ROMAN MORTAR: Drawing the Sphendone


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.


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.


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.



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 © 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 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.


Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 3

Wednesday 21 September 2011 • 4-6


During three days of coughing and sneezing, I started to upload stuff for a blog. I don’t know what I’m doing and there’s a mass of stuff to do before anyone can make sense of it. God, blogging. The writing is the easy part, it’s all the uploading and what size and dayamn, I was never going to get into computers again when I moved here in 2000, I’ve been dealing with them since 1984, so damned difficult to surmount all the mechanized obstacles and still come up with something that resembles good art, good writing. But it will out, it will out. I’m really excited and thank you Gabrielle for helping me get started!

Back to the Boukoleon. All this art here is at the left side of 35 X 70 cm (about 17 by 35 inches) horizontal heavy rag paper. Back on Friday, I posted about a misfire of the Boukoleon Portals. We’re looking at the portal on your far left as you face them.  I made the mistake of penning in the posts and lintel first. The arch squeezed, don’t ask me why, it’s pointed and it shouldn’t be. I forgot to draw from the center and leave myself room to grow a bit. So that drawing is trashed.

I started all over again. So many people have asked me how long it takes, and how I start, etc. that I’ve decided to scan as much as possible with each day of drawing. (Note 1 November 2011: When I figured out what I was doing on this blog, I went back and inserted the scans into the earlier posts, including this one. I put the comment into boldface because it’s actually when I realized what we could do by showing daily progress. This may be an old idea on the Internet, but it was new to me.) Here’s what I did last time in three hours. 

This time I started with the left post and then immediately went to the inner arches, finishing the right post only at the end and then lightly. We learned our lesson, we’re going to the right only.

Today was clouded and sultry, storm weather. But it didn’t storm. I had lots to do after being housebound for three days and didn’t get down to the Boukoleon until four. What a surprise, no trash around the Big Arch! Maybe the Belidiye read Facebook. Still pretty foul inside the fence in front of the Portals, but oh, what a difference. Now in the time I was housebound, I got into Blog Mode…thinking about it, planning…so I really. didn’t. think. I’d get anything done, but sat down anyway and opened up the drawing, which I keep clipped on a double-thickness mortarboard, also 35 X 70 cm, wrapped in brown waxed butcher paper. Tried not to think about switching gears and how I hate it, tried not to think at all. And went into the paper. With the pen, dotted in some perspective lines; pencil is okay but it smears and soon, you’re doing inking over pencils instead of pen-and-ink Plein Air. So I reserve pencil for the very minimum and only on these big ones. Walking on eggs, delicately added some surface bricks to the top and left. I was walking on eggs because there’s so much detail that it’s easy to make the entire drawing so busy it flattens out and kills all the drama. So there’s some severe editing that has to happen, in addition to reducing millions of colors to two, and millions of edges to lines.  Another couple of teenagers watched, also a young Turkish guy. The guy who sits in the far corner is still there drinking beer. I don’t think he’s moved all week. Maybe he’s a ghost. The light went at six. A short, sweet session. Here’s what we got today: all the brick down the right side of the Portal.

Packed up, walked along the City Walls down to the Stable Gate. The sea was slate-blue and scuttering foam. Warm delicious wind, the whole darkening day gathering in anticipation of rain. Walked up the hill next to the Topkapi Palace Wall, watching the buttressed backside of Ayasofya spread out at the top like a trumpet blast. Past the ornate Ottoman fountain with its swooping canopy, past the guards at the Topkapi Palace gate, along narrow Sogukcesme Street between tall wood and stone walls, over the hill and down, past the cheap shops and nargile places tacked onto the wall, played with a filthy black and white kitten, wished I could take it home, ran across the tramline and just as I got where I needed to go, oh rain!