Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138
Hagia Sophia Museum, Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Ayasofya Meydanı, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mt Auburn St, Cambridge, MA 02138
Thomas Whittemore (January 2, 1871 – June 8, 1950) was an American scholar and archaeologist who founded the Byzantine Institute of America. His close personal relationship with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder and the first president of the Turkish Republic, enabled him to gain permission from the Turkish government to start the preservation of the Hagia Sophia mosaics in 1931. One of his lovers was Gaston Zananiri, whose father was a Syrian Greek Catholic, his mother a Hungarian Jew.
A character so amazing authors took him as inspiration more than once—most notably Graham Greene in “Convoy to West Africa” (1946), in which Whittemore is the basis of “X”; and Evelyn Waugh in When the Going Was Good, in which Whittemore figures as “Professor W”—Whittemore was also an early mentor of Gertrude Stein, and a friend of Matisse, one of whose portraits of Whittemore is now in the Fogg Art Museum.
Thomas Whittemore was born in the Cambridgeport neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 2, 1871. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from Tufts College in 1894. He taught English Composition at Tufts for a year and then studied at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He also taught courses in the fine arts at New York University and Columbia University.
From 1911 until his death Whittemore served as American representative on the Egyptian Exploration Fund.
A friend of Henri Matisse and Isabella Stewart Gardner, Whittemore was the one who in 1912 gave Gardner the first Matisse to enter an American museum. A friend of Ralph Adams Cram and Whittemore, Gardner, in turn, also in 1912, almost certainly gave to St. John’s, Bowdoin Street (to which Whittemore was devoted), the superb high-altar reredos that Cram—another friend of Whittemore—had designed for Cowley; its altarpiece was by Martin Mower, another Harvard graduate who subsequently taught there, and was sufficiently representative of our bachelor cohort to have been called by Lincoln Kirstein distinctly “high-bohemian.”
Drawing of Whittemore from his earlier years. From the collection: Thomas Whittemore Papers, ca. 1875-1966. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.
Sketch of Thomas Whittemore by Henri Matisse. From the collection: Thomas Whittemore Papers, ca. 1875-1966. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.
Whittemore worked in various capacities to provide relief to Russian refugees during World War I and following the Russian Revolution. He spent 8 months in Russia in 1915-16 and reported on conditions there when he returned to New York to organized shipments of supplies. He was a member of the U.S.-based Russian Relief Commission and a committee for war relief organized by Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaovna.
In 1930, Whittemore founded the Byzantine Institute of America, whose mission was to "conserve, restore, study, and document" the monuments and artworks of the Byzantine world. In 1931, Whittemore traveled with the Institute to Istanbul with the permission of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to oversee the removal of plaster covering the Byzantine mosaics in Hagia Sophia. Of the radical and sudden transformation of Hagia Sophia from an active mosque to a secular museum in 1931 he wrote: "Santa Sophia was a mosque the day that I talked to him. The next morning, when I went to the mosque, there was a sign on the door written in Ataturk's own hand. It said: 'The museum is closed for repairs'"
In 1934, Harvard University appointed him keeper of Byzantine coins and seals at the Fogg Art Museum for a year. He also accepted a presidential appointment to represent the United States at the Byzantine Conference in Sofia in September of that year.
His work was widely reported in the United States. In 1942, the New York Times noted his return to Istanbul for his "ninth year in uncovering Byzantine mosaics in the St. Sophia Museum".
Beginning in 1948, he sponsored a program for the restoration of the mosaics in the Chora Church in Istanbul.
Brown University awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in 1950.
On June 8, 1950, he suffered a heart attack while visiting the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. He was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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