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Laws of the New Empire

Paolo Angelini limns the legal history of medieval Slavs

Posted on Oct 23, 2017 03:11 PM by Bailey Trela |
Laws of the New Empire

Paolo Angelini, a postdoc in Roman law and legal history at the University of Leuven, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies in fall 2017. His research focuses on the transmission and interaction of legal systems in the medieval world. On October 2, Angelini delivered his research report, “Introduction to the Medieval Legal History of the Southern Slavs,” which traced the adoption of Byzantine and Roman law systems by nascent Slavic states.

Q&A with Paolo Angelini

Talk more about the connection between commerce and law in this period, especially as it relates to Slavic cities on the Adriatic Sea, which you mentioned in your talk.

The idea I’m working with is that the Slavic population really came into civilization after it enacted a codification of laws—because it’s popularly supposed that only after codification can you be considered a developed civilization. Otherwise, before that, you have customary law, and so on. The case of coastal cities is really interesting because you can actually see how the development of trade with places like Venice, for example, improved their legislation. There’s always a very practical factor driving these changes. If you think about the Marxist concept of the superstructure, and how law is enacted—justice is a very noble idea, but it’s also enacted in order to improve trade activities, because it’s much easier to trade if you have common institutions.

 

You discussed the feud system in Slavic customary law, and specifically the concept of “vražba,” or the debt paid to make up for a crime. How does this concept compare to other feud systems?

Well, the Slavs share this concept—this common, or customary, system of blood revenge—with Germanic populations. While the Slavs have vražba, the Germans have wergild, but the system works the same way. For both populations, you have pecuniary compensations for homicide, rather than a death penalty imposed by the state. This is of course when we’re speaking of customary law. Among the Slavic tribes, these elements are really common. What I find interesting is that I was speaking with someone recently about the shared origins of the Slavic and Germanic tribes. And you know, during the Second World War, the Slavs were among those considered Untermenschen, subhuman, by the Nazis. But here you see the Germans and the Slavs share cultural elements, and—why not?—maybe roots. Of course, we don’t know, we’re speaking about very old times. This is just a hypothesis based on a few elements in the legal texts.

 

How does the adoption of legal systems in this period relate to Bulgarian efforts to form their own imperial identity?

It starts between the ninth and tenth centuries, as Byzantium’s strength begins to diminish. The Bulgarian emperor adopts the Greek term basileus Rhomaíōn, emperor of the Romans. It’s the same thing Charlemagne did at the beginning of the ninth century when he was proclaiming his own empire. Of course, there is a sort of competition to take this title. Simeon I uses it, but the Byzantines don’t agree with this. Once Bulgaria has become a strong state, however, and enacted a codification of laws, they claim the imperial title. It’s sort of the best way of self-legitimizing. The Bulgarians adopt a lot of Byzantine titles, and eventually the titles are used for rulers across Europe.

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Excerpting the Past

Laura Pfuntner investigates hermaphrodites in Byzantine and ancient texts

Posted on Sep 20, 2017 04:11 PM by Bailey Trela |
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Excerpting the Past

Laura Pfuntner recently had a one-month research stipend at Dumbarton Oaks. A lecturer in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, she was here to pursue a new research project, “Between Science and Superstition: Photius, Diodorus Siculus, and ‘Hermaphrodites’.” The project, which arose from some of her previous research, examines treatments of hermaphrodites in the Bibliotheca historica of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. More than half of the forty books of Diodorus’s 1st-century BCE Bibliotheca historica have disappeared, though portions of the missing sections are reproduced in a book of excerpts compiled by the Byzantine scholar Photius a thousand years after Diodorus’s book first appeared.

Sitting down to parse these excerpts, Pfuntner was confronted with a constellation of questions. What did a given passage mean at the time it was written? What can it tell us about the individuals who thought it worthy of recording or preserving, and what does it have to say about the historical moments that led the authors to their respective decisions?

Pfuntner’s work as a Roman historian centers around Sicily. She uses diverse scholarly approaches to pursue her interest in the chronological “layering” of cultures and societies on the island (including Greeks, Romans, and indigenous populations), looking at both archaeological—her dissertation examined settlement patterns in Roman-ruled Sicily—and textual angles. Before starting her current project, she researched a series of Sicilian slave revolts in the 2nd century BCE, the only source for which are Diodoran fragments collected by Photius. During this study, she began to think about the ins and outs of Photius’s excerpting of Diodorus, and found herself interested in a handful of passages about hermaphrodites.

Photius likely had access to vast bodies of literature; even if he only possessed ten of the forty books of Diodorus’s monolithic Bibliotheca, that is still, as Pfuntner puts it, “quite a lot of text.” The scale of Photius’s own Bibliotheca (otherwise known as the Myriobiblos) is massive. In it, he summarizes, reviews, extracts, or abridges nearly three hundred works by classical, late antique, and Byzantine authors, the originals of which have mostly been lost.

“These are quite lengthy passages, so Photius was obviously interested in them and took great care to preserve them,” Pfuntner explains. “What I’m thinking about now is why he did that, and what his interests in these passages were.” In doing so, Pfuntner goes against traditional evaluations of Byzantine excerpters, who are typically viewed as either “passive and indifferent” in their selection of passages, or “only interested in fanciful anecdotes.” Instead, she looks for political, personal, or historical connections between Photius’s time and Diodorus’s that might explain the selection of passages. Her work on the Sicilian slave revolts, for instance, traced their similarity to the Arab takeover of Sicily during Photius’s lifetime, which likely inspired his excerpting.

Pfuntner’s project at Dumbarton Oaks looks at the preponderance of information in Photius’s excerpts on surgeries designed to “correct or confirm cases of ambiguous genitalia.” As Pfuntner admits, this precise information is a little out of place in both Diodorus and Photius; “it’s not really something you see a lot of in nonmedical texts.” She accordingly expanded her research to include Byzantine medicine in general, and particularly the treatment of ancient medical texts in Byzantium.

To understand why Photius reproduces certain passages, it helps to comprehend the reasoning of the author he quotes. Diodorus’s conception of hermaphrodites, Pfuntner explains, tends to eschew the superstitious, because “he wants to show that they’re not dangerous prodigies or portents, that they’re not monsters or inexplicable phenomena, but that they’re actually natural phenomena.” Descriptions of surgery play an integral role in this argument. For Diodorus, surgical procedures can help to “confirm” the “true sex” of a hermaphrodite that tends to emerge over time, and “once that true sex is confirmed, the individual can go on and live their life as whatever that true sex is.”

Nearly a thousand years later, in the hands of Photius, these passages confirm another supposition. “In a way, these cases confirm traditional gender roles, in the sense that there is a clear distinction between men and women,” Pfuntner explains. “For Photius, you can’t be both male and female; you’re either man or woman.” One of the main threads of Pfuntner’s investigation concerns the theological-political implications of this stance in Photius’s time.

Eunuchs often held powerful positions in Byzantine politics, a fact Pfuntner believes is difficult to ignore when examining Photius’s excerpting. A constant debate swirled around the propriety, or simply the wisdom, of having eunuchs in positions of power, a debate Photius seems to have engaged in. “Other statements Photius makes suggest that he thinks eunuchs are a sort of corrupting presence,” Pfuntner says. “Having this person around who is neither male nor female, but of an ambiguous sexuality, is very problematic for him.”

Studying the work of an excerpter depends, of course, on the nature of the excerpting. Heavy-handed work that alters sentences, tweaks word choice, or inserts and excises opinions leaves a clearer picture of the mind of the excerpter. But Photius tends to avoid such obvious alterations; his are sins of inclusion and elision, rather than wholesale modification. Besides the occasional reworking of event chronology, glimpses into Photius’s worldview emerge largely from the simple fact of what he chose to preserve.

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Rethinking Empire

The 2017 Byzantine Studies symposium

Posted on Aug 10, 2017 04:30 PM by Bailey Trela |
Rethinking Empire

Published a little more than a century ago, C. P. Cavafy’s haunting allegorical poem Waiting for the Barbarians is a particularly malleable elegy.

Set in a nebulous, vaguely imperial state on the day it is to be turned over to an encroaching barbarian horde, the poem describes the pendulous moment of transition when the pomp of rhetoric and glamor of an empire ascendant have given way to uncertainty, hollow dread, and ceaseless, destabilizing questioning. The purpose, meaning, and identify of the particular state is no longer the important concern; rather, the notion of empire itself, once so solid and a priori, has come into question. The poem might very well serve as a shorthand description for the aims of Dumbarton Oaks’s most recent Byzantine Studies symposium.

“Rethinking Empire,” held at Dumbarton Oaks between April 21 and 22, 2017, sought to situate Byzantine studies within a broader historical discussion, taken up by scholars of other hegemonic civilizations in recent years, about the nature of empire and imperialism as they’ve existed across different periods and geographical areas. Primarily, the symposium was aimed at interrogating Byzantine culture and imperial institutions, relations between core and periphery, and questions of ethnic diversity and territoriality. Coinciding with the centenary of the First World War, it was also concerned with comparisons over time and across space, and the competitive dynamics of imperial powers.

Former Director of Byzantine Studies Elena Boeck set the course for the symposium’s proceedings, describing their focus on the manner in which imperial identity was articulated and the mechanism of authority, and, on the other hand, the substructure beneath it all—the bureaucrats, image-makers, and lecturers who supported the empire.

The day’s lectures began with two brief presentations delivered by cosymposiarchs Paul Magdalino, of the University of St Andrews, and Dimiter Angelov, of Harvard University. Magdalino’s talk sounded the necessity for rethinking empire, calling it a “necessary step in the exploration of Byzantine political identity.” Examining the political states, or empires, that existed in the years leading up to the First World War, Magdalino teased out the remnants of the Roman conception of empire as they manifested in, among other things, architectural presentation.

The monumental architecture of capital cities was, and still is, dominated by triumphal columns and arches, and imperial leaders still claimed descent from Rome in their titles, like kaiser and czar, that are vernacular derivatives of caesar. As Magdalino attested, successful definitions of empire tend to involve comparison, and in that vein, he contended that kingship and empire are inseparable. The ritual consecration and establishment of heirs central to kingship are a first step in the establishment of empire.

Dimiter Angelov’s talk followed by attempting to define empire in a much more literal sense. His lecture analyzed the conceptual vocabulary of statehood. Examining the relative prominence of terms like arche and basileia, Angelov asserted that the diversity of appellations, and the lack of consensus on which to use and when, is revealing. Among the nuances of usage discussed by Angelov were the rise in frequency of basileia in the ninth century as a response to Charlemagne’s rule in the west, the relative rarity of autokratoria, and the perennial popularity of arche—used by Thucydides to describe the Athenian Empire, the persistence of arche in Byzantium marked a desire to claim continuity with the ancient world.

The symposium’s proceedings were divided into five thematic sections, the first of which, on “The Roman and Late Antique Matrix,” was chaired by John Duffy, of Harvard University. Emma Dench, also of Harvard University, examined contemporary scholarly approaches to understanding how the “premodern empire” of Rome functioned. Limning the history of traditional thought that viewed the Roman Empire as a singular belief system—and empire itself as a conversion process—Dench described the consequences of these theories. When one considers the Roman Empire as a belief system, with individual buy-in, rather than as a top-down model of ruling, Dench explained, the distance between rulers and subjects is minimized, and the importance of power structures is downplayed.

The next lecture, delivered by Sylvain Destephen, of the University of Paris, sought to analyze the effect of the gradual sedenterization of Byzantine emperors on imperial authority. Over time, Destephen explained, the figure of the peripatetic emperor—continuously travelling across the empire for diplomatic purposes and to reinforce hegemony visually—began to disappear, as imperial sojourns after 450 were limited more and more to the areas directly surrounding Constantinople. Various developments in the administrative structure of the empire, including a complex system of grants and privileges that helped to bolster authority in the provinces, led to the obsolescence of showy manifestations of dynastic legitimacy. In effect, as Destephen concluded, the emperor went unseen because there was no longer a need to be seen.

Ruth Macrides, of the University of Birmingham, chaired the next session, on “Territoriality and Ethnicity.” John Haldon, of Princeton University, began the afternoon’s talks by asking whether the realities of the Byzantine Empire’s geographical layout corresponded with how the empire perceived its borders. Haldon argued that eastern Romans understood their empire as a territorial entity with fluctuating boundaries whose mission was to reclaim lands lost to other powers and, in so doing, extend the territorial sway of Christianity. Over time, as the empire contracted, it still made concerted efforts to fit its conception of its imperial self to the territorial circumstances it found itself in.  

Tapping into a subject that would recur throughout the symposium—the status and role of the Byzantine Empire’s provincial elite—Vivien Prigent, of the French National Center for Scientific Research, outlined the ways in which Byzantium, using local elites, managed a relatively small pool of resources and ever-decreasing territorial holdings. The lynchpin of imperial control, as Prigent argued, was the locally supreme, nonaristocratic official who most likely would have held little sway in Constantinopolitan society. Using surviving seals to gauge the proliferation of titles and the number of provincial elites from the seventh to the eleventh century, Prigent described the complex relationship between local elites—who wanted their property protected and their power legitimated—and the imperial center of Byzantium, which linked an increasingly state-dependent elite to destabilization of the empire.

Questions of identity—the identity of an empire, and the identities of groups living within and constituting the empire—were central to the symposium. Accordingly, Anthony Kaldellis, of the Ohio State University, delivered the final lecture of the day, which asked a simply worded, though difficult to solve, question: Was Byzantium a multiethnic empire? Positing that one of the best methods for inserting Byzantine studies into the broader imperial turn in historical studies is to focus on the concept of ethnicity, Kaldellis began by outlining some of the difficulties in discussing ethnicity in Byzantium.

Previous studies documenting an alleged ethnic diversity, Kaldellis argued, in reality simply pointed to nonresidential communities as evidence of this diversity: prisoners of war, foreign ambassadors, itinerant merchants, and a small Muslim community, also possibly mercantile. Once this “Potemkin diversity” is brushed aside, Kaldellis claimed, it becomes clear that Byzantium, as a culture, has been denuded of its ethnic connotations—the Romans of Byzantium, as contemporary sources make clear, were once seen as an ethnic group.

Michael McCormick, of Harvard University, served as commentator for the first day of the symposium, leading a nearly hour-long discussion session on the day’s proceedings.

The second day of the symposium was given over to comparative approaches. Derek Krueger, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, chaired the day’s first thematic section, on early medieval empires in the Roman world. Jennifer Davis, of the Catholic University of America, began with a talk entitled “Rethinking Empire: The Carolingian Perspective.” Charlemagne’s reign, Davis contended, was shaped by the process of empire itself—rather than imposing policies from a center onto a periphery, Charlemagne employed a heuristic approach to empire, starting from pragmatics and developing policy from there. In the realm of political economy, for instance, there is little to no evidence of consistent, direct taxation in the Carolingian world. Rather, Davis said, the Carolingians combined multiple sources of irregular income, including tributes and plunder, that only became significant when aggregated.

Angel Nikolov, of the University of Sofia, continued to expand the territorial reach of the symposium, examining the conversion of Bulgaria into an Orthodox empire at the turn of the tenth century. His talk centered around Symeon I, the Bulgarian emperor who oversaw an escalation of military and political conflicts with the Byzantine Empire. Nikolov traced the origins of Symeon’s policies to those of his father, Boris-Michael, who converted the Bulgarians to Christianity, and the formative years he spent as a youth in Constantinople in the 870s.

As Nikolov demonstrated, Symeon was driven by a desire to supplant Byzantium as the center of eastern Christendom, a goal that manifested in such initiatives as the construction of churches and the prolific translation of patristic texts. Ultimately, Nikolov contended, a reinterpretation of the imperial project of Symeon I is overdue. For Symeon I, empire was not simply an instrument to abet the expansionist policies of his forebears, but a method of formalizing Bulgaria’s status as a religious center and, thereby, laying claim to the reins of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The next thematic section, chaired by Ioli Kalavrezou, of Harvard University, examined the culture of empire. Neils Gaul, of the University of Edinburgh, returned to one of the well-trod legends of Byzantium: its sprawling, top-heavy, and hopelessly complex bureaucracy. Analyzing the roles civil servants played as “agents of empire,” Gaul discussed the recruitment and educational practices that helped to develop the bureaucracy from the seventh century on. Trained in the basics of rhetoric and classicizing grammar (and aided in this process by schedography, the learning of impromptu rhetoric), budding civil servants were often put to display their learning in both written and oral form. Indeed, as Gaul explained, surviving evidence suggests that students were subject to elaborate and ceremonial oral entrance exams before they were allowed to enter the ranks of officeholders. Such contests, at least by the twelfth century, were even presided over by the emperor—though it’s likely, Gaul ceded, that a senior civil servant was tasked with the actual examination.

Civil servants were relied upon to link the empire, and to some degree, as Gaul attested, their reach defined the rather porous borders of the eastern Roman politeia. In this vein, the day’s proceedings continued with a more focused rumination on the nature of borders, delivered by Annabel Wharton, of Duke University. Centering her talk on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and attempts, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to replicate it in the form of texts, diagrams, drawings, and models, Wharton interrogated the significance of imperial peripheries, positing that these liminal spaces, rather than simply offering up their resources to imperial centers, can in fact define and challenge them.

In particular, Wharton analyzed the drawings of the Franciscan father Bernardino Amico, whose elaborate and precise architectural renderings of the Holy Sepulchre amounted to a printed walking tour. Employing craftsmen in Bethlehem, Amico even produced three-dimensional models of the structure, made of polished olive wood and camel bone and inlaid with mother-of-pearl—exploring the scaled models was, in a way, a surrogate pilgrimage. Throughout her talk, Wharton sought to draw parallels between the mimetic possession of the Holy Sepulchre, as offered by Amico’s artifices, and the general Christian desire to reclaim the Holy Land—a desire manifested, from time to time in history, by the violence of the crusades.

The symposium’s final thematic section was chaired by Robert Ousterhout, of the University of Pennsylvania, and focused on comparative contexts. In his talk, “The Long and Winding Road to Empire,” Cemal Kafadar, of Harvard University, looked at evidence for the gradual transformation of the Ottoman state into an empire over the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Kafadar began his exploration by analyzing transformations in the usage, over time, of the epithet “Rumi,” which denoted an individual from Rûm—that is, Rome.

With time, as Kafadar explained, “Rumi” began to be used to refer Muslims living in the (former) lands of Rûm; by the early thirteenth century, it was being used to describe Turkish-speaking Muslim urbanites and to distinguish them from Turks who had remained, so to speak, “ethnic.” As Kafadar made clear, his analysis arose from instances of Ottoman self-representation. Around 1500, he pointed out, Ottoman authors began to write collective biographies of the poets and artists of Rûm—in their own critical discourse, they began to speak of concepts like Rumi temperament, Rumi nature, Rumi manner, and Rumi comportment. As Kafadar argued, the development of the sense of empire was tied to this emotional and affective relation to the inhabited lands themselves.

Continuing the emphasis on comparative contexts, Michael Puett, of Harvard University, delivered an analysis of a rarely considered pairing of empires: those of Chinese late antiquity and the early Byzantine Empire. While comparisons between the Roman Empire and the Han dynasty of China have long fascinated scholars, Puett argued that subsequent regional empires, though less studied comparatively, share striking similarities, not the least of which is a traditionally skewed historical perspective. Just as the narrative of the fall of the Roman Empire has resulted, in part, from a later dominant western Europe reading history backward, so the history of China’s other regions has been elided by the latterly dominant southern coastal regions.

Running through a sketch of Chinese imperial history, Puett touched upon a number of familiar strategies in the consolidation of power, including the creation of a bureaucratic class to undercut aristocratic power. Eventually, as the imperial system overtook China, a new cosmological and ritual viewpoint superseded the paradigm of the divine right of kings; the ruler, rather than being a divine figure, was demoted, and became simply a son of heaven. Consequentially, as Puett explained, in a move redolent of the Byzantine emperors’ gradual confinement to Constantinople, rulers could no longer move through the entire realm or offer sacrifices in the provinces; this practice was instead enacted by local elites.

Paul Magdalino delivered the final lecture of the symposium, a wide-ranging reflection on the religious dimension of empire entitled “Rethinking Theocracy.” As Magdalino contended, the development of theocracy required monotheism; while countless political regimes throughout history have acknowledged the sovereignty of supernatural power, it is only beneath the brace of monotheism that the political articulation of obedience to an all-powerful deity is truly exemplified—and, thus, theocratic. Centering his discussion on the conversion of Constantine and his attempts to Christianize the cult of the Roman emperor, Magdalino described the “ideological repackaging” of the Roman state within an aura of sacredness, and the rhetorical articulation of this process.

The development of Byzantine theocracy, as Magdalino evinced, amounted to a repackaging of empire as an anticipation of the kingdom of God. It was deeply eschatological, an orientation that had its strengths in maintaining order but that lost its appeal when the end of the world lost its urgency. For theocratic Byzantium, inheriting the kingdom was more important than conquering the world.

Hearkening back to his previous talk, which had opened the symposium, Magdalino closed by reflecting on the concept of the “elect nation,” its remarkable success, and its cultural and historical survival into the modern age. In doing so, he touched upon nationalism, the perpetual play of borders, and the motifs developed by the Byzantine theocratic regime that have been redeployed, time and again, to justify empires.

Following Magdalino’s lecture, Maya Jasanoff, of Harvard University, served as commentator, leading a discussion that, while focusing on the second day’s talks, ranged over the entirety of the symposium’s proceedings—that is, centuries, continents, and empires.

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Lights in the Dark

Paul Magdalino delivers public lecture in Byzantine Studies

Posted on May 16, 2017 01:49 PM by Lain Wilson |
Lights in the Dark

When it comes to the seventh and eighth centuries in Byzantium—despite persistent attempts to illuminate the historical void—Paul Magdalino believes “darkness is still a rather appropriate description.”

In a recent lecture delivered at Dumbarton Oaks in conjunction with the Byzantine Studies program, Professor Magdalino sought to shed “material light” on these tenebrous centuries by analyzing the findings of recent excavations, among them a Byzantine port discovered in 2004 in the Yenikapı quarter of Istanbul.

The Byzantine Empire, and Constantinople in particular, was beset by a cavalcade of woes in the seventh and eighth centuries. Accordingly, Magdalino began his lecture by running through the miserable list: invasion, loss of territory, plague, violent regime change, the siege of the capital in 717–18, the devastating earthquake of 740, and, of course, iconoclasm—“which, if you happen to like icons, was a bit of a bad thing,” Magdalino added.

“Darkness” meant more than the merely grim, however. As Magdalino contended, “We are also largely in the dark when it comes to the seventh and eighth centuries.” Source material is at an all-time low, with much of it comprised by two rather “laconic” histories dating from the end of the period. These centuries are also some of the least rich in material artifacts; the modest amount of architecture that remains is, in conjunction with written sources, like “adding a dash of water to whisky to bring out the flavor.”

Much of Magdalino’s talk was concerned with repopulation and regeneration, which were central concerns of the Byzantine Empire in the seventh and eighth centuries. As Magdalino explained, the city of Constantinople was “a theater of power, alive with ceremonies.” Justinian II (685–95 and 705–11) created new ceremonial venues as part of a larger project to revive the empire and restore it to its former glories, while Constantine V (741–75), in addition to repairing crumbling aqueducts, attempted to repopulate the city after its decimation by plague.

In order to demonstrate how the complexities—political, ideological, and economic—of this period of Byzantine history could manifest in the built environment, Magdalino dwelt on the checkered history of the Hagia Eirene. Originally built in the fourth century, the structure burned down during the Nika revolt of 532. It was rebuilt in 548 only to be felled, once again, by an earthquake in 740. The church was restored under the reign of the arch-iconoclast Constantine V—hence the aniconic nature of its interior decorations, which include frescoes and mosaics.

That’s the traditional narrative, anyway. As Magdalino pointed out, recent developments in dendrochronology have pushed back aspects of the reconstruction, moving them into the reign of Empress Eirene, who, though officially reigning from 797 to 802, held power in some form from the 780s onward. The implications of these findings shed a significant amount of light on the priorities of Byzantium in the eighth century, Magdalino asserted. To start with the obvious: If a church could spend roughly sixty years in ruins, then church construction and maintenance were clearly not priorities in the eighth century.

These findings also highlight the status of icons at the end of the eighth century. The Second Council of Nicaea, convoked in part by Eirene in 787, officially restored the use and veneration of icons. With this in mind, the continued dominance of aniconic decorations in the church suggests that even ten years after the council, when the church was being renovated, the reintroduction of icons into Byzantine society was still proceeding rather cautiously.

The third point Magdalino stressed centered on the Short History of Nikephoros I, who lived from 758 to 828. The history, which ends with the year 769, describes the earthquake of 740 and its devastating effects on the built environment, but gives only one structure’s proper name: Hagia Eirene. In Magdalino’s interpretation, owing to the homonymity of church and empress, this singling out might be read as a “subtle encomium” to Eirene.

Magdalino then moved on to the Yenikapı quarter of Istanbul, where, since 2004, excavation efforts have been laying bare the largest man-made port in Constantinople, a site that contains, among other remains, thirty-seven shipwrecks. Because most of the jetties were made of wood, dendrochronology has allowed the construction of the jetties to be dated to the reign of Eirene. And yet, despite emerging information and continued excavation, the purpose of the port—what functions and communities it served—has remained unclear.

Answers to this fundamental question, Magdalino believes, are likely to be found in a nearby palace complex, also constructed—or rather reconstructed—under Eirene. The structure, likely a renovation of a Theodosian palace, served several purposes for the empress: it stored her gold, provided living spaces, contained workshops, and, more generally, acted as an economic center, boasting bakeries, a granary, and other production-oriented elements. Magdalino’s conclusion? The Yenikapı port was likely a surprisingly focused shipping center, tailored to the transportation needs of Eirene’s palace complex. 

At the end of his talk, Magdalino returned to the questions of repopulation and regeneration, which necessarily come with “ideological fanfare.” After an outbreak of plague in the middle of the eighth century, the reign of Constantine V was primarily focused on repopulation, Magdalino asserted; among other initiatives, Constantine V brought families from Greece who were skilled at shipping and settled them in harbor areas.

It was Eirene who turned her attention to the built environment, developing the physical power of her palace complex and refurbishing the Theodosian infrastructure that undergirt it. Ultimately, Magdalino closed, “the structures at Yenikapı show that regeneration in the seventh and eighth centuries was economic, and not just ideological.”

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In the Shadow of a Cathedral

Nicolas Beaudry investigates a lived space of Byllis, Albania

Posted on May 11, 2017 12:43 PM by Bailey Trela |
In the Shadow of a Cathedral

Nicolas Beaudry, a professor in the Department of Literature and Humanities at the University of Quebec at Rimouski, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in spring 2017. For more than a decade, Beaudry has worked on the site of Byllis, an ancient city located in modern-day Albania. His recent research report delivered an archaeological study of the city’s episcopal quarter, examining the everyday uses of a space adjacent to the city’s cathedral, which included production of goods like wine and oil.

Brief Q&A with Nicolas Beaudry

What’s it like to work with the same site for such a long period of time?

Working long-term on a site is a different experience from working for a few seasons. Not only are you learning about the site—obviously your knowledge of the site is going to increase—but your perceptions of the site are also changing over time, and so are your research questions, your methods and your strategies. You are changing too, the people around you are changing and keeping a team together for a long period may be a challenge. But I had the privilege of working with a team of dedicated colleagues and we all have learned a lot from each other.

 

How is the space in the episcopal quarter divided up? Is that a common structure? The courtyard structure, the cathedral?

Bishoprics have been studied mostly as religious centers, as seats of power, or as architectural features in the urban landscape. The layout of the episcopal quarter is not necessarily unique. It’s not that surprising to find habitat and production facilities adjoining a cathedral, which is what we have at Byllis, but the areas where they concentrate lie in the shadow of monumental architecture. What we’re focusing on are spaces and functions that have not received all the attention I think they deserve.

 

What’s the evidence for winemaking, or other processes of production, that you’ve found? How do you determine what’s being made in this space?

Most production processes are known from textual sources, ethnography, and archeology. Architectural features can be the most obvious clues to the function of a space: a building which includes treading vats, a fermentation tank, and containers for fermentation and storage was obviously a winery. But the archaeological record may also include the tools, the raw materials, the products, and the waste of production activities. The production of olive oil at Byllis is attested by an olive mill, by press weights, and by botanical remains, while animal husbandry is documented by architectural features and faunal remains. A whole range of material evidence confirms that one of the rooms was devoted to the preparation of food.

 

I’m interested in the divide between social archaeology and monumental archaeology. How did you get into social archaeology and why do you find it interesting?

Classical archaeology has a long tradition of focusing on monumental architecture. But monuments are social productions and they are agents of social life, so an archaeology focused on monuments and an archaeology focused on social issues are not mutually exclusive. In Byllis I worked on an episcopal complex, but backstage, at the opposite end of the monumental façade of the cathedral, where the life and work of a small society maintained the bishopric as a social and economic agent. This is where discrete, mundane daily practices occurred, this is where lives were lived; investigating these practices is a way to relate to and understand this past society.

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Going Out into the Desert

John Zaleski investigates the Syriac ascetic tradition

Posted on May 11, 2017 12:42 PM by Bailey Trela |
Going Out into the Desert

John Zaleski, a PhD candidate in medieval studies at Harvard, is currently a Tyler fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. His research employs a comparative approach to examine the dynamic interactions between Christianity and Islam in the medieval Middle East. “Asceticism East of Byzantium,” his recent research report, traced his work with Syriac Christian and early Muslim ascetic literature from the seventh to ninth century.

Brief Q&A with John Zaleski

In your talk, you described the “spirituality of dehydration” and the act of denying oneself water. I’m wondering if avoiding liquids, and not just food, becomes a more potent aspect of this asceticism, and if it’s connected to any environmental factors, like a dryer climate, for instance.

Well, to start, it’s an idea that you see in later Syriac monastic sources. Generally, I’ve started to look at eighth- and ninth-century texts and the ways in which they talk about restrictions on food and water intake, and what I’ve found is that they do it in terms that are very similar to those used in the Greek monastic literature and in the commentarial literature. The basic idea is that by restricting food and drink, which of course are a constant source of temptation, you actually create physiological changes in your body which will help you attain the real goal, which is to overcome, or, more precisely, to redirect, your desires toward God. Now, whether it has anything to do with climate—I think there is sort of an indirect connection in the sense that early monasticism began in the desert, but it was as much an imaginary desert as a real one.

These monks—and this continues in the Syriac tradition—see themselves as, in their words, “going out into the desert.” The idea is that you leave society, you leave the city to go out into the desert, and that’s where you’re able to confront your own passions, as well as the demons that have been obstructing you. You’re battling both internal and external forces, and you have to go out into the desert to confront them. So it’s difficult to say, because quite literally they’re in a dry environment, but the desert is also an ideal, which they’re trying to internalize in their own bodies by “drying” out the lusts of the body. At the same time, I think we have to be careful of overplaying the desert environment aspect of it. I think it’s equally important to look at the ways these monks are interacting with people from the cities, the monasteries, and developing urban environments.

 

I was wondering if you could talk more about Muslim asceticism as an urban phenomenon, which you discussed in your talk.

Well, generally speaking, Muslim asceticism is an urban phenomenon, which stems from the fact that early Islam is predominantly urban. In Mesopotamia in the early Islamic period, for instance, the physical arrangement of the population demonstrates this. Again, Muslims are a minority, but they’re concentrated in cities, and the countryside is then primarily Christian, or pagan, or non-Muslim. You do have communities of Muslim devout that are set up away from the cities, but that’s the exception. Practicing piety, including ascetic piety, for the most part takes place within the cities, where Muslims are living.

 

Does that mean, with these urban monasteries, that you see less of an emphasis on production?

Not really. Production is still important—they become very important centers for wine production, for example. Now, just because Muslims aren’t supposed to produce wine, that doesn’t mean they don’t consume wine. It’s a common misconception that because it was against Islamic law that nobody was drinking wine. Quite the contrary, both Muslims and Christians go to the monasteries in order to drink wine. And then in the countryside you still have agricultural production going on—that continues to be important for eastern Christian monasticism.  

 

Why is it handier, or best, to work with the commentarial literature that springs up around these texts?

I think a lot of people have been interested in the connections between early Islamic and eastern Christian religious practices—theology in general, and asceticism and mysticism in particular. There’s a tendency, when people are interested in these comparisons, to compare early Islamic sources to the Greek and Latin ascetic materials that we’re more familiar with in more broad terms. The commentaries really teach us how to understand the Syriac ascetic and mystic tradition in relation to its Greek sources. In my view, Syriac asceticism, or rather monastic and ascetic Syriac authors, become by the seventh century very closely engaged with Greek traditions. Looking at how they’re explicitly commenting on, and interpreting, Greek sources allows us to talk about that, more so than if we’re just trying to talk about structural and thematic parallels between Syriac and Greek sources.

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The Lost Archive

Anna Leone revisits the excavation history of Dibsi Faraj

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

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

Brief Q&A with Anna Leone

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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Micha Lazarus Joins Byzantine Studies as a One-Month Research Award Recipient

Posted on Mar 22, 2017 01:14 PM by Lain Wilson |

We are pleased to welcome Micha Lazarus, who joins Byzantine Studies as a one-month research award recipient this March. Lazarus is a Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, working on the influence of classical poetics on Renaissance English literature.

Lazarus received degrees from Oxford (BA Hons), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of California, Berkeley (MA), before returning to Oxford for a DPhil on the reception of Aristotle’s Poetics in Renaissance England, several decades before it is usually thought to have become available. Since then he has taught Renaissance literature at both Oxford and Cambridge, and is expanding his thesis into a monograph for Oxford University Press. His work at Dumbarton Oaks will explore Greek imperial and Byzantine rhetoric as the dominant disciplinary context through which the Poetics circulated in Renaissance Europe for the first fifty years of its life in print.

Micha has published several articles on Renaissance literature and criticism, new manuscript discoveries, and the classical tradition, focusing in particular on the influence of Greek in sixteenth-century England. In 2012, he was awarded the Gordon Duff Prize in book history, and, in 2016, held a research fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, for work on Aldus Manutius. He is coinvestigator on English Renaissance Poetics Online, a digital project mapping the influence of classical and Renaissance poetics in English writing from 1500 to 1700, and this year is convening “Poetics before Modernity,” a seminar series exploring new work on Western literary theory from its ancient beginnings to 1700.

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Restoring a Village

Michail Kappas visualizes and preserves the Greek village of Kastania

Posted on Mar 16, 2017 11:07 AM by Bailey Trela |
Restoring a Village

Michail Kappas is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Since 2005, he has worked as an archaeologist in the Ephorate of Antiquities of Messenia, Peloponnese, in Greece, where he currently holds the position of the Director of the Department of Byzantine Monuments. He has supervised an extensive restoration program of more than forty churches, monasteries, and castles in the region. His recent research report detailed his restoration work, and the academic research supporting it, at the village of Kastania.

A Brief Q&A with Michail Kappas

How did you get attracted to Kastania? Why did you choose to work with it, and how did you start?

Kastania has an amazing concentration of Byzantine monuments, and yet it’s still a nice village—because it’s quite isolated, it hasn’t been changed by tourism, so the village identity is still preserved there. I think it’s important to study the secret core of the Byzantine economy—that is, the village’s role in agricultural production—and to see how this primary level of economic activity affects the artistic environment of the village. It’s interesting to consider how everyday life, in terms of economic and production cycles, affected a village’s worship, its rituals, and so on. To that end, Kastania is a nice case study, because it combines religious sites, private houses, and agricultural facilities.

As far as how I started working with Kastania: I was responsible for the restoration of the monuments in this village, and there were a few of great importance that were in a very bad state of preservation, so I had to make several visits to document the monumental environment and find sources to start researching the restoration projects. That whole process—getting our hands on permissions and studies, finding funding and laborers, developing a plan—took something like six or seven years.

 

In your talk you mentioned some confrontations with the villagers and having to convince some members of the community to send of the town’s objects for restoration. Could you talk more about that?

That was a difficult process. At the beginning, when we started getting objects from the village in order to conserve them, all the old ladies thought we were going to grab the objects from the village and put them in a museum. So, initially, they were hostile. They locked the churches, they had all the men form a defensive wall to prevent us from getting at some of the objects—the police actually had to help us do our job, they had to escort us. We were acting on behalf of the state, we were state employees: the preservation of cultural heritage is our main duty. When the villagers realized that our purpose was to conserve the objects, after they saw that we actually were returning the objects and putting them back in the churches, and they could continue their worship, their attitude changed. They realized we were only trying to keep the cultural heritage of the village in the village.

But there were other conflicts, too. Apart from restoring the monuments, our duty is to control the building activity within the village, which means enforcing rules about where and what the villagers can build. As you might imagine, this policy provokes a lot of conflict. So we try to keep a balance—we had to show the villagers that we weren’t there to control them, but to preserve their cultural heritage.

 

I’m really interested in the process of doing architectural restoration and basing it off of textual sources—how do you go about this? How do you determine what a building should look like from a text?

There is no connection between textual sources and buildings. It’s very rare to find specific descriptions in Byzantine sources that give details about a building precise enough to allow you to visualize it. So the study of buildings is based on the study of Byzantine architecture, a discipline that goes back almost a century and a half; it’s probably the best-studied aspect of Byzantine civilization. We have books on the subject from the 1850s up to recent times, which really help to define the evolution of Byzantine architecture from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. They break down the buildings into morphology, typologies—specific layers of analysis that help us to determine what the authentic structure is.

You have to study the building, and document it through excavation and through precise drawings. It’s very important to understand that the building carries many, many levels of information, because it’s been used for so many centuries. Once you’ve identified the repairs to the structure, and once you’ve found the different phases of the building, you then have a narrative of its history—and of course, the building echoes the people who built it, the people that used it. By trying to understand the history of a building in its village context, you actually come to an understanding—if it’s a church, for example—of the flock that used it.

In most cases, we do have the churches. As you can imagine, houses were much less sturdily built. The houses that exist now in the village generally date from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, but when we do excavations, we often find traces of previous houses—Byzantine houses that actually had a similar design. But when you’re studying a building, whether secular or ecclesiastical, you have to define its use through the centuries, and then make a decision as far as restoration is concerned—what specific phase is important? What do you have to sacrifice? There are interventions that have added up over the years that actually cause, I would say, less authenticity in the monument. But of course, once you start working on a monument, you inevitably lose part of its authenticity—even the fact that the building looks old, well, after the restoration, it doesn’t look old anymore.

But we do have to restore, we have to stabilize this history—because otherwise it might collapse. We might lose it.

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Teaching a Younger Crowd

Teaching Fellows’ Day Invites Undergraduates to Consider Byzantium Anew

Posted on Mar 02, 2017 11:15 AM by Bailey Trela |
Teaching a Younger Crowd

For a Saturday morning, the Oak Room was surprisingly chockablock. Seats, set in rows that stretched the full length of the space, bore a crowd of nearly one hundred people. The attendees hailed from a variety of D.C. institutions.

On February 25, Dumbarton Oaks held its seventh annual Teaching Fellows’ Day. The event, which is organized by Dumbarton Oaks’ postdoctoral teaching fellows in Byzantine studies, invites students from D.C.-area universities to introduce them to research and resources at Dumbarton Oaks through scholarly presentations and gallery tours.

This year, the day took as its theme the nature of capital cities and their place at the center of the artistic, political, and administrative life of empires. “At the Center of Empire” examined these matters through the lens of Constantinople, while at the same time foregrounding Dumbarton Oaks’ own resources, collections, and contributions to the field of Byzantine studies.

In his opening remarks, Director Jan Ziolkowski contrasted the “huffing and puffing of empty manipulation” that frequently characterized the Byzantine bureaucracy with the abundance of “real people with real passion and talent” working at Dumbarton Oaks, and in the field at large. Elena Boeck, director of Byzantine Studies, followed suit in her remarks, adjuring “potential future Byzantinists” in the audience “to come to the good side.”

The morning was given over to a series of three talks that focused on the relationship between the capital city of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire. In “Reflections of a Capital City,” Elizabeth Dospel Williams, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine art history at Dumbarton Oaks and George Washington University, began the scholarly proceedings by attempting to provide a “vivid vision of early Constantinople—its monuments, its arts, and its culture.”

The difficulty in reconstructing the past in a convincing, even realistic manner, as Williams asserted, is that we can only access the past through its fragments. “And the thing is, very few artifacts can be linked with absolute certainty to production in Constantinople,” she explained. “Almost all our objects and evidence have been found outside” of the capital. She went on to examine commercial interactions between Byzantium and Europe through the lens of silks and their production, in the process utilizing objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection.

In his paper, Jonathan Shea, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine history at George Washington University and Dumbarton Oaks, analyzed the Byzantine bureaucracy and conflicts between the urban and provincial parts of the empire. Shea described the eleventh and twelfth centuries as “a little odd,” a time when “the first grumblings of the system of government being broken began to emerge.”

Shea described a reckless granting of titles that eventually snowballed out of control. As more and more titles, each with their attendant payment of gold, were granted, the government was forced to devalue its money, at which point people began to demand newer, grander titles (with grander payments of gold). Throughout his talk, though especially in his discussion of titles, Shea utilized the collection of Byzantine seals at Dumbarton Oaks, tracking the appearance of new titles and descriptions in the seals to determine large-scale shifts in administrative power.

Nathanael Aschenbrenner, a Tyler Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks and PhD candidate in the history department at Harvard, delivered the final talk of the morning, “From Imperial City to Urban Empire.” He brought the day’s theme to a very literal conclusion, examining how, in the fifteenth century, Constantinople slowly morphed from the capital of the Byzantine Empire to the empire itself. As the empire lost large swaths of territory and saw its political influence in the region shrink accordingly, it was forced to redefine what “empire” meant, not only in the political sense, but also ideologically and metaphysically.

The event itself attracted a variety of students at different stages in their academic careers, each of them seeking to get something different out of the day. Marcellino Velasquez, for instance, a freshman at George Washington University, was excited to engage with those resources and aspects of the institution that might typically be more difficult to access: “It’s a unique opportunity—I knew we’d be able to see things we wouldn’t usually be able to see.”

Though he hasn’t decided on a major yet, Velasquez is confident he’ll be choosing between history and architecture, or some combination of the two. To that end, the day offered a chance to engage with a subject that—with its emphasis on basilicas, monumental painting, and the built environment of late antiquity—often straddles the two fields.

“I think Byzantine history is really interesting,” Velasquez said, pinpointing the morning lectures as particularly piquant. “I never knew the dynamics of their politics, how these emperors each came to power and overhauled the system of government, changing it to their own tastes, to work for them, obviously.”

For others, the day was an opportunity to explore established interests. Luke Garoufalis, a sophomore at George Washington currently enrolled in two of Jonathan Shea’s classes, traces his interest in Byzantium to his Greek heritage: “I remember my family always talking a lot about it (they still do), and then I learned about it in church school—so I’ve really always had an interest in Byzantium.”

Several of the talks, seeking a relevance to current political events, drew comparisons between the Byzantine past and the current political climate in America; it was an effort that Garoufalis found intriguing. “To learn about this exclusionary system set up in Byzantium, a system that’s very focused on the capital, and then this feeling of revolt against that setup—I think there are definitely connections there, and perspectives to be gained.”

Erin Haas, a freshman at George Washington, is planning to double major in history and art history. She wants to concentrate her studies on the Middle East, pursuing an interest that she developed in high school. Though Haas had never heard of Dumbarton Oaks before, she was excited to learn about the institution and its own specialties.

The afternoon was given over to a series of gallery tours and informal lectures on various projects currently ongoing at Dumbarton Oaks. Students explored museum storage, visited the special collections, listened to curators, and learned about publication initiatives and educational programming—and, ideally, learned a little bit more about the inner workings of an institution that, though not nearly as complex as the empires it studies, combines a diverse bevy of projects and approaches in the service of scholarship.

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Imagining the Empress

The Ephemera Collection Expands in an Upcoming Exhibit

Posted on Mar 01, 2017 11:39 AM by Bailey Trela |
Imagining the Empress

It was “the supreme spectacle of the age,” according to one effusive advertisement. In 1922, the Astor Theater in New York screened Theodora, an Italian silent film about the scandalous life of the eponymous sixth-century Byzantine empress. The film featured live lions, a cast of twenty-five thousand people, and reconstructed Byzantine architecture, sculpture, and mosaics. Most important, however, was the “love-mad woman” at the heart of it all.

This film, like several others of its day, was born from a larger western fascination with the empress Theodora. In the early 1880s, average people in Europe and North America became increasingly interested in the aesthetics and style of Byzantium. The French playwright Victorien Sardou propelled the empire into the mainstream with his sensational 1884 play Théodora, which starred the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt as the empress and boasted extravagant sets and costumes. The following decades saw Theodora transformed from an obscure historical figure to an icon of fashion, theater, and film. Her face appeared on postcards, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Many westerners received their first exposure to the Byzantine world through these imaginative renderings of Theodora.

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives is excited to announce the arrival of a new exhibit focusing on this cultural phenomenon. Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922, was curated by Lane Baker, postgraduate fellow in ephemera, in conjunction with the Dumbarton Oaks Archives’ Ephemera Collection, a new and growing assemblage of historical ephemera related to the institution’s three programs of study. The exhibit aims to expose viewers to the ways in which a single historical figure infiltrated popular culture and helped bring an awareness of Byzantium—albeit a skewed one—to the general populace.

Though Dumbarton Oaks began acquiring ephemera in 2015 and has continued at a steady pace since then, the collection’s focus on Theodora is a new phenomenon. In fact, many of the objects on display, which range from buttons to postcards to theater programs, are new acquisitions. “Part of the idea behind the exhibit was to assess the collection as a whole,” Baker explains. “We wanted to find interesting themes in what we already had, and then pursue more focused acquisitions from there.”

Of course, ephemera present their own unique curatorial challenges. “When you’re working with these disparate types of materials—buttons, postcards, newspaper advertisements—it’s difficult to tie them together in a compelling way,” Baker says. In the early stages of planning, Baker researched methods of displaying ephemera and other exhibitions that had effectively utilized the fleeting materials. Ultimately, he decided that an exhibit that relied solely on one type of object (like postcards) would be difficult to pull off.

Instead, Baker opted for a chronological approach, capable of encompassing a wide array of materials. “Essentially, the exhibit moves from the foundations of the Theodora craze, in Sardou’s play, all the way to the conclusion of the craze, with film posters from the 1920s,” he explains.

This broadened purview means the exhibit can include anything, from a set of cameo-bearing buttons—designed as party-going accessories that were meant to be affixed to a sash—to an elegant 1902 play program for Sardou’s Théodora, designed by the famed jeweler and artist René Lalique.

The program, as Baker explains, is a curio. “In a lot of ways, it’s really different from what we’d expect from a program—it has concept sketches, costume models, set designs, small bits of sheet music, some of Sardou’s notes. It’s sort of a behind-the-scenes view of the play.” The program’s assortment of background trivia that gesture at the mechanics of Sardou’s spectacle emphasizes that the play, like the larger Theodora phenomenon, was about the larger world of Byzantium as well.

“I think Theodora, as an idea and a cultural phenomenon, really captures a good idea of what ephemera can be, and what they can express,” Baker says. Not only did the empress-craze find its way into the manifold crannies of consumer culture—it also found there, in each postcard and button, a unique, and often beautiful, expression.

 

Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922 will be on display at Dumbarton Oaks in the Orientation Gallery when the museum reopens in spring 2017. In the meantime, interested readers can browse selections from the ephemera collection.

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No New Saints

Sergey Ivanov Reconsiders the Unorthodox Saints’ Lives of the Tenth Century

Posted on Feb 21, 2017 02:20 PM by Bailey Trela |
No New Saints

Sergey Ivanov, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in spring 2017, is a professor at the National Research University in Moscow. His recent research has focused on Byzantine hagiography, specifically the lives of two Constantinopolitan saints, Basil the Younger and Niphon. At Dumbarton Oaks, Ivanov will be working on a critical edition of the life of St. Niphon, a narrative he believes is a long-neglected masterpiece of Byzantine literature.

Brief Q&A with Sergey Ivanov

In your talk, you discussed a ban that was placed on the creation of new saints because there had been a sudden proliferation of narratives. I was hoping you could talk more about why and how this ban was enacted.

This is a multifaceted problem, because it derives both from the function of literature and the function of religion, and, generally speaking, the function of society. So really, we should first ask ourselves, why should a society need saints to begin with? There was a time when there were Christians but no saints, so sainthood as a concept is a relatively late phenomenon. Gradually, there emerged a vague feeling within the Christian community that sanctity exists, somehow, in the air, that it’s unleashed suddenly on an individual, sometimes even a person who doesn’t seem to deserve it. But regardless, he is endowed with sanctity.

For example, there is a very important early Byzantine legend about a robber who tries to rob a nunnery. To get inside, he pretends that he’s a wandering beggar so that the nuns will open the gates for him. And meanwhile his fellow robbers are waiting outside—he has to settle inside and open the gates for them. Anyway, when the nuns see the robber, they say, “Oh, a great saint has visited us,” and they prostrate themselves before him. He’s of course disconcerted, protests that they must be mistaken, but they insist—“We can’t make a mistake, you are a great saint!” Eventually he becomes so fed up that he admits he is a robber, to which they reply something along the lines of, “Such humiliation is only proper to great saints—they always take upon themselves the sins of others.” And they proceed to wash his feet, at which point a blind nun who has touched the water suddenly begins to see. Afterwards, the robber recognizes that something bigger than himself is demanding a different life from him, so he promises to become a monk and organize a monastery side by side with the nunnery—and all of his gang, still waiting outside, become his fellow monks.

What does this story tell us? Sanctity is not a decision—it is something unleashed from above. In my opinion, hagiography as literature is secondary to this intimation of culture, which really comes from a deep abyss of unconscious, that is, the societal imagination, where the idea has its roots. For example, we have the story of St. Isidora, a nun who pretended to be insane at a monastery in Tabennisi, in Egypt, and her story looks very much like Cinderella’s. Which comes first, Cinderella or Isidora? It’s difficult to say, because both of these stories were born in the subliterary folk consciousness. Over time this consciousness begins to take the shape of a text, of literature, and then becomes an independent genre with its own rules. But it’s still relying heavily on the same “anticipation of sanctity,” this feeling that somewhere, though we don’t know where, someone, though we don’t know who, is a saint.

And then, for unknown reasons, this hagiographic habit, this anticipation, begins to wane—it wanes as unexpectedly as it emerged, and we feel in the texts a certain half-heartedness. More and more hagiographers resort to the earlier examples, to the saints of old, to martyrs, to hermits, and they even begin to write in certain lives that the saint, our hero, had read the lives of previous saints and decided to conduct himself in a comparable way. So saints are becoming saints because they read the lives of saints—it’s a self-reproducing system. And this is detrimental for hagiography because the narratives become more and more dry; there is no vivid spirit in it anymore.

Eventually the writers—people who otherwise write with inspiration—begin looking for means to circumvent this lack of inner feeling, so some of them start to write psychological prose under the name of vita. Now they write just as though they’re writing novels—the first one, in my opinion, was Niphon, who was an absolutely literary character. Another means of avoiding this lack of inner feeling would be versification, because it’s easier to say nothing in verse than in prose. A third way was compiling huge anthologies, so the saints then come in scores. In my opinion, these processes, which are taking place in the tenth and eleventh centuries, are all interrelated.

 

The narrative of Niphon’s life, as you described it, is quite strange when compared to the status quo. He wasn’t born a saint, or it didn’t suddenly come upon him, and he goes through these classic trials of concupiscence and so on. You also mentioned that you consider it a masterpiece of Byzantine literature, so I’m wondering what scholarly opinion you would like to see emerge from a reevaluation of Niphon’s life.

Well, Niphon is not alone. He’s a representative of a group of at least four saints—a group that includes Andrew the Fool and Gregentios—who, though they’re not quite as impressive, are still very unorthodox saints. One of them was published on extensively ten years ago, another was published on about twenty years ago, but the remaining two, Basil the Younger and Niphon, still deserve critical publication. I plan to work on commentaries for the forthcoming editions of Niphon’s life, and I think I’ll also contribute to the new publication of the oldest Greek version of the vita of Basil the Younger.

As a final outcome, I hope this work will add to our understanding of the relations between the ordinary hagiography of the tenth century, which is numerous, and this shocking, outstanding group of vitae. I seriously doubt they are a piece of truly vernacular literature; I think those who wrote these texts were very learned people, intentionally writing in lower style. It’s still an open question, of course, but I think someday we’ll be able to answer it.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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Refinding the Way

Hendrik Dey Investigates the Via Triumphalis in Medieval Rome

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
Refinding the Way

Hendrik Dey, a professor of art history at Hunter College, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. His research focuses on architecture and urbanism in the Latin West in late antiquity, with particular emphasis on the reshaping of Roman urban paradigms by the ideological and practical considerations of late antiquity. Dey’s recent research report, “Walking in the Footsteps of Giants: The Triumphal Way in Byzantine Rome,” analyzed the repurposing of the famous parade route during the period of Byzantine rule at Rome from the sixth to the eighth century. At a time when most of the city was depopulated and decrepit, Dey argued, the church and Byzantine administration sought to preserve and embellish the Via Triumphalis to serve their own purposes.

Brief Q&A with Hendrik Dey

In your talk you mentioned the work of Richard Krautheimer. For the uninitiated, myself among them, who was Krautheimer? What was the significance of his work, and how do you relate to it?

Richard Krautheimer was a German Jew who immigrated to the United States in the thirties, when he was already a distinguished scholar. He taught at various places in America, eventually ending up at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He’s famous for being the lead author of the five-volume Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae, the compendium of all medieval churches in the city of Rome, which was written in Latin. He was the undisputed expert on churches in the city of Rome, and when he was eighty-three, in 1980, he published a shorter, more accessible book, Rome: Profile of a City, 312–1308, which is his kind of synthesis, in some way, of a thousand years of medieval Roman topography and history of art and architecture. Then he went on to live until he was ninety-seven years old, and taught three generations of students—Krautheimer students, and their students, are everywhere around the world.

So he wrote this great book about medieval Rome, and people are still reading it today. But he wrote it in the seventies, which was just before people started doing serious medieval archaeology in Rome, so he could really only talk about the extant remains of the middle ages, in particular churches and monasteries. But forty years of medieval archaeology have told us all kinds of things—the shape of the city, where most people were living, how they were living—that Krautheimer had no idea about. He didn’t know where people were living in medieval Rome; he thought that most people were living on a tiny bend of the Tiber River in the sixth century. They weren’t; they were scattered all over the place. He didn’t know what people’s houses looked like in the early middle ages, because no early medieval houses had been found.

So I don’t want to say anything about churches. Krautheimer forgot more about churches than I’ll ever know. I’d like this to be a complement to Krautheimer. I’d like to do the rest of life in medieval Rome, daily secular civic life: how and where people were living and fighting and working and producing and eating and interacting with each other, outside of the church.

 

In broad terms, what was the purpose of revitalizing the Triumphal Way?

I think the purpose was to use what you already have in Rome, and what you have is a particularly beautiful, monumental, and architecturally distinguished parade street. In the early middle ages, you don’t have anything like the resources to maintain or even populate most of the city, so the people in charge—the civic administration, the representatives of the Byzantine administration—focus their efforts on the areas where they think that they can derive particular benefit from repairing and reusing. So if you want it to look as though Rome is still glorious, as though the city you minister is still directly tied to the majesty of what it was when it was ancient Rome, then the best place to do that is the Triumphal Way.

So the Byzantine administrators appropriate that space, and when they move the organs of civic government—the prisons, the places for judicial assemblies, the places where judges are, where ceremonial implements are kept—they put them in close proximity to that particular road, so that on the days when you have both civic and religious processions, the spectacle of the ancient city is as close to undiminished as it could possibly be. But if you go behind those colonnades, it’s a different story, and this is why colonnades are so useful; they’re the perfect screen for all the squalor and degradation and depopulation which is happening behind them. But within the monumental contours of the parade route things look like they’re just about as great as ever.

 

I’m interested in elements of the city that have been forgotten over time. In your talk, you discussed structures and locations—the Tarentum, the Porticus Crinorum—that seem to be symbolic points along the Triumphal Way, but you go about their meaning through etymological routes. How much of the uncertainty as to their true meaning and significance is modern, and how much was present back in late antiquity?

Well, we have to define our periods here. In the fourth century, which is still basically ancient Rome, people still understood the original significance of everything, and in the sixth and seventh and eight centuries, there was certainly more of a direct connection to ancient Rome. But names like the Porticus Crinorum only show up in the twelfth century. Now, that’s not to say they didn’t exist in the eighth century. I think that they probably did. One of the points I was trying to make in my talk is that, by the twelfth century, memories of the ancient city and ancient topography and ancient institutions are sometimes wildly fanciful. Sometimes they’re not, sometimes people remember what these things originally were. But very often they don’t.

We actually have good sources for this. There are guidebooks or compendia of the sights of Rome that are compiled starting in the twelfth century in which you get long accounts of all of these ancient buildings, some of which are identified correctly, and some of which are completely fantastic things. For instance, here was a dining room made entirely out of glass and crystal that spun to mirror the course of the stars through the sky; here there used to be a dragon, and so on. So I have to use a lot of twelfth-century sources because the sources for the tenth and eleventh centuries are basically nonexistent. To get at the seventh and eighth centuries, I need to look at both what was there before and, in some ways more importantly, what was there after, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and see if there are reasons for imagining that the kind of stories and institutions that are described then can plausibly be put further back in time. So you have to put together these chains of conjecture, and some of them will be plausible, and some of them won’t be.

 

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The Monks at the Theater

Agnieszka Szymańska Discusses the Unlikely Design of the Red Monastery

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Monks at the Theater

Agnieszka Szymańska, a PhD candidate in art history at Temple University, is a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Her research report, “Divine Spectacle: The Early Byzantine Triconch at the Red Monastery in Egypt,” focused on the titular monastery and its extensive and well-preserved wall paintings. While many early Byzantine religious authorities condemned theatrical performances, as Szymańska argued, the Red Monastery actually emulates the decorative facades of open-air theaters. Attempting to determine why a monastic environment would contain such theatrical structural elements, her talk analyzed the church sanctuary as a vivid backdrop for a spiritual performance known, in literary sources, as divine contemplation.

Brief Q&A with Agnieszka Szymańska

How did you get into studying this particular subject matter? How did you narrow your focus both to the Red Monastery as a site, and then to theatricality as an approach?

Well, I was studying Byzantine art history when I went to Egypt and started doing fieldwork. Egypt didn’t feature prominently in my studies, so I actually wasn’t thinking of it in terms of Byzantium before I went there. My first visit involved archaeological fieldwork, which I had no prior experience with, and that’s when I realized there are actually so many archaeological records for the early Byzantine period that have survived in good condition in Egypt. So it hit me at that moment, there in the desert, that I’d been partially blind to this art-historical paradise!

In Egypt, I was working a lot with ceramics and painted plaster fragments, and the process of reconstructing images with these fragments—handling them, being surrounded by trays filled with hundreds of fragments—really drew my attention to the materiality of wall paintings. And of course, it then made me look at wall paintings in situ from a completely different perspective. I began to look for details that I hadn’t even thought of looking for before.

Eventually I went to the Red Monastery for a visit. I’d heard about this monument before I went, but nothing can prepare you for an in-person visit. So I got there, I saw this building that looks like an ancient Egyptian temple on the outside, and then I entered the sanctuary and—it just blew my mind, the richness of color. And it’s hard to see at first what’s underneath the paint, because it really is astounding. You think, as an art historian, “This is a fifth-century monument, the paintings are sixth century, and they’re virtually intact,” and you just can’t get past that realization for many visits. After a while I became interested in the architectural sculpture underneath the paint, and I began to pay attention to the three-dimensionality of the space. One day I was reading a fourth-century monastic text and I started to ask myself why the monks would have wanted that space to look this particular way. And, for me, the idea of theater—of theatricality and performance—was the way to resolve that question.

 

Another fellow here, Hendrik Dey, recently gave a research report that mentioned the influence of theatrical structures on the Via Triumphalis in Rome. I’m wondering if this theatrical approach is new in the field?

I think so. Especially for the early Byzantine period, when you don’t have a lot of surviving architectural interiors in which you can immerse yourself and see the intended visual impact of the space and experience it. It’s hard to think about theatricality when you interact with a museum object, or with a painting that’s been removed from its site. But when you find yourself actually inside this unique specimen, this site that looks like a theater covered with paintings that represent theatrical elements, it makes you reevaluate your approach.

For the early Byzantine period, people weren’t looking for this for the simple reason that there was no place to look, not enough had survived. But, generally speaking, I think it’s an exciting line of inquiry that’s garnered more attention in recent years because the larger question is how images functioned within visual culture. In the past, a lot of the academic emphasis has been on visuality, that is, the historical construction of sight. That was focused on the way we see, and the way we’re conditioned to see. But that’s only part of the story. The idea of theatricality and performance includes and encompasses visuality, but it’s also about the body moving in and through the space, about the rituals being performed there, and about the sounds, which we can’t hear now, that were part of the experience. So I think it’s a more comprehensive reconstruction that reintegrates the images with the experiences they intended to create.

 

Dumbarton Oaks recently held a colloquium on Byzantine monumental painting that touched on many of the same issues as your talk. Did you have any thoughts on the colloquium?

It was very interesting. The first two talks I think were very relevant to my work. I recall that Robert Ousterhout talked about how, with a lot of Byzantine monumental painting, the artists worked separately from the architects. And not only that, but he could also find painters painting over the architecturally sculpted details inside these churches; in fact, they sometimes concealed carved surfaces by smoothing them over with paintings. But with my work, in the Red Monastery triconch, painters actually enhanced the architectural sculpture by outlining it with red bands. And this richly painted sculpture is so vivid that it sometimes overwhelms other aspects of the design. For example, with any of the niches inside the Red Monastery, there’s a figure, a portrait, painted in the back of them, that disappears, partly because they’re surrounded by an explosion of colors and shapes and partly because, from the back of the niche to the colonnade in front of it, there’s a significant distance.

 

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The Ruins of Syria

Dumbarton Oaks Acquires a New Collection of Images

The Ruins of Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tristan Schmidt Joins Byzantine Studies as a Short-Term Predoctoral Resident

Posted on Dec 05, 2016 04:05 PM by Press |
Tristan Schmidt Joins Byzantine Studies as a Short-Term Predoctoral Resident

We are pleased to welcome Tristan Schmidt, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident from December 1 to 14. Schmidt is a doctoral student in Byzantine studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. He is currently working in the Research Training Group 1876, “Early Concepts of Man and Nature,” on his doctoral thesis about animal imagery in the discourse about the emperor in court literature under the Komnenoi, Angeloi, and early Laskarids. The work is supervised by Johannes Pahlitzsch and Sabine Obermaier.

Prior to this, Schmidt studied history and political science at the University of Mainz and spent half a year at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He has also worked on Byzantine hospitals and philanthropic institutions, law of inheritance in eleventh century testaments, and the Mediterranean policy of the Holy Roman and the Byzantine Empires in the twelfth century. He is also interested in the cultural, economic, and political function of middle and late Byzantine aristocracy. 

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Anthi Andronikou Joins Byzantine Studies as a One-Month Research Award Recipient

Posted on Nov 28, 2016 10:20 AM by Press |
Anthi Andronikou Joins Byzantine Studies as a One-Month Research Award Recipient

We are pleased to welcome Anthi Andronikou, who joins Byzantine Studies as a One-Month Research Award recipient from November 16 to December 15. The award at Dumbarton Oaks will grant Anthi access to material in the Byzantine Collection and the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, and will ensure the successful completion of her project on “Venice before Venice: Serenissima's Visual Culture in Pre-Venetian Cyprus.”

After completing her BA (ptychion) in art history and archaeology from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2004, Andronikou received an MPhil in Byzantine art history and archaeology at the same institution. Andronikou also holds an MLitt in late medieval and Renaissance Italian art from the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews. In 2015, she completed her PhD at St Andrews with a thesis entitled “Italy and Cyprus: Cross-Currents in Visual Culture (Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries).”

During her studies, Andronikou participated in several excavations in Cyprus and Greece. For her doctoral thesis, she traveled widely across Italy and Cyprus and took part in several conferences and workshops. She received the Rome Award from the British School at Rome in 2014, and she is currently participating in the early-career research grant on “Art of the Crusades: A Re-Evaluation,” led by the SOAS Institute and the Getty Foundation. Currently, she is working as a tutor at the School of Art History at St Andrews and is coediting, with Peter Humfrey, a volume dedicated to the mythological works of a private collection.

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Raf Praet Joins Byzantine Studies as a Short-Term Predoctoral Resident

Posted on Nov 10, 2016 01:55 PM by Press |
Raf Praet Joins Byzantine Studies as a Short-Term Predoctoral Resident

We are pleased to welcome Raf Praet, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident from November 3 to November 15, 2016. Praet is a doctoral student at the University of Groningen, under the supervision of Jan Willem Drijvers and Peter Van Nuffelen. His dissertation, “Finding the Present in the Distant Past: The Cultural Meaning of Antiquarianism in Late Antiquity (476–602 AD),” explores why antiquarianism became such a popular way to deal with the distant past in late antiquity, especially in the works of John Lydus, John Malalas, and Cassiodorus.

Praet studied classics at Ghent University, after which he worked, from 2011 to 2013, as a research assistant under the supervision of Kristoffel Demoen for the Database of Byzantine Book Epigrams, a collaboration between the University of Groningen and Ghent University. In addition to his doctoral research, he is also a member of the Late Antique Historiography research group.

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Reading the Notemakers

Andrea Cuomo on Greek Scholia and Byzantine Pedagogy

Posted on Nov 10, 2016 10:25 AM by Bailey Trela |
Reading the Notemakers

Andrea Cuomo, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Byzantine Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. On November 2, he delivered a research report entitled “The Editing of Greek Scholia and the Study of Medieval Greek Literature,” in which he examined elite educational practices in Byzantium during the Middle Ages.

An essential component of elite education was learning to read, write, cite, and allude to Attic Greek, a task that was aided by editions of the classics bearing detailed scholia, or annotations. In his talk, Cuomo described the production of scholia and their use as learning mechanisms in the Byzantine Empire. Contending that the Byzantine schooling system represented neither sterile erudition nor a cult of the past, he questioned how Byzantines used and related to this tradition, and how modern scholars might go about producing critical editions of these texts.

A Brief Q&A with Andrea Cuomo

In your talk you spoke about the grammarian Manuel Moschopoulos. For the layperson: who was Moschopoulos? 

Unfortunately, Moschopoulos—the author whose textbook I am trying to edit—is a shadow figure. He’s known to classical philologists because we know that he worked on all the classics, and we can infer something about his life from his work. So we know he was teaching at the school at a monastery in Constantinople, when suddenly, in the first decade of the fourteenth century, he disappeared. And we don’t know what happened. We know that he was probably involved in some conspiracy against the emperor, because he was imprisoned, and in 1306 he disappears, either because he died, or . . . well, we really don’t know. Like I said, he’s really a shadow figure, and we only know what we can infer from what’s left.

 

What exactly are scholia and why are they important?

They are important for two reasons. At that time, for the Byzantines, scholia were central because the Byzantines wanted to learn Attic Greek—the Greek of the Greek classics. Since they were learning it as a foreign language, they needed the scholia—just like if you want to learn Shakespeare, you need not only the text, but also a gloss for every word. Unlike glosses, though, scholia were a little bit longer than just a synonym. They sometimes rephrased difficult passages, but always with the aim of providing students with good examples to imitate when writing on their own. So really, they were useful tools with the pragmatic, tangible, concrete target of learning.

Sometimes, and this is probably what’s more interesting for our sensibility, these scholia give us parallels, or they’ll say, for instance, “Don’t imitate the style of this person,” and they quote an author. So we can also begin to grasp Byzantine aesthetic judgment on literature.

For us, they’re important because they tag a lot of words and a lot of syntactic constructions, so to speak, and if we follow the tagging as a contemporary Byzantine tagging system, we can end up interpreting Byzantine texts in an interesting way. For instance, if I have the text of a Byzantine author, who I know used scholia to learn Greek, then we can verify whether he was following these rules. And we can also tell whether he was switching into a lower or a higher register, always following this contemporary tag. So, our interpretation will be not anachronistic.

And the scholia can even help us classicists, or other people in the humanities, to understand the status of education: Whey would a grown-up society like Byzantium in its last two centuries learn this language? They knew that they were studying the past, but they actualized it, and they said, “It’s important for us; we are that.” So in a way, we can also use this kind of research to explain the importance of classics nowadays—I don’t necessarily like this approach, but at least I understand it can be useful.

 

When you have this group of people, almost a workshop, producing one set of scholia, what does that do to the idea of authorship? Is it a joint authorship? What is interesting or exciting about trying to discern the individual scholiasts behind the words?

It’s a very difficult question, because we all imagine the idea of authorship, and for many kinds of works it is easy to understand the concept—for a historiographic work, for a novel—but for this material it’s very difficult. So there are a couple of things we need to consider. First, they were comments that originated in a school—and as I tried to point out in my talk, this school had a chair, who was Maximos Planoudes, and he had his assistant, and they all surely promoted and contributed to the creation of this scholiastic corpus. Books were very rare then, and I think that if there was one, they annotated it jointly. That’s the first part: already at the very beginning of this corpus there was a joint authorship.

But really, for us, it doesn’t matter who wrote exactly which scholia. What’s more interesting to know is how they were transmitted, which is the second part of authorship. Scribes were more autonomous when they had to copy material. For example, when they copy Herodotus, they are very faithful, as if they were copying the Bible; but when they copy scholia, they may decide to omit or add one scholion, and so in a sense the scribes are also our authors. The question is: If I produce a critical edition, should I publish only what is original, or should I give you the idea of every single manuscript? To answer your question, I don’t believe the individual authorship matters with scholia. The point is how these scholia worked and their impact on learning. 

 

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Ecologies of the Former World

Adam Goldwyn Pushes Ecocriticism Back to Byzantium

Posted on Nov 01, 2016 01:00 PM by Bailey Trela |
Ecologies of the Former World

Adam Goldwyn, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an assistant professor of medieval literature and English at North Dakota State University. His intellectual interests include classical reception and comparative approaches to medieval literature, though recently he has begun to work with a new theoretical approach to the past: ecocriticism.

As Goldwyn explained in his talk, “Byzantine Ecocriticism: Humans, Nature, and Power in the Medieval Greek Romance,” he first came to be interested in ecocriticism while teaching a literary seminar. After analyzing Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, a student asked Goldwyn whether the Greeks had had greater imaginations than modern people; it was difficult for him to imagine the cosmos carved on a shield, and when he looked at the stars he saw only dots. In attempting to answer the student’s question, Goldwyn read up on light pollution and its effects on the night sky; the melding of literary and environmental concerns catalyzed his interest in ecocritical studies.

Goldwyn began his lecture by explaining the basic tenets of ecocriticism and the related school of ecofeminism. As an approach to literary analysis, ecocriticism seeks to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of humanity’s interactions with the natural environment. Though initially developed as a framework for understanding industrial and postindustrial societies Goldwyn has sought to push its reach backward in time by applying an ecocritical approach to classical and medieval texts, including Ho Polemos tes Troados, a Greek translation of the Old French Roman de Troie, in an attempt to develop an understanding of Byzantine environmental ideology.

A Brief Q&A with Adam Goldwyn

During your lecture, you did some rereadings of myths from an ecocritical perspective: Medea as an environmental shaper, Jason as a pillager who steals the natural resource of the golden fleece. Are there other myths or texts that you’ve had intriguing ecocritical readings of, or that you thought lent themselves well to the theory?

One of the things that makes myths so interesting is that they’re often about these very early human-nature encounters, before the relation has been solidified by society. So you have things, for instance, like the labors of Hercules, which is a man wearing a lion skin, going around and imposing a human, civilized order on the world through, among other things, the killing of really powerful monsters or unusual kinds of creatures. So I think that the Hercules myth, as the human conquest of nature, is one. I certainly think that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is quite interesting—and recently controversial, because of some of the issues around divine-human sex and the issue of consent. But people transforming back and forth between animals and humans, and between humans and plants, makes you think about the borders between humans and gods. It turns out the borders between these seemingly fixed categories are very fluid. I think that that opens up a lot of space for thinking about ideologies, value systems, and what it means to be a plant, an animal, a certain kind of animal—a monstrous animal or a cute animal or a dangerous animal—or a god or a human. I mean, what’s human about animals, and what’s divine about humans?


One of the main tenets of ecofeminism as you described it is that oppression based on things like race, class, gender, and sexuality stems from the tendency to oppress nature. Is there a goal in ecocriticism to return to a state where the boundaries between humans and nature aren’t as clear?

That’s a tough question, and I think it’s helpful to talk about humanism. Before, you had God at the center of the universe—this is like the geocentric model of the universe—and then Galileo comes along as a humanist, and humans become the center of the epistemological world. Humanism is, in a sense, the study of humans at the center of things. Ecocritics point out that we can move away from thinking about humans as the center, and instead think about humans as part of a linked network of equally important and equally autonomous creatures. And we come to realize that something as small as a honeybee turns out to be a cornerstone of global ecology. So, post-humanist thinking, or transhumanist thinking, decenters the human and thinks of the world more as a networked web of symbiotic interconnections.


You’re pushing ecocriticism into the past and using it to study Byzantium. What is the backflow? How can Byzantium end up affecting ecocriticism?

There are a couple of things I can think of. One: Ecocriticism has largely been a project of the West, and predominantly of Anglophone scholarship. So even in ecocriticism, you have mostly scholars in the U.S. or England writing about ecocriticism from their own perspective, and writing mostly about contemporary or even medieval English literature. So we can end up bringing in a comparative context.

I think another thing that’s really important is to see how much ecocriticism suffers from a presentist view. Of course we’re in a new environment, or moment, because of anthropogenic climate change, but when we push back and develop Byzantine and medieval ecocriticism, and ancient ecocriticism and Biblical ecocriticism, and see how far we can push it back, we begin to see that the ideologies that underlie these things in fact go quite far back. We’ve inherited a system of environmental beliefs and attitudes that may not have been so bad when they developed, when you only had a couple hundred thousand humans and all they had were stone tools. You could have an ideology of deforestation then because you didn’t really have the technological means to accomplish it. But now, we have the same ideology, but the consequences are radically different, because you can cut down hundreds of acres of rain forest in a day or a week. Trying to push back the chain of ideologies that got us to where we are is really important for thinking about the contemporary moment.

 

A lot of the textual excerpts you read that were about Medea mentioned her education in magic—I believe one even referred to “liberal studies.” I’m wondering if you could talk about this connection between education, magic, women, and ideologies.

The etymology of liberal arts is, basically, the education that a free person would have needed, so in some sense of course education is that which a free man—and emphasis on the man when we’re talking about Rome—would need. One of the things that ecocritics and ecofeminists often discuss is the different environmental ideologies between men and women, and how nature itself is often given a feminine gender. And there’s a problematic but somewhat commonplace binary that men have an environmental ideology of exploitation (think hunting), whereas women have an environmental ideology of sustainability or care (think of gathering, or gardening, as opposed to hunting). I mean, it’s a little bit of a gender-essentialist perspective, but by educating women, by bringing them into environmental discourse, I think that we can shift from a certain kind of male-dominated narrative about how we should treat the environment to one that’s dominated more by care, nurture, and sustainability. 

 

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