LANS Rome trip, 2016 by Professor Diana Spencer

Here is an overview of our inaugural trip to Rome (27 June-2 July 2016), the inspiration for which lies in the core values and objectives that underpin Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at Birmingham. Learning to learn in all kinds of unexpected environments, and from unfamiliar experiences, is crucial to the academic and personal development of our students and there is no better place to learn than Rome!

Day 1

Once the twelve students, from a mixture of year groups, had settled into their apartments and done some independent exploring, we all reconvened at Palazzo Taverna in the grand Salon, for a welcome from Professor Davide Vitali (Director of our host institution, the University of Arkansas Rome Center, and Architect).

This was followed by a 20-minute romp through Rome’s early and legendary foundation and republican history, touching on the political and ethical qualities that classical Romans believed to have been baked into citizen identity by the Founding Fathers. Photo 2

Next, we were treated to a whistle-stop lecture by University of Arkansas faculty-member Dr. Ryan Calabretta-Sajder tackling Rome’s identity as a cinematic city, starting with Roman Holiday but ending up with some contemporary visions from Turkish-born director Ferzan Ozpetek.

With that, we retired to a nearby restaurant for food, wine, and conversation about the days ahead.

 

 

Day 2

We met with our guide, Agnes Crawford, at the Arch of Constantine. Students were introduced to the powerful ideological and visual connotations of the arch form.  The important interplay between monumental form, political ideology, and military might, took a different but complementary shape as we moved to the Flavian Amphitheatre, aka the Colosseum.

This site also helped students to get a sense of the hidden layers which urban markup conceals and reveals. The popular name ‘Colosseum’ was first associated with a gigantic statue of the last Julio-Claudian Emperor, Nero.

What remained of the morning was spent moving up and down the Palatine Hill, discussing how it transformed in the last years of the first century BCE from a pleasant residential zone to the bureaucratic and autocratic heart of a transformed governmental system.

 

Students saw how one space, the traditional Forum Romanum, transformed from a focus for Rome’s civic self, increasingly became a venue for grandiose monuments and contestations of power which often escalated into street violence and gang warfare, with electoral disruption happening year after year.

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The afternoon took us through Rome’s medieval story, moving through the picturesque narrow streets that characterised the city as it re-found its power as a Christian capital and — with the Pilgrim trade developing — began to manifest new kinds of commercial and spiritual authority.

Ship-shaped Tiber Island offered a welcome break for gelato, and some quick facts about the island’s history as a ‘hospital’ zone, such as its ancient dedication to the imported Greek god Aesculapius, a healer.

 

Trastevere (the place ‘across the Tiber’) was where our students’ apartments were located, close to the charming Piazza San Cosimato, so en route we took in two iconic churches linking the earliest post-classical Christian era with the developing power of the papacy.

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We all had some free time then, before reconvening back at Palazzo Taverna for a stand-out lecture by Professor Vitali explaining and exemplifying Rome as a ‘palimpsest’. I was also especially happy to hear Professor Vitali’s assessment of our students: one of the most inquiring, alert, and thoughtful groups he has worked with.

Day 3

We met at the caffe at the Porta San Paolo light rail station before boarding the train for Ostia Antica. Once Rome’s port town, as the Tiber silted up, the town was abandoned and gradually fell into a mysterious quasi-burial. Not as dramatic as Pompeii but with surprisingly similar results in terms of excavated and visible ruins.

 

We saw dramatic mosaic pavements in some of the town’s public bath-houses and in the so-called Piazza of the Corporations where trading companies had booths and offices decorated with mosaics representing their origins or business.

Photo 17We strolled through some luxury townhouses (marvelling at one with its own private toilet!) and played at barmaid-and-customer in a remarkably intact bar, before beginning to make our way back to the sleepy medieval town close to the site, and lunch at L’Alimentari.

Photo 18Heading home, we got off the train at EUR to recuperate from Ostia and to think further about what one does with ideologically compromised spaces and structures. EUR was framed as a way for the new regime to build the Rome of the future – a Third Rome.

The ‘Square Colosseum’ characterises the Italians as ‘a people of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of boundary-crossers’ (Mussolini, 1935).

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That Italian fascist vision of history as a triumphant advance from the foundation of Rome to the rule of Mussolini gains narrative expression in a massive sculptural relief by Publio Morbiducci which drew our brief visit to EUR to a close.

We met up at Palazzo Taverna for our final evening lecture, which introduced the gardens and water-features of the sixteenth-century theme park that is the Villa d’Este, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

 

Day 4

Photo 21

We met at the Pantheon, a great spot to firm up the city’s palimpsestic quality, looming over the Renaissance Piazza della Rotonda. The Pantheon, so called because it was a temple to ‘all’ the gods, survived relatively intact because it was reused as a church – Santa Maria dei Martiri.

Now, the Pantheon houses tomb-monuments to unify Italy’s first rulers – Victor Emmanuel II and Umberto I – forming an interesting echo to one of the few ‘new’ builds in the historic centre of Rome.

From the Pantheon we took a walking tour, stopping at Bernini’s elephant, and viewing the luminous Filippino Lippi frescoes in the Carafa Chapel of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

We thought more about the papal city this morning, and used visits to Sant’Ignazio, with its trip ‘fake’ dome, to discuss counter-reformation politics and the ways in which art and architecture were leveraged to create a sense of perfect union between man and God.

Moving on, we saw the Piazza di Pietra, in which a temple to the posthumously deified emperor Hadrian has been incorporated into what was once the Stock Exchange. We had a gelato stop next, before working our way through the narrow twisting streets that eventually give onto the spectacular Piazza Navona.

The baroque splendours of Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers gave us a glimpse of the territorial ambitions of the post-Renaissance world, encompassing the greatest known rivers in a water-feature.

After lunch, we let the students explore, then met again at the Altar of Augustan Peace, a monument excavated on Mussolini’s orders and relocated to a piazza. It was dedicated by the Senate in 13 BCE, in honour of Augustus’ pacification of Spain and Gaul, and the Empire.

The museum, a (fairly) new building designed by starchitect Richard Meier offered an airy, cool space ideally suited to contemplating this masterpiece and also has helpful displays explaining the complex family tree of the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty.

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At the end of the day, we walked across the Tiber, past another classical mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian, to the great street — Via della Concilazione — created by Mussolini to mark the new rapprochement between Vatican and secular authorities.

 

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We had the privilege of entering St. Peter’s through the Holy Door — open for the 2016 Jubilee year.  I find myself newly moved by Michelangelo’s Pieta every time, but seeing our students respond to art as a medium of faith and humanity, confronted by the sculpture, was hugely rewarding.

 

 

Day 5

We headed for the Villa Adriana and Tivoli, with Francesca Riccardo (expert on architectural design, and UARC faculty member). The lush countryside was a lovely respite from the marble and bustle of Rome.

 

The Villa is a hot, unshaded place on a late June day, and we ended up lingering at the iconic ‘Canopus’ pool, which gave me an opportunity to talk to students about the traditional ascription of names to parts of the estate. A late imperial biography of Hadrian suggested that he named parts of the villa for sites that particularly thrilled or pleased him, based on his travels around the empire. Canopus, in Egypt, might have recalled the tragic death of his lover Antinous, who drowned in the Nile.

Our minibus took us to Tivoli, where we had a brisk lunch break, meeting up in an hour to start our tour of the Villa d’Este.

The Villa took shape in response to a failed political dream – Cardinal Ippolito d’Este’s unsuccessful attempt to become pope – and in its design he hoped to demonstrate, like Hadrian, that power could reside outside Rome.

Ippolito’s theme for the villa and its elaborately themed gardens was steeped in classical myth. It evoked Hercules’ legendary quest for the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, the dragon he fought to seize them, and the hero’s role as a powerful civiliser.

Visitors are challenged to see in Ippolito’s Tivoli a better-than-life vision of what power looks like, mediated through myth, geopolitics, cutting edge engineering, and the latest in archaeological discovery.

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Originally, plantings used scent and sensory nudges to create and give atmosphere to particular routes through the gardens. We were lucky to hear the Fountain of the Organ play for us just before we left, adding melody to what had already been an extraordinary day.

Back in Rome, it was time for a farewell dinner at Ai Spaghettari to discuss the new insights and approaches our visits had enabled.

Day 6

Check-out day was a valuable day to think through what we had gained from the week. Rome is a city of great dissonances as well as enormous beauty, and in these frictions, I think much of the most powerful learning resided.

For our first years, fresh from their core interdisciplinary module on ‘modernity’, the lessons of history manifest in Rome were an excellent postscript to that semester 2 programme of study. We definitely hope to do a similar trip next summer!

 

 

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Liberal Arts and Sciences Year 2 Trip to Brussels by Dr Shelley Budgeon

 

June 5-8, 2016

Cityscape

This year I had the pleasure of accompanying the second year on a trip to Brussels – a timely location indeed. The referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU was in the forefront of our minds as we headed out of the north gate car park on our way to the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras station. Questions surrounding governance, democracy, multiculturalism, migration, and identity had been circulating in the media for many months prior to our trip. The theme of the trip, “Borders and Belonging: Diversity and Community in Europe”, drew from across a range of social, economic, political and cultural issues central to debates about Britain’s relationship to the rest of Europe. Brussels, as the seat key political institutions governing the EU, and a diverse and rich cultural city provided an ideal setting for thinking about these matters and the debates being so passionately engaged with by the British public.

Some of the ‘big questions’ which framed our visit included: What does it mean to have a European identity and belong to a European community? What is the role of the EU in making societies stronger? Is this project a ‘failure’; a ‘success’; or one in need of ‘reform’? What effect do decision making bodies of the EU have on creating a European identity or community?

We were given plenty of opportunities to consider these complex questions and the range of perspectives which necessarily inform available answers.

Day 1

Eu flags

We first visited the European Commission where we learned about a range of responsibilities the Commission is tasked with including proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. This was followed by a general presentation on the EU foreign and security policy. From these presentations we began to gain some insights into the complex and multifaceted nature of EU institutions and decision making processes. As a starting point for our exploration of the EU the visit provided us with a lot to consider.

Students on bank

Since the sun was shining we enjoyed a moment of relaxation (with ice cream for some) in the beautiful Parc du Cinquantenaire before heading to the Grand Mosque, Islamic and Cultural Centre. Given it was the first day of Ramadan the Mosque was bustling with preparations for the meal that would take place that evening at sunset. As a key religious institution in Brussels the Mosque represents an important site of everyday life for the citizens of Brussel and our visit, again, helped us to understand the complexity of cultural identity in a European community that is multicultural and diverse.

 

 

 

Day 2

On the second day our activities focused on getting to grips with key EU institutions despite their inherent complexity! We first called on the European Economic and Social Committee and enjoyed a very lively and engaging presentation on the role the EESC plays in strengthening the democratic legitimacy and effectiveness of the European Union by enabling civil society organisations from the Member States to express their views at European level. This was followed by a thought provoking discussion on Britain’s decision to leave or remain in the EU and the role the younger generation must play in making this decision about the future. Again, we were reminded of the challenging issues constituting the theme of our trip and in particular, what it means to practice active citizenship in a globalised world. Following the presentation we were invited to enjoy the views of the Parliament from the terrace.

Student group

In the afternoon we accepted the challenge of playing the role an MEP in the EU Parlamentarium simulation – a scenario in which we were invited to ‘become a “near-perfect” politician’. At times a bit frantic and stressful, the role-play helped us to understand the pressures involved in making policy decisions when reaching consensus is an imperative. At the conclusion we were pleased to have reached agreement despite our differences resulting in the creation of some sound policies in response to a ‘water solidarity directive’ and the ‘personal identification directive’! From participating in this scenario we appreciated the range of skills MEPS must exercise in order to collectively tackle common problems faced by the member states.

Parlementarium flag

In between the rigors of learning about the role of the EU and reflecting on Britain’s future we took advantage of all that Brussels has to offer culturally including the wide range of museums and cultural institutions; opportunities to sample the cuisine (think Belgian chocolate/frites/beer) and free time to explore the city’s many attractions. The final night was celebrated by a wonderful meal at Chez Leon where mussels and frites were consumed enthusiastically while the conversations flowed!

Heading back home we reflected on what had been achieved: a greater awareness of debates surrounding culture and identity; an enhanced understanding of governance structures and policy making; and the opportunity to strengthen the friendships which are at the heart of the University of Birmingham Liberal Arts and Sciences community.

Liberal Arts and Sciences Brussels Trip: A student perspective by Thomas Belcourt-Weir

Monday 6th June 2016

After arriving in Brussels and briefly orientating ourselves in the city centre on the Sunday, on Monday morning we visited the EU commission. As soon as you arrive at the building there are clear efforts to display who is the head of the commission and try to gain support. On the outside of the building there is a large #TeamJuncker and on the walls of the foyer is a large display of the roles Jean-Claude Juncker and the other commissioners have. We were given a talk on the general role that the EU Commission plays as an institution, learning about how it proposes laws, enforces laws, manages budget and represents the EU outside of Europe. Interestingly, the speaker didn’t touch much upon the unelected nature of the 28 Commissioners, something which is a key argument within the Brexit debate.

We also had a talk about the European External Action Service, which serves as the EU’s foreign ministry and diplomatic corps, essentially representing the EU and its foreign policy outside of Europe. The main insight I took from the talk was how the EU Commission’s overall mission is to try to represent Europe’s interest as a whole, as if it were one nation, and the difficulties that come with this; staying supra-national and neutral, when the ‘interests of Europe’ are really just made up of the interests of all the constituent countries. It has to be said that the talk was a little lacking in useful and interesting information relative to only the common knowledge we had as a group about the EU. However, it was valuable to get the general gist of who the commissioners are and what they do, and just being in and around the building brought to life what you normally hear on the news as “over in Brussels”.

After this, a visit to Brussels largest mosque was made quite brief by the impending preparations for Ramadan, but nonetheless it was a good representation of the diverse ethnicities in Brussels as the political centre of an ethnically diverse Europe.

Tuesday 7th June 2016

On Tuesday morning we began with a great talk at the European Economic and Social Committee. The speaker was bright, fun and engaging, and she gave us a clear overview of the work the EESC does as a consultative body to the EU. Essentially the EESC is made of members who represent either Employers, Workers, or Interest Groups, aiming to strengthen European integration, ensure EU policies tie in better with economic, social and civic circumstances on the ground, and promote the development of a more participatory EU which is more in touch with popular opinion. The EESC works by creating formal platforms for groups across civic society to express their views, and by creating official “Opinion” documents which advise the three main bodies of the EU (Commission, Parliament and Courts). They work across several sections, from agriculture and environment to economics and employment. It was really interesting to see how the EU attempts to stay in touch with everyday people and initiate participatory democracy – even though the EESC is only advisory and what they advise doesn’t necessarily have to be used.

After this we had a nice break and a group photo on the terrace overlooking the EU Parliament building – it’s huge!

After lunch we took part in a role-play activity at the EU Parlamentarium. This was another really great exercise which I personally got a lot out of as I’m sure the rest of the group did. We were given the role of MEP’s (Members of European Parliament) and the activity gave us a flavour of what their daily job is like. We were split into four political parties with differing agendas and went through the steps of discussing our position as a party, consulting experts and the public, and then negotiating between parties to try and reach an agreement on the issue of water management and bio-chips. After this we then had to try and also reach a compromise with the EU Council. At times it was frantic and difficult to find an agreement between the Parliament and the Council – probably a very accurate role-play of real life!

The afternoons and evenings were free time spent exploring Brussels. The EU quarter was sleek and modern, which contrasted with the artistic and historic centre of the city. The countless cafes and bars gave the cobbled streets and squares a great vibe. There were also quality museums such as the museum of musical instruments and the comic book museum. Of course the waffles, chocolate and frites were delicious and were sure to be a highlight. Of particular note was the fine Belgian beer, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to try all 3,000 types at Delirium Café…

Overall a great trip of interesting insights into the workings of the EU just weeks before we go to vote on the EU Referendum, and fantastic cultural experiences of a buzzing European capital city – all topped off by a group dinner on the Tuesday evening! Thanks to Ruth and Shelley for a fine trip.