I arrived at the BSR to study vedute, (highly detailed cityscapes), maps and postcards of the monuments of Rome, using Peter Greenaway’s film Belly of an Architect (1986) as a vehicle for investigation. Weaving a narrative of power and politics, Belly of an Architect is presented as a sequence of postcard images of Rome, that alternate with actual shots in the style of the postcards. Greenaway originally intended to trace a route through the city, structured almost like a Situationist dérive, by using postcards chosen for their perspective, each of which connected a monument in the foreground with another in the distance. For example, by using a postcard of the twin churches in Piazza del Popolo, in which one could find in the background a small image of a part of the Vittoriano, the next scene would be set in Piazza Venezia, and if in that postcard one could glimpse the Colosseum in the background, then the next scene would take place there, and so on. When films use postcards and texts these things are always mediated by the filmmaker’s intentions. It’s like the actors. They are both themselves acting and the part they play. Showing postcards in the film is like characters talking directly to camera or when actors play themselves on film.
How excited I was after I introduced my research at the BSR and the director told us about Eugénie Strong’s postcard collection in the BSR archives. When I originally planned this research, I intended to collect my own tourist postcards of the monuments of Rome, but I found Strong’s far more seductive and conducive to the kind of ‘postcard’ tour I was looking for, one that is entirely subjective, blurs place and personal history and, speaks to each of us in a different way, as if whispering in our ears about forgotten experiences, adventures, romances, individuals.
Like a postcard itself, that arrives with no return address, and only a cryptic comment, postmark and stamp to claim its origins, is the postcard collection from the 1910s and 1920s of Eugénie Strong, the first assistant director of the BSR. The postcards are filed in albums and boxes according to place, like a map that is not yet made. The Rome album begins with Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s (1720-1778) depictions of the monuments of Rome, and ends with the 1911 Ethnographic Exhibition to celebrate 50 years of Italy’s unification, that shows different pavilions from different regions of Italy for the World’s Fair that took place in the Valle Giulia. In fact the BSR building was designed by Edwin Lutyens and constructed as the British pavilion for that grand exhibition which is why it is in the English baroque style, double columns as pilasters on the walls and a neoclassical portico at the front.
Piranesi’s most famous built project is the piazza and church for the Cavalieri di Malta on the Aventine Hill. This is the famous portal with a keyhole that sights the dome of St Peter’s. Strong’s collection includes a postcard of the garden, as if we, like Alice, have entered through the keyhole.
The album continues with a collection entitled Rome Disappeared.
One of my favourites is this one that shows La corsa dei Barberi, a horserace along the Corso, that took place at the time of the Carnival. It shows the Piazzo del Popolo and either very small horses, or else artistic licence in widening the street, and, since it depicts a time prior to its construction, no Vittoriano monument at the other end of the axis.
Most of the postcards are from collections that were never sent, but collected as sets, interspersed with a very few that were sent to her by friends, colleagues or scholars with requests. For example, each year her counterpart at the American Academy would send her a Christmas postcard, in exchange for one she had sent. Another favourite (not shown here) was of a stone frieze, of a pig, a horse and a cow with the note on the back: nice to see our old friends. What was the narrative behind this? Was this a favourite place to visit? And where was it? In the Forum? Elsewhere?
Renée Tobe (Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellow 2017-18)