Re-viewing Rome (LANS summer study tour 2017)

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Arch of Titus, Forum Romanum (4/7/2017)

Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Rome study tour: 3rd-8th July 2017

One of the pleasures of being Dean is that I have twice had the opportunity to spend a summer week learning with and from a cross-section of our LANS students, while also talking to them about my own area of research expertise, the turbulent years of the late Roman Republic (the first century BCE) and the impact of that revolutionary era on how modern citizenship continues to be defined and contextualised. I blogged that first trip, and will try not to replicate too much of what I recounted there, here 🙂

With University of Birmingham doctoral candidate Miriam Bay, and guided by the wonderful Agnes Crawford, we worked our way through Rome and its environs with thirteen LANS students, moving from radical urbanism in classical antiquity to the modern city’s shifting acknowledgement of the importance and perils of embracing change.

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Streets in Rome’s Ghetto amply evidence the ‘layered’ quality of the cityscape (4/7/2017)

Rome, for me, is the ultimate laboratory city. Perhaps it’s my research focus talking, but in articulating my vision of what the tour would deliver (when describing it, back in January, to an interested but uncertain group of potential student travellers) I saw the sparks of questions, challenges, ideas, and responses flicker across their faces; to reappear over the ‘welcome’ dinner we hosted (at L’Isola della Pizza) for the whole group on 3rd July 2017, and as we made our first foray into the Forum Romanum early morning on 4th July.

Day 2 (4 July 2017)

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Spoliation, repurposing, but also the lure of genius loci are all on display for scrutiny (4/7/2017)

As Agnes emphasised, that calendar serendipity gave bite to our consideration of the complex forces that cause a people to turn upon themselves in civil war and in the process, to scrutinise and find wanting a myriad previously unquestioned myths of self-determination. These were the years when autochthony and (in a phrase Agnes used as a motif for the week’s study) genius loci (spirit of place) crystallised within Roman identify-formation. By the second century BCE Rome controlled a growing Mediterranean empire; no longer a city-state confined by peninsular Italy, yet still uneasily related to the peoples and cultures of its nearest neighbours.

This was an era when land use and land rights, not to mention rural to urban migration, linguistic change, and a reverse cultural imperialism (speaking to and striking back at Rome) from the literate Hellenic kingdoms that had previously dominated the western world, were all troubling the growing and increasingly urban political elites. It was also an era in which centuries of oligarchic politics (res publica or ‘public affairs’) were foundering as charismatic individuals (reformers, agitators, cynics, soldiers, demagogues…) began to see ways to game the system and wrest control from the few — by promising to transfer it to the many.

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The Temple of the Dioscuri — where we thought about how/why new gods get assimilated (4/7/2017)

Strolling through the Forum we considered how that genius loci paradoxically became a force for political and religious conservatism (‘we have always done x in y manner in z place, we always will; it’s who we are’) and also radical revisionism (‘by doing x in y place we validate transforming how, why, when, by whom it is done in z manner’). Thus, the Curia (a chamber used for meetings of the Senate, traditionally Rome’s conciliar body) which occupies a site by the Arch of Septimius Severus both is and is not the Curia constructed over two millennia before, by the Dictator (at that time still a regular office within consensus politics) ‘Lucky’ Sulla. And it also does and does not recall Mussolini’s early twentieth-century programme of laying bare, often with brutality to the urban fabric of the intervening centuries, what might be recalled to life as ancient proof of Rome’s destined imperial greatness.

As we discussed how the forces of history act not only on the fabric but also the context of how buildings function, we stopped at two evocative death zones. The mysterious Lapis Niger or ‘Black Stone’ (in one legend, the site of the burial of Rome’s founding father Romulus back in the eighth century BCE) is a waymarker for two other key funereal moments in the Forum: the riots, fires, and destruction that followed the deaths of Publius Clodius Pulcher (arch-nemesis of the orator and statesman Cicero) and, not long after, of Julius Caesar.

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The Deified Julius’ temple abuts the former home of the Pontifex Maximus and the commercial and civic centre known as the Basilica Aemilia-Paulli which went through significant changes in form and use (4/7/2017).

The temple to the God Caesar, dedicated shortly after his assassination in March 44 BCE, brings that strand in urban morphology full-circle. Like charismatic leader Romulus (in one version of the legend), Caesar was killed by his colleagues — a rebel conservative group within the political elite. Also like Romulus, he gained permanence within the built environment of the Forum. As Agnes reminded us, the extraordinary thing for contemporary Romans to get their heads around must have been that while humans in myth did indeed cross over into divinity, this was the first time a man with whom one might have had lunch made such a transformation.

The Forum was the heart of the Republican-era city, and while it had few permanent inhabitants (exceptions: the Pontifex Maximus, or Chief Priest, plus the college of female priests called the Vestal Virgins, a powerful cadre of professionally unmarried women) it was the hub for the courts and legal activity, for religious practice, political deliberation, for marking the triumphant return of successful military commanders. It had shops, monuments, arcades within which to stroll, and before the construction of permanent theatres or amphitheatres, it was a space for staging public entertainments. Setting the new God Caesar in this context, in a brand new marble temple, sent a powerful political and cultural message to upholders of the previous status quo.

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Pausing in the portico garden of the House of the Vestals gave us a chance to gaze up towards the Palatine Hill, and think about why statues are most vulnerable at their necks… (4/7/2017)

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the Palatine Hill, the zone towards which power began to shift under the next phase in Rome’s political development: the era of the Principate, ushered in by Caesar’s heir who took the honorific name Augustus.

Rome’s Seven Hills are famous (even if no-one in antiquity exactly agreed which of the many more than seven were the Seven), and the Palatine gave us the chance to talk through the rapidity with which political power shifts can become inscribed on physical topography, and in turn shift cultural expectations. Elevated on a hill, Augustus’ (relatively) modest house was gradually added to, first by him (the construction of a temple complex to the god who helped him come to power, Apollo) then by subsequent ‘emperors’ (a term which in antiquity meant someone with officially sanctioned power, but without the autocratic connotations we now attach to it).

The vestigial remains of one part of that eventually imperial residential complex developed by the emperor Domitian (51-96 CE) showcased the superfluity and conspicuous consumption that characterised the powerful architectural and visual rhetoric of Roman ‘palace’ complexes (‘palace’ from…Palatine!). We would see aspects of this visual rhetoric (opus sectile, scale, complex geometric built form, rich materials) in the static experience and staged movement through space at the Pantheon (that afternoon), St. Peter’s and EUR (6 July), and Hadrian’s Villa (7 July).

After lunch we worked our way through the city zone that was in antiquity the Campus Martius (Field of Mars). Once outside the city limits, it was incorporated, shifting during the late Republic from a green-belt military exercise ground to an entertainment zone hosting the city’s first stone theatres, an amphitheatre, a grand public baths and gymnasium, gardens, galleries, and places of religious worship (including temples of some of the new gods Rome was so good at assimilating, for instance Egyptian Isis; but also giving us a chance to discuss a characteristically Egyptian power-icon, the obelisk, imported into Rome’s urban visual vocabulary).

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S. Maria in Trastevere (4/7/2017)

We though about urban segregation: by ethnicity/religion (within the confines of the Jewish Ghetto), by risk (on Tiber Island, a place of isolation and healing of the sick since classical antiquity), and by choice (the changed urban dynamic reflected in Papal realignment of power at Rome centred on the north-west bank of the river, some distance from the historic centre).

At Santa Maria in Trastevere we concluded the day, thinking about ‘left bank’ politics, spoliation and continuity with classical antiquity, and how radical was the iconographic shift from medieval to renaissance rhetorics of power.

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This charming fountain just outside the Ghetto belies the troubled history of Rome’s relationship with its Jewish population, and the wider challenges of how urban morphology aids/hinders integration (4/7/2017)

All these changes had deeply personal effects on individual lives, but also created seismic shifts in the economic, infrastructural, and political life of the city and its topography.

Day 3 (5 July 2017)

LANS students impressed us all with their ability to get up early and be on time for morning meet ups that were typically 0730! Students were staying in apartments on either side of the Tiber, and had to make their way independently every morning to the designated site — what stars they all were! Wednesday we were on a train to Ostia Antica by 0800 (some of us had postponed breakfast till the caffe at Porta San Paolo station…).

Agnes gave students a clear sense of how visiting Ostia not only presents the skeleton of an ancient city laid bare, but also tells a story of how geographic and environmental change have a radical impact on urban and economic life. This was a port city which lost its connection to the sea, and with its waterway gone, was abandoned to time. Commerce and economic life moved with the changes in the river’s course and the coastline. This vital impact of the river at the heart of Rome’s success was embedded by Agnes in discussions all week. As she reminded students, Rome itself may have been founded where it was not because of a legend of abandoned twins washed up on its banks (Romulus and Remus) but pragmatically because the salt route, moving inland from the coastal salt-flats, found a fordable point there on the Tiber. Commerce and politics then grew up around that site.

For lunch that day we ate at Flavio al Velavevodetto, a wonderful restaurant built into the base of Monte Testaccio, a hill composed artificially in antiquity as a terraced rubbish dump for broken potsherds, detritus of the city port on the Tiber from whence cargo from Ostia was unloaded and ported onwards (over land or using smaller boats).

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‘…along the banks of the sacred river, as far as the Tyrrhenian shores’ (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Similarly, on Thursday evening, at our visit to EUR we saw the famous inscriptions emphasising the River Tiber as a vital artery connecting Italy with its renewed twentieth-century status as a Mediterranean superpower, and characterising Italians as navigators, a nod to the importance of proximity to the sea by way of that watery road.

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Getting a straight line-up together in the cortile at the Palazzo Orsini-Taverna proved harder than one might think… (5/7/2017)

Wednesday evening was the first of our formal lectures, a tour-de-force exposition of what the terminology of the ‘palimpsest’ means when thinking syn- and diachronically about cities, delivered by Prof. Davide Vitale of the University of Arkansas Rome Center (based at the beautiful and evocative Palazzo Orsini-Taverna). I heard students dropping the term blithely into conversation over the following days, and am in awe of how well Davide managed to capture them with this new earworm at the end of another long hot Roman day!

The temperatures were in the mid- to high 30sC all week, so alongside breaks where possible during the early afternoon, we reconvened when it was cooler for evening activities.

After our lecture on the politics of architectural history we thus strolled briskly to the Ara Pacis Museum to look at a very old object (the Altar of Peace, commissioned for Augustus by a grateful Senate to celebrate peace in the empire and at Rome; dedicated in 9 BCE), significantly restored and reconstructed in a new location, excavated using cutting-edge technology, contextualised by a Piazza proud with fascist-era sloganeering and bombast, contained within a new museum (one of the only new buildings permitted to be built in the city’s historic heart) an external wall of which bears the autobiographically styled account by Augustus of his array of ‘things achieved’ (Res Gestae Diui Augusti).

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Do private finance and corporate investment represent a new dawn for the restoration and upkeep of cultural heritage? Are there dangers? (Colosseum, 4/7/2017)

Phew. Not to mention that like the Colosseum (where we ended up on Tuesday lunchtime), the Mausoleum of Augustus (the centrepiece of the Piazza) too will be subject to a restoration enabled by a public-private partnership, bankrolled by Italian commercial and telecoms giants. This, we decided, bore thinking about.

Day 4 (6 July 2017)

Thursday 6 July was another very early start: 0730 at a caffe near St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s gave us a chance to think about how this part of the city had been re-zoned by the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the rise of the Papacy, and the seismic shift operated by the fall of Constantinople leading in large part to what would become known as the Renaissance (with all the architectural, political, economic, artistic, and religious shifts that entailed).

The world really was changed as humanocentric theories of the cosmos were challenged (and eventually overturned) and the Catholic Church began the counterattack against ‘protesting’ voices unhappy with the style, ethos, and manner of central religious government.

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St. Ignazio, where a trompe l’oeil ceiling (and dizzyingly fake dome) helped students think about how the counter-reformation Catholic Church fought back… (4/7/2017)

From the church of St. Ignazio with its emphasis on the unknowability of the logic and language of the divine (unless mediated by the Church for its flock) to St. Peter’s (with its massive evocation of classical forms to lend authority, scale, and wow-factor, while reminding pilgrims that Catholicism remained Peter’s foundation and an earthly manifestation hinting at ineffable heavenly glory), we saw again and again how the urban vocabulary of classical antiquity and ancient Roman innovation formed vital motifs in successive negotiations of civic power and authority.

The Vatican also, of course, recalls the Lateran Treaty (1929) and the rapprochement between Church and State that saw the papacy make peace with Mussolini in exchange (among other things) for territorial rights. We saw flickers of this as we studied the iconography and design of the buildings left representing what was to be a showpiece of Mussolini’s fascist (from the Latin term fasces, the name for the symbols of office associated with the magistrates of the Res Publica) vision.

See St. Peter's dome rising, right below the Colosseum and just a swerve from the Pantheon!

Antiquity, Christianity, and politics jostle in this unusual frieze (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Concretised in a grand exhibition (Esposizione Universale di Roma, EUR) in 1942, this vision was to illuminate the modern capital city and (not long ago unified) nation as a ‘Third Rome’ (after the Emperors and the Popes). It would have stressed both the continuity and majestic progress embodied in Italy’s new and improved redevelopment of imperial status.

We had an unexpected transport strike to deal with that day, so Agnes’ ability to hire us a minibus (blessedly, with air conditioning — by 1600 when we were leaving for EUR the heat was intense) last minute was totally miraculous!

Our minibus moved us in style between key sites at EUR (sadly, the Museo della Civilta Romana is still closed), then returned us to the city centre where we variously went for a quick drink and/or a gelato before reconvening for our second evening lecture of the week: Miriam’s introduction to the ideological design linking botany, art, architecture, religion, history, and politics at the Villa d’Este, where we would conclude our visits the following day.

Day 5 (7 July 2017)

Friday morning saw many bleary faces. My impression is that the LANS students made a night of it and fully enjoyed Rome’s summer party atmosphere. I, by contrast, had embraced an early night. We set out for Tivoli in our mini-bus at 0830, and after a pity-pit-stop for coffee / cold drinks / cake at the nearby bar we tackled the archaeological site of the country estate said to have been designed by the Emperor Hadrian. Agnes had designed a route to give maximum thematic value and access to key zones while also keeping us moving between water fountains and patches of shade.

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Orientation: Villa Adriana (7/7/2017)

Crucial discussions picked up on the power of scale and decor, and the relationship of designed space to movement patterns and ideology. In a site as big as this one, with so many unique and complex architectural forms to get to grips with, the most important thing for LANS students was to understand the complex interrelationship between such disparate areas of expertise and authority, and the significance of buying in (or knowing how to source) expertise when novel problems appear.

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Hadrian, an emperor famed for forcing his ‘court’ to join him at his out-of-town villa (or on-tour across the empire), dabbled in architecture and philosophy, and wrote poetry (as well as governing most of the known world). After lunch at the hill town of Tivoli we finished our week’s work with the water-fantasia that is the Villa d’Este.

This sixteenth-century palazzo and garden complex, designed for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este by architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio (just as Ligorio was excavating the nearby site of Hadrian’s villa, for his patron the Cardinal — see a googlebooks preview of David R. Coffin’s 2004 study of Ligorio here), is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, but sadly diminished in terms of the working hydraulics as originally envisaged.

We were lucky to have Miriam as our guide for the gardens because her research is breaking new ground in explaining how the somatic, architectonic, natural, economic, hydraulic, political, religious, and personal all coalesce in a stroll through the water-feature filled terraces. I’m not going to give away Miriam’s original analysis in this blog! Lucky students got a sneak preview, everyone else reading this will have to wait for the completed thesis.

Suffice to say that the stimulating and cooling properties of the Villa d’Este made for a perfectly judged end to a memorable trip, which concluded that night with a very convivial dinner at Trattoria Polese.

There was genuine emotion on display as our meal ended, coffees were drunk, and Miriam and I made a closing address to sum up some of what we hope and believe the week achieved. It’s been a real privilege to share this intensive learning experience with such a great group!

Life as a Swedish Dog Trainer, by Alexandra Klein

As a Biology major I always found myself drifting towards the seemingly more ‘academic’ Molecular Biology modules… It was only when I began my year abroad at Lund University in Sweden that I realised it was finally time to be more adventurous with my choices.  It perfectly fit this goal when I heard there was an option to do a research project instead of a university module and still gain the same number of credits.  I wrote to a huge number of companies in Molecular Biology, Biotechnology and a bunch of other potential future career options… but I also found myself writing to academics in Animal Behaviour modules and begging them to take me on, despite my limited experience.  I was so excited to get a reply back almost straight away, asking me if I’d be interested in training dogs…(“dogs weighing up to 50kg” as he put it, instantly conjuring confused thoughts of me attempting to carry heavy dogs around).
I grew up with no pets, and with no friends with dogs, so the thought of working with them was really quite random, however after months of seeing cute puppy videos and memes on my Facebook news feed I was hopeful that I’d get along with dogs well.  So, it was with some apprehension that I arrived on my first day, only to be greeted by a professor and a massive golden retriever.  After some awkward head pats I was entrusted with Kevin, the golden retriever, and we went off for our first walk.
My first day was “getting to know the dogs” which basically involved taking three different dogs for walks, playing games with them and picking up their poop (and as I was happy to find out I definitely wouldn’t be carrying the dogs…) It was probably the best first day of work anyone could hope for, well, minus the poop.

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Lots of walks around campus with the dogs

The aim of my project was to see if dogs can be trained to detect infrared (heat) radiation. Dogs have a wet and cold nose-tip, which isn’t necessary for any known function, so it seems logical that a possible function could be to use this coldness to detect radiating heat. This could have been useful in the past for activities such as hunting predators, however the function could have been lost as domestic dogs no longer need it. To encourage the use of this sense in dogs, a period of “re-training” would be necessary. This was where my job began, I was using positive reinforcement to help the dog realise it should always pick the warm side, when presented with a choice between a warm and
cold panel. I rewarded the dog with food every time it picked the warm side on its own, with the hope being that the dog would start to go to the warm side independently. This would demonstrate that the dog could detect which side was radiating heat.

It really was an amazing experience taking nine weeks off lectures to play with dogs, and by the end of the project I felt like I’d made real progress with the project aims.
So, after a fun, and at times stressful experience, here are my top take home messages:

1) Picking up sloppy dog poop seems daunting at first, but after the sixth time doing it that day you really get used to it.
2) Dogs will go completely crazy for meatballs. Seriously, do not bring hot meatballs into a room unless you’re ready to reward the dog.
3) Coming into work every day to be greeted by happy, jumpy dogs is probably the most uplifting feeling possible.
4) This is especially helped by 2). In the dogs’ eyes I was The Lady Who Gives The Meatballs
which caused some VERY excited dogs.
5) Even your dream job is pretty hard work. Working with dogs sounds easy, but actually
maintaining the motivation and attention of dogs throughout the day is exhausting, and
involves a huge amount of energy (and treats).

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I also really saw the importance of studying different areas of Biology in order to become a well-rounded researcher. I think the skills I learned in improvisation, dedication and patience will be really useful when I go back to my usual lab work. Overall, it was probably the best nine weeks of my university life, and I would jump at the opportunity to work with dogs again!

On top of all that, I had the opportunity to go to the zoo a few times to look at the nose
skin of various animals. So, my childhood dream of playing with monkeys and
lemurs even came true!

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First year trip to Coniston, June 2016 by Martha Hutchinson

The Trip

Two weeks ago, the first year students of LANS went on a four day residential trip to the Raymond Priestly Centre on the shore of Lake Coniston. From hiking to high ropes, we took part in various activities designed to help us improve our teamwork and leadership skills – and were also very enjoyable!

 

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The good weather held for the majority of the week, meaning that evenings could be spent outside on the field and by the lake, or going to the local pub in the village of Coniston.

Monday, 6th June

After a 7am start in the North Gate Carpark, we set off to the Lake District on what looked to be a lovely day. Five and a half hours later, this proved to be correct as we arrived at the centre to blue skies. After lunch, it was outside to do some ‘ice-breaking activities’. These contests ranged from passing all members of the team through a hoop in 4 seconds, to racing a ball up and down the hill in sections of gutter; and by the end of the afternoon, all of the teams seemed to be really enjoying themselves.

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One activity involved passing a bean bag between two people stood on either side of an increasingly wide gap – this was attempted with varying amounts of success.

Tuesday, 7th June

On the second day, the teams split up to complete a circuit of activities individually. My group (Team 4), were on land for the morning. We had a rotation of activities: crate stacking, high ropes and low ropes, all of which were very entertaining! I think my favourite would have to be the high ropes, as it was a brilliant way for us all to work together and help each other through. Then, there was a fantastic lunch (quiche) before we set off for an afternoon of canoeing. While many canoes were off to a slightly rocky start, by the time we stopped for ice cream at the Bluebird café it was generally going swimmingly (not literally).

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Our first task was to build a tower of crates for two team members to stand on to reach a whistle in the trees – thank you Jeeves for coming up with the brickwork pattern

Wednesday, 8th June

Our third day was marked on the schedule as ‘activity day’, and so we had only a small idea of what to expect – other than we would need a packed lunch. Over the course of the day, we completed an orienteering trail, a logic puzzle, a hike and a canoe journey, gaining points for various correct answers during the day. While we were all exhausted by the end, the day was a success – I had a great time, and the views were amazing (even if we had to walk up a rather steep hill to get to them)! Plus, we succeeded in winning the prize at the end – ice cream!

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While canoeing on both days was enjoyable, it was a bit more difficult on the Wednesday as the Lake became rather choppy in the afternoon! (Picture from Tuesday)

Thursday, 9th June

 

On our final day, we were able to choose our morning activity (mountain biking, sailing, gorge scrambling or kayaking). Having chosen sailing, my group spent the morning back out on the lake, which was great fun, and a perfect way to end the trip – especially the water fight with the group in kayaks! After a final lunch and a clean of the centre, it was back on the coach for the drive back to Birmingham. The trip was a resounding success, with everyone enjoying themselves, and it was awesome to be able to get to know everyone on the course. I hope that next year’s group will have as fantastic a time.

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On the final evening, we made a fire in the centre’s fire pit, around which we drank hot chocolate and attempted to roast a doughnut.

Thank you

 

Finally, on behalf of LAS Year 1, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone whose hard work made this trip a success. In Birmingham, I would like to say a special thank you to Ruth German, Ben Kotzee and Stewart Brown for organising the trip. I would also like to thank Ben and Stewart for accompanying us. Finally, I would like to say a massive thank you to all the staff at the Raymond Priestly Centre, who worked tirelessly to make sure we had a great time – everything was amazing, from the food, to the activities, and even to the atmosphere of the centre! The trip could not have gone ahead without any of you – thank you very much!

 

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Also, a personal thank you from me to Ben, Miriam and Lorna for allowing me to use their photos for this post!

 

 

 

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

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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!

 

 

LAS Abroad: Impressions of Vancouver

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We watch the lunar eclipse from Stanley Park. Tonight, the moon is the moon of Nick Drake and Neil Young: pink and harvest and super, in all senses. She appears gradually, first as smoke, then as something more. A growing murmur spreads through the crowd. I move to get a better view, weave through crowds of stargazers and stoners and other Vancouver sky searchers.

I point my camera at the sky. The blood supermoon over the city. Downtown’s high-rise lights reflected in the bay.

At UBC, I walk 15 minutes from my on-campus residence flat, through the Pacific Sprit National Park and onto a beach. “Clothing optional” warns the battered wooden sign.

At Birmingham, I walk 15 minutes from my gradually subsiding terraced house, through the remains of last night’s chicken massacre and onto a building site.

I’m not passing judgment on either walk but the experience is very different.

I take courses in Theatre, Creative Writing, Film Studies, Philosophy, Art History and Visual Art. I am Mr Employable.

However, the more time I spend around people for whom Liberal Arts is university, the more I am convinced that it is absolutely the best way to do things.

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Downtown is surrounded by water on three sides and as a result is mostly vertical. The architects of the centre have built upwards rather than outwards. Therefore, there is a feeling of compactness; I can explore the city and, even in eight months, make it my own.

In 30 minutes, I can walk through the West End’s luxury residential tower blocks; down Davie Street with its gay bars and bright pink bus stops; past the smug restaurants and galleries of Yaletown; into Chinatown which seems alive with construction and food; avoid the temptation of West Pender’s ramshackle bookshops; down the Granville strip illuminated with commercialism and seediness; into gentrified Gastown which fashionably sits in absolute denial of its past and present; up one block to Hastings – the original Skid Row – and east through drug markets and homelessness. Pieces of a contradictory jigsaw, tightly fitting and flowing with life.

And out of all of this, Brewery Creek quickly becomes a favourite area of mine. Lets just say that it is very aptly named.

I realise why four years at university is a good idea.

I have to submit an original piece of conceptual digital art. This, for me, is new and exciting.

So, naturally, I walk for 3 hours along the 99 express bus route from the University bus loop, all the way down to Broadway at Commercial. It is the busiest bus route in North America. Every time a 99 bus passes me I turn to my right and take a photograph.

I like to think that this is a comment about displacement and discovery, about the observation of the everyday in the face of commercial mass transit.

And because it’s supposed to be conceptual art, I believe it. Just.

Tomorrow, I have a lecture on Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I have to read Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I find Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness interesting, in theory. In practise, I hate Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and I hate his Nothingness as well.

The mountains loom constantly like a well-worded threat. Or a memory. It is winter now and they are dusted with just the right amount of snow to be optimally photogenic.

I don’t ski.

I have skied before but that was on a small hill covered in wet rope on the outskirts of Gloucester. I imagine this is a different experience to doing it on snow down a Canadian mountain. In fact, I suspect this means that I have negative experience of skiing. I have friends who have gone up to Whistler, however, and they say that the views are beautiful. I believe them, completely.

Down below, on the sidewalk (never pavement), the resorts emerge from the forest with a strange elegance. In the evening, their lights hover over the city like alien constellations.

Occasionally, we go to a place where we float in sensory deprivation tanks for 90 minutes. It is pitch black, silent and motionless. After a while I tend to forget where my arms are. It’s an experience I can heartily recommend.

Afterwards we go to the pub.

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I now know and am friends with people from Canada, the USA, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Chile and South Korea, as well as meeting someone that lived a ten second walk away from me in Birmingham last year, whom I had neither met nor seen before.

It is a massive small world.

University work is assigned constantly throughout the year. This means that you have to work more but also that you have to think more. This takes some getting used to. It feels beneficial in the end though.

I secure a paid Dramaturgy internship at The Arts Club, one of the foremost theatres for Canadian new writing development. Dramaturgy is a strange professional area that means different things depending on where you are in the world and who you work for. In North America, it means working with writers on new plays, as well as more “traditional” dramaturgical work – compiling resource books on productions and so on. It’s the kind of thing I’d like to do back in the UK and any experience will be worth it. I’ve had enough practice explaining my degree to be ok with explaining a job as well.

I play David Bowie all day. His last album is perfection.

I turn 21 on the second day of the second semester (never term). There is a party on Friday and it isn’t shut down at 1am like on-campus parties normally are. I think this must be a sign of something but I‘m not sure what.

We turn away from the moon and leave her hanging in the midnight air. Instantly she grows bigger, fills our mind’s eyes with her rose blood.

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We merge back into the smear of city traffic. On the first of our three buses home, a man with a bulging combat coat and impressively unkempt beard tells us, “The end is coming!” He is talking about the incoming Liberal Prime Minister and he stinks of medicinally legal weed.

We, however, hear his prophecy and cannot shake the moon from our minds.

And when, in three months time and it is time for me to leave, Vancouver will be similarly unshakeable. I will miss its staggering natural and urban beauty and the way the buses always run on time. I will miss its bars and cafés, its hipster hangouts and microbreweries. I will miss its unmistakeable feel and the way that everywhere doesn’t so much close at night, as it comes to an elegant pause. And I will miss the moments when the sun finally falls below the horizon, when all that is left of its deep setting amber are lilac clouds and distant ocean warmth, when the mist rolls down the mountains and welcomes in the evening.

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Words and pictures by Sam Forbes, 3rd year Drama Major and Liberal Arts and Sciences student; currently studying at the University of British Colombia on Year Abroad.

Talking In Our Time

What academics mostly do is spin yarns. Sometimes these develop into technical tapestries, as hard to unpick as the punchline is (we hope) world-shaking. Much of the time, we are chipping away at the knowledge edifice, trying to make a difference. We receive no training in communicating research intelligibly outside the academy, yet making our research into stories that resonate as widely and powerfully as possible is as central to modern universities as it is to their faculty and students. Despite the rhetorics of ivory-towers and ivied quads, our world is no more (nor less) exclusive than any comparable trade. Ideas are our currency, and this means that we tend to speak to whoever will listen.

Some academics (micro-)blog, many of us teach and write books and papers, explain what we do to diverse audiences (including friends, or people at bus-stops…) and like everyone, we try to adapt our discourse appropriately to match the context. Many of us also travel nationally and internationally to explore how we fit into and can make a difference to new and bigger conversations. But these activities are all within our comfort-zones.

Donkey: legs talked right off!

Donkey: legs talked right off!

The crunch comes when, as it did for me this summer, someone wants to change the medium and for instance, put academics together for live broadcast debate to an unseen audience. In my case, this was to be on the radio. You’d think that a person well-used to standing up in front of large audiences, and delighted to talk the hind legs off herds of donkeys, would still find this uncomplicatedly delightful. In fact, it quite daunted me in ways I hadn’t expected.

The “call” was in fact an email. Would I be interested in talking about reception of Alexander the Great with some fellow academics as part of an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme “In Our Time”. Of course I was interested! But the dynamics of this kind of “conversation” are inevitably very different to a chat between colleagues, or to a typical academic lecture, workshop, or seminar. This was brought home to me vividly when I had my first conversation with the production team, charming folk who quizzed me in detail (as they worked out how the episode might develop) about all sorts of aspects of Alexander’s story that I’d not considered for some time.

The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth

The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth

This build-up was exciting and perturbing in almost equal measures. Answering questions about Alexander’s extraordinary career, and reimagining my own analyses in the light of thirteen years (since first publishing a book about Roman reception of Alexander), was all rather exhilarating. But stories started to drift in from friends and colleagues about the terrible “freeze” that can overcome the most fluent of speakers when in the studio, about the unintentional gaffes that “live” recording can crystallise, and by the time I’d been warned about not “tapping on the table”, or “rustling”, or making repetitive noises, I was beginning to imagine myself as the unfortunate Lina with her pearls, in “Singing in the Rain”.

One question I asked in the build-up was “why Alexander, now?” While the BBC programme team had no particular agenda for the timing of this episode (and perhaps the “In Our Time” shtick requires a sense of timelessness in scheduling topics), nevertheless the turmoil in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa, new urgency to questions of ethnicity and its relationship to selfhood, nationality, and to geopolitical ideals and realities, all seem to echo some of the radical population shifts and the fallout from grand ideological schemes that were an inevitable consequence of Alexander’s campaigns. Not to mention the vexed question of Alexander as poster-boy for a new brand of charisma-driven personality politics.

The trip to Broadcasting House was set for the Thursday of Freshers’ Week, so I hustled from the mock “graduation” ceremony and prize-giving that we staged for Birmingham’s Liberal Arts and Sciences first years (celebrating their successful completion of the four-year degree in two packed days…), through Birmingham’s brand newly (re-)opened Grand Central/New Street Station, and onto the fast train to London.

London, and the Thames, feature emblematically on the doors to the RIBA (Portland Place)

London, and the Thames, feature emblematically on the doors to the RIBA (Portland Place)

We’re so close to London that I often wonder why I go so infrequently, and enjoying a quiet supper in a bar near my hotel there was a slightly naughty sense of being unexpectedly released temporarily into the wild.

I met up with my fellow guests at 10.00 the next morning at the iconic, Art Deco entrance to what I still think of as the authentic (i.e. ’30s) Broadcasting House, opposite John Nash’s exquisite All Souls Church, Langham Place. Classical academia is a small world, and I knew both the other guests (hello, Paul, Rachel), so the pre-mic green-room coffee stop (sadly, like every theatrical “green room” I’ve been in, it was not at all green) was a bit of a catchup session. Melvyn Bragg, our host, made his appearance once we had taken the correct seats (inevitably, I first of all sat in the wrong seat) in a large, evocatively old-school, recording studio.

The programme has a manner all its own, and each guest gets a chance to answer one or two questions first, setting the scene, before the conversation (though still fairly tightly structured) is opened out. We agreed to raise our hands if we wanted to interject, which did occasionally make me want to shout “Miss! me, Miss!” But I resisted. I think that if I get invited back (or ever take part in a comparable show) I’ll be a bit more forceful about waving that hand. The crux of Alexander the Great, an issue that the team were clearly aware of but couldn’t resolve, is that there is way, way too much juicy, salacious, intriguing, perplexing material to cover. My own area of specialisation really didn’t get much of a look-in because exploring even the big opening questions relating to what Alexander did and how we know about, or interpret it, could have filled a whole series.

At the BBC, ready to broadcast!

At the BBC, ready to broadcast!

There’s a fun bit at the end of each show where guests record some more relaxed conversation on the theme, for the podcast, and I was aching to talk about the weird seepage between art and life characterising 20thC actors role-playing Alexander (it was not long after their off-kilter Alexander pilot that William Shatner would be inspiring viewers “to boldly go”…and Adam West would be saving Gotham; while Richard Burton’s personal life resounded to the issues of sex, drink, and identity-crisis that characterise hostile Roman reception of Alexander), and Alexander’s big-screen monopolisation by actors from edges of corporate states (Burton: Wales; Sean Connery: Scotland) or with postcolonial reverb (Colin Farrell: Ireland).

I’d also hoped to be able to interject a little more on how buffeted by 20thC ideologies Alexander’s afterimage became. For instance, Hitler had a series of eight Dutch tapestries depicting great episodes in Alexander’s life, based on a sequence created by Charles le Brun for Louis XIV of France) moved from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, to add epic grandeur to his office in the Chancellery, Berlin.

Classical motifs abound, near the BBC. Here, one might almost be stepping into a Greek temple...

Classical motifs abound, near the BBC. Here, one might almost be stepping into a Greek temple…

Alexander’s emblematic potential for modelling Aryan identity and showing how to impose radical cultural shifts across diverse populations would also reverberate contrastingly through the idea of “universal brotherhood” which he supposedly took as the ideological centrepiece for his eastern empire-building. This idea of a “brotherhood of man” started to come into focus as world power dynamics shifted through the 1930s, and was given a positive, optimistic airing by William W. Tarn, in his Raleigh Lecture on History (delivered to the British Academy in 1933, and restated in an article in the American Journal of Philology, in 1939. see Ernst Badian’s 1958 restatement of the issues, and analysis). Tarn’s Alexander, like Hitler’s, was a visionary, but for Tarn, Alexander’s political dream took on a soteriological quality that his charismatic good-looks and early death helped to shore up.

If airtime had allowed, I think I’d have liked to end with an interrogation of how that “visionary”, age-defying, charismatic man-of-the-people Alexander continued to permeate western understanding of power — imperial, intellectual, scientific, sexual — right through the 20thC. To my mind, the ubiquity of tropes relating back to Roman stories of Alexander the inquisitive, boundary-pushing hero with feet of clay can help all of us to pose questions of ourselves about how exactly we understand what identity is, whether individual, collective, or comparative, and how the assumptions we make connect us to past societies and give definition to what we consider to be characteristic of humane values and aspirations.

My London day ended with a research-related trip to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA: very handy for the BBC, and like the Wellcome Collection, a wonderful resource for interdisciplinary enthusiasms), and a little Classical eye-candy appreciation (en route back to London Euston, and home).

First-Year trip to the Raymond Priestley Centre, Coniston, June 2015

First year students on the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme took part in our annual adventurous training week at Coniston in the Lake District from Monday 8 to Thursday 11 June 2015.

The University of Birmingham is lucky to have its very own outdoor activity centre, the Raymond Priestley Centre, on the western shore of Coniston Water. The Centre had its beginnings in the annual summer camps that the University of Birmingham set up at Coniston Water in the post-war years, and grew to comprise permanent accommodation and facilities. Today, the Raymond Priestley Centre offers students and staff the opportunity to take part in team-development and leadership courses, field-studies courses and training in sports and pursuits like sailing, canoeing, orienteering and climbing.

The centre is named after Professor Sir Raymond Priestley (1886 – 1974) who was geologist on Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic in 1907–9 and Scott’s ill-fated expedition in 1910–13. He later became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham (1938 to 1952) and was a strong supporter of the educational benefit of adventure and exploration.

Our groIMG_0219up left Birmingham early (if not so bright) on Monday morning and arrived at the Priestley Centre in time for lunch. After a briefing and introduction to the centre, it was time for the first activities, with an afternoon devoted to problem-solving and team-working exercises at the centre’s ingenious obstacle courses. Students had to scratch their heads to solve problems such as crossing a ‘gorge’ using only team work and three short planks, finding their way blindfolded, and passing eight team members through a ‘spider’s web’ without touching.

 All good fun and, along the way, everyone learned a bit more about communicating and what role they best play in teams. Everyone was tired on Monday night, but we got a camp fire going and chatted until dark. On Tuesday morning we went canoeing (a first time for some) and held a raft building competition. Two of the rafts made it around the course safely… and the third group swam out in some style. 20150609_114507_HDR20150609_114325 The afternoon saw us take on the centre’s dedicated ‘high ropes’ and ‘low ropes’ courses. Teamwork was crucial in getting everyone safely around the high ropes course (pretty high) and keeping them out of the mud besetting the low ropes course. IMG_0266

On the Wednesday, students took part in an all day project, working in teams, which involved map reading and orienteering, raft building and canoeing. The tasks required individual ingenuity and teamwork, plus the ability to acknowledge that different members of the group had different strengths which would each come into play in different situations. They spent the late afternoon working on their group reflective presentations for the Thursday morning — everyone took this seriously, and one group in particular put considerable creative effort into planning their presentation (set to the music of Bohemian Rhapsody). In the evening many of them went to the pub but all were back in the Centre in good time and in a reasonable state to return to work on Thursday morning!

On the Thursday morning, students were surprised at having one more physical task to perform. In their groups they were each issued with a length of guttering and a tennis ball and had to manoeuvre the ball down the hill towards the lake without it dropping to the ground. Two of the three groups did this ok, one group did it eventually – with a little help from their friends as it were. Again it was a task about teamwork, leadership and esprit de corps…but maybe 8.30am was a little early in the day for some of the students. After the presentations the groups cleaned up their quarters and headed up the hill to catch the coach back to Birmingham. IMG_0231IMG_0222 After the trip, all were agreed that Coniston was brilliant. Students came to know one another much better and say they felt much closer.

Ben Kotzee and Stewart Brown