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Max Page Observes How We Individually Wrestle with the Past

April 7, 2014
Statue in Foro Italico. Photo: Max Page
The crumbling mosaics of Mussolini’s Foro Italico declare over and over “Il Duce Il Duce". Photo: Max Page
The Via della Conciliazione, a wide avenue cut through to St. Peter’s by Mussolini, beginning in 1936. Photo: Max Page
Remants of the fascist symbol, the “fasces,” are everywhere. Photo: Max Page
Wine merchants offer bottles celebrating Hitler and Mussolini. Photo: Max Page
Across the city the Arte In Memoria Foundation, led by Adachiara Zevi, has installed “stolpersteine” (stumble steps), first deployed in Germany, marking the homes of those deported — mainly Jews, but also others deemed dangerous by Hitler. Photo: Max Page
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Max Page is the winner of the Mark Hampton Rome Prize and a Professor of Architecture and History in the Department of Art, Architecture, and Art History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

What part of the United States did you come from?

I was born and now live again in Amherst, Massachusetts.  In fact, I live again in my childhood home, which is a moving gift for someone who teaches historic preservation and the meaning of place.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

I run a historic preservation program at UMass Amherst and write about the history and theory of historic preservation.  Rome is the ultimate laboratory to think about what we preserve and how we do it.

I had also heard from previous fellows about the glorious experience of living in the community of the Academy, and how rich is the privilege of sharing ideas with artists, writers, architects, classicists, and students of religion and art history.  They were not mistaken.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

This is an impossible question as my first two months here have been a series of inspiring moments and mind-altering experiences.

Here are just a very few:

Reaching the sound of rushing water in the Church of San Clemente. Walking along the Via Appia Antica with another preservation fellow, Tom Mayes, on a late afternoon just as spring was taking hold.  Seeing Giacometti sculptures in dialogue with the masterworks of the Borghese Gallery.  Finding the remaining visible section of the Acqua Vergine, pictured in a Piranesi image I grew up with (and still have), guided there by former fellow John Pinto.  Exploring the new art work installed in the oldest synagogue outside of Israel, at Ostia Antica, with Esther Schor (visiting scholar) and Tom Leslie (another preservation fellow).

I could, without working very hard, write examples for pages and pages.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

I committed myself to following the trail of how the era of Mussolini is remembered in the physical places of the city wherever it would lead me, as part of a larger book on the future of historic preservation.  And I have done that, visiting the key sites and meeting with a number of scholars and practitioners – including impressive people such as Adachiara Zevi and Alessandro Portelli -- who are engaged with remembering that era in the face of a society that generally has little interest in thinking about the difficult implications of the rise of Mussolini.  

    

I have just returned from a trip to Venice and Verona, where I looked into the works of Carlo Scarpa, which was another part of my original proposal.  But the heart of my work has focused on the memory of places related to Mussolini and fascism.

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?

I have had numerous moments of gasping at a beautiful work of art or architecture, or finding myself stunned at a particular historic site.  But I would not say any individual moment has changed my work. Rather, with each visit, and with each reflection, I have found myself challenging many of the ideas – mine and others – that anchor historic preservation policy and practice.  So, no visitations from an angel (for a nice Jewish boy like myself, I have seen my share of Annunciations in museums across this city and country!).  But, instead, slowly revealing truths born of long walks and visits to historic sites.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

I have been enjoying the dialogue between ideas I have had and have wanted to write about, and the city I am learning about (often with the help of the Academy fellows, many of whom are themselves experts or novices with acute powers of observation).  Although my time at the Academy is nearly half over, I am looking forward to the final months of deepening my reflections and explorations, returning to people and places I have met and seen.   My goal has been to write compelling observations about how we individually wrestle with the past, while also laying out a pathway for new policies in preservation.  Rome and the Academy clearly inspire lofty (unattainable?) goals.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?

I think the most difficult challenge will be going from the specific case of how Rome and Italy are preserving and interpreting sites related to the era of fascism and Mussolini, to integrating that story into the very different experience in other cities I have explored and written about – Berlin, Buenos Aires, and New York.  I want to make an argument not just about how different countries and cultures wrestle with their painful pasts, but how historic preservation can promote productive confrontations with a community’s history, the easy and the difficult.  Each country has a unique, multi-layered relationship to its own past.  Making generalizations that can be useful for policymakers and practitioners is a big challenge.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

That it is a real city.  I visited once before and the city appeared as a mythological city of the past.  I rushed to the Forum with my Blue Guide in hand and experienced the city as a series of epic historic sites.  But now, living in the city for a few months, I have gained at least an inkling of the rhythms of the city, from how bus schedules are meaningless, to how confidence in walking into traffic is a recipe for survival, to the wonderful food specialties I didn’t know about – puntarelle, carciofo romano, baccala, to name a few.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?

Some of us call this dilemma a “first-world problem”:  Do I study in a glorious wood-paneled library or do I continue my pursuit of seeing all Caravaggios in the city?  Do I explore new ways of writing, and without a deadline, or do I walk for hours, discovering new corners of the city, and odd juxtapositions of past and present?

I have been largely without my family (my wife Eve Weinbaum, and children Jonah, Aviva, and Ruthie, who all visited in February and who I will see again at the end of April), so I have had few obligations, but also felt a greater pressure to use the time here fully.

There is no perfect recipe, but I feel good about the daily balance between writing and reading and having meetings and then exploring some aspect of the city.  The outstanding weekly tours led by Kim Bowes and others brought me to places I might have never have seen and are a constant reminder to not let the balance tip too much in favor of working in the studio or library (as beautiful and satisfying as that may be!).

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

I can’t imagine any aspect of my work – as a teacher and scholar of cities and historic preservation – that will not be influenced by the experience of exploring Rome in some depth, in dialogue with many creative individuals.  But I honestly don’t know the ways  -- beyond how my current book project – that Rome will influence my work.  I expect Rome and the experiences I have had here (and will have – I still have three months!) will be a well that I continually draw from, for my classes and writing.  I fully expect that when trying to write on some aspect of cities or historic preservation, for someone as-yet-unknown article or book, a scene from Rome, or a work of art I saw here, will suddenly come into my head.

I understand why Freud was so in love with Rome – it seeps into your brain and soul in a way few places can.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?

One of the large wood desks in the library.

And a bench under a tree in the garden.

And my drafting table, right above the front entrance, looking through the trees toward the Borghese Gardens.  (I requested a studio with a view because I said, truthfully, that it helped me to write better – and Pina Pasquantonio happily offered me this studio.  I will let others tell me if the views helped!)

And the view from the Piazza Garibaldi on top of the Gianicolo, which was once a series of largely anonymous, if beautiful, buildings and which I can now explain to visitors with some level of specificity.

And San Luigi dei Francesi, where you can “pop in” and look at three of the greatest paintings by one of the greatest painters – Caravaggio – in the Cantarelli chapel.

And the long ridge in the Doria Pamphilj park, underneath towering umbrella pines.

And the Pantheon, which I visited on the first day, and have visited a dozen times since – a great gorilla of a building that inside contains this ever-uplifting opening, the oculus, which somehow captures all that is Rome.

Read Max Page’s blog from Rome at viewsfromrome.blogspot.com