Summer just past: The heat simmered up from the bricks like a radiator you didn’t know was on. The first thing I realized was that I’d have to work looking directly into the sun.
These days I’m down at the Boukoleon in the horrible ant-infested boiling sunlight, I wrote, drawing the arch from the only accessible side, the one where the only time it’s lit from the front is early in the morning. The rest of the time the light is behind it. So I’m staring into bright sunlight trying to get the gist of the shape, the whole mind-boggling panoply of brickwork, ribs and chunks and shards of brick all fanning out in radiant lines around the arch, and up top, turrets of masonry desiccated into shapes resembling griffins and tombstones, all dark against the white blare of the sky.
I remember the helpless feeling of that first day, thinking I’d taken on more than I could handle. But I’d been on the phone with Donna Perkins in Canada, who I’d taken around the Boukoleon back in 2008. She calls occasionally to hear about our parallel universe here in Sultanahmet. I was sharing the glad news that Michael Constantinou had commissioned a big drawing of Hagia Sophia. Donna said, “You mean I could pay you to draw something?”
Then she said, “So, what would you draw?” I immediately said, “The big arch at the Boukoleon. It’s about to collapse.” But when I got down there and really looked at it, it was one of those times when your soul is dragging the rest of you along by the ear, saying “You know this is what you want.”
The structure of a brick arch requires that the sides of the bricks fan out above the arch. But the Byzantines, never missing a religious beat, reinforced that imagery with double and triple window arches, left bare to symbolize the Light of the Lord from within. And those double narrow marble columns? Those are Peter and Paul, holding up the church. Are you ready for that? Of course, the Boukoleon is a palace, not a church, and the brick arches show up as radiance by default, having been stripped of their former magnificence by Crusaders, Ottomans, weather and the Republic. I’d sure love to know how that place was finished off. We’ve discussed in earlier blogs how the only CGI recreation shows grey marble because there’s no record of what the finish was. The heap of broken stuff under the arch has marble every color of the rainbow, and I’ll bet that a lot of that was on the outside walls. There were huge lions on the sea balconies. There were probably other statues as well, although the Emperor Theophilos, who built the Boukoleon in the mid-9th century, appears to have been an Iconoclast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8pbLPVZWko
After two days in the heat I didn’t like the first piece enough to continue. So I started again. And again. Four or five times. The top of the arch has a toothed ridge of masonry. The one closest the center of the arch looks like a standing lion. I could not get this right. Nobody would ever know but me, since the piles of stone are crumbling so fast you can see it happen. It is possible to preserve a ruin without destroying its surface integrity, but what will happen to this one is anyone’s guess. Around here they’re repairing 10th-century stonework with brand new stone blocks. So God help the Boukoleon, and I’m drawing as fast as I can.
This lion has to be correct because one day it may be all that exists of this relic of the high ambition of Theophilos, the keening horror of the Fourth Crusade, the famous pophyry birth chamber, the murder of ascetic despot Nikophorus Phokas, the sorrow of Mehmet the Conqueror when he beheld the burned grandeur over the sea, the many generations who made homes there anyway, the madness of the Sultan who ran the Orient Express through it, which put an end to this vista, drawn in 1853 by Orientalist Eugene Flandin. Do you recognize the Portals? See the big square stones below them where Hulusi wrote his name, right at ground level today. Old people in the neighborhood remember diving into the water from the top of the ruined Palace.
That’s the Blue Mosque behind, but it’s nowhere near as close as this slightly-fanciful rendering shows. Here’s a picture of the Palace Portals in 1950, warts and all. Notice how the harbor was silting up. See our big square stones now, just to the left of that little shack bottom center.
Two actual Boukoleon Lions survive, a half-mile away in the Archeological Museum. They sat roaring on the balconies toward the sea, and a tall man standing next to them could reach their manes. Their noses and jaws were lost to time but still they roar in the dimness of the museum.
This present lion is more appropriate. Chipped from the bones of the Palace, it has appeared bit by bit over the years as the wall rots from exposure. It’s one of a row of crenellations, those square chunks interspersed with slots for archers, along the tops of old walls. But these crenellations were created by circumstance. As we can see in all these illustrations, the wall was once much taller. Here’s our old friend Tayfun Oner’s CGI of the Palace, showing the big arch and the arrow slots above it, below the topmost windows. Those arrow slots are the spaces around our Crenellation Lion.
Two years ago a bum moved in and strung his laundry across the Lion and the other crenellations. After that the government moved in, stripping all the fig trees and sandblasting some of the interior walls of the ruin, but the trash quickly came back. Despite the fence, which went up in 2010, people have found a way to dump furniture in there.
As I draw, the traffic roars by on the highway with a sound of crashing waves. A water-hawker bellows his wares out there near the cars. I sit in full pounding sunlight under a huge black hat, my feet wrapped against the sun, slimed with sweat, staring at the arch dark against the glare. Ants swarm in the heat all around me. Occasionally one climbs up into my clothes. Passersby stop and watch the work. Most are decent enough, but yesterday two boys stopped and would not leave. They kept saying “Excuse me,” and continuing in Turkish. Eventually they asked for sex. I got to use some Turkish terms I learned from Nizam, and they took off running. At the end of the day, after four false starts of hours each, I had drawn the lion. Now my concern is that it’s too big for the composition I had in mind.
With this project I hadn’t yet come up with the idea of scanning and blogging every day. So just for fun, for our blog here I color-coded part of a scan of the finished drawing, according to the notes in this letter to patron Donna Perkins:
…Spent last few days working on our drawing. It seems I must draw every brick. Since the arch shows dark against a blank white sky, I don’t want to make a lot of sketchy lines where I think the actual edges are. Instead I’ve been working my way to them, starting with the top lion-like crenellation, measuring off that, and working first down and then over. Everyone always asks “How long did this take?” So while I can, here’s a reconstruction of the schedule:
July 5, 2-5 PM: First drawing started, stopped. Met friends at Kalyon Hotel, talked about project.
July 8: 1-5 PM: RED
July 9: Too hot to go out. Worked portrait in evening for Constantinou family.
July 10, 2-5 PM: GREEN
July 11, 3:30-5 PM: TURQUOISE
July 13, 3-6 PM: BLUE
July 14, 2-5 PM: PURPLE
July 15, 1-5 PM: GOLD
So we are at about 17 hours. Pretty much what I expected. This coming Thursday, I’m renewing my Residence Visa for the next five years, thank you very much, since this commission is helping to make it possible! Big deep breaths quite often now, feeling secure. It’s hot as blazes and my left arm now has to be covered as the sun is painful. But everybody is flipping out over the piece. I don’t think I’ll do another one like this…but I’m really glad I’m doing this one.
The final Plein Air drawing, like the others drafting pen on rag paper, measures 35 X 70 cm and took 30 hours. The last day was a day so humid that walking was like swimming. I got down there very late, but at least the shadows had spread. I was finishing up a section that’s blocked by a tree. I did not want to include the tree, so I was standing up filling in the shapes of the stones. Then I sat down on the wall in my usual place and the ants went crazy. Normally they just run across my feet, but for some reason they were just all OVER…ghah…anyway, I got the last of the hardcore information, packed up and walked down the highway to the cafe in the walls. The sea looked like thick mercury in mist. I could not make myself leave until around 9 PM. Thinking about why they built that palace there. The weather was the same, the views of the sea were the ones I love so much now. How I love it over there, and how I loved the opportunity to do this drawing I wanted to do for so long. I could never, EVER have dedicated this much time to one drawing if Donna hadn’t commissioned it. But now there’s this, with every brick and stone.
There’s a point at which you must stop. After I leave the site, I always spend some time making sure that the drawing makes sense without the site in front of it. So I spent a couple of hours at a table out in front of Kybele Hotel in Sultanahmet, putting in some final touches, and everybody walking up and down the street just gasped. It’s those gasps that let me know I’ve got it right.