The Landscape Garden: Britain’s Greatest Eighteenth-century Export?

Last year I had the pleasure of attending the Hortus Inclusus conference at the British School at Rome. It was two fascinating days and featured a diverse and talented international cast of speakers. The ancient Roman content was for me particularly interesting and it sparked the thought that a meeting on the topic of the eighteenth-century English Landscape garden, so heavily influenced by ancient Rome, would be a worthy follow-up event. On 6 March 2018 that idea came to fruition in the form of a one-day meeting at the BSR titled The Landscape Garden: Britain’s Greatest Eighteenth-century Export?.

I have previously commented on my good fortune in acquiring speakers for past meetings and I was delighted that we managed to secure an outstanding group of individuals to speak at this event, including the excellent Professor Diana Spencer to lead a discussion on the central conceit of the day – was the landscape garden indeed Britain’s greatest eighteenth-century export? More on this issue later.


A week of bad weather in Italy and further afield presented travel challenges for delegates and speakers alike. In the hours before the meeting there was a flurry of ‘I might be a bit late’ text and email messages, but by mid-morning we had a growing audience and speakers ready to deliver. First-up, to set the scene, was the excellent Dr Laura Mayer who had kindly acceded to my request to deliver in slightly less than one-hour a keynote lecture on the English landscape garden from William Kent to Humphrey Repton, via Capability Brown. Laura delivered the perfect scene setter with ”Original & indisputably English’: the landscape gardens of the eighteenth century, no mean feat given the unenviable task she had agreed to.

With the scene so beautifully set I had the easiest task of the day with the presentation of my PhD research on the eighteenth-century landscape garden at Stourhead. This was the first outing for my critical review of authorial intention theories of Stourhead and my shift to focus on visitor reception. I was a little anxious at the reception of my ideas and research findings, so chose an understated title for my presentation: ‘Roman influences on Georgian Stourhead’. A robust question and answer session followed the presentation, which was very useful preparation for my forthcoming PhD viva.

Our final speaker before lunch was Dr Clare Hornsby who presented her recent research on the topic of Gardens at La Trappe: neo-classical display in the London suburbs’. Clare explained that this is work-in-progress, but it was clear from the content of her fabulous presentation that she has already achieved a good deal. The building she has painstakingly researched and described sounded truly magnificent and the account she gave of her research was so vivid it was almost like being in the various archives with her.

We commenced the post-lunch session with a consideration of art and literature’s impact on the English landscape garden. We were honoured to have well-known expert Michael Liversidge take us through a broad sweep of the influence of painting in his ‘Painting and planting: art, aesthetics and landscaping in Georgian Englandpresentation. Michael skilfully covered the better-known links between gardens and fine art, but very helpfully revealed what for me were a number of new links and perspectives.


Our final speaker was Dr Paul Gwynne, who is Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the American University of Rome. This was another presentation I was very keen to hear, having had my appetite whetted by Luke Roman’s presentation at the Hortus Inclusus event. Paul’s ‘The Italian Renaissance villa and garden: an overlooked source. Some observations and suggestions’, is also work-in-progress, but was hugely informative and thought-provoking. It inspired me to revisit the topographical poets I read as part of my Stourhead research.

A day of informed and thorough lectures led us neatly into the panel discussion. I think we came to this mindful that the landscape garden had considerable competition for the title greatest eighteenth-century export. Nevertheless, given that by the end of the eighteenth-century ‘English gardens’ could be found in Sweden, Germany, Poland, Russia, and even France and Italy,  it was certainly amongst the most important artistic exports. With this weighty issue partially dealt with we retired to the reception area of the BSR for further reflection over drinks and snacks.

In closing I’d like to thank the speakers for their wonderful presentations and the delegates for their keenness to participate. The success of the day owes so much to the BSR staff who gave so generously of their time. I would particularly like to thank Tom True, Alice Marsh and Christine Martin whose advice, support and participation helped make the day such a joy.

John E. Harrison (Open University)




Walking Rome: views from the streets and the sky

Recent site-visits and lectures at the BSR, which have converged on the theme of walking, are generating ways of thinking about movement through the city.

The 3 and 19 trams pass by the BSR so rarely that they warrant inclusion on the WWF Endangered Species list. Waddling irritably away from the tram-stop, now late for the morning presa at the archives, it takes some fortitude to see the amble ahead as an act of intellectual, and even spiritual, refreshment.

In Rome, however, this is doable, since walking has traditionally often been a religious exercise. Before Christmas, BSR award-holders traced the most celebrated pilgrimage route, the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome’s great martyrs, in the company of Piers Baker-Bates, who discussed sacred art and architecture, and Emily Michelson, who spoke about the origins and importance of the giro as a counterpoint to the raucous misdeeds of the Carnival. Our group paused near the Cave di Fosse Ardeantine for a disquisition on the ongoing significance of martyrdom, looked in at the Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis, and stopped in the grounds of the Villa Mattei for sandwiches and (partially) sacred discourse.


Domine Quo Vadis? A replica of the stone said to be marked with the footprints of Christ on a mock road traversing the church, and which rises into the painting of St Peter

It was Sixtus V who envisaged, and nearly completed, the street system linking these seven pilgrimage basilicas. Ambitious urbanism inevitably entails great destruction, but the man who razed the wondrous Septizodium to the ground would scarcely have winced as he laid out his master-plan for Rome, whose streets when seen from above crudely create the form of a star. It was a star that lit the way for the genesis of modern town planning, thought to have influenced Le Notre’s Versailles, Haussmann’s Paris, L’Enfant’s Washington and the Rome of Mussolini (who reputedly kept a copy of Bordini’s Roma di Sisto V next to his bed).

During the Renaissance, there was an impulse to control and rectify movement, from throwing regularizing façade-cloaks over wonky palaces; to Vasari’s ripping out rood screens from Florentine basilicas, to Leonardo’s quixotic scheme to straighten the river Arno. At the same time, the city was increasingly perceived as something viewed from above, spurred on by developments in the fields of cartography, surveying and navigation. Architects from Francesco di Giorgio to Michelangelo conjured with the radial or star-shaped ideal city, which spoke of absolutist power and sketched geometries echoing the celestial city.

But there is a vast gulf between the paradigmatic symbolism of the utopian city as conceived from above, and the pragmatic realties of walking the city on the ground.

This was one of many themes that Stephen Milner touched on in his inaugural lecture. He contrasted the totalizing bird’s eye view of Florence in a Medieval catasto with the fundamentally participatory reality of navigating the city on foot. Walking never offers the controlled perspective of the map, since there is always one point of entry to the street or the piazza, and there is always room for the imaginative turn off the routinized pathway. In walking, as in creative research, curiosity (and over-crowded routes) drive us down roads one would not necessarily go down.

Two other lecturers approached their subject from the perspective of movement through the city. Simon Ditchfield’s magisterial lecture linked the migration of the papal centre from the Borgo across the Tiber to the Quirinal, to the creation of a new curial geography and ceremonial dynamic in Rome. As the Pope and his retinue newly criss-crossed the city between these two poles, they developed new itineraries and generated significant new routeways across the capital.

Emily Michelson mapped routes walked by Jews on the way to forced conversionary sermons in 16th-century Rome. She demonstrated how Jews were marshalled past monuments embodying the starkest differences and antagonism between Christianity and Judaism. The Monte di Pietà, the loan organisation deliberately established to undermine Jewish banks and lending institutions, hulked over them en route, and they were led past triumphalist Catholic monuments celebrating miracles and charismatic saints. By considering the subject from the novel perspective of walking, Emily has opened up a deeper and more visceral understand of the conversionary experience.



Lupin joins pilgrimage group, seeking indulgence after stealing Fragolina’s food

We have also been thinking about the great roads of antiquity, with Janet Wade conducting a research project entitled Walking the Via Flaminia: following in the footsteps of Thomas Ashby and his companions, and Nick Hodgson leading a band of the most stout-hearted award-holders along the Via Appia all the way to Castel Gandolfo.


Tom True (Assistant Director)




Performing national sacrifice: remembering the Nasiriyah Massacre

In November 2017 Amy King, this year’s Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust), attended the official commemoration for Italians who died in peace missions. Held at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli in the heart of Rome, the ceremony combined national and religious rituals. Here she reflects on her findings.

On 18 November 2003, 50,000 Italians attended the funeral of the nineteen Italians killed in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Six days earlier, on 12 November, a suicide attack on the Italian military police headquarters in Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad, had caused Italy’s largest loss of life since World War II. Three days of national mourning ensued, and the caskets of Italy’s fallen soldiers, who had been in Iraq on a peace mission, lay in state in the Altare della Patria – the symbolic heart of Italy’s capital.

The following day, a number of newspapers printed the headline ‘The Massacre of Italians’[1] – indeed the tragedy would come to be known as the Nasiriyah Massacre – while others declared ‘Italy Struck at its Heart’,[2]  or simply ‘Our Martyrs.’[3]  Many publications carried the same image of a soldier standing in front of the burnt out remains of the headquarters, his head in his hands.

Figure 1: Many newspapers printed this image in the aftermath of the tragedy 

Many newspapers printed this image in the aftermath of the tragedy[4]

The state funeral was held in the Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura and broadcast on national television; an estimated 50,000 Italians waited outside the basilica, and watched the funeral on large screens. The ceremony blended many of the markers of national, military and religious identity; the Tricolore flag was draped over each casket with a gun placed on top, the military salute was performed, and the presiding clergy contributed to the overarching religious ritual and iconography. Once the ceremony was over, the caskets were loaded into hearses as members of the carabinieri, the army, navy, air force and the president’s own horse-mounted honour guard stood to attention.

During my time in the city, I interviewed Virgilio Spano, president of an association of retired carabinieri, about his memories of the Nasiriyah funeral. ‘In some way, you felt Italian that day… Italian and that’s it,’ he said, emphasizing the dissolution of political divisions in the face of such national sacrifice. It was a question of ‘patria, rather than country,’ he added. ‘Country is a geographic term. Patria is the place that you feel. Patria is… is… it’s everything. [5]


Institutional mourning

Figure 2: The commemoration ceremony began on the Vittoriano steps
The commemoration ceremony began on the Vittoriano steps
Figure 3: The wreath on the Vittoriano

The wreath on the Vittoriano

The institutional support for commemoration continued on the various anniversaries of the tragedy, and in 2009 the 12 November was declared la Giornata del ricordo dei Caduti militari e civili nelle missioni internazionali. I attended the official commemoration ceremony at the Vittoriano monument and then the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the 12 November 2017 (on the day that an official plaque to the Nasiriyah victims was unveiled in the Italian Senate). Roberta Pinotti, the minster for defence, and Generale Graziano, head of the Italian army, attended the event alongside relatives of fallen soldiers and Italian civilians. The ceremony began at the Vittoriano; soldiers lined the steps leading to a wreath, and commemorative speeches were given.

Attendees then moved to the nearby Aracoeli Basilica for the religious ceremony. Uniformed forces filled the back half of the church, while relatives of the victims and the general public sat towards the front. Many uniformed attendees wore medals and rosettes, and military officers handed out the order of service. A military brass band opened the ceremony with the Last Post, and the cardinal entered the church, followed by three military figures in ceremonial dress, priests, and two carabinieri.

Figure 4: Inside the Aracoeli Basilica during the service

Inside the Aracoeli Basilica during the service

Military and religious figures spoke to the congregation. The Cardinal Priest focused his address on the eternal life after sacrifice, and the hope that is born from sacrifice. Later in the ceremony, minister Pinotti gave an address directly to the relatives of the victims, who she had accompanied in times of deep pain but also of pride – pride in their relatives’ sacrifice, which is an ‘important part of the respectability Italy has deserved’ on an international stage. She closed her address with a declaration: ‘a life dedicated to others is a life that never ends.’

As in the funeral held in 2003, this ceremony enacted the notion of death at war as the ultimate sacrifice – a classic paradigm of secular martyrdom that has reinforced the Italian national narrative as far back as the Risorgimento. Through the conflation of religious and military ritual, and the blending of national and religious iconography, sacrifice in the name of the patria (and the subsequent eternal life) is performed in the heart of Rome.

Figure 5: A uniformed figure leaves the basilica

A uniformed figure leaves the basilica


Text and images by Amy King (University of Bristol/Bath), BSR Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust)



[1]‘La Strage degli Italiani’, Il Giornale, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea; ‘La Strage degli Italiani’, La Stampa, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea; ‘La Strage degli Italiani’, La Repubblica, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea.
[2]‘L’Italia colpita al cuore’, Il Messaggero, 13 November 2003, p. 1.
[3]‘I Nostri Martiri’, Il Tempo, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea.
[4]‘La Strage degli Italiani’.
[5] Virgilio Spano, Interview by Amy King with Virgilio Spano, Presidente Associazione CCC Martiri di Nassiriya, 2017.



Softened by the strokes of Hephaistos: an interdisciplinary workshop on the archaeology, history and practice of glass

What is – and what was, historically – the significance of glass as an artistic material? What forms of knowledge are required for its making, and what aesthetic agency does it possess? These questions lie at the core of a workshop organised jointly by the British School at Rome’s Faculty of Archaeology, History and Letters and its Faculty of the Fine Arts, led by Rosamond McKitterick and Vivien Lovell in collaboration with Hugo Chapman, the Simon Sainsbury Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.

Writing about the legendary origins of glassmaking, naturalist Pliny the Elder reported that a group of merchants gathered on the Syrian sea-shore to cook their meal on a fire. As they could not find any stones to support their cauldrons, the men employed for the purpose some lumps of nitre which they had taken from the boat: ‘upon its being subjected to the action of the fire, in combination with the sand of the sea-shore, they beheld transparent streams flowing forth of a liquid hitherto unknown: this, it is said, was the origin of glass.’ (Natural History, Book 36:65)

Since its legendary beginnings, glass and its industry have provoked reflections about the complex intersections between technical and natural knowledge, aesthetics and artistic practice, trading networks and material culture. They therefore represented an ideal case study to inaugurate a brand-new series of BSR events on the historicity of materials. The Glass Study Day, held at the British Museum on 2 November 2017, brought together an interdisciplinary group of scientists, humanities scholars and artists to discuss the history, archaeology and practice of glassmaking and consumption from a variety of perspectives and to showcase research developed by BSR scholars and practitioners in this field.


The visual qualities of glass – its translucency, transparency and polychromy– make it an aesthetically appealing, yet challenging material to display. In a series of fascinating gallery talks, curators Hugo Chapman, Dora Thornton and Lesley Fitton, glassmakers Mark Taylor and David Hill, and BSR faculty members Rosamond McKitterick and Susan Walker, stimulated a dialogue about the aesthetics of glass across the Mediterranean from antiquity to the Renaissance, and about the different historical and cultural narratives that glass artefacts contribute to articulate as museum displays.


A fragile artistic material, glass naturally invites questions about its conservation and physical care. A visit to the British Museum’s Ceramics, Glass and Metals Conservation Studio and Scientific Research Laboratory, introduced by Andrew Meek and led by the museum’s conservation specialists, illustrated the practices and technologies available for the scientific study of vitreous artefacts, and for their restoration.


Following such close-up analysis of artefacts in the galleries and study rooms of the museum, in the afternoon our workshop participants gathered in the British Museum’s Stevenson Lecture Theatre for a final session of lectures open to the public. Following an introductory speech by BSR Director Stephen Milner, John Shepherd and John Mitchell respectively exposed the key contribution made by BSR scholars to the archaeology of glass, and the significance of glass excavations and study at the early medieval site of San Vincenzo in Volturno. Art historians Paul Hills and Stefania Gerevini turned to medieval portable artefacts and Renaissance paintings to illuminate the role played by glass and by other translucent materials in the definition of Venetian visual culture. They were followed by artists Antoni Malinowski and Liz Rideal, who bore witness to the enduring aesthetic potential of transparency and translucency by discussing their recent work with glass at the BSR and across the UK. Finally, material scientist Lindsay Greer surprised and charmed us all with his exposé on the material and chemical structures of glass – fun fact: who knew there was a frog that vitrifies in order to survive the chill of winter…


Stefania Gerevini (BSR Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Art History at Bocconi University)

Photos by Claire Burridge.


Being Human at the BSR

We asked BSR Research Fellow Peter Campbell to look back on last week’s workshop Lost and Found (part of the festival of humanities Being Human) from his perspective as a researcher in the study of antiquities trafficking networks.

On Friday 27 October, the British School at Rome hosted Lost and Found: Places, Objects and People, a workshop that is part of the Being Human Festival. The workshop brought together experts from various backgrounds to discuss cultural preservation. Looting of ancient sites has recently been in the international spotlight following actions by Islamic State, but trafficking of antiquities has been a significant problem for many decades.


Cultural heritage is a central component of what it means to be human, so the workshop subject is important to the festival. This is a sentiment expressed by Professor Sarah Churchwell and BSR Director Professor Stephen J. Milner to commence the meeting. Being Human is led by Sarah at the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. The BSR and Being Human are in a unique position to bring together international experts and discuss topics such as this.

Archaeological sites are being looted and destroyed on a large scale across the world, but how do we quantify and mitigate the loss when we do not know the full extent of the cultural resources? This is what Dr Robert Bewley (University of Oxford) discussed in his talk about the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project. Using aerial photography, Robert’s team has been able to identify archaeological sites and revisit them years later, documenting changes to the sites. This is invaluable to those studying looting, as operating on such a large-scale is quite difficult. Over the years Robert has noted a number of different threats to archaeological sites. One of the foremost is the increase in populations, which leads to increased development and infrastructure which cuts through sites. New forms of agriculture and mining have also leveled sites that the team had identified in previous years. Of course, conflict is also a significant threat, such as Islamic State. In one example, Robert discussed how Islamic State may have blown up monuments in order to cover up looting of friezes that were trafficked out of the region for sale on the black market.


Robert Bewley discusses the use of aerial photography in documenting changes to archaeological sites.

Mosaics are one of the most beautiful forms of ancient art, but also one of the most delicate. Dr Roberto Nardi (Centro di Conservazione Archeologica, Roma) gave a masterful presentation on how mosaics are under threat from conflict and looting, but also poor conservation practices in the past, as well as archaeologists who do not know how to properly preserve mosaics in situ. Roberto has organized a training programme for conservators working in North Africa and the Middle East, named MOSAIKON and funded by the Getty Foundation. In his presentation, as well as in videos made by the conservation students, he showed how the program develops independence, construction of locate labs, and interventions to save mosaics. These interventions were needed not only in North Africa and the Middle East, but in Italy as well.

Dr Anna Leone (Durham University) and Morgan Belzic (École Pratique des Hautes Études) presented their recent work conducting training in North Africa, along with coauthors Dr Corisande Fenwick (UCL) and Dr William Wootton (KCL), who were not in attendance. The presentation was wide-ranging, but the training programs appear to have substantial deliverables. The team has created an app called HeDAP (Heritage Documentation and Protection) that uses photo identification algorithms to make a searchable database for identifying looted artifacts. It is currently being trialed in North Africa, but they hope it will soon be available for broader regions and law enforcement. They raised excellent points about data and storage. What happens during periods of conflict? Who has access to the databases? In one example, museum workers had to build false walls to hide artifacts from Islamic State. There are no good solutions, which led to a substantial discussion. It made me think about the Archaeological Data Service, which hosts a server storing open data, or the use of blockchain technology, which is a decentralized network so that data cannot be corrupted or lost. Perhaps a system where the data is stored across a network, but only accessible to certain individuals would preserve data for the long term. Solutions need to be found in order to protect antiquities and sites in conflict regions.


Gianluigi D’Alfonso of the Guardia di Finanza on how art and antiquities are used by criminal groups for laundering and profit.

Rarely does the public hear about the law enforcement side of trafficking, which made the presentation by Generale Gianluigi D’Alfonso (Comandante della Guardia di Finanza) particularly interesting. He discussed how art and antiquities are used by criminal groups for laundering and profit. The Generale had several cases where criminal organizations had purchased works of art specifically for laundering, fencing and tax evasion. One of the most gripping examples was a group of Vincent van Gogh paintings that were recently confiscated and returned to a museum setting. The presentation raised a number of questions about how we think about antiquities in the hands of criminals. What percentage of their illegal art is collection and what percentage is laundering? Or perhaps there is no clear distinction.


Simon Keay on public engagement at Portus

Professor Simon Keay (University of Southampton; BSR) concluded the workshop’s archaeology presentations with an overview of the Portus Project and the new means of collecting and presenting archeological data. The site of Portus is of such a large-scale that many years of research have been required to understand the ancient imperial harbour. Of particular interest, Simon discussed how the site is being presented to the public. Located near Fiumicino Airport, Portus is being advertised to travelers as an easy side trip. The number of visitors has increased each year, showing that this forgotten gem is finally receiving the attention it deserves. Even people who are not in Rome can visit Portus through the online platforms that the project uses, such as an online course and web tour.


HMA Jill Morris with Paul Sellers (Director, British Council Italy) and Sarah Churchwell (Director of the Being Human Festival, and Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London)

The workshop ended with a viewing of the British Council film Desti\Nations. It is a fascinating short piece that discusses migration and movement within the modern world. The film was introduced by British Ambassador Jill Morris, who spoke on the intertwined nature of Britain, Europe, and the Mediterranean world. Jill and the film told of shared cultures, with the film telling of a family with North African and Italian background, as well as the members’ migrations to and from locations around the world. [BSR Director] Stephen concluded the workshop with the observation that not only does modern Europe face these migration, but Medieval Italy did as well. Much like the flow of cultures in the ancient world, modern migrations take place for many reasons such as conflict, employment, and family. The film was a terrific conclusion to the Being Human workshop, which left the audience with much to consider.


L to R: Stephen Milner, Sarah Churchwell, Anna Leone, Robert Bewley, HMA Jill Morris, Simon Keay, Roberto Nardi, Paul Sellers.

Peter Campbell (BSR Research Fellow)

Photos by Antonio Palmieri.

Fresco frenzy at the BSR

BSR scholars and artists were recently invited to take part in a fresco painting workshop organised by Anna de Riso and Eliana Billi. Assimilating the techniques and materials of ancient and Renaissance painters, the workshop presented the opportunity to recreate a fresco to a high degree of authenticity. The workshop complemented the interest in fresco painting of many of the group, with several having already visited Naples where they had seen the fantastic frescoes excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The day began with an introduction to the history of fresco painting from its ancient Greek origins, when it was used to decorate prestigious buildings and the homes of the wealthy. The earliest Greek examples are now lost, with most of the knowledge on this craft coming from literary sources.

For wall-painting in the Roman era, one of two techniques – fresco or secco – would have been employed. Both had as their base pozzolana (volcanic ash) which was mixed with water to make it set, and they differed in how the paint was applied. With the fresco technique, pigment was ground with water to make the paint and then applied on top of wet, fresh lime mortar or plaster, then left to carbonate and set. With the secco technique, the plaster was still dry when the paint was applied, necessitating the binding of the pigment with egg or glue to make it stick. Clay-based pigments were often used in fresco-painting in the Roman era and this type of pigment could be polished, giving the fresco a shiny finish.

Both techniques had their drawbacks: the pigment on secco frescoes was more susceptible to flaking off over time, however the fresco paintings had to be completed quickly, before the plaster set, and accurately, as mistakes could not be corrected once painted.

Fresco painting continued into the Middle Ages, however the images depicted were simpler and less refined. A turning-point was reached at the end of the 14th century with the pioneers Cavallini and Giotto, who headed a new-found interest in the depiction of space and volume. With new styles came new techniques, the most important of which were: fewer layers used to build up the panel; the use of sinopia, a reddish-brown pigment used to create a preparatory drawing on the panel before the paint was applied; and the combination of the fresco element of painting on wet plaster with that of the secco technique, in which further details were added once the panel had been painted and set.


‘The Last Judgement’ fresco by Cavallini in S. Cecilia in Trastevere


‘The Dream of Joachim’ fresco by Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

With the outline of the tradition and the technical aspects explained, it was time to put the new-found knowledge into practice. The group was split into two, with half recreating Pompeian frescoes and half following the Renaissance technique, and both groups following designs from that period.

The Pompeian group began by mixing together the mortar formula and spreading it on their panels. They then sketched their designs onto the surface with pigment, then traced along the sketch with a knife to make a small engraving of the design. Plaster was then applied over the engraved base layer, through which the design showed through and was then reapplied on the plaster layer. With the design in place, the painting could begin.


Mixing the mortar. Photo by Stephen Kay.

Fresco workshop

Applying the mortar layer. Photo by Ellie Johnson.


Outlining the design in paint. Photo by Stephen Kay.


Adding details to the plaster layer. Photo by Antonio Palmieri

The plaster layer was applied to just half of the panel, to show the different stages of the process.


James Norrie (Rome Fellow), Vivien Zhang (Abbey Scholar in Painting) and Peter McDonald (Abbey Fellow in Painting) with their Pompeian frescoes

Those following the Renaissance technique began by drawing their designs on tracing paper, then puncturing small holes along the outline of the drawing. They then applied the cement layer to the panel, softening the mixture with water and working it with a spatula until it was smooth. The tracing paper was placed over the top, and then the sinopia pigment was applied, permeating the punctures to give the outline of the design.

With the general outline in place, the sinopia pigment was mixed with water to create a paint which was used to complete the outline, and then the designs were completed with coloured paint.


Helpmann Academy Resident Kate Power – painting in progress. Photo by Stephen Kay.


The Bridget Riley Fellow Sinta Tantra – painting in progress. Photo by Stephen Kay.


William Fletcher Foundation Scholar Chris Browne – painting in progress. Photo by Antonio Palmieri

Many thanks to Anna de Riso and Eliana Billi for organising a fantastic workshop.

Ellie Johnson (Communications & Events)

A research trip to Tunisia

Last April, Coleman-Hilton Scholar Jason Blockley travelled to Tunisia to visit a number of sites to complement his research on the economies of late antique North Africa. Over the course of this trip, Jason clocked up an impressive number of miles and site visits, travelling between cities and across countryside, exploring both ancient, medieval and modern sites. Read on to find out more…

During the Roman period the provinces that cover the area that is now Tunisia were among the richest and most productive in the entire empire. Every year millions of tons of wheat, olive oil, fine pottery, and other goods left Tunisia’s shores for sale or distribution elsewhere in the empire. My research investigates the relationship between the state and the economy in Late Antique (c. 300-450) North Africa, which took me on an eight-day trip of Tunisia in April. While there I was lucky to have the expert services and friendship of Sami Harize, a veteran guide and expert on Tunisia’s cultural heritage.
For the first two days of the trip we were busy exploring the many ruins of Carthage, the ancient capital of Roman Africa which today is a suburb of Tunis. Like Rome, Tunis/Carthage is a patchwork of ancient ruins scattered amongst a modern metropolis. The ruins alone reveal the immense size and prosperity of Roman Carthage, a city that would have housed several hundred thousand people. The city boasted all the comforts and infrastructure that Rome had, including splendid baths, theatres, an arena, public aqueducts, and a sophisticated harbour system.

The Bardo Museum in Tunis contains more evidence of the splendour that the citizens of Carthage enjoyed, including a staggering and unparalleled collection of ancient mosaics.

After having visited the major sites and museums in Carthage we set out for a three-day, ~1,000km tour of northern and central Tunisia. To properly describe all the incredible sites we visited along the way would require a short book at least, as it is impossible to travel anywhere in Tunisia without seeing some monument or cultural treasure. On the first day we drove through the verdant lush north of the country to see the cities of Dougga, ancient Thugga, and El Kef, ancient Sicca Veneria. The countryside is incredibly fertile and picturesque, and in antiquity the grain grown here was essential in keeping the city of Rome fed.

Though both Thugga and Sicca Veneria were modest provincial cities they both boasted all the comforts of Roman urban life, including baths, theatres, and fine homes for the wealthy. Many of the ruins of Sicca Veneria have disappeared beneath the modern fabric of El Kef, but the ruins at Dougga are pristine, and a sure rival for sites like Pompeii. Dougga, like many other ancient ruins in Tunisia, coexists with modern pastoralists just as it would have done in antiquity.

On the second day, we started heading south into central Tunisia, where the landscape became more arid and rocky. Not well suited for growing wheat, this area specialised in olives. In fact, the area is practically a forest of olive trees as it was during the Roman period.


Olive groves in central Tunisia. Photo by Jason Blockley.

Along the way we visited Haïdra, ancient Ammaedara, and Sbeitla, ancient Sufetula. During the early years of Roman rule in Africa Haïdra was an important military site, a role it resumed during the tumultuous Byzantine period. The imposing triumphal arch, partially encased in ad hoc walls, also echoes the military history of the city.

The ruins of Sufetula lie in an impressive archaeological park right next to modern Sbeitla. Again, the ancient city boasted all the signature comforts of ancient urban life, but also has an unusual triple-Capitoline temple as well as several early Christian churches with mosaiced baptismal pools.

On the last day of our tour of the Tunisian countryside we visited Kairouan and El Djem, ancient Thysdrus. Kairouan was settled around 670 CE during the Islamic conquest of Africa, and the city’s Great Mosque was the first in the entire Maghreb. During the early Middle Ages Kairouan became the seat of power, politics, and culture in Tunisia, taking the place that Carthage (now ruined) had occupied during the ancient era. Although Kairouan was the centre for the burgeoning Islamic civilisation in Tunisia, vestiges of the country’s Roman history made its way into the city. The ruins of Roman monuments in Tunisia were used like a quarry to embellish Kairouan, including the Great Mosque – ancient architectural elements can still be seen today.

El Djem, like El Kef, has mostly buried its ancient ruins beneath the modern city – except for its immense amphitheatre, which was among the largest in the Roman Empire. The amphitheatre, sited in the heart of the city, is clear evidence that Thysdrus’ arid environment was no impediment to the Romano-Africans building a prosperous and comfortable city.

El Djem

The amphitheatre at El Djem. Photo by Jason Blockley.

After El Djem our tour of the Tunisian countryside and its many cities and towns was finished and we drove back to Tunis. The next few days were spent exploring more of medieval and modern Tunis. The city’s Medina (old town) is a lively and bustling labyrinth full of small shops, cafés, homes, and mosques. The modern city has far outgrown its ancient, medieval, or colonial limits and is today a veritable metropolis.

My journey through Tunisia was rewarding in many ways. It provided needed nuance and context to my research, and I am grateful to Sami for pointing out countless things I would have otherwise missed. Experiencing and learning about modern Tunisia was equally rewarding. Lastly, the people of Tunisia remain a hospitable and generous people despite the hardships they have weathered over the years.

Jason Blockley (Coleman-Hilton Scholar)