Spoils of history? Negotiating the past in the arts of pre-modern Rome


In the Loggia delle Benedizioni at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

In a new and exciting series of on-site seminars held across the city in February and March 2015, BSR research staff and resident award-holders have been looking together at the arts of pre-modern Rome to explore issues of historicity, temporality and artistic identity.

The series builds on the diverse expertise available at the BSR, and includes seminars on Roman sculpture at Palazzo Massimo (led by Research Fellow, Guido Petruccioli) and Palazzo Altemps (Director, Christopher Smith), early Christian icons (Ralegh Radford Rome Fellow, Rebecca Raynor) and late-medieval mosaics (Assistant Director, Stefania Gerevini) in Roman basilicas, and northern Renaissance drawings from the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica (Rome Awardee, Austeja Mackelaite).

This year’s Hugh Last Fellow Carol Harrison gives us an overview of the series:

‘A number of times during this wonderful new series of guided visits, which spanned the period from February to March, I wondered why it was a new thing; it so obviously brought together everything that makes the BSR unique: the range of research expertise, the community of artists and scholars, and the treasure trove of material that exists on the doorstep. Scholars left their desks and artists their studios to encounter the objects and places that inspire and inform our thoughts and work, under the guidance of those clearly delighted to be able to share some of their research and reflections with us.


Christopher Smith discusses ‘The Galatian Suicide’ with award-holders at Palazzo Altemps

A number of times I also reflected what a curious group we were: certainly not the average Roman tour party, wielding selfies and following a leader waving an umbrella. We were not as passive or sheep-like (we had to have our coffee stops, tended to wander off into independent discussions and interrupted our guide rather too often) but nevertheless, we were a group delighted to be led from site to site, or object to object; to wander around museums, follow pilgrim routes between churches, get a stiff neck looking at ceilings and generally be absorbed in appropriating the past into our present.


Admiring the late medieval mosaics of Filippo Rusuti at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

As a theologian I found myself translating what my ancient history, art history, and archaeologist colleagues had to say into a language that was familiar:  ‘historicity and temporality’ quickly became ‘tradition and originality’. I suspect that each member of the group was doing the same thing, from the standpoint of their own discipline, but what the series did was to demonstrate to me, at least, the extent to which we all share very much the same preoccupations. Put simply, we are all involved, in one way or another, in the process by which the past is brought into the present, and are all aware that this is something that is written into the very objects and texts we study: that those who commissioned, created and received them were similarly engaged in a process of re-appropriation, representation and recollection. To ask what they thought they were doing, why they did it, and why it takes the form it does is to learn something about what we are doing when we encounter their work now. They, like us, were inheritors of a tradition: selectively preserving it, reshaping and rethinking it for their own present.


In the presbytery at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

How does Roman sculpture relate to the past?; early Christians icons to the time of the apostles?; medieval Christian mosaics to early Christianity?; sixteenth-century Netherlandish artists to ancient Rome? What we do know is that in each case the recollection and representation of history is precisely that: a return which requires a rethinking: a creative gathering together, a re-playing for one’s own time. This is, of course, what we were likewise engaged in as we traipsed the streets of Rome this winter. Long may it continue (but do remember the coffee stops)!’


Ralegh Radford Rome Fellow Rebecca Raynor looks in detail at two of the seminars:

‘The BSR’s series of themed visits commenced on 13 February with a visit to the splendid collection of Greek and Roman art at Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo, led by Guido Petruccioli (BSR Research Fellow). With BSR award-holders congregating around the Altar of Ostia with the images of Mars, Rhea Silvia and the twins Romulus and Remus, debate immediately ignited about the ways in which imperial claims to power and identity were shaped and consolidated using legends and iconographies linked to Rome’s legendary past. Discussions continued as we focussed on a further nine artefacts, concluding with the elaborate and vividly carved second-century Portonaccio sarcophagus. Though the unfinished faces of the general and his wife set against the detailed battle scene naturally prompted speculation about the individual context of the sarcophagus, Guido encouraged us to think symbolically about the piece, revealing how it mythologized the enduring permanence of the Roman Empire much like the altar from Ostia with which we began.


Close encounters at the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica

In March, Austeja Mackelaite (BSR Rome Scholar) provided us with the unique opportunity to see a rare collection of original 16th– and 17th-century drawings produced by itinerant Netherlandish artists held at the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica. With ten works laid out before us, each one depicting the monuments and urban landscape of Rome, Austeja eloquently introduced the historical context, motives and attitudes of Dutch artists who travelled to Renaissance Italy. With magnifying glasses in our hands, eclectic discussions developed between BSR artists and historians into how Rome’s history and landscape is observed, remembered and reworked by those who visit it. Heightened by the fact that the tour coincided with the final weeks in Rome for many award-holders at the BSR, the drawings served as a profound reminder of the magnetic attraction the Eternal City holds and perpetual imprint it leaves on those who encounter it.’


Images courtesy of BSR Research Fellow Guido Petruccioli.


You can read Katherine McDonald’s (Rome Awardee 2014-15) thoughts on the trip to Palazzo Massimo in her post ‘Why are all the artists Greek?’ on the Greek in Italy project research blog.