A research trip to Tunisia

Last April, Coleman-Hilton Scholar Jason Blockley travelled to Tunisia to visit a number of sites to complement his research on the economies of late antique North Africa. Over the course of this trip, Jason clocked up an impressive number of miles and site visits, travelling between cities and across countryside, exploring both ancient, medieval and modern sites. Read on to find out more…

During the Roman period the provinces that cover the area that is now Tunisia were among the richest and most productive in the entire empire. Every year millions of tons of wheat, olive oil, fine pottery, and other goods left Tunisia’s shores for sale or distribution elsewhere in the empire. My research investigates the relationship between the state and the economy in Late Antique (c. 300-450) North Africa, which took me on an eight-day trip of Tunisia in April. While there I was lucky to have the expert services and friendship of Sami Harize, a veteran guide and expert on Tunisia’s cultural heritage.
For the first two days of the trip we were busy exploring the many ruins of Carthage, the ancient capital of Roman Africa which today is a suburb of Tunis. Like Rome, Tunis/Carthage is a patchwork of ancient ruins scattered amongst a modern metropolis. The ruins alone reveal the immense size and prosperity of Roman Carthage, a city that would have housed several hundred thousand people. The city boasted all the comforts and infrastructure that Rome had, including splendid baths, theatres, an arena, public aqueducts, and a sophisticated harbour system.

The Bardo Museum in Tunis contains more evidence of the splendour that the citizens of Carthage enjoyed, including a staggering and unparalleled collection of ancient mosaics.

After having visited the major sites and museums in Carthage we set out for a three-day, ~1,000km tour of northern and central Tunisia. To properly describe all the incredible sites we visited along the way would require a short book at least, as it is impossible to travel anywhere in Tunisia without seeing some monument or cultural treasure. On the first day we drove through the verdant lush north of the country to see the cities of Dougga, ancient Thugga, and El Kef, ancient Sicca Veneria. The countryside is incredibly fertile and picturesque, and in antiquity the grain grown here was essential in keeping the city of Rome fed.

Though both Thugga and Sicca Veneria were modest provincial cities they both boasted all the comforts of Roman urban life, including baths, theatres, and fine homes for the wealthy. Many of the ruins of Sicca Veneria have disappeared beneath the modern fabric of El Kef, but the ruins at Dougga are pristine, and a sure rival for sites like Pompeii. Dougga, like many other ancient ruins in Tunisia, coexists with modern pastoralists just as it would have done in antiquity.

On the second day, we started heading south into central Tunisia, where the landscape became more arid and rocky. Not well suited for growing wheat, this area specialised in olives. In fact, the area is practically a forest of olive trees as it was during the Roman period.


Olive groves in central Tunisia. Photo by Jason Blockley.

Along the way we visited Haïdra, ancient Ammaedara, and Sbeitla, ancient Sufetula. During the early years of Roman rule in Africa Haïdra was an important military site, a role it resumed during the tumultuous Byzantine period. The imposing triumphal arch, partially encased in ad hoc walls, also echoes the military history of the city.

The ruins of Sufetula lie in an impressive archaeological park right next to modern Sbeitla. Again, the ancient city boasted all the signature comforts of ancient urban life, but also has an unusual triple-Capitoline temple as well as several early Christian churches with mosaiced baptismal pools.

On the last day of our tour of the Tunisian countryside we visited Kairouan and El Djem, ancient Thysdrus. Kairouan was settled around 670 CE during the Islamic conquest of Africa, and the city’s Great Mosque was the first in the entire Maghreb. During the early Middle Ages Kairouan became the seat of power, politics, and culture in Tunisia, taking the place that Carthage (now ruined) had occupied during the ancient era. Although Kairouan was the centre for the burgeoning Islamic civilisation in Tunisia, vestiges of the country’s Roman history made its way into the city. The ruins of Roman monuments in Tunisia were used like a quarry to embellish Kairouan, including the Great Mosque – ancient architectural elements can still be seen today.

El Djem, like El Kef, has mostly buried its ancient ruins beneath the modern city – except for its immense amphitheatre, which was among the largest in the Roman Empire. The amphitheatre, sited in the heart of the city, is clear evidence that Thysdrus’ arid environment was no impediment to the Romano-Africans building a prosperous and comfortable city.

El Djem

The amphitheatre at El Djem. Photo by Jason Blockley.

After El Djem our tour of the Tunisian countryside and its many cities and towns was finished and we drove back to Tunis. The next few days were spent exploring more of medieval and modern Tunis. The city’s Medina (old town) is a lively and bustling labyrinth full of small shops, cafés, homes, and mosques. The modern city has far outgrown its ancient, medieval, or colonial limits and is today a veritable metropolis.

My journey through Tunisia was rewarding in many ways. It provided needed nuance and context to my research, and I am grateful to Sami for pointing out countless things I would have otherwise missed. Experiencing and learning about modern Tunisia was equally rewarding. Lastly, the people of Tunisia remain a hospitable and generous people despite the hardships they have weathered over the years.

Jason Blockley (Coleman-Hilton Scholar)

Original photographic prints from the BSR Photographic Archive on display at Palazzo Poli in Rome

On 16 May our Library team attended the opening of a photographic exhibition that sees the participation of 30 Italian and foreign institutions in Rome, including many members of the URBiS Library Network Catalogue.

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The list of all the institutions in Rome both Italian and foreign participating in the exhibition

The exhibition shows more than 300 photographs arranged by theme in alphabetical order: Acque, Bellezza, Cronaca, Danni, Esplorazioni, Feste, Giochi, Habitat, Incontri, Lavoro, Mostre, Nudo, Oltremare, Potere, Quotidianità, Radici, Spettacoli, Trasporti, Urbanistica, Viaggi, Zibaldone. This approach, presenting the photographs according to theme rather than chronology, results in a more evocative and inspiring experience for the public and demonstrates the diversity and richness of the photographic collections across the participant institutions.

The title of the initiative stems from the exhibition’s three distinguishing elements:

  • the alphabetical order in which the images are presented (alfabeto)
  • the nature of the objects on display – exclusively photographs (fotografico)
  • the provenance of the collections, all from public and private institutions in Rome (romano)

We are very proud to have participated in the exhibition by contributing some original photographs from our Photographic Archive: five original albumen prints from the John Henry Parker Collection have been selected for the section Acque, Danni, Potere, Urbanistica and Viaggi, as well as two silver gelatin prints from the John Bryan Ward-Perkins series ‘War Damage’ documenting the destruction of the San Lorenzo basilica during World War II.


The exhibition catalogue showing images documenting the destruction of the basilica of San Lorenzo during World War II

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Attendees at the exhibition opening

The accompanying catalogue includes more than 200 images and a description of each item is provided by the curators of the photographic collections.

We are very grateful to Maria Francesca Bonetti (Istituto Centrale per la Grafica (ICG)) and Clemente Marsicola (Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione (ICCD)) for having dedicated their efforts to setting up this highly collaborative project.

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Audience attending the presentation of the exhibition

On a personal note, I would like to express my gratitude to Beatrice Gelosia, Deputy Librarian, for her invaluable help and support throughout the preparation of both the texts published in the catalogue and the photographic material selected for the event.

Do not miss the opportunity to go and visit this outstanding exhibition, on display until the beginning of July:

Venue: Palazzo Poli, Via Poli, 54 (Fontana di Trevi) – Rome

Date: 17 May-2 July 2017

Time: Tuesday-Sunday, 14.00-19.00

Free entrance

Alessandra Giovenco (Archivist)

Understanding, designing and creating maps: a workshop on new software in archaeology

Earlier this year, Research Fellow Maria del Carmen Moreno, who joins us at the BSR this year from the University of Southampton to carry out research on the port system of imperial Rome, generously offered to share her expertise on new software being used in archaeology. Here she reflects on the workshop which she organised and conducted, and on the role this software has to play in this field of study.

My name is Maria del Carmen Moreno, and I am a postdoctoral researcher working at the British School at Rome. I am a specialist in Roman Archaeology and Landscape Archaeology, and as such, I am very familiar with the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I believe the introduction of this tool in Archaeology has generated a bit of a “revolution” that is just starting to be acknowledged and incorporated into the discipline of Roman Archaeology, since it allows the user to manage and analyse vast amounts of data based on their distribution over the landscape. But every journey begins with a single step, and regarding GIS, that step consists of understanding what GIS is and its possibilities, and (then) getting hands-on with a computer to create a first map.

After several conversations with some residents at the British School at Rome, it became clear that tools of this kind generate interest and curiosity amongst scholars and artists alike, and so I thought of ways to showcase not only the possibilities of GIS, but also to demonstrate that, despite its complexity, GIS shouldn’t be considered a scary piece of software only understood by some, but as a very useful tool accessible to any person with an interest in this topic. I therefore decided to organise a workshop, entitled “Introduction to Geographic Information Systems in Humanities” at the British School at Rome for those interested in the topic.


The day came, and an audience of residents (both scholars and artists) and some colleagues from other institutions and international academies in Rome were introduced to many different topics. To name just a few, we explored the definition of GIS and advantages of its use not only in Humanities but in many other disciplines and areas of research, and the diverse ways into which the curved surface of the Earth has been organised and represented through coordinate systems, as well as the numerous possibilities of commercial and open-source software available nowadays. Lively exchanges of opinions developed throughout the morning and early afternoon, especially when we discussed the process of map design and the consequences of choosing one geographic projection over another (which may introduce diverse degrees of distortion on the length and area of regions, countries, and continents alike, as some assistants discovered then).


The site of Portus. Photo by Maria del Carmen Moreno.


The site of Isola Sacra. Photo by Maria del Carmen Moreno.

We also went into the computing side of GIS, where we could think of ways in which real phenomena are represented and stored as geographic digital data, thus establishing the differences between vector and raster formats and the possibilities they offer for GIS users. Most importantly, I introduced some ideas about metadata and strategies for digital archiving, a fundamental concern when dealing with digital data in order to allow its description and reuse by researchers in the future. Finally, a tutorial on the creation of maps in ArcGIS (developed specifically for this workshop) was distributed amongst the assistants, in order to enable them to create their own maps. And thus, the session finished.

As a little reflection, I believe it was a very interesting workshop where the diversity of approaches and perceptions of the geographic space held and discussed by the assistants become the very central point of the session, allowing all of us to think and reflect on space, territories and landscapes in more diverse and creative ways.

As a final note, I would like to thank the assistance and the collaboration of the British School at Rome in the organisation and celebration of this workshop. Without them, this initiative wouldn’t have been possible.

Maria del Carmen Moreno (Research Fellow, BSR)

Gary Deirmendjian’s interventions in Rome

Over the course of the past few months, visitors to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna and Villa Borghese have been surprised by the interventions that have been appearing on the flights of steps that connect the two sites. The artist behind them is Gary Deirmendjian, this year’s National Art School, Sydney, Resident.


Gary Deirmendjian (National Art School, Sydney, Resident). Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

The first installation appeared mysteriously overnight in early April: at around 4 o’clock in the morning, Gary had gone out to the steps overlooking the Gallery to put together his first piece, roman stack. The result was an anonymous cube stack, made out of the available material of bitumen debris – what Gary calls ‘the city’s flaking skin’. The orientation of the work was aligned with the global axis, and not with the site’s urban geometry. Gary documented the changes to the work whenever he walked by, whilst resisting the temptation to make modifications himself.

Gary commented that during the installation, passers-by became intrigued and were compelled to take part: one helped by bringing over pieces of bitumen, another used his car’s headlights to provide Gary with some light.

roman stack soon evolved in the past has claws: making further use of the loose bitumen fragments and the debris from the former installation, this new piece was exhibited adjacent to the relic base of roman stack.

Gary was struck by the sensitivity with which the public responded to these interventions. Firstly, he was pleasantly surprised by how long the pieces had lasted: being left to mercy of the elements and the many passers-by, he had expected the installations to lose their structure fairly quickly, however he was pleased to see that they were treated with interest and respect. It was also wonderful to see the creative response to roman stack and the past has claws: a number of spectators developed the installations, either by adding bitumen fragments to the existing pieces, or by building their own nearby.

This marks a continuation of the theme of ‘shared space’, which is often a central element of Gary’s practice. On his website, he writes:

The major thrust of my practice in recent years has become to exist in shared space – by definition the public realm in its broadest meaning. I’m very interested in the notion of art in public, as opposed to public art, with the latter commonly understood as being a brief-driven proposition.

As an artist, it has become essential for me to find means to connect directly with a broader public, one-to-one and free of any obligation, mediation or justification. Hence the demonstrable tendency in the work towards more public or openly shared space.

We are very much looking forward to seeing what other interventions Gary has in store for Rome!

All photos by Gary Deirmendjian.

Ellie Johnson (Administrative Assistant — Communications and Events)

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. Photo by Sinta Tantra.

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)

From Tarquin the Proud to Luigi Ghirri: book publications this week


The breadth of research at the BSR has perhaps never been so evident as early this week with two significant book publications taking us from the sixth century BC to the twentieth century AD.


BSR Director Christopher Smith and Patricia Lulof’s edited volume The Age of Tarquinius Superbus was published by Peeters Publishers.

The volume constitutes the most substantial overview we have of the late sixth century in central Italy. It arises from a conference held at the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome and the British School at Rome in 2013 and will be presented at the Istituto Studi Romani in May this year.

The volume Luigi Ghirri and the Photography of Place. Interdisciplinary Perspectives, co-edited by BSR Senior Research Fellow in Modern Studies and Contemporary Visual Culture Jacopo Benci with Marina Spunta (Leicester), has just been published by Peter Lang (UK) in the Italian Modernities series directed by Pierpaolo Antonello and Robert Gordon.

It is the first collection of scholarly essays to appear in English on the work of Luigi Ghirri (1943-92) one of the most significant Italian artists of the late 20th century. The book breaks new ground by approaching Ghirri’s work from different angles (including art history, theory of photography, literary and cultural studies, architecture, cartography, and place and landscape studies). Luigi Ghirri and the Photography of Place - book coverThe volume is the final outcome of a two-year British Academy/Leverhulme Trust funded research project Viewing and writing Italian landscape. Luigi Ghirri and his legacy in photography and literature which yielded two conferences held at the British School at Rome in 2013 (in collaboration with the MAXXI on the occasion of the exhibition Luigi Ghirri. Pensare per immagini 23 April—27 October 2013), and the University of Leicester in 2014.

Podcasts from the BSR conference can be found on the project website, and you can watch Jacopo give a lecture on Ghirri and architecture at Campo Space here.

A look back at the March Mostra 2017

In March the BSR gallery saw the first exhibition of work by our Fine Arts award-holders in 2017. Thanks to the fantastic photography of Roberto Apa, those who were unable to attend March Mostra can now take a look at the artwork exhibited below! You can read more about the practice of each artist by clicking on their name.

The exhibition was made possible thanks to the support of The Bridget Riley Art Foundation, Conseil des Arts et des Lettres Québec, The Incorporated Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Scholarships, The Linbury Trust and the supporters of the Scholars’ Prize in Architecture.


Caroline Cloutier (Québec Resident)

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Hidden around the corner, digital print on adhesive vinyl, 275 x 310 cm


Morgan Gostwyck-Lewis (Scholars’ Prize in Architecture Winner)

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The coloured cornice, Book, 30 x 25 cm; Coloured cornice, plaster and paint, dimensions variable


Neil McNally (Abbey Fellow in Painting)

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Jacques Rancière stopped talking because someone fainted during his speech at the Rome conference on Communism at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (in the future there will be no painters only men and women who paint) / Jacques Rancière ha smesso di parlare perchè qualcuno svenne durante il suo discorso al Rome conferenc sul communismo e alla Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (nel futuro non ci saranno pittori, solo uomini e donne che dipingono), oil on canvas, 118 x 250 cm; Two venomous snakes concussed or killed by excitedly bouncing too high on a trampoline / Due serpenti velenosi concussi o morti, dopo aver saltato troppo alti su un trampolino,  soil from Lanuvium, paper, ants, alabaster, marble, oil, acrylic, cardboard, plastic, wood, wire, pigment, washing up liquid, tape, glue, wheat, soap, pine nuts, basalt, trampoline, arum italicum 466 x 499  cm.


Catherine Parsonage (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting and Sculpture)

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A portrait of friends, oil on gesso panel, 55 x 45 cm


Sinta Tantra (The Bridget Riley Fellow)

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The Piranesi effect (screen) tempera on linen 4 panels, 180 x 60 cm each


Vivien Zhang (Abbey Scholar in Painting)

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Glitch edit, oil and spray paint on canvas, 122 x 102 cm


All photos by Roberto Apa.