Walking Rome: views from the streets and the sky

Recent site-visits and lectures at the BSR, which have converged on the theme of walking, are generating ways of thinking about movement through the city.

The 3 and 19 trams pass by the BSR so rarely that they warrant inclusion on the WWF Endangered Species list. Waddling irritably away from the tram-stop, now late for the morning presa at the archives, it takes some fortitude to see the amble ahead as an act of intellectual, and even spiritual, refreshment.

In Rome, however, this is doable, since walking has traditionally often been a religious exercise. Before Christmas, BSR award-holders traced the most celebrated pilgrimage route, the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome’s great martyrs, in the company of Piers Baker-Bates, who discussed sacred art and architecture, and Emily Michelson, who spoke about the origins and importance of the giro as a counterpoint to the raucous misdeeds of the Carnival. Our group paused near the Cave di Fosse Ardeantine for a disquisition on the ongoing significance of martyrdom, looked in at the Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis, and stopped in the grounds of the Villa Mattei for sandwiches and (partially) sacred discourse.


Domine Quo Vadis? A replica of the stone said to be marked with the footprints of Christ on a mock road traversing the church, and which rises into the painting of St Peter

It was Sixtus V who envisaged, and nearly completed, the street system linking these seven pilgrimage basilicas. Ambitious urbanism inevitably entails great destruction, but the man who razed the wondrous Septizodium to the ground would scarcely have winced as he laid out his master-plan for Rome, whose streets when seen from above crudely create the form of a star. It was a star that lit the way for the genesis of modern town planning, thought to have influenced Le Notre’s Versailles, Haussmann’s Paris, L’Enfant’s Washington and the Rome of Mussolini (who reputedly kept a copy of Bordini’s Roma di Sisto V next to his bed).

During the Renaissance, there was an impulse to control and rectify movement, from throwing regularizing façade-cloaks over wonky palaces; to Vasari’s ripping out rood screens from Florentine basilicas, to Leonardo’s quixotic scheme to straighten the river Arno. At the same time, the city was increasingly perceived as something viewed from above, spurred on by developments in the fields of cartography, surveying and navigation. Architects from Francesco di Giorgio to Michelangelo conjured with the radial or star-shaped ideal city, which spoke of absolutist power and sketched geometries echoing the celestial city.

But there is a vast gulf between the paradigmatic symbolism of the utopian city as conceived from above, and the pragmatic realties of walking the city on the ground.

This was one of many themes that Stephen Milner touched on in his inaugural lecture. He contrasted the totalizing bird’s eye view of Florence in a Medieval catasto with the fundamentally participatory reality of navigating the city on foot. Walking never offers the controlled perspective of the map, since there is always one point of entry to the street or the piazza, and there is always room for the imaginative turn off the routinized pathway. In walking, as in creative research, curiosity (and over-crowded routes) drive us down roads one would not necessarily go down.

Two other lecturers approached their subject from the perspective of movement through the city. Simon Ditchfield’s magisterial lecture linked the migration of the papal centre from the Borgo across the Tiber to the Quirinal, to the creation of a new curial geography and ceremonial dynamic in Rome. As the Pope and his retinue newly criss-crossed the city between these two poles, they developed new itineraries and generated significant new routeways across the capital.

Emily Michelson mapped routes walked by Jews on the way to forced conversionary sermons in 16th-century Rome. She demonstrated how Jews were marshalled past monuments embodying the starkest differences and antagonism between Christianity and Judaism. The Monte di Pietà, the loan organisation deliberately established to undermine Jewish banks and lending institutions, hulked over them en route, and they were led past triumphalist Catholic monuments celebrating miracles and charismatic saints. By considering the subject from the novel perspective of walking, Emily has opened up a deeper and more visceral understand of the conversionary experience.



Lupin joins pilgrimage group, seeking indulgence after stealing Fragolina’s food

We have also been thinking about the great roads of antiquity, with Janet Wade conducting a research project entitled Walking the Via Flaminia: following in the footsteps of Thomas Ashby and his companions, and Nick Hodgson leading a band of the most stout-hearted award-holders along the Via Appia all the way to Castel Gandolfo.


Tom True (Assistant Director)





Performing national sacrifice: remembering the Nasiriyah Massacre

In November 2017 Amy King, this year’s Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust), attended the official commemoration for Italians who died in peace missions. Held at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli in the heart of Rome, the ceremony combined national and religious rituals. Here she reflects on her findings.

On 18 November 2003, 50,000 Italians attended the funeral of the nineteen Italians killed in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Six days earlier, on 12 November, a suicide attack on the Italian military police headquarters in Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad, had caused Italy’s largest loss of life since World War II. Three days of national mourning ensued, and the caskets of Italy’s fallen soldiers, who had been in Iraq on a peace mission, lay in state in the Altare della Patria – the symbolic heart of Italy’s capital.

The following day, a number of newspapers printed the headline ‘The Massacre of Italians’[1] – indeed the tragedy would come to be known as the Nasiriyah Massacre – while others declared ‘Italy Struck at its Heart’,[2]  or simply ‘Our Martyrs.’[3]  Many publications carried the same image of a soldier standing in front of the burnt out remains of the headquarters, his head in his hands.

Figure 1: Many newspapers printed this image in the aftermath of the tragedy 

Many newspapers printed this image in the aftermath of the tragedy[4]

The state funeral was held in the Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura and broadcast on national television; an estimated 50,000 Italians waited outside the basilica, and watched the funeral on large screens. The ceremony blended many of the markers of national, military and religious identity; the Tricolore flag was draped over each casket with a gun placed on top, the military salute was performed, and the presiding clergy contributed to the overarching religious ritual and iconography. Once the ceremony was over, the caskets were loaded into hearses as members of the carabinieri, the army, navy, air force and the president’s own horse-mounted honour guard stood to attention.

During my time in the city, I interviewed Virgilio Spano, president of an association of retired carabinieri, about his memories of the Nasiriyah funeral. ‘In some way, you felt Italian that day… Italian and that’s it,’ he said, emphasizing the dissolution of political divisions in the face of such national sacrifice. It was a question of ‘patria, rather than country,’ he added. ‘Country is a geographic term. Patria is the place that you feel. Patria is… is… it’s everything. [5]


Institutional mourning

Figure 2: The commemoration ceremony began on the Vittoriano steps
The commemoration ceremony began on the Vittoriano steps
Figure 3: The wreath on the Vittoriano

The wreath on the Vittoriano

The institutional support for commemoration continued on the various anniversaries of the tragedy, and in 2009 the 12 November was declared la Giornata del ricordo dei Caduti militari e civili nelle missioni internazionali. I attended the official commemoration ceremony at the Vittoriano monument and then the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the 12 November 2017 (on the day that an official plaque to the Nasiriyah victims was unveiled in the Italian Senate). Roberta Pinotti, the minster for defence, and Generale Graziano, head of the Italian army, attended the event alongside relatives of fallen soldiers and Italian civilians. The ceremony began at the Vittoriano; soldiers lined the steps leading to a wreath, and commemorative speeches were given.

Attendees then moved to the nearby Aracoeli Basilica for the religious ceremony. Uniformed forces filled the back half of the church, while relatives of the victims and the general public sat towards the front. Many uniformed attendees wore medals and rosettes, and military officers handed out the order of service. A military brass band opened the ceremony with the Last Post, and the cardinal entered the church, followed by three military figures in ceremonial dress, priests, and two carabinieri.

Figure 4: Inside the Aracoeli Basilica during the service

Inside the Aracoeli Basilica during the service

Military and religious figures spoke to the congregation. The Cardinal Priest focused his address on the eternal life after sacrifice, and the hope that is born from sacrifice. Later in the ceremony, minister Pinotti gave an address directly to the relatives of the victims, who she had accompanied in times of deep pain but also of pride – pride in their relatives’ sacrifice, which is an ‘important part of the respectability Italy has deserved’ on an international stage. She closed her address with a declaration: ‘a life dedicated to others is a life that never ends.’

As in the funeral held in 2003, this ceremony enacted the notion of death at war as the ultimate sacrifice – a classic paradigm of secular martyrdom that has reinforced the Italian national narrative as far back as the Risorgimento. Through the conflation of religious and military ritual, and the blending of national and religious iconography, sacrifice in the name of the patria (and the subsequent eternal life) is performed in the heart of Rome.

Figure 5: A uniformed figure leaves the basilica

A uniformed figure leaves the basilica


Text and images by Amy King (University of Bristol/Bath), BSR Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust)



[1]‘La Strage degli Italiani’, Il Giornale, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea; ‘La Strage degli Italiani’, La Stampa, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea; ‘La Strage degli Italiani’, La Repubblica, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea.
[2]‘L’Italia colpita al cuore’, Il Messaggero, 13 November 2003, p. 1.
[3]‘I Nostri Martiri’, Il Tempo, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea.
[4]‘La Strage degli Italiani’.
[5] Virgilio Spano, Interview by Amy King with Virgilio Spano, Presidente Associazione CCC Martiri di Nassiriya, 2017.



Softened by the strokes of Hephaistos: an interdisciplinary workshop on the archaeology, history and practice of glass

What is – and what was, historically – the significance of glass as an artistic material? What forms of knowledge are required for its making, and what aesthetic agency does it possess? These questions lie at the core of a workshop organised jointly by the British School at Rome’s Faculty of Archaeology, History and Letters and its Faculty of the Fine Arts, led by Rosamond McKitterick and Vivien Lovell in collaboration with Hugo Chapman, the Simon Sainsbury Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.

Writing about the legendary origins of glassmaking, naturalist Pliny the Elder reported that a group of merchants gathered on the Syrian sea-shore to cook their meal on a fire. As they could not find any stones to support their cauldrons, the men employed for the purpose some lumps of nitre which they had taken from the boat: ‘upon its being subjected to the action of the fire, in combination with the sand of the sea-shore, they beheld transparent streams flowing forth of a liquid hitherto unknown: this, it is said, was the origin of glass.’ (Natural History, Book 36:65)

Since its legendary beginnings, glass and its industry have provoked reflections about the complex intersections between technical and natural knowledge, aesthetics and artistic practice, trading networks and material culture. They therefore represented an ideal case study to inaugurate a brand-new series of BSR events on the historicity of materials. The Glass Study Day, held at the British Museum on 2 November 2017, brought together an interdisciplinary group of scientists, humanities scholars and artists to discuss the history, archaeology and practice of glassmaking and consumption from a variety of perspectives and to showcase research developed by BSR scholars and practitioners in this field.


The visual qualities of glass – its translucency, transparency and polychromy– make it an aesthetically appealing, yet challenging material to display. In a series of fascinating gallery talks, curators Hugo Chapman, Dora Thornton and Lesley Fitton, glassmakers Mark Taylor and David Hill, and BSR faculty members Rosamond McKitterick and Susan Walker, stimulated a dialogue about the aesthetics of glass across the Mediterranean from antiquity to the Renaissance, and about the different historical and cultural narratives that glass artefacts contribute to articulate as museum displays.


A fragile artistic material, glass naturally invites questions about its conservation and physical care. A visit to the British Museum’s Ceramics, Glass and Metals Conservation Studio and Scientific Research Laboratory, introduced by Andrew Meek and led by the museum’s conservation specialists, illustrated the practices and technologies available for the scientific study of vitreous artefacts, and for their restoration.


Following such close-up analysis of artefacts in the galleries and study rooms of the museum, in the afternoon our workshop participants gathered in the British Museum’s Stevenson Lecture Theatre for a final session of lectures open to the public. Following an introductory speech by BSR Director Stephen Milner, John Shepherd and John Mitchell respectively exposed the key contribution made by BSR scholars to the archaeology of glass, and the significance of glass excavations and study at the early medieval site of San Vincenzo in Volturno. Art historians Paul Hills and Stefania Gerevini turned to medieval portable artefacts and Renaissance paintings to illuminate the role played by glass and by other translucent materials in the definition of Venetian visual culture. They were followed by artists Antoni Malinowski and Liz Rideal, who bore witness to the enduring aesthetic potential of transparency and translucency by discussing their recent work with glass at the BSR and across the UK. Finally, material scientist Lindsay Greer surprised and charmed us all with his exposé on the material and chemical structures of glass – fun fact: who knew there was a frog that vitrifies in order to survive the chill of winter…


Stefania Gerevini (BSR Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Art History at Bocconi University)

Photos by Claire Burridge.


Ding Dong Merrily On High… inaugural poet in residence Pele Cox reflects on her time in Rome

Inaugural poet in residence Pele Cox, the John Murray / Keats-Shelley Memorial Association Creative Writing Resident, reflects on her two months spent in Rome at the BSR.


(Photo: Micheal Snelling)

I’m back now- looking out over the Clee Hill in Shropshire. ‘Was I ever in Rome!’ I think as I walk out past the sheep and drive up to Ludlow through the lanes littered with oaks and hedges. Two months is not a long time and it is green here, replete with grass and low barns- ‘how full of stone Rome is,’ I think. The counterpoint of  the UK to Rome in October, now living in its opposite as Christmas comes. I think, our relationship, our trajectory with the place is metronomic, relationship as rhythm and music – Stephen is right about footsteps. Every night I dream about the BSR and wake up and hear everybody like I’m still there, I think, the sheep can’t compete with that and this year the BSR will be my nativity.

Of course, like the canary going down the mine of return – and being the poet in the mix – I wonder whether it is a dreamlike state being at the BSR? How it is constellated internally after one gets back ‘Home’: how do the cube of green shutters, the gravel and statues lilting as one walks to the long wooden tables for sustenance stay real and coexist with the idea of return.  All the time Rome whispers, ‘I will not leave you,’ after all it is the ‘Eternal City.’  But can this travel? Can it sustain itself, find its realism and gravity after an easyJet journey back to what is even more familiar, more inscribed? Well what can I say to this apart from write out the last line of Lou’s performance –‘it’s always there even when you can’t see it.’  

While at the BSR I ran a series of weekly poetry workshops. One was on the subject of Dante and we really got our teeth into it. Every week I asked participants to bring a poem according to a theme and this week I asked everyone to bring a canto and image from Inferno. It was very interesting, not just because of the ekphrastic nature of the gesture, or because we were sitting there incanting ‘abandon all hope all ye who enter here’ and grappling with an epic with little time but because there were more salient parallels to the theme than I originally thought: Dante alludes to a dreamlike state, being half asleep in the lucid mechanisms -almost hypnagogic, he finds a soul to be guided by, a great thinker and poet who takes him into a terrain, a meta reality where things that are hidden or not realised are suddenly writ large – the first cartoon? Maybe. But to me more a place of symbolism, release and awakening. Each choice made was a guide to the individual, bringing the text into the room. As a reflection not just of themselves but their work, the direction of their study, the essence, in a way, of these trajectories. Perhaps Rome became our Virgil and becomes a place where we find a ‘language’ that can unpeel us and gives us juice, gravity – the privacy of our skin and brains inscribed against the stone, a message to ourselves. I realise now that is one of the reasons I wanted so much to be at the BSR. Poets live on the edges and sometimes they are given the chance to bring the edge in.

I was anxious to open up a room in this way, I have done this a lot in London but to do it in Rome with my adored and respected peer group of whom I was in awe, made me a little nervous! And I want to write about everyone but Paloma’s quiet dedication, John’s passionate sincerity and Kresho’s power of understanding, Dom’s kooky alert wit with his subject, Alice’s support – I cannot shake.  Most of all Josie- who writes very good poetry herself , and used poetry in her work for the Mostra -would stand at the window with a cigarette and read her work. It still weaves through my memory: Josie reading to us the poem by Pasolini about Gramsci’s grave…which is at the protestant cemetery where Keats is buried.. it came over us like a performance piece as the sounds of Rome moved through the open window of the BSR.

pele and al

(Photo: Micheal Snelling)

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BSR award-holders following Pele’s talk at the Keats-Shelley House (Photo: Micheal Snelling)

Of course this feeds into an idea of collaboration, which I am passionate about.  And to work with Lou True on a piece I had written before I came was a treat. I had tried to produce it in London but couldn’t find a space or an actress to perform it. It is testament to the BSR that it has these things available on a plate. Something from England woven through the heart and mind of the BSR, through the heart and mind of an actress whose luminosity and openness is testament to the idea of the potential of poetry and poetry in performance. Our piece was an inscription, a palimpsest set against all the living inscriptions and lectures that happen in that space, like all the words spoken there: the lecture theatre as vital space, it reminds the world that the BSR, like Rome, is hot, a living, organic thing.  A cultural conductor, an instructor.

Pele Cox Mistress poem performance by Lou True at BSR Theatre

Lou True performing ‘The Mistress Account’  (Photo: Micheal Snelling)

Pele Cox Mistress poem performance by Lou True at BSR Theatre

Lou True performing ‘The Mistress Account’  (Photo: Micheal Snelling)


Lou brought the canto of Beatrice to the poetry workshop – and after we had seen her perform we knew why. I thought what I had written had ‘life’- but Lou’s performance gave it that paradisal quality of truth-telling: as Keats says – ‘truth is beauty and beauty is truth’. I know the audience (and Keats) would agree – this idea was running through Lou’s veins when she set us alight that night and this to me is a metaphor for the power and potential of the gift of those spaces – between us, inside that square courtyard, the bell, the director, the people, the staff, the visitors – and the lecture theatre – I suppose you could say this was our lecture on the emotion of experience: drawn through my experience; the gift of that space, the audience and Lou. And ‘production’ is a simple thing if you have talent at your fingertips: the work was already there and we were given the resources thanks to Tom and Christine. We had quietly just rehearsed it each week and Lou learned the poems on the plane on her way to and from London. She would arrive back and we would go through and through it until it was right – poet and actress. The week before the performance we had paced the basilicas on Piers’ pilgrimage tour and we rehearsed the lines – as we walked along the cobbles, up the Basilica steps, outside with Lupin, past the confession boxes, past the Bernini statues staring up at the ceilings… Lou took these basilicas into her performance and those spaces were running through the poems as the lines came into her and out of her during the performance. I’m sure I could hear the churches’ echo in the spaces of the applause.

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Post performance of ‘The Mistress Account’  (Photo: Micheal Snelling)

The BSR is a fabulous space – and is a standard bearer for culture in the UK – an engine of thought, with a simple agenda, no corporate creative idea, or political agenda, all mantras allowed in. It is historic and contemporary, as a simple structure, a template, it can act as a leitmotif for being. So I must thank all of you so much for being so open to my project, for being such inspiring participants and friends in the spaces. Thank you to Christopher Smith’s vision, the Murrays, Giuseppe and Stephen for ‘getting it’ and letting me do the things I wanted to do, and also to Tom. Keats-Shelley House, of course was and always will be the setting off point for me – I wrote tweets during my residency there, in the spaces between, on my walk from the BSR through the Borghese Gardens to the KSH. Giuseppe is an inspiration, the lecture he came to see with me was about glass, I think how fragile this all is- how it is kept safe in the footsteps.

Text written by Pele Cox (John Murray / Keats-Shelley Memorial Association Creative Writing Resident). Click here to watch the talk Pele delivered at Keats-Shelley House.

December Mostra 2017 / Meet the artists…Jennifer Taylor

This is the last in our series of blog posts leading up to the December Mostra, our first exhibition of this academic year. The final artist we interviewed was Jennifer Taylor, Creative Wales-BSR Fellow 2017-18, whose performance will take place at the opening of December Mostra at 20.00.

There seems to be a relationship in your practice between photography, sculpture and performance. Could you talk about that?

Throughout most of my practice there has always been the feature of the stage set. Previously, I used to create spaces, construct environments, and photograph the vacant ‘sets’. Recently though, there has been a shift in my practice and the focus has now moved from the curated ‘set’ to inhabiting and performing within the constructed stage.


Photo by Dave Daggers

A lot of your pieces present figures in different geographical locations. Is there a particular reason you chose to spend time in Rome?

Rome has become a very important city to me and has really influenced my practice. I am drawn to the intensity of the city and the architecture; the Baroque churches and the visual impact of frescos filling every surface.

Rome highlights to me the temporality of time. The city, with its vast number of existing remains, gives a very tangible link to the past through their proximity. I am particularly drawn to the apocalyptic timelessness of the ruins.

When planning my initial proposal for the residency, my original idea was to film inside the catacombs of Rome. However, physically being in Rome and talking with fellow residents has ignited a new very different idea.


Do you have any particular projects in mind?

Yes, since coming to the BSR I have been inspired and drawn to the Ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia (this was an annual Roman festival which placated evil spirits and purified the city, bringing health and fertility).

I shall be performing my own live interpretation/re-enactment of this ancient ritual on the front steps of the BSR. I plan to recreate the lost Lupercal and the associated rituals.

How has being resident at the BSR informed your choice of project?

I initially became fascinated by the Lupercalia festival after the tour of the Forum with Cary Fellow Robert Coates-Stephens. Discussion over teas and dinners with other residents at the BSR, in particular Kresimir Vukovic (Rome Fellow – working on early Roman mythology) has helped my idea develop and evolve.

This project will be a live performance at the mostra and I hope to involve other BSR residents in the performance. I think that having humanities scholars who have studied these ancient festivals participating in the performance will bring a very different energy to the show.

Your project seems to focus on festival, ritual and performance, tell us more…?

Festival and ritual have always fascinated me. Following a residency in Brazil last year, in the period leading up to the Carnival, I have been thinking about the ways that rituals and festivals can overturn society and reverse roles in the city during the festival period.
I am also interested in reconstructing rituals from the distant past that only exist in stories and legends.


What are you most looking forward to about performing in the Mostra?

I am excited about bringing different people together in a unique moment, where it is possible to step outside of normal familiar behaviour. I love the unpredictability of live performance and the new scenarios and relationships that emerge, in response to the audience and the tension of the live moment.

Jennifer’s performance will take place at 20.00 on the opening night of December Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 December 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 December 2017, closed Sundays.

Interview conducted by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events)



December Mostra 2017 / Meet the artists…John Robertson

This is the penultimate in our series of blog posts leading up to the December Mostra, our first exhibition of this academic year. As part of this series looking at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architect, we interviewed John Robertson, our 2017-18 Abbey Scholar.

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Photo: Antonio Palmieri

Your works intricately blend the language of painting and collage. Could you talk to us more about this?

Well I call them paintings, even though they’re all technically paper collages. I never paint directly onto the canvas, partly because it annoys me that if I put a bit of green say in the bottom right corner, I can’t move it to the top left. So I use the paper as a kind of mediator between the paint and the canvas. Then it becomes about the process of arranging and rearranging, a kind of visual syntax that’s trying to articulate the rectangle. Articulate rectangles, that’s what i’m trying to make, and I’d call that making paintings.

Farrier, 29.7 x 21 cm, acrylic on paper on canvas

Farrier, 2017, 29.7 x 21 cm, acrylic on paper on canvas (Photo: John Robertson)

You will be exhibiting in three Mostras at the BSR, do you think you will be able to see a change in your practice over the months from being resident in Rome?

I hope so. I think being in Rome, going around with an open mind, the city is beginning to seep into my work. One of the works I’m showing in the December Mostra is a large mostly black piece made with carbon paper. I arranged the paper the evening after I had visited San Luigi dei Francesi, the church with the Caravaggio triptych. When I was in there I realised that the only flat areas of colour in the church were the dark areas on these Caravaggio paintings — everything else was Baroque. But it was not as if I consciously came back and then did something about this, the carbon paper was in the studio and it was what I happened to pick up. It was only the following day that I made the relationship.

The interior of Santi Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso is almost entirely decorated with faux marble. It is a brown colour and you really don’t notice it at first. Some of it’s quite bad and I’m interested in that idea of bad faux because it’s really nebulous. With good faux you get this surprise when you get close and realise it’s paint but that’s about it. But bad faux is weirder, like a painting of good faux – a painting of.. a painting of… a surface. It’s more aware of itself as an image and that’s a quality i’m after in my work.

bad faux

Bad faux (Photo: John Robertson)

I often try to get that self-awareness from ripping up the paper, i’ll paint some faux woodgrain and rip it up and so you’ll get this bit of paper that’s pretending to be wood and admitting that it’s paper at the same time. It’s the torn edge that gives the game away.


Detail (Photo: John Robertson)


Could you tell us what ideas you have been exploring since you have been in Rome?

In my application for this residency, I stated that I was going to visit Palazzo Massimo as I knew that they had a lot of frescoes there. I was interested in the point where a trompe-l’oeil fresco gets eroded and the wall and plaster is exposed. This line, this sort of split, I think of as ontological in terms of what a painting is, a meeting of the image and the object and the discussion between these two things.

In Rome I have found a lot more of these frescoes, or displaced mosaics displayed on the wall. They all have this swathe of white interrupting them- the bare plaster. This has definitely been a thing that I’ve been looking at – the relationship between the painting and the wall. Previously I’ve used ripped up wallpaper to look at it but since i’ve been here I’ve been focusing more on using the negative space of the white gessoed canvas. I’m trying to throw the wall into the work. This can be seen in the black piece, which is named St. Bartholomew – after the statue at St John Lateran, which we saw on our walk around the seven pilgrimage basilicas of Rome.


Statue of Saint Bartholomew, St John Lateran (Photo: John Robertson)

In this statue he is holding his own image, his own skin. It’s a bit like the bad faux again, an image of an image. In my work that I have made for the Mostra, there’s this white expanse that can trick your eyes, it looks like there’s a hole in the middle of it. It’s like the white canvas is a faux painting of the wall. I like how this makes the white figurative, like it’s got a depth to it but only two and a half cm, the depth of the stretcher.

St. Bartholomew, 200 x 120 cm, Acrylic on paper on canvas

St. Bartholomew, 2017, 200 x 120 cm, Acrylic on paper on canvas (Photo: John Robertson)

I am still exploring these white spaces and will be looking at these and trying to figure this out over the next few months.

John’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the December Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 December 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 December 2017, closed Sundays.

Interview conducted by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events)



December Mostra 2017 / Meet the artists…Stephen Cooper

This is the sixth in our series of blog posts leading up to the December Mostra, our first exhibition of this academic year. As part of this series looking at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architect, we interviewed Stephen Cooper, our 2017-18 Abbey Fellow.


Photo: Antonio Palmieri

Could you tell us how your practice has developed over the years/since coming to Rome?

I have been involved with Italian art at varying levels for a long time, starting from when I was a student. My journey has been from the Renaissance to the Baroque. As a student I was very interested in Giotto, Fra Angelico and Titian amongst many others.

One of the pieces that has been very important to me are the frescos by Fra Angelico in the cells of the Convent of San Marco in Florence. I have visited these cells for many years and they have been a significant part of my adapting and changing my process and evaluating my ways of working. In a sense this is a site-specific work painted on the walls, so it is responding to the space and also the architecture as well as the narratives within the frescos.

The thing that I am interested in is specific responses to a site that engage with and illicit specific approaches. This has become a really important part of my research and where I have found commonality with lots of artists, but the Matisse chapel at Vance is a place that crystallised my thoughts and practice. The architecture of the chapel had become an essential and inclusive element of the making of the chapel. One of the many things I learnt from this was that Matisse had taken the constituents of painting and re-assembled in the interior of this chapel  in a new and exciting way and as it was as if you had become a character within one of his paintings whilst sitting and looking at this space he had created. So for me the questions of time and space were being extended.

While resident at the BSR, the consequence of being in Rome is the inevitable dialogues with history. So being  in the BSR community and all that that entails, and at the same time being submerged in Rome is complex and exciting. My own approach is through immersion. Immersion in Rome and Italy and in experimentation in the studio. However, a period of reflection will be needed to digest and understand what I have done whilst here for three months.

How has your project changed and developed since coming to Rome?

My initial proposal for the BSR was to look at Borromini and Caravaggio, but the phenomenon of Rome has overtaken me and the project has expanded. I think the idea of transformation has been fundamental in this process. You hope that you will do something here that you have not done before, or that you will attempt to change your practice and perhaps do those things that you have never had the opportunity to do before, so for me the experimentation has been great. However the emphasis is on changing and developing.

I have been including things from everyday life – the things that you can see in the street. For example incorporating the Limoncello bottles from a stall and the gloves in a shop. I like to try and mix things up and to use  imagery to form a broken narrative, which then comes together to form a whole. In a way I am interested in wholeness in this project – something that I am working towards in my practice, rather than hitting straight away.


Limoncello bottles (Photo: Stephen Cooper)


Gloves in a shop (Photo: Stephen Cooper)

The idea of working as a whole is to do with making the space and the things in it find a convincing relationship with one and other. relate to one another.  Physically and mentally I adjust to the space, and this process transforms the work. The idea of chaos is very much there at the beginning and then changes into a disjointed order. This is to do with the idea of perfect/imperfect which I am very interested in and part of.

One of the key reasons as to why my proposal has changed is because of the sites that I have visited. I have visited Santa Maria della Vittoria (the Bernini Ecstasy of Saint Theresa). The thing is that the Baroque is so complex and so multi that it becomes quite fascinating. What I have found is that it takes time and contemplation within the space to understand how it works. With the Baroque you have to really look at the space, see what it is actually doing, the decoration and how the sculptures and painting work in the space. There is a good degree of analysis of the space to be done. This has also been my experience at San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane and Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza as well, both of which are phenomenal buildings.


San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Photo: Stephen Cooper)


Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (Photo: Stephen Cooper)

In researching Caravaggio I have gone inside churches; both the Caravaggios that I have been looking at are inside churches – Santa Maria del Popolo and San Luigi dei Francesi (with the Caravaggio triptych). Whilst studying the  Caravaggios, I have also been struck by the phenomena of the churches, which has also been attractive to me in terms of the Baroque.

In previous exhibitions your work has reacted directly to the space in which it has been shown. Has the work you have been producing here been in reaction to any specific place?

For my studio installation, I am going to respond to most aspects of the architecture of the room and to  incorporate them into the space.


Studio shot (Photo: Stephen Cooper)


Studio shot (Photo: Stephen Cooper)

But I am also looking forward to making a fresh piece for the mostra in the gallery. Both pieces will respond to the specific space. I am a little apprehensive about what I have set for myself and will probably be with it till the last moment.

What made you decide to do a studio installation as well as a piece in the gallery?

It is my way of working. For the last ten years I have responded to the site, the site has been the primary basis for the work. But it is always together with the studio practice. The studio practice is the engine and powers the work. Generally you go to a site and respond to it in a way that complements the practice.

Going to Japan, visiting the Kyoto temples and seeing the relationship between the inside and the outside is so fascinating; the window becomes a picture, and the outside is manipulated to match the inside. This experience completely propelled my interest in architecture forward.

You have incorporated a lot of photos into your work, can you tell us more about the images you have chosen?

I collect images, and I specifically collect images that then become part of pieces. There is a sort of language involved, I often alter the images and transform/translate their meaning.

I never know what I am going to take, but I take photographs all the time. That is why I say that I collect images. In both the process of taking the photo and also after in review, you question your consciousness. Often when searching through a lens you take things that you were not looking for, but there is a part of the thinking and seeing that recognises something. So in the reviewing process you step back and look and think…what is that…that is really interesting or not, as the case maybe??

I choose the images intuitively from my database of images, put them together and see if they work. I like the idea of space and volume and their meaning. The contrast of this gloved hand and the relationship between the images which also coincides with my interest in the relationship between art and life. I see my work as a visual form of poetry.

What have you enjoyed most about being in Rome?

I have really enjoyed being in this community and the amount of shared information and knowledge. Here, you are constantly involved with conversations and you cannot help but soak up knowledge. After watching La Grande Bellezza in the BSR film club, it seems more than likely that the great beauty is Rome.

My ambition with artwork is to have a very close relationship with the audience and to try and make work from the heart which, I believe is something in common with poetry. It has been a really fantastic opportunity from the Abbey Council to be here at the British School in Rome and I am really grateful for it.

Stephen’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the December Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 December 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 December 2017, closed Sundays.

Interview conducted by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events)