Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.24

Gaspard Fossati, Aya Sofia Constantinople. CD-Rom.   Oakland, CA:  Octavo, 2005.  ISBN 1-891-788-34-5.  $30.00.  

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, Georgetown University (
Word count: 997 words

The monuments of eld present themselves to the tourist's eye as naked survivors of a long age of neglect and decline. They are rarely such. Most that we see are rather better thought of as high order Disney artifacts, reconstructions and restorations based on ancient materials, shaped as much by the good intentions of archaeologists, patriots, and promoters as by the heavy hand of time. (Our literary and historical texts are equally transformed by editors, patriots, and translators, of course.)

So Justinian's great church in Istanbul comes to the viewer today as the product of choices and transformations that mainly elide themselves in order to facilitate the carefully constructed visit of the tourist, who knows she is in a museum built as a Christian church in what is now a predominantly Muslim city, where dilapidation and preservation have produced a massive pile, a bit dark and depressing on the inside, but impressive as few other buildings of any age can be. Nothing about the building as you see it speaks of the hands of two Swiss brothers, Gaspard and Giuseppe Fossati, but their hands are indeed everywhere. It was they who, in the nineteenth century, did the thoughtful, patient work that created the theme park experience for the nineteenth-century traveler. Only Justinian had more to do with this building than they.1 When the Sultan Abdulmecid visited the restored building, he could indeed for a moment imagine himself Justinianized and glorious -- for that has always been the function of this building, to imbue the builder and even the visitor with a deceptive sense of solidity, grandeur, and pride.

When done, they wrote and illustrated the book, and this is the book. Published in London in 1852, it had its own restorative effect in bringing Hagia Sofia to the eye and mind of western readers in an age when the technologies of travel and photography had not yet made our tourism and voyeurism possible. But tinted lithography was in its heyday and the effect of the images in this book on early readers must have been potent. The interest of the book is architectural, not artistic, and the silent omission of representation of the mosaics in the building (some damaged by the Fossatis' restoration work and now lost) suggests deference to the aniconic sympathies of the Sultan and of Islam.

The reproduction here takes advantage of digital imaging and contemporary scholarship to make the book available to a new audience. The plates are handsomely reproduced and scanned at a resolution that the publisher claims makes them magnifiable up to 250%, and indeed, depending on purpose and interest, I have found them serviceable at 400%. Higher magnification pixelates and does not to my eye make new detail visible.

What is this Octavo edition? The purchaser acquires a CD on which is to be found a single PDF file 620MB in size, a size determined by the size of the high-resolution images it contains. When I have copied that file to my hard disk, what do I have? A 620 MB PDF file. Where shall I keep it? With my other collector's edition PDFs? In practice, I think this means it goes in the desktop folder called "Scholark" where I keep scholarly papers of colleagues, downloads from JSTOR, and the like. This feels vaguely unsatisfactory. I'm not supposed to share this with friends and colleagues, and it would take a CD or flash pen to hand it off to anyone at that.

The contents of the PDF include scanned images of all the pages of the original book, plus additional material describing the book, describing the reproduced copy (in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley), and translating the French text. If I click on an image, I find myself jumped to a page which gives a ground plan of Hagia Sophia and lets me click again on the plan to jump to the best image of that part of the building. It is pleasant and interesting and abounds in useful detail. A larger monitor and a faster hard disk and processor would have smoothed the page-turning.

How will I use it? If I were a serious student of the Fossatis and Hagia Sophia, I would return to this, study it closely, try to print out bits, and make close study. Because I am not, I will let it lie in my Scholark folder, a rather less impressive place than my coffee table, and I doubt I shall return to it much.

The license agreement by which the user is allegedly bound (there is dispute about the enforceability of these "shrink-wrap" licenses) unhelpfully appears on the last pages of the PDF, preceded by the instructions that would have told you how to use the document, if you had seen them before reading all the other pages.

My reservations about this volume's utility should not be taken as directed wholly or even mainly at the publisher, who is among the many struggling to find ways in which to deliver high-quality digital products to broad audiences. I would naturally prefer something more readily accessible on the web, but others will disagree. The deeper question of interest here is what happens in an environment of abundance. Thirty years ago a new facsimile edition of the Book of Kells was a wonder of the nations, howbeit an expensive one, and I still have it on my bookshelf, aging more gracefully than I. But now there are not only many more such print reproductions, but a flood of digital representations of works of art, rare books, and the like. In thirty years, deo volente, I will still own my Book of Kells and turn to it affectionately from time to time; this PDF file is unlikely to be with me then. Where will it be? Where preserved? How accessible? There are few digital products today for which one can answer those questions with confidence.

[For a response to this review by Dana F. Sutton, please see BMCR 2006.02.28.]


1.   This is not to minimize the importance of restoration work done in the 20th century, particularly on the mosaics.

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