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News: Photographic exhibition about Byzantium
The monasteries of Hosios Loukas (left) and Lavra (right) in Greece.
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by Archaeology Newsroom

Capturing Byzantium

Exhibition at the Bersenson Library

The Berenson Library (Villa I Tatti / The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies) presents a new exhibition with a selection of vintage photographs from the collection of Byzantine art and architecture.

Part of the Library’s photo archive, the collection consists of 3,800 images of monuments and artworks in various countries in the eastern and central Mediterranean. Most of the photographs show churches, paintings, and mosaics in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and Turkey as they were before 1930.

Bernard Berenson acquired most of these photos from art historians Arthur Kingsley Porter (1883-1933) and Gabriel Millet (1867-1953), while others were sent to him by American and European art collectors. A significant number of photographs were taken by Josephine Powell and the Istanbul-based studio of Sebah & Joaillier. The collection also includes photos by Theron J. Damon, Giorgos Lykides, Carlo Naya, Osvaldo Böhm, Fratelli Alinari, Giacomo Brogi, and the Anderson firm. The subjects of the photographs range from artworks preserved at the Mount Athos monasteries, the Daphni and the Hosios Loukas monasteries in Greece, mosaics in Istanbul, Thessaloniki and Venice, views of the late Byzantine settlement of Mystras, icons and mural decoration in Cyprus, to objects in various museums in Europe and the United States.

The collection was recently arranged and described, as part of the library’s efforts to provide access to all its holdings and to reach an ever-wider audience. A collection-level record can be found in the Hollis catalog.

The exhibition is on display in the Berenson Reading Room and the Gould Hall. Please note that Berenson Library displays are open only to library patrons and not to the general public. Information on admittance policy can be found here.

Arthur Kingsley Porter (1833-1933), historian of architecture at Harvard, travelled extensively around the Mediterranean to study and photograph medieval monuments. In 1923-24 he visited several places in Greece and Turkey, in part in the company of Bernard Berenson and Nicky Mariano. He later sent many photos he took during his travels to his friend at I Tatti. The first photographs can be considered Porter’s attempt to document the cameras he used. They show the Agios Petros church near Athens and the Monastery of Manuel (Kefeli mosque) in Istanbul.

The latter was also used by the Genoese community that settled in Istanbul after the Ottomans captured the Crimean city of Caffa (Feodosia) in 1475. Among the rich documentation of Byzantine architecture as it appeared in the 1920’s, other photos here show the church of Saint Demetrios in the late Byzantine settlement of Mystras before its restoration, and the column of Marcian in Istanbul, after all the buildings that surrounded it were demolished (still visible in a 19th cent. photo by Sebah & Joaillier).

Another large group of photos held by the library were taken by the Byzantinist archaeologist and art historian Gabriel Millet (1867-1953). Millet visited Greece and the Balkans in the late 19th and early 20th century. He photographed monuments that were scarcely studied, and published important studies on the monasteries of Mt. Athos, the Palaeologan period in the Balkans, and religious embroidery. The photos exhibited here depict monasteries in mainland Greece. Some of the photos show Daphni and Hosios Loukas, while other images show the monasteries of Lavra and Pantokratoros on Athos.

Images of the 5th-century basilica of St. John Stoudios (the oldest surviving basilica in Istanbul) show the building in different moments and physical condition. Photos taken by Piero Fossi document the extensive deterioration of the building in the 20th century. Today a large part of the entablature and the marble pavement decoration that are visible in the Kingsley Porter photos are severely damaged. Other photos displayed were created for commercial use by the studio Sebah & Joaillier as a souvenir of the Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul.

A few early 20th century photographs of Genoese houses in Istanbul by Theron J. Damon highlight the way that the library’s visual materials can be a unique resource for current research at I Tatti. The I Tatti-RCAC fellow this year, was thrilled to consult them and consequently to enhance her current investigation of the Genoese settlement in Constantinople.

The Byzantine presence in Italy is documented through many photos depicting close-ups and general views of mosaics in Sicily and Venice. The Library also holds the complete series of Ferdinando Ongania’s rare multi-volume work “La Basilica di San Marco a Venezia.

The last case displays examples of artworks and monuments that have either been destroyed or significantly altered. Three photos of Thessaloniki show the church of Saint Demetrios as it appeared after the great fire of 1917 and before restoration began. Another photo depicts the city’s Heptapyrgion fortress next to the ruins of the Muslim cemetery. Nearby was the Jewish cemetery, founded in the Roman period and expanded after 1492 with the arrival of many Sephardic Jews from Spain. The cemetery was destroyed during World War II, and many tombstones were used as construction materials to restore the church of Saint Demetrios.
The church of Panagia Skripou in Boeotia was also damaged and abandoned after the 1894 earthquake. Arthur Kingsley Porter captured this photo of it a few years before its restoration.

The photo collection of Byzantine art includes also reproductions of ivories, ceramics, jewelry, textiles, and coins. The four ivories of the “Dormitio Virginis” are an example of the use of photography as a tool to study differences and similarities when depicting iconographical subjects. The four plaques were created in different periods and are preserved in four different museums in Europe and the U.S.

Other objects of high artistic quality displayed here are an ivory coffer of the 12th-century from the Bargello, a chalice and a book cover decorated with miniature mosaic from the Vatopedi monastery in Athos (both not accessible to the public), and a reliquary cross decorated with gold and enamels now at the Dumbarton Oaks. On the verso of this last photo scholars can find a list with the artwork’s provenance.

While processing the collection of Byzantine art, it was found the photo of the Pallio Bizantino di San Lorenzo, a gift from emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos to Genoa, accompanied by a letter written by Orlando Grosso to Berenson in 1948. This interesting small discovery documents the transfer of the famous embroidery during World War II and it documents Berenson’s interest in the interrelationship between eastern and western Mediterranean in the early modern period.