As Covid restrictions were modified, the BSR was able to begin to use its Lecture Theatre again. On 15 June, a small audience gathered for An Italian at the Court of Queen Victoria performed by soprano Barbara Gentili, pianist Maurizio Carnelli and narrator Ivan Hewett.
At its core were a selection of the charmingly sentimental and nostalgic songs of Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846–1916), who enjoyed enormous fame as a song composer in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in London where he settled in the late 1870s. The songs were woven into the story of Tosti’s life, told in words and images, beginning with his first successes as a singer, composer and singing teacher in Rome, where his talent was praised by no less a figure than Giuseppe Verdi. Tosti moved to London to escape the scandal caused by his relationship with Queen Margherita of Savoy and spent a good part of the following 38 years in England serving as the singing master to the Royal Family and organising musical entertainments for Queen Victoria.
To set Tosti’s more gentle style in relief, Barbara and Maurizio also performed songs by Tosti’s famous contemporaries Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo, who valued Tosti’s contacts in London (‘a Londra, Tosti è tutto’ said Pietro Mascagni).
In the musical soirées he arranged for the Queen, Tosti assembled performers of international renown and brought to Windsor Castle the latest Italian operas, such as Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana or Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. His genius for melodic freshness was matched by his astonishing talent at networking. Tosti operated as a ‘Mr Fixit’ for performers and composers coming to London, including Caruso, Calvé, Grieg, Mascagni, Puccini and many others. Despite his devotion to London, his knighthood, and his British citizenship, Tosti remained close to his poet and artist compatriots, as the long-lasting friendships with poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and painter Francesco Paolo Michetti demonstrate.
The same programme was given at the St Marylebone Festival in London on 21 July 2021.
Today marks the first day of Refugee Week (14-20 June 2021), a week to celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Yasmin Fedda, for her thoughts on this year’s theme, We Cannot Walk Alone, her reflections on her time in Rome and an update on her current projects.
Yasmin is an award-winning filmmaker and artist based in London, and was The Creative Scotland document24 Fellow in 2012–13.
Refugee Week 2021 (14-20 June) looks to explore the theme: We Cannot Walk Alone. What does this statement mean to you, in light of recent events and as you reflect on your films that explore the refugee experience?
Refugee Week this year invites you ‘to extend your hand to someone new. Someone who is outside your current circle, has had an experience you haven’t, or is fighting for a cause you aren’t yet involved in.’ After over a year of having to isolate from others, not being able to socialize much, where serendipity was having a pause, and crucially a year where inequality and suffering were brought to the fore, this call is a beautiful gesture to re/connect with people. Let’s bring it on, and build on our networks and communities! I recently went on a Palestine demo in London walking with thousands of people, some friends, most strangers, and there was a strong emotion of solidarity.
One reason I have been drawn to representing and working with refugee experiences is that displacement is a topic I am very familiar with, firstly through family history – my family is Palestinian and also has Syrian connections, and secondly through the experiences of friends from many parts. Experiences of displacement, whether you are classified as, or move between, different legal labels such as ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’, or other, are unfortunately not unique. Many individuals and communities all over the world have experienced being displaced. Yet while these experiences are collective, they are also personal. And for me, making films is one way in which I can extend my hand to someone, to carve out the time to listen and share. Films give me the opportunity to be in someone’s world for a while, to learn about their experiences and to find a way to share it with others. Films can capture us as an audience, transport us to different worlds, and allow us to live momentarily with someone we don’t know.
My films that have touched explicitly on refugee or displaced experiences, including Queens of Syria (2014), about a group of Syrian women displaced to Jordan re-enacting the ancient Greek play The Trojan Women, and A Tale of Two Syrias (2012), which in part focuses on the life of Salem, an Iraqi fashion designer and refugee in Syria as he struggles to survive and eventually gains resettlement to a third country, both gave me the chance to engage in a deeply personal way.
A key focus of your work has been to shed light on the stories of those affected by the war in Syria. As we mark the tenth year of the war, what perspectives can you share and how can we raise awareness for the ongoing plight of the Syrian people?
Firstly I think it is important to mark and remember that what has happened in Syria is not only a war or conflict but also a social and political struggle against an authoritarian and brutal regime that continues till today. This struggle requires our continued international support and solidarity to work towards transitional justice and accountability.
I admittedly didn’t set out with the aim to shed light on these stories on purpose. Rather, it was an organic reaction to a context I am emotionally very close to. I had to make these films. I had to follow these stories, because of my personal entanglements with Syria. I didn’t always know the people I filmed before hand, but the drive was always personal. Even if it sometimes feels futile, making films is a sort of empowering process in the face of huge brutality, a small attempt to say ‘this happened’, ‘these people’s experiences matter’, to say that we will create the archives of the future where these stories will be heard and remembered, to fight the narrative of a regime that attempts to silence them.
My personal and filmmaking relationship to Syria goes back further than 2011 and having known it for a long time I believe it is important to understand the context in Syria through it’s recent history and not only in relation to the last 10 years. The conflict did not happen in a void and it is important to recognise the historical context in which it began, alongside gaining awareness of the contemporary situation.
There are many ways to share perspectives and raise awareness particularly though engaging with the work of artists and writers from Syria, from readings books by Samar Yezbick, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, Madouh Azzam, or Dima Wannous, or the poetry of Golan Haji, to listening to music from Tanjaret Daghet, looking at the art of Tamman Azzam or Sulafa Hijazi, to supporting organisations such as The Syria Campaign, Families for Freedom, or Bassma & Zeitouneh.
As a filmmaker I have also tracked the amazing output of films from or about Syria since 2011. Before then there was a much smaller film output from the country, due to restrictive laws around the production of films, both fiction and documentary. Some of these films were very good, such as Flood in Ba’ath Country (Omar Amiralry, 2005), Sunduq al Dunya (Ossama Mohammed, 2002), or I am the one that brings flowers to her grave (2006, Hala Abdalla), but there were not many of them. The large output of films produced since 2011 have together painted segments of a complex picture of experiences, such as Dawwar Al Shams (Anonymous), For Sama (Waed Al Kateab Edward Watts), Last Men of Aleppo (Firas Fayyad & others), The Day I Lost my Shadow (Soudade Kaddan), La Dolce Siria (Ammar al Beik), and so many more.
Your recent film Ayouni was met with great acclaim: what are your reflections on the project now that the film has been shared internationally?
Ayouni follows Noura and Machi they as search for answers about their loved ones – Bassel Safadi and Paolo Dall’Oglio, who are among the over 100,000 forcibly disappeared in Syria. Faced with the limbo of an overwhelming absence of information, hope is the only thing they have to hold on to. ‘Ayouni’ is a deeply resonant Arabic term of endearment – meaning ‘my eyes’ and understood as ‘my love’. Filmed over 6 years and across multiple countries in search of answers, Ayouni is an attempt to give numbers faces, to give silence a voice, and to make the invisible undeniably visible.
Ayouni was released in 2020 during the pandemic, so it is still early days. We took part in screenings and advocacy events, with The Syria Campaign, and others, to highlight detention and forcible disappearance in Syria as these are key issues. Yet Ayouni is also about love, between a couple and between siblings. Forced disappearance is the opposite of love. It’s a tactic that aims to break families apart, to silence the disappeared and those close to them, to erase narratives that don’t fit with the dominant power structure. As a filmmaker, and with the release of the film, I found out that film does have a role. Film can fight the oblivion that forced disappearance aims for by keeping people visible and in our sights.
Has this film provoked responses and conversations with individuals or groups for whom it has a personal resonance?
Film is made up of emotions, and at our one in person festival screening in 2020 in Florence, Machi, Paolo’s sister, told me something I hadn’t expected her to say. She said, ‘Our hearts need to keep feeling the pain and anger. And people new to these stories need to feel the pain of others,’ she said, because “as time moves on, this pain subsides and there is a danger when that happens that we begin to forget.” There is a danger that these stories might go into an oblivion. The emotional re/connection was key, even for her, as someone who had directly lived it, to keep the pain alive and present as a fuel for the struggle for answers. Film can bring Paolo and Bassel back to us momentarily, we can hear them, be with them for a while, feel their energy and passions, see their lives and the consequences of their decisions, but through the film we also feel their trace and absence.
Noura shared with me very intimate and special moments of her life, whether it was through the archive she had of herself and Bassel, a young couple in love, to allowing me to be with her through a difficult moment in her life as she faced the reality of Bassel’s disappearance and as she campaigns on the issues of detention and forced disappearance in Syria. For her the film also feels like a personal memory document, weaving together material of her and Bassel together.
I have shared the film at talks and screenings and some of the conversations have been really touching, whether someone shared their memories of visiting Mar Musa and meeting Paolo, to Bassel’s friends around the world, to sharing the film with Syrians whose loved ones have been disappeared and who are fighting for answers.
How important are personal connections or stories for our understanding of major global events?
Major global events are made up of individual experiences, individuals come together for collective actions, so these things are an intrinsic part of each other. We need to hear the personal stories to understand major global events, and at the same time we need to understand the context about major global events to understand their effects on the personal.
Could you speak about your time in Italy as part of your research process for this film?
I was not yet working on Ayouni while I was at the BSR but the seeds for the film were sown while I was there. Paolo Dall’Oglio is originally from Rome, his family live there and some of his community and networks are there so I connected with that. It was while I was at the BSR that I decided to reach out to Paolo to make a new film together, though at that point the idea was to make a film about a priest in the Syrian revolution, not about forcible disappearance.
While I was at the BSR I was particularly interested in squats which were being turned into community centres, arts centres, theatres, gyms and more. I made a short on a squatted boxing gym titled Siamo Tornati (2013). There was a lack of services that many people needed access to or wanted to protest from being closed down, from affordable sports centres, to childcare, to so much more. The DIY ethos was inspiring and it was great to see how people were finding community based solutions.
Do you think there is value in working in an inter-disciplinary context (like the BSR) for the creative process?
I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to work in only one discipline or with only one approach. As I research and develop a project I explore and am inspired by multiple disciplines or approaches. Becoming too focussed in one area may limit our understandings or lines of enquiry. Working across disciplines makes so much sense. I recently heard a talk by Dr Omar Dewachi (see below) who was once a physician, now a medical anthropologist, and is also a musician, whose interests cross between history, biology, medicine, arts, and the social and political, who inspiringly said he is ‘anti- discipline’. Rather than work in silos we should cross-pollinate, share and learn from other perspectives. Not to take away from the importance of expertise in an area, but with that we must always talk to each other to get unexpected insight or questions for our work. The BSR is a great place for these crossovers!
Do you have plans in progress for your next project, or do ideas form organically based on your interactions with others?
I am in the very early days of two new projects and looking for support to get these off the ground, so any readers with suggestions, please let me know! Both are film/ art based projects – one exploring the legacy of British empire in Palestine through the story of my great-grandfather and the British pensions system; the other is exploring the work of medical anthropologist Omar Dewachi and a dangerous pathogen of war that thrives in the particular environments of conflict areas – which are the consequences of sanctions, invasions, artillery and more, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Gaza, and which has far reaching consequences to ask the question – can we end all wars to save our health?
Thank you to Yasmin Fedda for taking part in this feature. Interview by Zoe Firth and Bryony Smith.
A collection of Yasmin’s films titled Yasmin Fedda: An Ethnographic Eye has several of her films on it: Ayouni, Queens of Syria, Breadmakers, A Tale of Two Syrias, and some other shorts are available to view here for UK audiences: https://www.truestory.film/yasmin-fedda
2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri and a myriad of projects, talks and exhibitions are being presented to celebrate the poet’s life and work across the globe. In this month’s Alumni Profile, we spoke to Dante expert Helena Phillips-Robins, to gain her recommendations for some of the best ways to learn about, and engage with, Dante this year.
Helena Phillips-Robins was the inaugural CRASSH–BSR Isaac Newton Fund Fellow in 2017–18 and is Teaching Associate in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture and Research Fellow at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.
BSR: 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. What does Dante have to say to us today?
HP-R: So much! About hope, human society, desire, how we engage – or fail to engage – with those who are different to us, the possibility of change…
In 1586-88, while away from Italy and working for Philip II at the Escorial, Federico Zuccari – one of the leading Mannerist painters – produced his Dante historiato, a cycle of 88 drawings to illustrate the Commedia. The drawings move from the horror and confusion of the ‘dark wood’ of Inferno to the final vision of God in Paradiso, which, in Zuccari’s rendition, is like looking up into a vast, light-filled cupola (Zuccari, in fact, painted the frescoes in the cupola in the Duomo in Florence). The drawings are fragile and have been exhibited only twice before.
Liam Ó Broin’s suite of lithographs explores Dante’s treatment of love, human community, and the search for a just society. Dante presents the Commedia as a text that seeks to transform its readers, and Ó Broin’s lithographs cast Dante’s journey as one deeply relevant to the viewer-reader, a journey that, in Ó Broin’s words, ‘can be created by ourselves and for others in the here and now’. The exhibition is curated by the Centre for Dante Studies in Ireland.
Academics and students of Dante, from all career stages, discuss how Dante speaks to us in our time, now. One aspect I’ve particularly enjoyed is that this is a collaborative – intergenerational, international – undertaking, and so it has put in dialogue many very different perspectives on Dante. Each episode in the series (run by the Dante Society of America) focuses on one of the 100 cantos of the Commedia.
Researchers discuss ongoing work on Dante, the cultural frameworks in which he lived, and his place in cultures across the world today. The series aspires to conversations about more diverse, and therefore richer, research on Dante; see, for example, the episodes on translating Dante, and Dante and Caribbean poetry.
In this public lecture series, a group of researchers set out to explore what would happen if we read the Commedia not only in narrative sequence, from beginning to end (reading ‘horizontally’, as it were), but also ‘vertically’. What new perspectives might emerge if we read same-numbered cantos together (Inferno 1, Purgatorio 1 and Paradiso 1; Inferno 2, Purgatorio 2 and Paradiso 2, etc)? This was the first time this way of reading was systematically applied to the whole Commedia. Versions of the lectures have now been published in three open access volumes.
And finally: how did your time in Rome impact your work on Dante?
While in Rome I finished the manuscript for my book, Liturgical Song and Practice in Dante’s Commedia, which came out this year. The fellowship also gave me the chance to work on manuscripts in the Vatican Library and the Biblioteca Angelica, for a new project on medieval weeping. Conversations with other BSR award-holders and many wanderings around Rome opened up new lines of thought; I started working, for example, on relationships between texts and images. But what I valued most, and what underpinned all the rest, was the kindness and generosity – personal and professional – of the other award-holders and Research Fellows.
Welcome to the first post in our new series: Alumni Profiles. Throughout the year we will be putting the spotlight on alumni working in a wide range of fields, to find out what they’re up to, learn about their current projects, and hear how their time in Rome has impacted on their career.
For the first instalment of the series, we caught up with Oona Grimes, an artist based in London. Oona was The Bridget Riley Fellow 2017–18 and also sits on our Faculty of the Fine Arts.
How have you been spending your time during lockdown?
In the early days of lockdown, a fragmented time of staying home – I drew incessantly, chomping through HB pencils, filling school exercise books with story boards which morphed into my first low tech animations.
Lockdown forced us all to take a step back and re-assess our lives, our daily practices, our routines. The enforced restrictions allowed me to focus inward, and the importance of ‘screen-free making’ was a preservation of sanity.
I worked on a series of story boards; murd feature Gelsomina, the central character from Fellini’s La Strada, and interpret her sense of empowerment through performance, her escape from a life of bullying and abuse. They are rapid-fire action notations, a series of flashing snippets from hand-drawn sketches, that re-imagine and mis-remember the films of my childhood.
Many generous invitations to show and share work online spun in. A lockdown project by Art Chaplaincy Spiritual Exercises 1 led to an indoor film, shot on i.phone and edited on a single house-bound day.
‘The mighty dead…woowoo’ conveys a darkly fluttering sensation or anxiety. A moth or shade ascends towards the light, blindly negotiating objects and defying gravity without release.
Who/what has been the greatest inspiration on your work?
Flattist fuzzy felt drawing from the Etruscans to Ant and Bee; from Simone Martini and Lorenzetti to Otto Messner and Max Fleischer; Buster Keaton to Pasolini…
What are your favourite memories of your time in Rome?
I loved every second of my fellowship.
The much-appreciated time to focus solely on work; the eye-opening light and daily walks through such an extraordinary city; the unique experience of casual conversations with other fellows leading down rich rabbit holes of research.
The generous support of all the staff, unforgettable discoveries in the 24-hour library. Exploring their recent acquisitions of books of early etchings and engravings, their vast post card and photography collections…
My discovery of Toto and introduction to commedia dell’arte…
It was a time of much nurture and nourishment, a filling up of all the senses paralleled with a sharpening of output.
How did your time at the BSR impact on your subsequent career?
The Fellowship gave me confidence and a lifetime’s fodder which I am still digesting. In Rome I began to re-interpret film performatively; I was drawn into the moving image, shifting from the flat to the physical.
On my return to London in 2019, I was offered 4 solo shows exploring my Hail the new Etruscan series. Hail the new Etruscan #1 at Danielle Arnaud featured drawings and double page spreads informed by Italian cinema. It was followed by Hail the new Etruscan #2 at Matt’s Gallery: screenings of 4 iPad films made in Rome and the UK. Hail the new Etruscan #3 included a site-specific film, drawings, ceramics and a bird recipe book responding to Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini; which was exhibited at The Bower.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on ‘Horsepolish’ a film bringing de Sica’s ‘Sciuscia’  to the Ragged School Museum in East London. A conversation between the shoe shine street kids of Rome and impoverished Victorian children who were trained as shoe-shiners, newsboys and domestic workers.
Thank you to Oona Grimes for taking part in this feature.
Oona Grimes is represented by Danielle Arnaud. More information about Oona’s work, exhibitions and current projects can be explored on her website. Oona can also be found on Instagram at @grimesoona.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Soon after returning from Rome, I logged into Facebook to find a question posed by a friend. She appealed to classicists, asking whether, when they visit Rome or Athens, they navigate using modern landmarks or ancient monuments/topography. Like others who commented on the post, this is a binary choice I find difficult to make, because in Rome the ancient and the modern are so frequently enmeshed.
The relationship between the ancient and the modern is something that all visitors to Rome confront. The many layers of the city’s past are particularly visible at certain sites in the city. At San Clemente, a twelfth-century basilica (still in use today) is built over the remains of a fourth-century church, a second-century Mithraeum (sanctuary of the god Mithras), and houses destroyed in the Neronian fire of AD 64. Piazza Augusto Imperatore today plays host to Augustus’ mausoleum, the Augustan-era Altar of Peace (moved to the square in 1938 and now housed in a glass structure built in 2006), Fascist-era buildings, and a daily-changing outdoor art installation.
The presence of the ancient alongside the modern, and an engagement with the relationship between past and present, is not a contemporary phenomenon; it has been a feature of the city since antiquity. The ancient cityscape was littered with monuments from earlier periods, and writers reflected on the changes or continuities. Vitruvius describes the ancient (albeit heavily restored) hut of Romulus on the Palatine that ‘can recall to our minds and make clear the customs of antiquity’ (On Architecture II.1.5). Juvenal’s Umbricius laments the transformation of the Porta Capena (Satire 3). Perhaps most famously, the Pantheon, though rebuilt by Hadrian in the second century, carries a version of the original building inscription commemorating Agrippa’s erection of the monument a century and a half earlier.
Having time to appreciate the different phases of Rome’s history through long weekends of wandering or conversations over dinner, rather than having to dash from archive to archive on a compressed research trip, is one of the luxuries of a long-term residency at the BSR. The opportunity to consider the modern city against the ancient is especially exciting for me, since the themes of my research (multilingualism, identity, citizenship, migration) frequently invite reflection across the ancient and modern worlds. I have been thinking explicitly about how modern cities can be used to inform our understanding of ancient Rome, and vice versa. In the remainder of this blog, I therefore want to look at three sites of ‘modern’ Rome that each give a snapshot of ways that past and present (or more accurately different pasts and different presents) relate to one another.
The first site is the Fascist-era sports complex known as the Foro Italico, north of the Milvian Bridge. The complex’s decorative scheme is an expression of Romanità, a movement in post-Risorgimento and Fascist Italy that sought to revive the ideal of ancient ‘Romanness’. The site makes use of ancient Roman visual language. Larger-than-life heroic statues offered by the different provinces of Italy tower over the marble stadium. The main processional way is covered with black and white mosaics in which, disconcertingly, passably classical images of wrestlers and toga-wearing statesmen are interrupted by bobble-hatted skiers, loaded tanks and acclamations to ‘Duce’.
Though the focus of my work is on textual rather than visual sources, seeing such active (mis)appropriation of ancient Romanness was especially interesting to me, given my research into changing conceptions of Romanness across time, and the gap between ancient and modern understandings or assignments of ‘Roman’ as a category. The term Romanità is itself an anachronism: though meant to mirror the Latin Romanitas, this term was not used before the third century AD, in the writings of the Christian author Tertullian.
The lack of in-situ commentary or explanation of the site’s use of ancient visual languages to promote one of the darker chapters of Rome’s history is surprising, all the more so given the site’s continued prominence in the city’s present. The complex is the home ground of AS Roma and Lazio, and hosts the Italian Open tennis and Six Nations rugby matches; it is therefore a site that welcomes visitors from across the world. It is a place where the encounter between ancient and modern shouldn’t go unremarked.
A different perspective on the relationship between ancient and modern is offered in the Jewish quarter, just south of Piazza Venezia and Largo Argentina. The Jews formed a particularly interesting group in the ancient city, being more visible in the inscriptional and archaeological record than other ethnic groups. They marked themselves out by the use of distinctive iconography and by their patterns of language use. In contrast to the inscriptions of the city as a whole, where Latin dominates, the majority of surviving Jewish inscriptions are in Greek, with some also in Hebrew. Language continued to be an important facet of Jewish identity into later periods. An inscribed bilingual Italian-Hebrew box for donations to orphans is still visible on the Via del Portico d’Ottavia. Modern restaurant signs and blackboards also frequently display Hebrew. As I discovered in the poignant Jewish museum, a unique Judaeo-Roman dialect of Italian survives in the streets around the synagogue today.
In other ways, however, the history of the Jews at Rome is not one of continuity. The papacy forced Jews to live in the ghetto between 1555 and 1870 (except for one short period under the Roman Republic of 1798–9). No such enforced ghettoization existed in the ancient city. Though there is literary evidence of the emperor Claudius expelling Jews from Rome (Suet. Claud. 25.4), authorities generally took a relaxed attitude towards migrant groups in the city and did not force Jews or other groups into particular areas. These differences highlight the changing role and attitudes of the state, and its consequences for the place of different ethnic groups in the city.
The ‘English’ cemetery
The place of foreign and migrant groups in the city is also a theme of the final site I want to highlight, the Cimitero Acattolico. (In English, the site is often known as the ‘Protestant cemetery’ or the ‘English cemetery’, and is most famous as the resting place of Keats and Shelley). Despite these anglophone labels, non-Catholics from all over the world, of many different faiths, are buried here.
This site marks a break with the ancient city: in antiquity, there were no burial sites specifically reserved for foreigners. Indeed, foreigners are often surprisingly difficult to trace in the ancient evidence. The presence (or, more often, absence) of different languages is one illustration of this. In the Cimitero Acattolico, there are many different languages on display (English, German, Russian, Farsi, Arabic, Ancient Greek, Latin; sometimes, but not always, accompanied by Italian). In Rome’s ancient inscriptions, comparable multilingualism is relatively rare, though it is worth noting that even in the modern cityscape the multilingualism of the cemetery is itself exceptional.
But foreigners of diverse origins were present in ancient Rome. Writing in the first century AD, Seneca described how ‘more than half’ of Rome’s population came from elsewhere (modern estimates suggest that around 20% of the ancient city were immigrants). Though never concentrated as they are in the modern cemetery, and rarely as explicitly marked out, glimpses of this immigrant population do appear, for example in the Palmyrene texts assembled in the first room of the Capitoline’s Galleria Lapidaria.
The modern cemetery draws attention to the place of foreigners at Rome across time, and the ways they are made both visible and invisible to us. Like the other snapshots I have offered here, it shows how considering the ancient and modern together can enrich our understanding of the eternal city, its changing identities and populations. To answer my friend’s question with a paraphrase: when in Rome, do as the Romans, both ancient and modern.
 On the presence of the past in ancient Rome, see Edwards, C. (1996), Writing Rome: Textual approaches to the city, especially Chapter 1, ‘The city of memories’.
 On Jews as an exception to other foreign groups, see Tacoma, L. E. (2013), ‘Migrant Quarters at Rome?’, p.127–145 in de Kleijn and Benoist (eds.) Integration in Rome and the Roman world. On Jews in ancient Rome, see also Rutgers (1995), The Jews of late ancient Rome; Leon, H. J. (1995), The Jews of ancient Rome.
 On foreigners at Rome, see especially Noy, D. (2000), Foreigners at Rome: citizens and strangers; Tacoma, L. E. (2016), Moving Romans: migration to Rome in the principate.
 On migration to ancient Rome and Italy, see especially Isayev, E. (2017), Migration, mobility and place in ancient Italy; Tacoma, L. E. (2016), Moving Romans: migration to Rome in the principate.
Dr Olivia Elder (CRASSH–BSR Research Fellow, Jan–June ’19)
Green Wallspine (Villa Carpegna) was made in Rome during my Abbey Fellowship in Painting. October – December 2019.
Our first Abbey Fellow in Painting for 2018-19 Simon Callery is now back in the UK and showing some of his work from his BSR residency at the ongoing Jonah Jones Centennial Exhibition. In this blog Simon tells us about his process for making Green Wallspine (Villa Carpegna) which was first shown at December Mostra.
During my fellowship I had plans to take my canvas out onto the streets of the historic city centre and work directly in contact with the hard surfaces of the walls and streets. After days of looking for potential sites I realized that this was going to be impossible and I wouldn’t be able to work in such a busy and well-protected environment.
I decided to approach it in another way. One morning I took the metro east to Battistini in the suburbs, the last stop on the A line, with the intention of finding somewhere quiet to work whilst walking back to the BSR in Parioli. The folded canvas I was carrying had already been coloured with chromium oxide pigment and rabbit skin glue size.
On the busy Circonvallazione Aurelia, a noisy main road leading back into town, I found an entrance off the thoroughfare into the Villa Carpegna. I was in a walled urban park. In an overlooked corner of the park a redundant set of stone steps led up to a bricked-in aperture in the wall. I was able to put my canvasses on these steps and mark and puncture them. I worked quickly and in response to the broken surfaces I could feel under the fabric.
Now I had some material with scratches and holes – a record of physical contact with the city. Back in the studio, I cut and sewed these canvasses into four distinct parts and incorporated a step into the proportions. I made four small wood brackets to support them, next to one another, at 90° to the wall.
Researching the site of my work I found out that Villa Carpegna had been built on farmland acquired by Cardinal Gaspare Carpegna in 1684 and subsequently developed by architect Giovanni Antonio di Rossi. It was acquisitioned by the Comune di Roma in 1978 and it now houses the Quadriennale di Roma, an organization set up to support and promote contemporary Italian art.
Oona Grimes (Bridget Riley Fellow 2017–18) started 2019 with two solo exhibitions featuring work made during her residency last year. In this blog Oona discusses her Rome experience and the genesis of the work made. Oona also describes her adventures in film-making and what comes next.
I arrived in Rome on 2nd January 2018 with the sound tracks of Nights of Cabiria and Roma Citta Apertà playing in my head.
I was on my way to revisit the films of the Neorealists, films I’d watched as a child and misremembered ever since.
Day 2: returning from a Cavallini eye fest I stumbled into Il Museo di Roma in Trastevere and met Toto…..Italy’s most loved and respected and irreverent comedian.
Toto agreed to become my leading man.
The giant story board began……..
He starred in a number of stencil drawings: drawings on black paper celebrating the flatness of frescoes, blackness of analogue film & badly restored conservation patches:
‘Toto & le tre sorelle Fontana’, ‘Toto meets San Bartolomeo’ & later ‘cinzano & cherry soda’ & ‘the lovely season’.
Just Being on the streets of Rome I was surrounded by the cast, all in mid flow enacting their daily dramas.
I had arrived with specific Missions – visits to Cinecittà and plunderings of the archives at Centro Sperimentale; time to spend with the Etruscans and my love of their graphic flattist tomb paintings, all of which were topped and tiramisu-ed by anamorphic murals in Trinità dei Monti, underground scavi-scavenging in San Giovanni in Laterano – adventures from Mithras to Mussolini, Etruscans to E.U.R. toga tying, fascist fountains all the fascinating tangents that emerge from the kind of casual conversations that can only happen at the BSR.
Rewatching the films from Rossellini to late Fellini on their home pitch I wanted to understand the films more intensely, and my way of knowing is though drawing.
Daily I would make A4 coloured pencil drawings from my mis-memories of films watched as a child; fast drawings ‘Not a Neorealist Storyboard’ and larger slower stencil drawings continually circumnavigating the left brain: ’the fumetti grrrrls’ and ‘ragazze e ragazzi romani’. Filling notebooks in order to make sense of the overwhelming input and to ground myself in the sea of visual treats. The pile of books grew daily; the gestures & observations, colours and pattern, the folds & drapes of melty marble all subtly oozing into the drawings – a thesaurus of stolen characters.
Daily I would walk to Piazza Rotunda & beyond, just to Be in Rome, early before the crowds; to watch the roadsweepers and shopkeepers setting up, to see the light changing over the city.
Gradually those walks and those films wove themselves into my dreams and my drawings.
Surprising shifts began to happen.
Particular scenes began to haunt me, sequences with specific relevance to time and place. I began drawing singular actions and repeating them in order to comprehend them. Repeated actions, drawing them now physically, drawing myself into the film.
‘Umberto d.’ headlined the series, the scene where he is reduced to begging in front of the Pantheon. A deceptively simple action duplicated and filmed over 3 months as the skies changed and the tourists crept in.
i.phone rushes that usually end up on the cutting room floor. Rehearsals. I wasn’t acting I was drawing the moment.
They just happened, they happened by being there, by having time, by having no pressures or deadlines.
I saw them as studies, and just cut them together as if watching behind the scenes preparation.
Looping slapstick-like fragments, stretching the commedia dell’arte element by repetition and abstraction, a Sisyphean rehearsal for a never to be released film. Owning the discourse through mis-remembering, imitation and low tech re- enactment.
The scenes from familiar films chose me, and following ‘Umberto d’, ‘mozzarella in carrozza’ from Bicycle Thieves emerged. Focussing on the excruciatingly painful scene in the restaurant Antonio and his son Bruno can’t afford – a scene of misplaced pride, disillusion and the vivid class divide between them and the diners.
The studio became a mini props, production design & costume department. The planning behind Stromboli’s Bucket was perhaps more interesting than the final mini short : fabricating a glass bottomed bucket, negotiating hardware shops and perspex manufacturers, locating a suitable ‘Sea’ : the Laghetto di Villa Borghese which of course was chiuso on the day due to storms, so a nearby fountain quickly stepped in as understudy for the shoot.
Then ‘u.e.u.’ from Pasolini’s ‘Uccellacci e Uccellini’ filmed in Garbatella. Bird calls haunted me in the studio, their repetitive song & dawn chorus invaded my dreams. ‘u.e u.’ is a sublime dance of mis-communication, mis-translation, absurd jumpy hand gestures referencing both kinesics from paintings and everyday communication. Using 16mm film cut with iPhone clips I chased language – both the learning and losing of it – the omissions, the torn, the discontinuity, the patches, the bad repairs.
Walking, watching, hand gestures, sign language, language of hands, mis-translation, mis-communication, bird language, dance language.
Drapes and folds, pleats and drapes, fabric fashion folds all seeping into the work
Returning to London with a new-found confidence and focus I made 2 new films : ‘Oscar’s dance’ and ‘wheres Marcello?’ The latter shot on Holkham beach Norfolk a cross channel reflection of Sabaudia. ‘Angelo del fango’ now fulfilling her role and Cabiria dancing her dreams in Hackney.
The one-day schedule remained, initially the time my cameraman came to visit in Rome, but appropriated to retain an element of rawness and rehearsal-ness, using costumes and props that were instantly available.
And I won a prize! My first film festival entry at The Swedenborg Film Festival with ‘u.e u.’ and a prize selected and presented by the wonderful and sadly missed Susan Hiller [1940-2019].
All six films were shown at Matt’s Gallery London on mini i.pads. Hand held like reading a paperback book, one to one, sitting on the floor : ‘Hail the new Etruscan #2’ : 19-27 Jan 2019.
And the giant story board is on show at Danielle Arnaud co art London : ‘Hail the new Etruscan #1’ : 12 January – 9 February.
‘ragazze e ragazzi Romani’, large stencil drawings patched and collaged filling the Georgian house with Italian characters.
Next ………. A solo show at The Bower in Camberwell 5 June – 7 July 2019 and an off-site adventure at The Venice Biennale in May (contact Danielle Arnaud for details).
Oona’s exhibition ‘Hail the new Etruscan #1’ is open at Danielle Arnaud until 9 February 2019 (123 Kennington Road London SE11 6SF, T/F: +44 (0)20 7735 8292), the gallery is open Thursday, Friday & Saturday 2-6 p.m. or by appointment. Oona Grimes is represented by Danielle Arnaud.
Last week we held the workshop All about Concrete: from the Pantheon to the Present, the second in the BSR’s series of interdisciplinary research study days in the UK on the historicity of materials and the work of the BSR. This event was generously sponsored by the Concrete Centre and hosted by the University of Liverpool in London.
The day, organised by BSR faculty members Vivien Lovell, MaryAnne Stevens and Marco Iuliano, comprised a series of presentations on the use of concrete over two millennia. Speakers highlighted the extreme versatility, strength and plasticity of the material.
Alan Powers (London School of Architecture) opened the day with a keynote presentation exploring ‘Cult Contrete’, which provoked lively debate.
The first panel session, chaired by MaryAnne Stevens, explored the history of the use of concrete. Presentations encompassed over two thousand years of use from ancient Rome to Carlo Scarpa (1906–1978). Janet DeLaine introduced us to the seven virtues of concrete in ancient Rome, while Joseph Rykwert touched on the Renaissance ‘rediscovery’ of ancient concrete techniques. Richard Murphy closed the session, bringing us forward into the twentieth century, with his discussion of Scarpa’s use of water in his architectural projects – an analogy for concrete.
Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of the Pantheon, Rome c. 1734
After lunch participants were split into three groups and were treated to a study visit to to the Barbican Estate and Centre. These groups were led simultaneously by Catherine Croft (C20 Society), Dave King (Architect and Barbican Resident) and Vicky Richardson (Writer and Curator, of architecture and design). Even those who thought they knew the Estate well, were surprised to learn that there are over 100 different property types on the estate; that all of the concrete was hand chiselled (including the towers!); and that the water features were dyed to reflect depth.
We reconvened after the visits for the second panel session chaired by Vivien Lovell, which covered the contemporary use of concrete. Artist, Florian Roithmayr presented current work and described his process. Participants were able to see first hand concrete sculptures which Florian had on display throughout the day.
Concrete sculptures by Florian Roithmayr
Following this, organiser Marco Iuliano was in conversation with photographer Helene Binet, discussing themes in her architectural photographs of concrete structures. Finally Jo Melvin introduced us to the concept of concrete poetry and how it is produced in contemporary art practice.
The afternoon was concluded by two readings. Organiser Vivien Lovell read a poem entitled ‘Times New Roman’ by Pele Cox (written especially for the event) and Vicky Richardson read a passage from J G Ballard’s ‘Concrete Island’.
Concluding remarks were given by architect Eric Parry who succinctly synthesised the presentations and the interdisciplinary conversations of the day.
Text and photographs by Natasha Burbridge and Alice Marsh, BSR London Office.
BSR alumna Gina Medcalf’s (Abbey Fellow 2014–15) exhibition Oplontis Room 66 is currently open at the Kapil Jariwala Gallery, London. In this blog Gina discusses the dialogue between the historic and the contemporary and how the work is inspired by research carried out during her BSR residency.
Photo Antonio Palmieri
In the Oplontis Room 66 series of paintings I want to connect the historic and the contemporary experiences of painting. Already in my mind as an inspiring narrative before my BSR Abbey Fellowship of 2015, Roman wall paintings had a presence which demanded a deeper understanding. I followed the clues as my research unfolded, like reading a detective story. Similarly, the paintings which followed took their time to unfold, research and put into practice.
GINA MEDCALF ROOM 66/3L, 2018 Acrylic on canvas 131.5 x 113 cm
The Room 66 wall paintings are of exceptional quality. Perhaps by the same team of painters as the ‘fantastic’ architectural designs in the Cryptoporticus of Nero’s Domus Aurea in Rome. ‘The decorative system in the Domus Aurea spread from the capital to the rest of the Empire’, says Alessandra Zampieri in her book, Ornament and the Grotesque. And since it is a probability that Oplontis was built by Nero for his wife Poppea, the use of the same painters in the two locations could be considered. Oplontis is a supreme example of Nero’s ‘new’ taste in decorative art.
However, I was not so interested in the grotesques in Room 66 as in the strong contrasts between the red and black below and the white grounded, full polychromatic upper part. A visitor to the preview of my painting exhibition wrote, ‘I hope one day we will get to Oplontis, but I must say I imagined it as a rather sad and gloomy place and your paintings are so full of life that I must be wrong.’ The paintings at Oplontis are still full of life with their vibrant drawing and colour, two thousand years after they were painted.
In preparation for the Abbey Fellowship at the BSR, I looked at colour in Roman wall paintings from the point of view of use, availability and cost, then I looked for the closest equivalent to those colours in paints today. In Room 66 I found the key to unlock a convincing interpretation of that passage of time between c.50 CE and 2015. The red, black, yellow, turquoise, sienna and brown oxide colours and the integration of that colour and linear drawings were the foundation for my 2018 series of paintings.
GINA MEDCALF ROOM 66/4L, 2018 Acrylic on canvas 132 x 114.3 cm
Oplontis Room 66 is showing at the Kapil Jariwala Gallery, London until 2 November 2018.