Written by Jessica Cebra, ICFA Departmental Assistant
The story of conservator Carroll Wales, and concomitantly, of his conservation sidekick Constantine Tsaousis, continues as more is revealed in the context of the Byzantine Institute’s smaller side projects, by way of a visually rich collection of color slides donated by Wales in the 1990s. In ICFA, our attention is often directed toward major Byzantine monuments in Istanbul such as Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii where the Byzantine Institute, and later Dumbarton Oaks, worked to restore and conserve the buildings and their interior decorations of frescoes and mosaics, mostly in the 1930s through the 1960s. During these decades, additional smaller-scale projects took place at various sites in Istanbul where Byzantine Institute staff lent their expertise and skills, or co-sponsored the fieldwork with other institutions. While ICFA holds both textual and visual fieldwork documentation for many of these projects, Wales’s personal photography, along with an oral history interview with him conducted by the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, colors the larger picture of Byzantine art conservation from a conservator’s point of view.
Wales and Tsaousis met while restoring the frescoes at Kariye Camii in 1952. Wales grew up in New England and had recently finished his graduate education in fine arts conservation at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, while Tsaousis descended from northern Greece, but was born and grew up in Istanbul and worked as a craftsman and tailor. Wales spoke English and some French; Tsaousis spoke Greek and some French. So, naturally, Wales and Tsaousis communicated best in French, at least in the beginning of their friendship. Over the years, they absorbed one another’s knowledge of Byzantine mosaic and fresco conservation. While both had to learn on the job, it helped that Wales had formal conservation training, and Tsaousis already possessed a passion for Byzantine art and a skill set inherited from his architectural engineer father. Wales believed Tsaousis was one of the best. Indeed, the family name Tsaousis derives from the Turkish word usta, meaning “master craftsman.” As part of the Byzantine Institute staff, Wales and Tsaousis worked not only at Kariye Camii, a project that took nine years to complete. They also worked intermittently at various sites where Byzantine frescoes remained and were in danger of further damage and deterioration. These included frescoes at the Church of Saint Euphemia, at a site near the Church of Saint Irene, and at a site simply known as Samatya, which was endangered by imminent demolition.
Referred to both as “Samatya” and “Etyemez” in ICFA’s records, the fresco conservation at this site is the central topic of this post, but as you read on the issue of nomenclature in archives, particularly when dealing with multicultural materials, may become well apparent. Or perhaps this post is my attempt to articulate how it took a trip to Turkey to fully appreciate the relevance of a small conservation project that was initiated on a street corner in the Samatya neighborhood of Istanbul in 1957, especially in light of the Wales materials I have reviewed in the past few months.
Last summer, I traveled with a group of architecture students to survey the remains of late Roman and early Byzantine architecture in a fairly secluded area of the Antalya province on the southern coast of Turkey. In addition to the fieldwork, we took bus trips to other archaeological sites in the region in order to study and compare examples of architecture and city planning from the period of late antiquity. The trip ended in Istanbul, where we were let loose to explore on our own. I had also been to Istanbul the previous summer, so I had already made my necessary visits to Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii. This time I had other plans, which involved a bus ride to the Theodosian city wall and a long 7 km walk from the wall at Yedikule (Seven Towers) through the neighboring area called Samatya, and all the way back to my hotel in Sultanahmet. At the time, I wasn’t aware the neighborhood I was walking through was called Samatya. All I knew was there were no tourists here, snacks and yogurt drink were very inexpensive, and I was on a mission.
I later learned the Turkish name Samatya derives from the Greek word psamathion meaning “sandy,” as the area was literally very sandy according to Raymond Janin’s topographic account of Byzantine Constantinople. Samatya encompasses the southern area between the former Constantinian city wall and the Theodosian city wall. In early Byzantium, Samatya (or Psamathia) was mostly inhabited by aristocrats, but gradually the mansions were replaced by monasteries. The most notable being the Stoudios Monastery, also known as St. John Stoudios, as it was dedicated to St. John the Baptist. My primary goal on that hot summer day was to find St. John Stoudios, the oldest standing basilica in Istanbul. It was built in the 5th century and housed a monastery which, at its height, was the most important center of intellectual activities like manuscript illumination, calligraphy, and poetry, and served as the model for other monasteries such as those on Mt. Athos. St. John Stoudios led the Byzantine artistic and cultural renaissance of the 9th century.
There had been recent news that the city of Istanbul was planning to renovate the structure and build a new roof, so that the building could function as a mosque once again, as it has been standing derelict ever since an earthquake in 1894. It had been previously used as a mosque during the Ottoman period and was locally known as Imrahor Ilyas Bey Camii, or simply as Imrahor Camii, named after the 15th century sultan. This wasn’t shocking news as the re-purposing of historic cultural monuments for religious use was nothing new, but I feared that construction had already started and I felt the urgent need to see the building in person before its imminent makeover. I didn’t have a smart phone, but I studied a Google map the night before my walk. And luckily, from atop one of the towers at Yedikule, I spotted the minaret of Imrahor Camii in the distance above the rooftops and headed in that general direction.