BIG MOTHER HAN 1: Drawing in Buyuk Valide Han

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

Oscar Wilde’s classic story The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a man who stays young and angelic-looking no matter what. HIs portrait, however, reflects the marks of his horrifyingly dissolute life, gradually becoming monstrous. I’ve always thought monsters were more fun to draw.

So you’ve got the Grand Bazaar, a jostling festival of color, light and noise. It’s five and a half centuries old. Then you’ve got the 17th-century Buyuk Valide Han, its dim and hoary second floor looking like the grandmother of all ghost stories.

Han means Workplace. Buyuk means Big, and Valide was the title given to the Mother of the Sultan. This particular mother was Kosem Valide Sultan, whose iron hand dandled for thirty years a succession of puppet rulers: child sultans, viziers and Janissaries. Mother of Sultans Murat IV and Ibrahim, she built Buyuk Valide Han shortly before her death in 1641. One urban legend says that she so angered one of her sons that he imprisoned her here.

 

Up From the Spice Bazaar ©2007 by Trici Venola.

Up the steep hill above the Spice Bazaar is an area called Mercan. Crowded between other buildings is  the yawning mouth of Buyuk Valide Han.

It’s the biggest  in Istanbul, three main courtyards and dozens of workshops and stores. Its front two courtyards are Ottoman, but the back courtyard is Byzantine. It’s too big and rich for one post, so there will be three, maybe four.

On a freezing cold day last week, just before Istanbul got locked into its present snowy embrace, Gabrielle and I went there, determined to get in some drawing time. Here she is  standing next to the rusted door:

and a closeup: metal hammered over wood. Notice the tiny door cut into the huge one.

THE BARBER

The entrance courtyard: desiccated stone arches, and little shops hung on them. I sat on a step one afternoon years ago, Plein Air drawing, and soaked in this place. This barber is gone now, but he was there for about a hundred years, or so he said.

The Barber ©2007 by Trici Venola.

There’s another tall arched entrance leading into the central courtyard. A typical Istanbul han is a two-tiered arcade, arched openings fronting alcoves topped by domes, around a central courtyard. In Silk Road days, the caravansaries would put their camels and donkeys and horses in the courtyard, and camp and trade in the alcoves. Later these evolved into shops. The Buyuk Valide Han is so big that there’s a mosque in its central courtyard, now a parking lot ringed by stores. These are busy. The grim and grisly second floor is an Art Motherlode, so we headed up the steep cement steps and into the dark past.

Thirty years ago this place was jammed with trade: apprentices tearing around, teaboys trotting up and down the steps, people haggling and arguing and creating. I think China killed it. But what’s left is a feast of drawing: odd angles, lots of peeled-back plaster revealing Ottoman brickwork, burned-out domes, wildly creative electrical wiring. And  wonderful, evocative doors.

THE PARADE OF DOORS

Like snowflakes, there are no two alike. They’ve evolved individually over time, the opposite of a kitsch re-creation. The rooms that face on the courtyard are light, with people making hats or cutting plastic. On the wall side, most are bolted shut, but occasionally you find one that swings open to reveal, say, a Tolkien-like interior more like a cave than a room, with an ancient loom in it.

Each door represents many lives, much trade, much hope and toil and heartbreak before the eventual final locking of the dusty door.

There are four corners to the corridor. The first corner is bright with new paint and a modern office behind the doors. After that, each is more derelict and fascinating. Here’s Gabrielle going through my favorite, one of those places that make me nervous since I haven’t drawn them yet.

There’s a stretch of corridor so dark you need a flashlight, where the floor is original stones all lumpy with age and use.  Somewhere along in there, we found this glowing beacon.

But nobody home. I climbed up to the door above and knocked on it. It was like knocking on the cement wall. Then Gabrielle rang the bell, and what a surprise when it opened.

THE LAMP MAKERS

We had found a bronze workshop. Arches and domes covered with peeling white over plaster, various narrow implements hung on the walls, and two guys making lamps.  A hot coal stove shaped like a top hat. Hanging on the wall near a row of pliers, a small shiny bronze angel.

We oohed and ahhed. Our host Serkan ordered some tea and Gabrielle made a mighty effort with her Turkish, which in six months is a whole lot better than mine after eight years. I wandered around, and  in a pile of oddments I found three more angels holding an unfinished incense burner. Serkan picked it up and swung it by its chain. “Greek Orthodox,” he said. A censer! In church, the guy behind the priest is swinging one of these filled with lit incense. Clouds of scent billow out of the little holes. It’s Byzantine. It’s fabulous.

I get along fine if I’m not too extravagant. When I feel I must have something, I see if it follows me out of the shop. That censer swung around my head until I went back two days later and bought it. The price was so good I bought a lamp as well. If you want one, they’re Ozcan Turistik ve Aydinlatma at http://www.ozcanturistic.com. And I did this drawing of Serkan finishing the censer. He obliged me by firing up the welding torch and holding this pose for about ten minutes, while I scribbled away. With portraits, you want to get the gist of the expression. What makes this guy look like himself, and how do I know he’s hunkered down? Get the ear, where the hands are, get the feet right. Where’s the light? What is he holding? Oh, same thing.  I stayed for a half-hour more, drinking tea and drawing the tools.

The Lamp Maker WIP 1.©2012 by Trici Venola

When Serkan was done, the shiny censer had a deep blackened finish, exactly what I wanted. I came home and finished the drawing, and here it is.

The Lamp Maker ©2012 by Trici Venola

That’s so tiny you can hardly see it. Here, I’ll turn it sideways:

The Lamp Maker ©2012 by Trici Venola

I lit it from the welding torch, of course. This is a simple if tedious operation. You just put a shadow next to each object, exactly opposite your light source.  I drew the lamp and censer by propping them on the table and setting a light down right of them. What luxury to bring them home! Often I covet something I simply cannot have, but drawing it helps. My sketchbooks are filled with intricate drawings of fascinating and exquisite items I crave. But things are looking up. When I first moved here, in the middle of a devastating run of hideous circumstance, I didn’t have a blanket on the bed. No table, nothing on the walls, just a computer, a half-blind foundling kitten and a gig drawing kids’ books. Eight years later I still struggle with Turkish, but my walls are covered with tribal art and framed prints, the board-and-brick bookcases overflowing with literature, rugs on the floor, movies and 27 sketchbooks, now, full of drawings of Turkey, fat sleek cats snoozing in front of the windows looking out on the falling snow. I’m lucky. I hung the censer among some tribal embroidery, in front of a drawing of a Byzantine Jesus. It looks right at home.

All photos © 2012 by Trici Venola.
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Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 5

Sunday 25 September 2011 • 12:30-5:30

GABRIELLE

Success! Down there and drawing by 12:30 and tackled that center portal. There are those times that it all just draws itself– you don’t hurt anywhere, you can see, you don’t need anything, the pen is right, the paper’s right, and blessed concentration. Spent five hours and got to this point:

Well, I fell in love with the way the brick has eroded between those portals. With a little more work, it’ll be clearer, how fountains of water have washed down the surface of that brick in thousands of storms. Now as you can see, if I don’t start pulling back right away on the detail, the whole thing will be one busy texture and all the structure and drama lost. So next, it’s concentrate on the dark arches above these portals. And I’ll have to sacrifice. The inside areas may have to get a whole lot darker.

Gabrielle called. I like this girl. She read yesterdays’ note, and asked me if I’d like some time to myself first. So I had awhile in the zone, and then companionable work silence broken by grunts and the occasional profanity. She showed up in shorts, which made me yell at her, but quickly produced a large shawl and wrapped it around ’em. We made a pact to concentrate and natter later.  Her ink-wash is coming along very well, but it was dicey there for awhile. Even so, her marble is hard, her brick is old, the structure has weight and strength, no mean feat with ink-wash, one of the most difficult mediums.

A couple of the bums were down there, the affable one and a new one, who sat and drank his beer and stared over hungrily. Finally he came over and, touchingly shy, asked to see the work, made some conversation, wandered away. The guy off in the corner is still there from yesterday, eating, drinking and reading his newspaper. He never moves, he’s like a projection.

Around five-thirty my eyes were fine but I couldn’t sit anymore despite the cushion I haul down there every day. Coffee in the tea garden and then up the hill and over to the Corridor of Lord ruin under the carpet shop, which Garbrielle had never seen. More arches and domes, can’t get enough of ’em. We went out with Huseyin for fish dinner in Kumkapi, had a fabulous time, stuffed ourselves with fish, Gypsy musicians banging the tambourine and whining on that violin right in my ear. It hurt like hell. But the working girls down there were so draw-able that I had to pull out the sketchbook. Never have I seen so many intriguing bodies in such tight spandex. The drum still stabbed but it didn’t hurt anymore, I was in the paper, and so were they.  I’m falling asleep, I’m saving this as a draft, or not, it’s 2:45 AM and I didn’t do my exercises for the second day which means I’ll be flabby and die no doubt, but the hell with it, goodnight. A happy day.

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 1

 Friday 16 September 2011 *  3:00-4:30

INTERLOPERS

Showed up at the Boukoleon today where I was greeted by barking dogs. Awful, trash everywhere, weeds, and a new bum lean-to at the wall under the high Byzantine portals I’m drawing, rowdy guys in there. Police showed up, said Be Careful but don’t seem to care about the tent or the trash, nobody seems to care about this palace but me, drawing like a fool. A dramatic frenzy of brick shards radiating around the arches, marble posts and lintels bowed with age, muscular blackened spines of brick arcing up behind the portals. Then a shock, tourists actually walking around up in there. Had to be tourists, nobody else wears those bright machine-embroidered satin pillbox hats. One girl stood right on the threshold of the Center Arch. Right where I’d dreamed of standing. She probably never even heard of the Palace before today.
How dare they? Spent years! Staring at that arcade of arches and could never get in, days and nights imagining what it looked like from there.

Here’s my litte rescued cat Callista in the old apartment with the Boukoleon in the background.

Here’s winter and summer, hours spent staring out my windows at that arcade of arches, wondering.

And here are pages from an entire childrens’ book I set there back in 2005, months visually speculating what the Palace would have looked like if things had been a little different and people had fixed it up, lived in it in, say, the 1920s–  A place, a Palace, so

ingrained in my consciousness for so many years– how DARE they? I wanted to rip them right out of there. Of course, feelings like this are best not acted on. What I did instead was to

From "The Princess And The Pea" ©2005 by Kieran McGovern (words) and Trici Venola (art)

pack up all my paraphernalia, hoof it up the hill and around to the property adjacent to the Palace which has always been blocked

esolebooks.com/easyreads/princessandthepea.html

off by the owner of the house there. It’s open now, but I had to walk over a broken gate and someone’s garden. It’s forbidden to block off these places, but they didn’t exactly put up a sign either. But finally there I stood at last, high in the center portal looking out towards the sea, just where I’d drawn and dreamed so many times. The marble on those portals is ten inches thick, the mortar still holding over a thousand years. Back in 2008 around this time of year I sat on the table-sized balcony of my old apartment, hanging over the railroad, and drew this. It’s sheer bliss to know I’ve stood there at last. The view is the same, only closer, with the huge marble presence looming all around. A flat pounded dirt floor, sprung filthy couch, big pile of construction materials. I’d rather see it like this than turned into kitsch with “restoration.” Nobody can build like the Byzantines; ruins should be fortified, yes, but left as ruins. I want to know that what I am looking at is what was placed by fingers like mine. Built by hands now dust, like the place where there once were marble floors.

Boukoleon Twilight ©2008 by Trici Venola

Rolling the Boukoleon Bones

How strange to know exactly where you will be and what will be happening with the weather. This seems an incalculable luxury to me, but that was part of what I signed up for when I moved here. Something in me has always wanted to crouch on the edge of an alien civilization, making art. Just now I’m looking out over dull silver drifts of sea fading into the mist, peppered with minute black birds in an erratic line. The entire bottom of my view is crusty Byzantine brick ruins. It’s all that’s left of the Boukoleon Palace, built in the ninth century as the First Palace in Christiandom, burned by Crusaders in 1204 but spared by Mehmet the Conqueror 250 years later, when he wept to see, as he wrote, the owl flying, the spider spinning a tapestry in the House of the Caesars.

In 1873 the Sultan ran the Orient Express through the remains of the Palace, bisecting it and leaving a considerable chunk of the Palace facade facing the sea. What remains of that is one huge arch, some piles of rubble atop a honeycomb of arcs and mysterious wells going down to Byzantium, and one magnificent double stand of arches surmounted by marble portals on the sea side. The top row was torn off, presumably when the government filled in the area between the harbor and the seawall, and built the highway. I live on the other side, across the tracks, looking out over the arches to the sea.

Below my balcony in the weeds of the railroad bed is a huge ziggurat-cut chunk of marble, carved around the sides and scored across the surface with holes for fixing a bas-relief, or perhaps a sheet of marble in contrasting colors. There’s also one pillar and its capital, and some smaller chunks of the ziggurat-cut piece, all decorated with spray-paint graffiti. Computer-generated concepts of the Palace show it as a vast bald grey expanse rising out of the sea, but I have seen dozens of chunks of multicolored marble from all over the Palace site. They’re grey until it rains, and then they are a rainbow: wine-purple porphyry, speckled green malachite, white flecked with carnelian, saffron, deep emerald green veined with black, glittering white, translucent pale amber. I think the Palace looked like a painting of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s, now in the Getty, entitled Spring. Brilliant colors juxtaposed with statues and frescoes, a painting in polished marble, and a porphyry birth chamber, giving rise to the expression born to the purple. Sir Lawrence painted this in 1901, and I will bet a Byzantine brick that he visited Istanbul first and saw what was left of the Palace. The layout is the same, and so are the colors of the marble.

Whatever we have most of, humans seem to take for granted. When I first moved here I was horrified to see three guys hauling a wheelbarrow of marble fragments out of the Palace to decorate their cafe. I called the Tourist Police and got an embarrassed reaction, but despite all those stories about dire consequences for removal of souvenirs from ancient ruins, there simply was no provision made to keep such things from happening here at the Boukoleon. The Palace has been left to rack and ruin for decades.The good part was that, for years, we could walk up into it, but the bad part was that homeless people, some of them drug addicts, lived in the ruins and made it risky to go in there. I used to get along with most of them, but never sat and drew in the ruins as I longed to do because one never knew when some glue-sniffing idiot would show up dangerous.

But many a time I went in there, alone or with friends, to marvel at the rising walls of brickwork, the piles of marble rubble all around. One massive malachite pillar lies in there, its thickness up to my hips. Weed-fringed holes go down into the area below, peopled by denizens of the dark amongst the trash. The one remaining sea gate, the sides of a marble keyhole shape rising from vast marble pediments carved with egg-and-dart borders, was choked with trash, dumped furniture, garbage and dead things. There had been a fig tree, but the Belidiye- the local government- lopped it down, the dead branches rotting on the edge of the track leading up over the marble pediments up into the ruin.

We would clamber from the gate over the pediment and up through the weeds along the ridge of masonry, and suddenly be looking down into exposed rooms and arched portals and mystery.Up top was a toothed ridge over the big arch, one lone standing pillar marking the airspace of an entire colonnade. We’d jump down past more shoots of fig saplings and over a massive pile of potsherds and into what had been a sort of hall, open to the sky, with the remnants of walls and arched doors and windows all around. The ground surface was rubble and weeds, punctuated with the remains of campfires. Once I saw a carved piece of alabaster, burned on top and littered with mussel shells. Once we found an empty purse, still where it was tossed long after the thief had run into the ruins. Once we walked in to see somebody huffing fumes out of a sack, and left in a hurry. More often, friendly bums would show up to watch out for us. Then

last spring, one guy, Mehmet, set up his mattress on the marble fragments right under the huge arch, keeping dogs in the ruins and stringing his laundry up on the top, a fine sight for tourists. “I may be poor,” he said, “but I live in a palace.”Mehmet was friendly but his dogs were not. They prevented my forays into the Palace, and interfered with my walking through it to climb through a hole in the wall to the railroad bed. I would go down there with my friend CJ and huge plastic bags and pick up the trash, something the railroad only did about every three months, despite the fact that every housewife in the houses overlooking the railroad would throw plastic bags of trash down into the train bed every single day. We had a fine time cleaning it up. People thought we were crazy. Having braved Mehmet’s dogs to climb into the railroad, we would not be able to alert Mehmet before getting bitten on the way back through the wall, so we had to leave our huge bags of collected trash under the bridge– where the railroad could find it– and walk the rails until we came to an exit and boost and pull each other out. After CJ went home, I did it alone but couldn’t get myself out. I walked forever past bewildered scarved housewives and screaming children, under the arc of a hurled garbage bag flying out of a window, at last coming to a low railroad bridge over one of the innumerable streets through the city wall. There I was able to hail some local guys who produced a ladder and a cup of tea. I pantomimed trash pick-up and we went through my sketchbook and several more cups of tea and that was a good Saturday. One reason I live here is that you never know what’s waiting outside the door. It’s also the reason I think about leaving here every so often, when the thing outside is a butchered tree or some other atrocity rather than a pleasant adventure with friendly working stiffs remind me of my dad, only in Turkish.

I dreaded renovation since the prevalent attitude is to sandblast everything into looking like bad CGI, destroying the integrity of the antiquity in the process. Well-intentioned idiots, mostly liberal Americans married to Turks and living far from the Old City, contribute to this by calling for trash cleanup, little dreaming what the powers that be consider “cleaning:” sandblasting the entire surface, replacing the third-to-twelfth-century surface bricks, sharpening every corner and re-grouting with a hideous pink compound probably made by grinding the original bricks into dust and mixing it with cement. Experts are available from all over the world and financed by UNESCO, yet things continue to be badly restored. Kucuk Ayasofya Camii (Mosque), built onto the remnants of the Church of Sergio & Bacchus 1500 years ago, was stripped and re-surfaced. The carved capitals on the interior columns, which were so old as to appear melted, were actually re-cut and sharpened by workmen far less talented than the original craftsmen. The Byzantine Christian mosaics were covered with cement, impossible to remove, which infuriated educated Turks powerless to stop it. The magnificent Triple Gate of Constantinople, out at the city walls leading to the rest of Europe, was one of the most important sites here, and the restoration destroyed it to the point where, I am told, UNESCO threatened to revoke Istanbul’s World Heritage Site status if it wasn’t stopped. Too late to save the Gate or the mosque, but perhaps they listened with the Palace.

Surface age can be removed in a day, but only God, in the form of time and all its effects, can make something old. New-looking antiquities are all over Europe. Fake antiquities are the province of Disneyland and the movies, but no amount of money can create something old that looks old. That’s why people like me cross oceans and continents to see it. When they fence off your favorite ruin, it’s an emotional challenge, a real crapshoot, because while it might get wrecked, there is hope. There is intelligent restoration going on in Turkey. There’s the massive ongoing dig at Aphrodisias, arguably the best in the world. There’s the work being done at Çatal Hoyuk and cities even older. There are individuals and financial institutions funding digs and beautiful restorations all over the country, there are magazines and preservation societies and museums fighting to preserve without destroying. So I watch, and I pray.

Last week men in yellow hardhats swarmed all over the Palace and hauled out the burned mattresses, the mounds of trash and garbage choking the ruins. They fenced it off, presumably after re-locating Mehmet and the denizens of all those dark doorways leading under the railroad. Last year I tried to get the History Channel interested in exploring the Palace, but one of their people is Turkish, and he flatly refused to go anywhere near it. Addicts and murderers, ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties, he said, or so I gathered. I admit that looking into the blackened, trash-strewn foundations of Western Civilization can be pretty damned daunting, but I was dying to explore. Now I think that the mysteries in the dark should stay there. They give a resonance to what’s happening on the surface.

Back to my view: the top of the stand of arches was covered in bushes, grasses and vines raining down over the portals, the colors marking the seasons. Very romantic, but the growth does tend to turn the bricks into dirt. Now the top is exposed, a bony, crusted ridge of brickwork like a dragon spine lying below the expanse of the Marmara. It’s absolutely magnificent, and just for the moment it is too wet for the restoration to proceed. Meanwhile, my rent is going up, so I may leave this place. I don’t care to watch what they may do to this precious irreplaceable thing in the name of improvement. I ask for guidance and tend to my drawing. I look out at the sea and the lovely lorn bones of the Boukoleon and love it as much as I can, while I can. I look out at the sea and try to see my ship coming in.

Last night I was so scared with all this change, I said to an old friend, a writer, Please tell me it will all be all right. “You’re living on the heroic plane,” he said, “God looks after heroes.” I’ll say: God sent me a hero like that.

Trici Venola, Istanbul, Christmastime 2009

Art from top: Sea Haven Morning, The Inheritors, Boukoleon Arcade, Brokedown Palace, The Sea Gate, Ahmet Dal: Eager Student, Boukoleon Window, The Little Door, Boukoleon Manzara OneShot, Dog In the Ruins ©2008, 2005, 2009 by Trici Venola.