Moving home to Rome, ‘chrome on stone, and a roam around little-known zones

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Tom True discusses an exceptional week for Art Historical research at the BSR

Last week was an excellent week for History of Art at the BSR. We hosted two significant Art History conferences here, both looking afresh at a number of prevalent trends currently driving the discipline forwards.

We were delighted to host the annual Rome Art History Network (RAHN) conference, this year entitled Becoming Roman: Artistic Immigration in the Urbe from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries. As firm believers in the value and stimulus of collaborating with academic associates from across national borders, we are pleased to have created a fruitful collaboration with this network. RAHN are an outstanding collective of Rome-based Art Historians, whose vision, drawing together the best strands of international scholarship as well as supporting the career development of young scholars, we energetically share at the BSR. Drawn from a number of foreign academies and Italian institutions, the RAHN could be said to be ‘Art Historians on the Move’. Grafting onto the rich branches of the Roman Academy, their encouragement of foreign students working on Italy – including many of our own borsisti – encapsulates a little of the Ancient Homeric double meaning of xenos as both ‘stranger’ and ‘friend’.

So, as ‘Art Historians on the Move’, we turned our attention to the study of ‘Artists on the Move’, and to our Becoming Roman conference, whose themes and investigations contribute to several fundamental fields of enquiry, including patronage networks, cultural identity and, above all, artistic migration.

The papers spanned five centuries, running from the immigrant experiences of the handful of Spanish artists who moved to the caput mundi in the course of the sixteenth century (Piers Baker-Bates), through to the American artists who relocated to Rome in the postwar period, establishing studios and exhibiting in the Eternal City (Peter Benson Miller). Professor Irene Fosi, the doyenne of the study of nazioni stranieri in Rome, gave us a rich overview of this variegated city in her keynote address entitled ‘Early Modern Rome: a Mosaic of Nations’. The merits of the multi-period conference enabled us to pick up real changes in the conditions of artistic immigration in Rome through history. Nor was the timely relevance of addressing issues of immigration and strategies of integration ignored.

We were grateful to the many who attended the conference, filling our Lecture Theatre, in spite of a vexing public transport strike, demonstrating wise cognisance of the fact that coping with strikes is a major component of ‘Becoming Roman’!

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Piers Baker-Bates (Rome Scholar 2002-3, The Open University) delivered papers at both conferences, and here introduces Helen Langdon (Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellow 1999-2000) at the Pittura poco meno che eterna conference (photocredit: Antonio Palmieri)

In the same week we were thrilled to stage another important Art History conference entitled La pittura poco meno che eterna: Paintings on Stone and Material Innovation organised by former award-holder Piers Baker Bates (The Open University) and Elena Calvillo (University of Richmond). The event overlaid colourful intellectual pigments on last Tuesday’s stony grey sky!

Elena and Piers assembled an outstanding programme of contributors addressing the phenomenon of oil painting on stone; its innovation in early modern Rome; the historical, theoretical and metaphorical reasons for the appeal and flourishing of this fascinating practice; and the important continuation of threads of the story to consider its legacy throughout Italy and into Northern Europe.

This conference, and the book that will follow, stand to make an important contribution by building on a number of vigorously investigated research trends, including geographies of Art History, but, above all, the material turn, which probes the wealth of meaning to be gleaned from artists’ manipulation of materials. Anchored in such frameworks, with broader implications for the History of Art, this conference set upon a much neglected phenomenon – that of oil painting on stone – hitherto overlooked despite the fact that it was a practice that boomed for 150 years. This too was a timely endeavour, not least as it coincides with the forthcoming landmark exhibition on the theme to be held at the St Louis Museum of Art, and to be curated by Judith Mann, who delivered the keynote address.

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Becoming Roman and Material Innovation. The Maltese immigrant sculptor, Melchiorre Cafà’s extraodinary Ecstasy of Saint Catherine of Siena in Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli, Rome, visited by Paintings on Stone conference delegates, 18 May 2016 (photocredit: Wikipedia).

It follows that art historians truly invested in the ‘material turn’ would wish to study the objects in situ. Last week was no exception. Piers and Elena, together with the BSR’s Permissions Officer, Stefania Peterlini, coordinated on-site visits for conference participants and BSR residents to great examples of painting on stone in the company of prime experts in the field. We analysed masterpieces by Sebastiano del Piombo, who initiated the practice, at Santa Maria del Popolo and San Silvestro al Quirinale; the vast altarpiece by Zuccari at San Lorenzo in Damaso; and the wondrous Ecstasy at Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli, whose inventive use of lapis lazuli, alabaster and gialla antico marble, so interestingly serves and intensifies its spiritual meaning.

‘Arva verumque cano’: an interview with Assistant Director, Tom True

Tom True joined the BSR in October 2015 as the new Assistant Director having previously held two residential awards: Rome Scholarship 2009-10 and Giles Worlsey Travel Fellowship 2013-14.

After a term of working, living and researching here in his new position, Tom shared some thoughts on his experiences so far.

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Tom True, photo taken by Sophie Hay

You have been living at the BSR as Assistant Director for four months now, looking back how does it compare to your time spent here as an award-holder? 

Yes, I am very fortunate that the BSR soufflé has risen again! Naturally, this time round, I have plenty to do beyond my own research. But it has confirmed what I knew well then: that the BSR is unique in providing a very special setting for the kind of scholarly companionship and collaboration that contribute to the very best outcomes. I love its capacity to lift the mind and the creative imagination; to join the worlds of senior and emerging scholars; and to leap sure-footedly over solid-seeming walls between disciplines and practices.

For me as an award-holder this experience could not have been more transformative to the development of my scholarly life. Back then, it helped me to progress from being someone who enjoyed reading books and formulating ideas, to becoming a historian, making new discoveries and seeking to open up new paths of enquiry. Now it is a tremendous privilege to have the opportunity to help guide the next stages of its development and to give back to the BSR and other scholars even a part of what it has given for me.

It’s probably also fair to say that, since the 2009-10 award, my bar tab has come right down!

How is the BSR helping your research?

The BSR plays an indispensable role in providing scholars the time necessary to work meaningfully in the archives, by covering the sufficient ground, and turning up the new evidence, from which great contributions to history and social sciences are made. This type of sustained research is impossible from home and unaffordable without help – this is why the BSR must continue to thrive!

My own research – like that of hundreds of scholars who have been served so well by the BSR (so many of whom are now pre-eminent and inspirational academics) – depends on regular archival visits. I am able to go into town once or twice a week, to photograph enough documents for me to mull over in the corner turret of the BSR to keep me occupied until the next visit.

Rome is full of beautiful buildings, the BSR included, if you could convert any of them into your own private house which would you choose and why?

I would commission Baldassare Peruzzi to build me an apartment on top of the Torre delle Milizie behind Trajan’s Market. He did a first-rate job on the Theatre of Marcellus. From the Torre you can see the full sweep of Roman history, over the fori, past the column, via the 16th-century glory of Santa Maria di Loreto, and over to Victor Emmanuel’s (much maligned) brazen confection. From this vantage point I might even be able to keep an eye out for a reassuring puff of smoke issuing from the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum. If Peruzzi himself cannot be revived, I will settle for taking over a casino within the grounds of a papal residence where I could write productively, like Queen Caroline’s thresher-poet, Stephen Duck, or the garden hermit in Tom Stoppard’s wonderful Arcadia! For this, I would choose the casino of Villa Ludovisi so that I could easily commute to the BSR, for the best library in the world on Roman topography, as well as for the hearty scholarly companionship.

And finally, what do you do to relax when away from your research?

I’m not sure if relaxing is quite the mot juste, but I am fairly occupied by planning my wedding this August. The BSR stages seventy-odd academic events each year, which I am responsible for overseeing; and I am trying not to confuse planning these, with planning my own wedding. My fiancée looks a bit scared when I refer to wedding guests as ‘delegates’ and my groom-speech as a ‘keynote address’. In an ideal world, when away from my research and away from the top company of the BSR, I would be on a smallholding in the Marchigian foothills of the Apennines, looking after my cabbages, like the Emperor Diocletian.


To read more about the goings-on at the BSR from October to December 2015 please see previously published blog post by Tom True detailing the on-site seminars with the award-holders.

Exploring conflict and resolution in the materials and monuments of Rome

Dr Tom True, BSR Assistant Director, looks back at the on-site seminars with the award-holders from last term.

Last term BSR award-holders went beneath ground and up bell-towers to investigate their historical habitat through a new series of on-site seminars, entitled The stuff of struggles: exploring conflict and resolution in the materials and monuments of Rome. We have been studying great buildings across the city in the context of the controversies and (often) rough events that cradled them, in order to learn, through visual analysis, about the great political, theological, military and personal conflicts that define Rome, its history, its culture and its people.

2015 was a grim year in terms of the obliteration of cultural memory, with the ancient cities of Hatra, Nimrod and Palmyra laid waste. Last term Architecture Critic, Robert Bevan launched the third instalment of our renowned Architecture Programme, bringing a world exclusive to the BSR. Moving hearts and firing intellectual resolve, he gave us a privileged preview of a forthcoming documentary The Destruction of Memory based on his research, which analysed what becomes of collective identity when cultural institutions are destroyed in war.

Rome has been a zone of conflict throughout its history. Opposition, confrontation and rivalry are, of course, not necessarily yokes on creativity. This series has examined how conflict and rivalries – whether between individuals, social or political groups, religious allegiances, institutions, disciplines or art forms – were a positive agent of cultural production and change across Rome.

In order to reflect the current ‘material turn’ in scholarship, the series has also been investigating the theme of materiality, which informs the work of several of our award-holders – from both Fine Arts and the Humanities. We have been investigating how materials had the power to signify and to underpin art’s role in politics, polemics and ritual through their cultural and physical attributes.

Our visits have, so far, stretched back to antiquity, alighted in the Middle Ages, and continued through the Renaissance, and into the Baroque.

We were delighted to be led round the Ara Pacis Augustae by Dr Mark Bradley (Nottingham), who demonstrated how its unique decoration offers a sophisticated narrative about the values of Rome under the first emperor, the resolution of conflict, the establishment of imperial authority, and the integration of peace and prosperity into Roman society. We looked at how the Ara Pacis is connected with processes of reconstruction: from picking up the pieces of a shattered Republic, to the Fascist reassembly of the Altar, to modern scholarly efforts to reconstruct its original vivid colours. Mark examined the function of bright pigments, as well as sounds and aromas, to investigate the relationship between ancient religious activity, materials, and sensory enlightenment.

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Religion, monumentality and the Roman sensorium at the Ara Pacis, 5 November 2015

Professor Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge) treated us to a visit around the most spectacular of Rome’s 9th-century basilicas, Pope Paschal I’s Santa Prassede, with its Roman spolia and resplendent mosaics. The visit looked at how Paschal’s building and decorative campaign reflected and served the development of early Christian Rome. Papal authority, and Rome’s importance as a seat of political and sacred power were reaffirmed through Paschal’s monuments and their materials. We looked at the spiritual and political significance of the resemblance of Santa Prassede’s plan to Old St Peter’s; and discussed the Pope’s extraordinary translation of the relics of around 2,300 saints from the catacombs and the installation of this sacred army in his church. Krautheimer famously argued that such building projects represented a ‘renascence’ after centuries of Dark Ages. We looked at the struggles and controversies, confidence and disquiet, that created the conditions out of which revival and artistic development sprang, not least the impact of eliminating the Lombard kingdom from Central Italy, or of recoiling from the indignity of catacombs in decay. We were lucky enough to get up onto the organ loft, high in the transept, where we came face-to-face with coquettish-looking sheep in the apostolic frieze of the apse mosaic.

We also visited the nearby church of Santa Pudenziana for a precious glimpse of one of the earliest apse mosaics in Rome, and to study the process by which a Roman secular building developed into an early Christian church. Dazzled by the refulgence of our award-holders’ knowledge of church history and liturgy, the attendant nun granted us access up a rickety staircase to the campanile, home to some little-known and fascinating (arguably) 12th-century frescoes.

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Papal authority, church buildings and the translation of saints in the early Middle Ages: Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana on the Esquiline, 10 December 2015

Our much cherished senior scholar in residence, Dr Caspar Pearson (BSR Paul Mellon Centre Fellow 2015-16; Essex), took us to the Villa Farnesina, built in the early 1500s for the papal banker and cultural luminary Agostino Chigi. It is decorated throughout by some of the leading artists of the day, including Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Il Sodoma, and the villa’s architect Baldassare Peruzzi. The frescoes, which illustrate subjects from pagan mythology or ancient history, explore many of the struggles that most preoccupied the Roman Renaissance: the potentially disrupting and pacifying powers of Eros, the relationship between knowledge and illusion, and the conflicts between fame and oblivion, freedom and destiny, materiality and transcendence.

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Love and Oblivion at Villa Farnesina and the Tempietto, 24 November 2015

From the Farnesina we climbed up the hill to the Tempietto. Traditionally considered to be the epoch-making building of the High Renaissance, it stands within a courtyard, displayed almost as though it were a piece of sculpture. Marking the site on which St Peter was believed to have been martyred, the Tempietto also testifies to the struggles of its architect Donato Bramante to reconcile an ordering theory of architecture with an inherently disordering world, to incarnate the universal in the particular, and to bring a revered pagan cultural heritage into the service of the Christian present.

Dr Tom True (BSR Assistant Director) led award-holders to Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, Palazzo Barberini and the astonishing, yet tiny, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, which could fit within the footprint of one of Michelangelo’s piers for the crossing of St Peter’s. We examined the two stars of 17th-century Rome: GianLorenzo Bernini, a handsome and gregarious wild-man, and an astonishingly gifted sculptor, who soon turned to architecture; and Francesco Borromini, intensely professional and suicidally lamentative, and one of the most individual architects of all time. Set in the context of the papacy of Urban VIII, which was characterized by both his tireless promotion of family identity and his programme for the glorification of the Catholic Church, we examined how the rivalry of these two men helped to shape Baroque Rome.

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Dome and Lantern of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Artistic rivalry on the Quirinal: Bernini versus Borromini and the building of Baroque Rome, 12 November 2015

This series has been a very fruitful experience. We have been addressing themes that pool the rich and varied expertise of both our staff and our talented award-holders, in a format where ideas play freely and each brings their own unique perspective to the conversation.

Tom True (Assistant Director)

Images taken by Katherine Paines, Lincoln Austin, Mark Andrew Kelly, and Ross Taylor