An interview with Ivan Drpić, author of Epigram, Art, and Devotion in Later Byzantium

Ivan, thank you for speaking to us about your book. It is clear from the start that you must have studied hundreds of objects in the course of writing your book. How long was this book in the making? How much did you travel for research purposes? Where were most of your sources located, and how easy were they to access?

 This book represents a revised and expanded version of my doctoral dissertation, which I defended at Harvard in 2011. So I have been working on it for quite some time. Early in the course of my graduate studies I became fascinated with Byzantine epigrams, poetic texts composed to accompany a vast array of portable objects and buildings, including what we now call works of art. The summer of 2006 was probably crucial; I spent most of it immersed in the poetry of Manuel Philes, an early fourteenth-century author and one of the greatest epigrammatists of the Byzantine millennium. This is when I decided to write a thesis on epigrams, which, in retrospect, was an admittedly daring choice. I was not trained as a philologist or literary historian – my background is in art history – yet I decided to work on texts.

Byzantine artifacts and buildings inscribed with poetic texts are so numerous and so dispersed across a myriad of different collections and locales that I could not possibly hope to study all of them in person. But I did manage to examine quite a few, certainly the core corpus discussed in the book. I was fortunate that my work over the years was supported by a number of institutions. Particularly important was a fellowship from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which allowed me to conduct extensive fieldwork for two years, from 2007 to 2009. During this period I was based in Athens, but I made frequent trips to monuments, museum collections, church treasuries, libraries, and archives around the Mediterranean and Western Europe. My research took me to places such as Venice, where I consulted manuscripts at the Marciana Library, Oxford, where I examined Byzantine rings at the Ashmolean Museum, and Ohrid, where I studied icons and wall paintings. This was a wonderfully exciting time, full of surprises and felicitous encounters with artifacts, books, and above all, people – colleagues and friends who generously shared their knowledge and experience and assisted me in manifold ways. I also spent a great deal of time “luxuriating,” as one of my dissertation advisors would say, at the Gennadius Library and the libraries of the British and French Schools in Athens. I was fortunate to have excellent funding, so I could afford to take my time and read widely, not only poetry but also other sources, and this made all the difference. In the years following the graduation, I continued the work on this project as much as my teaching and other obligations permitted me to do. Luckily, I was on leave during the academic year 2013–2014; I had a fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., which allowed me to draft most of the book manuscript.

Do you have any favourite object among those which you studied face to face?

 If I had to pick one object, it would probably be a remarkable embroidery with the archangel Michael and a supplicant by the name of Manuel kneeling at his feet, which is now kept at the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino. This piece has received relatively little attention in the scholarship, and moreover, it is in a rather poor state of preservation. (At least this was the condition of the object the last time I saw it; the delicate needlework featuring gold thread and tiny seed pearls required urgent conservation.) The embroidered cloth, which may have served as a podea, a hanging suspended from the lower edge of an icon, is interesting for a number of reasons, but what I find particularly fascinating is the poetic inscription the cloth bears. This text consists of two parts that function like the speech bubbles in comic books; each part gives voice to one of the two figures. The kneeling supplicant speaks a prayer in which he introduces himself, declares his devotion to the archangel, and seeks the latter’s protection. Such prayers are fairly typical of later Byzantine dedicatory epigrams, and the inscription on the Urbino cloth belongs to this genre. What is unusual, however, is that in this case the prayer’s addressee, the archangel Michael, is brought into conversation and responds, favorably, to the supplicant’s plea. Moreover, the entire embroidered tableau is envisioned as a reenactment of an Old Testament episode, the encounter between Joshua and the archangel at the walls of Jericho, with Manuel, the supplicant, playing the role of the Israelite leader. This Palaiologan nobleman, whose identity is yet to be determined, chose to have himself depicted in the guise of a biblical figure. Objects such as the Urbino cloth exemplify how inscribed devotional artifacts could function as a flexible medium of self-representation in Byzantine culture.

 You have focused on the later Byzantine period. What explains the ubiquity of epigrams in that period specifically? Why don’t we use epigrams in the same way today? Is there a modern equivalent?

 The later Byzantine period, which I define as spanning the centuries from the accession of the Komnenian dynasty to the Empire’s demise in 1453, is exceptionally rich in epigrammatic poetry. There are multiple reasons for the pervasive vogue for epigrams during this period, but perhaps the most significant among them is the general efflorescence of literature, the art of logoi, under the Komnenoi. Familiarity with and investment in elevated verbal discourse, including poetic discourse, came to be recognized as a form of symbolic capital to an unprecedented degree. The best evidence for this is provided by personal seals, which, from the second half of the eleventh century onward, increasingly feature legends written in verse. A seal is an important marker of personal identity – in a sense, a Byzantine equivalent of the modern-day business card. That such an object should display poetry, however rudimentary, is quite striking. The culture of the Komnenian élite, I believe, set the standard for the following centuries. It is no accident that the epigrams composed by Manuel Philes for icons and icon revetments, reliquaries, church buildings, and other kinds of works commissioned by his aristocratic patrons are very similar to those produced some two centuries earlier by writers such as Nicholas Kallikles or Theodore Prodromos. At the highest level of patronage, to furnish an object with a poetic text was almost de rigueur. Thus it is something of a surprise to discover that, for instance, the splendid epitaphios donated by Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos to the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos does not exhibit an epigram, but rather a simple prose inscription.

 Turning to our modern era, many works of contemporary art, to be sure, incorporate or engage with texts; one thinks of artists such as Jenny Holzer, for example. Nonetheless, we tend to separate the visual and the verbal. This is, to some extent, a legacy of the early modern period, the result of the combined impact of the rise of typography, the Protestant privileging of word over image, and Renaissance aesthetics and art theory, among other causes. The sixteenth-century Tuscan artist and writer on art Giorgio Vasari famously characterized the presence of inscriptions in painting as “gofferia,” something awkward or clumsy. In Byzantium, as the material presented in my book amply demonstrates, the visual and the verbal were mutually imbricated, and images happily coexisted with words.

 Who was responsible for commissioning or producing epigrams? Were they equally important throughout the whole of society?

 Epigrams were largely associated with the artistic patronage of the Byzantine élite, members of the great aristocratic families, including, of course, the imperial family, but also court officials, church dignitaries, and urban notables. These individuals would typically employ professionally trained poets to compose suitable verse for the works they sponsored. My analysis reveals that in some instances the poet could act as an artistic impresario of sorts, mediating between the commissioner and the artist and even conceptualizing the work. That being said, it is also important to bear in mind that epigrams could be reused or attached to multiple objects. A fresco-painter’s workshop, for instance, could have a selection of poems in its repertoire, sets of verses that could be added, say, to a biblical scene or inscribed on an unfurled scroll in a saint’s hand. Some among post-Byzantine painter’s manuals contain veritable anthologies of epigrammatic verse, a feature that must reflect a much older, medieval tradition. Goldsmiths could also offer ready-made metrical inscriptions to their customers. Short poetic mottos are relatively common on Byzantine rings, and what is interesting, some of them appear on multiple specimens. For instance, one of Philes’ epigrams, a couplet voicing a rather pessimistic view of the value of gold jewelry, turns up on three very different fourteenth-century rings. The couplet probably circulated among goldsmiths, along with other similar ready-made texts. I should add, however, that epigrams could also accompany somewhat humble creations such as mass-produced personal icons cast in bronze. Objects of this kind, while still relatively costly, could be acquired by broader strata of society.

 In your book, you address ‘not only what epigrams talk about, but also how they appear and how they are experienced sensorially’. We inevitably bring our modern baggage to our experience and interpretation of works of art and literature; how easy was it to put yourself into the shoes of someone experiencing these epigrams in the Byzantine period?

 My intention was by no means to “relive” the experiences of individuals from the distant past. Rather, I sought to reconstruct certain culturally specific conditions of viewing and interaction that one must take into account in order to understand and fully appreciate the impact of epigrams in their original context. Consider, for instance, the practice of audible reading. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the Byzantines commonly read inscriptions and other kinds of texts aloud. This element of oral delivery must have played a crucial role in how one experienced not only inscribed poems, but also images or objects to which these were attached. Some epigrams self-consciously rely for their effect on the practice of audible reading. For example, a set of verses appended to a picture may be designed to furnish that which the depicted figure lacks, namely, voice. In such a case, the viewer, by speaking the words of the epigram, literally animates the mute picture.

The other element highlighted in the phrase that you quote – “how epigrams appear” – is, I believe, fundamental. The impact of inscriptions cannot be reduced to their verbal content. The size and shape of the letters, their color and material facture, the layout of the lines and their disposition in relation to the physical setting of the inscription or the neighboring imagery equally matter. In recent years, scholars such as Liz James, Antony Eastmond, Emma Maayan-Fanar, and Pasquale Orsini, among others, have made important contributions by investigating the visual and material dimensions of the written word in Byzantine culture. My book contributes to this line of inquiry by zooming in on epigrams. A closer look at “how epigrams appear” reveals a range of practices and approaches. Many poetic inscriptions are executed with a striking lack of care and show little regard for the visual aspect of writing. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is also no correlation between the literary quality of an epigram and its visual presentation. The celebrated hexameters immured in the façade of the church of the Theotokos at Skripou exemplify this kind of discrepancy. But in a number of instances the Byzantines showed great sensitivity to the aesthetics of the inscribed verse and capitalized on the potential for interplay between verbal context and visual form in an epigram. The most interesting cases for me were those in which an inscription’s spatial arrangement within a building serves to inflect or amplify its message. The dedicatory epigram enveloping the interior of the church of Saint Nicholas near Platsa in the Mani is characteristic in this regard. Here the verses were clearly coordinated with the space they inhabit, so that the section of the epigram running along the curvature of the sanctuary apse acquires a distinct tone and powerfully resonates with the imagery displayed next to it.

 As your book proceeds, you describe one aspect after another of how the epigrams and their ‘cohabiting with art’ throw light on life in Later Byzantium. Was it clear to you from the start how many different windows the epigrams were going to open up, or did you get some surprises as you got into the subject?

 The Byzantines have bequeathed to us a rich corpus of what may be called art literature, that is, texts that in various ways confront or interact with works of art. Within this body of texts, the voluminous writings on the theology of the sacred image, especially those produced during the Byzantine iconoclastic crisis, are perhaps the best known and certainly the most extensively studied. By contrast, epigrams, which constitute a separate subcategory of Byzantine art literary, have not received the scrutiny they deserve. Yet they provide us with a wonderfully rich source for exploring a host of topics and issues, from trends in artistic patronage, production, and visual and literary aesthetics, to the material culture of daily life, especially in aristocratic and courtly domains, to education and literacy. When I started exploring these texts, I didn’t quite expect that so many different perspectives would open up. One of the challenges at the initial stages of my research was what exactly to focus on. In the end, I decided to situate my inquiry at the intersection of artistic patronage, personal piety, and self-representation, and as a result, the book deals mostly with dedicatory epigrams. But there is so much more to be done. To give you but one example, art historians, especially medievalists, have recently become preoccupied with materiality – the physical composition of objects and the meaning, agency, and economy of various materials used to manufacture artworks, from precious metals and gemstones to wax, wood, and clay. Epigrams provide a wealth of information for exploring issues of materiality in Byzantine culture, and yet this body of evidence has for the most part remained unexplored. Exceptions do exist. I would be remiss not to mention the important work on the cultural perceptions and theological valences of steatite, or soapstone, by Ioli Kalavrezou, my mentor at Harvard. Her fundamental 1985 study of Byzantine icons in steatite offers a precocious model of what can be learned by carefully sifting through the evidence of epigrams. I should mention that I intend to revisit this evidence, what it tells us about Byzantine materiality, in my second book project, which I am currently developing. This project explores the intersection of material culture and subjectivity-formation in medieval Byzantium, with focus on personal devotional pectorals, or enkolpia. Epigrams on enkolpia are rich in evocations of materiality, especially the physical properties and symbolic associations of stones – jasper, amethyst, rock crystal, and the like.

 One of the most revealing sentences in your book comes at the very end. You say: “By subjecting these portraits [of verbal and material artistry] to close scrutiny… we can learn a great deal about what it meant to be a person in the Greek middle ages.” Can you tell us, in brief, what you feel we learn from your book about ‘what it meant to be a person’ in this period of history?

 One of the remarkable things about later Byzantine dedicatory epigrams is the insistence with which they foreground the figure of the patron – the individual responsible for commissioning and providing funds for the creation of an artwork. Very often these texts take the form of elaborate personal prayers in which the patron speaks about him- or herself, sometimes supplying a fair amount of autobiographical detail. In the past, scholars have tended to regard dedicatory epigrams as hopelessly formulaic; what these texts offer, it has been argued, are highly conventional declarations of piety and noble lineage peppered with biblical allusions and theological metaphors. In my book I propose a rereading of these texts. I argue that the dedicatory epigram in the form of a personal prayer was a flexible and hugely effective medium of self-representation available to members of the Byzantine élite. The corpus of Later Byzantine epigrammatic poetry contains a plethora of what has been called “ego-documents,” personal statements that foreground the speaker’s “I.” Why not approach them with the same attention that we lavish on Byzantine autobiographical accounts or letters? Why not read dedicatory epigrams as miniature autobiographies, verbal self-portrait delineating a sense of the person? There is some excellent recent work on the issues of personal identity and notions of the self in Byzantium. I am thinking in particular of Stratis Papaioannou’s seminal studies of autobiographical discourse in Byzantine rhetoric and epistolography and the recent monograph by Derek Krueger on the Byzantine liturgy as a setting for the formation of the self. My book extends such inquiries to the realm of personal piety and its artistic and epigraphic manifestations. I ask: How is the patron’s “I” constructed in dedicatory epigrams? Which styles of self-representation are at work in these texts?

Medieval conceptions of personhood, whether they are articulated in theological, juridical, or literary contexts, are radically different from the ones current in our modern world. When we think about what it means to be a person, notions such as autonomy, freedom, or uniqueness inevitably come to mind. Discursive self-portraits articulated in later Byzantine dedicatory epigrams point to a different set of parameters. Briefly, the “I” that makes itself heard in the epigram does not exist in isolation; it is not conceived in terms of autonomy or freedom. Rather, it is imbedded in a set of relations, intersubjective bonds that give substance to one’s sense of self. What is more, this sense typically emerges in the act of submission to a morally, socially, or ontologically superior other. Submission is here, paradoxically, a mechanism of self-affirmation. On the other hand, the dominant mode of self-representation in dedicatory epigrams does not seek to project one’s uniqueness. Quite the contrary, the speaking “I” typically inhabits one or several exemplary subject-positions; it appears in the guise of paradigmatic characters, often biblical figures. This emphasis on resemblance and replication rather than on uniqueness reflects a fundamental difference between the medieval and modern conceptions of personhood. To be a person in the Greek Middle Ages meant to fashion oneself on the model of another, to play a prescribed role. It is telling in this regard that prosōpon, a Greek term for “person,” originally meant “mask” or “dramatic part,” “character.”

One very marked difference between life then and life in our more secular age is that individuals of that time habitually expressed their feelings in the framework of the Christian religion and by reference to Biblical situations. Do you feel you have been able to see behind that to the personal thoughts and feelings those people had about their lives? 

 I would agree with your suggestion that people in the Middle Ages commonly deployed a religious frame of reference to express themselves, but I must confess that my intention was not exactly to mine the poetic and other texts featured in the book as evidence of personal thoughts and feelings. I approached these texts first and foremost as representations, discursive constructs that, while undoubtedly anchored in lived experience, are ultimately the product of cultural norms, ideologies, and systems of signification. These texts, in other words, do not proved us with unmediated views onto the inner lives of the individuals for whom they claim to speak. For all their personal and affective tone, dedicatory epigrams spoken in the voice of the patron are works of verbal artistry, literary compositions shaped by individual choices as much as by genre conventions. Such texts, moreover, present an additional layer of mediation simply on account of the fact that the vast majority of them were written not by the patrons themselves but by professional poets in their employ. Thus I would advise caution. Instead of searching for traces of personal thoughts and feelings, a more productive approach is to read these texts as instantiations of culturally shared forms of self-expression and self-representation.

 Very many of the epigrams which you comment on were, as you explain, attached to material objects, and some are still with the objects that they were created for. Many modern visitors must have looked at these, in museums or churches, seeing only the picture or decoration, without paying any attention to the words. Even for those who know Greek, it is hard to decipher the script or decode the abbreviations. How can the fascinating links between text and art that you explain be made more accessible? Have you had any thought of collaborating with writers of guidebooks so that new editions of their books could reflect your findings and spread the message to a wider circle of tourists and travellers?

You are absolutely right that inscriptions are routinely neglected. This is true not only of casual museumgoers, but also of many scholars. In the case of Byzantine inscriptions, the language is, of course, an obstacle, which is why it is imperative to produce accessible translations. Readers with little Greek but with a decent knowledge of German can now consult Andreas Rhoby’s Byzantinische Epigramme in inschriftlicher Überlieferung, a corpus of Byzantine epigrams preserved in situ which includes German translations, in addition to detailed philological and historical commentaries. My book, too, can be perused as an anthology of Byzantine epigrammatic verse in translation, especially since it features numerous poems that have never been rendered or discussed in English – or, for that matter, in any other modern language – before. But beyond simply making the texts accessible through translations, it is crucial that we also integrate the inscriptional material into the study of Byzantine art history much more vigorously than has been the case so far. To the extent that popular publications and museum displays follow the scholarship in a given field, we can hope that a tighter marriage between the disciplines of art history and epigraphy might have a broader impact. As for myself, I haven’t quite considered collaborating with writers of guidebooks, but I would certainly be open to such an endeavor.

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