The instrumental street art of Pinacci nostri

Ellie Crabtree is Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust, October-December 2018) and here she tells us about her research into multidirectional memory and contemporary street art in Rome.

I arrived at the BSR to find out more about how street art in Rome is changing the way in which people engage with the city and its histories. My first month was dedicated to visiting the many street art projects that have developed in the city’s peripheral quartieri in recent years. It was during these journeys that the Pinacci nostri project caught my attention. As an extraordinary example of the agency of cultural practices to motivate new, more active ways of using city space, the project enacts the potential that Doris Sommer ascribes to art in The Work of Art in the World (2014) as neither useful nor useless, but provocative.

Pinacci nostri describes itself as a street art ‘movement’ which since 2015 has realized around 70 murals in Pineta Sacchetti, a neighbourhood to the north west of Rome. The movement originates with the migration of Lello Melchionda. Having moved to the area as an adult from Avellino, when his son was born he realized that he knew nothing about the history of the area to pass on to his first-generation ‘piccolo romano’. His curiosity led him to carry out a personal oral history project with the area’s older generation inhabitants whom he got in contact with through local Facebook groups. Around this time Lello also got to know the Muracci nostri street art project in neighbouring Primavalle which gave him the idea of initiating a street art movement that would use muralism as a means of publicly recounting the private and collective memories he had gathered.

La bicicletta verde

La bicicletta verde by Tina Loiodice, Via Calisto II

Borghetto Braschi

Borghetto Braschi by Carlo Gori
Via Calisto II


During my interview with Lello, he emphasized to me that for Pinacci nostri street art has always been seen as an instrument, as a ‘motivator’ rather than a ‘container’. This reminds me not only of Doris Sommer’s urge for us to view culture in terms of its provocative potential, but also of the conviction of writers in memory studies about the potential of memorywork to provoke new ways of being in the present as much as in the future.

La street art è stata lo strumento per mettere insieme le persone, portarle in strada.

Lello Melchionda

From this perspective, Pinacci nostri’s twin objectives to use street art to motivate social links in the area and to publicly commemorate past events doesn’t seem coincidental. In fact several murals recall past examples of resistance ‘dal basso’ successfully carried out by locals in Pineta Sacchetti, including those that commemorate the campaign ongoing since the 1970s to protect the local park Pineto from development. At the same time as recalling these past campaigns, the murals in the park are themselves instrumentalised as agentic objects that draw attention to the park as a cultural space, further promoting its protection against the continued threat of development. Enacting what Sommer describes as the ‘acupuncture’ effect of cultural acts which catalyse further acts, Lello also told me how the attention on the park generated by the murals led to it being used for new activities, including by an outdoor theatre group FuoriContesto and by the new ‘popular’ football team, Pineto United, whose players comprise locals from Pineta Sacchetti and asylum seekers from the local centro d’accoglienza.

Se ne casca una...

Se ne casca uno ne pianteremo cento / If one falls, we’ll plant a hundred by Qwerty, La casina in Pineto park. The initials S.E.P. on the bomb refer to the Società edilizia Pineto which wanted to redevelop the park.

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, the very act of realizing the murals—which the project’s artistic director Carlo Gori describes as a ‘process’—became a powerful tool for bringing together neighbours who had never previously spoken to one another but who share common interests in redeveloping cultural and social life in the area. In addition to a new organisation of volunteers that take care of the piazza, Pinacci nostri also fostered the establishment of Urban Arts Project which provides a space to put on cultural events.

Pinacci nostri is not the only example in Rome of the tangible provocative effect of public art. On the other side of the city, the Museo dell’altro e dell’atrove (Maam) is a contemporary art museum housed in an abandoned factory that protects the homes of the people (most of whom are recent migrants to Rome or are part of the Roma community) who illegally occupy the building. Earlier this month I organised for a group of artists and scholars from the BSR to have a guided visit of the museum. One of the first murals we were shown, which is by Stefania Fabrizi, depicts an army of incorporeal figures who are only seen because of their highlighted outlines. The tour guide Gianluca Fiorentini explained to us that these figures each represent the way in which the Maam considers each artwork: as a warrior that peacefully protects the homes of those who live in the museum.

As someone whose gaze is normally only turned towards contemporary culture, being at the BSR has given me a deeper awareness that the provocative potential of cultural practices, and particularly of public art, is far from a new phenomenon in Rome. From the perspective of my thesis, which explores current cultural practices that destabilise conventional ideas about Rome, I can’t help thinking that the emergence of projects like Maam and Pinacci nostri in the city is not entirely coincidental. Together they hint at the ongoing potential of Rome’s extraordinary historical palimpsest as a place in which to continue to explore and to incite the provocative potential of cultural practices in the present.

I guerrieri della luce

I guerrieri della luce (2013) by Stefania Fabrizi, Maam. Photo by Emma Bond.


Grazie mille to Lello Melchionda for kindly offering me his time for an interview, as well as to Gianluca Fiorentini for his English-language tour of the Maam for the visitors from the BSR.

For more information about Pinacci nostri and Maam:


Ellie Crabtree (Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust))

All photos by the author unless otherwise indicated.


An ambasciata d’obbedienza to the Holy See: the marchese Giambattista Lupi as Ranuccio II Farnese’s envoy to Clement X in 1671

John Condren is Rome Awardee at the BSR (October-December 2018) and here he tells us about his research project on the marchese Giambattista Lupi as Ranuccio II Farnese’s envoy to Clement X in 1671.

My first ever visit to Rome was in mid-July 2017, as the Lucifero heatwave caused intense difficulty for the entire Italian peninsula. In baking heat, I spent an enjoyable three days in visits to the Musei Vaticani and the Palazzo Barberini, climbed the dome of St Peters, brazenly flouted the city’s by-laws concerning the eating of gelato on the Spanish Steps, and jostled through the crowds at the Trevi Fountain.

My Roman sojourn in that marvellous summer was an agreeable prelude to three weeks of archival research in the north of Italy, in the state archives of Parma, Modena, and Mantua, all of which I had worked in several times before. I am continuing to develop my 2015 PhD thesis (on Louis XIV and these small Italian principalities) into an academic monograph. My first stop after Rome was beautiful Parma, three hours to the north by train, and considerably more tranquil than the Eternal City at the height of summer. The Archivio di Stato in Parma boasts a vast wealth of documentation from the late seventeenth century, and specifically on the Farnese dynasty’s material and ecclesiastical interests in the Papal States.

During my stay in Rome I had wandered into Piazza Farnese to gaze in admiration at the sixteenth-century palazzo which dominates it.

1. Palazzo Farnese

Palazzo Farnese

2. Palazzo Farnese

This was the seat of the dynasty from northern Lazio which had tasted the grandeur of the papacy (Pope Paul III, r. 1534-1549) and which was one of the most important aristocratic families in Renaissance Rome. My research on the Farnese in the seventeenth century concerns their use of French diplomatic support in Rome to gain concessions from the Holy See. In the 1640s, Duke Odoardo Farnese, ruler of Parma and Piacenza, had fought an inconclusive war against Pope Urban VIII [Barberini] over the Duchy of Castro, an enormously wealthy territory which had long constituted part of the Farnese patrimony. The conflict flared up again in 1649, whereupon it was ultimately agreed in 1652 that Castro should be returned to the Farnese after eight years, on payment of a substantial fine.

3. Castro


But in 1660, Pope Alexander VII [Chigi] declared that the Farnese had never paid their debts, and accordingly he formally confiscated (incamerated) the duchy of Castro and the county of Ronciglione. Duke Ranuccio II (Odoardo’s son) protested volubly through diplomatic channels at this manifest injustice, but to no avail.

4. Ranuccio II Farnese, duke of Parma and Piacenza (r. 1646 - 1694)

Ranuccio II Farnese

Alexander remained unmoved – at least until 20 August 1662, when his Corsican Guards made the mistake of attacking the French ambassador’s carriage outside the Palazzo Farnese – now leased to the French monarchy and serving as its embassy to the Holy See. This caused a serious diplomatic incident. Sensing an opportunity, Ranuccio allied himself with France in the ensuing quarrel between Louis XIV and Pope Alexander VII – something of a cold war, which lasted until February 1664.

Cardinal Chigi apologising to Louis XIV

Cardinal Chigi apologises to Louis XIV in August 1664 on his uncle’s behalf

Thanks to Louis’s insistence, Ranuccio once again received papal promises that Castro would be his after another eight years – so long as he paid some 1.8 million scudi which the Camera Apostolica claimed was still outstanding. This stipulation proved impossible for the Farnese, whose treasury had been depleted by Duke Odoardo’s fecklessness in the 1630s and 1640s.

Knowing all this, I was intrigued and delighted to discover in the reading-room in Parma the journal of an ambasciata d’obbedienza (embassy of obedience) which Ranuccio dispatched to Rome in the spring of 1671, after the elderly Cardinal Emilio Altieri had been elected to the throne of St Peter as Pope Clement X. Such embassies to Rome (widely perceived as being the Teatro del mondo) were important ceremonial occasions. They served to reinforce the moral right of the Church to exercise temporal power in the Italian peninsula, as the perceived defender of Italian ‘liberties’ against profane invaders from beyond the Alps (such as the French). With time running out to repay the vast sum still owing for Castro (due by 1672),  Ranuccio was hopeful of persuading a sufficient number of cardinals friendly to the Farnese that his claims could be honoured without recourse to his limited funds. The ambassador whom Ranuccio accredited to the new pope was the 45-year-old marchese Giambattista Lupi di Soragna, from the province of Parma. Coincidentally, after 1945, one of the first Italian ambassadors from the new Italian Republic to the Holy See was also a member of the Lupi di Soragna family.

6. Rocca di Soragna

Rocca di Soragna

After permitting myself a wry chuckle that an individual whose surname translates as ‘wolves’ should be sent on embassy to a city founded by a she-wolf’s adoptees, I settled down to read the document, noting the expenses which Giambattista Lupi incurred both in Rome and on his way there. The envoy purchased lavish presents for important dignitaries, and recorded his day-to-day expenses in meticulous detail. He described his reception in Rome and his meetings with the governor, various cardinals, the ambassadors of the major powers, and ultimately Pope Clement. The volume reflects my strong interest in what has been described as ‘new’ diplomatic history, wherein the actions, ambitions, and concerns of ambassadors, their families and their retinues are of more relevance than the intentions of their sovereigns.


Title page of journal

This journal is a valuable insight into the challenging role of a diplomat from a minor European state, in a transformative era in European history. Lupi’s accreditation to the papacy was an act born of desperation. His sovereign, Ranuccio II, ultimately failed to secure any concessions whatsoever from the Camera Apostolica, and similarly failed to interest Louis XIV in applying pressure in Rome. After 1672, the question of Castro was dead, although the Farnese casa attempted to revive it at European peace congresses until the early 1730s – when the last Farnese duke, the bon-vivant Antonio, died without heirs in 1731.

My research in Rome, stimulated by my 2017 discovery of Lupi’s journal, has taken me to the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and the Archivio Segreto Vaticano. Here, I have studied documents concerning the Farnese relationship with the Holy See, and the role of Louis XIV as a mediator on their behalf. Ranuccio II also strove to ensure that priests in good standing at the court of Parma were appointed as abbots and priors to vacant benefices in his territories, and to this end he enlisted the services of his family’s former enemies – the Barberini brothers, the cardinals Antonio and Francesco – whose magnificent portraits adorn the BAV.

8. Antonio Barberini

Antonio Barberini

I have also paid three visits to the Archivio di Stato in Naples, where much archival material concerning the Farnese (over 2,000 buste like the one in the photo) has been conserved since the eighteenth century. My research in Naples has yielded the correspondence of other Farnese ambassadors to Rome and France in the 1650s and 1660s – highly useful for comparison to Lupi’s mission. I have also discovered vast quantities of documentation concerning land ownership and ecclesiastical patronage in Castro and Ronciglione.

9. Archivio farnesiano, b. 567

From research in Naples

None of this work would have been possible without the supportive and enjoyable research environment provided by the BSR, and for this I am extremely grateful. When I was enjoying strawberry and mint-flavoured gelato in the Piazza del Popolo back in July 2017, I did not imagine that I would soon be staying a five-minute walk away in a beautiful Palladian villa for a full three months, and therefore able to conduct research of immense value to my current and future projects.

John Condren (Rome Awardee)


Mithras in Capua Vetere: shining new light

Philippa Adrych is the Judith Maitland Memorial Awardee at the BSR (October-December 2018) and here she tells us about where her research on the cult of Mithras has taken her during her residency.

Last week I took some time away from my cosy nook in the BSR library for a trip to Santa Maria Capua Vetere, a Campanian town only forty-five minutes from Naples by train. This wasn’t my first time there, so I knew roughly what to expect: winding streets, a general air of sleepiness, and then – suddenly at the end of a road – the arches of a Roman amphitheatre.

PA 1

The distant arches of the amphitheatre 

But, impressive though it is, I hadn’t actually come to Capua Vetere for the amphitheatre. I was visiting for something far more hidden away: a mithraeum. Capua Vetere has one of the most famous examples of a sanctuary to the Roman god Mithras (mithraeum) in Italy. Located underground, it follows the traditional shape of mithraea: rectangular, narrow, with stone benches lining a central aisle and leading towards a cult image on the rear wall.

When I was in Capua Vetere before, I was mostly interested in frescoes on the fronts of the benches, which are usually thought to represent scenes of initiation. The Roman worship of Mithras is typically categorised in scholarship as a ‘mystery cult’, with accompanying ideas about secrecy, a membership that was restricted by gender (men only, as far as we can tell) and perhaps by initiation.

But on this visit, I wanted to spend more time looking at the fresco that fills the back wall of the mithraeum, and is its most defining feature.

PA 2

Tauroctony fresco, Capua Vetere mithraeum 

It shows the youthful god Mithras kneeling on the back of a large white bull to subdue it; with his right hand, he plunges a dagger into the bull’s shoulder. This is a depiction of the tauroctony (bull-slaying) scene, that is found in almost every mithraeum around the Roman Empire, from Syria to Spain. Opinion on the meaning of the scene is still divided, but it was clearly so important to worshippers that it became the defining marker of their sacred spaces.

This tauroctony fresco is remarkable for the preservation of its colour: rich reds, blues, greens and yellows that make the figures incredibly vivid. The action takes place within a representation of a cave, with painted stones forming a semi-circular vault over Mithras’ head. Just outside the cave you can find small busts of Sol and Luna, the divine personifications of the sun and moon. They can be identified by their attributes: the crescent moon for Luna, and a whip and radiate crown for Sol. One of the rays from Sol’s crown pierces through the rocks of the cave and the shadows within, until it brushes up against the edge of Mithras’ cloak.

PA 3

That faint ray of light

What could this signify? Could it be intended as a way of bringing light into the darkness of the cave? Or should we interpret it as a means of involving Sol in the moment of bull-killing? One thing we do know is that this motif was not unique to Capua Vetere. It appears on tauroctony frescoes from the mithraeum of the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and the mithraeum at Marino in Lazio. It can also be found on several stone reliefs, many of which are Italian in origin. The features of the scene vary: sometimes the ray reaches towards Mithras’ eye; sometimes Sol doesn’t even seem to be looking at the action within the cave. A copy of a relief now in the Naples Archaeological Museum hangs above the entrance to the Capua Vetere mithraeum, as though preparing you for the fresco inside.

PA 4

Tauroctony relief, Capua Vetere mithraeum

There is no rocky cave on this relief; the ray disappears amidst the folds of Mithras’ cloak, and the god turns to look directly at Sol.

Details like this inevitably raise more questions than we can answer. But that doesn’t really matter. One of the joys of staying at the BSR is undoubtedly the opportunity to visit mithraea and to shine some faint light onto Mithraic esoterica. My research has always centred on the primary sources for Mithraic worship, particularly its archaeology and art; my trip to Capua Vetere fired me with enthusiasm to look more closely at the richness of Mithraic material culture, and left me ready to get back to my writing desk.

Philippa Adrych (Judith Maitland Memorial Awardee)

All images by Philippa Adrych.

The Roman art world in the 18th century and the birth of the art academy in Britain


Roma • London

The Roman art world in the 18th century and the birth of the art academy in Britain

(BSR, Monday 10 December; Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Tuesday 11 December)

Organised by Adriano Aymonino, Carolina Brook, Gian Paolo Consoli and Thomas-Leo True

On Monday 10 December 2018 the BSR will stage the finale to a celebratory year of nationwide and international exhibitions and events marking the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Our conference is a milestone in a major research initiative to better understand the intellectual history of instruction in the arts. We are studying Italian influences on the emergence of an institutionalized system of education for artists and architects in 18th-century Britain. Paris had captured pole position amongst artistic centres, but national conversations around the teaching of art were still powerfully conditioned by Rome, its intellectual traditions and its pedagogical models.

The conference will show what, how and why Roman ideals infused the curricula of British arts institutions, driven by motivations that ranged from niggling over standards of draughtsmanship to propounding grandiose new national visions. We will hear interpretive studies on painting collections, plaster casts, portfolios of sketches, publications and a range of Rome-inspired teaching materials used to evidence intellectual claims made upon art. This interdisciplinary study also reveals how newly devised pedagogical models in the arts and architecture intersected with cognate studies such as reason and natural philosophy, as well as demonstrating how these related to Roman paradigms.

The Royal Academy was the most illustrious and successful of all fledgling foundations that hatched during the 18th century as the nation strove to create its own modern system of the arts. The structure of our conference, splitting into two sessions labelled Before the Royal Academy of Arts and After the Royal Academy of Arts, reflects the magnitude of the path-breaking development of its foundation. But the course to its creation was not plain sailing, and our keynote speaker, Robin Simon (UCL), will address a century of erratic progress preceding the eventual foundation of a professional academy along European lines in Great Britain.

There were precursors and followers too. Contributors will recover lost episodes and compelling narratives of parallel projects, some with a mayfly lifespan, to formulate theoretical and educational models, or propose new institutions, that held Rome aloft as exemplar. Geographically, the conference will break free from its focus on London to incorporate regional movements, travelling from Oxford to Scotland, enabling a comprehensive reconstruction of the principles, networks and academies, inspired by Rome, which shaped British art and its institutions in the 18th century.

Although at the vanguard of the art world today, the RA was one of the last royal academies to be created in Europe. If the British trailed conspicuously behind in the foundation of an academy for arts, the BSR is punctual in toasting its accomplishments, launching the first day of our conference exactly 250 years to the day since George III signed the Instrument of Foundation.

We are thrilled that the second day of the conference will be held at the Accademia Nazionale di San Luca. There could be no more appropriate partner than the pre-eminent centre for arts education and theory in the Early Modern period and the model for subsequent academies of art worldwide. The bill of fayre will include a tour of the accompanying exhibition Roma-Londra. Scambi, modelli e temi tra l’Accademia di San Luca e la cultura artistica britannica tra XVIII e XIX secolo and, guided by the ethos of interdisciplinarity, proceedings will draw to a close with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ musical meditations on the architectural and mathematical principles on which Borromini’s work is based.

Unlike our 18th-century antecedents, the BSR is open to all! We hope to welcome you there.


Thomas-Leo True



Fake inscriptions and the eighteenth-century art market

Caroline Barron is a Rome Awardee at the BSR (October-December 2018) researching fake inscriptions and the eighteenth-century art market, and is about to start a three-year Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Birkbeck. Here she tells us about fortuitous encounters with artists and academics, and what she has learned about drawing as part of academic practice.

I couldn’t have imagined before arriving at the BSR that my research into epigraphic forgeries and the eighteenth-century art market would be guided by quite the extraordinary and fortuitous set of circumstances that I’ve been privileged to enjoy in the last eight weeks. I had a list of books to read in the library, the lapidary galleries of the Musei Capitolini and the Vatican to visit, and some archival work to delve into; chance encounters with scholars and sculptors weren’t exactly my top priorities. Fortunately for me, life at the BSR has a way of sending you in precisely the right direction, whether or not that was where you originally intended to go.


Not-so-fake inscriptions (CIL VI, 6209. Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano)

The research that I have been working on at the BSR is concerned with the fake Latin inscriptions that were produced for sale on the eighteenth-century art market; although there has been a wealth of scholarship on the statuary, busts and reliefs that were collected by the English Grand Tourists visiting Italy at that time, the existing literature has not addressed the lapidary inscriptions that were also acquired. My doctoral thesis sought to readdress that balance, and proposed that although often marginalised by later publications and catalogues of these marbles, Latin inscriptions were present in the overwhelming majority of collections made during the Grand Tour period, and were collected for very specific reasons. That research also uncovered the number of ‘fake’ or modern inscriptions that were present in these collections; whether added to otherwise ancient objects or created outright with the intent to deceive the collector, the number of epigraphic texts that were fabricated specifically for sale is striking, and worth much further investigation. Although the texts of many ‘fake’ inscriptions have been identified as falsae in the volumes of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, they have never been studied as artefacts, meaning that there is still much to discover concerning their provenance, how the texts were constructed and why they were considered attractive acquisitions. Much of my new research is concerned with questions such as did the collectors themselves care whether or not the inscriptions were indeed fakes, if their appearance and text were sufficiently ‘Roman’? What did they consider Roman and why? What sources were the forgers themselves using to compile the texts of the fake inscriptions? And to what extent is it possible to identify the hands of different forgers or their workshops across collections?


Fragment of a Latin inscription (Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano)

Many of these questions were addressed at a conference I attended in the second week of October in Venice, at Ca’ Foscari; over three days the XXIII Rencontre franco-italienne sur l’épigraphie du monde romain took epigraphic forgeries as its theme (‘Epigrafi di carta, epigrafi di pietra. Il ruolo della tradizione manoscritta nello studio delle iscrizioni genuine e spurie’) with a number of the papers dealing with issues of authorship, originality and the mechanics of identifying fake inscriptions through odd textual constructions and orthography.

I returned to Rome full of ideas but rather overwhelmed by the scale of work ahead. Fortunately, BSR Research Fellow Clare Hornsby was here to provide some much needed direction; her work on the role of Cardinal Albani in the antiquities market of the eighteenth century has coincided very neatly with my research, particularly concerning his involvement in the promotion of inscriptions as valuable collectibles in the early eighteenth century. I was equally pleased to find that Ronald T. Ridley was also visiting Rome from Melbourne, which has allowed me to pursue further research into the antiquarian Francesco de’ Ficoroni and his provision of columbaria inscriptions to Grand Tourists in the early part of the century. Although I have not yet found evidence for Albani or Ficoroni’s involvement in the forgeries trade, being able to talk to both Clare and Ron about their respective activity has helped me to build a much clearer picture of how the art and antiquities market was operating at that time, and how fake inscriptions may have been valued.


Caroline working on her Halloween costume with Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture Anna Brass.

Perhaps the most surprising and collaborative avenue of research came from the rather unlikely source of a Halloween costume; having accepted the generous invitation of the American Academy to attend their Halloween party, it was decided that the only suitable attire would be in the form of a Latin inscription, which I worked on with the kind assistance of the Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, Anna Brass. What initially started out as a bit of fun, in painting the lettering of a fake inscription in the British Museum onto a cardboard box, turned into an extremely productive discussion about the differences in monumental, public and funerary typography. We explored the serifs or characteristic strokes of fake letters compared with genuinely ancient ones through painting, with Anna encouraging me to consider their individual features through visual study; although much epigraphic work is done first hand, looking at the stones, this was the first time that I had attempted to draw the lettering myself, and I found the practice enormously useful in terms of the hand-to-eye muscle memory that it developed, bringing a closer understanding of exactly how those letters had been inscribed. Drawing as part of academic practice is an entirely new approach for the way I work with inscriptions, but one that I intend to continue when I return to London; in January 2019 I will begin a three-year Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Birkbeck continuing this work on forgeries, one component of which is the application of digital paleographical tools in my analysis of the fake texts. Rather than relying on the software to identify the characteristics I believe to be fake, a first step will now involve drawing the letters in order to understand the mechanics of their form, which can be translated with greater precision into the digital software. It is these kinds of collaborative opportunities that make the BSR such a unique institution; I can’t think of another department or situation in which artists and scholars are able to converse so freely, and with such productive results.

Caroline Barron (Rome Awardee)




Digital Humanities diary: UCLA DH workshop and British Library Labs

In this blog we asked some of our staff to let us know what they have learnt from some recent international digital humanities workshops and conferences, and how this might shape future research strategies here at the BSR.

Harriet O’Neill (Assistant Director for the Humanities and Social Sciences)43971306145_a5df6ef660_z

Attending two workshops dedicated to the Digital Humanities (DH) within a two-week period was an invaluable opportunity to gain truly international perspectives on the topic. The workshop held at the Helsinki Centre for Digital Humanities (7-8 November) was led by Annelie Rugg and Anthony Caldwell from the UCLA Centre for Digital Humanities and focused on setting-up, running and teaching in a DH lab. Previously I had considered DH primarily as a research methodology. This session gave me a far better understanding of the physical spaces required to run digital projects both now and in the future and inextricably linked to this, ideas on how to foster communities of researchers to use them.


Alessandra, Harriet and Peter arrive in Helsinki

Anthony Caldwell showed us several imaginative digital heritage projects, including reconstructions of the Chicago World’s Fair (1893). This talk reinforced what might appear to be obvious, that any use of the digital must address and help answer solid research questions rather than being used as an end in itself.

The Helsinki workshop was enriched by the diverse range of speakers who came to the British Library Lab Symposium on 12 November. I felt emboldened by the keynote delivered by Daniel Pett (Head of Digital and IT at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge) to experiment with digital technologies and vitally, consider how users beyond universities can benefit from such experiments particularly those relating to the heritage sector. The award ceremony was a central part of the symposium and drew attention to what makes digital humanities projects successful. The frank discussion of ‘failures’ and the need to document them for future users was much appreciated and revealing. I am now looking forward to building a digital component into my own scholarship and where appropriate supporting our award-holders to do the same, increasing my expertise and experience as we go.

Valerie Scott (Librarian) on the British Library Labs Symposium

Valerie Scott

Digital collections, online and freely available, inspire creative research. This was the message that came across very clearly at the sixth British Library Labs Symposium that showcased innovative projects using the BL’s digital content and data.

This event enables the BL to harvest research projects using material from their own collections, data that is often difficult to capture, by awarding prizes to the winning projects from four categories: Research, Artistic, Commercial and the British Library Staff Award.


The breadth and range of projects at the symposium was extraordinary and revealed how the same images can be used by artists, creative writers, archaeologists, architects and also a theatre group in different ways, reaching out to different audiences, including students, local communities, children or academics, through a variety of outputs, whether websites, interactive apps or exhibitions.

The Symposium brought home the potential of digital content and reinforced our commitment to supporting research on our own Special Collections which will be enhanced next year through a new scheme of Library and Archive awards.

Alessandra Giovenco (Archivist) on the UCLA DH workshop

AlessandraGiovencoThis workshop was led by UCLA, and among the projects created within the UCLA Lab, I personally found PARIS, Past & Present and the Lighthouse of Alexandria: very interesting . The basis for the reconstruction of the 3-D models might come from disparate sets of data: they might be coins, plans, visual material, photographs, and for this reason Libraries, Archives and Special Collections are formidable resources.


To sum up, here are a few things we learnt from the Helsinki conference:-

Why invest in digital scholarship? For small institutions that have started to develop a critical mass of projects of a certain quality by using digital tools or platforms, setting up a Digital Humanities space is a way of supporting a community of scholars across all disciplines. It is also an opportunity to create a scholarly footprint and leverage all the Humanities work generated in a digital dimension.

How to get started? Create a physical hub for a community, a space conceived as neutral territory across disciplines, where everyone can share ideas, knowledge, and expertise with people from different backgrounds.

What kind of resources are needed? Good will and expertise – any DH hub should not be seen as a service centre, but as a facilitating open space, a place where ideas take form and shape, where researchers are the agents of their own projects.  Of course, someone with broad technical and good interpersonal skills would be the ideal point of reference for any sort of digital humanities lab.

At the end of the two-day session, it became more evident that digital technology applied to scholarship in the Humanities can help researchers question huge amounts of data from a different perspective and open up new pathways to interpretation and critique. It does not pose a threat to research methodology but it challenges researchers in developing new modes of analysing datasets.


British Library Labs:

UCLA DH workshop at the Helsinki Centre for Digital Humanities:

Introducing…Harriet O’Neill, Assistant Director in the Humanities and Social Sciences

43971306145_a5df6ef660_z.jpgI am absolutely delighted to be at the BSR and also in Rome as both the institution and the city are almost perfectly aligned to my research interests. Before joining the BSR as Assistant Director for the Humanities and Social Sciences, I was College and then Exhibitions Curator at Royal Holloway, University of London and I continue my association there as an Honorary Research Associate. Working in a university meant engaging with staff and students from a broad range of academic departments including Modern Languages, Geography and Psychology and fundamentally informed the multidisciplinary approach I have adopted in my own scholarship. Being a curator in a research environment also proved to be a brilliant opportunity to experiment with new approaches to exhibition design and interpretation including the digital skills which help me think about effective ways of sharing and disseminating research. I am thrilled that my new position will allow me to continue with these research interests and work closely with library and archive collections, especially as those at the BSR are so rich.

I am an art historian by training and enjoyed using and developing these skills as the Vivmar Curatorial Assistant at the National Gallery where I co-curated Frames in Focus: The Sansovino Frame and assisted with Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art and Painters’ Paintings, as well as undertaking temporary rehangs and delivering gallery talks. This role immediately followed the collaborative PhD I undertook between UCL and the National Gallery entitled ‘Re-framing the Italian Renaissance at the National Gallery’. As the title suggests my research topic was frames and reframing in the literal and the abstract, a subject I shall continue to work on at the BSR. The natural extension of this appears to be hybrid objects and how they operate in space. I also have an interest in scenography and art history and the digital humanities and shall be feeding this into forthcoming events.

Highlights over the last two months include helping to deliver the October Being Human workshop, meeting the new award-holders and travelling to conferences in Venice and Helsinki. I have delivered two conference papers, the first in the UK and the second in Copenhagen, both focusing on art and the sacred environment. But really it is about being in an intellectually stimulating environment with supportive and social colleagues. I have gained so much from rethinking the BSR’s research themes with my fellow Assistant Directors, being supported by Stephen [Milner, BSR Director] with my research plans and thinking about culture as a diplomatic tool. I am also looking forward to developing PhD opportunities and perhaps a CDA project of the type that I benefitted from.


Harriet O’Neill (Assistant Director for the Humanities and Social Sciences)

Portrait photo by Antonio Palmieri.