Post by Anne Marie Creighton
For centuries after its completion in 537, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was one of the largest churches in the world. After Robert Van Nice spent fifty years documenting its every nook, crack, and cranny, it must also rank among the world’s most carefully recorded buildings.
The published result of Van Nice’s labor, which he began in 1937, was the double folio Saint Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey, printed through Dumbarton Oaks in 1965. Because that edition lacked a few plates, a second edition with a full complement was published in 1986. The project was led by William Emerson, a professor at MIT,* from its beginning to 1957, and then sponsored by Dumbarton Oaks until 1989, when Van Nice retired more than half a century after he began the project. (1)
For any study of the Hagia Sophia, Van Nice’s work is invaluable. Surveys from the nineteenth century, although those by the Fossati brothers and Wilhelm Salzenberg are gorgeous, were conventionalized to fit contemporary ideals of beauty. This was not Van Nice’s goal; although he studied in the Fossati archive in Switzerland and called Salzenberg’s book “obviously, the fundamental document on St. Sophia,” he aimed for a higher standard of accuracy. In his research notes, he listed some flaws in Salzenberg’s work. These included: “He has a well misplaced in the south aisle”; “His east façade lacks, for some reason, the small projections along sides of the dome-base”; and “His squinches are at 45 (degrees) to the dome-base.” (2)
In each of his 46 plates, in contrast to his predecessors, Van Nice and his team strove to capture every detail as it was when they found it. He recorded the hours each engraving took to complete; the average was around 400. This level of care for each bulge in the brickwork and each angle of hard-to-reach corners makes Van Nice’s work the landmark documentation of the building. By capturing the building so thoroughly, he provided a valuable record of the changes, additions, and decay that had occurred since Justinian had it built in the sixth century. (3)
This level of detail, up until now, has not been very broadly available. Less than three hundred libraries in the world have a copy of Saint Sophia in Istanbul, much less easy access to both editions. Because Dumbarton Oaks has the rights to the book, it would have been possible to do a new edition. It would have been very expensive, though, and it’s so big that even the libraries that could afford it might not have been able to find a place for it!
Now, though, we’ve had it digitized, so it is now totally available online. Have a look!
That’s not the end of it, though, since this summer has seen the completion of two important resources about Van Nice’s work in the Hagia Sophia. In DO’s Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, just across the hall from my office, they have 80-something boxes of archival material pertaining to Van Nice’s surveys, as well as about 2,300 oversize architectural plans and drawings. Through years of hard work, the team over at ICFA has created a 100-page “finding aid” that tells you what is contained within each box, and within each folder inside each box. For a direct link to the finding aid, click here, and for a link to a blog post about it, click here. The 80 boxes are not available online, but our sibling blog for ICFA has a number of blog posts on the archive available, which make for great reading. (5)
The material in the Robert Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers collections ranges widely. Their finances were thoroughly documented, as were the methods of the project, like how they had to combat birds that would come into the dome and steal their drafting materials. (6)
I also enjoyed reading about the archive because, by spanning fifty years, it captured a not insignificant slice of world history, and so preserves moments sad, wonderful, and banal. Some pieces in the archive are sad and scary, like one letter from 1940 with the postscript “The world seems to be crumbling about us.” (7) Others struck a personal note, like the mentions of Robert College in Istanbul, where my great-grandfather also spent time in the 1930s. (8, e.g.) Still others are just charming, like this drawing that Robert Van Nice, Jr., completed of the Hagia Sophia when he was just six years old.
*Correction: This post originally said the project was based out of MIT, but it was a personal project of Emerson’s, not an institutional one. This post also originally provided citations through links, rather than notes, which has been corrected with the notes appended below. Updated September 8, 2014.
(1) Beth Bayley, “The Influential Friendship of William Emerson,” ICFA, March 10, 2014, http://icfadumbartonoaks.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/the-influential-friendship-of-william-emerson/
(2) Beth Bayley, “Motivation, Methods, and Meaning: Architectural Drawings of Hagia Sophia,” ICFA, September 20, 2014, https://icfadumbartonoaks.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/motivation-methods-and-meaning-architectural-drawings-of-hagia-sophia/
(3) Beth Bayley, “A Benevolent Fate: Thoughts on Processing Robert Van Nice’s Papers,” ICFA, August 20, 2014, http://icfadumbartonoaks.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-benevolent-fate-thoughts-on-processing-robert-van-nices-papers/
(5) “New Finding Aids and Inventories from ICFA,” ICFA, August 13, 2014, http://icfadumbartonoaks.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/new-finding-aids-and-inventories-from-icfa/
(6) Shalimar White, “Santa Sophia, Santa Sophia!” ICFA, December 18, 2012, http://icfadumbartonoaks.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/santa-sophia-santa-sophia/
(7) Beth Bayley, “Leaving Hagia Sophia: Istanbul before World War II,” ICFA, April 21, 2014, http://icfadumbartonoaks.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/leaving-hagia-sophia-istanbul-before-world-war-ii/
(9) Clare Moran, “Like Father, Like Son,” ICFA, May 22, 2012, http://icfadumbartonoaks.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/like-father-like-son/