City of Rome Postgraduate Course 2021

Text and photos by Noah Cashian.

There were only three of us on the City of Rome course this year (2021) – hardly enough to fill the deserted ruins, galleries, and churches of an empty city. As BSR Director Chris Wickham reminded us, however, Rome hadn’t been seen in this way for generations, and (hopefully) it won’t be seen like this again for many years to come. Our stay at the BSR was extremely special for this reason: we saw Rome’s ancient monuments truly abandoned, with all the new perspectives this entailed. Some of these will be quite obvious. If you’re standing completely alone in the Pantheon or the Lateran, for example, you’ll start to see things which are almost impossible to notice otherwise.

A deserted Palazzo Altemps and a lonely statue

In terms of the bigger picture, though, we also gained a real appreciation for how important these ancient remains are for modern-day Romans and their city. I only realised this when I saw the ruins without their usual crowds: Rome’s monuments became vulnerable objects which had been lost for centuries before, and which could easily be lost again. This would all be very bleak, but the pandemic also granted us remarkable opportunities to see how everyday people from across the city were engaged with Rome’s past and its preservation. Living rooms, gardens, restaurants, palatial courtyards, and government basements were all on our hitlist, and we were extremely fortunate to see just how much the ancient and modern cities (and their peoples) remain connected with one another.

With Robert Coates-Stephens’ expertise we gained much more than perspective. I’d been studying Roman topography for roughly six months before I came to the BSR and had visited Rome several times, but I couldn’t imagine the ancient city as anything more than a jumble of names. Our daily fieldwork quickly fixed this, despite my terrible sense of space. Each day (and every week) was carefully choreographed to build upon what came before: we started with tours of the city walls, and literally worked from the bottom up as we huddled around blocks of tufa. Weeks later, when we reached the forum Romanum, our seemingly innocent sightseeing all came together. Once we got our eye in, previously indistinguishable lumps of marble and stone became indispensable markers of architectural style, period, and culture. The more we learnt, the more we could see – you’d think this is obvious, but you really don’t notice this sort of thing until you look at a wall of spolia and automatically begin to pick out the oddities (see below).

It’s from these smallest details that Robert would always draw out the most interesting questions. Some minutiae would be remarkable for their importance, and how much could hinge upon tiny fragments – think Forma Urbis Romae. Other details had an antiquarian appeal even if they weren’t strictly ‘important’, and these were the ones I always preferred:

What else was catalogued alongside this statue? Who scratched a lighthouse into the walls of the grand Ostian house – one of the owner’s children, or a sailor after the home was abandoned? The cutaway of a human stomach speaks for itself, and I wonder if the patron was a medical expert or if this kind of knowledge was simply a given in educated circles.

I never expected to be so carried away with the city’s material culture – I’ve spent the past five years focusing on texts and ideas – but I can say without a doubt that the three of us felt the same way by the end of the course. Our different topics (the middle republic, late antiquity, and Victorian classical reception) were all given more than comprehensive coverage by Robert, and I’m sure that the City of Rome course will appeal to anyone interested in ancient history, and probably everyone else beyond it; we were regularly joined by the BSR’s artistic and academic residents, and even a few stragglers from around Rome. Our experience can’t be separated from the community and atmosphere of the BSR itself, which we all felt so lucky to have – our daily dinners were always great fun and fittingly Spartan for the ancient historians. It’s quite easy to say that the City of Rome is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and it has greatly encouraged me to apply for doctoral study.

Meet the artists: Eleni Odysseos

An interview with Eleni Odysseos, Abbey Fellow in Painting, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from April–June 2021.

Photo by Antonio Pamieri.

Your research in Rome is inspired by art historian Anthi Andronikou’s article on the visual similarities in twelfth century medieval ecclesiastic painting in Cyprus and Puglia. Could you tell us more about this?

Anthi Andronikou maps similarities in ecclesiastical painting between Puglia, Cyprus, and Jerusalem, and suggests possible reasons for why those similarities exist.

The article suggests that these visual similarities were not circumstantial, but rather traces of collaboration, of a nomadic lifestyle where artists were borrowing from – and working with – one another. Even though their hagiographies would often address dissimilar audiences and different divisions of Christianity, they would do it using identical signs, therefore rendering their signifiers as “arbitrary”. 

Detail of wall painting, Abbazia di Sant’Angelo in Formis. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The rendering of those signifiers as “arbitrary” in the linguistic theory of signs, as Andronikou describes it, became a starting point for my interest in symbolic imagery. More specifically, it unfolded into an interest in how abstracted symbolic imagery becomes appropriated by different political systems, cults, and religions across time and space, to signify changing narratives. Symbolic imagery across the Roman period, through to the medieval and renaissance has accumulated in my studio, a process of embodying a language that is then materialised in painting, drawing, sound, and text.

Complesso Basilicale Paleocristiano in Cimitile. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Through this process, I am developing my own lexicon. It is a lexicon that addresses and embraces the fluidity of a present-day, surrealist femininity. Another section of Andronikou’s article I am drawn to, is the story of a group of nuns, organised by queen Alice of Champagne, who were relocated from Acre to Puglia, and who may have commissioned artists in that period – a possible reason that would explain why those visual similarities exist. Their tale triggered my curiosity, and I wanted to find out more about organised cults as well as the societal position of women in the medieval period. Rome offers many such stories, particularly from the Roman period, from Mithraism to the House of the Vestal Virgins. Dr. Maria Harvey, current fellow at the British School at Rome, prompted me to read Mary Wellesley’s This Place is Pryson published on the London Review of Books website in 2019.  The text describes the medieval ritual of an anchoress entering her cell as being very similar to a funeral procession. These medieval women would abandon their lives to reside in tiny cells until their death.  Wellesley’s description of this ritual opened new conversations within my practice: for example, how sacrifice is embedded in the female experience, how social structures and class feed these narratives, or how spirituality and wisdom are perceived differently when performed by different genders.

Detail of How Could I Forget You. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Your work seems to explore a transitional moment where anthropomorphic – mostly female – bodies are turning into entities with unclear and undefined outlines. Can you explain more?

Absolutely. My work explores desire, abjection, and isolation through symbolic figuration, choreographing a constellation of painting, text, sound, and light. I am interested in the fluid representation of hybrid creatures and the allegorical depiction of violence in medieval iconography. Animal-human identities are blurred, and creatures emerge from the fogginess of the mark-making process, from the flow of light and the luminosity of the paint. My time here in Rome has offered a wealth of symbolic references and styles of ornamentation. My studio walls and floor are filled with cut-outs, prints, drawings. The paintings are in a transitional moment, where their symbolic lexicon materialises in light, in figuration, or in the transparency of layered colours. The work is interested in entanglements. Moments of isolation, exchange, death and rebirth. Sacrifice, and companionship.

Eleni Odysseos’ studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Six Nations

In the days after many celebrate the highly successful partnership of Italy and England on the football fields of Leicester, we thought we would take a look at the BSR’s many international relationships.

The BSR was delighted to be part of the global Shakespeare 2016 Anniversary events. Here in Italy, we enjoyed a week-long series of events entitled Shakespeare Memory of Rome 2016, in which the BSR and the British Council were official partners. We are very grateful to Maria del Sapio and Maddalena Pennacchia, from Università Roma Tre, and Iolanda Plescia, from Sapienza, Università di Roma, for their collaboration in organising one day of the conference in front of a packed Sainsbury Lecture Theatre at the BSR. Andrew Hadfield from Sussex University, a previous Society for Renaissance Studies lecturer at the BSR, and Lisa Hopkins from Sheffield Hallam University were among those staying at the BSR for the events. We also invited Roy Stephenson from our own partner institution, the Museum of London, who gave a brilliant lecture on Shakespeare’s London.

The conference was complemented by a splendid performance by Shakespeare’s Globe of Hamlet at Palazzo della Cancelleria, organised by HM Ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker.

The same week we were delighted to host Paul Binski (Professor of the History of Medieval Art, and Head of the Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge) to give our annual W.T.C. Walker Lecture in Architectural History on ‘Rome and England in the Gothic Age’. Rome may not be the first city that comes to mind when thinking about the gothic, but, with his trademark silver-tongued erudition, Paul demonstrated stamps and echoes of romanitas in some of England’s most familiar Gothic cathedrals.


It was a delight see former award-holder Marcella Sutcliffe (University of Cambridge) return to the BSR earlier this month to give a lecture on humanities activists in the Great War, including the role played by the BSR’s third Director Thomas Ashby in the British Red Cross on the Italian front.


The opportunity for a senior scholar researching Anglo-Italian artistic and cultural relations or Grand Tour subjects to join our community is currently being offered in the form of a fellowship offered by the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art – details can be found here The deadline for applications is 23 May 2016. You can read what this year’s Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellow Caspar Pearson had to say about his time at the BSR here:

Lest we should appear too Anglocentric: on the awards front, our Arts Council of Northern Ireland Fellow Damien Duffy continues to enthral us; we have just had an early visit from Kelly Best, who will be our inaugural Creative Wales-BSR Fellow next year. We were excited to be invited to hear about the history of the Venerable English College – the oldest continuously existing English and Welsh institution abroad – at their sede around the corner from Campo de’ Fiori recently. Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, visited to present an AHRC-funded project on early video art in Italy, and we shall soon host the Glasgow School of Art who will be presenting their major restoration project to a large Rome audience. A conference on the fascinating sixteenth-century figure of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone takes us across the Irish Sea. To cap our Six Nations, we are currently enjoying a successful collaboration with our French colleagues at the Villa Medici on our recent architecture programme Meeting Architecture: Fragments.

Christopher Smith (Director) and Tom True (Assistant Director)

Royal Flush: Llewelyn Morgan on Domitian’s high colour

This week we have a guest post from Llewelyn Morgan of Brasenose College, Oxford.

Following his lecture at the BSR last month, Llewelyn details the ancients’ fascination with Domitian’s physiognomy —  from the emperor’s own amateur interest in hair care, to commentators’ preoccupation with Domitian’s ‘high colour’.

‘A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting the British School at Rome for the first time, very much a flying visit, but which included a fascinating tour of excavations beneath St John Lateran led by Professor Ian Haynes, and wonderful hospitality from Sophie Hay and Tom True. It was an opportunity, too, to try out some ideas about my favourite Roman emperor, Domitian.

Domitians head

Domitian’s head, from the Museum in Ephesus.

One of my very first academic publications was concerned with Domitian’s physical appearance, an article on a rather unlikely work to come from this emperor’s pen. The only fragment that survives of Domitian’s work on hair care, De cura capillorum, concerns his own lack of hair, and does so in a light-hearted and self-mocking fashion somewhat at odds with his reputation. Domitian is one of the bad emperors, the paranoid ones who get assassinated and deliberately forgotten, and deserve everything they get. But I tend to see Domitian less as evil incarnate than someone incapable of subtlety: he made no bones about the power he wielded, in contrast to previous emperors who had managed the tricky balance of administering Rome without putting the noses of the Roman elite too far out of joint.

At the BSR my topic was not Domitian’s hair, but his face. Domitian certainly polarised opinion, accounts of his reign being divided pretty starkly between exaggeratedly complimentary while he was alive (the poets Statius and Martial especially) and passionately damning after his death (notably Pliny the Younger and Tacitus). Yet there is one thing at least that they have in common, and that is what is nothing short of a fixation on the emperor’s facial features.

The basic physiognomical facts about Domitian are that he had a high colour, which seems to have given the impression that he was constantly blushing. Suetonius describes his ‘modest and flushed face’ (uultu modesto ruborisque pleno, 18.1), and also illustrates the use to which Domitian put a gift of nature that Romans were strongly inclined to interpret as a sign of exceptional modesty: ‘He was so conscious that the modesty of his expression (uerecundia oris) was in his favour, that he once made this boast in the senate: ‘So far, at any rate, you have approved my heart and my face (usque adhuc certe et animum meum probastis et uultum).’ (18.2)

Now, Suetonius offers physical descriptions of all the twelve Caesars, so it’s nothing unusual to have this kind of commentary from him. It gets more interesting when we find Domitian’s face a very regular point of reference also in the other accounts we have of his reign. In the Agricola, for example, Tacitus describes the unusually intense attention, which we might call surveillance, that he directed at elite Romans like himself (45.2):

Nero after all withdrew his eyes, and did not witness the crimes he authorised. Under Domitian it was no small part of our sufferings that we saw him and were seen of him; that our sighs were counted in his books; that not a pale cheek of all that company escaped those brutal eyes, that crimson face which flushed continually lest shame should unawares surprise it (saeuus ille uultus et rubor, quo se contra pudorem muniebat).

From a very different perspective, however, here is Statius, recounting a dinner in Domitian’s palace, a place full of wonders, but nothing more wondrous than Domitian himself—again, note that at the heart of this very elaborate panegyric of the emperor is close attention to his florid complexion (Statius, Silvae 4.2.38-56):

But not for the delicacies or the Moorish wood resting on Indian columns or the ordered troops of servants had my eager gaze the time; for him, only him—calm of visage, softening his radiance with serene majesty, modestly lowering the banner of his fortune; yet the hidden splendour shone in his face. Even thus would a barbarian enemy and races unknown have recognized him had they seen him. Not otherwise does Gradivus recline in Rhodope’s chill valley, horses dismissed; so Pollux lays down his slippery limbs, relaxing from Therapne’s wrestling bout, so lies Euhan by Ganges, as Indians howl, so ponderous Alcides, returning from a grim behest, was fain to lean his flank against the outspread lion. I speak of little things, nor yet, Germanicus, do I match your aspect. So looks the leader of the High Ones when he revisits Ocean’s limits and the banquets of the Ethiopians, his sacred countenance diffused with nectar, and bids the Muses sing secret songs and Phoebus laud Pallene’s triumphs.

Sophie Hay Domitians Palace Banner

Domitian’s Palace.

What interests me, of course, is not so much that pro- and anti-Domitian writers offer opposite assessments of the emperor—that is hardly unexpected—but that a central role is played in all accounts, negative and positive, by Domitian’s face. Tacitus may have recalled his face as a lowering intrusion, and Statius as a sun-like or god-like object of awe, but the imperial face itself seems to be a non-negotiable common factor, and I’m not aware of any other emperor on whom the historical record focuses so neurotically.

The temptation is to find a parallel between Domitian’s extraordinary physical presence in the texts and the unusual prominence that this emperor claimed for himself in the governance of Rome. In general, Domitian was hard to ignore. An unusually assiduous administrator, he took a more intimate interest in the management of the Empire than any of his predecessors. For example, he seems to have micro-managed the coinage, dramatically enhancing the purity of the gold and silver coins early in his reign (a reform making little economic sense, but symbolic of a return to the higher standards of the past), and using the designs on the coins as promotion of his own ideology to an unprecedented degree. Domitian’s face was as unavoidable in one’s pocket as in one’s poetry book, in other words.

The impulse to reset Rome to a past, and superior, condition is a reflex of Romans throughout their history, though the first emperor Augustus made it an especially key component of his reforming programme. Domitian pursued the same end with particular zeal, and uncompromisingly. Assuming the semi-obsolete role of Censor, indeed proclaiming himself Perpetual Censor, he exploited the position both to enforce moral standards and (this also fell under the responsibility of the Censor) to leave his architectural mark on the city and Empire. A poem I have spent a lot of time with over the years, Statius, Silvae 4.3, celebrates the Via Domitiana, a road that Domitian, as Censor, constructed along the coast of Campania as far as Puteoli on the Bay of Naples. That road was typical of Domitian’s determination to improve the lives of his subjects, and make it entirely clear in the process who was responsible for the improvement. The impression of common endeavour cultivated by Augustus, the Roman elite sharing with Augustus the task of recreating Rome, has gone: Domitian’s name is on everything.

For the vast majority of Domitian’s subjects, no doubt, if they saw any benefits from Domitian’s reforms, it was a cause for gratitude. But for the senatorial elite an emperor as assertive as Domitian meant an intolerable obstacle to their own self-assertion and dignity. A vivid anecdote recorded by Suetonius (13) illustrates the impact of Domitian’s building on those sensitive to his overwhelming authority: ‘He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of the city, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: ‘It is enough.’’ The author of the graffito wrote ἀρκει̃, ‘enough already’, punning on an alternate form of the Latin word for ‘arches’, arci. Arches are perhaps the most overtly self-promoting of architectural constructions, and that Flavian Banksy wasn’t making an aesthetic judgement about architectural form. In the physical city, too, there was just far too much Domitian in evidence for some people.

In the poetry written while Domitian was still alive his complexion is itself an important theme, but feeds also into other threads in their panegyric of the emperor. Domitian in Martial and Statius is a paradigm of youthfulness and beauty, who is bestowing these qualities on Rome with his reforms and building activity, and a blush, as Seneca puts it, is ‘a good sign in a young man’ (Ep. 11.1); as Censor he is also a champion of the moral decency and shame with which this blush seemed to indicate he was unusually well endowed; I have also wondered about a connection between Domitian’s red face and some of the traditions concerning the appearance of both the triumphing general and statues of the chief god Jupiter, but that is a bit of a scholarly minefield. Undoubtedly, though, the focus on the emperor’s superlative features suggests the treatment a god might receive, and the poets had no qualms about making the claim that Domitian was divine.

But it’s what this focus on his face tells us about the psychology of Domitianic Rome that fascinates me most. That, in turn, is most starkly in evidence in the aftermath of his murder in AD 96, when Suetonius and Pliny describe the near-hysterical reactions of the senators to the news. Domitian was the target of so-called damnatio memoriae, the systematic erasure of references to his person—statues, inscriptions, etc. Now we are told, and it is certainly true, that damnatio memoriae was an established ritual after the removal of certain political figures who had gone beyond the pale, and should never be considered a straightforwardly spontaneous reaction on the part of its agents. But as I said in Rome, I challenge anyone to read Pliny’s description of his and his fellow senators’ behaviour (itself echoed in Juvenal’s famous account of the fall of Sejanus in Satire 10) and not see a disempowered elite working through their profound anxieties regarding a massively charismatic figure of authority (Pliny, Pan. 52.5-6):

It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and savage them with axes as if blood and agony could follow from every blow. Our transports of joy—so long deferred—were unrestrained; all sought a form of vengeance in beholding those bodies mutilated, limbs hacked in pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire, to be melted down, so that from such menacing terror something for man’s use and enjoyment should rise out of the flames.

(iuuabat illidere solo superbissimos uultus, instare ferro, saeuire securibus, ut si singulos ictus sanguis dolorque sequeretur. nemo tam temperans gaudii seraeque laetitiae, quin instar ultionis videretur cernere laceros artus truncata membra, postremo truces horrendasque imagines obiectas excoctasque flammis, ut ex illo terrore et minis in usum hominum ac uoluptates ignibus mutarentur.)

Llewelyn Morgan (Oxford)

Images by Sophie Hay.

The full audio recording of Llewelyn’s lecture is available on our YouTube channel 

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.


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.


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.


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.

San Carlo

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

Mark Bradley on Roman Senses

Mark Bradley, Faculty member and Editor of Papers of the British School at Rome, visited the BSR in the first week of November to give a public lecture on ‘Roman noses: smell and the ancient senses’ and led a site visit for our award-holders to the Ara Pacis on the theme of ‘Religion, monumentality and the Roman sensorium’.

Below, he talks about why senses in the ancient world are so in vogue, and why we should study them.

‘Sensory engagements in the ancient world are now the dish of the day: back when I started working on Roman colour back in the 1990s I got some very funny looks, but now there are books, articles, conferences and PhD theses galore on the senses. What Greece and Rome – and what Greeks and Romans – looked like, sounded like, smelled like, tasted like and felt like is very much in vogue in classical scholarship, and we’re all very interested – literature and material culture specialists alike – in the ancient sensorium. My interest in the senses, though, is not so much about reconstructing what the ancient world was like as probing how the ancients used the senses as a channel for understanding the world around them.

Constantine nose

Colossal bronze head of Constantine, Capitoline Museums

My lecture on Wednesday on ‘Smell and the ancient senses’ explored how ancient Romans used their noses in sometimes very sophisticated ways to sniff out the deviant bodies of the great unwashed, connecting odour to bad habits, obscene behaviour and unpleasant professions, as well as to characterise corrupt emperors – Nero, who perfumed even the soles of his feet, or Galerius whose persecution of Christians incurred the wrath of the gods and a mephitic disease that filled the entire city with stench. We also got thinking about the pervasive stenches of ancient Rome, the first giant metropolis in the west, and how far Romans themselves were sensitive to these bad smells (why, for example, did they not mind washing their togas in urine?). A sophisticated command of this sense was both sublime and animalistic: using your nose sensitively was a skill, but relying on it too much could bring out the animal in you.


Mark Bradley, and a group of award-holders, in front of the Res Gestae inscription

The site visit to the Ara Pacis on Thursday concentrated on the ways that this pivotal monument, set up by the first emperor Augustus in the centre of a massive new landscaped space north of Rome, celebrated the peace and prosperity he had brought to the Roman world by manipulating the senses of the Roman people who visited it during festive rites – through the sophisticated polychromy of the original painted monument, the sounds and aromas associated with ritual, sacrifice and feasts, and the sense of contact established between viewers participating in those ritual celebrations and the figures on the relief staring back at those around them.

Mark Bradley, lecturing a group of award-holders, in front of the Ara Pacis

Group at the Ara Pacis

The activation of the senses at key moments in the religious calendar is currently a major topic of research for classical scholars around the world, and the Ara Pacis is a fine example of what we can learn about the relationship between ancient religious activity and sensory enlightenment.’


Mark Bradley (Editor of the Papers of the British School and FAHL Committee Member)

Mark Bradley is the author of Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome (2009), and editor of Smell and the Ancient Senses (2015).

Images by Lincoln Austin and Katherine Paines

Monte Mario: my first view of Rome

Tom Brigden was Giles Worsley Travel Fellow at the BSR in 2012. Here he tells us about his time at the BSR, his work as an architect at a leading international architectural practice specialising in conservation, and what J.M.W. Turner has got to do with Rome.

 T. Brigden, Nuova Pianta di Roma 2012, graphite and ink, 42x30cm

T. Brigden, Nuova Pianta di Roma, 2012, graphite and ink, 42 x 30 cm

Few cities could be said to approach Rome in terms of sheer density of historic and cultural sites, crowded as they are – quite literally in some cases – one on top of another. Given the opportunity, then, to live and work in such a place, what would be your first destination?

It is 9am, on a beautifully sunny October morning in 2012, my first morning in Rome. I’m heading north from the BSR, leaving the clustered domes and pinnacles of the city’s beguiling skyline behind me. My destination is the Riserva Naturale di Monte Mario to the northeast of the city. First impressions are not promising. Crossing the Tiber south of the Foro Italico, a tortuous knot of seemingly impregnable motorway slip roads and roaring traffic separate me from the park’s rusting barbed entrance gates.


Within, things do not initially improve, confronted as I am with littered scrub, vandalised bins and graffiti covered walls. However, as I begin climbing the steep, switch-back cobbled road which ascends the mountain I soon find myself immersed within a tangled ancient forest. Of course, ancient this forest may be, but to assume it is untouched by human hand in a place such as Rome would be a mistake; shattered walls and terraces revealed at each hair-pin bend hint at diverse former vocations ranging from Roman cemetery to seventeenth-century pleasure gardens and nineteenth-century fortress.

Though the gradually diminishing hum of the traffic I left behind seems an un-welcome modern interruption within this tranquil forest, the cobbled tracks traversing the mountain once formed the final triumphal stage of the so-called Via Francigena, the ’road from France’ European pilgrims took en-route to the Vatican. As such, these tracks once thronged with weary pilgrims and heavily-laden animals, drinking in their first views of the city and St Peter’s basilica beyond.


T. Brigden, City, Landscape, Fragment II, 2012, graphite and ink 42 x 30 cm

This magnificent panorama of the city, the sinuous Tiber sweeping in a broad meander between the Milvian Bridge and Mausoleum of Augustus, framed by elegant stone pines and backed by distant blue-grey hills, is an unforgettable introduction to the city. These wooded slopes were once the prized locations for grand villas, most notably the villa of the Roman poet Martial, Pietro da Cortona’s Pigneto Sacchetti (destroyed) and Raphael’s Villa Madama (left unfinished and largely altered), all of which carefully manipulated the contours of the hillside to take maximum advantage of the vista.

Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the atmospheric ruins of these artistic and architectural treasures became a popular stop on the Grand Tour. Reaching an unusably decrepit bench at the summit of the hill, I muse on the idea that writers William Wordsworth and Henry James, artists Claude Lorrain, J.M.W. Turner, William Marlow and Richard Wilson, among many others, have all stood on this spot and admired the view. In fact, the popular depiction of this viewpoint, on countless canvasses, in numerous books, in hundreds of prints, contributed to its absorption into the British popular imagination; aristocratic gentlemen soon referred to the particular characteristics of a view from their Thames-side villas as equal to that of Rome’s Monte Mario. And yet, despite this fame, I enjoy this silent belvedere alone – you will not see the coach parties that crowd the Janiculum, the posing lovers of the Pincian or the group ‘selfies’ of the Capitoline hills here.


T. Brigden, City, Landscape, Fragment IV, 2012, graphite and ink 42 x 30 cm

This brings me to why I could not resist Monte Mario as my first destination in Rome. My research interests lie in the contemporary phenomenon of view preservation within urban and historic environments. My PhD dissertation explored the history of view protection in London, which has some of the strictest view management policies of any world city, tracing its origin to the picturesque movement and the popularisation of a particular view of London, the view from Richmond Hill. As a final post-script to my dissertation I was keen to explore the connection between the Richmond Hill and Monte Mario views, which were frequently directly compared by writers, architects and artists, including Turner, Marlow and Wilson. My time at the BSR, generously supported by the Giles Worsley Fellowship allowed me the unrivalled opportunity to gather material and connections, in the libraries of the BSR, American Academy and in the city’s many public and private collections of art. Without the generosity and support of the BSR’s staff and other scholars, I could not have hoped to achieve this. As an architect with conservation specialist Purcell LLP, I utilise the skills I gained at the BSR in practice as well as in my academic work. This includes the preparation of detailed context and views analysis documents which inform the development of architectural and urban design proposals. As a practice, our work utilising such skills has included a huge diversity of complex projects, Tower Bridge, Durham Cathedral and the Palace of Westminster among them.

Every resident scholar, artist, architect or visitor to the BSR will have different ideas for their first excursion in the city. Those I met during my time at the school had plans ranging from following an itinerary of churches authored by Andrea Palladio, to the Beaux-Arts sculpture of Hendrik Christian Andersen, to the ossuaries of the Capuchin monks. It is this exposure to ideas, to different ways of seeing, experiencing and thinking about the city of Rome that I feel is one of the BSR’s greatest assets – I very much look forward to returning in the future, and another chance to see the city from a whole new perspective!

Dr Tom Brigden received a commendation for his PhD dissertation The Protected Vista: An Intellectual and Cultural History, As Seen From Richmond Hill at the Royal Institute of British Architect’s President’s Awards for Research 2014.

Applications are being invited for the 2015-16 Giles Worsley Rome Fellowship. See for further details. The closing date for applications is 18 February.

Season’s greetings from the BSR

Christmas tree

Christmas at the BSR, 2013

This year we have been lucky enough to enjoy a rather pleasant December here in Rome, but hidden away in the BSR Archive is evidence that the capital is not always so mild during the festive season.

Here is Archivist Alessandra Giovenco’s selection of photographs by previous BSR Director Thomas Ashby of Rome in the snow.

Images courtesy of the BSR Archive.

Via Triumphalis, 1922

Via Triumphalis, 1922

Ashby, Temple of Saturn, Roman Forum, 1901

Temple of Saturn, Roman Forum, 1901

Ashby, Capitoline Hill, 1901

Capitoline Hill, 1901

Ashby, Baths of Diocletian, 1901

Baths of Diocletian, 1901

Ashby, Piazza di Siena, Villa Borghese, 1924

Piazza di Siena, Villa Borghese, 1924

View of Villa Giulia from the BSR, 1921

View of Villa Giulia from the BSR, 1921

Season’s greetings from all at the BSR and a happy 2014! 

Assistant Librarian Beatrice Gelosia recruits some willing volunteers to decorate the Christmas tree

Assistant Librarian Beatrice Gelosia recruits some willing volunteers to decorate the Christmas tree

Molly Cotton remembered

The Dr. M. Aylwin Cotton Foundation funded fellowship awards, publications grants, and other donations for the study of archaeology, architecture, history, languages and art of cultures in the Mediterranean area for a period of 36 years, from 1972-2008. It’s just one of the lasting contributions to archaeology made by Molly Cotton.

During the 1960s and 70s she played a major role in the British School at Rome’s archaeology activities, training aspiring students. She began by directing excavations of the Roman Republican villas at Posto and San Rocco near Francolise in Campania, and later, she excavated throughout Southern Italy (Gravina, Cozzo Presepe, Monte Irsi, Otranto) as well as closer to Rome along the Via Gabina.

But she wasn’t always an archaeologist.

Born Mary Aylwin Marshall (1902-1984), she trained as a doctor at the London School of Medicine for Women and St. Mary’s Hospital. In 1928 she married Dr Thomas Cotton, a cardiologist, and retired from medical practice, although she remained an honorary medical advisor to the National Children’s Adoption Society until 1936.

Shortly after, Molly went on a trip to Greece and was converted to archaeology.

In 1936 she was one of the first to take a postgraduate diploma at the newly founded Institute of Archaeology, London. She became close friends with Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler, and was assistant director of the pioneering excavations at Maiden Castle conducted between 1934 and 1938. 

During the war years Molly served in the Far Eastern Department of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and on the Foreign Office staff, and in 1946 was awarded an OBE for her outstanding contribution.

In 1948 she resumed her archaeological work, excavating with Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Hod Hill, Verulamium, Colchester and Clausentum. During these years her research focused on the pre-Roman Iron Age of Britain and in particular the classification of hill forts of that period.

It was only after her husband passed away in 1965 that Molly moved to Rome and became closely connected with the British School at Rome, running the activities of the Archaeology department, the ‘Camerone’. She has left behind an important legacy in archaeology both through her foundation and her publications.

In memory of Molly’s outstanding contribution to the British School at Rome and Italian archaeology, each year the BSR hosts a Molly Cotton Lecture, inviting distinguished archaeologists to present on recent research and excavations. This year, the BSR is proud to host a lecture by Cécile Evers, Natacha Massar and Cesare Letta on “The Forum at Alba Fucens: Recent Belgian Excavations and the Fasti Albenses”.

By Stephen Kay (BSR Molly Cotton Fellow)

Images courtesy of the BSR Archive.