Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 1999
Natalia B. Teteriatnikov Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul: The Fossati Restoration and the Work of the Byzantine Institute Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1998. 73 pp. Paper $15.00 (0884022641)

Hagia Sophia, what the Byzantines called the Great Church, has had many lives: imperial monument built by Justinian in 532–37 immediately following and in response to serious urban rioting; cathedral of the capital of the Byzantine Empire, principal setting for religious and political ceremonies to the end of the empire; Jami or chief mosque of the capital of the Ottoman Empire, ceremonial setting adjacent to another imperial palace, now that of the Sultan; and today, a state museum and major tourist attraction. Twice during the past 150 years, the grand medieval and early modern church/mosque met modernity. In 1847–49, and after the secularization of the mosque in 1931, the building was “restored.” That restoration did not, of course, return the building to its prior life or lives. Like all such projects, it instead gave it a new and different life, helping the church/mosque to become a monument. And it allowed important phases of the Byzantine building, especially its mosaics, to be uncovered.

The present small book is a record of an exhibition that took place at Dumbarton Oaks in 1998 in conjunction with a major symposium on “Constantinople: The Fabric of the City,” organized by Henry Maguire and Robert Ousterhout, both of the University of Illinois. The text focuses on the two restoration campaigns. In the first, Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati were commissioned by Sultan Abdul Medjid to consolidate the decayed structure of the mosque of Aya Sofya, and, in 1848, they discovered figural mosaics. The Sultan ordered the mosaics to be uncovered. The two Swiss architects made careful notes of what they found before eventually recovering all the Christian decoration, this still being a practicing mosque. As several illustrations in the book document, the Fossatis overlaid the mosaics with painted ornamental designs in the style of the Justinianic ornament left exposed elsewhere in the building. Their main task, however, was to stabilize the structure and to restore it according to the progressive norms of the day. Therefore, they applied a fresh coat of plaster to the exterior and added red horizontal stripes in the manner of an Italian Gothic or Gothic revival church. This decorative scheme, fortunately, has disappeared, so that it is fascinating to encounter it in old photographs (figs. 17 and 18). The author correctly concludes that the Fossatis gave the building a “new romantic orientalizing style.”

After the Turkish President Kemal Atatürk secularized the mosque in 1931, the Byzantine Institute “re-oriented Hagia Sophia in the direction of its original appearance” in the course of an eighteen-year campaign. Working usually from April to October, the institute, headed by Thomas Whittemore, uncovered what the Fossatis had discovered. Scaffolding was erected (figs. 3l, 39, and 40); archaeologically precise field notes were compiled (fig. 32 and 33); old iron clamps, now rusted, were replaced with new copper ones (figs. 41 and 42); and mosaics were cleaned with the traditional dental tools and with experimental solutions of ammonia, which, it was learned, worked on glass, but not on stone cubes.

Much was learned about the working practices of Byzantine mosaicists. First they set down three layers of plaster, making preliminary sketches on the first layer and more elaborate cartoons on the last, the actual setting bed for the mosaics. Whittemore and his team observed that mosaic cubes were set at different angles in various sections of the mosaic, so as to create interesting coloristic effects. The restoration campaign and the monument itself were well photographed, and copies were made of the mosaics, the source of reproductions that can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum and Dumbarton Oaks.

The printed record of this small exhibition has several virtues. First of all, it publishes many photographs of the work of the Byzantine Institute and provides a glimpse of the wealth of details about the project that must exist in its archives, now kept at Dumbarton Oaks. Second, it updates the history of the restoration work that Cyril Mango provided in his basic book (Materials for the Study of the Mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul, Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1962). And third, it introduces a building that is Byzantium’s greatest surviving monument, one that for many reasons is poorly published. And for all this, the author and publisher are to be congratulated.

However, because of the intrinsic interest of the project, the present reader is left wanting more. A more analytical and critical accounting of the history of scholarship on Hagia Sophia might have considered larger patterns. While the work of the Byzantine Institute is illustrated in fine detail, the nature, functioning, patronage, and social setting of the Byzantine Institute remain obscure. We are shown its letterhead with an impressive Board of Directors (fig. 30) and told that “many prominent figures in American society understood the importance of financing Whittemore’s endeavor,” but we are not told why. If scholars in Prussia, France, England, and Greece long preceded the American involvement with Byzantium and Hagia Sophia, how did an American Institute win the archaeological prize of the century in this field? Why and how did American society understand Byzantium’s importance? Why did Attatürk give over the monument to this organization for its restoration? And what type of monument have the Byzantine Institute, the Turkish government, and the general scholarly community made from the shell of a formerly living building? To pose these questions is not to find fault with the present record of this fine little exhibition, but to credit the many interesting issues that are suggested on its pages.

Robert S. Nelson
University of Chicago

This book has been electronically published, click here to download.