Meet the artists: Beth Collar

An interview with Beth Collar, Augusta Scholar, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

The text for your recent show in Munich (Bildhauer*in der Sinne, opened at GiG until 1 January 2021) states: “in Beth Collar’s work, sculpture does not always respond to the image of a closed work, but also of a performative event’s marginalia. For this reason, the artist does not define herself as a sculptor, but as a performer, since sculpture is for her a double-track instrument of investigation”. Can you tell us more about this, particularly in relation to the block of lime wood you are carving in your studio at the BSR?

As a roughly female-identifying person, or, I could say, as someone who has been identified as female, for a long time I’ve struggled with the idea of actually making sculpture. It has always struck me as impossible. Too presumptuous. Absurd. Sticky, in a swamp of pure men, with a peat layer of Man, with a core-sample of Mankind beneath it. I’m being silly, but also, that is to say, it’s just there all your life. Everywhere.

So to make work for me, especially early when I was at art school it always felt like going through the motions – performing some role that wasn’t really for me. Eventually I realised that that was what I was doing when I tried to make something. And that’s where my practice became a performance one. And eventually I found that the only way to have a ‘studio practice’ was to begin to perform the role of the male master craftsman – someone un-identified from a time before the era of the (male) artist genius. I had to become the Master of fill in the blank. That’s where I could find crawl-space.

I’m drawn to objects produced for ritual, from and for devotion. The art from times both in the Christian heritage and the pagan and pre-historic. Because of their pure use; functional art; art that makes a living off the people who need it’s services. I’m drawn to art produced in a time where the art is decoupled from the maker – from long enough ago that it feels decoupled from gender too. It’s a collective endeavour.

This term above – “double-track instrument of investigation” – isn’t mine, but I see what he (the curator Beniamino Foschini) means: making sculpture is both a performance that I make and simultaneously it’s a way to discover and then to scrutinise. 

A tool of intuition – and then later a tool to examine that intuition and work out what the product of that performance says or does. For me, art is a tool to investigate the forces acting upon me that produce the ‘intuition’.

Troccola found by the artist in Rome. Photo by the artist.

Your work seems to engage with religious art. What are the qualities you are drawn to?

I’m currently carving sculptures out of a long, thick slice of a Lime tree – AKA Linden wood. The wood has a significance for me as it’s a material I associate with ecclesiastical sculpture from the northern part of Europe. There is an absence of religious sculpture in the UK. I am from Cambridge and Oliver Cromwell was from Ely which is very close by. East Anglia was a centre of the Protestant iconoclasm during the Reformation. I grew up visiting churches (though I come from a long line of agnostics): as a general rule, in my family, if you go on a walk you pop into the parish church that you walk past to see if there is anything in there of interest.

I remember being particularly bored by this when I was little but eventually it wore me down, and I perpetuate it with evangelical zeal. More than 90% of the sculpture in medieval churches in England was destroyed during the Reformation (and almost all of the painting was whitewashed) so England is sort of filled with a blank. Catholicism just covered in Tipex. A blank over the power of sculpture, the power of art – specifically the graven image of course: it’s a slipped-out admission of its awesomeness. A back-handed compliment.

So, this absence or this yearning-for is something that has motivated my work for a very long time. And it’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Rome. This place is full. This place is over-saturated, overflowing. This place is the opposite, and in a way it can be a mirror.

In my work, that loss and absence resulting from this quite straightforward historic event stands in for other, more human, personal, micro-level absences and losses: about family, about love, about authenticity, alienation and about presence. I’ve been using these absent substances of the burnt and bashed to think these things through.

Finally, to bring the mistletoe in here, as it turned up erroneously in your original question as well as in my drawings while I’ve been here: I guess with the mistletoe I’ve been looking at Natural History in the same way as I do art history, or material culture/archaeology – it’s a thing – a cultural artefact – that means something now, that meant something then. And therefore holds mysteries of human relation and of loss. It wants something of us, much like the art objects I’m interested in from Catholicism and Paganism.

Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

The artist in her studio at the BSR. Photo by the artist.

Meet the artists: Paul Eastwood

An interview with Paul Eastwood, Creative Wales-BSR Fellow, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

Dyfodiaith, your 2019 video work, explores wild tongues, severed tongues and the historic and future context of indigenous languages in the UK. In this work you reflect on constructs of language, notions of otherness and the potential of multilingualism. The narrative of the video is sung in a speculative language based on the ancient Brythonic language, as if it has remained alive, evolving throughout the centuries. How have you expanded on the topic of language in Rome?

Potentially, writing and text have a permanence. In ancient Rome it was used for inscriptions in stone; a hard material, that stands the test of time. Even as fragments, these end up giving us a glimpse onto the past, making it more tangible. We don’t get this in most other early European languages, such as indigenous British languages. We might see it on the curse tablets from Bath, where a few words of, supposedly, Brythonic are mixed into the Latin – but they’re as rare as hens’ teeth. I was particularly drawn to Rome because of the commemorative spaces and objects surviving in various guises, sometimes scattered and strewn about; again there’s little of this in what we know of Celtic culture in Britain. In previous works and writings, I’ve thought about imagined spaces, including museums and libraries, but there I used the spoken word and the written text in the form of video narrative and scripts for film and performance. My stay in Rome has given me the opportunity to consider text as inscriptions, and the monuments or memorials that may have been associated with these. My initial plan for my time at the BSR was to write a script and to make drawings. In fact I seem to have combined several of my interests into a project centred around fragmentary inscriptions from a fictive Celtic city and its monuments. The size of the drawings, in this case the rubbings, alludes to the proportions of that imagined architecture.

Work in progress. Photo by the Artist.

How have Roman funeral inscriptions influenced your recent projects?

I’d already started developing some text-based works that were using rubbing and worked on paper. I showed these to Hester, the Balsdon fellow, and we discussed collaborating because she wanted to make a fake Latin inscription related to her work – this was for the weekly mini-expositions that we were doing in the BSR snack bar. I said it would be nice to add a sculptural object, so she designed an ‘Etruscan’ urn with an inscription, and I supported the production. This introduction to classical inscriptions and fragments inspired me to start wandering the city looking for broken inscriptions with Latin text in churches, porticoes and in the street, where I made a suite of research rubbings. These informed my work for the Mostra, which consists of large fake rubbings of the epigraphical remnants, in forms of the Welsh language, of imagined monumental buildings.

Work in Progress. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri

Meet the artists: Max Fletcher

An interview with Max Fletcher, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

What led you to the correspondence between Antonio Gramsci and Piero Sraffa? Was your new body of work inspired by those letters?

Piero Sraffa was an Italian economist. He studied in Turin with Antonio Gramsci and when Gramsci was imprisoned, Sraffa opened an unlimited account with a Milanese bookstore in the name of Gramsci. Any bill was to be settled by Sraffa. He also provided Gramsci with the physical materials, the pens and paper, with which he would write the prison notebooks. Not only had Sraffa studied with Gramsci, but also while at the London School of Economics in 1921-22, he twice met John Maynard Keynes in Cambridge. In 1926, Gramsci was arrested by the fascist government. The following year, Keynes, having realised the risk that Sraffa faced in Italy, invited him to Cambridge where he received a lectureship.

Once in Cambridge, Sraffa sought to bring wider attention to Gramsci’s plight, publishing a letter in the Guardian and launching with Gramsci’s sister-in-law, Tatiana Schucht, an international campaign for his release. Throughout the early and mid-twenties, Gramsci and Sraffa were in regular contact, and their relationship intensified with Gramsci in prison. Gramsci’s last direct letter to Sraffa was written in January 1927, after which the correspondence between the two was mediated through Schucht, to whom half of some 500 prison letters, providing cultural and political analysis while also detailing his health conditions and day-to-day prison life, were addressed. Sraffa visited Gramsci eight times in person between January 1935 and March 1937 after Gramsci had been transferred from Turi to Formia and later Rome. He died days after his release from prison in April 1937. Both Sraffa and Schucht were instrumental in the posthumous publication of the Prison Notebooks.

Grave of Antonio Gramsci in the Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome. Photo by the artist.

My interest in Sraffa comes initially from his friendship with Gramsci, and from his proximity to Keynes. These days, Sraffa is a barely known twentieth century economist from Turin. Yet he was someone that both Keynes and Gramsci trusted and worked with. Even before Sraffa was at Cambridge, Keynes had sought to collaborate. In the thirties, when Keynesian economics were in competition with Friedrick Hayek’s more conservative world-view, Keynes asked Sraffa to write a rebuttal of Hayekian economics. Sraffa obliged. Keynesian thinking would, of course, provide the prevailing economic world-view for much of the Western world during the Great Depression, up until Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan revived Hayek’s ideas, giving new momentum to neo-liberal policy. Interestingly, it was around this time that Sraffa’s thought seems to have had a particular resonance on the left; a 1978 edition of the New Left Review produced a ‘special dossier’ on ‘the unknown Sraffa’. One article, Keynes, Sraffa and Capitalist Crisis, details how both Sraffa and Keynes realised that the capitalist system was on its knees during the 1920s. Equally, it seemed likely that ‘organised’ or ‘regulated’ capitalism had plenty of capacity for survival. Yet, while Keynes would not reject the politics of Liberalism, Sraffa, like Gramsci, believed that social transformation would never be possible under the liberal ruling class which, exerted hegemonic control over the rest of the population. As such, for Sraffa, economic struggle had to be allied with political struggle.

I came across Sraffa through his friendship with Gramsci. In many ways, Sraffa seems to have provided a possibility for the future that was never taken up: new economics in contrast to both those of Keynes and Hayek. On the other hand, Gramsci’s ideas seem to be alive and well in contemporary thought. The inability to speak of hegemony without contemplating Gramsci is the most obvious example, yet it is just one facet of Gramscian thought. My recent work does not directly reference the letters between Gramsci and Sraffa, but it does focus on Gramsci’s prison journey to Turi. In this sense they are hovering in the background of the work. Essentially for me, Sraffa provides a bridge between Keynesian economics which now appear to be something of the past, and Gramsci, whose ideas are still capable of providing an analysis to the problems of the present.

A Pasolini poem behind smashed glass. Lungotevere, Rome. Photo by the artist.

Your work in the last year has been characterized by collaboration with other artists. Why? Can you tell us more about the works you have made at the BSR recently, which include contribution from your friends?

Last year at the BSR I collaborated with the artist Andrea Celeste La Forgia on several pieces. This was in some ways a consequence of being in Rome and started with the desire to translate a nineteenth century Milanese play, Carlo Bertolazzi’s El Nost Milan, from Italian to English. As the play had been written in dialect, this wasn’t a straightforward task and Andrea asked a friend (Andrea Bertuzzi) to translate some passages from Milanese dialect into Italian, thereafter Andrea translated them into English. These translated play scripts formed the basis for a series of paintings, one of which was shown in the March Mostra. I have also worked with Andrea on several other projects over the past year. Collaboration has been a means of problem solving, finding a solution to something that I cannot address on my own.

Some of my recent work has similarly involved collaboration. Being in Rome with Covid restrictions has provided several challenges, not least the closure of museums and archives for the past month. As a result, I have asked friends to provide me with short texts of no more than 250 words referring in some way to Gramsci’s prison journey from Rome to Turi. These texts are then translated into paintings as part of an ongoing series that I am currently working on. They provide a number of iterations, with the writing taking different forms and offering different accounts of the same event.

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Meet the artists: Jeff McMillan

An interview with Jeff McMillan, Abbey Fellow in Painting, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

Old objects found on street corners or in flea markets have often been the starting point for your work. How were you inspired by what you found in Rome? How are those materials different from ones you would usually find in London? 

I knew about the Porta Portese market before I came to Rome, it is famous and historic if you are interested in flea markets – a little like Brick Lane or Portobello in London. I think it’s probably not as interesting as it once was and there is now less secondhand material, but I still visited many times and found things that became part of my finished work here. For example, I bought a beautiful old briefcase made entirely of plywood, and I used it to make a block print, it has a lovely grain along with scars and scrapes from use.

Studio, woodblock printing. Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

At the beginning of my residency I set myself the task of trying to represent the whole of Rome through the wood I might find on its streets, and it was a good excuse for getting out and seeing the city and its many sites. Once I bought a bicycle (another purchase from Porta Portese!) it allowed me to explore pretty much any part of the city, and so I attempted to do that. I would often locate a faraway church or a museum and on my way to visit I would keep my eyes open for any discarded wood, like furniture, pallets, or building materials. I think this way of working allows you to look at the city through a different lens, it makes you notice the textures of buildings and street surfaces, sometimes colours of pigments against one another. If you think about the way you can switch a Google map from simply street layout to a satellite image – it’s the same place but you see it completely differently – it all of a sudden has detail and nuance.  

Studio works in progress. Photo by the artist.

A term that architects sometimes use to describe a city is to refer to its urban grain, and that sort of fits into thinking about its surfaces and textures on an almost granular level. I think that is reflected in the works I am making, block printing with wood is nothing if not an expression of the surface, how it has been treated, or neglected, or weathered starts to tell its own story. In the case of the prints I am making at the BSR I am adding to this my own subjective composition and colours which in fact are based on the colour combinations I have seen in marble in many of the churches.

Studio, woodblock printing. Works in progress. Photo by the artist.

How has your art evolved over time, especially after you moved from Texas to Europe? Do you think that everyone owns a sort of mnemonic archive/inventory of shapes that influence his/her imagination?

After working for many years (and I have been working in London for more than 20 years now) you get to a point where you can look back and see how everything connects up.  I think I recognise I have my own ‘default settings’, that is to say I keep returning to the same sort of aesthetic. For me that is probably based in some way on the flat, unending landscape where I come from and perhaps by extension is connected to American Minimalism – so an attention to materiality for it’s own sake, and a reductive approach where I am looking for the simplest way to achieve or depict something. I sometimes think I am trying to make non-fiction works, images that convey a truth or reality, a straight-forwardness about object or form. 

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

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!

ben.white@nottingham.ac.uk

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. 

The Torlonia Marbles-Collecting Masterpieces

A review by Charlie Fegan, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture (September 2020- September 2021)

“This exhibition-event reveals to Italy and the world the mystery of the Collezione Torlonia, the last Roman princely collection of antique art and the largest to remain in private ownership, which I am delighted and proud to open in the exhibition space of the Capitoline Museums on the ground floor of the Villa Caffarelli re-opened to the public after over fifty years of closure.” Virginia Raggi – Mayor of Rome

Having never heard of this collection previously, my initial reaction was excitement. The last time these ancient art works were accessible to the “public” was in the Villa Torlonia which closed in 1976. Even then, these were only seen by a restricted list of specialists and political dignitaries. The fact that this collection has been hidden for so long (and is stated on all the show’s press information) immediately raises questions about the ethicality of private collections of important antiquities/art objects – collections that we tend to assume belong in public museums. Indeed, the Torlonia collection is a “collection of collections” amassed over centuries by the powerful Torlonia family. The first noteworthy member of the family, who came from France to Italy in the eighteenth century, was Giovanni, a rag and bone merchant who became one of Europe’s greatest financiers for the Vatican. A popular poem at the height of their power and quoted in Ignacio Silone’s Fontamara reads:

“At the head of it all is God, lord of heaven.
Then comes Prince Torlonia, lord of earth.
Then comes the armed guard of Prince Torlonia.
Then comes the hounds of the armed guard of Prince Torlonia.
Then nobody else. And still nobody else.
And still again nobody else.
Then come the farmers . . .”

So with that background, let’s now turn to the collection: upon entering, we are confronted by the gaze of multiple busts. The display is an obvious nod to the famous Hall of Emperors in the same museum. Here, instead of ornate marble, we have a slick continuation of the floor bricks. This first room successfully exhibits how Roman portraiture was something entirely new. The subtle expressions, hair and personality traits expressed in the Roman busts are a stark contrast to the idealised Greek inspired heads with their expressionless solidity.

“The exhibition design was inspired by the printed catalogue of the opening of the original Torlonia Museum in 1884 in which the works were presented on a black background. It consists of brick floors and plinths made by hand from grey clay creating a dark background from which the sculptures emerge. The plinths are conceived as architectural structures extruding seamlessly from the flooring. Each room also features a distinctive coloured background, visually dividing the exhibition into five chapters that illustrate the chronological evolution of the collection.” – David Chipperfield, The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting MasterpiecesCatalogue.

I initially liked the exhibition design, it felt like a simple and rational mode of display. There is very little information in the actual show or leaflet, but from the catalogue I gleaned that the bricks are a “link to ancient Roman architecture, more specifically to the Ancient Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus: the largest monument of the Capitoline Hill with foundations that are tectonically and traditionally in blocks of cappellaccio.” This display has more in common with the utilitarianism of Roman architecture than with the ornate rooms upstairs. After a while, however, it began to feel like swimming pool changing rooms, especially given the dazzling bleached look of all the marbles. It also brought to mind the volcanic tiles of Forma Fantasma who did the exhibition design for the recent Caravaggio/Bernini show at the Rijksmuseum. The Torlonia show’s “handmade” bricks lack their tonal variation and surface sensitivity.

Greek athletes drying off after an overly chlorinated dip, their eyes stinging:

Having had all dust and discolouration banished by the jewellers Bvlgari, the works are extremely clean. In some cases, the restorers have exposed the joints and fills from previous “restorations” (most of which occurred during the renaissance). This makes the additions immediately noticeable in a successful and edifying way. A downside to these recent restorations is that they are SO clean that it is hard to believe that they are as old as we are told they are. They have the feeling more of plaster casts. Personally, i find that a lot of the emotive power of classical statuary is generated less by their forms and more the sense of them being vessels and witnesses to an incommensurable length of time and history. In this environment, which still smells of pleasant fresh paint, that wasn’t an experience I had.

Many of the restorations and additions are so old that they have become antiques of note in themselves. This is especially evident in the Statue of Goat (Caprone) whose first-century AD body is overshadowed by its head attributed to Bernini. When restorations make the object “whole”, it usually gains physical mass through additions that interpret what the rest would have potentially looked like. What is lost in this process is the aura of the object’s battle for survival through its vast stretch of existence. The restored nose erases the tape, the finger smashed off as the barbarians stormed the extravagant villa is returned to serenity. The chips and breaks are an important testament to the object as a witness of history and time passing. I find it hard to imagine these objects with a speck of dust on them let alone lying in the dirt for centuries. The exhibition’s conscious reference to the 1884 catalogue was more successful than they perhaps intended. Moving through this show one does get the sense of a catalogue, the objects flattened and all imperfect depth removed. The rooms are fairly small, the objects cramped, one cannot quite get more than a straight on view, similar to a printed image on a page.

A welcome break from this is the Bas Relief with a view of the Portus Augusti. It is a strange relief which oscillates between scales and imagery like a Dada collage. The polychromatic residue still visible on the lighthouse’s flame gives a small but powerful sense of how vivid classical statuary would have originally been. Two works which also really stand out are the Statuette restored as Apollo with the Skin of Marsyas (first century AD, left) and Ancient statuette torso restored as the flayed Marsyas (first-second century AD, right) with additions from the late sixteenth century. The gruesome duo tell the Greek myth of Apollo and Marsyas, the humble shepherd who, emboldened by drink, dared to boastfully challenge the god Apollo at a musical contest. His punishment was having his skin removed whilst alive and hung from a pine tree. This alien sculpture has the characteristics of a science fiction baddie. His head is so shining white and the obvious join in his cracked neck made me initially think this was a twenty-first-century interpretation or “restoration”. In the BSR Library, I found Thomas Ashby’s sixteenth-century book of engravings of the Gustiniani Collection (to which this statue belonged before joining the Torlonia family’s collection). I was surprised to see the additional limbs and head were present in the sixteenth century. As you can see from the diagram only the torso is antique.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Marsyas cries out: “Why do you tear me from myself?” This statuette brings to mind the flayed skin carrying a self-portrait face of Michelangelo held by Saint Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel’s The Last Judgment. This also deals with similar interpretations about the separation and liberation of the spirit from the body, death and rebirth. The story of Marsyas was seen as a warning against the inevitable disaster when one wields arrogant presumption towards higher powers. Walking past more busts of powerful Romans, I thought about how unlikely it was, with their arrogant stares and death-defying sarcophagi, that they would have imagined that their dominance could come crashing down around their ears, that their way of life could possibly stop. With the lazy boastfulness of Marsyas, we in our own contemporary situation arrogantly proclaim dominance over nature, never truly believing that there might be consequences.

The Torlonia Marbles show is going to go on a Coronavirus-delayed world tour (the Louvre is next). It will be interesting to see whether this was a triumphal display to increase a possible later sale and whether any public institutions will be able to afford them.

Archaeological Fieldwork: Summer 2020

It was an unusual summer for archaeological fieldwork in Italy, with many teams sadly unable to excavate due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. However, following the necessary precautions, the archaeologists at the BSR were able to continue its rich programme of archaeological surveys in support of its own research programme and those of other colleagues.

Fieldwork in Rome has continued on our ERC funded research project Rome Transformed (led by Newcastle University, with the Università degli Studi di Firenze and the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche). In June, Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey was conducted inside the Amphitheatrum Castrense, a 3rd century AD amphitheatre that formed part of the Sessorium.

GPR survey in the Amphitheatrum Castrense, inside the property of the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Photo: Francesca Carboni)

With the support of experts from Geostudi Astier and the kind permission of Soprintendenza Speciale Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio di Roma, another geophysical technique, Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT), was also used to survey parts of the Circus Varianus which also formed part of the complex.

ERT inside the Circus Varianus, with the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in the background (Photo: Stephen Kay)
BSR Geophysical Researcher Elena Pomar conducting topographical survey at the Circus Varianus (Photo: Stephen Kay)

Together with the team from Geostudi Astier, ERT was also conducted inside the public gardens in Viale Carlo Felice, with the aim of mapping deeply buried structures alongside the Aurelian walls. The work was conducted with the generous support of the project partners the Sovrintendenza Capitolina.

BSR and Geostudi Astier teams working with ERT in Viale Carlo Felice, next to the Aurelian walls (Photo: Francesca Carboni)

In July, the BSR archaeology team headed into the Sabina to Cotilia, northeast of Rome, to conduct GPR and magnetometry surveys at the so-called ‘Baths of Vespasian’ on the behalf of colleagues at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax.

BSR Archaeology Officer Stephen Kay conducting magnetometry survey at Cotilia (Photo: Elena Pomar)

The site, which lies alongside the ancient consular road of the Via Salaria, is a sprawling complex whose precise function is still unclear but which includes thermal baths and a medieval church.

An excavated section of the Via Salaria at Cotilia (Photo: Stephen Kay)

From the hills of the Sabina, the team then headed across Lazio to the Tyrrhenian coast and the wonderful site of Vulci, an Etruscan and then later Roman city. In 2019 the BSR had conducted a preliminary survey at the site, testing GPR and magnetometry, on the behalf of the University of Gothenburg. The exciting results, shortly to be published in the Bollettino di Archeologia Online, encouraged the team to further extend the GPR survey to map larger parts of the city.

BSR Geophysical Researcher Elena Pomar conducting GPR survey at Vulci (Photo: Stephen Kay)
A paved section of the roads inside the city of Vulci (Photo: Stephen Kay)

Raffaello: a review

Piers Baker-Bates (Rome Scholar 2002-03) reviews Raffaello (Scuderie del Quirinale, 5 March – 30 August) after seeing the exhibition with Peter Fane-Saunders (Rome Fellow 2010-11) and Philippa Jackson (Balsdon Fellow 2017-18).

Entrance to the exhibition. Photo by Harriet O’Neill.

This year of Raphael celebrations has been rather overshadowed by the ongoing pandemic, perhaps however bringing vividly to life the spectre of early mortality that claimed Raphael at the early age of thirty-seven, 500 years ago this past April.  When everything locked down in March the Scuderie del Quirinale had just opened its major exhibition marking the event.  Thankfully as things gradually re-opened the Scuderie were able to extend the run until the end of August, allowing many of us an opportunity that we thought we had missed forever. 

In a sign of the exhibition’s popularity, for the last three days the Scuderie remained open 24/7 and even then, every slot was booked. Thankfully the three of us, ex BSR alumni all, albeit of different vintage, had made our bookings long beforehand and the visit was more than worth both the wait and the attendant hassle. For serious scholars the actual experience of the exhibition was a necessary trial. Marshalled into groups of ten and firmly allotted exactly five minutes in each of the fourteen spaces, there was regrettably no dawdling, and even with two visits in one day one hardly saw everything one wanted. Vice-versa, this did allow close looking at drawings such as is not normally possible in blockbuster exhibitions. Nonetheless, the impression that the visitor was left with was of a visually stunning and intellectually coherent exhibition that, unusually, showed the whole of Raphael’s varied genius to best advantage.

Many recent Raphael shows since the millennium have concentrated on his activities as a painter to the exclusion of all else, but the Scuderie show revealed his protean genius to its fullest extent across multiple media, the organisers having obtained an extraordinary and comprehensive range of loans worldwide.  The major talking point of the exhibition beforehand, however, had been that everything was displayed in reverse so that the narrative began with Raphael’s death and ended with his early years in Urbino. As became clear, this reflected the strengths of the loans. The very first piece in the exhibition proper, an exact replica of Raphael’s tomb, was the work of Factum Arte in Madrid and again reflected what their extraordinary recreations can add to a visitor’s experience, although the exhibition actually began with another unusual inclusion: a couple of nineteenth-century paintings of Raphael’s death, that threw new light on his fortuna critica.  The second space focused on the Letter to Leo X of around 1519, another remarkable loan as it was only acquired by the Italian state in 2016, as the centrepiece of a display based around Raphael’s grand urban projects. 

The Letter to Leo X. Photo by Harriet O’Neill.

This section truly revealed both his increasingly vaunting professional ambition and the range of his talents; Raphael’s remarkably ‘modern’ attitude to the preservation of ancient monuments seemed particularly relevant to the work of the BSR. The third space was a good example of how the exhibition was able to make unexpected connections in terms of Raphael’s creative processes. The organisers had been unable to borrow the actual statue of Jonah from the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo but there was a striking image of the statue to accompany the associated drawings by Raphael and his workshop, and also related classical sculpture. 

Jonah. Photo by Harriet O’Neill.

This was but one part of a much broader display that brought Raphael’s constant engagement with the antiquity that lay all around him in Rome vividly to life.  The next section displayed the late paintings but, to my mind at least, rather showed how thin his genius had become stretched by his death, with paintings such as the Visitation from the Prado.  It did, however again, illustrate, the sheer quality of the loans, containing as it did the Vatican cartoon for Giulio Romano’s, Stoning of Saint Stephen, displayed to best advantage.  After this, the viewer was able to see one of the Sistine tapestries, another unusual loan from the Vatican, for which Factum Arte had been able to re-create the relevant cartoon that could not travel from the V & A.  

Tapestries. Photo by Harriet O’Neill.

On the second floor of the exhibition, Raphael was showcased as an architect; the ability of the exhibition to use new media to best advantage was again demonstrated in a detailed film of the Villa Madama, a site normally inaccessible, which here was accompanied by original drawings for the project.  After that, the exhibition rather tailed off.  There were also some curious attributions, but that may just have been a result of viewer overload following the unavoidably militaristic route march through the earlier rooms. Certainly, the years before Raphael’s arrival in Rome in 1508 were much less well represented in terms of material; though it was a clever touch to end with the self-portrait from the Louvre.  One particular pity, however, after such an excellent exhibition was that the catalogue did not match the high expectations that had been raised; of considerable size, it nonetheless has little new to say.  Even so, this author took away with him a new and renewed appreciation of Raphael—a remarkable achievement on the part of the organisers for an artist whom we all think that we know so well—and a fine foretaste of the Raphael exhibition that is now scheduled for the National Gallery, London, in 2022.

Piers Baker-Bates (Rome Scholar 2002-03).

Letters Post Covid-19: Sinta Tantra

Our Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator, Marta Pellerini, asked a series of artists to imagine and explore new ways of sharing and thinking about art in the aftermath of Covid-19. The following text is by artist Sinta Tantra (2016–17 Bridget Riley Fellow).

QuoteTantra

Just as the lockdown began, I was about to open a new solo exhibition, Modern Times, curated by Guillaume Vandame at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery in London. It felt chaotic in the week leading up to the opening in mid-March. However, I believed we had to push on, make the most of things and install the show as originally planned. What made it challenging was the significant amount of site-specific works we had to install — a pink vinyl on the glass roof; a live birdsong projected from a speaker on top of a tree; archival film footage; a painted mural on the staircase; a sculpture garden on the terrace.

As other London galleries were cancelling their private views that week, Kristin, my gallerist, decided that we would have an online opening using Instagram Live. We held an informal dinner with the team, and that evening, I cooked a Balinese dinner for all. The next day the reality of lockdown was finally sinking in, and without an end in sight, I felt the urgent need to document the show with more than just photography. I thought of an online video in the format of a virtual walk-through tour which would give viewers from home a more intimate experience. Once uploaded, the video gradually gained momentum online and was featured in several digital publications including Wallpaper and Elle Decoration. Sadly the exhibition never opened to the public, but it did curiously seemed to have self-generated a virtual life of its own.

Although friends have suggested that I should present virtual tours for future exhibitions, I think we can all agree that there is nothing quite like being face to face with an artwork — for me, it’s all about materiality. In particular, there is a shade of blue that I use in my paintings that just cannot be picked up by the camera. When the focus of the art is colour, perception, and its relationship to space and architecture, it’s essential to see the artwork with your own eyes rather than through a screen.

I am lucky that my studio is at home in my flat in North London. Since lockdown, I’ve been able to work consistently with my core team, producing paintings and developing new ideas for public artworks. I’ve started daily routines such as yoga and running, staying in touch with friends and family, and have even begun a little herb garden on my balcony which has inspired me to try new recipes and become friendlier with neighbours.

sinta tantra

Photograph: courtesy by the artist

Like other artists, many of my upcoming projects have been either postponed or cancelled. In some cases, the impact of COVID has forced me to change the work entirely. One example is with my public art commission in Treviso, Italy, where I was to create an interactive installation in the courtyard of the Gallerie delle Prigioni. Unfortunately today, audience participation is now seen as a contagion rather than an act of communion or togetherness. As an alternative, I designed a Love Seat, so that two participants can sit precisely at one metre apart — the exact measurement of social distancing in Italy. Has COVID somehow transformed this work into something more or less exciting? As artists, do we purposefully include the realities of COVID within our practice or seek to avoid them?

This global pandemic is a reminder to us all of the incredible value art brings into our lives, especially in these trying times. And as the world shifts with the additional impact of Black Lives Matter, I foresee the dramatic and unsettling transformations that lie ahead of us. Undoubtedly the world will never be the same, but we as artists and individuals have the power to be part of a positive change should we wish. I am scared, but at the same time hopeful — in fact, more hopeful than I have ever been.

Sinta Tantra (2016 –17 Bridget Riley Fellow).

The text is part of the project Letters post Covid-19 by BSR Visual Art Residency Residency and Programme Curator Marta Pellerini. Read Marta’s introduction to the project here.

Letters Post Covid-19: Alessandra Ferrini

Our Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator, Marta Pellerini, asked a series of artists to imagine and explore new ways of sharing and thinking about art in the aftermath of Covid-19. The following text is by artist and educator Alessandra Ferrini (2018 UAL Mead Rome Residency).

QuoteFerrini

Reflections around the effects of the ‘Covid-19 emergency’ have a tendency of making generalisations, conceiving the lockdown and isolation measures as a monolithic experience. Yet, differences abound at both macro and micro levels. In the UK and US, for instance, it has been proven how Covid-19 has affected some demographics, specifically Black and South Asian, in a disproportionate way. In addition, the emergency measures have been impacting particularly those who are chronically ill, have a disability or struggle with mental health issues — as well as people whose immigration or housing status confines them at the margins, with no rights nor hope for support. Any reflection on ‘post Covid-19’, I believe, must take into account such varying experiences. To rethink the art world in light of the pandemic, thus, we should aim for a wider, structural transformation that actively fights systemic oppressions.

When emergency measures began, I remember hoping that mobility restrictions might lead to a sustained turn towards research, radical care and ‘deep listening’ in the arts, away from the focus on hyper production and visibility. Such aspects can be particularly detrimental for research-based practices that are not usually concerned with the art market and require long-term commitment with the object of study. As I was enjoying the slowing down of the art world (despite the risk of impending bankruptcy) museums and galleries were experiencing a crisis of identity fuelled by the fear of becoming irrelevant in a world dominated by virtual interaction. As it has happened, many have resorted to pre-crisis thinking through the hyper production and circulation of online content — often demanding artists to contribute without financial retribution. On the other hand, open calls and funding opportunities for hastily produced artworks in response to the Covid-19 emergency have mushroomed, asking artists to provide answers on such a heterogeneous and confusing new reality, without the appropriate space or tools to metabolize it. Then again, production has trumped research and the possibility of offering more thorough or mindful reflections.

All the while, the Black Lives Matter movement and the ecological crisis are demanding us to bring about a deep systemic change. As the art world slowly resumes to ‘business as usual’, can we develop a practice of radical care that won’t be cannibalised by turbocapitalist notions of progress and adaptation? Can we embrace research and deep listening to reshape the art system so that its political potential can be truly fulfilled? And in this equation what should the role of museums and galleries be? To radically rethink the system and valuing the ‘lessons’ of the Covid-19 emergency as well as the interconnected causes of the BLM and environmental rights movements, we need to renegotiate power dynamics and essentially commit to long-term investment in change rather than quick fixes.

Alessandra Ferrini is an artist, educator and PhD candidate at the University of the Arts London. Her work is lens-based and focuses on Italian foreign and racial politics, questioning the legacies of colonialism and Fascism.

The text is part of the project Letters post Covid-19 by BSR Visual Art Residency Residency and Programme Curator Marta Pellerini. Read Marta’s introduction to the project here