‘Arva verumque cano’: an interview with Assistant Director, Tom True

Tom True joined the BSR in October 2015 as the new Assistant Director having previously held two residential awards: Rome Scholarship 2009-10 and Giles Worlsey Travel Fellowship 2013-14.

After a term of working, living and researching here in his new position, Tom shared some thoughts on his experiences so far.


Tom True, photo taken by Sophie Hay

You have been living at the BSR as Assistant Director for four months now, looking back how does it compare to your time spent here as an award-holder? 

Yes, I am very fortunate that the BSR soufflé has risen again! Naturally, this time round, I have plenty to do beyond my own research. But it has confirmed what I knew well then: that the BSR is unique in providing a very special setting for the kind of scholarly companionship and collaboration that contribute to the very best outcomes. I love its capacity to lift the mind and the creative imagination; to join the worlds of senior and emerging scholars; and to leap sure-footedly over solid-seeming walls between disciplines and practices.

For me as an award-holder this experience could not have been more transformative to the development of my scholarly life. Back then, it helped me to progress from being someone who enjoyed reading books and formulating ideas, to becoming a historian, making new discoveries and seeking to open up new paths of enquiry. Now it is a tremendous privilege to have the opportunity to help guide the next stages of its development and to give back to the BSR and other scholars even a part of what it has given for me.

It’s probably also fair to say that, since the 2009-10 award, my bar tab has come right down!

How is the BSR helping your research?

The BSR plays an indispensable role in providing scholars the time necessary to work meaningfully in the archives, by covering the sufficient ground, and turning up the new evidence, from which great contributions to history and social sciences are made. This type of sustained research is impossible from home and unaffordable without help – this is why the BSR must continue to thrive!

My own research – like that of hundreds of scholars who have been served so well by the BSR (so many of whom are now pre-eminent and inspirational academics) – depends on regular archival visits. I am able to go into town once or twice a week, to photograph enough documents for me to mull over in the corner turret of the BSR to keep me occupied until the next visit.

Rome is full of beautiful buildings, the BSR included, if you could convert any of them into your own private house which would you choose and why?

I would commission Baldassare Peruzzi to build me an apartment on top of the Torre delle Milizie behind Trajan’s Market. He did a first-rate job on the Theatre of Marcellus. From the Torre you can see the full sweep of Roman history, over the fori, past the column, via the 16th-century glory of Santa Maria di Loreto, and over to Victor Emmanuel’s (much maligned) brazen confection. From this vantage point I might even be able to keep an eye out for a reassuring puff of smoke issuing from the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum. If Peruzzi himself cannot be revived, I will settle for taking over a casino within the grounds of a papal residence where I could write productively, like Queen Caroline’s thresher-poet, Stephen Duck, or the garden hermit in Tom Stoppard’s wonderful Arcadia! For this, I would choose the casino of Villa Ludovisi so that I could easily commute to the BSR, for the best library in the world on Roman topography, as well as for the hearty scholarly companionship.

And finally, what do you do to relax when away from your research?

I’m not sure if relaxing is quite the mot juste, but I am fairly occupied by planning my wedding this August. The BSR stages seventy-odd academic events each year, which I am responsible for overseeing; and I am trying not to confuse planning these, with planning my own wedding. My fiancée looks a bit scared when I refer to wedding guests as ‘delegates’ and my groom-speech as a ‘keynote address’. In an ideal world, when away from my research and away from the top company of the BSR, I would be on a smallholding in the Marchigian foothills of the Apennines, looking after my cabbages, like the Emperor Diocletian.

To read more about the goings-on at the BSR from October to December 2015 please see previously published blog post by Tom True detailing the on-site seminars with the award-holders.