Amy Russell is Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at Durham, and is spending the autumn of 2016 as a Research Fellow of the British School at Rome as part of her AHRC-funded project Senatorial Monuments: a new approach to the social dynamics of ideology formation in the Roman empire. Here Amy tells us about ‘seeing [her] own sites through new eyes’ during a three-day research trip to Benevento with fellow BSR residents.
‘One of my favourite parts of spending time at the BSR, whether as a Research Fellow, award-holder or regular visitor, has always been the chance to immerse myself in other visitors’ research and practice. The interdisciplinary interaction we have every day over tea or dinner constantly opens my mind to new possibilities and new research directions. Often, one colleague’s site or gallery visit ends up becoming a group trip, and we get the chance to see something we never would have known to look for. And seeing my own sites through new eyes is even better!
A group of award-holders and I took this philosophy to the extreme this past week, as they agreed to come with me on a three-day research trip to Benevento. The core of the trip was the Arch of Trajan, which features in my current project on monuments built by the imperial Senate, but we added on visits to museums and churches in Naples, other sites in Benevento, and the Reggia di Caserta.
Our trip started and ended with Hercules: the two statues of the weary hero from the Baths of Caracalla, originally displayed next to each other, both entered the Farnese and then the Bourbon collections but were then separated, with the more famous of the two ending up in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale at Naples and the other at the foot of the great staircase at Caserta. A Monday conversation with Jana Schuster [Giles Worsley Rome Fellow] about how it might feel to come across the Naples example while walking naked through the baths was complemented by a debate on Wednesday about which one is better, and what the visual impact of seeing them both together might have been.
In Benevento, all eyes were on the arch, a monument to Trajan’s reconstruction of the Via Appia. It was the road that gave Benevento its importance in the imperial period, as it brought countless travellers through on the way from Rome to Brundisium and the east. I counted senators until the light went and climbed up on bollards in undignified fashion (Arthur Westwell [Pilkington Rome Awardee], always dignified, helped) to check whether they were wearing appropriately senatorial shoes; Maria del Carmen Moreno Escobar, our Portus Project representative, was excited to find a representation of Trajan founding Portus – note the anchor.
This is not me climbing the arch, but a slightly more dignified scramble to give a sense of the lengths ancient historians will go to to investigate spolia… It wasn’t all ancient in Benevento. The town was a Lombard capital from the sixth to the eleventh centuries, enjoying (some of the time) a remarkably peaceful existence which has resulted in some fantastic surviving early mediaeval architecture.
Arthur and I might have exhausted the patience of less doughty companions with our transports of joy over the eccentric eighth-century Santa Sofia. Jana Schuster’s eye for building phases helped us reconstruct the fate of some of the vaulting, but the plan, which is part-radial, part-axial, and part star-shaped, gave us plenty to work with on imaginative reconstructions of Lombard liturgy and movement through the building. Meanwhile, modernist Stefano Bragato [Rome Awardee] was quietly gathering information, and impressed us later by calmly laying out the phasing of a late mediaeval wall we passed on the way to dinner.
He and Serena Alessi [Rome Fellow] found something closer by a few centuries to their own research when we visited another of Benevento’s hidden secrets, a 1992 sculpture garden by the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. As if he knew that our little interdisciplinary group was coming, Paladino based his garden on the mediaeval monastic concept of the hortus conclusus, a hidden sanctuary for thought and reflection.
There was plenty more crammed into the three days, from the mixture of Egyptian and Roman faux-Egyptian sculpture from Domitian’s temple to Isis at Benevento to the glorious English Garden at Caserta, where guests get a peek at the bathing Aphrodite (just after being warned by a gory fountain sculpture of Diana and Actaeon that spying on goddesses rarely ends well). The trip left us tired but intellectually refreshed: I could say the same of the whole of my time here at the BSR’.