The Final Presentation came with a view!

The last presenter wanted to visit Castel Sant’Angelo – so we finished with a great view of Rome!


Kim Giegerich, Katie Cornell, and Nic Stewart listen to Annabel Cryan describe the final scene of Tosca, when Tosca throws herself off the top of Castel Sant’Angelo. I’m glad Katie was there, because she gave the first of these presentations, and described the first act of the opera during her presentation at Sant’Andrea della Valle. Nice bookends – and a great place to finish the course.

Museum Collection Websites

Grrrr – I’m fiddling with an idea for my Arth 101 class this fall and am frustrated with the British Museum website. So far as I can tell, you can’t search by “Museum Number” – the catalog number.

Try it!

Go look at this statuette.

Then type its Museum Number, EA36297, into the search field (you know, I might want to find my way back sometime). No hits.

Then try 36297!  Yes, there he is.


Cathedral, former Great Mosque, Cordoba

Yesterday I took a day trip – about 40 minutes each way – to Cordoba.
Cordoba was the capital of Roman Spain, and one of the bigger cities in the western empire. There’s not a lot left of it to see, but the archeological museum was full of good stuff.
More important for looking was the Cathedral, formerly the Great Mosque. I have been teaching this in Art 101 every year since I started, and now I have it much better integrated! in my mind!
Not that I’ve been saying anything WRONG – but I have never been as clear about the disposition of parts as I would like. And I see why! I’ll try to find a plan to upload – but the essential story is that the mosque was built in stages over several hundred years and then the Christian cathedral was inserted more or less in the center of the building.
There have been so many restoratoin campaigns the photos have always been hard to sort out – so seeing it was really satisfying. I spent a long time wandering around, then made a disciplined front to back visit, then wandered some more.
The folks who run it provide explanatory brochures in the usual langauges – Spanish, French, English, German, Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese. But they also provide Arabic – and there were a number of obviously Muslim (though not clearly Arab) visitors yesterday. I’d love to see the text compared to the English.
In the English brochure, they make the point fairly firmly, though not in an ugly way, that Yes, the Castilians turned this mosque into a church, but the Umayyads had destroyed a previously existing church on the side (though it was not the cathedral of the city) and systematically reused columns from previous buildings to signify their conquest.
I’ve read about Andalucian nostalgia among Arabs, especially in North Africa. Really now – with the exception of the Kingdom of Granada, most of Spain was under Muslim control for a shorter time than it has been in Christian hands since – and it was Christian before. Look on the map to see how far south Cordoba is – and be reminded that the Castilians conquered it in 1236.

Step Pyramid of Djoser, designed by Imhotep, Saqqara, Egypt

All my career I’ve been told and then told students that Imhotep expandedthe lower to levels of the Step Pyramid systematically until it reached its present siaze – but I’d never seen a photograph that showed it. So I took one.
This is part of what a sabbatical is for!

The history of TED

In case you ever wondered, here’s the history (and future?) of TED and the other Conferences-for-Ideas.

I hadn’t wondered, but it was more interesting than I expected. And at the end the magazine posted the 5 most popular TED talks, so you can see what the author is talking about if you have never watched an 18 minute talk (I admit I like the “what it feels like to have a stroke” talk).

I have colleagues who use TED videos in class a lot. I find the genre too irritating to sit through enough of them to find ones worth sacrificing 18 minutes of class-time to. Or maybe they’re just not about the kind of subjects we talk about in my classes.

Choosing paper topics

This is a fun time of the semester — my Roman class is choosing their topics for term papers. They have until the Thursday before Spring Break to really get started, but I’m ending class every day with queries, suggestions, and recommended readings.

I keep office hours in the Scandling Cafe once a week (because it’s soooooooo far to Houghton House!), and I have a couple of folks coming by today to discuss ideas for limiting images-of-barbarians and empresses-in-art to something manageable.

Valentine’s — Let those who have eyes, see

Luckily, both my Age of Chivalry and my Roman class are more thematic than chronological this semester, so I adjusted. It doesn’t hurt to teach to my strengths, too — and I have one of the larger collections of images of – umm – body-part art of the Middle Ages.

So I reminded them that the basic message of erotic art of the Middle Ages is that People Are Nothing But Trouble (esp. women — viz. the Roman de la Rose or Aristotle and Phyllis) and that phalluses in Roman are are seldom about sex, because People Are Nothing But Trouble (esp. those with the Evil Eye).

I also showed them this Aristotle and Phyllis (left panels), which is paired with Pyramus and Thisbe (right panels). I told them both versions of the legenda — either Aristotle was trying to show Alexander that Women Are Nothing But Trouble or Aristotle tried to seduce Phyllis, showing that Love Conquers Philosophy. Pairing it with the Pyramus and Thisbe doesn’t really reduce the ambiguity, so it was a good lesson in medieval multiple meanings. And if it saves any of them from getting saddled up and ridden, whether literally or metaphorically, my class was a success.

The Year’s Largest Field Trip

Or Field Experience, as we’re calling it.

I’m teaching a First Year Seminar this semester with my colleague Prof. Lara Blanchard. In conjunction with a bunch of other FYS sections, we’re headed to Washington, DC, this morning by bus (I have no idea quite how many sections). This evening we’ll check into a hotel near Reagan National Airport (and a Metro stop), clean up, and head to the Kennedy Center for the symphony.

Tomorrow each seminar is on its own — we’re headed to the Freer and Sackler Galleries in the morning and the National Gallery in the afternoon. Our students’ end of semester group project is to stage a virtual art exhibition and their writing is all museum-oriented (catalog entries, didactic wall text) rather than a traditional research paper. This Field Experience will give us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in some really first rate museumage.

Lara and I taught a first version of this seminar five years ago; that was the first time these Colleges put on this big effort. We’re trusting that the logistics run smoothly now! It’s going to be a long weekend, but has the potential to be a very fruitful one.

Go to my Flickr stream for more photos!
Ready to roll!

Mussolini’s Fascist Mosaics

Making a Monumental Sculpture

One of the panels from the Foro Italico showing trades or crafts (or maybe we should think of them as everyday activities in the Fascist Syndicalist state?) – this one with artists making a monumental figure like one of these.

The black and white mosaics in the Foro Italico (formerly the Foro Mussolini – and only the street signs changed) show all kinds of things — Black-shirt Squadristi rolling in trucks through Italy shouting battle cries as they battle Socialism, hard-working peasants tilling the soil, grateful Ethiopians (and lions!) giving the fascist salute, and the above. There are lots of idealized athletes doing ideal, athletic things.
I’ve mentioned that one of the things that’s going on with the style is an explicit imitation of Roman black and white mosaics. Here’s an angry looking bull from the Baths of Caracalla (circa AD 215). See? One of the major excavations prosecuted during the 1930s was extending the archeological area at Ostia Antica, where they were turning up lots of this stuff. Unfortunately, the only picture I’ve posted of athletes from Ostia is a little artistic, but if you blow up the image from the Caupona of Alexander you may see more of what I mean.
Fascism elevates violence and hypermasculinity to an unreal level. There is a weird tension, though, between the glorification of the athletic body, something clearly represented as participating in individual activities in these mosaics (I’m trying to think if there are any team sports – surely there’s soccer!) and their lack of individuation in the art. They’re all as ideally grim and unrevealing as the monumental nude sculptures surrounding the stadium next door.
We tried to explain this tension as somehow characteristic of Mussolini’s state. I think the eclecticism in architecture styles — there was never a decision on a single Official Fascist Style in Italy the way there was in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany — is as good a way to see that as any, but this works, too.

How do you spell the name of Obama’s Enemy?

Arabic transliteration — sheesh! This is the most useful thing I’ve read on the subject, from Britannica.

…in reading those stories and many others since the uprising began in Libya readers might be befuddled by the various spellings of Qaddafi’s name. At Britannica, we spell with a “Q,” as do the New York Times and Bloomberg, while al-Jazeera, BBC, the Guardian, the Toronto Star, and the Sydney Morning Herald (among others) uses a “G,” and the New York Daily News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Boston Globe use a “K.” Even accounting for different first letters, news outlets spell the rest of the name differently.

And if you’re interested, follow up with this old post of mine, So what do we mean when we say we teach Arabic? Or maybe this even older post, What is “Arabic” and how do you go about teaching it?
By the way, the correct answer to the question in the title is “However you please.” There is no single answer, so all honest attempts are probably o.k. The same goes for pre-Attaturk Turkish, so far as I read.

9 down, 5 to go!

I’m giving midterms in Layers this week, and I’m most of the way finished.
I assigned them a neighborhood (Forum Boarium / Velabro area) about 10 days ago. They’ve had that time to visit and study and read. This week we started meeting — about 30 minutes per student — for a one-on-one conversation about things. I let them pick the first building to talk about. Then we switch to a building or site of my choice. If there’s time, we talk about a 2nd choice of theirs. So, if they choose a church, I switch them to a Roman temple — or vice versa. We always talk about the neighborhood, mythology, and topography — why the area is associated with Hercules and why it was a good place for a cattle market.
Most of the talks end with a huge sigh of relief and a “That wasn’t so bad!” Then I ask if they’ve chosen their building yet for the final! They will each choose a single building, site, piazza, or some such, and take the whole class on a detailed, scholarly tour.
I figured out this assignment in 2008 and decided to use it again. There’s enough variety in the neighborhood that I don’t get bored while doing this, and the exercise is very good practice for their final presentation.


Even a first day of success is encouraging! I chose to do something new this time with the architectural history course. I made lists of elements or themes to study for Rome, divided into five periods that span the work we’ll do this semester. I took my 14 students (yes, such luxury!) and had them draw numbers — everyone receives a set of elements/factoids to study.

So today at San Clemente, one of my favorite layered sites in Rome, various folks were on duty for:
Cremation / Burial / Sarcophagus (especially well done!)
Pontifex Maximus
Mithra and Mithraea
Early Christian Basilical Form
Pilgrimage / Indulgence
Crucifixes (the student with that responsibility did an excellent job with the one pictured)
Cosmatesque work
Four Orders and Spolia

Several people did excellent jobs, some people did good jobs, and a few people had to be pushed hard to get anything…but they’ll know what the group needs next time!

And since the whole process was spent inside San Clemente, I had a great time: 1st century walls, Mithraeum inserted in a 2nd century cyrptoporticus, early Christian basilica above that with lots of interesting frescoes (and one or maybe two tombs of St Cyril-as-in-Methodius), the 12th century basilica above with its mosaics, the early Renaissance chapel by Masolino da Panicale, a baroque wooden ceiling, 19th century plaques — everything up to a photograph of Pope Benedict XVI!

Study in scale

Big ceiling, little people.

The scale of the Basilica Nova always gets to me when I get inside it – and nothing makes that clearer than the bits fallen from the ceiling. If you don’t know the building click and go to the Flickr stream to see another view.

Silas and Sasha Ruth came with us for this visit; they always bring a higher level of energy to the proceedings!

Someone at the door of S Lorenzo in Miranda!

We went to the Forum Romanum yesterday. The program has leased a sound system. Everyone has a little box slung on a lanyard around the neck – it’s smaller than a Walkman, but not by much. Everyone has an earpiece wired to the box, except me. I have a headphone set up. I was able to talk at a normal speaking level and everyone could hear me! The furthest we tested was once when my colleague Nick Ruth was about 30 yards away, and he picked up the signal just fine. Something more to lug from place to place, but worth it!

OK – the picture. Click on the picture to go to my Flickr photo stream and see a full view of the building, one of my favorite examples of literal layering and unlayering. The temple of Antoninus Pius and Fausta was built around 140, when she died, and rededicated with his name at his death 20 years later. The building was buried by the rising detritus and silt in the Forum until the 8th or 9th century, when a church was inserted inside the ancient building’s envelope. In 1602 a baroque facade was added — and the green door was at an appropriate entry level for that period. Think of what that means for the relative ground levels in the Forum!
In the 19th C the temple was excavated, leaving the door left hanging (there’s an entrance on the side of the church). Yesterday for the first time I saw people at the 17th Century door! So that explains the picture.
However, the interesting thing for me (and I hope for my students) are the layered stories — temple to divinized rulers, church inserted (triumphantly?) in the shell, colonnade preserved because of the church. Then the 19th Century archaeologists brutally ignored history in pursuit of some ideal state or ground level — and dug out the detritus, reconstructed a fictive staircase (that brickwork is not original!), and declared it “restored.” At least they didn’t tear down San Lorenzo in Miranda, which they did do to some other churches in the Forum area.
All in all a great place for me to teach my stuff — and someone at the door waving to us!