A Memorial for a Digital Friend: Diana Gilliland Wright

Yesterday, I learned that Diana Gilliland Wright had died earlier this month. I didn’t know her very well and, in fact, I can’t exactly remember if I had ever met her. I knew her mostly via email, comments on my blog, and her own voluminous blogging output.

Over the last decade, as my research interest shifted toward the Argolid, she and I corresponded a bit more regularly as she offered us the occasional insight based on her years of work on the city of Nafplion and its environs. From what I can gather she wrote her dissertation on a 15th century Venetian administrator at Nafplion, Bartolomeo Minio. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read it. Nor have I read any of her formal scholarship. What I did read, quite regularly, were her blogs.

Year ago, when blogging was still fresh and exciting and filled bloggers with hope, we envisioned a world where bloggers read each others’ work and reached out to one another and commented and shared each others’ work through hyperlinks and blogrolls and ultimately forged relationships across networks of blogs. Diana Wright did all that and was a regularly commenter on my blog from its earliest days (on Typepad!). And even as the promise of blogs as a corresponding medium faded a bit, she continued to reach out via email to offer comments and ask for publications. I remember sending her a few copies of North Dakota Quarterly at some point as well and hoping that she found the poetry and fiction in those pages interesting.

From what I can piece together she ran two blogs. The blog that I knew best was called “Surprised by Time” and it largely focused on the Medieval Morea (or Peloponnesus). Her interests were wide ranging and did much to make transparent murky waters separating the Medieval and Early Modern worlds. The scions of Byzantine elite families rubbed shoulders with Venetian administrators, on assignment, Ottoman officials, and Mediterranean diplomats, literati, and ne’er-do-wells. Palaiologoi cross paths with Italian merchants and Ottoman travelers, Pashas, and poets. Each of the over 200 entries, offered a startling glimpse into a world often overlooked by scholars preoccupied by tidier narratives of rise and decline of empire and neglectful of the messier interface of daily life among those most effected by political and cultural change. To Dr. Wright’s particular credit, the blog exists under a CC-By-SA license meaning that anyone can share her work as long as they credit her and make their work available under an open license. The blog appears to be fairly well archived by the internet archive, but I would be keen to entertain ways to preserve it more formally. 

For many years, she also maintained a landing page of sorts called “Nauplion.net” where she offered an index of her work and the work of her partner Pierre MacKay which featured regularly on her blog. It also featured links to many scans of hard to find primary sources some of which were translated on Surprised by Time. This site is no longer working and hadn’t been updated in many years, but it is preserved on the Internet Archive.

[By coincidence, I’m teaching Evliya Çelebi this week and using Pierre MacKay’s translation of Evliya’s visit to Corinth in my class. Diana Wright posted bits and pieces of Pierre’s translation and the story of his discovery of Evliya’s manuscript on her blog.]

Her other blog, Firesteel is an anthology of poetry gleaned from ancient and modern sources and from Greek, Ottoman, Arab, Italian, French and English language poets. I don’t know whether the poetry posted here and her more academic content crossed paths in some kind of formal way, but it really is an amazing collection of work (which I suspect violates all sort of copyrights, but I get the sense that Diana Wright just didn’t really care). 


As a small, digital memorial to Diana Gilliland Wright’s passing, I would encourage you spend a moment looking at her online legacy and recognizing it as a gesture of a kind of digital kinship that could connect individuals who had never met. For whatever reason, her profile included a link to John Coltrane’s 1957 recording of “While My Lady Sleeps.” It feels like an appropriate soundtrack for a visit to her digital world. 

. . . a little wine for remembrance . . . a little water for the dust.  

The Basilicas of Ravenna

A colleague emails me last night and noted that most of the mosaics in Ravenna have undergone significant restoration and conservation work.  Some of the earliest efforts to restore the mosaics and architecture date to the 18th century (and this discounts much earlier work that sought less to conserve older decoration and more to beautify the space of worship) and continues today.  As a result, like historians reading a text or archaeologist reading data, we should always be skeptical of what we see in front of us.

The churches of Ravenna, then, often serve to provide impressions of the architecture, decoration, and organization of the past. In the two better-preserved (and conserved!) basilica  style churches are particularly valuable spaces for contemplating the processional character of the Early Christian liturgy.  Marble colonnades separate narrow aisles from the main processional axes of these buildings.



At St. Apollinare Nuovo (above), female and male saints depart from the port city of Classis and from the palace at Ravenna respectively.



These processing saints follow the course of the liturgical processions toward the eastern apse and terminate at the virgin and Christ outside the sanctuary area of the church.





The processional mosaics are best visible from the aisles as was the main processional movement of the early liturgy. In contrast, the colonnades obscured the eastern destination of these processional rituals emphasizing the movement toward the east (and toward salvation) perhaps even more than its ultimate goal.

While we do not know exactly what adorned the eastern end of St. Apollinare Nuovo as the eastern end of that building has seen significant modification, we have a better idea of the eastern end of its sister church St. Apollinare in Ravenna’s port city of Classis.  The colonnade of the nave separates narrow aisles from the broad central bay and simultaneously directs the viewer’s gaze to the east and obscures a clear view of the sanctuary.



Here a massive cross floats above the head of the saint on the half dome of the eastern apse:


Angles holding pennants inscribed with the sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy in Greek!) stand guard on either side of the main apse and ensure that key phrases in the liturgy echo always in the church.


In the 7th century, the imperial family, arranged in processional order themselves, joined the vigil at the eastern end of the nave.


The Centrally Planned Buildings of Ravenna

It was pretty exciting finally to visit Ravenna!  I can hardly believe that I wrote a dissertation on Early Christian basilicas without having spent time in this Adriatic city.  But I did, and I guess I can justifying by saying that the basilica style churches are hardly the star of the show in this one-time imperial city.

Centrally planned buildings are the order of the day in Ravenna.

Centrally planned buildings still standing in the city date from 4th to 6th centuries. The most modest, perhaps, is the cruciform (so-called) mausoleum of Galla Placcidia which probably dates to the early or middle 5th century:


It is adorned with spectacular mosaics:


Centrally planned mausolea were common in throughout the Roman period and continued into the 6th century at Ravenna with the spectacular mausoleum of Theoderic, the Gothic king:


The best known centrally planned buildings in Ravenna are related to Christian ritual.  It’s possible that parts of the famous Neonian or Orthodox baptistery date to the 4th century and the mosaics likely date to the late 5th.  The building is an octagon surrounding a similarly shaped font.




The nearly contemporary Arian baptistery shares a similar plan (although the outer shell has been lost) and decorative program:



The most spectacular of the centrally planned building is the 6th century church of San Vitale.  The building is another octagon with an important group of 6th century mosaics preserved in its eastern end.  The interplay between the outer octagon and inner, domed core frames dynamic perspectives both on the central space and the sacred eastern end.





Of course, Ravenna also had its share of basilicas, but more on them tomorrow…