Alumni Profile: Helena Phillips-Robins on Dante

2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri and a myriad of projects, talks and exhibitions are being presented to celebrate the poet’s life and work across the globe. In this month’s Alumni Profile, we spoke to Dante expert Helena Phillips-Robins, to gain her recommendations for some of the best ways to learn about, and engage with, Dante this year.

Helena Phillips-Robins was the inaugural CRASSH–BSR Isaac Newton Fund Fellow in 2017–18 and is Teaching Associate in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture and Research Fellow at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.

Helena Phillips-Robins speaking at the BSR in 2018. Photograph by Antonio Palmieri

BSR: 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. What does Dante have to say to us today?

HP-R: So much! About hope, human society, desire, how we engage – or fail to engage – with those who are different to us, the possibility of change…

What are some ways of exploring Dante in 2021?

Here are a few, among many others:

‘A riveder le stelle’: the Uffizi’s online exhibition of Federico Zuccari’s drawings for the Commedia

In 1586-88, while away from Italy and working for Philip II at the Escorial, Federico Zuccari – one of the leading Mannerist painters – produced his Dante historiato, a cycle of 88 drawings to illustrate the Commedia. The drawings move from the horror and confusion of the ‘dark wood’ of Inferno to the final vision of God in Paradiso, which, in Zuccari’s rendition, is like looking up into a vast, light-filled cupola (Zuccari, in fact, painted the frescoes in the cupola in the Duomo in Florence). The drawings are fragile and have been exhibited only twice before.

Online exhibition: La Commedia Divina: 100 lithographs by Liam Ó Broin

Liam Ó Broin’s suite of lithographs explores Dante’s treatment of love, human community, and the search for a just society. Dante presents the Commedia as a text that seeks to transform its readers, and Ó Broin’s lithographs cast Dante’s journey as one deeply relevant to the viewer-reader, a journey that, in Ó Broin’s words, ‘can be created by ourselves and for others in the here and now’. The exhibition is curated by the Centre for Dante Studies in Ireland.

Canto per Canto: Conversations with Dante in Our Time

Academics and students of Dante, from all career stages, discuss how Dante speaks to us in our time, now. One aspect I’ve particularly enjoyed is that this is a collaborative – intergenerational, international – undertaking, and so it has put in dialogue many very different perspectives on Dante. Each episode in the series (run by the Dante Society of America) focuses on one of the 100 cantos of the Commedia.

Conversations on Dante (Leeds Dante Podcast)

Researchers discuss ongoing work on Dante, the cultural frameworks in which he lived, and his place in cultures across the world today. The series aspires to conversations about more diverse, and therefore richer, research on Dante; see, for example, the episodes on translating Dante, and Dante and Caribbean poetry.

Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy

In this public lecture series, a group of researchers set out to explore what would happen if we read the Commedia not only in narrative sequence, from beginning to end (reading ‘horizontally’, as it were), but also ‘vertically’. What new perspectives might emerge if we read same-numbered cantos together (Inferno 1, Purgatorio 1 and Paradiso 1; Inferno 2, Purgatorio 2 and Paradiso 2, etc)? This was the first time this way of reading was systematically applied to the whole Commedia. Versions of the lectures have now been published in three open access volumes.

And finally: how did your time in Rome impact your work on Dante?

While in Rome I finished the manuscript for my book, Liturgical Song and Practice in Dante’s Commedia, which came out this year. The fellowship also gave me the chance to work on manuscripts in the Vatican Library and the Biblioteca Angelica, for a new project on medieval weeping. Conversations with other BSR award-holders and many wanderings around Rome opened up new lines of thought; I started working, for example, on relationships between texts and images. But what I valued most, and what underpinned all the rest, was the kindness and generosity – personal and professional – of the other award-holders and Research Fellows.

Thank you to Helena Phillips-Robins for taking part in this blog post. Liturgical Song and Practice in Dante’s Commedia was published in April 2021 by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Return to the BSR: 50 years on

The staff, residents and award-holders of the British School at Rome were delighted to welcome back a group of former award-holders and staff members who called the BSR their home nearly 50 years ago.

As part of the visit, current Permissions Officer Stefania Peterlini was able to secure permessi for the group and award-holders to visit the Baths of Trajan and the Vatican Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis, continuing the work of her predecessor from the 1960s Anna Fazzari.

The group also held an informal exhibition of photographs, and for all of the current award-holders the event was a touching reminder of how the BSR can create bonds between people that stand the test of time – promises were made to have more reunions of this nature in the future.

One of the returning award-holders, Alastair Small, writes about the experiences he had at the BSR and how the building has changed.

‘On 26 October three former Rome scholars and award-holders at the BSR, Katherine Dunbabin, Janet Huskinson (Dee) and Alastair Small returned to celebrate the 50 years that had passed since they first met at the British School. They were joined by Nancy Ramage (Hirschland) who had arrived a year later, but who came to enliven the company (then as now) and by Andrew Ramage and Carola Small. They were given a warm welcome by the Director and staff of the BSR, and greatly enjoyed making the acquaintance of the current generation of award-holders and other residents. They spared the company any lectures or formal reminiscences of times past, but marked the occasion with a reception for the BSR residents, and some invited guests who included distinguished Italian scholars, soprintendenti, and other friends.

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Nancy and Alastair brought some photographs to illustrate how some things had been  at the School – and in the Italian countryside – in 1965 and the following year or two. In those days there were Guy Fawkes parties on the School’s tennis court, and in 1968, riots in the Architecture Faculty next door.

The external walls of the BSR were covered with graffiti (not unrelated to the adjacent chaos); but inside there was calm once one had entered by the right portal (no wicket door in those days). We had no key to the building and no need of one since there was always a porter at the door by day and a night watchman (Angelo) by night. The Library was much smaller and was entered by the great door in the hall. The director (John Ward-Perkins) had his office down the library corridor, with the librarian (Luciana Valentini) next door. The secretary (Anna Fazzari) was to be found in the small room on the other side of the corridor (now a lavatory) from which she did all Ward-Perkins’ secretarial work and arranged for permessi from the Italian authorities – in which she was invariably successful. Bruno Bonelli, the steward, had the room in the other corridor that Renato Parente still has, and insisted on speaking Italian to the residents when they came to settle their bills. The dining room was much the same as it is now except that the musicians’ gallery, now walled in, added distinction to the hall – and provided a ledge on which banners, official and unofficial, could be hung. There was afternoon tea in the dining room, then as now, but also a popular bar and a communal refrigerator in the far corner. A kind and effective presence was Margaret Ward-Perkins who took an unofficial but very active part in looking after the residents of the BSR.

Other scholars at the time included John Huskinson [Rivoira Scholarship 1966-67] and Tim Potter [Rome Scholar 1966-68], who came a year later, both alas no longer with us; Roger Ling [Balsdon Senior Research Fellow 1964-65] and Lesley Steer [Rome Scholar 1965-67], who met here and married. Scott Medd used to escort the artists to Campania and take them up Vesuvius. The much loved Molly Cotton ruled the Camerone and imposed order there, latterly with the help of Kim Wheeler.  Frequent and regular guests included Martin Frederiksen and Dale Trendall.

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BSR sherding party with (from left to right) Molly Cotton, Phillip Kendrick, Judy Branston, Tim Potter (lying down, legs visible) Margaret Ward-Perkins and John Ward-Perkins; Monte Soratte in the background (1966)

The whole of the first floor to the right of the courtyard was given over to bedrooms and to two bathrooms with large bathtubs for which there was inadequate hot water; and none of the rooms in the rear corridor had the en-suite facilities with which they are now equipped. Life was therefore more spartan, but the company was congenial (as it evidently still is) and we were fortunate in that in those days it was possible to renew the Rome Scholarships for a second year, which some of us did. Our days were studded with outings to less travelled and difficult-of-access sites in the centre city, and to Veii and the Campagna, highlighted for some of us with sherding parties (and picnics).

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BSR sherding party (1968)

We all benefitted enormously from those days at the BSR, which helped to shape our careers and our lives.

Alla prossima volta!’

Alastair Small (Rome Scholar 1964-67)

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The returning group: Alastair Small, Janet Huskinson, Nancy Ramage and Katherine Dunbabin


From within this convivial group emerged an additional heart-warming story: a photo displayed in the photographic exhibition that accompanied a reception held by the reunion participants, Nancy Ramage (née Hirschland) and Andrew Ramage are seen in their engagement photo that had been taken on the steps of the BSR.  Since both of them returned for the reunion, we decided to take a re-staged photograph on the same spot nearly 50 years later.

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‘In the first photo shown, Nancy Hirschland [soon to be Ramage] and Andrew Ramage are seen on the BSR steps, just after their engagement in 1968.  Nancy had been at the School for two years, working as a draftsman in the Camerone while writing her dissertation on Etruscan bucchero pottery (Harvard 1969).  She had gone for her annual summer work on the archaeological dig at Sardis, Turkey, where Andrew was excavating.  He came to visit her in Rome for a short stay on his way back to the USA, and asked Nancy to marry him.  About half a century later (in the second photo) you see them at the same spot during the small reunion of BSR friends from that era.’

Nancy Ramage (Former external graduate student)