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Robert G. Ousterhout, art history professor emeritus at Penn, renowned Byzantine expert, author, and mentor, has died at 73

He told a writer: "I knew I couldn't just work in a library. I needed fieldwork." So he traveled the world and studied antiquities firsthand in Turkey, Greece, and Israel.

Professor Ousterhout worked often in Istanbul, Turkey. "The history, the city surrounded by water, the food, and big-city hustle and bustle all appealed to me," he told a writer.
Professor Ousterhout worked often in Istanbul, Turkey. "The history, the city surrounded by water, the food, and big-city hustle and bustle all appealed to me," he told a writer.Read moreUniversity of Pennsylvania

Robert G. Ousterhout, 73, of Philadelphia, art history professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, world-renowned expert on the art and architecture of the Byzantine Empire, prolific author, lecturer, and mentor, died Sunday, April 23, of prostate cancer at his home in University City.

Professor Ousterhout was the authority on Byzantine art and architecture in Penn’s Department of the History of Art from 2007 until his retirement in 2017. He examined buildings, monuments, and ancient urbanism in Turkey, Greece, Israel, and elsewhere, and shared his fieldwork in hundreds of scholarly papers and books, countless classes, and at exhibits, lectures, conferences, and seminars around the world.

The Byzantine Empire flourished from the fourth century to the 15th century in Italy, Greece, Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East, and Professor Ousterhout told the Associated Press in 1998: “For 10 centuries this was the most important place in the Western world. It deserves to be better known.”

He worked closely with the Greek Archaeological Service and other preservation groups, and said in one of his books that he was drawn to architecture and art history because the Eastern medieval world was “both fluid and dynamic, regularly invigorated by the movement of people and ideas.”

He taught classes such as Form and Meaning in Medieval Architecture and mentored dozens of graduate and doctoral students. Colleagues in Penn’s art history department called him a “transformative presence” and said he “will be remembered as one of the giants of Byzantine studies.”

A former student said on Facebook: “The passing of Robert Ousterhout is an incredible loss for the entire Byzantine Studies community.”

Professor Ousterhout was also chair of Penn’s art history graduate group, chair of the graduate group in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program, and longtime director of Penn’s Center for Ancient Studies.

Earlier, from 1983 to 2006 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he was professor of architectural history, chair of the school’s architectural history and preservation program, and coordinator of its doctorate program in architecture and landscape architecture.

He was assistant professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Oregon in 1982 and later visiting professor at the Moscow Institute of Architecture, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University.

Professor Ousterhout won student and teacher awards at Illinois, Fulbright and other research grants, and fellowships at Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington. He was president of the U.S. National Committee for Byzantine Studies, and the Byzantine Studies Association of North America.

Among his publications is 2019′s Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands. The 816-page book is called “the most consequential study of its kind to appear in many years” by one critic and won the 2021 Haskins Medal for literature from the Medieval Academy of America.

He also wrote short stories and novels, and the jacket blurb for 2022′s To the East describes it as “adventure, self-discovery, romance, and second chances in life, as the world teeters on the brink of war.”

“He was optimistic and enthusiastic,” said his husband C. Brian Rose. “He had a passion for the humanities.” Friends at the American School of Classical Studies in Greece said in a tribute: “For all his accomplishments, he was open, welcoming and, above all, friendly.”

Robert George Ousterhout was born Jan. 16, 1950, in Pendleton, Ore. He earned a bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Oregon in 1973 and spent two years at the Institute of European Studies in Vienna, Austria.

He received a master’s degree in art history at the University of Cincinnati in 1977 and a doctorate in art history at Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1982. He met Rose in Turkey in 1999, and they married in 2016 and lived in University City.

Adventurous and fun-loving, Professor Ousterhout appeared on the The Martha Stewart Show in 2011 and showed her archaeological wonders in Turkey from a hot-air balloon. He swam in the Bosporus Strait between Asia and Europe for years, concocted humorous puns about nearly everything, and hosted memorable dinner parties.

“His generosity and profound humanity touched countless people,” his colleagues at Penn said. His husband said: “He had an unbreakable spirit, an effervescence, a love of life.”

In addition to his husband, Professor Ousterhout is survived by a sister, two brothers, and other relatives.

A celebration of his life is to be at 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 9, at the Penn Museum, 3260 South St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19104.

Donations is his name may be made to the Robert Ousterhout Scholarship Fund, University of Oregon Foundation, Gift Services, 1720 E. 13th Ave., Suite 410, Eugene, Ore. 97403.