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



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’!


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.


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.