At the start of June, a group of nine students from the Midlands4Cities DTP arrived at the BSR for a week-long residential workshop, bringing together doctoral researchers in archaeology, art history and theory, classics, museum studies, performing arts, and photography. Taking the creative community of the BSR as a model, the aim of the workshop was to use the city of Rome as a stimulus for conversations across a range of academic and practice-based disciplines.
Co-produced by Midlands4Cities academics and BSR staff and award-holders, the programme was designed to build connections between our doctoral researchers and the wider community of artists and scholars at the BSR.
Our activities began with visits to the studios of artist award-holders Anna Brass and Jade Ching-yuk Ng, led by Marta Pellerini (Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator). Hearing Anna and Jade talk about the challenges and rewards of making new work amidst Rome’s vast artistic heritage was the perfect introduction to our explorations of the city. Our studio conversations introduced themes that would crop up again and again over the course of the week: the unresolvedness of the urban fabric, things not being (materially) what they seem, the proliferation of fragments and layers, and the tension between history and contemporaneity.
With these themes in mind, Neil Christie (University of Leicester) led a walking tour of city walls and gates, starting with the Porta Pinciana and ending with what remains of the Servian walls at Stazione Termini. Neil got us thinking about how Rome has been defined and redefined by its walls, and how what remains of them tells a story about the physical and ideological development of the city.
After our first foray into streets of Rome, we returned for an archival tour of the city with librarian Valerie Scott and archivist Alessandra Giovenco. Valerie and Alessandra showed us highlights from the BSR’s incredible topographical collections – including Piranesi’s improbable etchings, Robert Macpherson’s pioneering photographs, and Sir William Gell’s delightful sketchbook – sharing fascinating insights into collection history and conservation practice along the way.
Harriet O’Neill (Assistant Director for the Humanities and Social Sciences) led a follow-up session engaging the group in collaborative research to produce a museum label for one of a selection of intriguing archival objects. Working in multidisciplinary groups, students got to grips with researching unfamiliar objects and interpreting them for a general audience, bringing to light new information about the BSR’s collections in the process.
Wednesday took us to the Roman Forum in the company of Niccolò Mugnai (BSR Residential Research Fellow). Niccolò expertly guided us through the Forum’s fragments and layers, unpacking the evolution of the ancient city, and exploring alternative theories about what remains. Taking refuge from the heat, we concluded our Forum visit in Santa Maria Anitqua whose immersive multimedia displays allowed us to examine the effectiveness of digital technologies in heritage interpretation.
Back at the BSR, David Robinson (University of Nottingham) invited us, by way of the writing of nineteenth-century British travellers, to return vicariously to the sites we had visited that morning. Examining the ways in which the Roman Empire was used both to endorse and critique British imperialism, David got us thinking about the multiple and expedient ways in which the Roman past has been reimagined.
This set the scene for Thursday’s visit to Piazza Augusto Imperatore where Chris Siwicki (BSR Rome Fellow) and Lara Pucci (University of Nottingham) discussed Augustan monuments and their fascist-era appropriation. As well as comparing the political uses of architecture under both regimes, we shared ideas about shifting attitudes to heritage and conservation, including the vexed debates surrounding the material legacies of the fascist past.
The collaborative theme continued into the afternoon with an inspiring talk by Stephen Milner (BSR Director) on the biology of the book. Hearing about Stephen’s innovative work with the Books and Beasts project highlighted the rich possibilities of research co-production across the humanities and sciences.
That evening, we were introduced to the cinematic city by way of the BSR’s screening of Roma, città aperta (dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1945) to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Rome. Viewing Rossellini’s on-screen reclamation of Rome from Fascism neatly bridged our on-site explorations of the city’s fascist and cinematic heritage.
Friday morning took us to Cinecittà for a tour of sets and studios. Visiting the set built for HBO’s Rome series was a particular favourite. Having immersed ourselves in the fragmented authenticity of the ancient city, the vision of a fibreglass Rome made whole, however inauthentically, proved captivating.
After the spectacular fakery of Cinecittà, we spent the afternoon exploring a wealth of original artworks and documents at the Giulio Turcato Archive. This special visit, organised by Martina Caruso (Assistant Director for Art, Architecture and the Creative Industries), introduced the group to a key figure in Rome’s post-war art scene. As Martina led us through the collection, we discussed the peripheral place of Italy in histories of modern art, as well as issues of archival research and practice.
On Saturday morning, our work-in-progress session invited small groups of students to present initial responses to the week’s activities. Each group brought together researchers from different disciplines and institutions to consider how their varied expertise might, collaboratively, address questions raised by things we had seen in Rome.
The first group (Rachael Banes, Kallina Brailsford, Zoltán Pallag) examined the musealisation of Santa Maria Antiqua, raising urgent questions about the competing priorities of historical narrative and visitor experience. Group two (Laura Dudley, Emily Gray, Ben White) used an independent visit to the Time is Out of Joint exhibit at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna as a point of departure for exploring Rome’s rich dialogues between past and present. Our third group (Ashley Chhibber, Tadas Stalyga, Jessica Venner) introduced the evocative concept of scavenging to draw attention to the highly selective conservation of the city’s material heritage.
The sharing of these thought-provoking ideas was a real highlight of our week at the BSR.
Students are now exploring ways to develop these Roman discussions into more resolved work back in the Midlands, where we plan to expand our collaborative conversations to include researchers from the wider M4C cohort.
In the meantime, we hope that our workshop participants will return to their research refreshed by the experience of Rome. By inviting students to step outside the intense focus of their PhD projects, the workshop encouraged them to reflect on how alternative approaches might inform their own practice. If research is enriched by conversation, there should be no shortage of wealth to take back to the Midlands!
Lara Pucci (Assistant Professor in History of Art, University of Nottingham)