Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Brick Stories

In Vasari's hierarchy of art, it doesn't get much lower than bricks. Byzantine archaeology tends to disagree. Back in 1954, Alison Frantz excavated the Church of the Holy Apostles in the Athenian Agora and directed its restoration. The works were published in, Frantz, Agora XX: The Church of the Holy Apostles (Princeton, 1971).

Today, I'd like to showcase a rare working drawings from the annals of Byzantine wall decoration. Paying attention to tossed bricks pays off. The exterior walls of Holy Apostles make extensive use of pseudo-Kufic ceramic decoration. Byzantine architectural historians know that these decorations pretend to look like Arabic script but were executed by artists who did not know the language. Byzantine pseudo-Kufic is an early form of Orientalism, if you will. To read more about this interesting topic, see George Miles, DOP 18, 1964 and Laskarina Bouras' study of Hosios Loukas.

During the Holy Apostles conservation, Frantz found a broken half brick in the rubble core of the south wall of the south apse. The rough side of the brick contains a drawing in black that looks like an architectural sketch working out a pseudo-Kufic pattern. As Frantz notes, the sketch does not match any of the designs precisely, but it best resembles one of the 37 recorded designs (Fig. 2, no. 6). I've sketched the sketch above (based on photo, pl. 5b) and the executed design below. Isn't that amazing? I'm telling you, there's much wisdom in bricks and tiles.

The design sketch is one of the few examples of Byzantine process drawings that survive. Obviously, it served its ephemeral purpose. The artist sorted out what he wanted to sort out and then dumped it. As the brick was already broken, it was of no architectural use. It was scrap. Vasilis Marinis and I have organized a session, "From Idea to Building: Ancient and Medieval Architectural Process" for the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians (April 18-22, 2012, Detroit), which will address such issues of drawings as process.

Frantz's Holy Apostles restoration was completed in 1956 just in time for the dedication ceremonies of the Stoa of Attalos on Sept. 3, 1956. Whereas the Stoa of Attalos has dominated the brunt of criticism against American imperialism, few speak of the Holy Apostles in the same vein. I am not sure of the politics, but it seems that Frantz saved the monument single-handedly and guaranteed funding from the Kress Foundation for its restoration. I have heard apocryphal stories about the anti-Byzantine attitudes of 1950s Agora, but I haven't verified them. But I digress.

No comments:

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States