SUNKEN PALACE: Drawing in the Basilica Cistern

Sideways Medusa ©2012 Trici Venola.

Far below Yerebatan Street, down in the Cistern, hundreds of marble columns march off in the vaulted dimness, each one holding up its bricked arch and, above it, the pavement. They’ve been holding up the street and everything on it for 1500 years. At the base of one column is a massive upside-down marble face, a head of Medusa, sunken on her stone snakes in the coin-strewn shallow water. Moss greens her face like uplighting. Why is she here, and why is she upside down? It’s another Byzantine mystery.


Ben Wachs & the Well of the Cistern ©1999 Trici Venola.

Huge, humped, immutable, Hagia Sophia has been there for fifteen centuries, anchoring the neighborhood which has settled haphazardly around it on this side of the hill where the Straits of the Bosphorus run into the Marmara Sea. Across from Hagia Sophia, on the corner of Yerebatan Street and the tramline,  is a tall pitted rock thing that looks like a giant barbecue chimney. It’s a well going down to the Basilica Cistern, a sixth-century underground reservoir built in 532 by Emperor Justinian.

Basilica Cistern

There are many cisterns in Istanbul but this is the biggest ever found.  Yerebatan Sarayi, or Sunken Palace, the cathedral-sized Cistern runs beneath the entire street and all the buildings, clear to the great dome of Hagia Sophia looming above the trees and tram lines like the top of a glacier.

Hagia Sophia and Neighborhood c 1909

Across the street from the Well is a tall Victorian building, listing like a determined drunk, painted egg-yolk yellow. This is the office of the Tourist Police. Some of them patrol outside under the peeling yellow gingerbread, holding machine guns.

Yerebatan Street is covered with buildings. All of it–hotels, restaurants, shops, machine-gun toting police, mosque, carpet salesmen, shills, postcard sellers, trolling taxis– is held up by the magnificently engineered masonry down in the dim green Cistern: 336 columns marching in perfect order off into the shadows, bloated carp gliding into the watery shadows, expanding rings from the continual dripping of water from the vaulted brickwork above. There is some evidence that the Cistern originated under Constantine and was expanded under Justinian, but it is Justinian rules down here; the scale, grandeur and endurance all testify to that.

Cistern 1 ©2012 Trici Venola.

The water originally fed from the Belgrade Forest via the 4th century Valens Aqueduct, up to 100,000 gallons. Over the centuries various Sultans have repaired it, but then it was lost under the coagulating Ottoman city. The Cistern was re-discovered in 1968 and restored to its present condition in 1985. The government dug out 50,000 tons of mud, put in some reinforcing concrete piers and built walkways and stairs and a ticket office. Before then, the area was covered with wooden houses. People used to send Grandpa down to the basement to catch fish for dinner. They took this for granted. Doesn’t everyone fish in their basement?

Basilica Cistern 99 ©1999 Trici Venola.

There’s an angry account from a Western visitor whose host took him down by boat in the latter 1800s. “He doesn’t even know what he has,” he fumed. But all I can think is how lucky he was to see it by boat and torchlight.

“So I’m sitting down there drawing the Medusa,” I told my friend Mike, back on that first visit back in ’99, “and every tour guide is saying that she’s upside down so–”

“So she won’t turn you to stone?”  he said. Mike’s from the neighborhood.

“Yes!  And there’s another Medusa below the column next to her and it’s sideways— is that why?”

“No!  They just needed a piece that big.  Those Byzantines, they used everything the Romans left lying around.”


Column of Tears ©1999 Trici Venola.

At the top of the column you can see where a section has split off.   There’s another column just like this, lying in chunks up at the Forum of Constantine, now up the hill next to the tramline in Laleli, discounting a fatuous theory that the “tears” represent the 7000 suffering slaves who built the Cistern. This column was probably used because it was damaged. The entire Cistern was built of material scavenged from pagan temples. None of it was meant to be seen. Many columns are pieced together, and none of them match. Capitals are Corinthian or Ionic or plain Doric;  there’s one column carved with flowers. The granite columns are smooth, but the softer marble ones are bubbled like liquid: in 1500 years they’ve taken on the look of the water around them. The Cistern was not built for beauty, but the Byzantines can’t have been insensitive to how beautiful it is.

Site of Pillars in the Cistern ©2012 Trici Venola.

In museums all over Turkey are fabulous carved pediments from the tops of ancient temples. But no columns. All over Istanbul are cisterns built by the Byzantines to provide water to a thirsty or besieged populace. It’s easy to match the pediments with the columns. Other columns were sliced up by the Sultans, like carrots for a casserole, and used to pave bakeshops and mosques.

Beginning Pillars in the Cistern ©2012 Trici Venola.

So last week Security stopped me with my little stool en route to draw the Sideways Medusa and said in Turkish, Are you nuts? Two cruise ships in town, and the Medusa was jammed. So I drew this less popular view across the tops of some arches, a nice warm-up view. Still didn’t catch the water, but I may drop in a huge carp anyway. Five hours here.

Pillars in the Cistern WIP ©2012 Trici Venola.

This drawing works a lot better with the darkened pillar in the middle. Plein Air drawing means drawing from life, drawing the light. The Cistern is wonderful to draw because the light never changes. But there isn’t anything to sit on. The drawings back in 1999 were done sitting on the clammy cement walkway. Now, after thirteen years drawing in the neighborhood, I got permission from Security, and something to sit on. Nice guys!

Pilars in the Cistern ©2012 Trici Venola.

Here’s a second take on the Medusa, back in 1999. My first take is…well, I’m saving it for later. I’m mortified to notice that in these early takes, for some reason I drew nostrils and pupils in the eyes, although she doesn’t have any. This sloppy documentation is annoying, but all I can say is that I don’t do it anymore, which is probably why the drawings take about five times longer.

Alpaslan On the Medusa ©1999 Trici Venola.

Friends of Kybele Hotel will recognize a younger Alpaslan Akbayrak. I’ve always found him fun to draw, but have no idea why I put him on the top of the Medusa. Since Alp is right side up, know that he won’t turn you to stone.


Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini, Florence, Italy.

Now about that stone-turning:

In the original ancient Greek mythology, The Gorgons were three daughters of ancient sea monsters. Winged, with snakes for hair, they hated men. One was mortal: Medusa, a beautiful priestess in Athena’s temple. Athena caught her lover Poseidon, the God of the Sea, ravishing Medusa. She cursed the girl, giving her hair of snakes and a face that would turn anyone to stone, including Perseus, the hero she loved. The love was not returned. Perseus, darling of Athena, was sent to kill Medusa. Like modern hunters he had huge advantages: he was granted invisibility, winged sandals, a good sword and, from Athena, a mirrored shield. By looking into it he sidestepped the stone curse and beheaded Medusa. She was pregnant by Poseidon, and as her head was severed, two magical beings sprang from her body. One was Chrysaor, a golden giant with a sword, and one was the winged horse Pegasus. After that, Perseus got to ride Pegasus, but doomed dead Medusa did achieve mortality: she decorated shields for thousands of years.

Medusa by Michelangelo Caravaggio, 1597

As to why she’s upside down and sideways: It may be possible that the Christian builders wanted to demystify or desanctify the pagan idols. I noticed that someone took the trouble to excise whatever was written on the scrolls of the square sections of these pillars. Then again, it might be that they were simply never finished.

The Medusas are all the way at the end of the Cistern and would always have been below the waterline. The sideways one may be resting on a split-off or damaged section, while the famous upside-down one has no pupils or nostrils; was she unfinished? There’s another one just like them in the sculpture garden at the Archeological Museum nearby. All three Istanbul Medusas look very much like the ones at Aphrodisias, an ancient Roman resort about three hours east of Ephesus. Scholars believe they were created by the same artists. It’s easy to imagine the unfinished blocks with Medusa faces on one side simply included with a shipment of scavenged columns for the Emperor’s new project.


First Take Medusa ©1999 Trici Venola

Here’s my first-ever drawing of the Medusas.  I  must have noticed that Upside-Down Medusa really doesn’t have pupils in her eyes. I’m always saying Draw what you see, not what you think you see– perhaps I didn’t understand it, so it just “wasn’t there.”

Oh, those early drawings!  I remember the amazement and longing to share it all with back home. So beyond my skills. Pulling art for this post, I went into that first book from 13 years ago and thought, damn, I must have had either overwhelming arrogance or overwhelming faith to base an entire life on what was in there. I’ve been drawing all my life, but in 1999, 15 years working digitally had atrophied my analog drawing skills, not to mention I’d been drawing mostly out of my head. But I’ve always drawn from life whenever possible, always been seduced away from abstraction by the sheer glory of the way things look really, when you really look.

Medusa One ©2012 Trici Venola.

Looked up from the book and here I am in Istanbul with twelve years of framed art on the walls, a row of sketchbooks four feet wide full of art that has made friends all over the world. I traded a whole life to be able to draw better, and I can. Found myself cackling wildly. You can get very, very good at something if you do it all the time.

Two Carp ©2012 Trici Venola

All drawings Plein Air; drafting pens on rag sketchbook paper 52 X 18 cm / 7 X 20 ” All art ©2012 by Trici Venola for The Drawing On Istanbul Project.