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.

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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.

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STANDING THE OBELISK

Nicholas in the Arena.Detail ©2011 by Trici Venola

I’m drawing bas-relief marble chariots so old they look melted. I’ve been walking past this obelisk for years and never drawn it. The faces seemed too rounded by time and weather to be interesting. What a fool I was! I didn’t look hard enough. My only excuse is that there is so much else.

The Rain Trough ©2011 by Trici Venola

Here’s my first take, last summer, on the Egyptian Obelisk Pedestal, which I did as a break from drawing The Big Arch. We’re up on the top of the hill in  Sultanahmet, in the center of the Hippodrome. That’s the 10th-Century Column of Constantine in the background. Very different from working down at the Boukoleon; there I saw mostly Turkish people and a few tourists, here I was listening to tour guides address cruise crowds all day. Made a big mistake in the first drawing listening to one blather on utter nonsense about Empress Theodora, who I think of with affection and awe. She was hell on wheels as a performer here in the Hippodrome, and powerfully pious in her afterlife as the Empress who with her consort Justinian built the great monuments we now call High Byzantine.

The carving on the Pedestal of the Egyptian Obelisk is from 390, which means that Theodora herself saw it when the faces were still clear, in 510 or so when she was performing in the Hippodrome. She had an act which became the stuff of legend. She cavorted nearly nude, allowing trained geese to peck corn from various parts of her anatomy. This drove the crowds wild, probably from trying to see, as this Hippodrome is just about the biggest ancient arena in the world, second only to Rome’s Circus Maximus which was built by the same Emperor, Septimus Severus. It probably held 100,000 people.

Egyptian Obelisk

The Egyptian Obelisk was brought to Istanbul from the temple at Luxor by the Byzantine Emperor Constantius in 357. It was raised by Emperor Theodosius in 390, and he made sure we knew it. He had this marble pedestal created, covered with portraits carved in bas-relief. A mystery for me is how these faces survived the Iconoclasts, who spent from around 711 to 843 destroying all pictures in Christian art. So how did the faces withstand this? They couldn’t have been buried or covered, they’re too worn for that. Notice the rain trough in the top illustration, where the water has forced its way through the pipe cut in the marble. That’s 1600 years of wear right there.  Maybe they survived because the carving was commemorative and not religious.  Anyone out there who knows, please tell me, it’s driving me crazy.

Egyptian Obelisk Base, West Face, Hippodrome

Theodosius  and his ministers and family appear on all four sides of the Pedestal. Below them are chariots and dancers, and at the bottom of one side is an instructional illustration of how they stood up the 65-foot, multi-ton, red granite Obelisk, in case you should ever want to try it yourself.

Standing the Obelisk ©2011 by Trici Venola

They attached ropes and winched it up, and the figures are so adorable that I’m putting them here in close-up.

The couple to the left of this first vignette look for all the world to me like a bear fondling a woman, but I am told it’s a man in a hat and they are pulling ropes. A likely story. Think I’m kidding? Look at this photo of the same figures!

Here they are with the winches.  I wonder if the figure to the right is beating time, like in that galley-slave scene from Ben-Hur.

It’s fascinating, how time has worn these figures down to the essentials. A real lesson in anatomical art: everything will be nearly shapeless, but you can still see the set of a haunch, a rounded calf muscle, the swell of a straining back, and that one detail throws the whole thing into focus.

The Egyptian carving up on the granite Obelisk is still crisp, but Theodosius and his ministers were made of softer stuff. They show  as so many globes. Nobody’s got a nose, and lower faces are rounded and pitted into blurs. But the more I look the more I see, and it’s possible to make out lips, hollowed cheeks, curly hair, and on one particularly magisterial figure, Christopher Walken eyes. My mistake with the first take was in outlining too harshly and in trying to ask ink to do what paint does. In other words, I strained the medium. But now I thought I should try many little lines instead of one thick one, so I had to go out there and do it again, on a portrait I did for the Constantinou family of their son Nicholas. I spent forty-five minutes drawing him, with a drafting pen, on a big 35 X 70 sheet of paper. While we worked, I asked him what he was into, for the background. “Sports.” What could I do? Draw Fenerbache and Galatasary? But then I remembered Istanbul’s fine Byzantine heritage of sports riots: the Blues and the Greens. They were chariot teams. Blues were aristocrats, Greens raced for the plebs. In 532 the Blues and the Greens fought so savagely that they destroyed the city. They burned the Palace, the one where the Blue Mosque is now. They burned the old basilica of Hagia Sophia. They rioted for days and planned to burn the Emperor Justinian as well. He had one foot on the boat. He told Theodora to hurry up, or some such. After she’d lost the geese, gotten religion and become Empress, she wore purple robes. She was wearing them then. “Purple makes a fine shroud,” she said, “I will die here with dignity.”

The famous mosaic of Theodora in Ravenna

Justinian was so moved that he quelled the riot, executing, um, 20,000 people on this very Hippodrome, out on the end where the high school is now. And in 532, he and Theodora started building that great lady of High Byzantine art, the present Hagia Sophia. So for Nick Constantinou’s portrait, I chose the Obelisk Pedestal in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, with chariots and dancers, as a background for this fine young face. But I wanted to show the other Obelisk as well, to establish that this was indeed the Hippodrome. The Pedestal side I wanted has  Standing the Obelisk on it, so at the bottom I switched it for the other, which shows the Chariot Parade with its dancing girls. I spent about a week drawing the background, in the searing summer center of Istanbul’s Hippodrome Ramadan Festival:

Nicholas in the Arena ©2011 by Trici Venola

This got me fascinated with the Chariot Parade, so now I’m drawing again from scratch, just for me and my sketchbook. Here’s the first take, from last week, but as you can see I got distracted by a little girl who has just moved to Arizona.

Leyla and the Chariots ©2011 by Trici Venola

Here’s the second take.

Chariot Parade WIP 1 ©2011 by Trici Venola

The weather is freezing now. I’m working bundled up in layers of wool and leather, but I’m still cold to the bone. I can hold out for about two hours max. Drawing these little guys is tricky. They’re so small, and the changing light of the day can reveal details you didn’t see before, so it’s wise to hold out awhile if a figure doesn’t read. Here’s the next session:

Chariot Parade WIP 2 © by Trici Venola

Yesterday I got out there at around 3 PM. A glove on the non-working hand, bare frozen fingers on the right, crouched on my little borrowed stool swathed in a heavy jacket and a huge cashmere scarf, drawing. The air was pink and blue, and everything sharp as if seen under water. I was meeting a protege there at 4:30. I could hardly stand the cold, but I drew all these figures anyway. I’d be just about to call her to say we’d meet elsewhere, and then the drawing would get good and I’d forget myself.

Chariot Parade WIP 3 © 2011 by Trici Venola

Can you see the giraffe? It’s up on top, towards the left. Yes, the bottom of a giraffe: it couldn’t be anything else. 

So exotic beasts, chariots, dancing girls, acrobats and strong men, jugglers and clowns, all doing tricks for the Empress, who had done them herself.  Procopius tells us that, in her days as a performer, she publicly bemoaned the fact that God had so made her that she could only have intercourse with three men at a time, rather than five like she wanted. At nineteen she became devoutly religious and attracted Justinian, who moved heaven and earth and his uncle to change the law so he could marry her. When she became Empress. Theodora abolished forced prostitution and child prostitution and instituted a death penalty for rape. She quelled that sports riot, which has gone down in history as the Nika Rebellion. She invented the tiara and pointed shoes. She laughed at pompous courtiers. She spoke her mind. She was loathed by contemporary historians, branded a harlot opportunist. Yet not one of them, nor any in all the long years after them, has found a shred of evidence that she ever cheated on Justinian. This has led to wild speculation about their private life.

Justin & Theo At Home CGI ivory ©2008 by Trici Venola for Time-Out Istanbul

Oh, these historians, they will never understand. There’s no mystery. What could be more natural? A girl has a few wild years, gets religion, marries a nice guy and settles down.

Justin & Theo At Home CGI mosaic ©2008 by Trici Venola for Time-Out Istanbul