Letters Post Covid-19: Adam Chodzko

Our Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator, Marta Pellerini, asked to a series of artists to imagine and explore new ways of sharing and thinking about art in the aftermath of Covid-19. The following text is by artist Adam Chodzko, Rome Scholar in Fine Arts (1998–9).


Where did this all begin?

I was really trying to wonder exactly that when January began, well before I’d heard of Coronavirus.  I’d retreated into my own self-imposed lockdown; a gift through a break from teaching or any other deadlines. Nobody out there was interested so, with nowhere to be, I could, I hoped, start identifying exactly what I most wanted to look at in the present. And, in this dithering mode, work on some drawings, which I need to do in these occasional chinks of air and light that temporarily leak into ruptures in the ‘bustle’.  I bought, for a sculpture, a part of a dismantled Tornado jet’s wing – a part that looked like a leaf from a Pixar animation; cute, yet bringing death from above.  I was given by a local scientist some microscopy images he’d made of the process of Ash die back disease spreading at cellular level. In addition I’d become pretty sure that the affect of growth hormones involved in the act of pruning were mirroring domestic human events…

Surrounded by all these loose ends I somehow ended up thinking about a particular moment, the act of eating, putting something (something ‘wrong’) inside the body, that’s described in the Genesis creation myth with the rapid succession of new feelings and actions that immediately followed this first instance of self-consciousness.  This sequence of events produces an incredibly rich, intoxicating and extraordinarily complex knot bound around some apparently simple everyday actions.   I read The Social Psychology of Adam and Eve, a paper by Professor of Sociology, Jack Katz and anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas’s amazing Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.  Both these texts seem to be about desire, limits, rules, beliefs, consciousness and the social.  At least, I began reading them but sensed that they were so significant that I had to take them very slowly as a drip feed.  Their message needed special time; for me to develop a higher intelligence in order to be able to properly understand them. Now it’s June; they still sit there waiting on the kitchen table, half read because they still seem too important.

In late February my elder son was in Vietnam on his gap year travels and sending out Instagram pics of himself doing cheeky poses on the border with China.  I became vigilant about monitoring the initial spread of the virus because he seemed so close to it.

With this series of prior encounters when the pandemic actually became our reality and not just other people’s and we (finally) went into lockdown I felt I’d already been dreaming it all as premonition. I was already in a massively slowed down state. I felt that I already knew how this enormous collective shift in reality felt and yet, despite this preparation, this ‘tip off’, still felt totally useless at recognising what it might really mean for us.

Covid has given us a model of contamination. It has shown how quickly something can become global just by going from one mouth to another. That’s an incredible demonstration of network theory. … It shows that we must not think of the personal and the collective as two distinct levels. The big climate questions can make individuals feel small and impotent. But the virus gives us a lesson. If you spread from one mouth to another, you can viralise the world very fast. That knowledge can re-empower us. —Bruno Latour

I like this idea of a rapid empowering viralising of the world through knowledge (and as importantly, the transmission of honest communication in the present to acknowledge what we don’t know) also managing to leap across time and between languages.  I’m increasingly reminded of Into Eternity, (2010), the brilliant documentary by Michael Madsen, about the construction of the Onkalo waste repository at the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant on the island of Olkiluoto, Finland.  It shows scientists speculating how to deal with our future us over the duration of 100,000 years when the nuclear waste finally becomes safe. Do they put a sign over the burial site warning future generations?  Or will a sign be misinterpreted as an indication that there’s treasure stashed below ground — an encouragement to explore?  What for me becomes the real subject of this film is the gentle, tentative, almost childlike way in which these scientists transmit their wonder, trying to extend their attention and care into such a distant future.  Nearly all of them seem to intuit that our future us will be a much more primitive species, comparatively (more) stupid, requiring a deeper level of consideration, responsibility and kindness; thinking ahead.

Adam Chodzko is an artist working across media, exploring our conscious and unconscious behaviour, social relations and collective imaginations through artworks that are propositions for alternative forms of ‘social media.’ Exhibiting work nationally and internationally since 1991, his work speculates how, through the visual, we might best connect with others. He was a Rome Scholar in Fine Arts (1998–9).

The text is part of the project Letters post Covid-19 by BSR Visual Art Residency Residency and Programme Curator Marta Pellerini. Read Marta’s introduction to the project here.

Digital Epigraphy at the British School at Rome

Thea Sommerschield, our Ralegh Radford Rome Awardee, speaks about her research during her time at the BSR in January – March 2020.

I was once told that, when at the British School in Rome, I should try every day to have at least two serendipitous encounters before breakfast.

I am grateful to the Professor who gave me this whimsical advice back in January, for as the months of my Award flew by, I found myself taking his advice almost to the letter. I say ‘almost’, not exclusively, because making it to hall in time for breakfast could sometimes be a challenge. More seriously in fact, by late February the steady flow of visiting scholars had dried up as worldwide events unfolded and Italy responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. By mid-March, the School had shut its newly varnished doors. Social distancing measures were put into place and we too at the BSR watched in shock as Italy descended into total lockdown.

It seemed increasingly likely that the serendipitous encounters the Professor had encouraged me to seek out were but a distant memory.

This, of course, was not true. Sadly, the toll the pandemic had on my country, Italy, was very real. Today, the lockdown measures are being eased step by step, and hope for a new beginning strengthens day by day. But during those months at the BSR, and perhaps most intensely over the course of those final weeks with my fellow award holders, I met people who inspired, supported and encouraged me, both personally and academically, through some of the most momentous events of my higher education. To these people I am forever grateful.

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BSR cohort, Spring 2020, depicted invading the American Academy in Rome. Photograph by Thea Sommerschield.

Between January and mid-March, I submitted my doctoral thesis in Ancient History at the University of Oxford, and I embarked on a new chapter of my academic career with a new research project using Machine Learning models to study the epigraphic cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.

My doctoral thesis investigated how migrant and indigenous communities settled in western Sicily adopted and adapted their socio-cultural identities between the late Archaic and Classical period in response to local contexts and historical circumstances. I examined whether the written and material cultures of key sites could be used as evidence of groups and individuals expressing and negotiating these identities in order to assert social requisites and priorities, going beyond common ethnic labelling approaches to the agents and processes in this region.

Throughout my doctorate I undertook extended fieldwork in Sicily, especially to collect and study the epigraphic and material evidence I would use as case studies. On the island of Mozia I examined the tophet markers, stone votives dedicated to the god Baal Hamon alongside urns containing the cremated remains of infants and small animals. At Selinunte I studied curse tablets, lead lamellae inscribed with a curse often directed against the victim’s tongue. I also visited the necropoleis of Palermo, Monte Castellazzo, Solunto and Montelepre. The resources of the BSR, its excellent library and its support in accessing the libraries of other institutes and universities in Rome were of crucial value to my research. My thesis went on to show that distinct social groups are visible in the ways the written and material cultures of western Sicily were consciously and strategically constructed, and that certain patterns of practice worked as a medium for — and a forum of — the expression, display and negotiation of socio-cultural identities.

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The tophet of Mozia. Photograph by Thea Sommerschield

In parallel with my doctorate, I co-directed a research project applying machine learning techniques to the discipline of Epigraphy — the study of ancient inscribed texts. Inscriptions are often damaged over the centuries, and missing parts of the text must be restored by specialists. This is a complex and time-consuming task, albeit a rewarding one: restoring a text means getting one step closer to understanding the historical context which produced it. We developed the first ancient text restoration model which recovers missing characters from a damaged text input using deep neural networks. We named the model Pythia, after the woman who delivered the god Apollo’s oracular responses at the Greek sanctuary of Delphi. Bringing together the disciplines of ancient history and deep learning, Pythia offers a fully automated aid to the text restoration task, providing ancient historians with multiple textual restorations, as well as the confidence level for each hypothesis.

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Pythia’s architecture. Image previously published in ACL Anthology.

Pythia was trained on ancient Greek inscriptions (texts written in the Greek alphabet dating between the seventh century BCE and the fifth century CE). At the BSR, I began the expansion of this project to Latin inscriptions. The first step in this pipeline is gathering, sampling and preparing the data the model will be trained on. A key part of this process was therefore rendering the data machine readable and machine actionable by pre-processing it in Python, which began in the BSR library against an impressive green and red backdrop of Loebs. Cleaning a dataset and open-sourcing it represents a valuable contribution to the current digitisation and standardisation efforts for ancient textual corpora. In these initial stages of my research I continuously updated my knowledge of the relevant background literature in both Machine Learning and Epigraphy, and met with professors of Digital Humanities and Ancient History in Rome.

It was during this period that I refined the scope, aims and impact of my postdoctoral research proposal. I intend to explore and interpret the nature, distribution and significance of discernible patterns of practice in Greek and Latin epigraphic cultures using recent advances in the field of Machine Learning. Using computational methods to track textual connections and epigraphic parallels on an unprecedentedly large scale, this project would enable the first big data analysis of Greek and Roman epigraphic habits, thereby enriching the study of the written cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and making a transformational contribution to the study of Ancient History. Once again, the library of the BSR was fundamental for undertaking the background research concerning this ambitious project’s implementation, as were the discussions with visiting scholars and guest lecturers, fellows award holders, Roman academics and the BSR staff. I am currently applying for postdoctoral positions with this project.

To conclude, even at the height of the pandemic, the BSR offered me a conducive environment for undertaking some of the most important steps and transitions in my academic career, providing me with the resources to aid my research, and fostering an environment where at least two serendipitous encounters with inspiring people before breakfast were a welcome inevitability. These people are now my friends and colleagues, with whom I’ve shared much more than a Roman lockdown.

Thea Sommerschield (Ralegh Radford Rome Awardee, 2019–20)

Letters from Lockdown: Pippo Ciorra

During lockdown, our Architecture Consultant, Marina Engel, asked a series of architects, to consider, or dream about, the role of the architect and urban design post Covid-19. The following text is by Pippo Ciorra, Professor of Design and Theory at University of Camerino and Senior Curator of Architecture at the MAXXI in Rome.


My premise is that I hope that things will slowly go back to normal. It will take time and there will be social and economic casualties, but — needless to quote Hobsbawm — human progress is also based on the ability to forget and leave behind mistakes and wounds. The alternative would be paralysis and regression. However, this is a big trauma, just like a world war, and recovery from global trauma always implies that human kind learns something from the experience and turns it into some kind of positive innovation. If this interview aims at identifying in which areas such innovations (or relevant changes) should/would happen, I can here propose three fields of action, all related to the space of living/working.

The first and most obvious directly concerns the space of the house. There are already thousands of Covid and post-Covid projects posted, in these days on the web, showing how to expand your home into a mini-office, mini-gym, mini-restaurant, mini-garden etc. It is certainly interesting and useful, because it will probably give a new impulse to research on residential space. Still, we should acknowledge the incredible resilience of the typology of the house, which has been basically the same for four millenniums, and which has easily absorbed any similar changes in the past.

What will probably achieve more radical change in both the living and working space (and beyond) is instead the infrastructure. Going back to war-fueled innovations, they mostly happened in the field of infrastructure and tools. It seems clear that this will also happen this time. In the short run, cities will have to manage the conflict between the persistence of fear and the need to bring back the previous degree of activity in physical infrastructure. In the longer run, every home will need to be provided with a much broader band and instant connectivity. It is not simply us teaching students online or companies run from home. Why couldn’t the robot building a car be managed from the worker’s home instead of at Wolfsburg? We will also need to investigate how to combine these anti-virus tools together with climate consciousness, being aware it could be a very productive alliance.

Coming to the third point, I would like to speculate on the idea of dystopia and “smartness”. What we have learnt in these days is that the two concepts seem to love each other more that we had already expected. We’re seeing a new kind of dystopian space: not the late XX Century chaos, pictured by Blade Runner or JG Ballard, but images of clean, empty and unpolluted cities with everybody at home and nobody disturbing the beauty of monuments and landscapes. Control in this kind of dystopia is transferred to the invisible activity of a trillion networks and devices, monitoring and influencing our lives. We already knew that smart had a lot to do with control and we have already lost most of the battles in this war, but clearly the virus condition pushes this to the limit. This is where we will have to watch carefully and build some conceptual resistance. It will be important both to go back to the streets, the original space for democracy, and to build consciousness and counter-actions in the digital world.

Pippo Ciorra is Professor of Design and Theory at the SAAD School of Architecture and Design, University of Camerino. He is Senior Curator of Architecture at the MAXXI, Rome and Director of the International PhD Program Villard d’Honnecourt, IUAV Venezia.

The text is part of the project Letters From Lockdown by BSR Architecture Consultant Marina Engel. Read Marina’s introduction to the project here.

Letters from Lockdown: Stefano Boeri

During lockdown, our Architecture Consultant, Marina Engel, asked a series of architects, to consider, or dream about, the role of the architect and urban design post Covid-19. The following text is by architect and Professor of Urban Design at the Politecnico in Milan, Stefano Boeri, who also exhibited at the BSR in 2011.


Looking at our offices in Shanghai, in Milan and in Albania, we have noticed, how in these days, we have lived as if in three parallel universes. As if, on the planet, there were different geographical and temporal areas. This incredible contagion, in an age of great globalization, has accentuated the construction of a sort of planet with different times.

This third global transformation event — after the two World Wars — has created a sense of urgency that we did not feel before the Corona Virus. The urgent need to understand that there must be a transition, but not between socialism and capitalism, nor between sovereignty and populism. A transition that must bring into play a new way of thinking about the space in which we live, the place where we live. Therefore, we must put into action immediate and strong choices.

First of all, mobility. We have to establish that, within a maximum of 3 years, the era of cars running on fossil fuels will end and that private transport will have to rely only on renewable sources.

Secondly, we need forestry: deforestation, the destruction of natural environments, is one of the main causes associated with the proliferation of viruses, such as those we have seen, which tend to move from one species to another. The deprivation of forests and green surfaces brings an worrying imbalance to all species, including ours. That’s why we must give space to nature and we must include a greater presence of trees and plants in contemporary cities, as well as preserving wild natural habitats.

Then, the energetic transition. Every house, every building, every block, must become a hub for both production and conservation of clean renewable energy. And we should create the conditions to build a production system of companies that produce energy locally?

We need a transition towards a new world. Only if we undergo a deep conversion in our way of thinking, together with our way of acting, will we be able to face this challenge. Together and starting right now.

Let’s start thinking about it!

Architect and urban planner, Stefano Boeri is Professor of Urban Design at the Politecnico in Milan and, since 2018, President of the Triennale in Milan. Stefano Boeri Architetti is based in Milan, Tirana and Shanghai .

The text is part of the project Letters From Lockdown by BSR Architecture Consultant Marina Engel. Read Marina’s introduction to the project here.

Letters from Lockdown: Carolyn Steel

During lockdown, our Architecture Consultant, Marina Engel, asked a series of architects, to consider, or dream about, the role of the architect and urban design post Covid-19. The following text is by architect, author and former Rome Scholar in the Fine Arts (1995–6) Carolyn Steel.


Food after Covid-19

Whatever our world looks like post-COVID-19, one thing is for sure: it won’t be a return to business as usual. Although a global catastrophe, the pandemic represents a timely opportunity to reconsider how we live; a task that threats such as climate change and mass extinction made urgent even before the virus struck. As I argue in my recent book Sitopia (food-place), there is no better way to do this than through the lens of food. The greatest force shaping our lives, food binds us to one another and to the natural world. The fact that the current pandemic started in a Chinese wildlife wet market tells its own story: our relationship with nature is dangerously out of kilter. Monocultural industrial food production has dangerously weakened biodiversity, while our encroachment on wilderness exposes us to new disease. In the West, we have also seen how fragile our food systems really are, with empty supermarket shelves and warnings from farmers that, without migrant labour, crops will rot in the ground.

Yet positive stories have come out of the crisis too, in the shape of people sharing food with neighbours, celebrity chefs cooking for schools and producers collaborating to create new supply networks virtually overnight. Such rapid responses aren’t new: they also happened after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where food-based social networks sprang up that still exist today. I call this ‘disaster democracy’: the discovery, in adversity, of what really matters in life: health, safety, love, neighbourliness — and food.

The virus that is killing us has also done us a favour, by reminding us of what a good life really means. If we are to thrive in the future, we shall need more resilient, localised, seasonal food systems; more flexible local supply networks and stronger links between city and country.

Social resurgence almost always revolves around food: the shared problem of how to eat, after all, was how we evolved as a species. It is only in times of scarcity that we remember what food really is. Food is life: if we treat it as cheap, we cheapen life itself.

Carolyn Steel is a leading thinker on food and cities. Based in London, she is the author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives (2008) and Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World (2020).

The text is part of the project Letters From Lockdown by BSR Architecture Consultant Marina Engel. Read Marina’s introduction here

‘Monuments Men’ at the BSR: Pompeii, Naples and Benevento in the BSR’s Ward-Perkins War Damage Collection’

Nigel Pollard is an associate professor in the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University. An archaeologist and historian of the Roman world by training, he was a research fellow at the BSR in 1996-7. Today his research focuses on cultural property protection in conflict zones, both historical and contemporary. He is a founding board member of UK Blue Shield (the ‘Red Cross for heritage’) and has contributed to the development and training of the new UK military Cultural Property Protection Unit.

As many readers with BSR connections will know already, John Ward-Perkins, director of the School from 1945 to 1974, was one of the pioneers of British military cultural property protection in 1943 to 1945. In 1943, Ward-Perkins was serving as a major in a territorial army anti-aircraft regiment commanded by his pre-war archaeological mentor Mortimer Wheeler. As British forces occupied Cyrenaica and Tripolitania after the battle of El-Alamein in late 1942, Wheeler and Ward-Perkins on their own initiative took measures to protect archaeological sites such as Lepcis Magna from damage caused by occupying troops. Eventually, in late 1943, Ward-Perkins was seconded to the newly-established Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) Sub-Commission in Italy, the branch of Allied military government established with the aim of limiting damage to art, monuments and cultural institutions, and the real historical prototype of the ‘Monuments Men’ of the George Clooney film. Ward-Perkins remained an officer in the MFAA in Italy until the end of the war, when he took up the directorship. The BSR archives retain a wealth of photographs and documents that Ward-Perkins brought with him, providing valuable evidence for the origins of military cultural property protection.

UK armed forces are currently in the process of re-establishing their cultural property protection (CPP) capability for the first time since 1945 with the establishment of a small Cultural Property Protection Unit of reserve officers with relevant peacetime skills — just like Ward-Perkins — under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Purbrick. The unit’s first training course was held in October 2019 at Southwick House near Portsmouth, in wartime the headquarters from which Eisenhower and other Allied commanders oversaw the D-Day landings in Normandy. Besides UK officers, the course was attended by personnel from other nations, including the Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, that provides, in many respects, fine examples of best practice in many of the new UK unit’s intended activities.

I also attended that training course, and contributed a briefing on the new unit’s wartime roots as well as historical case studies of CPP issues. I undertake historical research into wartime CPP with the aim of extracting from that historical experience lessons of value to contemporary protection of cultural heritage. The BSR War Damage Collection has proved a very valuable source of images and documents for my work, along with materials from the UK and US national archives and elsewhere. Some of those images and documents have found their way into my current monograph, Bombing Pompeii: World Heritage and Military Necessity, to be published by the University of Michigan Press in late 2020.

One of the central themes of my book is the extent to which the damage to cultural sites in Campania in 1943 served as a catalyst for improvements in Allied cultural property protection policy and practice in 1944. One of the major deficiencies of the MFAA organisation in 1943 was that its activities were focused on the protection of cultural sites in areas occupied by Allied ground forces. CPP concerns were not integrated into the planning of operations, and certainly not into the planning of air force operations, even though aerial bombardment caused about 90% of wartime damage to cultural sites. Some vivid illustrations of this damage are provided by the BSR War Damage Collection.

Some of the damage, along with civilian casualties, was inflicted by RAF strategic night bombing before the Allied landings in mainland Italy. Pompeii, for example, was hit in error on the night of 24/25 August 1943 by some bombs intended for the steelworks and railway marshalling yards at nearby Torre Annunziata. The damage included the destruction of the on-site Antiquarium near the Porta Marina. An even more serious loss was the near-destruction of the (originally 14th century) church of Santa Chiara in Naples on 4 August 1943. [Image 1]


Image 1. Naples, S. Chiara, tomb of Robert of Anjou (Courtesy of BSR Photographic Archive, War Damage Collection, wpwar-0033)

A second major phase of damage to cultural heritage in Campania took place in the aftermath of the Salerno landings. On 13 September 1943, German forces began a counter-attack against the beachhead that threatened to drive Allied forces back into the sea. One response to this counter-attack was an intense campaign by Allied air forces to attack routes and infrastructure that were being used to transport German reinforcements and supplies to the battlefront.

One of the most intensively bombed target areas was the cluster of roads, railways and bridges between Torre Annunziata and the town of Pompei that connected Naples and Salerno, struck by both US and British air forces by day and night. It was in this context that most of the damage to the ancient site of Pompeii was done, as the intersection of the autostrada from Naples and the SS18 highway (at that time the main road to Salerno) was an important aiming point for Allied bombers. Given the limitations of bombing at this time, and given that no consideration had been made for the target’s proximity to the archaeological site, it was almost inevitable that some bombs (Italian authorities estimated a total of over 160) would hit the latter. While some civilian accounts at the time (including the memoirs of Amedeo Maiuri, the archaeological superintendent of Campania) suggested that the archaeological site was targeted deliberately because there were German forces stationed on it (or at least that the Allies thought there were German forces there), contemporary Allied air forces documentation shows the site was never targeted deliberately and the damage was accidental.

As an example, this photograph from the US National Archives (with my annotations) shows an attack by US bombers against that transportation infrastructure on 20 September 1943. Bombs have largely missed the stated target and overshot onto the archaeological site. As on other days, most of the damage was concentrated in the Porta Marina — Forum area of the site, but some damage was more scattered. In this case there is at least one bomb-strike in the immediate vicinity of the House of the Faun (VI.12.2), probably the strike that caused the substantial damage to that house that was characterised in immediately post-war Allied reports as ‘the most unfortunate individual loss’ at Pompeii.


Image courtesy of US National Archives with Author’s annotations

Another structure at Pompeii that was severely damaged by bombing was the House of M. Epidius Rufus (IX.1.20), and the damage caused by a bomb strike in the atrium is here documented in one of the photographs from the Ward-Perkins War Damage Collection (image 2):


Image 2. Pompei, House of Epidius Rufus (Courtesy of BSR Photographic Archive, War Damage Collection, wpwar-0056)

The damage, like that to the House of the Faun, was repaired quite quickly, as shown in these 2018 photographs. The tile course in the second photograph marks the delineation between the pre–1943 structure and (above the tiles) the post–1943 reconstruction.


Image 3. Photograph by Nigel Pollard


Image 4. Photograph by Nigel Pollard

The places worst hit by the bombing directed against the German Salerno counter-attack were the towns of Battipaglia and Eboli, close to the Allied beachhead, where the targets were German troop concentrations. However Benevento, a crucial node on the alternative inland road and rail route from Naples to Salerno, whose position was in many respects analogous to Torre-Annunziata Pompei, also suffered severely. The cathedral was almost completely destroyed and, in the words of a contemporary Allied report ‘the lower town between the DUOMO and the PONTE VANVITELLI has been obliterated’, and is ‘a mass of ruins’. This image from the Ward-Perkins War Damage Collection (Image 5) records the damage to the cathedral at Benevento:


 Image 5. Benevento, Cathedral (Courtesy of BSR Photographic Archive, War Damage Collection, wpwar-0058)

At the time of all this destruction, the MFAA organisation already existed, and American academics of the Roberts Commission had drawn up lists of cultural property throughout Italy that were intended for military use in efforts to mitigate damage. Those lists included the archaeological site of Pompeii (a three-star monument, the highest category in a ranking system from three stars to zero stars but still important enough to be listed), Santa Chiara (two-star), and the cathedral at Benevento (two-star). However, the lack of liaison between the MFAA and Allied air forces meant that this ‘cultural intelligence’ went unregarded.

The destruction of cultural heritage in Campania caused great concern in London and elsewhere. The specific examples of Pompeii, Santa Chiara and Benevento were cited in lobbying efforts by, among others, Mortimer Wheeler, who had commanded a brigade at Salerno and seen the damage at Pompeii and in Naples at first-hand before returning to London, while Ward-Perkins stayed in Italy after his transfer to MFAA. This lobbying bore some fruit from spring 1944, in that cultural property protection became a factor in the planning of Allied air operations. For example, Mediterranean Allied Air Forces produced an atlas of ‘cultural intelligence’ — aerial photographs of Italian cities with heritage sites marked on them for use in planning operations. But even as Allied air forces advertised success in avoiding damage to cultural sites in attacks against rail targets in Florence in 1944 and against shipping in Venice harbour in 1945, bombing continued to damage other cultural sites. A key part of the problem was the inherent inaccuracy of bombing using 1940s technology and tactics.

One important change between 1943 and the present day is that bombing has become (potentially, at least) more accurate, with the use of precision-guided weapons by many air forces. One thing that has not changed, however, is the need for ‘cultural intelligence’ to advertise the locations of cultural sites that need to be considered in the targeting process. The Ward-Perkins collections at the BSR provide excellent evidence for the early days of such ‘cultural intelligence’.

Nigel Pollard (Research Fellow at the BSR in 1996-7)

‘Bad Luck’ and ‘Irresistible Force’: Framing Violence against Women (1919–30)

How should a good wife behave? Which are the boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable? Does her past affect her present? Violence against women is a longstanding phenomenon. Sara Delmedico (Rome Awardee 2019–20) provides an insight into the research on violence against women she has undertaken at the BSR.

In the Fifth Canto of Inferno, Dante imagines himself meeting the Lustful in his journey through Hell. One of them, Francesca of Rimini, approaches Dante with these words:

‘O animal grazïoso e benigno
che visitando vai per l’aere perso
noi che tignemmo il mondo di sanguigno’

(O living creature gracious and benignant,
⁠Go a  pilgrimage through the purple air,
Visiting us who stained the world with blood)

Dante, Inferno, V, 88–90

Francesca of Rimini stained the world with her own blood: she had been murdered by her husband because of an extramarital relationship with her brother-in-law. Many centuries later, Giselda Zanolo suffered a similar fate. She has been murdered by her husband Vittorio Consalvi in their house in Cusano Milanino, a village near Milan, in August 1923. It was considered a crime of jealousy, caused by an affair that Giselda allegedly had with Ugo Consalvi, Vittorio’s brother.

Uxoricide was widely studied by scholars of the time. Scientists and jurists such as Scipio Sighele, Cesare Lombroso and Augusto Guido Bianchi defined it as a crime or a pseudo-crime of love, thus implying that violence, and murder as well, could be considered a component of love itself. In a series of works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they analysed cases of men who killed their wives or lovers. Particular attention was given to the behaviour of victims, who were considered to have somehow been the cause of their own death, suggesting that often ‘it was genuinely difficult to distinguish the victims from the real culprits’. The cultural industry, too, contributed to delivering this idea, for example, by using a touch of irony for those crimes which were considered minor (see image of Il Popolo D’Italia, 24 January 1920) or by minimising and significantly suspending the culpability of the attacker.


An extract from Il Popolo d’Italia, 24 January 1920, Photograph: Sara Delmedico

The Consalvi case is an interesting example for understanding how gendered stereotypes defined the boundaries of what was disreputable and what was not, and how socially unacceptable behaviour affected a woman’s reputation, and conditioned the outcome of a case to the extent that the murdered wife could be considered a culprit rather than a victim.

Giselda and Vittorio met in Trieste where he was stationed with his battalion in the period immediately after the war. The two got engaged, married, and went to live in Cusano Milanino, together with Giselda’s mother and Vittorio’s brother Ugo.

Articles dealing with the case and published in the newspapers Il Popolo d’Italia, La Stampa and Corriere della Sera gave a fictionalised description of both the murder and the trial. Corriere della Sera, for example, describes Vittorio Consalvi as a ‘painful figure of a man, still very young, but already bent and destroyed by misfortune’; and Giselda’s homicide was triggered by ‘the tremendous nightmare of his young and beautiful wife betraying him with his brother, and in a red-hot August afternoon, in Cusano Milanino, in a field near their quiet little villa, he shot her two, three, four times’. Then, ‘the woman fell dead, her face disfigured by the blows: the uxoricide, still shuddering with hatred, trampled that lifeless body: then he bent over to kiss her hair sprinkled with dust […] and ran away, mad of horror and remorse’ (Corriere della Sera).


An extract from Il Popolo d’Italia, 17 January 1920, Photograph: Sara Delmedico

The parade of the witnesses brought in by Vittorio’s lawyers described him as ‘a romantic, sentimental and reserved man, an excellent person from every point of view’ (La Stampa), and was clearly aimed at ruining Giselda’s reputation. After the testimonies, the General Attorney gave his address, stating that Giselda ‘perhaps liked being courted’ (Il Popolo d’Italia) and, although Vittorio did not see Giselda betraying him with his brother, it was evident that she did it. But, in fact, there was no evidence at all. Therefore, the General Attorney concluded that Vittorio ‘saw what he wanted to see’, and prayed that ‘peace and forgiveness could radiate from the victim’s grave’ (La Stampa). Corriere della Sera reported that ‘his speech was welcomed by the public with a thunderous and prolonged applause that was difficult to interrupt’.

The public and the General Attorney empathised with Vittorio. Vittorio was declared mentally ill, absolved and sent to an asylum for a few years.

Il Popolo d’Italia commented that, in this case, ‘there was no need to find the guilty one. It was misfortune that murdered Giselda Zanolo’, therefore, suggesting that there could be someone other than Vittorio who was guilty of Giselda’s homicide, maybe Giselda herself, whose past behaviour and bad reputation made her the culprit of her own homicide.


An extract from Il Popolo d’Italia, 16 January 1925, Photograph: Sara Delmedico

Six centuries after Dante’s Comedy, Giselda, like Francesca of Rimini, was not just a victim. Vittorio, the witnesses, the court and the public maintained that Giselda, because of her past, ‘actively’ contributed to her own homicide; she was the culprit, and stained the world with own blood.

Sara Delmedico (Rome Awardee 2019–20)


Ovid in Cheap Prints: Re-writing Mythological Tales in Renaissance Rome

Marta Balzi (Ralegh Radford Rome Awardee 2019–20) provides insights on her research recently conducted at the BSR.

One of the many perks of residing at the BSR is the opportunity to enjoy the quiet, greenery and panoramic views of the Villa Borghese Gardens, which lie just a few minutes away from the BSR. A walk to the Temple of Asclepius, a run around the oval track in Piazza di Siena and a coffee at Casina del Lago became a cherished distraction from a day of study in the library. Further within the park there is also the Borghese Gallery, which is an unmissable reference point for Renaissance scholars. It is precisely with the Borghese Gallery, or better with a painting housed in this art gallery, that I would like to introduce this brief account of the research I conducted during my residency at the BSR.

Rutilio Manetti’s Andromeda: Ovidian myths and their translations

marta balzi image 1

Figure 1. Rutilio Manetti, Andromeda, c. 1612, oil on canvas, 177 × 20, Galleria Borghese, Rome.

The painting Andromeda by Rutilio Manetti (c. 1612) illustrates an Ovidian myth from the Metamorphoses that was particularly dear to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists: the myth of Andromeda and Perseus.

According to the classical myth, Andromeda was offered in sacrifice to a sea monster in order to appease the gods. Just before the slaughter, the hero Perseus happened upon Andromeda, naked and chained to a rock. Inflamed by her beauty, Perseus engaged in a battle with the monster and rescued her from the monster’s assault.

This painting conveys the rich eroticism and wittiness of Ovid’s narration, but a closer look reveals that the Latin Metamorphoses was not Manetti’s primary source of inspiration. Ovid had Perseus fly in winged sandals, and not on a winged horse:

pennis ligat ille resumptis

parte ab utraque pedes teloque accingitur unco

et liquidum motis talaribus aera findit.

(Ovid, Met., iv. 665–7)

[Then Perseus bound on both his feet the wings he had laid by, girt on his hooked sword, and soon in swift flight was cleaving the thin air.]

In Manetti’s painting we see an overlapping of Perseus and another mythical figure: the winged horse Pegasus. The link between these two characters was not new to Renaissance art and literature, but it gained currency in the late medieval treatment of Andromeda’s rescue (Javitch 1978).

By the time Manetti composed his painting, the popularity of this version was also intensified thanks to the work of Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara (1519–69), the author of the sixteenth-century best-seller translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This Italian translation offered the same combination of Perseus and Pegasus:

Quando su‘l pegaseo veloce ascese

Perseo, e per l’Etiopia il volo prese.

(Anguillara 1563, iv. 411. 7–8)

[Perseus mounted the fast Pegasus, and took off towards Ethiopia.]

The example of Manetti’s Andromeda in the Borghese Gallery testifies to the importance of intermediary sources in the reception of the Ovidian myths in the Italian Renaissance. The Metamorphoses surely constituted the most important repertoire of myths, an encyclopaedic work plundered by writers, musicians and painters. This work, however, was often read through vernacular translations.

Ovid translated in cheap prints

Despite increasing scholarly interest in vernacular translations of the ‘full text’ of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, little attention has been paid to the production and dissemination of vernacular re-writings of the Ovidian myths in cheap prints. The purpose of my research at the BSR was precisely to give visibility to these translations in cheap print and shed further light on the reception of mythological tales in Renaissance Rome.

The term ‘cheap print’ has been employed in recent publications to refer to printed matter more affordable than ‘proper books’ (Watt 1991; Salzberg 2014). These publications could be loosely bound pamphlets printed on a single sheet of paper, which was then folded into an octavo, quarto or even sextadecimo. Alternatively, they could be printed on a single flier or broadsheet. Either way, they were often accompanied by woodcut illustrations that were rarely produced specifically for the text (Rothstein 1990; Salzberg 2014: 21; Niccoli 2017: 188). Despite their affordability, these publications were not definable in relation to a single social group, but were characterised by a high ‘consumability’ that went beyond social boundaries (Braida and Infelise 2010).

One of the fascinating examples of cheap print that I studied in Rome is the Historia di Perseo. This is a loosely bound pamphlet printed in Florence around 1530. Here, the adventures of Perseus are translated in ottava rima, a metre that since the Middle Ages was used by storytellers and also street singers to sing chivalric tales. The woodcuts in the pamphlet suffer from reprinting. They seem not directly related to this publication and were likely rehashed from previous publications.


Marta Balzi image2

Figure 2 La historia di Perseo (Florence: n.p., [c. 1530]), held at The British Library in London (shelfmark: 1071.m.17.(13.))

During my residency, I also had the possibility to study other cheap prints held in the Vatican Library, such as:

  • Lettere amorose, et Sonetti familiari in diversi propositi; Confrontati alle lettere per poter scriver a casi occorrenti, di nuovo posti in luce (Venice: In frezzeria al segno della regina, 1580). (Shelfmark: V681(34));
  • Nuova inventione et poetica fantasia; nella quale si disputa fra Marte, et Nettuno della bellezza di Roma, et di Venetia; Et quale di esse merita preceder, facendone Giudice Paride. Con Un sonetto vago e piacevole dove si va scherzando in metafora sopra alcune cose antiche, e belle. (Venice: [n.pub.], [n.d.]). (Shelfmark: V681(104);
  • Opera nuova alla ciciliana. De un gentil’huomo, che per amor’ andò a l’inferno, per accusar la sua innamorata dinanzi a Plutone. Con la risposta del Demonio cosa molto dilettevole: aggiontovi alcune ottave alla ciciliana ritrovate da Alfonso Cortese alias trastullo di succio muccio di Castrocucco ([n.p.]: [n.pub.], [n.d.]). (Shelfmark: V681(50)).

Lettere amorose e sonetti familiari is a collection of love letters and sonnets involving mythological characters. Nuova invenzione e poetica fantasia re-writes the ancient myth of the judgment of Paris, who, in this new version, was appointed to select the most beautiful city between Venice and Rome. Opera nuova alla ciciliana is a parody of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The place I will miss the most: the BSR library

In the BSR library, I found a vast secondary literature that proved essential to expand my knowledge of Renaissance popular culture in Rome. The beautiful spaces, the quiet and the professional help of expert librarians made the library my favourite room in the BSR. A safe space where I focused on my new research and also worked on my forthcoming publications.


Braida, L., and M. Infelise (eds), Libri per tutti. I generi editoriali di larga circolazione tra antico regime e età contemporanea (Turin: Utet, 2010)

Bucchi, Gabriele, “Meraviglioso diletto”: la traduzione poetica del Cinquecento e le Metamorfosi d’Ovidio di Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2011)

Burke, Peter, ‘Oral Culture and Print Culture in Renaissance Italy’, ARV: Nordic Yearbook of Folklore, 1998, 7–18

Carnelos, Laura, ‘Words on the Street: Selling Small Printed “Things ” in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Venice’, in News Networks in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Raymond Joad and Noah Moxham (Leiden: Brill, 2016), pp. 739–55

D’Ancona, A., La poesia popolare italiana, 2nd edn. (Leghorn: Giusti, 1906)

Daniels, Rhiannon, Boccaccio and the Book: Production and Reading in Italy 1340–1520 (London: Legenda, 2009)

Degl’Innocenti, Luca, and Brian Richardson and Chiara Sbordoni (eds.), Interactions between Orality and Writing in Early Modern Italian Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2016)

Degl’Innocenti, Luca, and Massimo Rospocher and Rosa Salzberg, ‘The Cantastorie in Renaissance Italy: Street singers between Oral and Literate Cultures’, Special Issue of Italian Studies, 71.2 (2016)

Di Mauro, Alberto, Bibliografia delle stampe popolari profane dal Fondo Capponi della Biblioteca Vaticana (Florence: Olschki, 1981)

Guthmüller, Bodo, ‘Cantari cinquecenteschi di argomento mitologico’, in Mito, poesia, arte: Saggi sulla tradizione ovidiana nel Rinascimento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1997), pp. 187–212

‘La Historia de Orpheo: modelli e tecniche narrative’, in Il cantare italiano fra folklore e letteratura, ed. by Michelangelo Picone and Luisa Rubini (Florence: Olschki, 2007), pp. 301–37

Ovidio metamorphoseos vulgare, trans. by Paola Picchioni (Fiesole: Cadmo, 2008)

Infelise, Mario, Prima dei Giornali. Alle origini della pubblica informazione (secoli XVI e XVII (Rome and Bari: Laterza, 2002)

Ivaldi, C., ‘Cantari e poemetti bellici in ottava rima: la parabola produttiva di un sottogenere del romanzo cavalleresco’, in Ritterepik der Renaissance, ed. by K. W. Hempfer (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1989), pp. 35–46

Javitch, Daniel. 1978. ‘Rescuing Ovid from the Allegorizers’, in Comparative Literature, 30: 97–107

Masetti Zannini, G. L., Stampatori e librai a Roma nella seconda metà del Cinquecento: documenti inediti (Rome: Palombi, 1980)

Milner, Stephen, ‘“…Fanno bandire, notificare, et expressamente comandare…”. Town Criers and the information economy of Renaissance Florence’, I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 16.1/2 (2013), 107–51

Niccoli, Ottavia, Profeti e popolo nell’Italia del Rinascimento (Bari: Laterza, 1987)

Niccoli, Ottavia, ‘Italy’, in The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, ed. by Joad Raymond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 187–95

Novati, F., Scritti sull’editoria popolare nell’Italia di antico regime, ed. by E. Barbieri and A. Brambilla (Rome: Archivio Guido Izzi, 2004)

Petrucci, Armando, Scrittura e popolo nella Roma barocca 1585–1721 (Rome: Quasar, 1982)

Rothstein, M, ‘Disjunctive images in Renaissance books’, Renaissance and Reformaiton, 14:2 (1990), 101–20

Rozzo, Ugo, La Strage Ignorata. I Fogli Volanti a Stampa Nell’Italia Dei Secoli XV e XVI (Udine: Forum, 2008)

Salzberg, Rosa, Ephemeral City: Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)

Segarizzi, A., (ed.), Bibliografia delle stampe popolari italiane nella R. Biblioteca nazionale di San Marco di Venezia (Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d’Arti Grafiche, 1913)

Ugolini, Francesco A., I cantari d’argomento Classico (Geneva and Florence: Olschki, 1933)

Ugolini, Francesco A., ‘I cantari di Piramo e Tisbe’, in Studj Romanzi, 24 (1934), 19–208

Watt, T., Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550–1640 (New Haven: CT: Yale University Press, 2005)

Marta Balzi, Ralegh Radford Rome Awardee 2019–20.



A trip to Reggio Calabria

Dustin McKenzie (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, 2019–20) recalls his recent time spent at the BSR and his trip to South Italy as part of his research focusing on the Strait of Messina, and the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria.


Waterfront and Monument of Athena, with Sicily in background. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

In January 2020 I took up residency at the British School at Rome as the Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, and began, almost immediately, to think about how space shapes our experiences — the BSR’s position on the edge of the Valle Giulia, looking out at the other academies; the seemingly endless routes a taxi can take between the BSR and Termini; the proximity to the city, while being just far enough away that each trip out the door is a journey. I am currently undertaking a PhD at Macquarie University, Sydney in ancient history and archaeology — titled ‘Landscape, Empire, and Identity in the Roman Strait of Messina’ — and much of the focus is on the relationship between ancient peoples and their natural and constructed environments. It is not surprising that Rome is an excellent case-study of this relationship. Whether it be how the hills and valleys shaped the city in antiquity, how the Tiber impacted infrastructure decisions in antiquity and the modern day, or how the lack of a metro to Trastevere still makes organising your Friday ‘aperitivo’ for ten people a logistical nightmare, this relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit captivated me during my time in Rome.

While I have been fortunate enough to visit the Eternal City on several occasions, I cannot stress the degree to which the varied experiences, disciplines and backgrounds of my fellow award-holders made my residency. Not only am I now proud to call these colleagues friends for life, but their own experiences and interests in Rome led me to spaces I never would have found on my own. One particular day led us down into the undercroft of the Basilica di San Clemente, opening my eyes once more to the stratified history of Rome — the current Basilica was built in the twelfth century, atop a fourth-century Roman basilica, which itself was built atop the ruins of a Republican era villa. While Rome is always a joy to walk through, I must confess its true purpose for my research was as a forward research base while I travelled south to my true destination, and the focus of my PhD research – the Strait of Messina, and the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria.

The Strait of Messina separates Italy from Sicily by only a few kilometres, but that short distance has a long history. The waters of the Strait are infamously changeable, and in antiquity were the inspiration behind and mythical home of Scylla and Charybdis. The uplands of the Strait were inhabited by early bronze age groups before its coasts were colonised by Greek settlers in the eighth century BCE. By the end of the third century, Rome controlled the Strait, and Messina and Reggio Calabria each played major roles in securing not only the waterway, but the whole of South Italy and Sicily for the Republic. The close relationship between Messina and Reggio Calabria, despite their separation by the Strait, was well understood in antiquity and throughout history, with the prospect of a bridge across the Strait being proposed by no less than the Romans, Charlemagne and the Normans, with a further nine attempts made since the unification of Italy. In my opinion, this is beside the point — the strength of the relationship between Messina and Reggio Calabria is not in the potential of a bridge, but in the ways people have been bridging this gap for thousands of years through a shared sense of space and identity.


Reggio Street, looking to Sicily. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

Before the pandemic I was able to spend a week in Reggio Calabria, having visited Messina years prior on a separate research trip. Owing to my research interests in space and landscapes, I opted to catch the train. While these trips took the better part of an entire day by themselves at a brisk seven hours  each way, it was fascinating to watch the landscape shift and change as the train travelled down the coast, darting inland or through tunnels when it wasn’t hugging the coast. I spent most of my time in Reggio walking through the city and visiting the public archaeological sites and museums, and was taken aback by the degree to which the city has adapted to its environment and physical space. First and foremost, there is a strong sense of navigability in Reggio. Much the same way as I navigate Rome by knowing my location relative to manmade and natural landmarks, I could find my way through Reggio with relative ease. Many of the east–west oriented vie have clear lines of sight to Sicily, which dominates the western horizon, and to the Aspromonte Mountains to the east. While the streets and levels of Reggio can be a little disorientating or steep at times, these aspects of the landscape actually allowed me to re-orientate myself, and firmly placed in my mind not only the impact of physical space on an individual’s everyday experience, but how such a space encourages identification and engagement with those experiencing it. Moreover, while a lot of my research has me thinking of horizontal space (distances from A to B, city limits, urban layouts), Reggio Calabria and Rome reminded me of the importance of vertical space.

Piazza Italia sits at the centre of Corso Garibaldi, Reggio’s main commercial and pedestrian-only street, and is the seat of the municipal government and provincial administration. While I was aware that the Piazza was built atop the location of the Greek agora and Roman forum, I had no idea part of the Piazza was excavated and viewable. Like the Basilica di San Clemente back in Rome, the square rests atop centuries of viewable history, with a section of subterranean excavation revealing the earliest storefronts of the Greek agora and a portion of the Roman-period street. Elsewhere, a few streets east and uphill, are what remains of the Greek odeon, now located behind a locked door within a gated residential block. While seeing the odeon proved, uh, ‘tricky’, it quickly became clear that thanks to its elevation and orientation, the audience in antiquity would have enjoyed an uninterrupted view downhill and across the Strait (similar in scope to the vistas afford by the amphitheatres of Taormina and Segesta in Sicily), a suitably poetic backdrop for the presentation of the arts. The constructed waterfront of Reggio Calabria seems to have maintained this desire for a poetic and picturesque vista.


Roman street under Piazza Italia. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

The coast of Reggio Calabria and the lungomare (waterfront) heavily influenced my understanding of the space of the Strait and the impact it continues to have on those living there. A friend and PhD student at Sapienza — Università di Roma, who was showing me around the city, proudly claimed that early twentieth-century Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio referred to the lungomare as ‘il più bel chilometro d’Italia— ‘the most beautiful kilometre in all of Italy’ — and with its views of Sicily from Cape Pelorus to Mount Etna on a clear day, it is easy to see why. Indeed, to stand on the beach in Reggio and look north towards Cape Pelorus is to believe you are on the shore of a lake rather than a strait. This illusion has duped many in the past — one tradition, preserved by first-century CE Roma geographer Pomponius Mela, claims that Cape Pelorus is named for Hannibal’s helmsman of the same name. Upon sailing into the Strait, Hannibal scanned the horizon and, believing the shore to be continuous and impassable, killed Pelorus for betraying him. The waterfront also houses some Roman period remains, including tombs, a section of a baths complex, and part of the impressive city walls, as well as numerous signs detailing the ancient foundation of the city on the waterfront, each of which serve to highlight the continued inhabitancy of the city for nearly 3,000 years.


Waterfront Roman baths. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie


Waterfront ancient city wall. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

During our day together, my PhD friend, with her own roots in Reggio, was taken aback that I had been studying Reggio for over a year and had never visited. ‘If I want to understand the city’s history’, she reasoned, ‘I must understand the present city and its people.’ My home in Australia may be on the other side of the world, and the global pandemic may be keeping us all in our homes for now, but I have made a start in understanding Reggio Calabria, and I will be back for another attempt


Waterfront looking north. Where does Italy end and Sicily begin? Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

Dustin McKenzie (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, 2019-20)

Medieval medicine meets the digital age

Claire Burridge (2019-2020, Rome Scholar) provides a valuable insight into medieval medicine and the research she has undertaken at the BSR.

Let’s begin with a sample of medical advice from the ninth century — but please note: although these remedies may look tempting in our current circumstances, do not try them at home!

Picture1.pngFor cough: chew oregano on an empty stomach; it is wonderful.

Likewise: drink pounded fennel roots in wine on an empty stomach for 9 days.

Likewise: take mallow with food.

Likewise: drink agrimony with old wine on an empty stomach.

Likewise: betony – 2 [units not given] – ground with honey; take for 9 days on an empty stomach.

Likewise: bake elecampane roots among hot ashes and then soak them in honey; chew as much as possible on an empty stomach.

Picture2For dry cough: skimmed honey – 1 ounce, black pepper – 2 ounces, myrrh – 1 ounce, long pepper [no amount given]; grind this up well and mix it in honey; use 3 spoonfuls morning and night.

Likewise, an electuary for those affected by a cough: butter – 4 [units not given], terebinth – 2, horehound – 4, nard, this is also called spica [i.e. spikenard] – 9; grind and mix together; chew 1 spoonful with honey.

Picture3Picture4For those who cannot breathe: 1 part fenugreek, 9 parts pepper, 10 parts costus – as much as you think seems fit – mix together into a powder and give a full spoon mixed in water.

Picture5Picture6Pills for cough: poppy – 2 scruples, myrrh – 3 scruples, storax – 2 scruples, galbanum – 4 scruples; then make into pills and use.


Pre-modern medicine has been in the news more than usual in recent weeks, with comparisons of our current situation to past plague pandemics, a growing interest in the origins of ‘quarantine’, and so on. Yet unlike many areas within the history of health and medicine, my research offers few potential points of comparison with our present circumstances, though it has provided a fascinating glimpse into the ways individuals in the early middle ages may have sought to treat some of the symptoms associated with COVID-19. (Note: for those interested in how historians of medicine (and not just medievalists!) have reflected on the current coronavirus crisis and responded to the media’s use/abuse of history, I have included some links in an addendum below.) In this post, I shall endeavour to keep things topical by using the remedies for coughs and breathing difficulties illustrated above as an entry point into my current research.

My project at the BSR, ‘The Movement of Early Medieval Medical Knowledge: Exchange in the Italian Peninsula’, is underpinned by two linked objectives: a) the identification of non-classical information recorded in early medieval remedies (and possible sources for this information), and b) an investigation into the role of Italian centres of manuscript production in the introduction and movement of this knowledge. Both objectives are dependent on first transcribing and editing medical recipes from a dozen manuscripts today held in libraries in Rome, and then analysing this material with a combination of recently developed digital tools. Much of my time at the BSR has therefore been focused on assembling this material: transcribing, editing, and translating texts while establishing my digital ‘toolkit’. The creation of a complex database that tracks individual recipes, their ingredients, and any additional information associated with them (such as units of measurement, instructions for preparation, etc.) in concert with their manuscript context allows for a systematic analysis of this material. While it is impossible to condense the full extent of these results into a blogpost, the remedies above showcase a number of important findings from my research so far. In particular, my development of a remedy database has highlighted the vast range of medical knowledge preserved within these manuscripts, a topic we shall explore in more detail below.

Diversity between and within manuscripts

Given the complex processes involved in the composition and production of manuscripts, it has long been accepted that no early medieval codex is identical. When considering manuscripts containing medical texts, this degree of variability can be taken even further: cataloguers and historians have shown that all surviving manuscripts with medical texts preserve a unique combination of writings. My research not only confirms this great diversity between codices, but it also sheds light on the varied nature of the information contained within individual manuscripts. More specifically, by considering not simply the composition of manuscripts as a whole, but by analysing their recipes down to the level of their constituent parts (namely, their ingredients, instructions for preparation and dosage, units of measurement, etc.), it is possible to take a much closer look at the range of material preserved within these texts.

Consider the remedies exhibited above: Figures 1–4 present a total of ten treatments, including seven remedies for a cough (Figures 1 and 4), one remedy for a dry cough (Figure 2), and two remedies for ‘those who cannot breathe’ (Figure 3). These ten prescriptions list a total of 27 ingredients, meaning that this sample contains an average of less than three ingredients per remedy. Significantly, of these 27 ingredients, only four occur in multiple recipes: wine, myrrh and black pepper are each listed twice, while honey appears four times. In other words, there is very little overlap among the ingredients listed in these treatments. In fact, each of the ten remedies offers an entirely unique treatment. This general pattern of diversity holds up when considering the entire sample of remedies in my corpus; although there are examples of parallel or related treatments within the full collection (which contains several thousand remedies), the enormous range in information presented in these prescriptions remains a consistent pattern.

Why does this variety matter, and what can we learn from it? Crucially, the diversity of treatments reflects the differences in the sources used to compile these collections of remedies at two levels. First, variation seen between manuscripts composed at different scriptoria indicates that each site of manuscript production contained a unique collection of sources. Again, consider the remedies exhibited above: Figures 1 and 2 present recipes from Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (hereafter BAV) pal. lat. 1088, a manuscript written in the area around Lyon in the middle or third quarter of the ninth century, while Figures 3 and 4 offer treatments from BAV reg. lat. 1143, an early ninth-century manuscript composed near Mainz. In addition to the treatments sampled here, both codices contain a number of other medical texts, such as excerpts from earlier medical authors. For example, BAV pal. lat. 1088 contains excerpts from Galen and a medical poem by Quintus Serenus, whereas BAV reg. lat. 1143 includes a selection from Theodorus Priscianus’ Euporiston and Alexander of Tralles’ Therapeutica, revealing that their libraries likely held different collections of medical writings (or at least distinct exemplars on which each of these manuscripts was based). Both manuscripts, however, also contain excerpts from the letters of the late antique physician Vindicianus, testifying to some shared sources.

Secondly, there is a tremendous range in the information contained within a single manuscript. Take the six different prescriptions to treat a cough, Ad tussem, illustrated in Figure 1. The penultimate remedy in this cluster can be traced to a late antique medical treatise that describes the medicinal uses of the herb bettony, De herba vettonica liber. Many recipe collections were structured by their ingredients, suggesting that the compiler of the collection of recipes in BAV pal. lat. 1088 sought to present treatments in a different format, instead arranging them by symptom. This individual would therefore have drawn on a range of different sources, selecting relevant material from other texts; in this case, he or she assembled six recipes related to coughs. As above, this range of information demonstrates that an individual scriptorium likely had access to a diverse array of sources. This diversity has important implications for understanding the process of manuscript production, the movement of knowledge, and the composition of these remedy collections. These topics are all central to my project at the BSR and thus illustrate the value of the new digital tools involved in my research.

While this blog has used remedies for coughing and breathing problems as an inroad into my project, there is much more to share. Perhaps a future post can discuss more specific findings relating to the introduction of new sources for medical knowledge in the Latin west and the role of scriptoria in the Italian peninsula in this process — stay tuned!

Addendum: The history of medicine meets current affairs

Finally, for those interested in how historians of medicine (and not just medievalists!) have reflected on the current coronavirus crisis and responded to the media’s use/abuse of history, I would recommend the following lectures, podcasts, articles, etc.—many thanks to Monica Green, Winston Black, Guy Geltner, and others for sharing them originally:

Brief bibliography

Manuscripts seen above:

BAV pal. lat. 1088, digital facsimile: https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Pal.lat.1088
BAV reg. lat. 1143, digital facsimile: https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Reg.lat.1143

Printed sources:

Pseudo-Antonius Musa, De herba vettonica liber, ed. Howald and H. E. Sigerist, Corpus Medicorum Latinorum IV (Leipzig, 1927), 3-11

Secondary scholarship:

Beccaria, A., I Codici di medicina del periodo presalernitano (Rome, 1956)

Bischoff, B., Katalog der festl.ndischen Handschriften des neunten Jahrhunderts (mit Ausnahme der wisigotischen), 3 vols (Stuttgart 1998)

Glaze, F. E., ‘The perforated wall: the ownership and circulation of medical books in medieval Europe, ca. 800-1200’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Duke University (1999)

Horden, P., ‘What’s Wrong with Early Medieval Medicine?’, Social History of Medicine 24 (2011), 5-25

Wallis, F., ‘The Experience of the Book: Manuscripts, Texts, and the Role of Epistemology in Early Medieval Medicine’, in D. G. Bates (ed.), Knowledge and the Scholarly Medical Traditions (Cambridge, 1995), 101-26

Figure captions

Figure 1: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana pal. lat. 1088, f. 36r: For a cough (Ad tussem), 6 remedies

Figure 2: BAV pal. lat. 1088, f. 48v: For a dry cough (Ad tussem aridam), 2 remedies

Figure 3: BAV reg. lat. 1143, ff. 105r–v: For those who cannot breathe (Ad eos qui non suspirant), 1 remedy

Figure 4: BAV reg. lat. 1143, ff. 170r–v: Pills for a cough (Cataputias ad tusse), 1 recipe


Claire Burridge, Rome Scholar, 2019/2020