind came up, and my monkish sailors gave up the attempt to double the cape, wisely I expect. I returned to Ivíron and went from there by mule to St. Panteléimon,Saint Panteleimon monastery, a Russian Orthodox monastery founded on the southwest side of Mount Athos by monks from Kiev Rus in the eleventh century. the Russian monastery, which is very near the landing place (Daphni) where I took boat again for Saloniki.

I was tolerably comfortably at Vatopédi, which however is too bristling and mundane: travelling salesmen and toutsIn British English, a tout is a person who solicits business in an importune manner. and all sorts of queer people are there in numbers, and one has to have meals with them. At Lavra I was the only guest, and I adored the place: such sweetness and gentleness, and such incredible beauty of surroundings. Another time I’d make straight for Lavra, hire the motor boat and keep it in attendance, visit other, monasteries by sea when it was fine, and stay there as long as I could. The journey to the Lavra by land is a terror—about 10 hours by mule from the landing-place.

At the Lavra my quarters were at the top of the guest house. I had the whole floor to myself, and there I was locked in for the night soon after my evening meal, which I took just after dark. Outside my windows a huge balcony, looking right over the Aegean, with Thasos in view, and Samothrace—such an incredible shape that one thinks it’s a cloud at first—and Lemnos, and in certain lights Imbros and Tenedos and the Bythinian mountains in Asia Minor. The beauty of the night was so entrancing that I stayed out on the balcony for a couple of hours, hearing the jackals howl round the monastery walls, and now and then the song of a monk from one of the little priory-farms that are dotted round the Lavra. The day-time I spent on the painted MSS in the Library, and in the Ch. treasure.

In my 6 days on Athos I only saw 8 of the 20 monasteries, but I saw the most important: indeed the Lavra is worth the lot rolled into one, and far more.

2 Dec.

This letter has had to be interrupted several times, but that hasn’t prevented it from growing to an inordinate size. About Athos, I’ll only add this little detail that gives a spice of adventure to one’s journeyings there: there is only one entrance to each monastery, the Great Gate, which is closed every night soon after sunset, and is not opened again until dawn. If one doesn’t reach the monastery where one expects to spend the night before the Great Gate is closed, one is out of luck, and one has to spend the night either in some farm—if one can find one—or with the jackals, who don’t attack human beings, I’m told, unless there happens to be a mad one among them. . .

But think of the joy of roaming over the Holy Mountain without being assailed by the hoot or the smell of any motor, without even the noise of wheels! And the place is safe, as far as I can see. It would be extremely expensive to build roads, so broken is the country, and the roads wouldn’t pay. There’s no even ground where a plane could land—but of course sea-planes might amarrer“Moor.” off its coast.

Russia and Ukraine, July 1935

Excerpt from letter of Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, August 1, 1935. Read the full letter.

I have just emerged, with a loud “ouf” of relief, from the USSR, dearest Mildred, and once again you will have to bear with the half-digested ideas that came surging up when some new and strange experience has befallen me.

Two main impressions:

a) Things are improving there; as compared with the famine years ‘32 and ‘33The famine of 1932–1933 affected the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, leading to the deaths of millions in those areas and severe food insecurity throughout the USSR. there is a great advance, and this year’s crop being a pretty good one, the advance will be maintained, at any rate for a time.

This fact is generally known outside, but what I wasn’t at all prepared for is the apallingly low level, compared with any other country, at which the Union now stands. I doubt if they will be out of danger of collapse from a dozen accidents for many years to come: at the very best it will be generations before they can attain anything which the masses in most European countries, let alone the USA, would at present call a tolerable standard of living, either as to housing, clothing or food. If they get into a European war, all the ground they have painfully gained in the last few years would be lost in a few months, and they’d be back where they were in the worst years of the last decade.

b) The Communist regime is being modified, and an official and military caste is being evolved, whose members enjoy a far better life than does the ordinary worker, whose lot they are supposed to share. So far, the privileges granted to them are not supposed to benefit their children, who are held to start from scratch, like the children of any worker, and only to rise if they show outstanding ability. But it is clear that, brought up in homes that are spacious and comfortable, with servants, and associating with people in prominent positions, they have far greater opportunities than any worker’s son can possess. And I suspect that it is the unavowed object of the regime, now, to breed a caste fit to serve the state in positions of trust, and that the regime is prepared to reward the members of that caste at least as well as their opposite numbers are rewarded in capitalist countries.

So far, there is not the slightest sign of any relaxation of the attitude of uncompromising hostility towards private trading, or private initiative in any kind of business. That may come, but the time is not yet.

I think the foregoing sums up my impressions after a very short stay: 15 days, of which 2 1/2 at Kieff, 7 at Moscow staying with the Brit. Ambassador, Ld. Chilston,Aretas Akers-Douglas, 2nd Viscount Chilston (1876–1947), a British diplomat who was the ambassador to the Soviet Union between 1933 and 1938. and the rest at Leningrad. I met a few soviet officials, the head of the State Export Bank (who is now my colleague on the Fin. CteeFinancial Committee of the League of Nations. of the League), and quantities of museum people—of whom more later. LitvinoffMaxim Maximovich Litvinov (1876–1951), a Russian revolutionary and prominent Soviet diplomat. was away, and of course I didn’t meet Stalin.Joseph Stalin (1878–1953), leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. Few people do, nowadays. He is said to be in terror of his life since the Kyroff assassination,Sergei Mironovich Kirov (1886–1934), a prominent early Bolshevik leader in the Soviet Union. Kirov was shot and killed at his offices at the Smolny Institute on December 1, 1934. and his whereabouts are kept as secret as possible. It appears that he doesn’t sleep 2 consecutive nights in the same place.

He and the other big shots of the regime (first among whom is the head of the army, VoroschiloffKliment Yefremovich Voroshilov (1881–1969), a Soviet military officer, politician, and statesman.) live in great luxury. They have modest little flats in Moscow for show purposes, but superb country places at a convenient distance from town. The diplomats rarely see these places, but one of them, just transferred to another post, was entertained the other day at Voroschiloff’s datcha (country house), and told me that there are few if any European monarchs who live in such splendour. This was music to my ears. Isn’t it marvellous to find a new Genghis KhanGenghis Khan (1162?– 1227), the founder and Great Khan (emperor) of the Mongol Empire. or Timur LerekTimur (1336–1405), historically known as Tamerlane, a Turkic ruler who conquered much of Asia and founded the Timurid dynasty. lording it over Russia?

I thought the people looked, on the whole, least badly dressed and fed at Kieff, most miserable at Leningrad, Moscow coming somewhere between the two. At Kieff one did see a few girls with properly washed and ironed summer dresses. At Moscow hardly any, at Leningrad none. Most of the people look as if their clothes had been worn without interruption for 5 or 6 years—indeed I’m told that very few people have more than one suit, and that that suit has to last on an average 6 years. I didn’t see a neat looking pair of shoes or stockings on a single Russian the whole time I was there. Most of them wear a sort of bedraggled tennis-shoe in summer. If the shoes are leather, they look as if they hadn’t been cleaned for months.

The people, at any rate in summer, are not very dirty—surprisingly not, considering the conditions in which they live. I rode in trains constantly, which are always packed, and I took one journey of 3 hours 3 cl.“Third class.” (“hard”) in a train packed with peasants, on a rainy day. I was surprised by the absence of stench. But there is a sort of smell of poverty, like the old familiar refugee smell with a peculiar Russian quality to it that I can’t describe, all over the place; one never escapes it. And of course, with the exception of the Universities, Museums etc. all the houses are like slum-dwellings, and look fearfully out of repair. It is characteristic of the regime that it should have spent millions and millions on the Moscow Metro, which puts all other similar affairs in the shade, with marble stations each one designed by a different architect, before it has made the slightest dent on the housing question in a town which had 1 million people before 1918 and now has close on 4, lodged in the same space as once lodged the 1 million. The regime says it is going to rebuild Moscow altogether, but with the resources at its disposal, it can’t do more than rebuild one small street a year, and it will take, not 10 years as planned, but at least 100 before Moscow is transformed. In Kieff the buildings look rather better, and less crowded—largely because the capital of the Ukraine has been shifted to Kharkoff, which has dégagéd“Opened up.” Kieff. In Leningrad they look worse than in Moscow, even, and the streets also.

Their rolling stock is in frightful condition, I didn’t see a post-war carriage or truck the whole time I was there, and the permanent way is in desperate need of rebuilding. Railway accidents are of constant occurrence. My hosts begged me not to take the “Red Star”, the fastest train Moscow-Leningrad, because it runs at a pace which every engineer knows means a fearful risk on such a track. The old W-L“Wagon lit (sleeping car).” carriages are roomy and fairly clean, but unless it is raining, travelling is agony because of the dust. The track isn’t tarred, as it is in every other country, and the train in its course raises a very fine dust that gets into one’s nose and throat and gave me violent hay-fever. If one opens a window, one is lost. If one doesn’t, one stifles.

The people themselves I found kindly, and above all supremely indifferent, passive. On that trip I took 3d class, I with my hat (no Russian wears a hat, only caps) my luggage etc evoked not the faintest surprise or interest. No one looked at me or spoke to me or about me. It was pelting outside. In any ether country, the peasants as they get into the train would have showed some satisfaction in escaping from the rain, or cursed the weather, or joked about it. Those people never said a word to each other. They sat like animals, staring in front of them, utterly blank. Are they miserable? Any other people would rebel under their conditions. I don’t believe that on the whole they are materially better off than they were before the war, but the human animal (to say nothing of the Russki) being what he is, it is doubtless an immense alleviation to them to know (or to believe, for it isn’t true) that all their fellow Russkis are equally miserable. And, if I read the look in their eyes right, it won’t revolt them when they learn that some of their leaders are living like Nabobs. They are far too fatalistic, too indolent and helpless and inept to face such a situation with any will to change it. It took them centuries to work up enough indignation to get rid of Czardom. It will doubtless be centuries before they upset the present tyranny. In a few words, I feel that what signifies about the Russians is, not that they had Czars and now are led by Communists, but that they were, are and will be Russians. Probably the vast mass, 99.9% or more, are living on a bare margin, now as then. Plus ça change . . .“The more that changes . . . ” The complete expression is “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose” (The more that changes, the more it remains the same).

All the foreigners I saw there, diplomatists, consuls and others, said much the same thing: the worst of it is that it’s impossible to have any ordinary human relations with the Russians. In Moscow, there are a hundred or so officials who have leave to accept invitations at the Embassies and Legations, and the theatrical managers etc. are among them, but there it stops. The foreigner knows that if he makes an overture, he may be doing the Russian a terrible disservice, may cause him to be sent to Siberia for 10 years. This severance of relations between Russians and foreigners is a point of deliberate policy, of course, like the absolute interdiction of all foreign newspapers. The only foreigners who are given some freedom in this respect (seeing Russians privately) are known Communists or sympathisers. The rest are banned, doubtless because it is feared that they might give an account of affairs in other countries at variance with the official version, which is that conditions are far better in Russia than in Central and Western Europe, or even in the USA.

Now for the things I went to see:

Kieff. I saw the mosaics in St. Sophia.Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, 1037–1299, which has eleventh-century Byzantine mosaics. They are very lovely, very accomplished, between St. Luke in PhocisHosios Loukas, a walled monastery in Boeotia, Greece. The Katholikon (Cathedral church) is decorated with early eleventh-century mosaics. and Serres in Macedonia.Probably a twelfth-century mosaic of Saint Andrew the Apostle from the Old Cathedral, now in the Archaeological Museum of Serres. About 1030. Pure Byzantine, and quite unrestored, except for some plaster and paint here and there.

The church is closed, and I had very great difficulty in getting in. I made friends with the architect in charge, who is a good Byzantinist, named Morgiliewsky.Morgiliewsky (Morgilievsky) has not been identified. I learned afterwards at Moscow that the military wish to demolish the Church, as it’s on a strategical spot which they want to use for their purposes. There seems to be an outcry about it from the Museum people, and perhaps the Church may be saved, but I shouldn’t be surprised if it shared the fate of St. Michael’s,Royall Tyler does not seem to be aware that, although Saint Michael’s Monastery was demolished in the spring of 1935, the cathedral church was not demolished until 1936. The church was reconstructed and opened in 1999 following Ukrainian independence. See Titus D. Hewryk, “The Monastery of St. Michael of the Golden Domes,” in The Lost Architecture of Kyiv (New York: The Ukranian Museum, 1982). Kieff, which has been demolished. Some of St. Michael’s mosaics,Although the removal of the mosaics and frescoes began on June 26, 1934, the work was not completed by the time of demolition in 1936. The mosaics were divided between the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, the State Tretyakov Gallery and Russian Museum in Moscow, and the Pechersk Lavra Museum in Kiev. Those that remained in Kiev were taken to Germany by the Nazis during the Second World War. After the war ended, they were returned to Moscow. Some of the mosaics and frescoes were reinstalled in the reconstructed church by 2000. which are XIe C. Russian imitating Byz., have been preserved and are now in the Lavra Museum.The Kiev Pechersk Lavra Museum, one of the largest Ukrainian museums in Kiev.

Kieff, on the whole, looks like a Polish town—Cracow. All the other churches were done over in the XVII cent. in Polish baroque of Italian derivation. The Lavra contains a lot of icons (I never wish to see another Russian icon again, not even of the best, early ones), and a very few Byz. objects, including 3 Coptic paintings on wood (fr. Sinai).The three early icons are of John the Baptist, Sergius and Bacchus, and the Virgin and Child. Today they are kept in the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts in Kiev.

Moscow. What I chiefly wanted to see was the Chloudoff Psalter,The Chludow Psalter (State Historical Museum, Moscow, MS gr. 129d), an illuminated Byzantine manuscript of the mid-ninth century. Originally kept on Mount Athos, the manuscript was brought to Moscow in 1847 and acquired by the art collector Alexei Ivanovich Chludow (1818–1882). In 1917, the manuscript was transferred to the State Historical Museum, Moscow. and I saw it to my heart’s content, and several other superb Byz. MSS as well, all in the Library of the Historical Museum. Then, there are the icons in the Tretiakoff Gallery,The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. The nucleus of the collection was acquired by Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov (1832–1898) beginning in 1856 and was given to the Russian state in 1892. beginning with the celebrated Vladimirskaya Madonna,The Theotokos of Vladimir icon, tempera and gold leaf on panel, early twelfth century, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. The icon was brought to the city of Vladimir in 1155, whence its name. which is said to have been a present from Constantine MonomachosConstantine IX Monomachos (ca. 1000–1055), the Byzantine emperor from 1042 to 1055. (1046). Much more likely XII-XIII, I think. It’s a ruin and a palimpsest, with a vestige of beauty. Then the late XIV paintings by Theophanes the Greek,Theophanes the Greek (ca. 1340–ca. 1410), a Byzantine Greek artist and icon painter in Russia, was the mentor of the Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev (ca. 1360s–1427 or 1430). pretty good, and well preserved (cleverly cleaned from repaints), and the few greatly vaunted icons by Roubleff,Andrei Rublev (ca. 1360s–1427 or 1430), Russian icon and fresco painter. early XV, who followed Theophanes.

The great work by Roubleff is the Troïtskaya Troïtza,Trinity icon, ca. 1410, tempera and traces of gilding on panel, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. three angels representing the Trinity, and it is a very lovely thing, of indefinable shimmering colours. I went and gazed at it every day while I was in Moscow, and came to the conclusion that its charm is mainly of the nature of the charm of an iridesced glass or Persian pot—fortuitous. As one sees it now, the colours bear no relation to what Roubleff intended, and are commanded by a most lovely egg-shell white, which is really the sub-preparation of the panel and was not intended to show anywhere. The ground was gold, and is now white, with few traces of gold remaining.

The purple, blue, green robes of the angels now show chiefly the white sub-preparation, the other colours merely veiling the white. The effect is perfectly lovely, and Roubleff designed well, but where his colour is well preserved it is heavy and murky, and I’d be prepared to bet heavily that if we could see the panel in anything like its original condition we’d get a bad shock. As for the rest, the Donskaya MadonnaOur Lady of the Don (Donskaya Madonna), tempera and gilding on panel, fourteenth century, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Some believe the icon was painted by Theophanes the Greek (ca. 1340–ca. 1410) in ca. 1382–1395. Tradition holds that the icon was a gift from the Don Cossacks to Dmitry Donskoy (1350–1389), who reigned as Prince of Moscow from 1359 and Grand Prince of Vladimir from 1363 to his death in 1389. The icon later was housed in the Donskoy Monastery, Moscow, founded in 1591. etc., all I can say is that the process of cleaning off the repaints of ages recently applied has sometimes produced lovely and fortuitous effects of veiled colour—and much more rarely there’s a good design. But it’s pretty poor stuff, the Novgorod, Moscow, Vladimir schools—I never want to see another of them.

Then there’s the Museum of Western Art,After the Soviet appropriation of the art collections of Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin (1854–1936) and Ivan Morozov (1871–1921) in 1918, their mansions in Moscow became the State Museum of New Western Art (Государственный Музей нового западного искусствa), sections I and II. In 1928, the two sections were merged and exhibited in the former Morozov mansion. In 1948, the State Museum of New Western Art was closed down by Stalin for ideological reasons. The two collections were randomly divided between the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, and the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. the old MorosoffIvan Morozov (1871–1921), Russian textile manufacturer and art collector. and SchtschukinSergei Ivanovich Shchukin (1854–1936), Russian cloth merchant and art collector. Colls., with wonderful Matisses, Cézannes, Van Goghs, Monets, Derains etc etc, and the Fine Arts Museum,The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts (Музей изобразительных искусств им. А.С. Пушкина), a museum of European art in Moscow. with a very few Byz. things—one extremely fine ivory.Christ Crowing the Emperor Constantine VII, tenth century, ivory, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Of course—the Kremlin!The Moscow Kremlin, a fortified complex that includes five palaces, four cathedrals, and the enclosing wall and towers of the Kremlin. The complex serves as the official residence of the president of Russia. It’s walls look like the Castello Sforzesco walls,Castello Sforzesco, Milan, the former seat and residence of the Duchy of Milan that now houses several museums and art collections. and were built by Italians. The churches in it are hideous XVII-XVIII Russian constructions, and I consider supremely hideous the Ch. of St. BasilSaint Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow also known as the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, Pokrovsky Cathedral, and the Cathedral of Saint Vasily the Blessed. It was built between 1555 and 1561 on the order of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. built just outside the Kremlin by Ivan the Terrible.Ivan IV Vasilyevich (Ivan the Terrible) (1530–1584), the Grand Prince of Moscow (1533–1547) and tsar of all the Russias (1547–1584). Well, one’s negations are never of any value, so I’ll only dwell on things I do like. The Kremlin MuseumThe State Historical and Cultural Museum (Moscow Kremlin), a collection of some sixty thousand objects and art works from the third millennium BCE to the present. really is a marvel. It contains little Byz: a lovely relief of Christ carved in Lapis,Cameo with Christ, Byzantine, tenth–eleventh century, lapis, State Armoury Museum (Moscow Kremlin), Moscow. 2-3 good steatites,These include Saint Demetrius on Horseback, Byzantine, eleventh–twelfth century, steatite, State Armoury Museum (Moscow Kremlin), Moscow, inv. no. 16625. 5 small and not exceptional Byz. enamels,These include Anastasis, Byzantine, twelfth century, enamel and gold, State Armoury Museum (Moscow Kremlin), Moscow. some early Russian enamels imitating Byz. By the way, I saw the enamel pendants, barmes as they are called, which Gourko cited as evidence in favour of the authenticity of the Botkin enamelsEnamels acquired by the Russian Mikhail Petrovich Botkin (1839–1914) in the late nineteenth–early twentieth century and believed at the time to be Byzantine. They are now considered to be forgeries. See Constance Stromberg, “A Technical Study of Three Cloissoné Enamels from the Botkin Collection,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 46 (1988): 25–36. he had in hand. Well, there’s no sort of resemblance. The barmes, which are Russian, are in exclusively opaque, rather dusty colours, and the setting of the cloisons is timid and rather inexpert, but attractive. The Botkin enamels G. had have several translucent tones, garish colours, and the cloison setting is over-confident and vulgar. I can’t imagine what Gourko can see in the way of resemblance between the two groups.

Then, in the Kremlin Museum, there are the treasures of the Czars, their coronation robes, the gifts of plate they received from foreign princes etc. Incredible wealth of magnificent Persian and Anatolian XVI cent. silks and velvets, à l’état de neuf,“In mint condition.” also Venetian and Genoese, a stunning Polish carpet,Polish carpets, carpets woven in Persia in the first half of the seventeenth century. The name derives from the Exposition Universelle of 1878 in Paris, where a number of rugs of this type were exhibited by the Polish prince Wladyslaw Czartoryski (1828–1894). masses of English Tudor silver—far more than the British Isles can show, etc etc. State coaches, marvels. Perhaps the loveliest thing there is Catherine the Great’sCatherine II (Catherine the Great) (1729–1796), empress of Russia (1762–1796). Wedding dress (she was 14),Catherine was married on August 21, 1745, at the age of sixteen, to Peter, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, and later tsar of all the Russias. Catherine’s silver-embroidered wedding dress is in the State Armoury Museum (Moscow Kremlin), Moscow. in cloth of silver, with silver embroideries on it. No colour, made in Paris. It’s like a white lily seen by moonlight, and it took my breath away—a marvel of marvels. Beside it, her coronation dress,Catherine’s coronation was on September 12, 1762. Her coronation dress is in the State Armoury Museum (Moscow Kremlin), Moscow. made in Russia, obvious and heavy.

The Bolsheviks have taken down most of the walls of the Chinese city,Kitay-gorod (“Chinese City”), a business district in Moscow encircled by mostly reconstructed medieval walls. which were lovely (one bit remains), and the main gate of the same. “We had to, because of the traffic.” ??? “Oh, but next year there’ll be a motor-car to every five workers!” Tu parles.“Yeah, right!” That’s the system, destroy first and then wait and see, with the eye of Communist faith.

Incidentally, it’s almost impossible to get leave to see the Kremlin at present; ChilstonAretas Akers-Douglas, 2nd Viscount Chilston (1876–1947), a British diplomat who was the ambassador to the Soviet Union between 1933 and 1938. only succeeded in getting me in because he started trying a fortnight in advance. The thousands of USA tourists, who have come on the promise of Intourist blares: “Come to Moscow and see the Kremlin”, are dashed when they find they can only see it from outside. They go and expostulate to Bill Bullitt,William Christian Bullitt Jr. (1891–1967), an American diplomat, journalist, and novelist, was the first U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union (1933–1936). whom I saw pacifying droves of them with champagne. He can’t get them admitted.

Leningrad. The HermitageThe State Hermitage Museum, an art museum in Saint Petersburg, was founded as the Winter Palace by Catherine the Great in 1764 and opened as a museum in 1852. is the first, indeed only Museum of the world for Sassanian and Post-Sassanian, and with some qualifications in favour of Budapest, for Scythian. Then there’s the VIe and VIIe cent. Byz. silver, also unrivalled. Apart from that, very little Byz. Very good VIe Consular diptychs and pyxes, and some rather poor XII-XIII-XIV ivories. One lovely little miniature mosaic.Possibly Saint Theodore Stratelatos, Byzantine, early fourteenth century, miniature mosaic, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Very little in the way of textiles.

Orbelli [sic],Joseph Orbeli (1887–1961), a Soviet medievalist and academician of Armenian descent, specialized in the medieval history of the southern Caucasus and administered the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg between 1934 and 1951. who is now director (WaldhauerOskar Waldhauer (1883–1935), a German classical archaeologist who became head of the Department of Antiquities of the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, in 1918. died last winter, after 35 years of service, and his widow was sent to Siberia the day of the funeral, no one knows why)—Orbelli received me like a Prince, and he and MatzulevitchLeonid Antonovich Matzulevich (1886–1959), a Russian Byzantine art historian.—I only saw these people in the Museum, having been warned not to attempt to see them outside, or to mention any topic to them other than archaeology—and the girls (not lovely, but full of good will) allowed me to see and handle everything, including the Scythian gold. They closed the gold-room to the public, locked the door, opened the cases and let me go to it. The Sassanian and Byz. silver was all stored away in connexion with the preparations for the Iranian Art Congress and Exhibition,The Third International Congress and Exhibition of Iranian Art and Archaeology, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, September 1935. See D. Talbot Rice, “The Third International Congress and Exhibition of Iranian Art and Archaeology, Saint Petersburg, 1935” Ars Islamica 3, no. 1 (1936): 99–109, 111. but they had it all out for me to see and examine, likewise all their Byz. and Coptic stuff. The latter is pretty important—in fact, (in Coptic) I think they have the best collection after Lyon and the V and A. No very big important pieces, but a very good representative coll. for study, including some unica, and running to 3000 pieces.

Of course I needn’t say anything about the Scythian and Greco-Scyth. gold, or about the Sassanian, tho’ in spite of all one has read about it one is astounded by the wealth and variety of their collection. They’ve added lots of Sass. silver lately, and they pay big prices for it: £3-4000 for a silver plate. I kick myself for having sold mineRoyall Tyler’s Sasanian silver object has not been identified. for £1,800. Still, those were gold pounds, and anyway, what’s the good repining? They have one thing I was quite unprepared for: a big (about 1. X 0.40 m.) fragmentThis textile has not been identified. of a wool and linen tapestry, with a pheasant in a circle, much like the pheasants on the Aix-la-Chapelle silk fragments and quite Sassanian in style, found in N. Caucasus. This is the first wool tapestry, of the Coptic technique I’ve seen which convinces me as being really Sass., and now I’ve seen it I’m more than ever sure that the pieces found in Egypt, with designs—elements of which are imitated from Sass. models, are not Sass. but Coptic. The taste in colour and arrangement of this Caucasus piece are entirely different, and genuinely Sass., tho’ of course the technique is one which the Sassanians learned in Egypt from the Copto-Byzantines.

The Pasirik findThe Pazyryk find consists of the contents of Iron Age, Scythian-type tombs (kurgans) found in the Pazyryk Valley in the Altai Mountains, Siberia; the pieces date between the sixth and third centuries BCE. A wide array of finds come from the Pazyryk tombs, including organic objects such as felt hangings, Chinese silk, one of the earliest known pile carpets, horses in elaborate trappings, wooden furniture, and other household goods. These finds were preserved when water entered the tombs in antiquity and froze, encasing the burial goods in ice, which remained frozen in the permafrost until they were excavated. is not yet exhibited, but it is in course of arrangement and I saw the most of it. You probably know about it. An expedition under Grieschnov [sic],Mikhail Petrovich Griaznov 1902–1984), Russian historian and archaeologist who excavated the Pazyryk kurgans in 1929. in 1929, found in the Altai a Scythian prince’s grave of the 4e cent. B.C. The prince’s own coffin—a hollowed out tree trunk—had been robbed—perhaps some of the old Siberian finds now in the Gold Room came from there. But the finders had neglected half a dozen bodies of horses that lay round about the prince’s coffin, on ice, literally, for it’s high up in the Altai and ice there is everlasting, so that the bodies were quite well preserved. And so were all their trappings, harnesses, saddles and saddle cloths with elaborate applications in the Scythian animal style, and above all the artificial antlers, of wood and leather and covered with gold, on their heads. The theory is that the Scyths had used stags as mounts before they used horses, and that the artificial antlers—and their love of the stag in art—are due to the ancient memory of the services the stag had rendered. Grieschnov brought back, in a refrigerator car, one complete horse, and the heads of several others, with all the trappings, and they have now been chemically treated and mounted, with the essential amount of straightening out and consolidation, as they were of course badly crushed in the tomb. The bits have side pieces of wood, carved in the form of stags, and there are quantities of other motives—antilopes, tigers etc etc., many of them covered with gold. The effect of the whole is overpowering, and I really had to steady myself on Matzulevitch’s arm when the vision first burst upon me. Fettich will go quite out of his mind when he sees it.

Feverish preparations are going on for the Iranian Art Exhibition and Congress. The Congress is to start on Sept. 10e. I detest Congresses, and don’t at all regret being unable to come to this one. Also, I suspect that the Exhibition won’t be anything like ready by Sept. 10. But it is intended to last till the end of the year, and it is going to be a wonder of wonders, and a unique opportunity for seeing stuff from the Museums all over Russia. Much of the stuff is already in Leningrad and I saw it, but more is coming, and also from Persia. The French are sending (so I was told in Leningrad) all the Sass. silver from the CDM—and the coupe de Chosroes!!!The Cup of Khosrow I (Cup of Salomon), Sasanian, sixth century, gold, rock crystal, garnet, and green glass, Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

I hope the foregoing will upset you as it has me, and make you determine to see that Exhibition, which you might do in Dec., if you come over to Europe in Nov. And perhaps I might go there with you! It’s a crazy idea of mine, and of course a dozen things might prevent me. But anyway, I can’t bear the idea of your not seeing those things, including Moscow.

I’ve passed over Codex Petropolitanus,Codex Petropolitanus, an incomplete, illuminated Byzantine uncial gospel book, ninth century, National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg, Gr. 34 (Gregory/Aland 041). which I examined thoroughly in the Leningrad Public Library,The National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, which was known as the Imperial Public Library from 1795 to 1917, the Russian Public Library from 1917 to 1925, and the State Public Library from 1925 to 1992. and the pictures in the Hermitage, which I saw rather hastily. The RembrandtsRembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–1669), a Dutch Baroque painter. are I think the best single Collection of R. I’ve ever seen anywhere, and the DanaeRembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Danae, 1636, oil on canvas. Catherine the Great acquired the painting in 1772 from the Baron Crozat Collection. a marvel—quite early, (1636) and with some feeling of VermeerJohannes (Jan) Vermeer (1632–1675), a Dutch Baroque genre painter. about it in spite of its life size scale, but a pure wonder. RubensSir Peter Paul Rubens(1577–1640), a Flemish Baroque painter. also—the Perseus and AndromedaPeter Paul Rubens, Perseus and Andromeda, ca. 1620–1621, oil on canvas, The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. perhaps the most brilliant achievement of his earlier manner—jewel like, fresh as dew. And there are half a dozen immortal sketches by him—esp. one for a big picture “James I directing the education of his son, Prince Charles”.Peter Paul Rubens, The Uniting of Great Britain, ca. 1632–1633, oil on panel, The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. And an exquisite portrait of a fair-headed girl,Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of the Lady-in-Waiting of the Infanta Isabella, 1620s, oil on panel, The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. a lady in waiting of the Archduchess Isabel. Rubens was in love with that girl, I’m sure.

Masses of delightful lesser Dutch Masters, incredibly good pictures by painters who are usually dull: Teniers,Either David Teniers the Elder (1582–1649) or David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690), Flemish Baroque painters. Wouwerman,Philips Wouwerman (also Wouwermans) (baptized 1619– 1668), a Dutch Baroque painter. PynackerAdam Christiaensz Pynacker (or Pijnacker) (1622–1673), a Dutch Baroque painter.—a landscapePossibly Adam Pynacker, Barges on a River, ca. 1654, oil on canvas, The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. by Pynacker that I think I shall never forget, so lovely it is. The Italian and Spanish pictures on the whole rather dull, but with notable exceptions, and lots of modern French, though less than in Moscow.

And now this capital of Estonia—a most charming little capital of 150,000 inhabitants, with its medieval walls and towers wonderfully preserved, lots of agreeable buildings of all periods, and its cleanly, cheerful, honest, self-respecting people, few of them rich and hardly any of them destitute. So comforting and reassuring, after that nightmare of the USSR.

I can well imagine how impressionable visitors to the USSR may be swept off their feet by enthusiasm: the Russians can pull off a stunt like the Moscow Metro, or their colossal communist demonstrations, or their new heavy industry. But the horrible conditions in which the whole population—except the soldiers and the big shots—is living is to me the main fact about the regime, and I see no prospect of there being any very great progress there for a long time to come. The housing problem alone is far beyond their resources to deal with, and practically nothing has been done about it for over 20 years.

Uncovering of the Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, October 1936

Excerpt from letter of Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 11, 1936. Read the full letter.

I sent you a post card the other day from CP,Constantinople. dearest Mildred; I hope you get it. Now, I can wait no longer to tell you what I found there.

First of all, St. SophiaHagia Sophia, the former Early Byzantine basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Built in 537, it served as the seat of the patriarch of Constantinople until 1453 and as a mosque from 1453 until 1931. It was secularized and opened as a museum in 1935. is no longer a mosque,The order to convert the mosque into a museum was issued on August 24, 1934. thank God: Those horrible great round green shields with Koranic inscriptions on them that defaced the pendentives of the main cupola have been taken down. The carpets which, laid in the sense of the Mihrab (and not in the axis of the building), distracted the eye and gave the place a circus-tent look, have been removed, revealing the original pavement of cipollino and verde antico. This is also an immense improvement. And little by little it may be hoped that all the Moslem junk, Mihrab, this, that and the other, will go, including the pastiche pavement laid askew across the entrance to the E. end (so as to be in proper relation to the Mihrab). But of course they have to go slow, as there are many ill-wishers. Another danger, at times serious, is that the church shd. be turned into a museum to the extent of being filled with show-cases and God knows what, reconstruction of dynosaurs and stuffed crocodiles, for choice.The initial plan for the museum was to have display vitrines with Byzantine and Ottoman objects. When it opened, however, there were no exhibits. See Robert S. Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument (Chicago, 2004), 155–86. The Turk is apt to shake his head and say that the building, now that it’s not a mosque, is dead, and that it must be used for some living purpose. Halil bey,Halil Edhem Bey (Halil Edhem Eldem) (1861–1938), a Turkish archaeologist, who in 1892 became the second director and later, in 1910, the director general of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum until his retirement in 1931. formerly head of the Museum and now the sort of local Koechlin, takes this line. Fortunately, Aziz bey,Aziz Ogan (Aziz Ogan Bey) (1888–1956), the director of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum between 1931 and 1954. the present head of the Museum, doesn’t. So there’s hope.

Restoration, uncovering X, after cleaning but still with a few patches of plaster left untouched at bottom, November 14, 1933, MS.BZ.004-03-01-02-023-163, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
Restoration, uncovering X, after cleaning but still with a few patches of plaster left untouched at bottom, November 14, 1933, MS.BZ.004-03-01-02-023-163, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

And now for the mosaics!On June 7, 1931, Thomas Whittemore, director of the Byzantine Institute, received permission from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (ca. 1881–1938) to uncover the Byzantine mosaics of Hagia Sophia. Whittemore and his team uncovered fragments of sixteen figural mosaics in the vault southwest of the gallery. When Hagia Sophia was secularized in 1934, Whittemore was able to uncover additional mosaics, in work that continued over the next eighteen years. See Robert S. Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument (Chicago, 2004), 155–86. From what has been discovered by now, it is certain that the original plan, under Justinian, didn’t provide for any figure mosaics at all. There were only crosses and formal (most of them textile) patterns. As you’ll have realised from the photos, of the interior, the space available for mosaics isn’t large in relation to the building, for all the interior, up to the spring of the semi-domes, is wainscoted in marbles. Thus, apart from the vaults, the gallery vaults and walls and those of the narthex, the mosaic surfaces are limited to the cupola and its pendentives, the semi-domes, the soffits of the huge main arches, and the spaces, between the windows (3 tiers of them), under the N and S main arches supporting the cupola (see plans in Whittemore’s reports). Here, there is plenty of figure mosaic, all of it post-iconoclastic-struggle, of course. Much of this mosaic was sketched by SalzenbergWilhelm Salzenberg (1803–1887), a German architect who surveyed Hagia Sophia in 1851–1852. a century ago, when the FossatiGaspare Fossati (1809–1883) and Giuseppe Fossati (1822–1891), brothers and Swiss architects who undertook renovations in Hagia Sophia in 1847–1849. carried out their restoration and uncovered as much as they could (only to cover it up again), but not all. Whittemore has already found a lot unknown to Salzenberg.

Ensemble from scaffold, 1932, MS.BZ.004-03-01-02-004-078, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
Ensemble from scaffold, 1932, MS.BZ.004-03-01-02-004-078, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

Whittemore’s two published reports, which you’ve seen, deal with the vestibule and the narthex. In the vestibule, there is recul“Distance.” enough to see the composition of the Virgin and the two Emperors,Virgin and Child with Emperors Justinian I and Constantine I, mosaic at the southwestern entrance tympanum, tenth century, Hagia Sophia. over the door leading into the narthex, and the light is good. The prostrate Emperor (Leo VI, late IXe cent.) before ChristChrist and Leo VI the Wise (or Constantine VII Porphyrogennitos), mosaic at the imperial gate tympanum, late ninth or early tenth century, Hagia Sophia. in the lunette over the central one of the 9 doors leading from the narthex into the interior, is not so fortunate. The lunette is too high, too narrow the narthex, relatively, for this picture. Only by retreating through the door leading into the outer narthex (exonarthex), can one see it, pretty well. I felt that the artist had been cramped by the position and size of the lunette to be filled by the composition desired by Leo the Sage (who like many sages, was a very foolish person). The artist made up for all this by pulling off a most astonishing symphony, or better synchromy, in pale buffs and golds and dark silvery greens—but there it is: the original Justinian cross, when all is said and done, was better adapted to the space.

The narthex, facing W. whence much rain comes, has suffered, in the vaults especially, and the mosaic there is pretty patchy (also in the ground of the Leo VI composition), a lot of the Fossati paint remaining to fill up holes.

Inside the church, aside from some very beautiful textile-pattern mosaics which have been freed, W. has concentrated on the S. gallery and the E. semi-dome. Here he has made magnificent discoveries. You’ve perhaps seen photos, of some of them, but I’ll go ahead just the same: Imperial portraits. Deesis group and Virgin and Child.

The Imp. portraits are on the E. wall of the S. gallery. Two groups of them: 1) Constantine X Monomachos and his Empress Zoë, with Christ between them, all life size or a trifle over;Christ and Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe, mosaic on the eastern wall of the southern gallery, eleventh century, Hagia Sophia. 2) John II (καλοριάννυς = Handsome Jack) with his spouse IreneVirgin and Child and Emperor John II Komnenos and Empress Irene, mosaic on the eastern wall of the southern gallery, ca. 1122, Hagia Sophia. (a Hungarian princess, and a regular butter-blond, with a fat Gretchen-likeGretchen, a fictional character from Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). mug, and two long braids of yellow hair like MelbaDame Nellie Melba (1861–1931), an Australian operatic soprano. doing GretchenNellie Melba frequently sang the role of Marguerite (Gretchen) in Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, which she had studied under the supervision of the composer.) the Virgin between them and, L. of Irene, their son Alexios.Alexios Komnenos, mosaic on the eastern wall of the southern gallery, ca. 1122, Hagia Sophia.

Group 1) has been marred by having all three faces redone: I can’t imagine why. It must have been done not very long after the original work. Group 2) is very well preserved—down to the waist, about; for below the waist all the cubes of these groups (including the Deesis) had evidently been poked out by Turkish guardians to give as souvenirs to visitors.

The Deesis,Deësis (Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist), mosaic on the imperial enclosure of the south gallery, ca. 1261, Hagia Sophia. also in the S. Gallery, has rather less left than the others, but it is a marvel of beauty—all 3 heads: the Christ, the Virgin and St. John Baptist. This is by far the most beautiful mosaic I’ve ever seen, and it shows where Daphni comes from, and the Sicilian mosaics. Its perfection and accomplishment, in drawing, colour and cube-setting, are amazing. Looking at it, I felt that if Rubens could have seen it, he’d have sat up and sneezed—It has all his lightness of touch and of colour, richness of impasto. Until one has seen that, one doesn’t know what XI cent. mosaic is. Even the PródromosGreek for “the forerunner.” (St. John B.) at DaphniBaptism of Chist, squinch mosaic, second half eleventh century, Daphni Monastery. pales a bit before this Pródromos—tho’ it’s honourably near, and very grand.

(I don’t know if I told you in my card, but I went to CP via Saloniki,The fourteenth-century Byzantine church of the Holy Apostles in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. Hosios LoukasThe mid-tenth-century Byzantine church of the Theotokos (Panagia) in the monastery of Hosios Loukas in Boeotia, Greece. and Daphni,The eleventh-century Byzantine monastery of Daphni in Athens, Greece. and end July I saw PalermoThe twelfth-century Norman-Byzantine church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (the Martorana). and Cefalú,The twelfth-century Norman-Byzantine cathedral of Cefalù. so I had these things in my eye).

The VirginVirgin and Child (Theotokos), apse mosaic, ca. 867, Hagia Sophia. in the E. semi-dome is on a colossal scale—I suppose some 6 metres tall—but I’m not good at sight measurements. She is a grand vision, seated on her throne, with the Child in her lap. When one is on the face of the mosaic—it was still being worked on when I was there one sees that the cubes forming her robes are all of varying shades of green (a surprising colour for her to wear) descending to almost black. But when one retreats as far as the scaffolding allows one, (one can’t see her at all from the floor at present) her robe becomes blue: A full marine blue. The Child’s is gold, with brown shadings. A (to me) unaccountable detail: the cushion the Virgin is seated on is green, with yellow lights. When one is on the mosaic, the green in the cushion seems to be of the same green as much of that in the robe. Well, when one goes back, and the robe becomes blue, the cushion stays green! Is it kept green by the yellow lights? Is the robe turned blue by the apparently black (blue-black perhaps) shadings?

The semi-dome that carried this Virgin collapsed towards the middle of the XIVe Cent., was promptly rebuilt and the present mosaic was executed about 1350,The apse mosaic is now traditionally dated ca. 867, having been inaugurated on March 29, 867, by the Patriarch Photius (ca. 810–893). with the aid, as Whittemore says he has contemporary literary evidence to show, of subscriptions collected in Russia. It is clear that the present mosaic reproduced as closely as possible that which was lost when the semi-dome fell—the earlier one is known to have been very celebrated, and many copies of it on a small scale no doubt existed. The artists seem to have tried to work in a style several centuries earlier than that of the XIVe, which is well-known from the CP mosaics of that date in the Chora (Kahrié Djami)The eleventh-century church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Kariye Camii), Istanbul. and the Pammacháristos (Fetieh Djami)The eleventh- or twelfth-century Byzantine Pammakaristos church (church of the Thotokos Pammakaristos) (Fethiye Camii), Istanbul. and the Apostles at Saloniki. And with much success, though on close inspection the system of drapery gives the thing away. Iconographically, they were faultless. Morey,American art historian Charles Rufus Morey (1877–1955) was a professor and chairman of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University between 1924 and 1945. He was best known for his expertise in medieval art and his Index of Christian Art. of Princeton, was at CP just before me. W. took him up and showed him the E. semi-dome Virgin—without recalling the collapse of that semi-dome in the XIVe—Morey, on seeing it, said “Yes, certainly Xe cent.; perhaps even IXe.” Which is a neat illustration of the limitations of the iconographic approach to Byzantine art.

By the way, this story—and everything else in this letter—is highly confidential. W. begged me to regard all I saw as confidential. I can’t believe he meant it literally, but you know him and can judge. I pass the seal of secrecy on to you.

Well, the foregoing is what has been uncovered so far, in figure mosaics.

Archangel, south, entire figure seen through scaffold, 1938, MS.BZ.004-03-01-02-016-029, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
Archangel, south, entire figure seen through scaffold, 1938, MS.BZ.004-03-01-02-016-029, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

W. is now working on a huge archangel,Archangel Gabriel, mosaic on the south side of the bema of the apse, ninth century, Hagia Sophia. on the S. face of the arch in front of the E. semi-dome. On the same scale as the Virgin, he was one of her two guards. Whether his colleague, on the N. face, is preserved or not W. doesn’t yet know.The partially preserved Archangel Michael mosaic on north side of the bema of the apse at Hagia Sophia. But the one on the S. face is very well preserved indeed: enough tests have been made to establish that. And he may be of the early Macedonian period: X or even IX—after 842,The Second Iconoclasm period, between 814 and 842. when images were finally restored. You may imagine with what thirst I await the revelation.

Then, there’s a PentecostThis mosaic probably was destroyed in the Istanbul earthquake of June 1894.—the 12 Apostles with the Holy Ghost descending on them, in the S. gallery vault, near the Deesis—and God knows what all. The whole thing is going to be an incredible revelation of Byz. art of the capital itself, at the highest power, during the Macedonian period, with Comnenian and Paleologue stuff as well. Its importance for the history of Byz. art is, I should almost venture to say, greater for the post-iconoclastic periods than that of all the mosaics known hitherto. Indeed, I don’t think this statement is an exaggeration. Of course, there are schools which, as far as one can tell at present, don’t seem to be represented at S. Sophia, where only art of the most accomplished, metropolitan, courtly, polished, was admitted. There’s probably nothing there in the vein of S. Sophia at SalonikiThe eighth-century Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki.—and I adore those rather wild, fauve, Matisse-like apostles and angels, so remote from the courtly, but so enchanting. Nor like Hosios Loukas in Phocis. But S. Sophia CP represents the central Byz. stream, there’s no doubt about that, and all the rest is more or less excentric. The discovery of the CP mosaics is by far the most important event in the whole annals of Byz. studies.

Whittemore is doing his work well. Happily, the fabric of S. Sophia—barring earthquakes and explosions—gives rise to no anxiety. If W. had run into the necessity of rebuilding piers and arches and vaults, as MarangoniLuigi Marangoni (1872–1950), an Italian architect and the proto (custodian) of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. See Otto Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice: History, Architecture, Sculpture (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1960), 198. has had to do in Venice, he wouldn’t have been able to apply his technique, and as he isn’t an architect he presumably would have had to pass. But given the state of the S. Sophia structure, his technique is excellent—couldn’t be better, and he is applying it with increasing skill and resourcefulness as he gains experience.

He has had most trouble with the mosaics on which the Fossati worked most—i.e. those in the narthex, and they were the first he tried his hand on. W. at any rate started on the principle that the Fossati campaign was part of the history of S. Sophia, and should be preserved where it does not obscure original Byz. work. Thus, in the Leo VI lunette, where the Fossati filled up a hole with plaster and then painted on it in imitation of mosaic, or reset cubes (the whole thing was afterwards covered up with plaster and paint, of course) W. has left the Fossati daubs, and there are not a few of them in the field of the Leo VI group, producing a disconcertingly patchy impression. I think he’d have done better to remove all the Fossati stuff, and to have reduced the plaster to a neutral tone by the excellent expedient, which he applies elsewhere, of rubbing with cob-web: as he says, the colour of Time.

I conveyed this criticism gently to W., and he said that if he’d known, when he started, all he knows now, he’d very likely have done this. There’s no harm done, and he can still do it—it wouldn’t be a big job—in the Leo VI lunette, The formal designs in the Narthex vault, which have been treated in the same way, present a bigger problem (in time), and one that is much less urgent than the prosecution of the work on the figure mosaics inside the Church. Here, on those he has uncovered so far, there’s no Fossati daubing at all. The Fossati’s never found these mosaics. And there may be none on any of the inside figure compositions. W. proceeds, first to consolidate, and then to clean. In order to consolidate, however, he has to find out what there is left, and thus has to remove the oil paint with which the Fossati covered all the surfaces that are not marble-sheathed, first of all. He does this, and all the subsequent cleaning, by mechanical means, without acid or liquid, even water, thus avoiding any running of the Fossati paint, in solution, into the interstices between the cubes. He just works away with a variety of tools, scraping like a dentist cleaning teeth.

Of course the oil paint can be chipped off without the infinite care that has to be lavished when the light plaster couche under it is removed. But even the removal of the oil paint is a very long business. When he has got it off, he sees the cubes (tho’ not their colour) and can feel, with his hand, what state the intonaco that bears them is in. Very often it has blistered off the brick wall, is just hanging like blistered wallpaper, and has to be consolidated before anything further is done.

He proceeds, first of all, to anchor the mosaic island, and so to prevent it from shifting on the wall, it or any part of it. He does this by surrounding the mosaic with a zone of new plaster, full of copper clamps which he runs into the brick (or stone) of the wall, the heads being embedded in the plaster. When this has been done, he consolidates the mosaic itself by means of smaller copper clamps, of hairpin shape with the two ends bent at right angles. All over the mosaic, in places where a cube or two are missing, he inserts these clamps, running them through the intonaco (which carries the mosaic) and a couple of inches into the wall behind. All that appears on the surface are the bent-over ends—usually imbedded in new plaster filling old holes, or if the chink is very small, the heads are left visible, and as they are about the size of a small cube they can only be distinguished when one is right on the face of the mosaic.

The mosaic has thus been pinned securely onto its wall, and at the original level (which is necessarily disturbed when new cement is squirted in to bind the blistering intonaco to the wall, as at Ravenna). And this level, with its intentional irregularities, is a component part of the mosaic.

Then starts the endless business of cleaning off the coating of plaster, done as with the paint by exclusively mechanical means, and dry: no acids, no liquid. Some 25 different tools, of metal, wood, glass, wire-brushes and air-syringes to blow the dust out of crannies, so that the intonaco’s own colour may show, also. Where cubes are wobbly, they have to be fixed with new intonaco, which is then reduced to neutral tone (like the holes that have to be plugged) with cob-web. W.’s men, English and Americans, the best of them lent from the Brit. Mus. and the Office of Works, proceed with the greatest care, and W.’s eye is on them all the time. The results, especially where there is no Fossati problem, appear to me to be admirable. He never replaces a cube.

Happily, the Turks regarded these mosaics as heretical and to be covered up, certainly, but with no little awe. When covering them, they took care not to injure them. The Moslem of course regards Christ as a prophet, and the Virgin, Bibi Miriam, as a very great celestial personage—also the angels. When it comes to Christian Saints, he might be less respectful, but even here he’d tread warily, lest he might incur the wrath of some malevolent and puissant being. So there was, in all probability, no Turkish destruction of these mosaics. The weather, esp. in the W. and N. galleries, caused enormous losses—huge surfaces of mosaics just having fallen out—and of course the Turk did nothing to hinder the process until the Fossatis were called in a century ago. But he didn’t destroy wilfully except what the cube-hunting visitors, and guardians supplying them, did in the galleries, and even there they seem to have spared the faces, and equally important, he didn’t try to restore, as the Italians have done.

It seems too good to be true that there is such a mass of the noblest mosaics ever created, waiting there to be revealed. What irony that this should be at the moment when El Greco’s masterpieces at Toledo are reported missing!See Sibilla Skidelsky, “Famous El Greco Work Among Missing Spanish Art Treasures, ‘The Burial of Count Orgaz’ Lost After Toledo’s Fall,” The Washington Post, October 25, 1936. All this to be had, if W. finds the money to proceed. And I needn’t say that in the whole field of art, there’s nothing that seems to me to touch this work, for importance, and for the unutterable joy these things give when they are uncovered.

W. was very kind to me, allowed me to spend all the time I wanted, during the 4 days I spent at CP., on the scaffoldings, to see his men work, talk with them, examine everything. He gave me no photos—and I, knowing my W., asked him for none, except of things he has already published. I think, and certainly hope, we’ve found a modus vivendi. Of course I’ll do all I can to support and help him—the work is of such compelling splendour that there can be no question of sparing any trouble to that end—and I only wish I could be sure of doing something effective. All I ask of him is to give me photos, of everything he publishes as soon as he has published it. He has promised he’ll do this.

The object of this letter, besides relieving my feelings at not having had you there, is to put it to you that when you next come to Europe . . . I’ll say no more.