@Dumbarton Oaks

File 274 - SDE: Semidomes, East, ca. late 1930s and 1940s

Identity area

Reference code

DcWaDIC MS.BZ.012-02-03-02-274


SDE: Semidomes, East, ca. late 1930s and 1940s


  • ca. late 1930s and 1940s (Creation)

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1 folder

Context area

Name of creator

Van Nice, Robert L. (1910-1994)

Biographical history

Robert Lawrence Van Nice was born in Portland, Oregon on March 9, 1910. He graduated with a B.A. in Architecture from the University of Oregon in 1935 before receiving a Master’s degree in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1936 (degree officially granted in 1939). At MIT, he studied under the Dean of Architecture, William Emerson, who later hired him to conduct a large scale study of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, beginning in 1937.

After graduating from MIT, Van Nice worked in Iran under the architect and archaeologist Myron Bement Smith. Smith was studying Iranian Islamic architecture, and photographing and drawing as many monuments in the area as possible. Van Nice was in Iran from October 1936 to July 1937, helping to complete the survey of the Masjid-i Juma, or the Friday Mosque, in Isfahan. Van Nice made measurements and produced drawings for Smith, and also surveyed other mosques at Shiraz and Ashtarjan.

In 1937, William Emerson wrote to Van Nice in Iran with a proposal for work on Hagia Sophia, which Van Nice accepted. The beginning stage of the project, funded personally by Emerson, aimed at a detailed structural study of the dome of Hagia Sophia. Special emphasis was placed on the history of its construction and on the multiple building phases and repairs due to earthquakes. Emerson was interested in studying the “successive modifications with a view of learning what the original appearance of the building may have been.” Such a study of the building had never been undertaken and the time seemed appropriate for architectural research since Hagia Sophia had recently been converted into a museum in 1934.

For the beginning years of the project, Van Nice’s work overlapped with the uncovering and conservation of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia carried out by the Byzantine Institute, Inc., an organization founded and directed by Thomas Whittemore. Although it was sometimes reported that Van Nice was part of the Byzantine Institute team, his project was always separately funded and independently run. Emerson, though vice president of the Byzantine Institute from 1941 until 1957, intentionally organized Van Nice’s project as a separate entity.

The Byzantine Institute held the permit and approval from the Turkish government to work at Hagia Sophia. At first, Van Nice was only allowed to work in the parts of the building where the Byzantine Institute staff was already located. This meant that Emerson and Van Nice’s study began in the buttresses, and gradually grew to encompass most of the vast building. Starting in 1937, Van Nice worked largely alone at Hagia Sophia. As the fieldwork extended into subsequent decades, he was assisted by a rotating group of local student helpers, mostly culled from the engineering department at Robert College. Some of these fieldwork assistants, such as Yavuz Birtürk, Evgeni Vernigora, Mahmut Ötüş, Kaya Karamehmet, and Bülent Ezal, stayed in contact with Van Nice after leaving Robert College, assisting him with projects or simply remaining friends. Van Nice lived in Istanbul with his wife Elizabeth (known as Betty) for much of the time from 1937-1941.

Over the next few years, Van Nice and Emerson co-authored several professional papers on the structure of Hagia Sophia, and Van Nice published more on his own (for full citations, see the Bibliography). During World War II, Van Nice served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in the Counterintelligence branch (known as X-2). According to Van Nice’s OSS dossier at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), he spent parts of 1944 and 1945 in OSS field offices in London, England and Bern, Switzerland. When the war ended, Van Nice returned to his work in Hagia Sophia from 1946-1949. During his fieldwork, he was often accompanied by Betty and their three children (Robert, Jr., Molly, and Barbara). During this time, Betty was employed as an elementary school teacher at Robert College, where the family typically rented accommodations during their sojourns in Istanbul.

In 1950, Van Nice was appointed Visiting Research Associate at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. The Hagia Sophia project continued to be supported and personally funded by William Emerson, but Emerson hoped that Dumbarton Oaks would provide access to its many resources and community of Byzantine scholars as Van Nice worked toward publishing his drawings. Following Emerson’s death in 1957, Dumbarton Oaks supported Van Nice’s continued work. In the subsequent years, Van Nice returned to Hagia Sophia annually for fieldwork seasons (generally June to October) to survey, photograph, and conduct research on the building. He was in Istanbul for fieldwork seasons from 1953-1955 and 1958, and for the summer from 1963-1969. He spent the rest of each year at Dumbarton Oaks working on the drawings. Over the course of the project, Van Nice was assisted by several drafting assistants at Dumbarton Oaks, including John F. Wilson, Robert T. Halpin, and Howard B. Trevillian.

In 1958 and again in 1960, Van Nice accompanied a team of archaeologists led by George Forsyth on a joint expedition of the University of Michigan, Princeton University, and the University of Alexandria to the Monastery of St. Catharine at Mount Sinai in Egypt. Forsyth, a Byzantinist and an architectural historian, had selected the monastery since it was the oldest surviving Greek Orthodox monastery in the world. In addition to conducting an architectural survey, Van Nice assisted with photography and with the measurements taken by the team at St. Catharine.

In 1965, Dumbarton Oaks published the first installment of architectural plates of Hagia Sophia. The work, Saint Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey, was published as an elephant folio with 25 plates, including sections and plans, which covered almost all aspects of the building. That same year, Van Nice was appointed Senior Research Associate at Dumbarton Oaks, and began work on the second installment of drawings.

From the beginning of the project, Emerson and Van Nice had envisioned a book resulting from the research, but the form of the potential text changed over the years. Around 1948, Van Nice completed a detailed outline and received edits from several sources, including Frederick Gardiner Fassett, Jr., Philip Whitting, Paul Underwood, and Ernst Kitzinger. In 1954, Emerson and Van Nice asked Cyril Mango if he would contribute a historical text to accompany Van Nice’s drawings and technical text. Mango agreed, and remained tentatively attached to the project until the early 1980s. When the first volume of plates was published in 1965, Dumbarton Oaks printed a prospectus detailing future plans for the project. According to the prospectus, the second installment of plates would be accompanied by a text volume, which would include historical contributions by Mango, structural analysis by Rowland J. Mainstone, and a systematic description of the building and the changes it underwent by Van Nice. Finishing the drawings took precedence, however, and the collaborative text never materialized.

Throughout his career, Van Nice also travelled widely within the United States, giving lectures at universities and other institutions about Hagia Sophia. He spoke about his project many times from 1941 to 1979, lecturing everywhere from the University of California, Berkeley to Vassar College in New York, and many places in between. On-site fieldwork at Hagia Sophia ceased in 1969, but Van Nice kept in touch with former assistants living in Istanbul and occasionally asked them to send him measurements or photographs of the building to complete the drawings he was preparing at Dumbarton Oaks. The second installment of 21 plates, including sections, elevations, and plans, was published in 1986. Van Nice remained at Dumbarton Oaks to organize his drawings and files, eventually retiring in 1989.

Van Nice passed away in 1994 in Bethesda, MD. He was survived by his wife Betty, and two of his three children, Robert, Jr. and Molly Van Nice.

Name of creator

Byzantine Institute, Inc. (1930-1962)

Administrative history

The Byzantine Institute (commonly known as the Byzantine Institute of America) was founded by Thomas Whittemore in 1930. On May 23, 1934, the Byzantine Institute officially became the Byzantine Institute, Inc. when it was issued a charter from the State of Massachusetts. Its mission was to conserve, restore, study, and document the Byzantine monuments, sites, architecture, and arts in the former Byzantine Empire. The first official project undertaken by the Institute was the examination and documentation of wall paintings at the Red Sea Monasteries in Egypt, which occurred between 1929 and 1931. By capturing select Byzantine iconography from the walls of St. Anthony and St. Paul, Vladimir Netchetailov produced oversize watercolor paintings of saints (Saints George, Mercurius, and Theodore Strateletes) and religious scenes (The Resurrection and Deësis).

In June 1931, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of the Republic of Turkey, permitted Whittemore and the Byzantine Institute to uncover and restore the original mosaics in Hagia Sophia, which had been covered in Islamic motifs when the church was converted into a mosque in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks. With approval from the Turkish government, the Institute began the conservation and restoration campaign in December 1931. While fieldwork primarily focused on sites within Istanbul, such as Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii, conservation efforts were also expanded to Cyprus and present-day Macedonia.

In June 1950, Thomas Whittemore, founder of the Byzantine Institute, died while en route to the State Department office of John Foster Dulles. Subsequently, Paul Atkins Underwood was appointed as the Fieldwork Director of the Byzantine Institute, a position he held until his death on September 22, 1968. While this marked a transition period for the Institute, Underwood assumed the oversight of repair and restoration in Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii. These endeavors resulted in the uncovering of the 7th century pavement in the Church of the Pantocrator (Molla Zeyrek Camii), the restoration of mosaics in Fethiye Camii (Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos), and finally the repair work in Fenari Isa (Lips Monastery). The projects also led to several publications, such as The mosaics of Hagia Sophia at Istanbul, the portrait of the Emperor Alexander: a report on the work done by the Byzantine Institute in 1959 and 1960 by Paul A. Underwood and Ernest J. W. Hawkins. Because of insufficient funding, the Byzantine Institute officially terminated its administrative and fieldwork operations in 1962 and transferred its assets to Dumbarton Oaks. In January of 1963, Dumbarton Oaks and the trustees of Harvard University assumed all fieldwork activities formerly initiated by the Institute. Dumbarton Oaks directed and sponsored new fieldwork projects in Turkey (Church of St. Polyeuktos), Cyprus (Church of the Panagia Amasgou at Monagri), Syria (Dibsi Faraj), and present-day Macedonia (Bargala).

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Content and structure area

Scope and content

Contains photographs of the east semidome. Some photographs are numbered SDE-1 to SDE-10 and some bear Byzantine Institute stamps.

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Related right

Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. 1936-1989





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Rights note(s)

Preferred Citation: Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. 1936-1989, MS.BZ.012, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

Some materials created by Rowland J. Mainstone are restricted.



Related right

Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. 1936-1989





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Copyright for Robert Van Nice materials belongs to Dumbarton Oaks. However, permission to publish materials created by other correspondents, including Rowland J. Mainstone, must be obtained from the copyright holder.



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  • Box: MS.BZ.012, Subgroup 02, Box 026