Thomas Whittemore, 1871 – 1950: Touching the Face of God

“…a man whom professional archaeologists and scholars dismissed as a pretentious amateur; and indeed, he had gift for making himself appear to be a charlatan.  …his persuasive powers enabled him to raise funds from rich American ladies, whom he handled with superb artifice….”

That’s Steven Runciman talking about Thomas Whittemore.

It’s about as sharp as Runciman ever gets, and you have to wonder where the D List rating for the poor fellow comes from.  Well, he went to Tufts despite being a Cambridge native for one thing, and he read English literature for another, and indeed, taught English there after graduation.  He sort of fell into the whole art history thing gradually and over time, and teaching both subjects in places like NYU and Columbia before going whole hog into the art side.  Did a little field work in Egypt before the first war, in which war his bit was chiefly humanitarian (French Red Cross) and some relief work in Anatolia, which are helped feed his Byzantine obsession. 

In 1930 he came into his inheritance and rather than blow it on wine and women (confirmed bachelor, as they used to say), he established the Byzantine Institute in Boston (since moved to Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC)  with satellite offices in Paris and Istanbul.

The attitude of Serious Academia suddenly becomes clearer.  You can’t really fault anything he did, so you’re left with only a bit of ill-natured behind-his-back sneering.  Amateur.  Unscholarly.  Like Schliemann.

So what did he do?  He made friends with Kemal Ataturk. Which led to his greatest achievement.

Time to back track a bit here.  When the Ottoman Turks finally conquered Constantinople/Istanbul in 1453, the sultan told his men that they could take whatever they liked but that the Hagia Sophia was under his personal protection.  It was, is, an astonishing piece of work and if you are at all susceptible to the lure of Byzantium (not everyone is), the mosaics images are astonishing.

Islam has that rule against images of persons.  (So, at times, has Christianity, but that’s another story.)  Because of this, and because the church was the astonishing structure that  it was, there was no choice but to convert it into a mosque.  What to do with the mosaics?  Over time, they disappeared and the place looked something like this.  It was only in 1849 that  Sultan Abdülmecid I (a western leaning fellow who sent food relief to the Irish potato faminers, by the way) invited some Italian preservationists to do a job on the leaking roof.   They noticed a bit glint through the ceiling’s plaster and soon discovered that there was some really good stuff there.  The Sultan was called and he agreed that the work was indeed remarkable, but told them to cover it back up as the time was not quite right for his co-religionists to accept this particular piece of the past.

Fast forward a few decades and Kemal Ataturk takes charge of the nation in 1922.  A progressive thinker, he banned the veil and, after a chat with Whittemore, he reclassified the mosque of Hagia Sophia as a museum and gives him the green light to chip away at the plaster that had kept the images from view for nearly five hundred years.  Whittemore got the job to make it happen. So, for eighteen years or so, he raised money in winter (those rich Americans and that superb artifice) and oversaw the restoration in summer.

Call him what you like, but he was no Schliemann.  Unlike the former industrialist, he did good work.

Whatever else may be said about the man, even Runciman was forced to conclude, “I always enjoyed his rather eccentric company.”

There are worse epitaphs.

(There’s a story that Bellini, whom the Venetians sent over to Mehmed in a good will gesture, did some erotic frescoes for the sultan’s harem, frescoes that offended later sensibilities and were whitewashed over.  How true this may be, and exactly where the paintings might be, is, so far as I know, undetermined.  One likes to think that someone might continue Whittemore’s work.)

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