Vassar College Fall Convocation
September 1, 2010
As the semester is only just getting underway, some of you may still be mulling over which courses to take. You may even wonder how your professors came to immerse themselves in their subjects, especially those that inhabit distant corners of the curriculum. I study and teach the art of classical antiquity, that is, of ancient Greece and Rome, and my research is on Roman sculpture. When I was a freshman, I had no idea that this is what I’d be doing. I was an English major, and then I visited Rome where the ancient ruins were unavoidable. I was struck by both the colossal size and political impact of the ruins. For me, though the grandeur of the monuments depended upon something much smaller and closer to my size, the statues of figures that populated them. For earlier generations, classical statues embodied beauty with elegant proportions and clear, ageless features. What drew me to the sculpture was the carving of sinewy muscle and softly curving flesh, of bodies that seem to breathe or step off their bases. This is echoed in the myth of Pygmalion, an artist who fell in love with his own creation, a “snowy ivory statue” of a maiden. Pygmalion longed for a wife, and his desire was fulfilled when the statue’s cold ivory limbs became warm with blood coursing through her veins—the statue came alive. Not only were statues graced with life, but people became statues after death. These statues made the past present by keeping images of ancestors or venerable historical personages in the public eye as models of exemplary conduct or achievement. Statues of such heroes or emperors were larger than life—sadly this is not the case with the bronze statue of our founder planted in a corner over there. The sculpted human figure no longer resonates as a participant in the public realm. I recall buying a tourist book years ago that had photos of Roman monuments and semi-transparent plastic overlays that showed reconstructions of the buildings as they would have looked like two thousand years ago. In the Roma: Then and Now books, the man in the ancient street appeared dwarfed and mobbed by the bronze and marble statues on high bases. There were so many of them: some half a million statues in Rome at its height in the second century A.D., which means one statue for every two citizens. So, classical statues possessed beauty and an uncanny presence or liveliness, you had to look up to them, and there was a vast inventory. I had a subject.
I went on to study Roman sculpture in graduate school at Yale. The plan was to get through the qualifying exams, and be in Rome to research my dissertation. I was lucky to get a generous fellowship that enabled me to spend two years at the American Academy in Rome. The American Academy was the ideal place to get to work : it boasted of a research library, a support staff, and, most promising of all, a community of scholars, artists, and architects, the fellows. I longed to get started with my work, but there was some official business to be dealt with: first, a visa for my two-year stay, and then the permits to get into the archaeological site that was the subject of my dissertation. The primary ordeal of Italian officialdom entails acquiring the proper documents for every stage of life in the form of official stamped papers. For obtaining visas for the fellows, the Academy had an “arrangement,” a contact within the central police station who would simplify the procedure for a fee. By the time I had arrived, this contact was gone or no longer able to massage the system. Instead, the Academy administrators experimented with the fellows and sent us down to the main police station in groups of twos or threes to see what would happen. The glacial pace and inscrutable ways of Italian bureaucracy are well-known to the point of cliché. In several visits I didn’t get close to having a visa processed: either the doors were shut because they already had too many applications for the day or they were open with too many people stuck inside, going nowhere, barely even in line.
The visa expeditions, however, allowed us to explore as we crossed the city. Rome is often thought of having a series of layers stacked over one another—the authentic or historical Rome lies under the modern city. Yet, it seemed to me that the overlapping layers were disheveled and the ancient remains kept popping up, side by side with the gritty modern city. The burden of Rome’s past became clear when we took detours through the monumental center, the Roman Forum. We did what most tourists could not: we walked briskly, moving freely among the sights. Most tourists were regimented in groups with guides whose explanations peeled back the strata from the primeval origins of the city through the Roman, Early Christian, Medieval, and so on, sometimes all the way to the Fascist excavations of the 1930s. A query about a couple of broken columns could unleash this vertical file of information until the defeated tourists, now rooted in place, looked as if they would be turned to stone like the smashed columns that started this riff.
The visa issue lacked clarity and my fellow fellows gave up on the process. Since passports were not usually stamped with a date upon entry, one could claim to be a tourist merely passing through for months on end. Yet, I had a date marked in my passport because I had followed instructions to start the visa application on the other side of the Atlantic at the Italian Consulate in New York. One evening I found myself staring at my passport in great annoyance at the stamp that marked the beginning of the process rather than the end. I then did what I later regretted—I tried to erase the stamp. I quickly came to my senses and stopped, but not without making a smeary blot over the stamp. Of course, anyone attempting to alter or mutilate a passport is subject to prosecution—it says so right there in the little blue book that it is government property. So, now I had compounded my troubles. I had more than a couple of fitful nights worrying if the smeary blot would be questioned by bank clerks, security personnel at airports, even the archaeological staff who requested documents to enter sites—and “documents” (passports) were inspected often, more often than I could have anticipated.
I imagined that I would be reported and picked up—by whom? Maybe the CIA, which was an odd thought since I had already been introduced to left-leaning Italian academics who believed that the American Academy was a cover for CIA operatives, the cagiest of whom would claim to be writing dissertations on ancient marbles, like me. These skeptics, who remembered the days of the Red Brigades, viewed the American Academy as nothing more than a country club with its stately façade and tennis court. And they were somewhat right about the grandeur of the complex atop the Janiculum hill. But life there wasn’t really so luxurious: the building was getting a bit crumbly, the grounds overgrown, plugging appliances into wall sockets let out a shower of sparks, and the heat was spotty in the short but damp winters—except for the fiery furnace of the laundry that rendered garments doll-sized. We did have our own coffee bar but this was in an innocent era for hot beverages pre-Starbucks.
All I really wanted to do is get to my work and hide my passport so that no one would see the blot, which in my darker moments stained my presence in Rome and threatened to shorten my sojourn. I told no one. Soon after this, one evening at dinner in the wavering candlelight, I caught sight of what had been there all along: the ancient inscriptions mounted in the walls of the courtyard. These texts inscribed in stone came to light when the Academy was built in the early 20th century when it was still fashionable to install ancient bric-a-brac like a collage on walls. I was taken by the sure, cold hand of authority behind the messages that attested to the swift and brutal field of operations of the empire. These official decrees in stone caused my anxieties about the crinkly, ineptly effaced page of my possibly invalid passport to surge up, and wonder how I would ever get by.
Well, I eventually worried less about my passport and got back to work. My dissertation was on the sculpture of an imperial forum adjacent to the old Roman Forum. The ruins were located in a deep hole beside a modern highway through the city center. The modern street was part of the fascist dictator Mussolini’s plan to revive the ancient monuments “so that they loom up like giants out of an ample void,” (Archeologia e città, 38). The void now was taken up by four or more lanes of furious traffic only interrupted by a few islands occasionally reached by dazed, stumbling pedestrians. From the sidewalk of the modern street, you could see down into an excavated area and have a good vantage point for the sculptured frieze above.
It turns out that the best position to see the frieze’s figures was already taken. A souvenir seller had set up a table from which to sell postcards, guidebooks, and plastic Colosseums or little Caesars. He had wedged himself and his merchandise in the space that possessed the best line of sight for my frieze. For him, the position was strategic: near the Roman Forum where tour buses disgorged their passengers. When I approached my frieze, I had to approach him. Taking a quick photo or two in his spot was okay, but he had no patience for my loitering in his domain. The problem was that I was taking up space and not buying anything from him (actually I did buy one of those Roma, Then and Now books from him but drew the line at buying a souvenir a day). He met my explanation with utter disbelief and indifference: é noioso, it’s boring, was one of his nicer responses from an arsenal of putdowns in the Italian of the Roman streets, far more lethal than the Italian I had learned. After all, his merchandise was in better condition than that wreck of a monument. He called it, “Le Colonnacce,” its nickname meaning the ugly columns, and pointed out the bloody battle scenes up the road on the Column of Trajan as being more truly Roman—why didn’t I go over there and stare at them? He was there everyday, and when he saw me coming, built a barricade with his piles of posters and calendars. Scholars were bad for business.
The days of my sidewalk skirmishes were soon over when I witnessed a great bustle of activity down in my forum. Crews were setting up scaffolding for the cleaning and restoration of the frieze. Although it would become impossible to view the frieze from the sidewalk, the scaffolding would bring me to eye-level with the frieze’s figures and allow close inspection, if I could get permission to climb up there. In the meantime, I took advantage of the Academy’s library for research. The library turned out to be a far more convivial place than I had imagined, despite its forbidding first impression as you entered by signing in for the day—documents—again, as always, were required, but only those non-Academy residents, so I was safe. It took me a while to figure out how books and journals were arranged, so I was constantly casting about, going around in circles, trying not to slide on the marble steps. I saw the other readers seated in their places, engrossed in their work, still as statues. Specialists of each field sat in their appropriate alcoves day-in day-out, as if they, too, were catalogued along with their beloved volumes on Greek vases or Roman coins. Yet, after a while, I noticed this wasn’t quite so and, in fact, I was stuck at my table with my books, while the library was in constant motion around me, readers circulating about and voices straining to sound hushed, heels clicking on the marble steps, the doors opening and shutting for the steady stream of researchers heading to the bar for a caffè. Readers also went in and out to pore over the sign-in book. Everyone wanted to know who else was there.
The conversations begun in the library and its annex, the bar, spilled over to the backyard, several acres of a gently rolling lawn planted with olive, apricot, and fig trees. The large bay windows of the main reading room offered a perspective of this piece of countryside in the city. A rustic cottage, which in its previous life had been the site of a banquet in honor of Galileo and his telescope, punctuated the vista. The grounds also boast a monument, its perimeter was the defensive wall of Rome built by Pope Urban VIII in the 17th c. When I looked up from my reading and out the windows to take in this view, I was, and still am, drawn out to the city beyond the wall and down the hill. And then, the city or, at least, the archaeological service, beckoned. Permission was granted for me to have access to the scaffolding covering the frieze of my forum.
After reams of paperwork were signed and covered with the proper stamps, I was told to go down one morning to the main office of the archaeological service in the Roman Forum. It was not the office of an archaeologist, as I had expected, but, rather, a counter presided over by an elderly round man, the keeper of the keys, who took my pieces of paper and my passport (no, he didn’t turn to the visa page), and handed me the key to the scaffolding. After the formality of the written requests for access and complicated protocol involved, the handover of the keys seemed remarkably simple, without ceremony. And the keys were not what I expected: keys to the doors of houses or apartments in Italy then tended to be bulky and heavy like miniature bronze weapons; these keys were small and lightweight—more like keys to a utility closet than to an imperial monument.
I had thought I’d be accompanied by someone on the staff, but I was on my own. The key worked, the door to the bottom of the scaffolding on the sidewalk opened and I was faced with a steep ladder that went up and over the Forum’s wall to the scaffolding on the other side with the colonnade and its frieze. Not so fast, though, did I mention that I feared heights? I hesitated but had to do it. Once up and over the wall, there were several levels of scaffolding, covered with green netting on one side and sturdy wooden slats beneath my feet, sort of like a screened-in porch in a very improbable place. It proved to be a perfect place to work, if not quite over the rooftops of Rome, at least, over the imperial fora, the marble remains now sharing the stony ground with legions of cats slipping into the shadows below. Raised over the street life of Rome, I could work efficiently and at ease. I began taking measurements, making sketches, and noting descriptive features. On some days I shared the scaffolding with the team of restorers. Soon, with centuries of grime removed, the frieze looked different than it had in published photos, and I had a new set of material with which to work. I also began to sense that the research was going somewhere.
I climbed up the scaffolding a couple of days a week, and the keeper of the keys barely looked up from his morning newspaper to hand them over. One morning, I realized that he had given me two keys, the usual one plus one for the Column of Trajan. How did this happen? Did the two sets of keys get stuck together? Did he know what he had handed over? Could it be, a miracle of miracles, a gift? –without paperwork? The second key did open the scaffolding covering the Column of Trajan, which was also being cleaned, as were many ancient monuments in Rome at that time. I made my way through the gate and up the temporary structure surrounding the marble column certain I would soon hear a shout or even a whistle of a guard who’d have to put a stop to my breaking and entering right then and there. But there was no one behind me, nothing heard. So I did as the Romans do when given an inch, I headed up and forward. The Column stands over 125 feet tall, its exterior covered with one long, winding sculpted frieze representing Trajan’s conquests in eastern Europe. The tiers of scaffolding around the frieze brought you up close to its narrative sweep of battle scene after gory battle scene (yes, the souvenir seller had a point). It was easier to ascend the Column via the narrow spiral steps in the Column itself, which was hollowed out like a tower. Near the top, the staircase ends after 185 steps, and it puts you out on a balcony that wraps around the Column. I stepped out of the staircase’s half-light into the brilliance of a Roman morning. I want to say that I stepped out boldly to see the city at my feet. I recall that I put a foot forward and then back because there seemed to be next to nothing to keep me from pitching headlong into the glorious ruins way down there. It seemed quiet for a moment, as if the noise from below was sucked out by the ether that held me suspended over Rome. The sight below was truly majestic and wondrous--so much so that the monuments still seemed colossal in comparison to me. Given my art historical training, my first impulse was to identify all the buildings, but this slide id test was popping up in 3D with monuments mixed-up from different periods. I couldn’t remember the name of the Baroque church to saint whoever but, no matter, directly below the antiquities stood in their deep pits with the traffic swirling around and above them on the modern street. Here the historical layers of Rome were stripped bare to reveal the ancient city far below the modern one, and the ancient city was definitely present on the ground as part of the rumbling, chaotic metropolis. A statue of St. Peter stood over my shoulder atop the Column. If every column had a soul, they would pray to be the Column of Trajan.
A year went by and my dissertation started to appear in short spurts of text. Near the end of the second year at the American Academy, I had to face up to the unattained visa, that blemish on my passport. I had been seeing another fellow, an artist named Franc Palaia, and we decided to get married in Rome. Before we could be wed in a civil ceremony on the Capitoline hill, downwind from my perch atop Trajan’s column, we had to make the rounds of several administrative offices with our documents in hand, of course. At a certain point the visa was required. I returned to the central police office--this time with a purpose and waited in line. Before too long I was called up to the official at the big desk in the front of the room. He asked the dreaded question: why I had not completed the visa application a year before. I supplied the following excuse, which had to serve as a refrain in Italian civil procedures: they always start and end with mother; in my case, my mother-- was ill, --so I had stayed home. He nodded, no more need be said, and swiftly stamped the blotchy page of my passport.
It is interesting that the successful visa application followed all those other requests for permission to see monuments and artworks under restoration, in storage or otherwise out of sight. The annoying minions demanding more paperwork were part of a long line of officialdom maintaining records, building archives --in other words, producing historical sources. Bureaucrats in vast organizations did what officials must have done since the Roman Empire: they drove people away with their rules and forms. Like scholars before me, I checked all the boxes, refused to get bored, and took advantage of the kindness and carelessness of those in charge. In the process, I sharpened my focus and sense of purpose. Like Pygmalion’s statue, I breathed life anew. Dear members of the Class of 2014, in the next four years, you will learn to look at the world around you in new and startling ways, and you, too will be transformed.
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