Bridget Riley Fellow Sinta Tantra to design winning flag for the Palio di Siena

We were very excited and proud to hear that Sinta Tantra, our 2016–17 Bridget Riley Fellow, has been selected to design the drappellone for this year’s August Palio di Siena. She recently visited the city to meet with various members of Siena’s thriving Palio community to learn about the race and the traditions of the city and to gain inspiration from them.

Each summer since the seventeenth century, the medieval Tuscan city of Siena is taken over by the Palio, a horse race around the central Piazza del Campo. Two races take place, the first on 2 July and the second on 16 August, in which ten horses and riders representing a contrada (or district) of the city compete in the race, with the winner claiming the drappellone as the prize for their contrada.


Photo by Nicole Moffatt (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar)

In her appointment as the designer of this year’s August drappellone, Sinta continues the tradition begun in 1970 of having an international artist designing the winning flag. While the designs of the drappelloni vary greatly according to the artists’ styles, there are numerous elements that must appear in each: the Madonna of the Assumption (or the Madonna of Provenzano for the July Palio drappellone); the black and white shield which is the insignia of the city; the symbols of the current governing bodies of Siena and the district; and the banner or the animal symbolic of each participating contrada.

On the first day, Sinta was shown the contrada of Selva (Forest). Each contrada has its own church, in which their jockey and horse are blessed before the race, and a museum which houses the memorabilia from previous races, from outfits to flags to musical instruments, some dating back hundreds of years. The museums also proudly display all the drappelloni they have won over the centuries. These collections, along with the stories of historic rivalries between contrade and the passion with which they were told, reinforced the extent to which the Palio is steeped in tradition, and how much this tradition is treasured.

The second day included a visit to the Civic Museum, housed in the iconic Palazzo Pubblico of Siena which overlooks the campo where the races take place. Here Sinta was shown further Palio paraphernalia, including the lottery box (below, top-left) which assigns horses to contrade, jockeys to horses, and determines the starting line-up. This is where the factor of luck is introduced: the contrade do not know which jockey and which horse will be assigned to them until around three weeks before the race, when the lots are drawn.

Three further contradeOca (Goose), Torre (Tower) and Lupa (Wolf) were visited on the third day, when it became clear just how much each contrada wants to bring back the drappellone to house in their museum! Each contrada has a governing body, headed by a Priore Capo (chief), who manage the Palio matters of their district. It was striking to see how so much of the work that goes into the Palio is voluntary. Apart from on race-days, the seventeen contrade work together to ensure that the Palio continues to flourish — however, every 2 July and 16 August the niceties are laid aside!

At the Torre museum, Sinta met the designer of this year’s July drappellone, Laura Brocchi, which gave her the opportunity to discuss designs, materials and painting techniques. Until the mid-1970s, it was deemed that the artist for the July drappellone should be from Siena, after which the pool was expanded to include all Italian artists. This year, however, sees a return to tradition as Laura is from Siena.

The visit to the contrada of Lupa also gave the chance to see last year’s July drappellone, designed by Tommaso Andreini, which has pride of place in the contrada’s church.

A few weeks later, back in Rome, we had a special visit from new Sienese friends, who came to Rome to see the BSR, visit Sinta’s studio and, most importantly, to deliver the silk banner which will bear the design for the August drappellone. After the race, the flag will be carried through the city by the victorious contrada to the duomo of Siena.

The Palio posse visiting Sinta's studio

The Palio posse visiting Sinta’s studio: Senio Corsi, responsabile dell’ufficio Palio; Michela Bacconi, collaboratrice dell’ufficio Palio; Rita Bianciardi, responsabile dell’ufficio economato; Margherita Anselmi storica dell’arte.

Some days later, Sinta hosted a screening of the 2015 documentary film Palio, directed by Cosima Spender, to give a taste of the race and its traditions and to reflect on her involvement in the project so far.

Press:  Corriere di Siena | Corriere Fiorentino | La Nazione (front page) | La Nazione (article) 

Ellie Johnson (Communications & Events)

‘Mostra d’Oltremare’: A forgotten colonial exhibition in Naples

Zoe Cormack, one of this year’s Rome Fellows, recently visited Naples to see the remnants of the Mostra Triennale delle Terre Italiane d’Oltremare, a fascist-era colonial exhibition, as part of her research into ethnographic collections in Italian museums. Here she reflects on her visit.

The Mostra Triennale delle Terre Italiane d’Oltremare, which opened in Naples on 9 May 1940, was one of Europe’s last colonial exhibitions. Envisioned as ‘the largest and most complete survey of the force of Italian expansion overseas, from Caesar to Mussolini’ it was an extraordinary piece of fascist-colonialist propaganda. However, only a month after opening, Italy entered World War Two and the Mostra d’Oltremare closed. Today, the site in Campi Flegrei is partially accessible and remnants of the exhibition can still be seen.

My interest in the Mostra d’Oltremare arose during my BSR fellowship. I have been researching African ethnographic collections in Italian museums – and many objects from these collections were sent to Naples to be exhibited in the Mostra. The site was bombed in WW2 and all the exhibits were destroyed. In trying to understand the context for the loss of these objects, I’ve become increasing interested in this (largely forgotten) colonial exhibition. At the end of March, I had the opportunity to join a group from the Swedish Academy, led by Marie Kraft, to the site in Naples.

The Mostra d’Oltremare was conceived after the invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. It aimed to celebrate Italian colonial achievements and project the image of an important imperial power.  It was planned at the same time as the better known (although never opened) Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) in Rome. Naples was considered a fitting venue because it is an important port, linking Italy with the Mediterranean and Africa. There was also a town planning element – it was hoped the exhibition would contribute toward the development of west Naples and the expansion of the city.

There were three sections of the Mostra. A ‘historical’ section dealt with the history of imperialism from antiquity, to nineteenth century conquests in Africa, to the fascist present. It conveyed the idea of an ancient predestination to Italian colonialism. This was also illustrated in the Mostra’s official poster, which depicted a sandaled foot stepping down on north African soil. The ‘Production’ section included installations carrying messages about the value and potential of the empire. A ‘Geographic’ section contained a pavilion for each of Italy’s overseas territories (the focus was on North and East Africa, but Albania was also represented).

Artefacts were brought from museums across Italy. There were also living exhibits – a feature of European colonial exhibitions more widely. Materials and workers were transported from East Africa to construct authentic buildings for villaggi indigeni. Several families were brought from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia to perform. Horrifyingly, when the Mostra closed they were unable to return to East Africa and were forced to live near the site in terrible conditions, enduring bombing, until they were moved to a former concentration camp for women at Treia in 1943 (more details of this terrible story can be found in Brian Mclaren’s work)

Architecturally, the Mostra d’Oltremare aimed to fuse metropolitan and colonial environments. It was designed to give the visitor an experiential sense of being ‘overseas’. Plant and trees were imported to create a genuine sense of the exotic. One of the planners claimed in 1940 that it might be ‘the only public park to be built in Naples after the departure of the Bourbons’.

Visiting the Mostre d’Oltremare today is a strange experience. Apart from a brief reopening in 1952, it was completely disused until 1998. The site has now been partially rehabilitated as a conference centre, and there is ongoing renovation of some buildings. However, much of the site is overgrown and in ruins.

At the original entrance, you can see what is today called the ‘Tower of Nations’ (formerly the ‘Tower of the Fascist Party’). It is currently being restored to function as an event centre.

We were given access to enter another large building – the Cubo d’Oro (gold cube) – which is all that remains of the pavilion of Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa).

Inside the Cubo d’Oro there was originally a large globe (representing the reach of the Italian empire) and the walls featured inscriptions from Mussolini’s May 1936 Proclamazione dell’Impero and two frescos by Giovanni Brancaccio, depicting Mussolini’s ‘Triumph’. These extraordinary frescos have survived. The Roman past was widely used to glorify the fascist party, but it is still striking to see Mussolini so explicitly transplanted into the Roman Triumph (and in the context of colonial propaganda). There is another Rome connection here, as Brancaccio’s frescos were the inspiration for one of William Kentridge’s depictions of Mussolini in his recent ‘Triumphs and Laments’ mural on the banks of the Tiber.

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Inside the Cubo d’Oro in 1940, image reproduced in McLaren, 2014

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Brancaccio fresco in the Cubo d’Oro in 2017. Photograph by Zoe Cormack.

In 1940, the Mostra contained over 200 other artworks. Most of these were destroyed in WW2. Another large piece has survived on the wall of the swimming pool/restaurant complex. It is called Ritmi Africani (African Rhythms) designed by Enrico Prampolini and realised by the futurist ceramicist, Tullio d’Albisola.

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‘Ritmi Africani’ in 2017. Photograph by Zoe Cormack

Adjacent to the Cubo d’Oro is a small lake with a replica of part of the castle of Fasilides (Emperor of Ethiopia from 1631-1667) in Gondar. Across the lake is the coptic church (now ruined) and the area which housed the villaggi indigeni.

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Castle of Fasilides in 2017. Photograph by Zoe Cormack

Many of the buildings, such as the extensive ‘Libyan Pavilion’, designed by Florestano di Flauso, are completely inaccessible and decayed

There is so much more to say about the Mostra d’Oltremare, its place in the history of Italian imperialism and what it reveals about the intersections of colonialism, fascism and World War Two. I was initially drawn to the Mostra on the trail of objects lent from ethnographic collections to illustrate Italian contacts in Africa. But there is also a hidden history of violence perpetrated against the East African families who were first displayed, and then effectively interned at the exhibition as WW2 engulfed Naples. Naples was chosen as the site of the Mostra d’Oltremare because of the imperial connections its Mediterranean port represented. Today, in the context of the migrant crisis, the Mediterranean is the site of new and perilous forms of crossing. The Mostra d’Oltremare is an important reminder of the violent and extractive history underpinning contemporary relationships across the Mediterranean – it is worth our attention now more than ever.

I have drawn on the research of Giovanni Arena, Giacomo Dore (in ‘L’Africa in Vetrina’), Brian Mclaren and information leaflets produced by Mostre d’Oltremare to write this blog. More photographs and information about the exhibition can be found in their publications.

Zoe Cormack (Rome Fellow)

March Mostra 2017 / Meet the Artists… Sinta Tantra

Our annual March Mostra is opening tomorrow and we are really looking forward to seeing what our six resident artists and architects have produced over the course of the past three months. As the finishing touches are made to the gallery, we bring you a teaser of what to expect in the fifth interview of the Meet the Artists blog series, this time with Sinta Tantra, our inaugural Bridget Riley Fellow.

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Photo by Antonio Palmieri

Sinta Tantra describes her work as ‘painting on an architectural scale’, creating works that celebrate the spectacle, questioning the decorative, functional and social role of art. The compositional arrangements are rooted in formalism, when private becomes public and when the viewer becomes active. Her work is an ‘overlay’ of colour which inserts its identity within pre-existing spaces – heightening a sense of fantasy within a functional context. 

So far, has being in Rome made a big impact on your work?

Realistically speaking, it’s quite a difficult city to settle into – visiting as a tourist is quite a different experience to living here. Naturally, I am of course interested in the many artists and writers who were inspired by Rome, but equally, I’m also interested in the people who weren’t – James Joyce is an example. He said something like, ‘Rome was like visiting the corpse of your dead grandmother’. Quite a shocking thing to say, but for me it’s about looking at ideas around the ‘Grand Tour’ and subverting that.

In his letters to his brother, Joyce writes about walking around the city and how he has a new idea for a book which would later on become Ulysses. From this, I became interested in how you walk around Rome, the relationship the body has to the city and how our own individual journeys become invisible line drawings traced/overlaid onto the city itself.

I’ve also been inspired by the colours of Rome, not only in nature – there’s amazing light here –  but also in the fashion, style and music – everything is very vivid compared to say an ‘English taste’. People here seem to walk with confidence, a sense of ‘peacocking’ and I love it! The colours in my recent paintings have been inspired by this – more vivid, more reds and yellows.

Is this residency different in that, given that you are here for a longer period than usual, you wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to do two mostre?

Yes absolutely, I see it as both a residency and an academic programme with things being divided term by term. It’s very structured, so it’s quite nice having two mostre and being able to reassess and reflect at the end of each three-month period.

Have you found it difficult to manage all the travelling you’ve been doing?

Yes, I’ve been doing some travelling outside of Italy as I’m managing a few projects back in the UK and in Asia.  I’ve been trying to feed all these influences and inspirations back into my studio in Rome – the idea that ‘all roads lead to Rome’.

In your introductory talk, you showed us a lot of large-scale, outdoor installations – has the residency in Rome been a challenge, given that for this mostra you are in a way confined to the gallery space?

In the first term, I wanted to focus on settling in, contextualising my location, research and making paintings. The second term I’ll be doing public art projects and working outside the BSR. One of the things I’m interested in doing next term – maybe going back to this idea of journeys and walking around the city – is to create three mini public art interventions based on James Joyce’s walking route around the city.

If you could do an installation anywhere in the city, where would you choose? 

I’d love to do any of the piazzas. The piazzas here are like platforms or stages where people congregate. They have a very different feel to squares in the UK. Maybe that’s another thing I was inspired by – this Italian attitude of being ‘seen to be seen’. It’s quite dazzling for a foreigner because Romans come across with such confidence – a kind of bravado which I like and am trying to incorporate into my work.

What is usually your approach to making a final piece, and has that changed at all?

Regarding the painting process, it’s still the same. I’d say the colours have changed though because of the natural light in the studios. I can mix colours with more intensity, as opposed to London where I work under electrical light.

Do you think that being in an environment with both scholars and artists has had a different impact on your work than it would have had you been working solely alongside other artists?

The interdisciplinary side is very evident – scholars see and speak very differently to artists. But because of the community and the activities that go on here, conversations between us happen quite naturally.

Also, usually on a typical art residency, artists work more independently. The environment here at the BSR feeds into your work – you might be having a conversation with someone at dinner who will immediately take you to the library after coffee to give you a book to read.

Can you tell me a bit about your final piece for the Mostra?

It’s part painting, part sculpture, part domestic object. It consists of four painted screens configured in a way so that it’s free-standing rather than on the wall. Some of the motifs on it are inspired by the Piranesi prints that I came across at the BSR.

When it comes to choosing what to show in the Mostra, what is the process? Do you start a work thinking, ‘I’m going to show this in the Mostra‘, or do you come to a selection process and think, for example, ‘these three pieces work well together’?

A bit of everything: I plan for things quite in advance, but then again I take such pleasure in positioning my paintings in the gallery and how it interacts with the architecture. This is quite different from my public artworks that are always placed precisely.

And do you think that you can do that because it’s a six-month process – do you think that, say if you were here for just three months, you would try to encompass that whole process into that shorter time frame?

It’s very important as an artist to not just produce work, but to produce work, reflect on it, and then make new work in response to that. Having the six months enables you to learn a lot more.

Sinta’s work will be exhibited alongside the five resident artists in the March Mostra; open 16.30-19.00, Saturday 18 March until Saturday 25 March 2017, closed Sundays.

Interview conducted by Ellie Johnson.

March Mostra 2017 / Meet the Artists… Caroline Cloutier

The second awardee-in-focus as part of our Meet the Artists blog series as we approach the March Mostra is Caroline Cloutier, our Québec Resident. We spoke to Caroline about her practice, the installations that she has produced for the exhibition, and how her time spent in Rome has influenced her work.


Photo by Antonio Palmieri

Caroline Cloutier is interested in the reflective function that exists in specular and photographic images, and in their ability to evoke virtual spaces. Using mirrors and large-scale photographic prints, her installations deconstruct exhibition spaces or reveal them as a mise en abyme. Sculpted with new hollows and multiple surfaces, the spaces of her interventions become the locus of a truly upended reality, a virtual space of indeterminate boundaries into which the body is inscribed by mental projection.

Can you start by briefly describing what you will be showing in March Mostra?

For this exhibition, I have produce two different installations. One is a very large-scale photographic installation and it will interact with the architecture of the gallery. The second piece will be a small intervention in the gallery corridor.

Do you always keep the gallery space in mind while you are working – both for the March Mostra and for your other shows?

My art installations are always site-specific, and the same goes for these two installations for the Mostra. Usually, the way I work is to go into the [exhibition] space and I have to take time to understand how the architecture and the space work, and how the body feels in the space. After that I can use some of the architectural details: I photograph them and I use them as a trompe l’oeil, so the main idea is always to combine the virtual space and the real space. This is what I’m doing for the two Mostra pieces: they are installations but they are also images, and the resulting images depend very much on the architecture. I will use images of the floor, the ceiling and the walls, and duplicate these elements.

Can you explain the process behind selecting a space to work with?

It is not so much that I choose the space, rather the space determines what I want to do with the architecture, because I play with reflection. For example, for an installation I might place a mirror in front of an architectural detail to reflect it, so if I want my pieces to interact with the architecture and create an illusion of perspective, I have to know exactly where I’m going to work.

How has being at the BSR, or more generally in Rome, influenced your work? Has there been a site or museum or gallery that has made a significant impression on you?

Many sites in Rome have been inspiring for me, but Villa Farnesina is one that made a particular impression. It was very interesting, because a prime attraction of the Villa is the wall paintings which play with perspective and illusion and trompe l’oeil. The art piece is the room itself and its wall paintings, without needing to put other paintings or sculptures or furniture in the room, and for me it was very inspiring to see both how the artists played with perspective and the anamorphose that comes through the paintings when you move through the room. For me, it was a very immersive experience. Although it is very different from what I am doing now, being able to see the artists’ process of entering a room and asking ‘what can I create as a picture that will become an extension of the real space?’, and to see that they had been working this way even in the Renaissance period, was very inspiring.

Can you tell me a bit about these photographs that you have up in your studio? Have these been taken in Rome?
Yes, I can talk about this photo-montage of these four photographs I took in the Chiesa S. Carlino alle Quattro Fontane [first visited on a tour led by Assistant Director Tom True].

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Photos by Caroline Cloutier

This is in the crypta – I was so amazed by how all the spaces interrelate in this crypta. You have this central room, and outside of it you have these little niches and openings which let you see inside the central room. What you can see from those openings, the construction of it as you can see on the picture, is that it is so perfect. You really can see how the space was mathematically constructed and I was amazed by how it creates a perfect composition. I just took a picture of the openings to see how the space imbricates and how it is harmonious and perfect. This is a study for me, it is not a photographic artwork project. After the tour, I obtained permission and returned and worked in the crypta for about two hours and took many photographs, and these four photos capture a sense of what for me were the most striking observations in this space.

So, say you are going to see a site or a gallery or museum – do you take some pictures on your phone then go back with your camera if a place makes an impression on you?

Yes, I never carry my camera around with me so usually I will revisit a site with my camera. I will visit sites without having any expectations, and I can take photos with my phone but if a place makes a strong impression then I don’t even need to do that – I know that it is somewhere to go back to. And if after a couple of days I still have the place in my mind, I know that I need to go back and take my camera and see what is happening there.

Do you feel that after working here for three months your practice has changed, or has the way in which you approach you work changed?

It may change afterwards, I think. As we are talking now, I have been here two months and this is my first time in Rome and in Italy, and my first real contact with all those masterpieces of painting and architecture. So far I’m processing all this and I feel that it affects a lot of things in the way I’m thinking and the way I want to create, but for now it is too soon to say. Maybe for the mostra what has changed is that the two pieces of work that I’m showing are a lot more about anamorphose, which has not been such an important part of my work before. This is a slow process, but of course I have been moved by many of the new things I have discovered and it will change how I will work afterwards.

Is there anything else you would like to say about your work or about the mostra?

There are so many things to say about the subject, the themes around my work, where I want to head… I have recently thought that I would like to try out collages. But I haven’t had the time yet – the last two months have already gone so quickly! I went to the Olympic neighbourhood recently and took many photos of the buildings that were really interesting to me – the forms, the shapes, how the sunlight falls on the blocks, so I now have many photos of this area and I don’t know what will happen with that, maybe I will do a photo collage with those motifs. But because it is new, I don’t know how to work with it… maybe now that I have made the installations for the mostra, this is more the experimental part that I can begin to work on without the pressure of showing these new ideas in an exhibition yet. And maybe this is how my practice will change, because so far all my photomontages are done on the computer, and I really feel that I need to work more with paper and making things by hand.

Maybe that can be your next BSR residency!

It’s maybe something I will take back with me to Montreal and work on in my Montreal studio. I have a lot of new material now, which is great!

Caroline’s work will be exhibited alongside the five resident artists in the March Mostra; open 16.30-19.00, Saturday 18 March until Saturday 25 March 2017, closed Sundays.

Interview conducted by Ellie Johnson.

Keeping up with the borsisti: Part II

A few weeks ago, the Life at the BSR blog took a look at the progress of the research and practice of some of the award-holders who arrived at the BSR at the start of the year. This week we are checking in with the other new arrivals: JD Rhodes, Mark Somos and Caroline Cloutier.

John David Rhodes (Balsdon Fellow)


While staying at the BSR, JD is researching modern cinematic depictions of Rome in a project entitled The uneternal city: modern Rome according to cinema. During the past couple of weeks, he has shared his expertise with fellow BSR award-holders by arranging a two-part study series, Spatial and Visual Empiricism. The first session, Piazzas, Doors, Hallways, was a seminar held at the BSR in which the methods for thinking about urban and domestic space, and the spaces that link them, were discussed. The second session, Cinematic Place and Roman Urban History, put this discussion into practice as JD led his group to  EUR, a district in Rome which Mussolini chose to develop as a showcase of Italian Fascist architecture. Below are some photos of the EUR trip, taken by Zoe Cormack (Rome Fellow).


We are very much looking forward to JD’s talk, Disembowelled vision: Fascism, Rome and cinema, taking place at the BSR on Monday 13 March.

Mark Somos (Balsdon Fellow)


On his time spent as an award-holder in Rome so far, Mark writes: ‘My first month at the BSR was wonderful. Like Rome itself, the BSR staff and fellows are a daily source of joy and learning.

‘Work has been going well. For my main project on finishing a census of Vesalius’ Fabrica (1543 and 1555) I’ve visited the BNC, the Lincei, the Vatican and the Angelica, which together hold over half the total copies in Rome. My co-authors and I are on schedule with the  manuscript. Our publisher is very supportive, and continues to invest resources.

‘Because the project is going smoother than expected, I started another one. There were several possibilities, and Christopher [Smith, BSR Director] very kindly advised me on which one to follow. I am now reading Alberti’s I Libri della Famiglia, written in Rome and Florence in the 1430s-40s, and now regarded as the first work to seriously examine the boundaries between private and public in early capitalism. I’ve always thought that an insufficient interpretation of the book; and it turns out that Rome is the place to reread it. When Alberti discusses planting different pine trees, one finds several of the varieties he had in mind in the Villa Borghese. When he transforms the semantic range of terms like ‘masseria’ and ‘masserizia’ to cover thrift, economy, self-mastery, correct relationships within the household, the right way to protect the household from contentious and unprofitable politics, one can then talk to native Romans to learn that ‘masseria’ also invokes a widely recognisable, romantic architectural image of a self-sufficient homestead, something between a villa and a farm. I look forward to closely examining what is probably the most important (and neglected) manuscript in the Vatican.

‘My wife, son and I have also spent a great deal of time just walking around. It’s a joy to share this city, and spend days in the Vatican, Capitoline, MAXXI and other museums.

‘All three things – Vesalius’ anatomy atlas, Alberti’s manual on modern households and politics, and absorbing the living historical city en famille – are only possible here. From completing projects to starting new ones, I expect to enjoy my Fellowship’s benefits for many years to come’.

On Wednesday 8 March, Mark will be giving a talk entitled Gender and power in the reception of Andreas Vesalius’s Fabrica: results from the census, which we are very much looking forward to!

Caroline Cloutier (Québec Resident)


‘During the first weeks of my stay in Rome, I had the privilege of doing on-site studies of trompe-l’oeil paintings from the Renaissance. While those have given me important revelations for my current research, lately I have found myself being strongly inspired by the modern Italian architecture, and the late afternoon sunlight that draws sharp triangular shadows on the suburbian buildings. Feeling enriched from those heteroclite new inspirations, I am currently working on a unique site-specific photographic installation for the March Mostra, that will dialogue with the architecture of the BSR gallery’.

All portrait photos by Antonio Palmieri

‘I have walked this ancient road…’

Nicole Moffatt is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia. She is spending spring and summer at the BSR as the Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar for 2017. Her research project is A world both small and wide: Letter-bearers of antiquity. Here Nicole tells us about a recent walking trip on the Via Appia and how it reflects an earlier BSR tradition.

Richard Hodges, in his Visions of Rome: Thomas Ashby Archaeologist, provides an extract of a letter written in January 1920 by a young Winifred Knights, the celebrated British painter and BSR award-holder (1920-3). In it she describes a day spent with Thomas Ashby and other students hiking through the Alban Hills. Ashby, then director of the BSR (1906-25), was a keen walker, an activity he combined with research and photography of the ancient Roman remains across the Italian countryside. The occasion described by Winifred was not an isolated one, as students often accompanied Ashby on his field trips. Robert Gardener (Craven Fellow 1912 to 1914) for example took this photo of him in May 1913 at the Traiana Viaduct, on their journey on the Via Appia-Traiana.


Photo by Robert Gardner – Courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archive

It was only in drawing together notes and photos of a recent excursion into the Italian countryside for this blog that I came across Winifred’s description of a similar day nearly a century earlier. The following is an account of that more recent and particularly fine day, with a group from the BSR who likewise walked on the ancient Via Appia, before hiking into the Alban Hills for lunch.

Our group for the day was led by the BSR’s Finance Manager (seasoned hiker, Nick Hodgson), together with award-holders (from the left) Morgan Lewis (Scholars’ Prize in Architecture Winner), Vivien Zhang (Abbey Scholar in Painting), myself (on camera), Neil McNally (Abbey Fellow in Painting) and JD Rhodes (Balsdon Fellow). From the beginning the plan was clear: as always, coffee and cornetto first, then make our way to the beginning of the Via Appia and from there our way to lunch at Nick’s favourite place in the Alban Hills.


Photo by Nicole Moffatt

First, we took a short detour to visit the Fosse Ardeatine on Via XX Settembre. Here JD shared with us a beautiful and touching memorial dedicated to the 335 victims of a massacre by the Nazis in 1944 at Marzabotto. The monument included a magnificent mausoleum designed by architects Giuseppe Perugini, Nello Aprile and Mario Fiorentini in 1948. It consists of a massive tombstone that seemingly floated above a vast burial vault containing the granite tombs of the victims.


Photo by JD Rhodes

From here we walked on to the Porta Appia, or what is now known the Porta San Sebastiano. The gateway at the end of this road sits within a third century defence wall constructed by the Emperor Aurelian and within it the Arch of Drusus, dated to the first century AD.

The archives of the BSR house a substantial photography collections, including those of Thomas Ashby and Robert Gardener, from a period when the idea of capturing historical structures in the photographic form was still in its infancy. With help from BSR Archivist, Alessandra Giovenco, and Librarians, Morgan’s recent photo of the Porta Appia was matched with earlier photographs.

Just beyond the gateway, recessed into a more recently constructed wall, we located the first milestone of the Via Appia. We were on our way!

Three kilometres on we started to find our pace, and leaving the Aurelian wall well behind, we approached the first century tomb of Cecilia Metella (later thirteen century fortress of the Caetani family). It is around here that the texture of the ancient road began to reveal itself, competing with modern restorations.

Beyond this wall the residential area of the Appia began to fall away and we increased our pace. Walking three abreast, Morgan, JD and Vivien began the serious business of exchanging ideas, pulling apart, examining and reassembling research, issues, opportunities and life experiences.


Photo by Nicole Moffatt


Photo by Nicole Moffatt

It was not all about the walking, as this part of the Via Appia also features tombs and monumnets to ancient lives, be they catacombs, mounds, rotunda or monuments such as that of Marcus Servilius Quartus.

There were now seven kilometres between us and the Aurelian walls, and off to our left were the remains of the magnificent second century Villa Quintilius. It was the modest abode of Sextus Quintilius Maximus and Sextus Quintilius Condianus (consuls of 151 AD). The estate stretched for the best part of a kilometre along Appia and through the trees we glimpsed the aqueduct installed to meet the considerable water requirements of its lavish gardens, fountains and bath house. Cassisus Dio records that things didn’t end well for the Quintili brothers who fell afoul of the Emperor Commodus and after he murdered them he subsumed their vast estate.


Photo by Vivien Zhang

Moving on a kilometre or so down the road the Casa Rotonda loomed into sight. A mausoleum dating to the first century BC that now supports a farm house that was built in the Middle ages. This is an interesting example of the repurposing of buildings and monuments from antiquity: an emerging interest of mine. A comparison of the two photos suggests some preservation works on both buildings.

Eight kilometres on we passed the distinctive Torre Selce, a twelfth century tall-tower medieval fortress built on the remains of a first century BC tomb. The photos below record stages in its deterioration and then restoration – and the mystery remains as to the identity of the gentleman in Ashby’s photo.

Before long, monuments, tombs and crowds faded and the road stretched on (and on) through the Parco dell’ Appia Antica. To distract from aching feet, I reflected on my research and the letter-bearers for whom this road would have been very familiar. More specifically, the complaint by some writers that the contents of their letters (presumably carried by a bearer with ‘loose lips’) sometimes travelled faster than the letters themselves! The idea of information (absent of modern technology and any form of privacy) looping ahead of the person carrying, it an interesting one. Presumably the contents of a letter were being shared with any number of fellow travellers, as they walk and exchange views of a range of matters over a bag of nuts, handful of cranberries, chocolate, fruit and bottles of water … hold on, that was us!


Photo by Nicole Moffatt

At this point the cornetto and caffè of breakfast were a distant memory, and the priority was to reach Nick’s restaurant by 3pm. Its location: the picturesque town of Castel Gandolfo, also home of the Pope’s Summer Palace with commanding views of the volcanic Lake Albano. The catch: it was many, many, many metres above sea level. Still Nick’s confidence was unwavering as he pushed our group ever onwards, ever upwards through alleyways and country lanes, past orchards, an inquisitive foal and an excitable, yet singularly focused, Rottweiler.

Finally, 25km of ancient road and a hiking trail woven through the Alban Hills lay behind us. In front of us, Gandolfo and our prize … lunch. Alas, our restaurant table was not ready on arrival as earlier patrons had settled in for a languid Sunday lunch. Too weak to argue, we staggered off to a local bar and over a birra resolved to stage a ‘stretch-in’ protest at its front door. Eventually, the patrons were sent on their way and the table was ours!


The BSR archives contains a thumbnail sketch of the ancient town of Amelia, drawn by Thomas Ashby nearly a century ago. On it are various observations and a comment that has stuck with me since it was first pointed out by my colleague Jane Wade. Ashby simply wrote ‘I have walked this ancient road …’ and I might suggest it was probably with a number of students in tow. I’d like to think on Sunday the more recent edition of BSR award holders enjoyed a glimpse of this earlier Ashby BSR tradition.


BSR Archives – Courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archive

Thank you to Valerie, Alessandra, Beatrice and Francesca: the generous and knowledgeable staff of the BSR library who have indulged my personal interest in Thomas Ashby, his research methods and Roman roads in general. Thank you also to Nick Hodgson, who surely went above and beyond the call of duty for a Finance Manager when he agreed to walk this ancient road with us.

Nicole Moffatt (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar)


Photo by Vivien Zhang

BSR research at Tarquinia

In November the BSR hosted a workshop of UCL and the Soprintendenza Archeologia on geophysics projects in central Italy where a range of sites were presented. Building upon these discussions, in early February a team from the BSR undertook three days of magnetometry with the Università degli Studi di Milano at the site of the city of Tarqunia at the invitation of Professor Giovanna Bagnasco Gianni.


Tarquinia. Photo by Stephen Kay

The aim of the survey was to provide a comparative dataset for an early geophysical prospection conducted across the city in the 1980s by the Fondazione Lerici. The unpublished results appear to reveal in some detail elements of the city, much of which is buried. The new survey, conducted at a higher resolution revealed traces of a network of roads across the town as well as some hitherto unknown buildings south of the famous Ara della Regina (so-called as early antiquarians upon its discovery thought it was a pyramid due to the stepped sides of the Etruscans podium!). The BSR looks forward to continuing this new successful collaboration with Professor Bagnasco Gianni and her team (with special thanks to Matilde Marzullo and Andrea Garzulino for their support in the field).

The theme of the necropoli of the Etruscans, and in particular their painted tombs, is being explored by Morgan Gostwyck-Lewis, the BSR Scholars’ Prize in Architecture award-holder. Since joining us at the BSR in January, Morgan has visited several Etruscan sites, looking at the movement between ornamental order and figurative image through the painted interiors of Etruscan tombs. Our current Abbey Fellow in Painting Neil McNally has been looking at Etruscan artefacts, mirrors and ritual.


The site of the Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri. Photo by Morgan Lewis.

This weekend, Director Christopher Smith will be attending a conference in Tarquinia organised in memory of Giuseppe Cultrera, and presenting a new volume edited by Giovanna Bagnasco Gianni on Fascino etrusco nel primo Novecento, conversando di arti e di storia delle arti. More details about the event can be found at

Stephen Kay (Archaeology Officer)