JUST UNDER YOUR FEET: Drawing in the Corridors of Lord

Tunnels under Hagia Sophia? Here’s my experience with one of them.

Just Under Your Feet ©2001 Trici Venola

Just Under Your Feet ©2001 Trici Venola

The bridal processional walks singing along Akbiyik Street, trailing clouds of incense. Between rows of arches and marble columns, through hotels and hostels, bars and cafes and shops, the grand company spirals up through the bad bald renovation of the Stairway of Lord, chanting with every step, and continues on toward the Four Seasons Hotel. Heavy silks and pearled brocades sweep through groups of backpackers drinking beer and smoking nargile, tourists haggling over carpets and ceramics, hotel check-ins and waiters juggling trays, as the Empress and her attendants and priests walk from her marriage, in the Church of Lord, to its consummation in the Imperial Bedchamber of the Magnaura Palace.  Sometimes I spend so much time drawing these antique ruins that the past becomes superimposed on the present.

Rock Crystal Cross ©2002 Trici Venola

Rock Crystal Cross ©2002 Trici Venola

THE PALACE UNDER THE CARPET SHOP

Cartoon Asia MinorI found this place back in 1999.  I’d heard about the Byzantine palace they’d found but couldn’t get in anywhere to draw it. I was out on Kutlugun Street in Sultanahmet across from Four Seasons Hotel, crazy, thinking about them building on the ruin before I could draw it. A guy stepped out of a carpet shop. “Do not cry, Madam,” he said, “we have the Magnaura Palace in our basement.”

What they have is a section of the Corridor of Lord, part of the Magnaura Palace Complex. Every structure on the street is built over a chunk of the Corridor. But the Basdogan family at Asia Minor Carpets spent half a million dollars digging out theirs.  I started drawing it that day, and I’ve been drawing it ever since. It’s a spectacular ruin. You can see it under Asia Minor Carpet Shop and from the back of Albura Kathisma Restaurant. Don’t walk where the floor is wet! I love it so much I wrote a story about it. Here’s an excerpt. For our post, I’ve included my Plein Air drawings of the place and some photos.

Tunnel Door

(Fall 1999) …As lights came on I began to see dim walls of pitted stone blocks. At the bottom of the wall to my left was a low arch. One of the electrical cords traveled along the wall and into this black hole. It lit up suddenly. The wall was so thick it was almost a tunnel. I stuck the sketchbook under my arm, bent double, and went in.

Double Door in Lord ©2005 Trici Venola

Double Door in Lord ©2005 Trici Venola. From the Passageway, looking across the Bath at the first room.

It was a little irregular room with a tall vaulted ceiling. Amid the stones of one wall was a broken terracotta pipe. A bath?Rock CU Across was the entrance to another archway. I crowded through it into a narrow passage, rough stone walls going up into shadows, iron prongs sticking out from the stones above my head, hammered into them in some forgotten necessity a thousand years ago.  

Lord Passage ©1999 Trici Venola

Lord Passage ©1999 Trici Venola.

 I walked down the passage on warped wooden planks. The orange electrical cord looped along ahead of me, buzzing, strung here and there with glowing yellow bulbs. At the end of the passage it disappeared through a tall opening in the stone wall. I followed the cord through this opening. I smelled damp earth and age. The yellow lights made aureoles in the dusk.

Indiana Jones Arch

I was in a big dim space, looking down the wooden catwalk at a brick archway about fifteen feet high, plugged almost to the top with rubble. Between the rubble and the arch was a black hole going back forever. The walls on either side were stone. At the bottom were cement sacks and a shovel. Above was a dome made of small red bricks in a spiral pattern. To the left and right of the arch were more pitted brick archways, at right angles to the one in the center. Each led to another spiral brick dome over another archway, each full of rocks and dirt that went off into the shadows. In the center arch, next to the black hole, was a bright square yellow lamp. The electrical cord swooped along to this and stopped. End of the line. I was in Byzantium.

— From ‘Just Under Your Feet’, Encounters with the Middle East, Solas House, Palo Alto. © 2007 Trici Venola.

Indiana Jones Arch ©1999 Trici Venola.

Indiana Jones Arch ©1999 Trici Venola. Dome Chamber, the drawing from that first day.

In this early attempt at drawing old stone. I just outlined every brick. After so many centuries, each one has a separate personality. The cat clearly said, “What are you doing here?”

Open to the Sky ©1999 Trici Venola

Open to the Sky ©1999 Trici Venola. Dome Chamber entrance before the stairs were put in.

The Basdogan Family finished their excavation, three full rooms and the Passage, plus a small cistern behind that broken pipe.They installed two staircases and a plywood floor and topped parts of the ruin with glass, and put in a cafe with a large sign over it: Palatium.  In 2005, obsessed, I drew a schematic of their excavation. Here it is.

Lord Schematic ©2005 Trici Venola

Corridor of Lord Chunk Schematic ©2005 Trici Venola

In the story above, I went into the first room at the bottom of the drawing, up through the Bath and Passage, and into the Dome Chamber at the top, which is Kutlugun Street. The bottom is Akbiyik. Both run parallel along the Marmara slope of Sultanahmet. The shape of the streets is determined by the shape of the Corridor. See?

Here on Google, that big dome conglomerate at the top is Hagia Sophia. That Four Seasons, now gorgeous, was the actual Midnight Express prison, built on the ruins of the Magnaura Palace. You can still see graffiti from prisoners there. The Magnaura was the Imperial Palace from the 4th to the 8th centuries. The galleries were still around in 1200, as this CGI take from Byzantium 1200 shows:

Corridor of Lord CGI ©2007, Walking Through Byzantium. ©byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

Behind hotels along Akbiyik street you can still glimpse tall pointed arches and old stone. Here’s what Byzantium 1200 thinks the inside upper gallery looked like.

Corridor of Lord CGI ©2007, Walking Through Byzantium. ©byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.
According to various sources, including one that quotes an 8th-century Book of Ceremonies, the Empress’s procession walked to her marriage, her ceremonial bath, her bedchamber and back again. I wonder if the actual consummation was witnessed as well.
The Passageway Door ©2005 Trici Venola

The Passageway Door ©2005 Trici Venola. From the Dome Chamber, looking into the Passage.

Drawing down under the street I wonder about a lot of things. There’s the dripping of water, great silence and a sense of waiting. Ghost stories seem sensible here. I heard of something in tall boots that told the carpet shop tea lady to move along, and one night watchman tells lurid tales of spooks running up and down the stairs. I myself saw only a black cat-sized shadow detach itself from a black doorway down there, skitter across the floor and evaporate before my very eyes.

In the Corridors of Lord ©2008 Trici Venola

In the Corridors of Lord ©2008 Trici Venola. By 2008, I had learned to draw old stone. You do it slowly.

The best story was from an old lady in the neighborhood. In Kathisma Restaurant, next to the entrance to this excavation, there’s a tunnel tricked out to look like a wishing well. The old lady said that when she was a kid, they used to go in there and come out on the Marmara Sea. An adult tried this in the 1960s, but he got stuck and died, so be warned.

THE DISAPPEARING BISHOP

Gennadios II meets Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453

Gennadios II meets Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453

I remember that Bishop of Constantinople in 1453, coming in full pomp with all his attendants to meet Mehmet the Conqueror. He handed over the keys to the city, and, according to witnesses, walked into the wall of Hagia Sophia and disappeared forever.

Dragon Lamp G2002 Trici Venola

Dragon Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

There are these small doors in Hagia Sophia, and many, many tunnels. That must have been quite a processional, all those priests quick-stepping down through secret passages to the sea. They would have worn their best to meet the Conqueror, and carried all their jewels and all their prayers to avoid meeting their Maker.

Foot Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

Foot Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

Red and blue and gold, furs and plumes, torches, little lamps. The Pilgrim Foot was a common Christian theme.  Fantastical creatures pre-date and permeate Christianity throughout the Middle East, a tradition now echoed only by those gargoyles on Notre Dame.  Perhaps the hurrying processional carried small ivories like this Madonna or the angel at the top of the page.

Ivory Virgin ©2002 Trici Venola

Ivory Virgin ©2002 Trici Venola

Or reliquaries with bas-reliefs similar to these silver ones of Apostles Peter and Paul. After all they were running for their lives.

Peter and Paul ©2002 Trici Venola

Peter and Paul ©2002 Trici Venola. Silver bas-reliefs 7″ high 500-600 CE. NY Met

I drew these little images in museums, most of them in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a magnificent evolved place that allows me to wander with my sketchbook and my mind, in the wake of the grand processional of history. It continues to wend its way along these streets, sun lancing in the arched windows, reflected flames gleaming in the surfaces of old marble bowed with the collective weight of panoply and prayers.

Two ArchesJust under your feet, steps recede into the earth, domes push up weeds, arches bear up under traffic. Forty fathoms below that the goddesses are pagan, the angels’ wings come out of their hips, the lions have nearly human faces. Down and down and down go the passages, the great processionals in a honeycomb of antiquity. Workmen with iPhones jackhammer away, following the pipedream of progress, but they have never found the bottom of Sultanahmet.

Ivory Angel ©2002 Trici Venola.

Ivory Angel ©2002 Trici Venola.

— All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola, from the Drawing On Istanbul Series. All full drawings done in sketchbook format: 18 cm X 52 cm, drafting pens on rag paper. We appreciate your comments!

This post originally appeared early in 2012 under the title: THE PALACE UNDER THE CARPET SHOP: Drawing In the Corridors of Lord. I’m closing in on finishing a new book, so instead of the usual week I took a night and upgraded this for you. It’s one of my favorites.

ROMAN MORTAR: Drawing the Sphendone

VISUAL HISTORY 

During difficult times I seek solace in history. It’s the only thing quiets my mind. The world has ended so many times, and yet here we still are. I love living in Istanbul because a lot of the old stuff still looks old. I can actually see the evidence of centuries on these monumental witnesses to cataclysm and triumph. I draw them before the restorers arrive and eradicate all that. I draw a portrait of a place at a particular moment in its history, warts and all: scarred, worn, magnificent. And so to the Sphendone, bulwark of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, brickwork so old it looks like lumpy striped stone, now as dear and familiar to me as the bamboo patches on our old hill in Los Angeles. The more I learn about  it, the more I love it. It’s been holding up the whole neighborhood for almost two thousand years.

The Sphendone in 2007.

BUILT TO LAST Leviathan bulkhead of Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the Sphendone looks like the prow of a giant ship powering out into the Marmara. The first time I saw it, in 1999, I did not at first realize that it was made of brick. I didn’t know that brick and mortar could become one rock. During the Middle Ages, the formula for Roman mortar was lost, to be re-discovered as hydraulic cement, which hardens under water. Does the durability of the Sphendone have to do with its being full of water? Because when the History Channel opened up a little door in it a few years ago and went in, they had to do it by canoe.

The Fountain Arch in 2005

EXPLORING WITH LINE Back in May of 1999, rendering a whole stone wall was beyond me. I’d been drawing with a Wacom pen on a computer for too long. I was good at portraits, but I had to sneak up on this architectural stuff, drawing corners and windows, small bits of the whole I longed to capture.  I tried to draw the cavelike arch openings, filled with dirt and old shoes, as you can see to the right of the houri in this walkaround drawing from that first trip. I remember that the little lady in the upper right corner lived across from the cave arches, had a blue tattoo on her chin, and was delighted with her portrait when I held it up.

Around Town One ©2004 Trici Venola

By November of that year, after constant drawing in the sketchbooks, I was able to render a longshot of the South Face of the wall, along with this little girl who lived behind the doorstep I sat on for three sessions. I remember that my eyes had gotten infected, and I had to trade my contact lenses for glasses that weren’t strong enough. Later I came back with lenses and increased the level of detail– and by then, I could.

Sphendone ’99 ©1999 Trici Venola

EVOLUTION OF AN ARENA Byzantium’s great  Arena, the Hippodrome, was created in the late 2nd Century by Roman Emperor Septimus “The Libyan” Severus, the boy who brought us the Circus Maximus and other points of interest in Rome of that same era. The size of our Istanbul Hippodrome is only eclipsed by the one in Rome.

severus

The Hippodrome was enlarged early in the 4th Century by Constantine the Great.

ConstantineBy the early 6th Century, the huge arena held 100,000 people, all gaping at Future Empress Theodora in her salad days, writhing naked and beset by swans in a parody of Leda.

Theodora Alive Crop

Theodora Alive.detail ©2012 Trici Venola

Chariots tore around the track, now roughly followed by the current road. Down the center ran the Spina– the Spine– a flat stone ledge that stuck up a couple of meters above the floor. Its many ornamental sculptures blocked sections of the action, heightening the suspense. The central ornament, still standing, is the Egyptian Obelisk, erected in 390 by Theodosius, lauded here in previous posts Standing the Obelisk and Chariot Parade. You can see the Spina at right in this painting.

Alexander-von-Wagner-The-Chariot-Race

The Chariot Race by Alexander von Wagner

The absolute best way to imagine the Istanbul Hippodrome in its heyday is to watch the famous chariot race from MGM’s 1959 blockbuster Ben-Hur. It’s all over YouTube, knock yourself out. See the Spina in this film grab below?

BenHurChariotRaceMGMChariot racing took on political aspects with the emergence of the Patrician Blues and the Plebian Greens. Sports riots are not a new thing: after Theodora grew up and became Empress, one almost destroyed the city.

THE NIKA REBELLION

Nika-Schnorr_von_Carolsfel

Empress Theodora

532: Smoke-sabled skies, a copper sun, the palace burning, blood and noise, mobs of people slaughtering each other in what has come to be called the Nika Rebellion. Emperor Justinian quelled the riot at the behest of Theodora, who refused to leave the city. “Purple makes a fine shroud,” she famously said, fingering her royal garments, “leave if you like.” Justinian bought off the leaders of the Blues, and his ferocious general Belisarius laid waste to the remaining rioters, executing thirty thousand rebels out on the edge of the Sphendone. Buried where they died, their bones are said to sleep behind its arches to this day.

Sphendone. Fountain Arch ©2004 Trici Venola

AFTER JUSTINIAN By Fall of 2004 I was able to render an entire arch. I’ve always loved this antique Ottoman fountain and modern brick terrace juxtaposed with the looming savage East Face of the Sphendone. That lump of brick in the middle remains from the bricking-up of the arches after an earthquake of 551. Behind them is a series of concentric chambers opening into a main corridor. Bear in mind that the present ground level of the Hippodrome, up top, is several meters above the original floor, which was filled in over the centuries. Here’s our Fountain Arch in 1982, behind the clothesline to the right:

Sphendone 1982. Anonymous

And here it is in February of 2005.

Chariot racing was never the same after the Nika Rebellion. But Byzantines and Ottomans alike loved spectacle as much as we do today. Lions, gladiators, elephants, dancers, actors wearing huge masks, fire-eaters, and acrobats capered through the regimes, held up by these massive Sphendone arches. Here’s a CGI recreation of what the place looked like in 1200, reproduced with permission from the fabulous Byzantium 1200 website.

Sphendone ©byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

The arches at the bottom are the ones that are still here. By the 16th century,  the Hippodrome was reduced to this:

These surviving pillars are scattered all over Istanbul, chopped into paving, in Ottoman ruins of baths and bakehouses. Some possibly survive intact, in the Islamic Arts Museum and in the Blue Mosque. The Spina is buried under the present surface, still ornamented by the Egyptian Obelisk, the remains of the Serpent Column of Delphi, and the 11th Century Obelisk. Over the Sphendone is the Sultanahmet Technical and Industrial High School, built around the turn of the 20th Century. Here’s a satellite view of the Hippodrome today, with my outline in white indicating the original size. The Sphendone is at the bottom, below the red roofs of the school.

Hippodrome ©2012 Digital Globe

WALKING AROUND THE SPHENDONE On the West Face is a small metal door in a stone lintel. It looks like something out of The Hobbit, and so does this drawing I did of it in 2004.

Sphendone.The Hobbit Door ©2004 Trici Venola

This is where the History Channel went in. Here’s a long shot of the street. See the tops of the arches?

When I drew the door, I did it on a Sunday for fewer cars. Construction workers on the building opposite yelled at anyone who tried to park there. I don’t speak Turkish, but those guys loved the sketchbook.

Later I came back and took pictures, and just look at all the artifacts here.  This little window has a Star of David to its right, most likely in its previous incarnation as an Islamic symbol.

This next thing was probably inside a house. But before that? I’ve been told there was a mosque in here, and government offices. The top of this Roman arch has been cut to resemble Ottoman architecture and the inscription cemented on.

Here’s another bony old arch showing through modern brickwork.

Not so long ago, this entire wall was covered with houses. The government ripped them down, but left the skin behind.

DRAWING THE ARCHES Now here’s a refresher on where we started, back in Constantine’s time, when all the arches looked the same.

Sphendone, Walking Through Byzantium, ©2007 by byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

Then earthquake, mayhem, cultural upheaval, fire and conquest. And now, like people in a family, simple survival has given each arch individual characteristics. I thought two drawings would set me at ease, but my fascination with the visible history of the Sphendone continues. I wish they would light it at night and leave it alone. Now that I’ve learned how to draw those first arches I saw, I can’t. A cafe known in the neighborhood as Ugly Mushroom has been allowed to build a plastic-shrouded, television-blaring structure that blocks the magnificent cavelike arches along the East Face, where you used to be able to smoke nargile while contemplating the 1700-year-old brick and mortar. So I moved south, and drew this Parking Lot Arch. On Wednesdays, there’s a Farmers’ Market here.

Sphendone.Parking Lot Arch ©2006 Trici Venola

Delicious produce below, and the shouts of sports players in the school yard above. Here’s the South Face with the Parking Lot Arch over to the right in 1935, hidden behind a house:

Farther along in the South Face is an even more evocative Ghost House Arch.

Sphendone. Ghost House Arch ©2006 Trici Venola

Gladiators and rebel martyrs long gone, that’s a piece of a commode up there just below center. The two arched windows up top belong to the high school. This antique structure– festival bones, water and brick and blood– functions as its foundation. They just drilled right into the solid old Roman ruin. See here, on the right?

If this structure wasn’t serviceable, it would never have survived so long. But survive it does. I sat in a playground full of shrieking children to draw Ghost House Arch. And as the South Face rounds over into the West Face, there’s this Wooden House Arch.

Sphendone.Wooden House Arch 72 ©2006 Trici Venola

Sublime, isn’t it? Just look at the runnels in that brickwork from centuries of storms. This house survived because it’s several meters in front of the wall, although from a distance it blends right in. The building up top belongs to the high school. I drew this one in 2006 to great acclaim by the neighbors. Immediately to the right of the house was a group of vociferous scarved women who refused to be drawn, but who ran over cackling from time to time with cups of tea and yells of delight at the progress. How I miss them! I used to live two blocks from here. These wooden houses are about two hundred years old. There was one across the street, but one night in a storm it collapsed. The next day it was almost gone, carried away for firewood by these indomitable scarved duennas of the neighborhood.

Witness to so many lives lived and passed out of recollection, this brickwork gives me peace. My terrifying problems seem as ephemeral as storms on old brick. They may erode the shape into something unforeseen, but the Sphendone still stands. Roman mortar– it hardens under water.

—–

All drawings © Trici Venola. All drawings done on site. Standard size is 18 X 52 cm / 7 X 20 in, drafting pens on rag paper. We love your comments.

FROM PILLAR TO POST 4

THE PILLAR OF LIGHT
 There it was just behind the tree, up on that part of the wall that’s covered with vines most of the year. One perfect filigree capital perched on one perfect pillar, one tiny part of the Boukoleon Palace intact, one of two in the whole splintered stone pile to reach us direct from the ninth century. (The other one is some carving at the Sea Gate a block away.) Everything else visible above ground is dragon-spine architectural bones once clothed in multicolored marble. Mosaics, polished marble Rorschach-patterned panels, statues, bas-reliefs– all gone, or mercifully buried, safe for a more enlightened age.

We have very little to go on as to how this place looked. The aforementioned and much-appreciated Tayfun Oner has given us structure based on facts,

Boukoleon Palace.detail © byzantium1200.com

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Carecalla.detail

but we must imagine, assisted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and other painters of antiquity, just what this place looked like. So to find this exquisite pillar complete with capital was a happy shock, I’ve never seen it before! The vines that obscured it are all dead now. It’s full-on winter down here on the Shore Road, traffic whooshing by in the frigid wind blowing in from the Marmara Sea across the parkway. Only a masochist would be out drawing in this weather, and this is my payoff. I found the pillar on the second day of a two-day drawing marathon. Last week was sublime, if chilly. Long golden rays lancing through the cold, blue skies over the highway, the Obelisk drawing unfinished, a commission beckoning from inside Hagia Sophia, and I stole two days and went down and worked on the Pillars at the Boukoleon.

A big "Attagirl" from these cool passersby.

I found the Lone Pillar Capital while poking around getting close-ups of the wall, looking for traces of windows buried in successive layers of wall, because Art Angeleno Dan DiPaola in LA sent me a camera. A real camera. A real good camera, and I’ve been just going crazy with it, thank you, Dan! My old one died, I’ve been putting off getting a new one, partly from superstition, afraid I’d snap photos instead of drawing. But not so! Drawing even more!  Came down here to work on this Boukoleon Palace series and just wailed on it. Here’s where we left it last time:

Boukoleon Pillars 3 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

Notice the pronounced curve at the bottom. That’s actually what I am seeing although of course the marble slab is perfectly straight. It’s the curve of natural perspective. This time, no sweeping preliminary “perspective” lines in pencil. We learned our lesson drawing the Boukoleon Portals, remember? I drew straight lines and rendered the drawing onto them and then, goose egg, it turns out they actually look curved. This time I’m simply Invoking the Cross. Very apt for a Christian monument. One reader commented that painters of old used to simply grid off their paper. Why didn’t I think of that? I’ve been doing it in my head all this time. All this discipline, simply to avoid the inelegance of marking up the paper with anything but pen. But the Cross really works. To recap on this: Using my pen, or a pencil if it’s longer, I line things up on the actual site that I am drawing. I hold the pen out in a straight horizontal or vertical and see where things are in the site, like this:

See? I line up from points I’ve already drawn, and find where to position what I’m drawing next. I measure by the width of something I’ve already drawn, like the width of one pillar. This time I was able to hunker down and do this only after a lot of dither and fuss. Getting down there to the Boukoleon was like pulling myself by the ear, because I wanted to be drawing those melted marble bas-reliefs in the Hippodrome or mosaics in Hagia Sophia, but I don’t know how long this weather will last. Then I got down there. After so long it felt odd. I smoked a nargile with Osman at the cafe, looked at the sea, walked over to the ruins, drew awhile and finally woke up, drawing. Like so much else, sometimes it feels like just going through the motions, but if I do it right I sort of come to and get excited again. Here’s what we got:

Boukoleon Pillars 4 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

Those people of antiquity, even the rich and powerful who built this palace, were surrounded by sudden death. Death by nature: disease, childbirth, the ravages of early old age; death by whim: the whims of a monarch who took it into his head to stage a mass execution or declare  war, death by political upheaval, whether by being killed by one’s relatives for a throne or by one’s neighbors in a riot. Death by plague, starvation, infection, from being caught in the cold. They matured early, lived hard, and for the most part died young. Were they conscious of their fragility? Were they aware of the few seconds of eternity granted them, how precious it was? I think so, for look how they built. Their monuments are still with us. Like the movement in the carved marble figures up on the Hippodrome, still lively although the stone is wasting away, the life-sense of the ancients ran strong. Domes and arches and pillars, still with us. How do they last so long? These people built because they were compelled to and because they knew how. And they built for the glory of God.

Here’s Theophilus, the emperor who built the Boukoleon. He was the last of the Iconoclasts, the Christians who destroyed religious icons and ultimately much pictorial art in the name of piety. His Boukoleon would have been colorful but free of figurative art, which would have been added by his successors, all Iconophiles. Here’s a remnant of how seriously the Christians took idol worship:  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in the heavens above, or the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.  –Second Commandment, King James Bible. When I was a kid, I memorized this but wondered what it meant, since Christian art is full of pictures. Was it wrong to make pictures? There was a scene in a movie, showing people worshipping a golden calf, and I was told that the stern wording was about that. As a child I was encouraged to make as much art as possible and I do so to this day. It’s my way of adding to the stream of life, and I know in my bones that it’s an aspect of divine energy. What would it have been like to be brought up to despise pictures? Here in the midst of Islam I think about this often. According to many sources the earliest Iconoclast emperor was born in the 8th century, far to the east, and he was influenced by the Muslim proscription against images. The Iconoclasts were only in power for about a century, from 726-87 and 815-43. The proscription against idols was already there in the Old Testament (although the exact wording quoted above is from the 17th-Century King James version of the Bible) and this lent credence to the case for Iconoclasm. The Iconophiles were equally serious about their beliefs. Here’s a Medieval painting of the story of the Theotokos, a holy icon of the Virgin, that bled when stabbed by a soldier during Emperor Theophilus’s icon purge. It was thrown into the sea by a pious widow and sailed away upright through the waves. Sailing under a pillar of light, it attracted the attention of the monks on Mt. Athos. It was carried from the sea by the holiest monk to the Iveron monastery where it continues to perform miracles. What I see is from a figurative artist’s point of view: a grim castle built on rocks above stormy grey seas, the golden picture sailing serenely, the white pillar of light above it like a Hollywood searchlight, another lone exquisite pillar in the unholy dark.


FROM PILLAR TO POST 3

EMPRESSES & ABSENT FRIENDS

Wednesday 9 November

Having just watched, on YouTube, the Chinese Old Folks’ Choir cover of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, I got curious and watched her original video. All I can say is, Who cares about a crumbling old palace? I feel irrelevant, stuck in a hostile place waving goodbye to friends, angry and lost and gone. Well, what the hell else should I do but draw? There doesn’t seem to be anything else that I’m uniquely qualified to do, so I am doing it. By God. Here’s where we left off last time:

I want to be out drawing right now, but there’s a commercial job I promised someone so I’m here in the apartment in Cihangir, trying to work. It’s making me crazy, because Jeannie and Rhonda are still at their hotel today and maybe won’t be tomorrow, since they have very happily sold it. They’re leaving forever very soon, and I do not know if I’ll ever see them again. They’re remarkable women and I’m glad I got the chance to know them and I’m so happy they are off but OH I will miss—

—– Thursday 10 November

At this point I realized: You moron, you’re mooning about your friends being gone and they’re still here. So I called them, said To Hell With Everything, went over to the hotel and hung out all day, and am I glad I did. That was yesterday. The day before that, I drew. And drew. The sky was so blue it almost seemed like the day was warm.

Drawing Session: Tuesday 8 November 2011, 1-5 PM
Here’s a photo that floats around the Internet, taken of the Boukoleon around 1860. It would have to have been from a ship.

This balcony was above the Sea Gate. That’s the round shape at lower right. I’m going to post some fabulous CGI recreations of the Palace, from byzantium1200. Here’s a recreation of this same balcony:

 ©byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

The lions are the ones in our Archeological Museum. Byzantium 1200 works with facts provided by Byzantine scholars, mostly in Germany, so when there’s no information on texture the building is shown as standard grey marble. It was much more. There’s a lot of this broken grey marble lying around, but equal parts of colored stuff too, and no Byzantine building was left plain, even in the Iconoclastic period. Here’s Mr Oner’s view of the Sea Gate.

 © byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

It’s the little opening in the middle of the wall, below the balcony and a little to the right. Here’s the Sea Gate in 2008, with the railroad in the background.

The Sea Gate ©2008 by Trici Venola

Those big carved chunks on the grass in the foreground, that’s the long balcony that runs clear across the front of the building, high over the water. The rounded broken opening, taller than a tall man, is the top of the gate, leading to a trash-choked place of butchered fig trees and dumped furniture, up to the wall over the railroad. This in front, while behind you are the cars whooshing along the highway. Back in 2008 when I drew this, I was with my friend Leyla, who makes waiters walk into walls, and the trains gave earsplitting whistles as they roared and rattled around the bend. Back then, I was living in an apartment right behind the Portals, in an airspace that once was Palace. I used to sleep better, knowing that. In this photo of the Portals, through the Right Portal you can see the windows behind the second balcony down on the pink building. That was mine.

All those drawings I’ve posted of the backside of the Portals were done from that little balcony, and a lot of living as well. I stood there in a red sunset over the silver sea one New Year’s Eve, listening to new Robert Plant, crying because the music was as good as the view. Singing hot days of August, the sea like mercury studded with ships clear to the horizon. April when the bushes began to grow again, misted with tiny flowers, October when they rained down red over the arches. In the black night of a December storm I went out there on a nameless impulse, the wind ripping my hair around like a ragged cloak, and suddenly saw myself through my friend Faye’s eyes, clinging on the edge of this ancient city over the ruined palace, over the savage alien seas. Faye, guide to all the wonder of our dawning adulthood, cackling priestess cohort of a thousand magical meanderings, emotional soldier. Later I discovered that was when she slipped into a final coma, I swear I felt her go by. Friends, friends, life is nothing without friends. You friends reading this, how glad I am that we are all still here, still interested.

Here’s the Palace at present. There are the Portals at the left of the photo.  At the upper right, see the pillar sticking out of the wall? That’s the first one of our colonnade.  I’ve indicated with a little white circle where I’m working now.

Here’s the same view “before.” And again, we must thank Byzantium 1200 for this CGI glimpse of the vast scope of the palace rising out of the sea.

© byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

There are the big square stones where Hulusi painted his name, halfway up the wall. There on the left is Donna’s Big Arch, soon to be blogged about. There’s my little white dot, a rough idea of the present work spot. Sitting there in the snappy breeze I felt quite at home. Here came Hasan the Ghost, lugging a huge bag of cans, giving a friendly wave. From the other direction Ahmet Affable Guy ambled by, “Ah, Madame!” It’s too cold for the Neckers, but one pair wandered by, holding hands and smiling. I’ve never seen their faces, but their hair was familiar. I’ve been sitting down there drawing since June. I’m part of the scenery. Here’s what we got on Tuesday. Sometimes it’s all I’ve got, and increasingly it’s enough.

Boukoleon Pillars 3 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

11 11 11, and at 11 11 AM I called Jeannie and Rhonda. They’re dealing with business details, happily counting the days until they can be gone. The numerologists tell us that this day is some kind of convergence of energies. It’s a fine day for a new start. I’ve been so sad about this for what seems like forever but is only about ten days. I love them and I am glad for them. I admire Jeannie’s lack of sentiment. She feels intensely, but she can let go of everything and look to the future. She lives all at once. Rhonda has a gentler aspect but is just as intrepid, in a steel-under-silk kind of way. They are practical, they can do anything. Me, I struggle daily to free myself from my own past. So I immerse myself in a greater past, the thousand-year-ago past, and draw the grizzled, truncated foundations of Western Civilization. It’s all there, all my genesis, imagery as powerful as anything on video and seen by as many people in its day. I can see Lady Gaga parading ephemeral through these halls in her gold brocade shoes and white leather crowns, calling through these windows, over the eternal sea. Past and present converge in my consciousness and give a great comfort. I am present in the world, I draw myself a place in it. There’s the Internet, and there’s Skype, and friendships that bend tend not to break.

When I Drew Rustem Pasha

by Trici Venola on Monday, 17 October 2011 at 00:33

The following is compiled from emails to friends last March.

From 7 March 2011

 From their emails, some friends back home think I’m in Rural Turkey.

I live in a city of 20 million people they tell us is only 15. I’m in a 1940s apartment with 10-foot high ceilings, orchids blooming next to the computer, a big geranium-covered balcony over other balconies, and five cats. It’s two rows of apartments back from a spectacular view of the mouth of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, across from the Old City, Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, the Center of the World for 2000 years, layers of antiquity overlaid with a frenetic young culture obsessed with technology, surrounded by water on three sides which I can see if I walk outside and around the corner. I go over there to the old city a lot these days to draw.

Just now I’m drawing in the Spice Bazaar in Eminonu at the Galata Bridge. I’m drawing Rustem Pasha Mosque, and today did not go well. I sat on a campstool on a manhole cover next to a cafe in a parking lot for four hours and blew it, so I have to do it again tomorrow. I have to draw Rustem Pasha because it is like a pain every time I look at it until I do. Until I draw it. Here’s the drawing I finally did: Rustem Pasha & Friends ©2011 by Trici Venola.

The mosque rises above the right-angle joining of two long buildings topped by many domes. The masonry is rubbly stone layered with red brick. The vintage is Medieval. The windows piercing the stone on the building to the left, Papazoglu Han, may have been standard when the buildings were new, but centuries of reinforcement with marble and wood have made them different sizes and personalities. Most of them have black cross-hatch iron grills on them. Above them, arches of brick are visible in the texture of the stone. There’s a lot of green growth erupting from patches of the masonry on both buildings, and the domes are whiskered in places.

The building to the right, Chukur Han, has pairs of windows with pointed arches built in the brickwork. Both buildings are two stories, with a store under each dome. At the corner, there’s a Coffee World, a local chain that serves chocolate spoons with every cup. The other stores sell spices, dried fruit, nuts, candy, tea, restaurant supplies, hardware, lunch and so forth. The spices and dried food are mounded in open bins, the place is jammed with people shopping, the ferries are loading and unloading just across the highway zooming with cars, old people feed pigeons on the square, lunatic seagull shrieks and ferry horns blowing, guys jumping in and out of cars, parking them, and in the middle of this daily melee, the charming old mosque.

It was built by Mimar Sinan, Suleyman the Magnificent’s great architect of the Renaissance. From the ramp to the Galata Bridge you can see it below Sinan’s great Suleymaniye Mosque on the hill. Sinan said that Suleymaniye was his masterpiece, but Rustem Pasha was his heart. It’s got a fine dome with many clerestory windows and one minaret, the view I’m presently drawing. It’s built high, over many shops and courtyards surrounded by arches and workshops (these are called Hans), some functioning and some fallen into ruin. High Medieval walls loom above narrow passageways going up to the mosque, where you duck into a dark enclosed stone staircase leading up to a high airy courtyard of marble pillars and arches and fabulous Iznik tiles. I love Rustem Pasha for the same reason everyone else does, because as Sinan felt, it does have a heart. It’s small, highly textured, accessible, and covered with the wonderful tiles in many different patterns, most of them cobalt and turquoise and white. There’s one right next to the door, a souvenir tile from a hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, that looks to be from a few hundred years ago. It’s a lone picture tile stuck into the middle of a frieze of identical floral ones.

It’s naive art, and I was drawing it because I love it. People coming out of the door after prayers were laughing and telling me they love it too, and one of them told me it was Mecca. Six minarets all round the edge, the requisite pairs of doors, the sacred oil flasks, the fountains, and in the middle, the big sacred black cube: Mecca. I’m hunched on my stool thinking how much I’d like to be drawing inside but it’s got to be forbidden, but I’m drawing away and people are coming up and telling me what the picture means and buying my book (I have a book of drawings I sell out of my handbag, sold about 1000 so far) and the Imam (priest) comes out and invites me to draw inside anytime. So I did but froze to death, it’s still too cold.

So today I spent out in the sun, trying to capture the charm of this place, but I’ll have to go back tomorrow and try again. I quit, disgusted with blowing the drawing but on the whole happy to care enough to do it over and have the time to  do it. I bought cheese and olives and walked across the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, fishermen on both sides, ferries and tankers and cruise ships and seagulls and the heaving teal sea, Japanese tourists everyone is being extra nice to, because of their disaster. Walked along the piers toward home past a decayed Byzantine chunk of old church pressed into service as a parking lot I should draw before it’s demolished. Walked up the steep hill to home.

Tomorrow night I’m going to an art opening, see some swell new work, talk to the artist, a professor friend from New York about art tours. But tonight I made soup, my Winter Soup staple that lasts five days, and watched a movie like I do most nights. Some days I take people on tours, some days I take people shopping, some days I work on the computer all day. I have 27 sketchbooks full of drawings and a few stories.  I live really quietly, but I live in Byzantium.

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.