Vergil, political economy and parmesan cheese


Lavinia Maddaluno was Rome Fellow at the BSR in 2017-18. Here she speaks about some of her current research questions on the history of the use of classics in eighteenth-century economic writings.


‘Omnis feret omnia tellus’. This sentence means ‘every land shall bear all fruits’. It appears in Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, and is part of Vergil’s utopian description of a future and autarkic Golden Age, when soil will produce everything, making trade and commercial exchanges unnecessary:

‘Hinc ubi iam firmata virum te fecerit aetas, cedet et ipse mari vector, nec nautica pinus mutabit merces; omnis feret omnia tellus. non rastros patietur humus, non vinea falcem’

‘Next, when now the strength of the years has made thee man, even the trader shall quit the sea, nor shall the ship of pine exchange wares; every land shall bear all fruits. The earth shall not feel the harrow, nor the vine the pruning hook’ (transl. Henry Rushton Fairclough, 1916).

Being an early modern historian and not a classicist, I must say I first encountered this phrase in the negative form of ‘non omnis feret omnia tellus’ when I was completing my PhD thesis on the intersection of science and political economy in the eighteenth-century Duchy of Milan (Cambridge University, 2017).


More specifically, I came across it while reading a book on the production of parmesan cheese written by the first chair in agriculture at Pavia University, the botanist Giuseppe Bayle-Barelle in 1804. I started thinking further about it during my Rome Fellowship at the BSR (2017-2018), especially thanks to the continued exposure to various discussions on classical and archeological themes, something I was admittedly not that familiar with before my BSR sojourn.

But what can the use of this phrase tell us about political economy and, most importantly, why does it appear in a text on cheese?

Trying to answer my research questions, I found out that the negative version of Vergil’s ‘motto’ occurred in plenty of other eighteenth/early nineteenth-century Italian texts on political economy. I continued to enquire, and discovered that a whole history of the appropriations of this phrase in early modern Italian political economy treatises has yet to be written! Below are just some considerations which I hope to expand further and more in depth in article form over the next year or so.

Political economy is a field of investigation whose formal foundation dates back to 1754, in Naples, when the philosopher Antonio Genovesi was entrusted the first chair in economia politica. In short, political economy was about the strategies to produce, preserve, manage and increase the wealth of a state. Debates on political economy in eighteenth-century Europe often polarised, one of the most renowned polarisations being the Physiocracy/Mercantilist divide. Put simply, there was opposition between those political economic schools which claimed that the origin of wealth was to be found in agriculture exclusively, that is, in soil production, and those who instead argued that manufacturing production was also needed to assure the economic competitiveness of a state in the marketplace. It was also about a specific perspective on state intervention, and on the matter of grain trade in particular, with Physiocracy being inclined towards laisser-faire policies, and Mercantilism towards the encouragement of state intervention in the regulation of prices. However, such opposition not only obscured the idea of how wealth is produced, but also reflected a much more complex model of how human beings came to understand nature and the use of natural resources.

The context in which ‘non omnis feret omnia tellus’ kept appearing is that of pro-mercantilist writings which were critical of Physiocracy’s focus on agriculture, as well as of its belief in the universal applicability of political economic models to any state, independently of its geographical, historical, climatic and agricultural features. The use of the motto ‘non omnis feret omnia tellus’ was a way to acknowledge the limits of nature’s material productions, and stress the utopian character of autarky.

This is definitely the case with Bayle-Barelle, who used Vergil to shed light on the failure of Physiocratic models of wealth production, and suggested that states should focus on their economic strengths (and cheese in particular, in the case he is making) and import what they were unable to produce, rather than hold to the motto ‘omnis feret omnia tellus’ in the hope of being totally self-sufficient. Writing under Napoleon, Bayle-Barelle saw parmesan cheese as the epitome of northern Italian agricultural expertise, and a competitive product to exchange on the international market. Why dream of a self-generating and versatile soil or of acclimatizing exotic plants in greenhouses, if we can rely on the export of indigenous and local economic productions such as parmesan and simply import what we cannot produce? Bayle-Barelle was not the only one who appropriated Vergil’s sentence. A few decades earlier, Antonio Genovesi, the founder of political economy, had used it in his Lezioni di Commercio (1769) to shed light on the ‘necessity of commerce’, as opposed to visions of the self-enclosed state. The sentence also appeared in the Dialogues sur le commerce des blés (1770) by Ferdinando Galiani, Neapolitan ambassador in France in the 1760s, as a critical response to the Physiocratic obsession with agriculture as the exclusive origin of wealth. It also became a Republican and patriotic motto, which featured in the periodical Monitore di Roma (1798), in contributions written by the Jacobins Francesco Piranesi (son of the renowned engraver Giovanni Battista) and Giovanni Fiorani to restate the necessity of identifying the true agricultural potential of the short-lived Napoleonic Roman Republic (1798-1799).


F. Piranesi, Monitore di Roma, 4th October 1798, p.39. Sourced from:

At a time when cosmopolitanism has failed and has been replaced by idealistically self-sufficient models of wealth production and autarkic and nationalistic practices of the political, a study of the appropriations of Vergil’s motto in political economy treatises seems to be timely and relevant. Such study would shed light on the history of the use of classics in eighteenth-century economic writings, but also, more broadly, on how eighteenth-century economic thinkers situated the circulation of knowledge and practices of exchange between different cultures at the centre of economic and social development. I will continue this research in autumn 2018 as a Brill Fellow at the Scaliger Institute (Leiden), working on discourses on the import of wind technologies from the Netherlands to northern Italy, as part of a broader histoire croisée of scientific practices and ideas of political economy between Italy and Europe in the early modern period.

Lavinia Maddaluno (Rome Fellow 2017-18)


Stanzas of recollection

This blog comes from Pele Cox the inaugural John Murray / Keats-Shelley Memorial Association Creative Writing Resident (October-November 2017; April-May 2018). In this post Pele shares with us the poem that she wrote and performed at the June Mostra.

I was asked to write this poem by Marta, Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator, as a homage to the artists for the recent Mostra. I decided to write a collage, using snatches from the favourite poems that some of the artists sent me. These are interwoven with my feelings of loss and gain at my own departure from the British School at Rome, which is communicated as a series of rooms (stanze).





Leave the door ajar.

Cicero says if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

But give me a studio and a courtyard.

Leave the door ajar and let me enter in



words can bloom

mid stripped walls, the blue guitar,

where the mosaic hours


the music of gravel and of rain.


My love is of a birth as rare 

As is for object strange and high

it was begotten by despair

Upon impossibility.


Leave the door ajar

let me look inside

a sight within


words can bloom

mid thorns and scattered chair




I have a room of my own,

With twin steel nests, a desk, the curved chair with wings.

My knees to the books and back again,

the trees beyond and studios beneath,

and artist strange and rare.


You walk in. “This room is not going to last.”

We are caretakers of its ending: a shutter,

a camera, exposed.

I reach for the chair again

where I sat for Pushkin, for Sholokov,

where I sat for the things I knew would pass



Lady disturbed in her bed-

your thoughts of it?

Light is it a body


Leave the door ajar

and let me enter in.


In the smoke after twilight

on a milk white steed

Michelangelo indeed

could have carved out 

your features.


where the mosaic hours


the music of gravel and of rain.




When I put my hands on your body

on your flesh I see the history 

of that body.


Leave the door ajar

and let me enter in.


Not just the beginning of its forming 

in that distant lake

but all the way beyond its ending.


This room is not going to last

we are the inmates at

its ending.


And yet I quickly might arrive

where my extended soul is fixed.


It is finished now

this room,

a stanza of recollection.



Text by Pele Cox, photo by Antonio Palmieri.

What do we really know about African art in European museums?

31462683605_ebc546dc0e_b (1)As part of the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018 former award-holder Zoe Cormack (Rome Fellow 2016-17), presents the exhibit ‘What do we really know about African art in European museums?’ An exploration of the arts and heritage of South Sudan. In this blog, in advance of the exhibition, Zoe shares some of the developments to her project since she left Rome a year ago.

(Photo: Antonio Palmieri)

I came to the BSR for a Rome Fellowship in 2016-17. My project was to study four nineteenth century ethnographic collections, assembled by Italians and now stored in museums across Italy, from the territory that is today South Sudan. Rome was new ground, as my previous research trips had been to remote parts of South Sudan. The time at the BSR gave me the opportunity to begin concentrated study of South Sudanese arts and material culture stored in European museums. This week, my research will feature in the British Academy Summer Showcase, an exciting opportunity to share my findings with a wider audience in the UK.

In Rome, the question I was most often asked was, how did these objects end up in Italy? There are many historical connections between Italy and South Sudan. When Sudan was incorporated into Ottoman Egypt in 1821, Italians were among the first Europeans to visit. Some came as traders, some worked in the Egyptian government, others undertook scientific journey of exploration. In 1864, Daniel Comboni (a priest, now a saint) from Brescia established a missionary order in Sudan, the Comboni Fathers, who still have a major presence in Sudan and South Sudan. The Sudanese saint, Josephine Bakhita, lived in Italy from 1885.

Of the collections I studied, one was made by Romolo Gessi an Italian soldier who was appointed Ottoman-Egyptian Governor of Bahr-el-Ghazal (a province in Southern Sudan). He is known in Sudanese history for recapturing part of the province from slave traders on behalf on the Egyptian government (the collection in now in the Museo delle Civilità in Rome).  The others were made by; Giovanni Miani, a trained opera singer from Venice who to Sudan to discover the source of the Nile (the collection is in the Natural History Museum in Venice); Carlo Piaggia, an explorer who lived at a Zande court in the 1860s (the collections are in the Florence Ethnographic Museum and the Archaeological museum in Perugia); and Orazio Antinori (of Antinori wines) who founded the Italian Geographical Society (whose collection is in the Archaeological museum in Perugia).


A case of objects from South Sudan in Giovanni Miani’s collection, Museum of Natural history, Venice. (image courtesy of the Museum of Natural History)

My research has addressed both how these collections were formed, but also how we might understand and work with them today. These are complicated objects to study. Formed at the outset of European and Italian colonial projects, ethnographic collections were integral to the process of creating difference, of categorising people and their material culture into discrete ‘tribes’ and generating the racial hierarchies that made the ideology of colonialism possible. In Sudan, this process viciously intersected with the growth of a long-distance slave trade in the Nile valley, which remains a painful rupture in South Sudan’s historical memory.

I wanted to understand more about how collecting had interacted with this violent history, but I also wanted to investigate how these objects might speak to current concerns about heritage, memory and community relationships in South Sudan. I have always been struck by how – despite the violent circumstances surrounding their incorporation into museums – these collections are a remarkable and unique record of historic arts and material cultures from South Sudan.

Juba from the air in May 2018 (photo by Zoe Cormack)


Juba from the air in May 2018 (photo by Zoe Cormack)

Since I finished my Rome Fellowship I have had several opportunities to address this question in more depth. On my return from Rome, I began work on an AHRC Research Network about South Sudanese arts and heritage in Europe. I have also spent about four months in Juba (the capital city of South Sudan), where with a Juba based organised called The Likikiri Collective – are doing amazing work using theatre and oral history to explore memory, ideas of community and the nation. More recently, I met Deng Nhial Chioh, who runs ‘Maale Heritage and Development Foundation’ in a displaced persons camp in Juba. For several years, Deng has been using images from online museum databases to build a curriculum about South Sudanese cultural heritage for displaced students.

zoe 2

Presenting my research (with Prof John Mairi Blackings, University of Juba) at the Catholic University of South Sudan, Juba. (photograph courtesy of the Institute of Justice and Peace Studies)

Through the AHRC network we have also brought some of the South Sudanese diaspora in the UK into the research conversation. One comment about the museum collections, from a member of the South Sudanese diaspora in London, has stuck with me. He said “these things are important because they are about us. They are about people and a future that can be better than the past.”  As South Sudan grapples with a new civil war, which shows no signs of ending, these objects seem to offer constructive ways of thinking about South Sudanese identity.

Another development, which underlines the importance of the Italians collections, has been the decision in 2017 by the Government of South Sudan to put the former slave-station of Deim Zubeir on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites. Deim Zubeir is where Romolo Gessi fought with and defeated the merchant Suleiman Idris. Gessi subsequently took a ‘trophy’ from Suleiman (including his sword) and obtained other objects at Deim Zubeir. These are now stored in the Museo delle Civilità in Rome and the Musei Civici of Reggio Emelia. These museum collections could be used to build a better picture of the site in the nineteenth century and be put into a productive dialogue with heritage initiatives in South Sudan.

Zoe Cormack is now Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. She has held postdoctoral research awards at The British Institute in Eastern Africa and the British School at Rome.

For an opportunity to see Zoe’s Summer Showcase exhibit, visit the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018, at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AH. Open: Friday 22-Saturday 23 June,11 a.m.-5 p.m. and open for a late-night view: Friday 22 June, 6.30-9pm. 

For more information on the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018 click here.


BSR Library Special Collections. Gift from Mark Getty, BSR Chair of Council.

Professor David McKitterick introduces a selection of the latest addition to the BSR Library’s Special Collections.

Quite apart from its modern collections, the BSR owns a remarkable collection of early printed books, many of them from the library of Thomas Ashby, to which other benefactors have given since. But the BSR has not been able to add to these for a long time. When in February the collection of books about Rome assembled by Sergio Rossetti came onto the market in Milan, there was an unprecedented opportunity to enrich the library.

Rossetti’s four-volume bibliography of Rome was published in 2000-4, and he built up his own remarkable collection alongside. Thanks to the imagination and prompt generosity of Mark Getty, the BSR was able to acquire over a hundred volumes at the auction, dating from the early sixteenth century to the late nineteenth.


Mark Getty with Director Stephen Milner and Librarian Valerie Scott

Some were magnificent illustrated books, such as Pietro Castelli’s volume of engravings of rare plants in the Farnese gardens (1625), or Pietro Ferrerio and Giovani Battista Falda’s engravings of palazzi (c.1660) many of which have now disappeared, while the great etchings in the folio Rovine del castello dell’Acqua Giulia (1761) show Piranesi’s interests as simultaneously antiquary, architect and hydraulic engineer.

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Engraving from Pietro Ferrerio, Palazzi di Roma di più celebri architetti, Roma [1655-70]


Engraving from Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Le rovine del castello dell’Acqua Giulia situato in Roma presso S. Eusebio…..…, Rome 1761

The copy of Giacomo Lauro’s collection of views Antiquae urbis splendor (1637) is in an impressive gilt binding with the arms of Pope Urban VIII. A group of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century books about the Tiber focusses , not surprisingly, on the periodic floods. An illustrated volume by Nicolai Alemanni on the Lateran palace (1637) focusses on Pope Leo III’s grand new ninth-century dining room, or triclinium, decorated with mosaics and only some of which survives.

At the core of this wonderful accession is a large group of guidebooks, in Latin, Italian, French and English, to be added to the already notable collection of these already on the shelves in the BSR. While such books are obviously reflections of local identity and are invaluable for anyone trying to unravel the history of ownership of works of art, they are also some of the closest ways we can come to seeing the world through the eyes of earlier centuries.

Just to read the ever more detailed guides, meeting the needs of seventeenth-century tourists such as John Evelyn or John Milton, or a host of eighteenth-century visitors, is not only to begin to see with their eyes, but also to wonder at the energies of people who (if they followed some guidebooks’ instructions) were expected to see Rome sometimes in as little as three days: the Vatican and Trastevere could easily be dealt with in just one. But these guidebooks tell us more.


Frontispiece from Pompilio Totti, Ritratto di Roma antica……….., Roma 1645

Pompilio Totti, the much-printed author of the best of the seventeenth-century guides, showed how Rome could be divided into antica and moderna.  By the time we come to read his even more popular successor, the archaeologist Antonio Nibby (first published shortly after the Napoleonic wars and widely available in Italian and French) there are new concerns, arising from the ever-more revealing excavations. How should ruins be preserved, and how should they be shown off? These remain no less topical questions today.


Frontispiece from Pompilio Totti, Ritratto di Roma moderna……….., Roma 1645

Of the later books, one further might be selected among these prizes. Matthew Dubourg’s  Views of the remains of ancient buildings in Rome and its vicinity  (London, 1820) has become rare because so many copies have been broken up for the sake of the lovely hand-coloured illustrations. But the text is worth reading as well, influenced by the fashion for gothic novels and written by a person informed by the dramatic paintings of Salvator Rosa. This is the Rome of the romantics, published just a few months before Keats died. Not surprisingly, Byron is quoted on the Colosseum: ‘a noble wreck, in ruinous perfection’. All these books invite further study, and all are being added to the union catalogue URBiS (


From Matthew Dubourg, Views of the remains of ancient buildings in Rome and its vicinity…………, London 1820

Meanwhile, a selection is currently on display at the Entrance Hall of the BSR.

Text by David McKitterick, Emeritus Honorary Professor of Historical Bibliography, Trinity College, Cambridge.


David visited the BSR and gave a fascinating talk to staff, residents and award-holders about the new arrivals.



The research potential of our Special Collections has been enhanced by this remarkable gift and our aim now is to seek funding for specific BSR Library awards to generate more opportunities for research projects based on our rich collections.

Text by Valerie Scott, Librarian

Photos by Antonio Palmieri

Ashby Adventures 2018

Last week we hosted our Ashby Patrons visit to Rome. This is always a very special weekend in the BSR’s calendar when we welcome our Ashby Patrons to the BSR for an action-packed few days of adventures both inside and outside the city. This year was no exception with a full and expertly tailored programme of excursions!

Always an important part of the weekend, is the opportunity for the Patrons to speak with resident award-holders and to visit the studios of artists resident at the BSR. This year was no different. On arrival the group were treated to a visual feast (indeed, a sneak preview of what is to come in next month’s June Mostra) by three of our artists in residence – Murat Urlali (National Art School, Sydney, Resident), John Robertson (Abbey Scholar in Painting) and Oona Grimes (The Bridget Riley Fellow). After visiting the studios the group joined BSR residents and staff for dinner.


Murat Urlali (National Art School, Sydney, Resident) in his studio

The first full day began with a visit to the Venerable English College, the Catholic seminary in Rome which trains priests from England and Wales.


After a hearty welcome from Ryan Service, a Seminarian from the Archdiocese of Birmingham, the group had the privilege of being led around the college, current exhibition and the archives, by Archive Coordinator and BSR Research Fellow Professor Maurice Whitehead. This visit was also an opportunity to explain to the group the British School at Rome’s ambition to work in collaboration with Venerable English College to open access to their archives, facilitating the opportunity to bring UK scholars to Rome to study them.


Sustained by a fine lunch, the group progressed to the second visit of the day, a guided tour of Palazzo Pamphilj (situated within Piazza Navona and now home to the Brazilian Embassy in Italy) led by Assistant Director Tom True.


Within the Ashby group we were lucky to have BSR Former Chair of council Timothy Llewellyn, expert on the frescoed ceiling of Pietro da Cortona, who explained the story of Aeneas depicted on the ceiling above. We were then treated to a spectacular view from the balcony to the piazza below.

After a day of visual and gastronomic treats, those who had the strength, stomach and courage, rounded off the day with a gelato at Giolitti!


Relaxed and refreshed, the second day saw the Ashby group venture out from Rome to Lake Bracciano, to enjoy a guided tour of Castello Odescalchi bathed in sunshine.



After the tour the group enjoyed a delicious feast comprised of locally sourced ingredients at an agriturismo in Trevignano. Yet, this was not the end of the days programme, upon arrival back to the BSR, Marco Iuliano (member of the BSR Faculty of Archaeology, History and Letters) gave a presentation entitled ‘Notes on the Cartography of Rome’, with particular reference to special holdings from our Library, including a map by Giovani Battista Cingolani della Pergola (1704), which depicts Lake Bracciano.


The advent of the final day revealed that some of the best treasures had been saved until last. Valerie Scott (Librarian and Deputy Director) presented the Library’s latest addition, a gift of rare books presented to the BSR earlier this year by Chair of Council Mark Getty.

To round off the trip, Director Stephen Milner brought the Ashby’s up-to-date with his vision of the future for the BSR, prompting a lively discussion. As per tradition, the weekend concluded with brunch at Caffè delle Arti with reflections on the activities and success of the weekend.

It was a delight to host the Ashby Patrons, and was a chance to say thank you for their continued support and guidance, which is wholeheartedly appreciated and valued by the whole BSR community.

Roll on next year…!


Blog and photographs by Alice Marsh (Events and Communications Assistant) 


‘Bridging the Tiber’: a new doctoral training programme at the BSR

Currently serving three universities and due to expand to encompass a further four, the Northern Bridge doctoral training consortium embarked this year on a new initiative. Sixteen doctoral students, drawn from across the arts and humanities, spent a week at the BSR including valuable time at Keats Shelley House.  The aim was for the students to engage with a series of case studies in advanced research, and to be enriched by that most powerful of things, time in the BSR’s interdisciplinary environment to chew over ideas with one another and the BSR’s award-holders in residence.


Northern Bridge doctoral students at the BSR (Photo by Antonio Palmieri)

The event had its genesis in a meeting with the BSR’s then director, Christopher Smith, the outgoing director of the Northern Bridge consortium, Michael Rossington, Newcastle University’s PVC for Humanities and Social Sciences, Julie Sanders, and myself, but its development and successful delivery owed a huge amount to a much larger team.  BSR Director Stephen Milner offered a warm welcome to the group and delivered an outstanding session on the bioarchaeology of the book, an exemplar of the kind of interdisciplinary thinking we sought to showcase in the programme. Assistant Director Tom True offered invaluable guidance on the development of the week and led a delightful tour through some of Rome’s finest less well-known churches, and Christine Martin anticipated and mastered every logistical hurdle with consummate efficiency.


Tom True leads a tour (photo by Annie Tindley)

While the absence of Michael Rossington on his well-deserved retirement from Direction of the Northern Bridge was keenly felt, the whole endeavour was magnificently taken forward by his successor Annie Tindley, whose research in Britain’s relationship to Roman imperial history offered an ideal case study for our attendees.  Developing on one of Michael’s key insights, the value of the Keats Shelley House connection and that institution’s own fine research history, was Jon Quayle, a great addition to the team. Jon was able to draw on his own experience both as researcher in residence at the Keats Shelley House and as an early career scholar whose PhD was funded by the AHRC to help raise students’ awareness of its holdings, and was joined by the Curator, Giuseppe Albano in a fascinating presentation.

Our wonderful cohort contained students from many fields not normally represented at the BSR, but from the moment they arrived on Monday morning, they soon found themselves at home. Robert Coates-Stephens led a perfectly pitched tour of the Roman Forum on the first afternoon. This was followed the next day (Tuesday) by a trip led beneath the Lateran Basilica in which I sought to explore not just the subterranean world of Rome, but also the potential of Digital Humanities.  A stimulating session on Italian Cinema in the long sixties by Jacopo Benci kept colleagues talking and thinking about film studies throughout the week. Richard Terry from Northumbria University, soon to join the Northern Bridge consortium, kindly made the trip out to Rome to join us for a well-received plenary on ‘Literature and life assurance’, an absolutely fascinating topic.


Visiting the artists’ studios (photo by Annie Tindley)

Given the strength of the BSR and the richness of research in creative practice, we were keen to expose attendees to work in this area.  Accordingly, Marco Palmieri kindly arranged for a special tour of the BSR studios on Wednesday morning, with resident artists outlining how they were setting about their projects.  The session was a resounding success.  It was followed that afternoon with another highlight, a case study led by Helen Berry which drew upon her work on the life and times of the celebrated eighteenth-century opera singer Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci.  The rich discussion that followed, on the nature of academic publication and on the media’s engagement with research, was just the sort of debate we had hoped the week would yield.

Helen’s session was followed by ‘team time’, an opportunity for our students to spend time in their teams planning their group projects. Using the fine library resources of the BSR, their own skills and imagination, the students are to deliver projects on a theme of their choice on the topic of the UK and Italy to their peers at the Northern Bridge Summer Conference in June.

Thursday and Friday were delightfully occupied by the excellent case study sessions of Tom True, Stephen Milner, Jon Quayle and Annie Tindley, described above, before a closing address from Stephen. Stephen’s comments underscored the depth of the BSR’s commitment to engaging across the research community and reminded all present of just how much the BSR does and can continue to do to support cutting edge work across the arts, humanities and social sciences.

While there are always lessons to be learnt, the unanimous conclusion of all who participated was that this was one of the most exciting, energising and fruitful experiences of their research careers.  Planning is already underway for next year’s event. I feel enormously privileged to have been a part of it all.


Professor Ian Haynes (Newcastle University)



Early Rome and the environment: from ancient myths of the Tiber to modern city sinkholes

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Kresimir Vukovic (Oxford) is one of our current Rome Fellows, resident at the BSR from October 2017 to June 2018. Kresimir’s research has focused on the mythology of the Tiber in Roman space and literature. In this blog he talks about his research, looking back at his recent lecture for the City of Rome Postgraduate Course, and showing us some of the new directions his work has taken this year.

When our Cary Fellow, Robert Coates-Stephens asked me earlier this year if I would give the inaugural lecture for the BSR City of Rome Postgraduate Course my feelings were mixed: I was honoured by the offer of this great privilege but at the same time started wondering how it is that I got so old so quickly. It seems like ages, but it was only five years ago that I sat in the same lecture theatre as a student on the same course (no grey hair then) listening to Christopher Smith talk on early Rome.

The focus of my lecture was on the role of the environment in the development of Rome as a city in the archaic period from the 8th to the 6th century BC. Rome owes its existence to an excellent strategic location on defensible hills placed near the Tiber Island, which provided a natural point for crossing the great river Tiber. This situation was essential in the development of settlements at a time when there were no bridges and very few boats.


A reconstruction of the hydrological state of early Rome.

But the location also presented problems which quickly emerged as the settlements on the hills of Rome began to coalesce into a city: the inhabitants had to face the difficulties of expanding onto floodplains that stretch between the hills and close to the river. The Tiber flooded the valley between the Capitol and the Palatine on a regular basis, every winter, and the Romans started massive building projects in order to raise the level of the area that was to become their new city centre, the Roman Forum.


Romulus and Remus by Peter Paul Rubens

The process left indelible traces in the mythology of Rome: the foundation myth tells how the twin infants Romulus and Remus are saved because the Tiber was in flood and the myth of Vertumnus, the shapeshifter god, had a sanctuary in the Forum because it was believed that he turned back the river from the area. In my lecture, my stress throughout was on the way that history is told through myths as I believe mythology is the universal language that best communicates the complex realities of ancient Rome and its relationship to the environment. In this sense Roman myths continue to speak to us today.


Vertumnus and Pomona by Peter Paul Rubens

The subject of the environment is becoming increasingly more topical as we come to feel the effects of climate change. One of the myths I talked about was that of Marcus Curtius, a knight who offered his life in an effort to close a massive sinkhole that opened up in the midst of the Forum. Nowadays Rome’s soil continues to remain unstable: high levels of rainfall this year have caused as many as 44 sinkholes to open up in the low-lying areas of the city and there has been an average of 90 sinkholes a year in Rome since 2010. This is partly a consequence of building on ground made up of unconsolidated sediments that the Tiber floods have deposited over the centuries.


Marcus Curtius by B.R. Haydon 1843

This century has been called ‘the century of water’ and the value of clean water as a resource grows in importance every day. In its recent World Water Report the UN calls for greener ways to deal with water management and draws special attention to ecosystems such as river valleys. When it comes to ecosystems, the report notes (p. 23) that we have important lessons to learn from ancient history. The collapse of early great civilizations of Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus-Ganges and the Yellow River was caused by hydrological changes. The BSR is the ideal place to explore various aspects of water management through history. The great river of Rome was the subject of detailed studies in the BSR Tiber Valley project and I recently organised a symposium on the Tiber (The River and the City, 26 March) that revisited the topic.


The river Tiber with Romulus and Remus, Capitoline hill



Research on Portus, the imperial port of Rome continues with BSR archaeologists Stephen Kay, Simon Keay and Peter Campbell all involved in new discoveries. Water has also featured in the work of many scholars and artists in residence at the BSR this year. To name but a few: Lara Pucci presented her research on the symbolism of fascist fountains in her lecture on 28 February while Thea Ravasi gave a guided tour of emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli (25 March) and spoke about the use of water in its monumental spaces. Josephine Baker-Heaslip’s work at the March Mostra highlighted the relationship between humanity and the environment while Marie-Claire Blais’ art was influenced by her thinking about patterns and water. Residing with artists and scholars who share similar interests but look at them from different angles is a unique experience which I found most stimulating in my work as Rome Fellow this year.



Reconstruction of Rome’s imperial port—Portus, copyright Artas Media/Grant Cox


Krešimir Vuković (BSR Rome Fellow; Oxford)

Profile photograph of Kresimir by Antonio Palmieri.