Exploring conflict and resolution in the materials and monuments of Rome

Dr Tom True, BSR Assistant Director, looks back at the on-site seminars with the award-holders from last term.

Last term BSR award-holders went beneath ground and up bell-towers to investigate their historical habitat through a new series of on-site seminars, entitled The stuff of struggles: exploring conflict and resolution in the materials and monuments of Rome. We have been studying great buildings across the city in the context of the controversies and (often) rough events that cradled them, in order to learn, through visual analysis, about the great political, theological, military and personal conflicts that define Rome, its history, its culture and its people.

2015 was a grim year in terms of the obliteration of cultural memory, with the ancient cities of Hatra, Nimrod and Palmyra laid waste. Last term Architecture Critic, Robert Bevan launched the third instalment of our renowned Architecture Programme, bringing a world exclusive to the BSR. Moving hearts and firing intellectual resolve, he gave us a privileged preview of a forthcoming documentary The Destruction of Memory based on his research, which analysed what becomes of collective identity when cultural institutions are destroyed in war.

Rome has been a zone of conflict throughout its history. Opposition, confrontation and rivalry are, of course, not necessarily yokes on creativity. This series has examined how conflict and rivalries – whether between individuals, social or political groups, religious allegiances, institutions, disciplines or art forms – were a positive agent of cultural production and change across Rome.

In order to reflect the current ‘material turn’ in scholarship, the series has also been investigating the theme of materiality, which informs the work of several of our award-holders – from both Fine Arts and the Humanities. We have been investigating how materials had the power to signify and to underpin art’s role in politics, polemics and ritual through their cultural and physical attributes.

Our visits have, so far, stretched back to antiquity, alighted in the Middle Ages, and continued through the Renaissance, and into the Baroque.

We were delighted to be led round the Ara Pacis Augustae by Dr Mark Bradley (Nottingham), who demonstrated how its unique decoration offers a sophisticated narrative about the values of Rome under the first emperor, the resolution of conflict, the establishment of imperial authority, and the integration of peace and prosperity into Roman society. We looked at how the Ara Pacis is connected with processes of reconstruction: from picking up the pieces of a shattered Republic, to the Fascist reassembly of the Altar, to modern scholarly efforts to reconstruct its original vivid colours. Mark examined the function of bright pigments, as well as sounds and aromas, to investigate the relationship between ancient religious activity, materials, and sensory enlightenment.


Religion, monumentality and the Roman sensorium at the Ara Pacis, 5 November 2015

Professor Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge) treated us to a visit around the most spectacular of Rome’s 9th-century basilicas, Pope Paschal I’s Santa Prassede, with its Roman spolia and resplendent mosaics. The visit looked at how Paschal’s building and decorative campaign reflected and served the development of early Christian Rome. Papal authority, and Rome’s importance as a seat of political and sacred power were reaffirmed through Paschal’s monuments and their materials. We looked at the spiritual and political significance of the resemblance of Santa Prassede’s plan to Old St Peter’s; and discussed the Pope’s extraordinary translation of the relics of around 2,300 saints from the catacombs and the installation of this sacred army in his church. Krautheimer famously argued that such building projects represented a ‘renascence’ after centuries of Dark Ages. We looked at the struggles and controversies, confidence and disquiet, that created the conditions out of which revival and artistic development sprang, not least the impact of eliminating the Lombard kingdom from Central Italy, or of recoiling from the indignity of catacombs in decay. We were lucky enough to get up onto the organ loft, high in the transept, where we came face-to-face with coquettish-looking sheep in the apostolic frieze of the apse mosaic.

We also visited the nearby church of Santa Pudenziana for a precious glimpse of one of the earliest apse mosaics in Rome, and to study the process by which a Roman secular building developed into an early Christian church. Dazzled by the refulgence of our award-holders’ knowledge of church history and liturgy, the attendant nun granted us access up a rickety staircase to the campanile, home to some little-known and fascinating (arguably) 12th-century frescoes.


Papal authority, church buildings and the translation of saints in the early Middle Ages: Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana on the Esquiline, 10 December 2015

Our much cherished senior scholar in residence, Dr Caspar Pearson (BSR Paul Mellon Centre Fellow 2015-16; Essex), took us to the Villa Farnesina, built in the early 1500s for the papal banker and cultural luminary Agostino Chigi. It is decorated throughout by some of the leading artists of the day, including Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Il Sodoma, and the villa’s architect Baldassare Peruzzi. The frescoes, which illustrate subjects from pagan mythology or ancient history, explore many of the struggles that most preoccupied the Roman Renaissance: the potentially disrupting and pacifying powers of Eros, the relationship between knowledge and illusion, and the conflicts between fame and oblivion, freedom and destiny, materiality and transcendence.


Love and Oblivion at Villa Farnesina and the Tempietto, 24 November 2015

From the Farnesina we climbed up the hill to the Tempietto. Traditionally considered to be the epoch-making building of the High Renaissance, it stands within a courtyard, displayed almost as though it were a piece of sculpture. Marking the site on which St Peter was believed to have been martyred, the Tempietto also testifies to the struggles of its architect Donato Bramante to reconcile an ordering theory of architecture with an inherently disordering world, to incarnate the universal in the particular, and to bring a revered pagan cultural heritage into the service of the Christian present.

Dr Tom True (BSR Assistant Director) led award-holders to Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, Palazzo Barberini and the astonishing, yet tiny, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, which could fit within the footprint of one of Michelangelo’s piers for the crossing of St Peter’s. We examined the two stars of 17th-century Rome: GianLorenzo Bernini, a handsome and gregarious wild-man, and an astonishingly gifted sculptor, who soon turned to architecture; and Francesco Borromini, intensely professional and suicidally lamentative, and one of the most individual architects of all time. Set in the context of the papacy of Urban VIII, which was characterized by both his tireless promotion of family identity and his programme for the glorification of the Catholic Church, we examined how the rivalry of these two men helped to shape Baroque Rome.

San Carlo

Dome and Lantern of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Artistic rivalry on the Quirinal: Bernini versus Borromini and the building of Baroque Rome, 12 November 2015

This series has been a very fruitful experience. We have been addressing themes that pool the rich and varied expertise of both our staff and our talented award-holders, in a format where ideas play freely and each brings their own unique perspective to the conversation.

Tom True (Assistant Director)

Images taken by Katherine Paines, Lincoln Austin, Mark Andrew Kelly, and Ross Taylor