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.

Evaluating Europe — the Second Years’ Brussels trip

One of the perks of my role as Dean is that I was in a position to develop and participate in our new annual trip for second year Liberal Arts and Sciences students, taking the group to the heart of Europe: Brussels. This built on their first and second year core modules, studying the nature of modernity and crises facing humanity, and helped us all as a group to think hard about recent and forthcoming flash-points relating to European and UK politics.

We are fortunate at the University of Birmingham to have close research and development ties with continental Europe, and the University has an office in Brussels giving us a base for engaging with policy developments across the Union. To get our second years in the mood, the big questions we posed for the trip were:

  • When you hear “Brussels”, what does it represent? Does this change over the course of the trip?
  • What in Brussels’ historic relationship to European power-dynamics might have led to its primacy in the EU? This might touch on politics but also, think about Brussels and the development of the Modern in art and architecture.
  • What characterises contemporary Brussels? How does it differ from, or seem similar to, other capitals?
  • To what extent has the city been swallowed by its EU role?
  • What can “European” signify, and how well does Brussels as a lived city and living community fit in with those implications?
  • How much is homogeneity OR multiculturalism a defining feature of perceptions of the EU?
  • What is your understanding of decision/policy making processes in the EU? How might you propose to enhance them? What would be a better organisational executive structure?

A challenging set of discussion points, but they did keep reverberating right through our three-day visit.

The early start was bracing (a coach from Birmingham at 7am), but by the time we were all gathered at International Departures in London’s St. Pancras Station, there was a fantastic buzz. The energy was increased by our guest academic Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, an expert in policy, faith, and communities.

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Brussels has a compact centre, and our hotel was a pleasant walk from the Gare du Midi. The first evening was exploratory, and once we had settled in, the students somehow found a new lease of life and decided to explore (as students later put it: ‘It was really interesting to see other parts of Brussels outside the standard tourist hot spots’, and ‘Having already been struck by the apparent beauty and diversity of the city, we had the chance to delve deeper’).

At Schaerbeek's School no. 1 Brussels, by Henri Jacobs

At Schaerbeek’s School no. 1, Brussels, by Henri Jacobs

Day 1, beginning to work (Monday)

We started early the next morning, with a coach-tour introducing the role of socialism and political change in the development of the Art Nouveau movement (students commented: ‘I really enjoyed the Art Nouveau Bus tour…thanks to the enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide, the tour was both engaging and informative’, and ‘learning that the fundamentals behind designing buildings can be synonymous with the core principles in a culture to reflect the important values of learning, community and appreciation of beauty, was inspiring’). Visits to key buildings included Schaerbeek School No.1, where our guide spoke compellingly about the interplay between social modelling and educational values underpinning some of the most interesting architectural projects.

Taking a breather, at the Cathedral.

Taking a breather, at the Cathedral.

Story-telling!

Story-telling!

The afternoon took us back out into the heart of old Brussels, where over the course of two-hours, our walking-tour guide introduced us to the backstory by way of which Brussels continued to punch above its weight in shaping the forces of change long before European union was dreamed of. One student commented, ‘every building was different from the next and had a unique character/story behind it. There wasn’t just one amazing piece of architecture, but many.’

We time-travelled from the medieval core of the early city, right through to the urban planning revolution of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century urban quarters, taking in history, art, and politics en route.

w4CcyN2Myg8TxJOT3ZeOVY452M36dhsSQtJqnVwnXM4Jagbir and I hosted a dinner for the students that evening, in a charming Brussels restaurant where moules (mussels) were just one menu highlight. It was wonderful, after an action-packed year, to spend some time just talking to the students and reflecting on our collective achievements. Plus, the chocolate pudding was outstanding (and I did take the opportunity to do some chocolate-shopping; well, it would have been a waste not to!).

Day 2, making policy

Tuesday morning saw us negotiate the Brussels metro in order to get to our first EU appointment, a presentation and Q&A at the Commission.

EU Commission, Brussels

EU Commission, Brussels

Shepherding the group through the unexpected intricacies of the metro was more bracing than I had imagined, but we made it on time and with good humour intact. Our guide, Simon Pascoe, was from the civil service team working day-to-day with the College of Commissioners to transform their work into directives ready for the EU Parliament and Council. It was fascinating to gain insight into the processes, the stress points, the trade-offs, the enthusiasm, and the difficulties that make up the Commission’s work. Simon stressed just how crucial the continuous feed-through of new minds and new ideas is, and encouraged the students to consider applying for Commission internships.

Ready to move and shake in Europe! At the Commission.

Ready to move and shake in Europe! At the Commission.

We left with many new questions (always a good sign).

The EU Parliament runs a challenging, frustrating (in a productive way), illuminating role-playing exercise, at the Parlamentarium. We arrived for 2pm, and after 2.5 hours of mock politicking our new political factions had managed to agree the progress of one directive. I managed only to shout once, and one student was so compelling in speaking for his party’s position that two students voted across party lines (hence the shouting). Jagbir’s take on this is lovely: ‘when having to negotiate on the legislation passions ran high, and we all learnt that this involved a lot of horse-trading; everyone entered into this negotiation with dynamism and enthusiasm, and in some instances when students were defending their positions you could see young MEPs in the making’.

Personally, I was exhilarated (ok, exhausted) by the high-pressure tempo of the exercise, dealing with lobbyists, managing a party office and phone-line, being called upon to react when a major natural disaster struck, having to stand (literally) under the spotlight during briefings… As one student commented, ‘the Parlamentarium also helped to reinforce the information we were given during the EU commission trip the same morning. It was really fun and interactive!’

Jagbir summed the role-play up eloquently: ‘Students received two directives from the Commission to move through the process and liaise with the Council. All were then divided into four different parties, with defined manifestos. Using their manifestos they had to negotiate their position with the other parties, in order to reach an agreement.  Through this process they learnt the complicated nature of legislation, lobbying and political positions.  For example through the various lobbying videos they learnt the importance of listening to the viewpoints of the people for and against legislations and learn and understand peoples’ concerns. What was clear to the academics was that they were utilizing a number of skills needed to make learned information useful in the real world: self-awareness, problem solving, communication, initiative and teamwork’.

We all agreed that we wanted to visit the EU history exhibition, which told the story of European union through an intriguing and unexpected medium — photos from significant moments in European history which taken collectively encouraged viewers to reflect on how and why union was the right solution. The ideological takeaway was for the most part delivered with subtlety and panache, and although over the course of the day there were striking moments of media geared to just one (positive) EU message, visitors were continually challenged to think hard about the pros and cons.

Our last night’s dinner was a little more subdued — everyone was tired. But the students took the chance to explore Brussels’ nightlife when Jagbir and I headed back to the hotel. Counting them all back onto the Eurostar on Day 3 made me feel very proud of the intellectual effort they had put in, the energy they had expended, and the real sense of drawing intellectual and academic strands together at the close of a busy year. As one student summed up: ‘Everywhere we looked something interesting was waiting, it really made me think how we don’t pay enough attention to things in daily life and I really want to be more aware of simple things’.

Coda

When I asked Jagbir to reflect on the trip, her comments were illuminating: ‘I was particularly impressed with how the students engaged with our visit to the EU parliament and the role play activity. That activity showcased and made real the role of MEPs in the European Parliament, and until this point most of our students had only read or heard about what MEPs do.  This activity allowed them to experience first-hand how intense and complex this position is and the immense responsibility attached to it…this visit highlighted for the students, but also the academics, the intersection between politics at the EU level and our daily life in our respective countries’.

Jagbir’s expertise, the students’ enthusiasm, and my interest in getting everyone thinking about how transdisciplinarity can deliver really original insights, mean that we are now planning some provocative events addressing the UK in Europe, the EU referendum, and other big world events for 2016 and 2017. I expect we’ll blog about that over the coming months!

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