The Via Appia, Piranesi and Ashby. Reflections on a composite.

Ben White is an intern from the University of Nottingham working on a Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership placement at the BSR from September-December 2020.

Part of Rome’s charm lies in its seemingly endless capacity to reveal more of itself in each encounter – and those lucky enough to spend time in the city with peripatetic companions will appreciate that unexpected perspectives are really what “turns Rome on.” During the past few months, my encounters have been enriched by new perspectives, each challenging me to think differently about the city. These perspectives have arisen from placement work at the BSR funded by the Midlands4Cities DTP: assisting Clare Hornsby with the upcoming Piranesi @300 conference; working in the archives with Alessandra Giovenco on cataloguing BSR 1920s correspondence, and learning about Thomas Ashby’s influence; analysing the impact and engagement of the BSR’s events programme; and sharing walks and conversations with the wonderful and dynamic community of artists and scholars in residence.

One of the joys of the BSR is that it pushes us to think outside our usual disciplinary confines. My research focusses on the architectural and social worlds of ancient Rome and I have little academic experience with eighteenth century Rome, the historical landscape of the early twentieth century and also no familiarity with archival science or gallery curatorship. The task, then, of putting on a temporary exhibition which combined these elements was daunting. But it was also exciting. With the exhibition as a framework, this post serves as a reflection on my experiences here in Rome this winter.

A section of the Via Appia pop-up exhibition based around the tomb of Cecilia Metella, November 2020. Photo by Beth Collar.

The pop-up display focussed on the Via Appia and was shown in November 2020 in the Library. While Covid presented its challenges, it was pleasing to be able to overcome them with timed viewing slots and the now commonplace social distancing measures, including face coverings and hand sanitisers. The central aim was to demonstrate the richness of materials housed in the BSR’s library, archives and special collections, and to utilise them in promoting conversations and collaborative thinking between the community of residents. Stemming from an interest in Piranesi, there was an emphasis on the juxtaposition of material in different media – etchings, guidebooks, photography, drawings, etc. – in order to realise a composite of interpretations inspired by this iconic ancient road.

Detail of one of Piranesi’s early works, a fantastical sepulchre. From Prima Parte di Architetture e Prospettive (c. 1743). Photo by Beth Collar. 

I will tell you that these speaking ruins have filled my spirit with images that accurate drawings, even those of the immortal Palladio, could never have succeeded in evoking.”

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) thus underscores his relationship with the layered landscape of Rome. Piranesi’s statement poetically comments on the inadequacy of two-dimensional representation in comparison to the real thing. For him, such depictions are poor substitutes for the immediate experience of ruins, betraying all their three-dimensional complexities. More than this though. Piranesi emphasises the fundamentally creative role that ruins perform. They stimulate the imagination: it is precisely in their incompleteness that ruins invite us into a process of reconstructing the worlds they once framed.

A fantastical representation of the Via Appia, from Le Antichità Romane (1750s). Print from Ashby’s archive Photo by author.

While Piranesi’s prints were found throughout the exhibition, perhaps the most remarkable on display was this iconic representation of the Via Appia. The etching aptly demonstrates Piranesi’s approach to depicting these ‘speaking ruins’: the process of constructing a composite fantasy from the fragments of antiquity he was witness to in his contemporary surroundings. As Horace Walpole comments: “…he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry and exhaust the indies to realise. He piles palaces on bridges, and temples on palaces, and scales heaven with mountains of edifices.”[i]

The intellectual company at the BSR so often challenges you to think more critically. Following warm encouragement from Beth Collar (Augusta Scholar 2020-21), herself experienced in the art of etching and engraving, I wanted to look further into the technical processes behind the impressions. We were lucky enough to be in Rome during an exhibition at the Istituto per la Grafica, part of a series of global cultural events in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Piranesi’s birth. Attending the exhibition together, with Georgios Markou (Rome Fellow 2020-21) and Charlie Fegan (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture 2020-21) joining the party, we got precious time with the exquisite copper plates utilised by Piranesi’s workshop – the pictures really do not do them justice! In the process of inspection, one quickly builds a far greater appreciation of this “strange linear universe,” as Marguerite Yourcenar has described it, that Piranesi constructs, line by line.[ii]

I have always been captivated by Piranesi’s dramatic Roman fantasies, as many have been, but I did not expect my cursory reading and exposure to his work to have such resonance. To be sure, Rome was not built in a day. But there is more to it than that. Rome is not complete, nor will it ever be. The City exists in a constant state of construction and reconstruction, as much in its layered physical fabric as the correlated cognitive structures we build in our minds. Rome is the result of an immeasurable series of “Romes.” This may call up the common nomenclatures of Imperial Rome, Papal Rome, Baroque Rome, even Piranesian Rome, and this is of course part of it, but thinking as such betrays Rome’s complexity. Every encounter with the sights and sites of Rome is framed by our own contexts and each encounter then adds further layers to our experience of the city. We each have our own Rome; one engaged in a constant dialogue with those that came before, and one that exists in a processual state of composition.

Beth Collar (Augusta Scholar 2020-21) taking in the Pyramid Tomb before the Villa of the Quintilli on the Via Appia. Photo by author.

A stroll down the Via Appia today is not quite like the imaginations of Piranesi, but it pleases the senses in alternative ways. Taking the inspiration of Nick Hodgson, the BSR’s Finance Manager and avid Appia walker, Beth, Antonia Perna (Rome Scholar 2020-21) and I set out to walk a stretch of the Via Appia from Rome to Castel Gandolfo. One easily escapes the city, albeit after a quick bustle through Rome’s traffic, into a lush, linear expanse. The congested urban fabric gave way to clear blue skies, interspersed by the broad dark green canopies of Mediterranean pines. Every mile was populated with the monumental remains of tombs, each inviting us to call up the stories they tell, each fragment adding further pieces to our mental libraries.

Walking in an environment helps one to understand it – a key tactic in making space become place. This was a fundamental approach of the other key influence in the exhibition: Thomas Ashby (1874-1931). The impact of this brilliant topographer, photographer, and collector, the third director of the BSR is hard to put into words, and many have done so far better than I. For instance, Alessandra Giovenco, who has come to know Ashby deeply through her extensive work on his materials, has provided many insights into his character during our fantastic Tuesdays working together.

BSR alumni have been equally inspired by the topographer’s assiduous, nomadic approach to the study of the Roman Campagna: Nicole Muffet recounts her experience walking à la Ashby down the Via Appia with a group of BSR residents in 2017; and Janet Wade illuminates Ashby’s influences throughout her research on the Via Flaminia. To me at least, a key component of Ashby’s legacy lies in the collaborative atmosphere that continues to characterise interpersonal and intellectual life at the BSR today.

Thomas Ashby in the festive spirit, BSR Dining Room. Photo by author.

Ashby’s rigorous approach to scholarship resonates in his large and diverse collection of research materials. The BSR constitutes a lived-in archive with an abundance of untapped research portals lying dormant: cabinets, frames and shelves line the School’s shared spaces, resident’s rooms and corridors, all of which stuffed to the gills with material objects, prints, photos, documents, and more besides. Following the BSR’s revamped digital collections website, searching through these collections remotely is a real pleasure. While many have contributed to the materials over the past century, Ashby provided the core and without him this display would not have been possible. As Valerie Scott, the BSR’s stalwart librarian, voiced to me over coffee: if one desires to think like Ashby, they have everything they need and more here at the school; it is as though he is actively encouraging us to continue his work.

Use the slider to compare the images. Left: A section of Ashby’s notes. Here Ashby presents an annotated catalogue of the Piranesi prints in his collection that pertain to the Via Appia. Photo by author. Right: Etching by G. B. Piranesi, depicting fragments form the tomb opposite the Church of St. Sebastian outside the walls. Le Antichità Romane II, Tav. XLVI (1750s). Photo by Beth Collar.

During preparation of the display, I came across Ashby’s notes on the Via Appia. In them, we find evocative glimpses into how he worked. Alongside formal bibliographic notes and catalogues, Ashby scribbles and doodles on the back of any paper he had to hand. In this section of notes, he is drawing up an annotated catalogue of his Piranesi print collection – notice the sketch of the two inscriptions that correspond to Piranesi’s – each cross referenced to his Carlo Labruzzi prints (1794) and the beautifully illustrated monograph of Luigi Canina (1853). We might imagine Ashby sitting with his pencil and paper, surrounded by his Piranesi prints, the Labruzzi series, as well as a copy of Canina’s Prima Parte della Via Appia, preparing his next walking investigation and plotting his next photo of the ancient road.

The Via Appia pop-up exhibition in the BSR Library’s reading room. October 2020.
Piranesi (bottom left, representing a grand ‘ustrinum’ (1750s), referred to in Ashby’s catalogue above), a page of Canina’s Prima Parte (top right (1853), depicting the Villa of the Quintilli), and a section of Ashby’s photo album (bottom right, photos of sights around this part of the Appia). Photo by Beth Collar.

Life often throws up scenarios in which we realize just how ignorant we are. My first encounters with the cimiteri of Rome and its environs this winter have been just that, for I’d never seen such extensive architectural cemeteries. It was fascinating to see the many parallels between ancient and modern practices. Beth and Antonia humoured me as we wandered and wondered through these veritable cities of the dead. Seeing these necropolises as fully alive spaces for the dead, being interacted with by modern Romans, in turn brought the ideas of the Via Appia exhibition to life for us. In many cases, we noticed conscious acts of quotation, for example: a sarcophagus tomb at Cimitero del Verano which immediately called to my mind that of Scipio Barbatus (now in the Vatican). Another example, perhaps more curious and subtle, we encountered rather serendipitously at Cimitero Flaminio a few miles north of Rome opposite Montebello train station while waiting for our train. The modelled exterior decoration of this family mausoleum gives form to the layered conceptualisation of Rome that has been percolating throughout the many voices and experiences during the past few months. Stairs, columns, pediments, windows and other architectural elements play with each other, evoking the type of space Freud called up when thinking about Rome, a space where time is itself collapsed.

I count myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to experience this during such a troubling year and I have found in Piranesi, Ashby and the BSR’s 2020 cohort, exceptional companions to experience this city of layers. Rome speaks. Each of its layers tells a story: every piazza, street, building, fountain, column, brick, and stone. The voices compete, climbing in periodic crescendos and equally significant falls. They are entwined together into an organic, fluid entity: an urban composition best performed via the bipedal rhythm of our two feet and our trailing eyes.

I would like to express my gratitude to British School at Rome and the Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership for facilitating such an enriching placement experience. I would also like to thank the community at the BSR: Harriet O’Neill for her time and ever enthusiastic supervision; Alessandra Giovenco and Valerie Scott for their openness and encouragement throughout the collection of materials for the pop-up exhibition and for trusting me in the special collections; the brilliant residential cohort for their stimulating conversations and collegial support; and, finally, the wonderful BSR staff for making me feel welcome over the past few months. Grazie a tutti!

Department of Classics and Archaeology, University of Nottingham

[i] Walpole, Horace (1786) Anecdotes of Painting, 4th ed. (London), Vol. 4.398.

[ii] Yourcenar, Marguerite (1984) ‘The Dark Brain of Piranesi’ and Other Essays, trans. R. Howard (New York), p. 94.