Janet Wade is the current Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, resident at the BSR from January to June 2018. Janet’s research project is titled Walking the via Flaminia: following in the footsteps of Thomas Ashby and his companions. As part of this project, Janet plans to traverse the entire length of the via Flaminia on foot (and bicycle), along with previous Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, Nicole Moffatt. Following on from BSR Archivist Alessandra Giovenco’s blog on the many faces of Ashby, here Janet talks in more detail about her own exploration both of the via Flaminia and of the rich collection of material in Thomas Ashby’s archives at the BSR.
‘In one’s less sternly moral moments one even acquires the feeling that every fine day spent indoors, with the Campagna so close, is in a sense wasted.’
Thomas Ashby, The Roman Campagna in Classical Times (London, 1927), 18.
I couldn’t help but recall Thomas Ashby’s words as I wandered along the perimeter of Augustus and Livia’s estate in Prima Porta on a warm, sunny day in April. I was tracing the line of the ancient via Flaminia through Prima Porta, starting from the remains of an arch and wall that originally flanked the road. Both ruins are now incorporated into the walls of a medieval church and a restaurant on either side of the modern Via della Villa di Livia. A stroll up the hill took me to the extensive ruins of Livia’s Villa, with its commanding views of the surrounding countryside, the via Flaminia and Tiberina. At the Villa, high above the traffic with a light breeze rustling the trees and birds chirping, it was easy to imagine the tranquility and seduction of the Roman Campagna of Ashby’s day. I had to remind myself of a less serene walk from the Aurelian walls to Prima Porta that my partner Matt and I did two months earlier, attempting to stick as close to the ancient line of the via Flaminia as possible. We darted across major arterial roads on several occasions, hugged the rock wall of the cliffs of Saxa Rubra to keep at least half a metre between us and the oncoming traffic, and searched in vain for a way to get a glimpse of a piece of the via Flaminia antica that we knew was hiding behind a high fence near Due Ponti station. Ashby’s Roman Campagna was not so easy to visualise that day! It has survived–as too has the via Flaminia–but not in the same form as it existed either in antiquity or the early twentieth century.
Ashby’s exploratory tours of the countryside extended along Italy’s ancient roads beyond the borders of the Roman Campagna. Much of Ashby’s research on the Roman road system was done when he was at the BSR, firstly as a student and then as Director from 1906 to 1925. A century on, Ashby’s publications on the Roman roads of Italy are still largely definitive. His research in the library was meticulous; Ashby consulted whatever books, maps and prints he could get his hands on. Yet, ultimately, it was Ashby’s personal observation of the roads and their surrounding sites that enabled him to map and record the Roman road network so effectively. He tried to visit every inch of a road–or encouraged award-holders at the School to do so–before publishing on them. Ashby knew Italy’s ancient roads so well because he walked or cycled them. His series of articles on the Roman roads are thorough and detailed accounts, but they don’t always reveal the depth of the man’s passion. The collection of Ashby’s notes, correspondence and photographs in the BSR Archives tells us so much more.
Scribbled on the back of envelopes and previous correspondence (in fact, any paper that Ashby could find) are copious notes taken from the works of previous scholars. There are untidy drawings of sites, like Otricoli on the via Flaminia, which Ashby copied from early modern maps and excavation reports to take with him into the field. Military maps with scrawled annotations in the margins show obvious signs of outdoor use. Even more numerous are the scribbled notes from Ashby’s own exploratory tours; hastily drawn maps, personal observations, and measurements. And, of course, there are his photographs. Not always framed or focused perfectly, these photos still provide a wonderful record of the state of the roads and their surrounds in the early 20th century. Ashby’s photos and letters reveal both the pleasure he derived from hiking along ancient routes and the fruitfulness of missions often undertaken in the company of BSR award-holders. Letters sent to the Honorary General Secretary in London, Evelyn Shaw, recount excellent tramps up the Tiber valley, productive and enjoyable walking tours of ancient roads, and Ashby’s belief in the importance of this type of travel for the BSR Director and award-holders. Ashby’s correspondence also highlights the encouragement he gave to BSR scholars to study the ancient Roman road system. Certainly, he could not have mapped, recorded and published as much as he did without them.
My interest in the archives was initially focused on the via Flaminia and the work that Ashby and BSR award-holder, R.A.L. Fell, did together on the road in 1920-21. But the via Flaminia has emerged as a perfect example of Ashby’s wider methodology and his collaboration with others. Ashby’s via Flaminia project straddled the pre and post WWI years of the BSR’s history. The archive material reveals a changing attitude to life and work at the BSR in the early 1920s, when research on the road was being finalised. Student files held in the archives also reveal the intensely collaborative environment at the BSR amongst artists, architects and archaeologists in this same period. The number of current and previous scholars and friends of the BSR who were involved in Ashby’s publication on the via Flaminia exemplifies this. Indeed, the fascinating and talented group of scholars at the BSR in the early 1920’s deserves to be treated as a separate topic entirely (one that I hope to pursue in the near future).
But let’s return to Thomas Ashby. He is a central figure in the history of Italy’s Roman roads and its changing landscape. J.B. Ward-Perkins, in his introduction to the 1970 edition of Ashby’s The Roman Campagna in Classical Times asked whether even then, almost fifty years on, we had ‘lost something of the capacity for direct personal observation which was at the root of all that Ashby did’. I think we have. Yet there is still something to be said for exploring roads and sites on foot as Ashby did; following a line of road or a faint track to see where it might lead. When used alongside modern scholarship and technology, there is no better way to investigate how an ancient road or monument has survived in its new, modern landscape. And this is exactly what Nicole Moffatt and I intend to do. With the aid of Ashby’s notes, correspondence and photographs, and with Ashby and Fell’s 1921 article as our guide, we will walk the via Flaminia from Rome to Rimini, documenting its new meaning and place in the 21st century.
Janet Wade (BSR Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar 2017-18)
Profile photo of Janet by Antonio Palmieri.