Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Quantifying Byzantine Architecture

I often find myself trying to explain (or justify) the methodological differences between art history and archaeology to the extent that, in the 1960s, the discipline of archaeology veered away from stylistic agency and aligned itself to the sciences (physical and social). Cecil L. Striker is one of the few architectural historians to facilitate this transition in the field of Byzantine Studies. To this day, some of his colleagues still distrust scientific fact, for instance when dendrochronology contradicts dates derived by stylistic comparisons. In similar ways, text historians might privilege a chronicler's word over stratigraphy. One of the tools that Striker employed in his research is statistical analysis, and he encouraged students to take courses in statistics over traditional offerings on style or iconography.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Striker regularly taught a graduate seminar on the Topography of Constantinople. The students who took this class through the years will all remember Striker's quantitative analysis of church foundations based on Raymond Janin's
Les Églises et les monastéres (Paris 1953, 1969). I remember, Betsey Robinson worked on this topic, and Gunder Varinlioglu explored the data in "Urban Monasteries in Constantinople and Thessaloniki: Distribution Patterns in Time and Urban Topography," published in Striker's Festschrift, Archaeology in Architecture (Mainz, 2005), pp. 187-198.

Striker's study was known only to his students, who never forgot his battleship graphs. But this doesn't have to be the case anymore. Having completed the second volume of Kalenderhane, Striker has turned to the publication of his smaller articles. The quantitative analysis of Constantinopolitan churches has just been published in the German journal of architectural history,
Architectura, where Striker had published his controversial dates on Byzantine churches based on dendrochronology. It's great work:

Cecil L. Striker, John Malcolm Russell, and Janet C. Russel, "Quantitative Indications about Church Building in Constantinople, 325-1453 A.D.,"
Architectura 38 (2008) pp, 1-12.

Striker’s statistical analysis confirms the correlation between building activity and period of prosperity according to accepted historical views, those periods falling into four spikes in 375-600, 775-950, 1025-1200, and 1250-1400. Other trends are discussed, such as a building lacuna in the late Macedonian to early Comnenian dynasties, a recovery in the Comnenian period, and similarities between the Comnenian and Palaeologue periods. The numbers also illustrate a decline in imperial foundation after 900 complemented by an increase in non-imperial foundations. By the Palaeologue period (1250-1350), non-imperial foundations are double the average, and there are no imperial foundations at all. Monastic foundations, particularly after 650, rise above the general average. Striker makes a fascinating comparison between new foundations and restorations: only in 750-800 do restorations greatly outnumber new foundations. After ca. 900, restorations are marginally higher than new foundations. Monastic churches seem to be consistently half as many as non-monastic churches during the Middle Byzantine period, while in the Late Byzantine period monastic and non-monastic foundations are equal. Finally, Striker explores the lack of building activity under specific imperial reigns. Interestingly, less than half of all 84 Byzantine emperors sponsored church construction, and they happen to be the ones with longer reigns. Short-reigned emperors (especially five years or less) simply did not invest in their architectural legacy. These are few of the conclusions made possible through statistical analysis. The data, presented in numerous graphs, will surely offer further observations.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States