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Nancy Ševčenko

Oral History Interview with Nancy Ševčenko, undertaken via Zoom by Nikos D. Kontogiannis and Viviana Lu on July 27, 2023. At Dumbarton Oaks, Nancy Ševčenko was a Junior Fellow (1965-1966), Senior Research Associate for Byzantine Art (1990–1991), and Visiting Scholar (2010-2011, 2018).

VL: To start off, this is Viviana Lu. I’m a summer intern in Byzantine Studies Oral History, and I'm here with Nancy Ševčenko, and Nikos Kontogiannis, who is the director of Byzantine Studies. Thank you so much for being here. Our first question is, how did you first come to know about Dumbarton Oaks, and what were your initial impressions of the institution the first time you heard about it?

NS: I’m trying to remember the dates, but I knew Susan Boyd, who became the curator there. I knew her at college, and so, while I was doing other things, she took up a job here. I’m not quite sure whether she was there when I first came to Dumbarton Oaks, but I always stayed with her when I could, when I came down to Washington. So I knew a lot about Dumbarton Oaks from that. But it was really the fact that Ihor Ševčenko, who was teaching at Columbia at the time, took some of us graduate students down for a spring symposium. I don’t remember at all what the subject was, but I remember the spring. I mean, it was heady to come to Washington, even from New York at that point. The azaleas were all out. We sat out on those tables and we were served just gorgeous food. And everybody fought for the tables in the shade, and they still do, I think. Anyway, it was just a total heady experience, because it was so fancy, and it was so elegant. And you just didn’t know where you were. And you were just a really minor student at that point. So it was overwhelming, really.

And then it was a sheer accident for me that I ended up as a Junior Fellow, because I’d gone back to Columbia to start a PhD. I applied to the Gennadeion in Athens and I applied to Dumbarton Oaks for fellowships. And I really wanted to go to Athens, and I was determined to go to Athens, and Dumbarton Oaks was a sort of backup. As it turned out, a Byzantinist called Peter Charanis was in charge, or one of the people in charge, of reading the applications for the Gennadeion. And he had a heart attack, and all the applications piled up and were just sitting in one corner of his room while he was in the hospital, so I never heard from the Gennadeion, and I did hear from Dumbarton Oaks, and I thought, well, I better take it, because I have no idea what's happening in Athens. I got married at the end of the year, everything then brought me into this Dumbarton Oaks fold after that. It could have been very different.

NK: So that was the first time, and your initial impression, which is very valuable, because I think all of us see the gardens and the lovely atmosphere. So you have lived here many times, on many occasions. Can you tell us a little bit about what your average looked like? What are the things that you were doing, anything you can remember? Which must be different, I’m sure.

NS: Right, of course. And as you say about the people that make the changes, people change with it, too. And there were a lot of people at Dumbarton Oaks who were there year after year after year after year. So they were the memory, but they also were the resistance to change.

I can’t ever say what an ordinary day was, really, because you went to the library — I lived in the Fellows Building, what is it called now?

NK: It’s not the Guest House.

NS: No, is it the Guest House? The one just down the road, I mean, with the wisteria. 

NK: Yes, Guest House.

NS: Yeah, anyway, Fellows Building it was. And so everybody ate lunch there. The people who were staying there, which was the Junior Fellows, and then visiting big people, had dinner there as well. I remember sitting with — what was his first name? Bellinger, Mr. [Alfred] and Mrs. [Louisa] Bellinger. He was a numismatist, and with [Carl Hermann] Kraeling, who was the Dura-Europos guy. And they were very old and we were very young, and they started talking about the war, I remember, and it took a while for us to realize this was World War I they were talking about. So there was that sort of split. And I was there that year with Michael Hendy, which was wonderful. We were really good friends. There were other people who were married that we didn’t see that much, but there were three of us living there, so that was our daily routine. Everybody came at lunch. It was a reduced set of 20 year olds, and, I don’t know what they were, 70, 80 year olds at that point. 

So you just, you went to the library and there wasn’t a lot, really, in terms of a ritual of the day. There were no research reports. You just sort of did your work. And then, of course, everything changed later. I wasn’t any longer a Fellow later. It depended on what status I had at the time, and I came back as a visitor a couple of times, and then sometimes as a speaker.

NK: I know it’s very difficult to put all the memories in a whole thing. So you came first, it was as a Junior Fellow.

NS: That was my official position.

NK: Then you stayed on, and you were living in the area.

NS: I stayed on as a Dumbarton Oaks wife, really. But I could use the library.

NK: I see.

NS: But I wasn’t any longer a Fellow. So when those divisions came, I wasn’t part of that.

NK: And then I see that you came back as Senior Research Associate.

NS: So these names change. But there was a period, let’s see, it was, I think, the three years when Angeliki Laio was Director, and Director of Studies at that point. Because she was a Byzantinist, there was no Director of Studies per se. So there was sort of a sequence of pretend ones, and it started, I believe, with Ioli [Kalavrezou] who came for a year, and I’m not even sure she was at Harvard at that point. And then Henry [Maguire] came for a year, and I came for a year. So it was like a try-out. What do you call it? Something Idol, right? So at the end, Henry was then appointed Director of Studies. But I remember Angeliki calling me up in Cambridge. It was after the icon symposium which had been that spring, and she called me, and she said, “Nancy, I’m going to make you an offer you cannot resist.” And I remember just bristling because of course I could resist. I mean, she was very imperious, anyway, and she was wonderful, but she said, “We invite you to come for a whole year to Dumbarton Oaks in this whatever it was, senior research thing.” So I said, “Well, I’ll have to think about it.” And of course it was — how could you refuse that? There was no question in my mind from the beginning, but I was being kind of obstinate. So that’s when I went down that fall of 1990, and then I think Henry came in as Director of Studies the next year. There may have been another year in between, but anyway, it was a wonderful year.

But I was supposed to mentor young people then, and my young people were Derek Krueger, for instance, and John Cotsonis. It was a wonderful group. And I came back to live in the same house as before, because when Ihor and I were there, we lived in the house where the administration is now, you probably know, you had to get all the kind of —

NK: Badges.

NS: And the different color badges depending on what you were at what stage of your life. But that’s where we lived, and that’s where our daughter was born and et cetera, and that was until ’73, when we left. But when I came back that year in that position, the house had been completely redone into a beautiful open space — they opened up the windows. It was dark and small, felt small before, but they opened it all up. So there I was, back in the same old house. It was very strange.

NK: It must have been very strange.

NS: Yeah, and it’s even very strange now, because I walk in to get the badge of permission for this or that, or whatever, and I say, “Do you realize this was my daughter’s bedroom?” or you know, this is where we, this, that, or whatever in the kitchen. The space is still itself. The outside never changed. And next to us was Matt Kearney, who was head of the gardens at that point, a lovely guy, and he had the other half of the house. And then ultimately [Alexander] Kazhdan lived in the other half of the house, but they kept the left hand side for visitors of various kinds.

NS: So, anyway, I’ve lost my train of thought.

NK: So you came for the year, and this was also a very crucial year because all these people that you mentor went on, and are members of the community, that’s amazing.

NS: And then Annemarie [Weyl Carr] was there with a fellowship. I think she had a fellowship for the whole year, but no, it couldn’t have been. It made me feel very awkward, because we were very good friends and she was just a wonderful scholar to be with at the time, but at 5 o’clock she had to pack up all of her materials and leave whereas I could just stay. And so I forget what it was. Certain categories had to leave at 5 from the library, and you couldn’t stay on. It was very embarrassing, because she was doing such wonderful work, and she had to go at the end of the day. But she was there. Basically, because I lived where I did from ’65 when I came as a Junior Fellow until ’73 when we moved to Cambridge, everybody came through the house. Those were sort of the grand old days. I rather took everybody for granted, I mean, they were just the grown ups around me. But anyway, you have other questions. 

VL: No, thank you for that. 

NS: I came back once more. In a sense, 2018 when Jan was there, that was another kind of situation where there wasn’t really a Director of Studies. And so I came just for the spring term, but it was a very tense period because the whole idea of Directors of Studies was being demolished again, and so there was a lot of tension around that, and so I was — I’m not sure they even saw it that way, but I thought of myself as somebody who could be a Byzantinist officially there, in a capacity to help people.

NK: I think your presence together, I think also Annemarie was there at that time?

NS: She was there. Yeah, we certainly overlapped. I’m not sure.

NK: But all the people who I usually meet from those times, they have very fond memories, because they all would feel the tension outside, but somehow you made it, get through, which is a very Byzantine ability to survive in terms of adversity. They will pass, and we will survive.

NS: [laughing] Look at you! Thank God you’re there. I mean, it was really Tom [Cummins] who re-established it, but the idea was, instead of a Director of Byzantine Studies, you have this someone who is called like — I don’t know. I don't even remember. But this was in all three divisions of Dumbarton Oaks, they were sort of reduced to an administrator.

NK: Yes, program director.

NS: Program, that’s right. And there was a lot of opposition. And at the same time that year people were coming to work, they didn’t want to get involved with the politics, particularly. But it couldn’t be avoided, the issues at that time.

NK: Yes. It is unbelievable that you go inside the same house that you used to live in for so many years. I live it many times when I go to the city where I’ve lived before, and I go to the — I have to say, I always visit the same places, even though I have no ideas, I go from outside the house because it is part of life, to be honest. And it's there.

NS: Well, I mean, it was a big transition for me because there were seventeen years difference between me and Ihor, and everybody knew him. Everybody came. I didn't know how to cook. I remember doing recipes. I mean, I had no idea. I was a grad student, really, still, and I’d lived off ravioli in cans and things, and I had to start cooking for big name scholars. I remember one particular time, when it said add an onion, but it didn’t tell me to peel the onion -that was the level I was at. 

NK: Nancy, you’re not alone. I also learned how to cook when I went to grad school because I went to Birmingham. I know I’m not the one giving the interview, but I sent a letter to my mother, saying, send me recipes, and start from “you crush the egg.”

NS: [laughing] Exactly. Anything that wasn’t said to do, I didn’t do.

NK: Can we pass to the major projects that you were working on? Obviously the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, which we all use.

NS: It’s incredible.

NK: And we take it for granted. That’s my problem. Now that I’m here, I understand the huge work behind it, because I always take it for granted.

NS: And really the people were Alice-Mary [Talbot] and [Alexander] Kazhdan. And for me it was a total pleasure, because I was already away from Dumbarton Oaks, I was living in Cambridge, and to come back down, see everybody, to sit around the table with people who were Byzantinists again. There was a lot of discussion as to what would go into the dictionary. And it was amazing how many unusual things — those were Alexander Kazhdan’s inventions, really, all the daily life stuff that nobody in a  remote, more rarified scholarly world would have thought to put in. And he always added these little things that brought the Byzantine law down to the daily life aspect. Everything he added brought it to that level. But I remember having discussions with him about what saints, and it was really interesting, because if the saint was not dropped from the canon by the Western Church — oh no, it wasn’t the canon, sorry. It was whether there was any evidence the saint had existed, like Saint Nicholas, right? So Nicholas could go in. But, George, we don’t know George exists. So I would argue, “Think of the place of Saint George, for instance, in Byzantine life and society and art, and all of that,” and he would say, “No, we can’t have George. He's an imaginary saint,” I think he called him. We really really struggled on that.

NK: For many of the saints, I'm sorry, especially in the more popular one, perhaps it didn’t exist, but they needed to exist.

NS: Whatever it was, for the dictionary we had to have them in. He wouldn’t have put George in. And if this was an Oxford dictionary you had to have, you had to see it from their point of view. So those were arguments that he and I had. We were assigned clusters of entries to edit. Maybe you know about that, but it was divided so I did law, I did liturgy. And I knew nothing about liturgy, less than about cooking [laughing], I knew nothing about liturgy. I was brought up a sort of very casual Protestant. so I had to edit a lot of Father [Robert] Taft’s. He wrote all the liturgy ones, and he had a very clear but technical language. And I remember specifically saying, writing back and saying, “You talk about the proper, and you talk about the ordinary. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t know the difference between these.” And I started from scratch, learning how to break the egg. It was enormously influential for me, editing him, I had to learn all of these different things. He was very, very gracious because I would write back and say, “I don’t understand.” It was the most obvious thing if you looked at it today. But it wasn’t at all to me, so I got a lot out of that.

We did have to write a good number, and we also edited a good number. And to this day I open the Oxford Dictionary like anybody, and I look and I read the entry, and at the end I see, “Oh, I wrote it.” But [laughing] I didn’t remember. We were doing so many at that time, and some of them just had to be dashed off at the last minute. And so it’s funny, connection and non-connection to it. But Alice-Mary worked really, really hard on that. It was an amazing group effort, really. And a lot of people got everything in on time. And a lot of people you had to just, I mean, I remember some of the law people. I had to go back to them over and over and over again, and you felt like such a pest. But finally, finally it all came together.

NK: It’s one of the most difficult subjects, even today, the people who are doing Byzantine law are not together with us. They are usually in the law schools, and they are very few.

NS: Right. Well, certainly Greece was very important in that. And the other ones were the Germans at that time. Those were the people I had to deal with mostly, and so they would do the theoretical discussion, the legal, and then, as I say, Alexander would bring it down to earth. And he had a lot he had to counter because people just disagreed with what he was going to add to their entries and that kind of thing. Anyway, it was a wonderful time.

The other project was the typika, which was also extremely fun and really valuable for a smaller, narrower group of people. But having all of that translated, it was really, you know, I was really happy to have worked on that.

NK: The typika, when was that? Later on?

NS: That was in the eighties, yeah. I think it was published 1990, maybe. I kind of forget. 

NK: it was a translation of the typika, wasn’t it? 

NS: I’m sorry, it was called Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents. 

NK: Yes.

NS: Yes, that's the thing, and it was translating, it’s three volumes worth of the liturgical — no, sorry, not the liturgical, the foundational. 

NK: The foundational charters.

NS: Right, but not the liturgical one — Euergetis, for instance, it has a liturgical one as well. It wasn’t that - just the foundation part. And that was under Giles Constable, who was a historian of Western monasticism, and I think he got that started, the translations. I used that material a lot in later work, too.

NK: But he wanted to open up and do the Byzantine typika as well, Giles. You said he was a Western medievalist.

NS: Western medievalist with a specialty in Western monasticism, and all of the charters there he knew. He thought it would be good to get the Greek ones accessible. It’s been wonderful particularly for the people doing liturgy and the people doing material culture, both of that, because there’s a lot of donations and lists and lighting provisions and all sorts of other evidence— They’re really rich documents, incredibly rich. So they're out there.

NK: It’s wonderful how all the projects that we are doing are always group works. Because it cannot be done, nothing can be done — and this to me, it’s very peculiar, because people are usually accusing Byzantinists that they are working on their own. This one and also the economic history of Byzantium that Angeliki [Laiou] did later, these were all by many people contributing.

NS: And it’s an archaeological model, really. I mean, archaeology is such a team effort. But just for me, it was really lovely to come down there, sit. We sat in the oval room. If you even know that, I think it still exists. 

NK: Yes, of course.

NS: And there’s little stiff chairs and things.

NK: I’m so sorry, I thought I was the only one who thinks they are not really comfortable.

NS: I kept thinking, I’m going to go through it, I’m going to go through, I’m going to break it. But yeah, that was nice. That was run not by Alice-Mary, that was run by John Thomas, whom Constable had appointed, and then by Angela Hero, who had translated Palaeologan stuff from Greek into English And she really knew both languages very well. John didn’t even know Greek, I don’t think, but he did a great job. So I think those are really valuable, and I’m really lucky, felt lucky, to be part of both of those.

VL: Thank you for answering that. This is kind of circling back to one of our previous questions about the average day, but we were wondering, what was the social life back then? And were you able to get to know other fellows, other scholars who were you interacting with, on a day to day basis?

NS: Again, this entirely depended on when I was there. But if we’re talking about one thing that we did - because of what I said about the lunches being so formal and the dinners and — oh, yeah, I forgot about that. It was a time of Vietnam War protests. Lisa, and I forget her last name, she never went on in Byzantium, she went downtown, and we all, the rest of went down, too, and we were tear gassed and stuff, whereas, of course, the Bellingers and the Kraelings sat there thinking, what is the world coming to? All of these young people. But at any rate, what Ihor and I instituted at the time were the Wednesday evenings. We had an open house at that house on the corner. We had drinks, wine, and everybody was into harder liquor in those days, but we had wine and liquor. I made dips, you know. It was a big time when people were fond of making dips for crackers and things. So it was really easy. I had hors d'oeuvres for that. And the main thing was, everybody was included, staff. I mean, I’ve heard people say, “oh, I remember the Wednesdays,” and I think that was an important social aspect that we could contribute. They were mostly the younger people, because the married people had to go back home. It was at 6, I think. It was some work, but we got very used to it. And we really loved that. And it was a lovely time to socialize with everybody.

NK: It’s also very important, because you need to have your community, especially when you are working all day, you really need to socialize. You need the balance. 

NS: It was. And also that it was staff and the Byzantine. There wasn’t much in the way of landscape or Pre-Columbian in that original time, really. So I didn’t know anybody there because there were just directors and nobody else, I think. So it was the Byzantinists and the staff, the museum staff and whatever library staff. Otherwise, the pool was really important. I don’t know if it still is. Have you been in, Vivi?

VL: The summer interns all wish we could. I think they’re doing repairs on it.

NS: Oh, poor you.

VL: So unfortunately not this summer, but it’ll be back, hopefully.

NK: One summer only, the swimming pool, and I understood how important it is for the social aspect. Because suddenly it became every night all the fellows and all the people were just around it, even though some of them were not swimming, they were still there.

NS: Oh, yeah. And this was since you've come, you mean? Because I don’t know what it is like these days.

NK: Yes, yes, last year. Now they are replacing some of the pipes, so it will soon be.

NS: Oh, I hope so. And I imagine during, or could it be used during the pandemic? I don't know if it was because it was outdoors. Because you had the disadvantage of coming just during the pandemic, when nobody could get together. 

NK: It was very peculiar, as a period. It was at the end of the pandemic for things, when things were opening and not opening. But these things could never exist online.

NS: Yes, that’s true. And the gardens, of course. In the times of the symposia, everybody sort of paired up and went into the gardens to pursue the conversation, via different routes. But it definitely became a kind of symposium in that sense, too. The gardens were very, really important. And the concerts were an important social moment, too, where the outside people from Washington in general, who really paid big money to go to those concerts, and the fellows were given free tickets, but only if there were places or something like that. So it was really for the outside world. But it was a time where you could mingle with each other and the outside world. So it was again a more general setting for everybody. If you ask, you know what the social life was like.

NK: So these were already from that period. Because I take it for granted sometimes, “oh, yes, they are doing some concerts.” But no, it was a tradition that goes on.

NS: The trouble is, having been back, it’s a little bit blurry, but I’m quite sure that they were there from when I first came.

NK: I also wanted to ask you, what you said about more Byzantinists, less the other programs. You experienced all this change when the two other programs started having also fellows and interaction only with the directors or with the people. This is one of the more and more we understand, how to interact, because at some point I understood that we didn’t have a lot of interaction or the fellows were not interacting so much. So it’s a constant discussion and dialogue.

NS: Right. So starting that year, the 1990 year when Annemarie was there. I don’t know what it was, I guess because I had that official position, and she was just a fellow. I’m trying to remember why she had to leave. But at any rate, she and I were the first ones, in a way, we were interested in the Pre-Columbian, what they call Tertulia, which was their sort of research reports. So she and I went to them, and we learned a lot from that. It was wonderful. Different complete cultures that had no written record, where all we were based on in many cases was just a written record. So how those different methodologies worked, and I do remember Angeliki came to them all, and she was astonishing. She could come to any sort of report on any subject and ask intelligent questions. I mean, she could grasp it so quickly, when I was still sort of trying to figure — So how to bring them together. I think Henry [Maguire] instituted the research reports. I think everybody’s supposed to go to everybody's. And it is all the other programs, too. Right? 

NK: So they weren’t going to the other reports, that’s what I understand. 

NS: Well, it's really too bad. I then got to know John Hunt very well, who was a Director of the landscape program, so I began to also hang out with the landscape people. So I had a different, again, a sort of different experience. I didn't know the Pre-Columbians as well. How to bring everybody together? I did notice when I was there in 2018, and having lunch again in the — what do you call it? — refectory, that the groups tended to sit with each other still. You had staff, you had landscape, you had Byzantinists, and you had Pre-Columbians. Intermingling, I don't know how much happened at the Fellows’ house. When the housing was at La Quercia, everybody was there, and that seemed to be much more informal, and people did a lot of entertaining. Maybe they had more kitchen facilities and stuff. This is all not when I was there, so I don't know, but it just requires you and the other two Directors of Studies to make sure it happens. And you're an archaeologist, and the Pre-Columbians are archaeologists, and you're a landscape person and the landscape people, they’ve gotten much more historical over the years 

NK: That’s true, that’s true.

NS: And not just design. We've gotten more into design. So there's a lot of common ground.

NK: It came to my mind, were you also able to do your research while you were here, that you were doing?

NS: Yeah.

NK: Because you were working for the other projects, the big projects. 

NS: I didn't get my PhD until ’73. And that's when we left for Cambridge. So I was working on that all the time I was there. To be invited back was wonderful as a professional scholar, but that was a lot later. 

VL: Yes, absolutely. And you've already mentioned this, but who were some of the Byzantinists — and you must have met a lot during your time at DO — but who were some that you interacted with the most during your many appointments here?

NS: I came when Ernst Kitzinger was Director of Byzantine Studies. He was an art historian. This was before I even was married, and it was the fall. I was coming with a project that I had applied for to write my thesis on, and at that point the project was to do all non-Biblical imagery in Byzantine churches, but this was a pretty large subject. So I went to Kitzinger, and he said, “You know what? I think you should narrow this subject a bit.” And I said, “Oh, well, okay, I really love the lives of the saints. Maybe I’ll just do all the lives of the saints.” And he said, “You know what? I think you better narrow it to one saint.” He suggested Saint Nicholas, because there was a big dossier of all the texts already published by [Gustav] Anrich. So I could do text and image stuff at that point. I knew him, and I appreciated that. That was probably the first couple of months I was there, that he encouraged me to do something that otherwise would have been nuts.

And the other one was really Cyril Mango, who was a great friend of Ihor’s, and we traveled together, the three of us, and then later, the four of us, a lot. We saw Cyril all the time, and I was enormously influenced by him, I would say, by the two of them. I couldn't have had two better mentors in that sense. And I really enjoyed Cyril Mango. He was not happy at Dumbarton Oaks and he and Kitzinger didn't particularly see eye to eye. I guess it was really mutual disrespect [laughing]. They really didn't respect each other particularly.

There were other things that came up. I studied with Hugo Buchthal, who was a manuscript guy at the Warburg in London. I went there to write, but I had started with Hugo Buchthal when he was at Columbia. I went to the Warburg to write my thesis, which turned out to be on the Kosmosoteira, a church in Thrace, in northern Greece. 

NK: That was which thesis?

NS: That was do an MA.

NK: An MA? I didn’t know that, Nancy.

NS: I never published because the frescoes were about to be cleaned. They've never been cleaned, and I just thought I'll wait. When was I there? ’63? It was before I came to Dumbarton Oaks that I wrote that. That was just about the frescoes and the fresco programs. But that's how I got into that. I had studied with Hugo Buchthal, and I went to write the thesis in the Warburg.

NK: The most beautiful place in the world, next to this library. I have to say I feel much better in the Warburg.

NS: Oh, the Warburg. I haven't been in it so long, but I loved it. 

NK: That's what I like. I know that our new building, it's wonderful as a library. But I have a bone for old library buildings.

NS: It's still where it is, right?

NK: Yes. 

NS: That was lovely. I say it in connection with Kitzinger, really, because I don't know what happened between those two men. I don't know details, but long later, they didn't speak to each other. And this was when Kitzinger was living in Cambridge and Hugo Buchthal came to town and was staying in Boston. And I said, “Please come, come. We want you to come and visit.” And he said that he had vowed that he would never go to the same town that Kitzinger was in, so he wouldn't come from Boston to Cambridge to see us, even though we weren't going to invite Kitzinger.

NK: That was Buchthal?

NS: With Kitzinger, yeah. So I don't know. I mean, he [Kitzinger] was always a very nervous person. He was a delightful person, and I got to know him more when he moved to Cambridge, and he had a lovely, lovely English Quaker wife, Susan Kitzinger. But that always amused me. And those kind of things between these guys, you don’t know what goes on.

NK: Let’s call it chemistry.

NS: Chemistry, that’s right. Anyway, I considered Boston and Cambridge the same town, but he would not cross the river, so I went over to Boston to see him. But Kitzinger, he was a wonderful, wonderful art historian in a totally different way from Cyril Mango.

And Father [Francis] Dvornik was one of those ones who lived down at the West Cottage. It’s still called the West Cottage, I think. The left hand side of the Guest House. 

NK: Did he have, actually, a chapel?

NS: I don’t know.

NK: Because I'm asking everyone, why don't we have a chapel? I'm sorry, now I’m taking up time, but they used to tell me always, “Where is the chapel for the Byzantine people?” And they told me, “No, there was, Father Dvornik when he was here had a small chapel.”

NS: In the West Cottage.

NK: Yes, but I don’t know if it’s true or if it’s an urban legend.

NS: It’s not there now. It’s not there now — we came back one summer, I think, when our daughter was still pretty small, and we stayed in the West Cottage. I had no position at that point, I just came back with the family. But the phone rang, I remember, one time, and when I picked up there was this great silence. And then the person said, “Mrs. Dvornik?” [laughing] He was a priest, you know, and they were calling his house. They didn't realize that he had died, and they were so surprised to have a woman pick up the phone. I remember that. And they said of him that he spoke 8 languages, all of them Czech [all laughing]. I didn’t have much to do with him particularly because I wasn't anywhere in the field. But I would see him because he would walk very slowly from the West Cottage to the building, and I would emerge from the house, and if I was in a hurry I would try to avoid him, because he walked really slowly. But if I had time, I would then walk with him on that long walk to the front door.

Sirarpie Der Nersessian was there. She was, I think, working with [Paul] Underwood on the Kariye Djami in that volume. I remember her being so nice to me. She let me read her article for that Kariye Djami volume, which was just — it was beautiful. I can't remember how I needed it and wanted it, but it was just a gift to have it ahead of publication. She was just lovely. Paul Underwood was there. There was one year — do you have time?

NK: We are having all the time. Please. I don’t know about Viviana, but I really enjoy it.

VL: All the time in the world. However long you would like to talk, we are free. 

NS:  Well, I know it’s lunch time and you may miss lunch. But there was a lovely year, I remember. It was ’69, I think, when André Guillou, if that means anything. 

NK: Of course.

NS: He came. We just had a sort of really good friendship that year, André Guillou and Vera von Falkenhausen, and us and Cyril, and then there was Mia. André Guillou had asked if he could bring his niece, la nièce, to Dumbarton Oaks. And they said, “Okay, your niece, of course that’s fine, and she can stay with you and all.” Well, niece was the euphemism for this gorgeous, young, absolutely lovely young French woman, Mia, whom we just adored. She was a little out of place, obviously, but everybody accepted her eventually, because she was so charming. But I remember her telling me, “What do you do when you have this chicken? Because I cooked it, it was a whole chicken, and then I found all this stuff inside it.” We put the gizzards and the heart and such things inside it when you buy a chicken. She didn’t know that. All the paper, you know. She was wonderful.

Everybody came through. Irfan Shahîd was somebody who was associated because he was at Georgetown, right? He was over the top. And he loved poetry. I remember that year I was there, I said, “Please come and give us a reading of Arabic poetry. It would be just such fun. We know nothing about it.” He came, and he started reciting by heart all the Romantics, the English Romantic poets. He knew every Shelley, every Keats, everything by heart, and he never gave us any Arabic at all. But it’s just extraordinary he could remember all of that.

And then when we left, the Jeffreys were also there, you know Michael and Elizabeth Jeffreys. They moved into that house when we left, so I could leave the baby furniture and all that stuff. I remember that. And they were really nice. There were so many people. The Winfields I treasured.

NK: Right, David.

NS: David and June Winfield.

NK: I only met him once, and I know what you mean.

NS: He was just very lovable. He was great. We visited him officially from Dumbarton Oaks to sort of oversee, so to speak — or at least Ihor did, I was along — his work at Asinou and Lagoudhera. I just loved his article about the methods of Byzantine wall painters, because it made everything suddenly so clear.

NK: This unbelievable knowledge of the place, I mean, of the actual person who worked on it.

NS: Absolutely, absolutely. And he was a sort of outsider, with a certain contempt for people who didn't actually study things on site, and you completely understood. He loved these churches, and they were totally ensconced in the village, he and June. I forget whether we saw them — it was Lagoudhera, I think, in Cyprus, when he was cleaning the frescoes there, I remember. They were completely comfortable in the village, as if they had lived there forever. He was wonderful, and he certainly had no airs. I saw him later, he worked for the National Trust as a conservator in England. 

NK: And then I saw him when he was doing his pension. He was going to the Island of White, or what? 

NS: No, Mull, it's up by Iona in the north. I visited him there with a niece of mine, and June had geese out there that she was feeding, and they had this sort of farm, and he picked us up, and I never saw anybody drive so crazy. But anyway, it was lovely. I just had huge respect for his work, and I was very fond of him.

And then the Beltings were the other ones who were there early on and became long time friends, Hans and Christa Belting. She was an early Christian person, and I know their daughter very well, and see her a lot still. One story I thought of in thinking of him, too: he was giving a lecture at Dumbarton Oaks, and he asked me to translate it into English. So I did, and then he'd come up with one of these German words that was, you know, pretty complex. And I'd say, “Well, do you mean X, Y, or Z?” Because in English we had three different words for roughly the same thing, and he would say, “No, I mean, it has to say all of them at once,” which was the German. And you couldn't. English is just so different because we have words coming from so many different routes. And they all have a bit of a different implication, and so I would have to pin him down. And we came to blows occasionally on that, and remain very good friends. But it was so funny about the German language and his writing where he would pick his words very carefully, but they’d be big, generic words.

And Alice-Mary, of course. She and I had been to school together.

NK: I wanted to ask you about this. Is it true, she said, that you were in school together, elementary and high school?

NS: It's incredible. And it was a very small school. And then we went off to different colleges. She went to Radcliffe, and I went to Smith. And we met at a party in New York, because we were all from New York. And I said idly, “What are you doing next year?” And she said, “Well, I'm going to the American School of Classical Studies,” and I said, “No, so am I.” We didn't know the other one was going to be there. So we were in an even smaller group there for the year.

We've known each other for a very long time, and I mean, what she's done at Dumbarton Oaks is just incredible. All of her projects and her ability to see things through.

NK: The living heart, I call her all the time.

NS: You call her what?

NK: The living heart of Dumbarton Oaks.

NS: Yeah, and she's always so balanced. And so many people go off the deep end. They make it back and stuff. But it brings out the vulnerabilities of a lot of people with the kind of greenhouse atmosphere that it has.

NK: It does. You're totally right. Some people, you tend to forget real life and how to interact. Like an experiment at some point. 

NS: A petri or whatever they call it. A little lab with little things popping up like that, another one popping up. Yeah, anyway, her sense and balance was great. And we’ve always been friends, if anything, more, in the last years than ever before. It's nice, and I know she's done one for you, I think, and Annemarie  always — having Annemariearie first come, then when she moved to Delaware, she could come down more frequently. So she spent a lot more regular days at Dumbarton Oaks than I have because of living so close. But whenever she was there when I was there it was wonderful.

There's so many. I was just looking, thinking back. It really was, for me, an extraordinary time because I just knew everybody over the centuries. I knew who they were. I didn't say that necessarily we were friends.

NK: It was part of the community and the people. Regulars. I try to speak to the people that when they come, because they are very little bit sad that they are leaving, is that once they come, then they can come back, and the idea of the place is to connect and create links.

NS: Right. And one thing I experienced when I came back was the fact that the alumni, if we can call them that, when they came back, they used to be able to stay in the Guest House. That was really important, extremely important that they be close, be able to pick up where they left off, and that kind of thing. And that was a big shock when the Guest House was taken over for other reasons. That's too bad that you can't come back, and you know, you pay, but have a place to stay. Maybe that's changed. I don't know. Maybe there's another place.

NK: You’re totally right. It's one of the difficult things because there is now, with a lot of programs taking place, there is always a lack of accommodation. But it should be because the alumni, they have it in mind, and Tom especially has it always in mind that the alumni is the big power and the big support network of this institution. And he's trying to reach out. 

NS: And then, if you come back, you see, as you said, the links are maintained that way. 

NK: True, true. You have attended, also, you talked about symposia, colloquia. One of them that stands out in your memory more?

NS: Of course I remember the ones I had to speak at. But in terms of the most influential for me it was the — I forget, it was ’87, ’88, I think, it was the one on Mount Athos. It was the talk of Robert Taft. Taft was one of these scholars who could pull tons of stuff together and make it so clear. It may have been a construct, and I think it's been dismantled somewhat, but it was so clear and so revealing to me about the fact that liturgy had a history, as opposed to being just something that you know —

NK: They start in the same way, never changing.

NS: Yeah, and I mean in some ways I had felt my contribution could be to look at it historically, because I didn't know what it should be, really. But that lecture was probably the most important to me in retrospect for my own work. That's all, really. And the Holy Image was an incredible one. I spoke at that. But all the speakers were just amazing in that one. It's one of those Symposia where people use articles, a lot of them, that are from that. And I gave the talk on icons and liturgy.

NK: I know your icons, and I use it over and over. 

NS: That article was more drawn from the thesis. This one was more looking at processions and things in Constantinople. But it was a very emotional talk for me. I didn't realize it. But my sister had died in a car accident, and that was the fall before. I was giving the lecture, and I came to about, I don't know, 10 or 15 minutes before the end, and I was talking about  monks going out to the cemeteries with respect to some of this liturgical stuff and what they did. And so I had this phrase, “to honor their dead sisters and brothers,” and at that point, somehow, the whole thing of my sister's death struck me. And I remember after that just reading the words as you would to a child where you know you're falling asleep, and you don't even know, you just go on and on and on. I was in another world at the end of that. So there was that. And then it was the first time I felt oh, that was a success. It was a wonderful feeling, and I've only had it, maybe one other time where you really felt it went over well. I think that was for me, it was a big turning point, and it was after that that Angeliki phoned me a month later, and said to come to Dumbarton Oaks for the year. That was, for me, a big milestone in my own life. 

But otherwise, funnily enough, the ones where I knew nothing about the subject, like Byzantine medicine, Byzantine science. Those were wonderful, and the diagrams one that was before you came, I think, right, in 2018. Symposia where you could just absorb all sorts of new stuff.

NK: Of course. It’s like having a course in two days.

NS: In two days, exactly. With the best people you could imagine.

NK: One I’ve seen in my time was the holy apostles.

NS: And it was wonderful, yes.

VL: And our next question is something again that might be hard to answer given how many years that you've come back to Dumbarton Oaks. But we are wondering if you've noticed any significant changes over the time that you've been here, starting as a junior fellow back in the sixties, until now in the present, in terms of academic or social or physical setting Dumbarton Oaks.

NS: Well, clearly from ’65 to ’25, where we almost are, right? It’s long. And of course things changed. I think, physically, I think the library is the biggest change because of the arrangement of space. Everything used to be in the old building, and I'm sure you don't need me to describe that, because I'm sure everybody has said this, but everything went on in the old building, and it had this hall from the entrance to the stairs where you went up to the reading room, and you would meet people in that hall. You couldn't avoid it. It was the only passage from one thing to another. And then we all worked in the reading room upstairs, which was, I don't know what it is now.

NK: It’s for the DOML, I think. The medieval library.

NS: Oh, it’s the medieval library that’s there. Oh, okay, the whole long room. 

NK: To the left and to the right is the museum people.

NS: There's just the fact that I didn’t any longer know who was there. There was this big split, then, between the administration and the scholars, and there were people over there that you never even heard of, and you never saw them. I mean, that was a big division. All the three scholarly divisions are now under the same roof in the library, and the books were merged, which I think was a good thing. Because if they were by discipline, painting would include Pre-Columbian painting and things. But in terms of the communality, it stopped it dead, I would have said -other than lunches. It's an open space like that. So if you have a conversation in the hall outside somebody's office, everybody hears it two floors down.  And there's no real clear place to congregate there. You can't just go, “Oh, let's go sit and have a coffee.” That's the physical thing that I think is the most noticeable change for what it did - as space does - to sort of separate. Administration became mysterious after that, and that was not a good thing, necessarily. And misunderstood as a result. But the views are beautiful. And you have your office there, right?

NK: In the library? Yes. 

NS: You can't get books except through this tunnel if you want books in the old building, so I think it was very important that everybody got moved. I think Alice-Mary still had to do that business of ordering them by tunnel. Anyway, changes, you say, academically? I would say the loss of the field work projects. Those were hugely big projects often or sometimes they were just survey type things, but those everybody was involved with. The old timers like me regret seeing that go. To support some one person's one thing is great and necessary, but these encompass the whole Byzantine Empire really.

NK: And they created the field in the end. 

NS: With the cleaning and with the survey type thing, which for instance Ihor and Cyril were doing with the inscriptions volume, which is still not published. Traveling all over, just looking for dated inscriptions.

NK: What you were saying is these long projects,  projects that have an impact. Even the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, it was one such project that really made an impact on the field.

NS: I think, throughout, the consistent thing has been that people who come are extremely happy to be there, and to be able to concentrate on their own work, because so many scholars in America, at least, don't teach anything to do with Byzantium. And so you could come, not only you could work just on your stuff, but you could also talk it all over with Byzantine colleagues whom you didn't see much otherwise. 

NK: That's true. 

NS: The complaints I heard in 2018 was that too much was going on. There was too much distraction, too much that you were expected to show up and do when this was your time to concentrate on your own work. The place, they felt, was kind of overrun. No desk space, no whatever. I forget the third way — academic and physical, and oh, social.

VL: But you already addressed that. 

NK: This is also what I'm hearing about all this. Over the years, I see they lack of the big projects that have influenced the field, and then people constantly say that they don't have enough time when they are here, because there are many things that are happening here and there. I don't know how to strike a balance.

NS: Well, there are really two things if you’re trying to get Dumbarton Oaks out into the world, so to speak. One is what Dumbarton Oaks is trying to do now, which is a lot of personal outreach. Bring a lot of people who can benefit from the place on a very temporary basis, a month or something, and bring it out into the community. But the other is the publications that would serve a huge, wide audience. A publication as opposed to personal interactions and short-term things. And the field work was never that well published, I would say, never made accessible enough, so that it was known, but not outside Byzantium at all, and it could be with better publications. It shouldn't be hard these days, with images being easily, more easily reproduced.

NK: Fair. That’s for sure.

NS: It's getting that visual material out there that is really important. If we want to integrate Byzantium into outside courses and stuff, you have to make getting images easy for people who are teaching it. Now it shouldn't be a problem. One time, I think Gary Vikan offered for sale - you could buy at the gift shop – sets of slides of Dumbarton Oaks stuff. And people lapped them up because you didn't have anything in your slide collection. 

NK: That’s where the Met showed us the way, when the Met made all the quality collection images available to everyone with no fees like the Vatican. That’s the easy way.

NS: No fees is good. I still have to pay a fee, even if I took the photo, so kind of crazy. Or it feels crazy.

NK: That's true. And many countries as well. So it's not only many players, many ministries, and many collections.

NS: And the problem with the big projects is that it needs permanent people who are there on the spot regularly to work on them, I think. When there was a resident faculty, that could be done. And nowadays, you can travel more easily, I guess — as I did — just come down for meetings and stuff. But you have to have a place to stay. 

NK: It’s another infrastructure. Yes, another system.

NS: Yeah. So big projects I'm all for. Anyway, I'm keeping you much too long.

NK: No, no. So as we are speaking, any story that comes to your mind that you feel —

NS: I’ve thought of that, something that isn’t just a personal story. Anecdotally, I'll tell you one. And then one important one, I think. I used to work late at the library when I could, and the night guard would patrol, and they’d go — and maybe they still do — they’d have to click a little thing on the wall somewhere in each room to show that they'd been there, and this guard that I knew well saw Mr. Bliss walking the halls at night. He told me, “I saw him. I saw him. He was just down there.” This was somebody who had known Mrs. Bliss. He was one of the older guards and he saw him walking the halls. And he said the reason that he [Mr. Bliss] walked was because he'd been buried standing up [laughing]. Because I think they're buried in that sort of cenotaph in the garden, so he wasn't very far away, but he had been buried standing up. So anyway. I thought that is something that people should know, that he was haunting the halls.

There were some funny ones. I reported a cockroach once in the reading room, and the guard said, “Oh, it must have been a Fellow.” [all laughing].

NK: I always say that we’re like cockroaches in the sense that we will survive after everyone.

NS: Yes, good for you. Right, there will always be a Byzantinist. 

The other one, I don't know who was there to remember, and it was ’89 or ’90, and I'm not sure. It's when they were installing or reinstalling the huge Antioch mosaic that's in the middle of the new courtyard, what now is the courtyard. And so they had a huge crane out in front of Dumbarton Oaks that was going to lift this mosaic over the walls. Anyway, there was a bank on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and the bank was robbed at midday. The getaway car pulled down S Street to zoom out and away from Wisconsin down S, and ran into the crane blocking the road. It was not part of their plan. So they threw open the car doors, and went running into the woods - you know, those woods you go through to get from the library to the Guest House. And so it was a big deal, with the FBI poring over every inch of the car, and I always was amused at that.

And then they had more mosaics, Dumbarton Oaks was selling off some mosaics then, and I happened to live in Cambridge, opposite Susan Rogers, who worked at the Harvard Business School, and we saw each other all the time, and were really good friends. And she mentioned that they were building a great big new space. I think Moshe Safdie was the architect of the business school. And I said, “Do you need a mosaic?” And she said yes. So I put her in touch with Dumbarton Oaks, and they sold or gave, I'm not sure, the so-called Tethys mosaic to the Harvard Business School, and it's sitting there now. It was all a chance kind of conversation.

And, finally, it's not quite Dumbarton Oaks, but the International Congress came to Washington in 1986, and it was very, very hot. It was August. The Bureau is the central organizing, administrating group. It's all the most luminary luminaries. Ihor was president at the time, and he arranged for the Bureau to meet at the Cosmos Club. So we drove them over, but there were several Greeks and they were dressed in those lovely white cotton tops, the kind that everybody in Greece wears in the summer. There were two or three of them, including Browning, I think, Robert Browning. Anyway, they walked into the Cosmos Club and the Cosmos Club said, “No, no, no, no, you can't come in.” Because they weren't dressed in a coat and tie.

And this was - I don’t know - Karayannopoulos - I can't even remember who, they were the supreme leaders of Byzantium in Greece and elsewhere.  So we had to negotiate: I was driving them, and so I had to figure what to do. They said, “Okay, if you go down this hall very quietly down here, there's a service elevator in the back that will take you up to where there's lunch, and it's being prepared.” But it was very embarrassing. But it's not Dumbarton Oaks. It’s not really Dumbarton Oaks’ institutional memory.

NK: No, but it is part of the whole thing. It’s not only Dumbarton Oaks, it’s part of these links of all institutions and things that we're doing in DC.

NS: You don’t know, Vivi, probably the Cosmos Club, but it was one of these places that pretended that it only took great minds. 

NK: Yes, I went. They invited me once, but they told me at the entrance that it needed to be with a tie [laughing].

NS: They told you?

NK: They told me with just hours. And I said, “I only have one for my marriage.” [laughing] What am I supposed to do?

NS: We had that happen once, and Ihor got so mad. It was at a restaurant or something in Boston, and he said, “Okay,” and he went up the street, and he bought a tie, and he came back and said, “So there.” [all laughing] It’s wonderful to talk to you. It's great. 

NK: It's great. I really enjoy.

VL: Yes, thank you. We have one more question, if that's all right. 

NS: Yes.

VL: And so our last question was, do you think, Dumbarton Oaks has contributed to furthering interest in Byzantine studies and bettered the landscape in your profession?

NS: Of course. I mean, number one, it was the Holy Grail to get a fellowship here. What did you say, better the landscape? I don't think it could be better, because there was no other landscape except Dumbarton Oaks, really. There was no competition. Nowadays, Vienna has all these big projects that Dumbarton Oaks only dreamed of. And it has the money, and there’s Paris and there’s Oxford. But, as I say, getting big projects going requires people on the spot. So in that sense, furthering it, yeah, I would say what I said before probably, to make the publications and the visual stuff as available as possible. It would be the hugest service. I don't know about the furthering of the interest, you know, with the Balkan wars, yes, people began to look to see Byzantium. Byzantine studies in America is not an easy challenge, really, as with Classics. As you say, be like the cockroach. Just keep going, keep going.

NK: Keep going, and do the best we can, and it's already huge. I mean, compared to some decades ago I see more and more people. I know that we all complain, and this is part of the Byzantine culture, they all complain, even all the authors we hear. They first start by complaining about life. All the letters are filled with it.

NS: Yes, right.

NK: I know my Nicholas of Methone. He always complained. He was so happy to complain, but he was doing things. He wrote the Vita of Athanasios, he created the things. He had the time to write his works. 

NS: They were often complaining because they weren't in the center whereas, when you got here, you definitely had landed in the center! That was that sense: I couldn't do any better anywhere else. This is just the place to be. I hope in some ways, without the arrogance that it used to have, that that still makes it worthwhile for people to come. 

NK: Yes.

NS: But fieldwork publications, I guess, and making visual stuff accessible. Those, I would think, would really help Byzantium in the outer world.

NK: True, and publications that will be also more accessible to a wider audience and be able to use them.

NS: Well, the DO Medieval Library I didn't mention. That's terrific. That’s doing just the right things. It gets those texts out with some commentary and translation, and they can go out there, and what we could do as equivalent for the visual would be interesting. Could there be a sort of medieval or Byzantine – not corpus, but what do I mean — repository of images that can be online, even.

NK: Yes, and be used easily by people.

NS: So it'll come up in the search, if you want. If you search for something, it will come up.

NK: Yes, you’re right. This is something that definitely we need to do. 

NS: It's evidence. It's evidence, and to get the evidence out there.

Do you have anything, Vivi, from your experience at Dumbarton Oaks?

VL: Anything I've enjoyed?

NS: Yeah, does any of this ring any sort of bell to you. 

VL: Oh, yeah. Even before I applied for the position and interviewed with Nikos and with Joshua, the librarian, for the role, I was reading through the oral history interviews, and I kind of got a sense of the magic, or the dreamlike quality that Dumbarton Oaks has. And then, now, being here, I've really experienced it and talking to you, talking to John Haldon, the other interviewee, I'm getting to know what it was like in the decades before, which is really interesting.

NS: Right. Well, that's great.

NK: It’s also very good for the future, Viviana. We've been struggling with the ideas, you know, what's the next step? And how do we proceed? So that's wonderful.

NS: It’s great. I'm gonna look at my thermometer, it's 70 degrees here. That’s the only thing about Washington in the summer, it must be in the nineties or something. 

NK: Nancy, thank you so much for this. Thank you for sharing your memories.. This is really important.

NS: Thank you. You're wonderful, both of you. You put me at ease. That's very important. 

NK: Look forward to having you here again.

NS: I will.