Ancient and modern in the eternal city

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.[1] 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.

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Foro Italico

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’.

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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.

Jewish Quarter

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.[2] 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.

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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.[3] 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).[4] 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.

[1] 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’.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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)

Simon Callery: Green Wallspine (Villa Carpegna)

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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.

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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.

Simon Callery (Abbey Fellow in Painting 2018-19)

The Jonah Jones Centennial Exhibition runs until 17 March 2019. 

Hail the new Etruscan

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. 

roman sKandals
Spray paint coloured pencil and collage on paper
75 x 110cm

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……..

June Mostra 2018
installation shot

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’.

toto and le tre sorelle Fontana
Spray paint coloured pencil and collage on paper
75 x 110cm

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.

a spritz of grrrls #7
Coloured pencil on paper
29.7x21cm

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.

The children #2
Coloured pencil on paper
29.7x21cm

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. 

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film still

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.

Stromboli’s bucket
film still: poster

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.

u.e u.
Film still

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.

angelo del fango
spray paint, coloured pencil and collage on paper
75x110cm

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].


I.pad index : Matt’s gallery

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.


 Matt’s gallery installation

 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).

dirty sisters
Spray paint, coloured pencil and collage on paper
75x110cm

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.

All about Concrete: from the Pantheon to the Present

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

Oplontis Room 66

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.