Corey Brennan Reflects on Three Years as Mellon Professor (and Offers his “Rome Top Ten” List)

Corey Brennan Reflects on Three Years as Mellon Professor (and Offers his 'Rome Top Ten' List)
Corey Brennan performs at Rome's Felt Club with Superfetazione, a group he founded in 1988 as an AAR Fellow. (Photo: Damiano Spinelli)
Corey Brennan Reflects on Three Years as Mellon Professor (and Offers his 'Rome Top Ten' List)
In Foro Italico, Brennan explains the 1937 mosaic map that shows architect Luigi Moretti's plans for the complex. (Photo: Michael Waters, FAAR'11)
Corey Brennan Reflects on Three Years as Mellon Professor (and Offers his 'Rome Top Ten' List)
Corey Brennan on the roof terrace of FAO headquarters, overlooking the Circus Maximus. (Photo: Jana Dambrogio, FAAR'08)
Corey Brennan Reflects on Three Years as Mellon Professor (and Offers his 'Rome Top Ten' List)
Brennan reacts to his giant portrait by architect Barry Svigals, a 2009/10 AAR Visiting Artist. (Photo: Barry Svigals)
Corey Brennan Reflects on Three Years as Mellon Professor (and Offers his 'Rome Top Ten' List)
Brennan in the AAR's Norton-Van Buren Seminar Room, examining jewelry from the Academy's collection of antiquities, with children (from left) Allegra, Samuel and Nicholas, and wife Dr. Antonia Fried. (Photo: Matthew Monteith, FAAR'09)

Corey Brennan (1988 Fellow) completes his term as Mellon Professor in Charge of the Humanities this month and has been an unflagging source of erudition, energy, and enthusiasm over the past three years. He has made an outsized contribution to Academy life—from coordinating ground-breaking public events, securing countless permessi, and leading walking tours of historic sites, to moonlighting behind the mixing board as DJ KORENELIUS, and riffing on table tops as lead guitarist for the Rome-based rock band Superfetazione.

Grazie infinite ed auguri Corey!

What have been some of your most memorable experiences over the past three years?

I’m hard pressed to answer what were the most memorable experiences of the last three days … but the whole period from May through July 2010 really stands out. Over the course of twelve weeks AAR staged this blinding series of events: three concerts by the Scharoun Ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic; the notorious “Hungry for Death” exhibition with Destroy All Monsters and Depart; an Alec Soth show with Gagosian Gallery; a major Philip Guston conference and exhibition; the Fellows’ Open Studios, Reading, and Concert with Miuccia Prada honored at the Gala; the “Chance Encounter on the Tiber” megaevent with our 2010 Fellows Robert Hammond and Lisa Bielawa; this completely wild “Freud’s Rome” conference with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science that leveraged some of the most inspirational venues in Rome, including a lock-out with the “Moses” at S. Pietro in Vincoli: a Jamaica Kincaid reading followed by a Flavio Favelli open studio—he was then an Italian Affiliated Fellow in the Arts—that brought hundreds up our hill; all finishing with the inaugural Conversation That Matters with Vivian Schiller and Sylvia Poggioli from NPR. About a day after the end of all this, someone at a dinner party was chewing off my ear about how AAR was “moribund.” Since I eventually fell asleep on my plate, the comments actually didn’t bother me all that much.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishments/contributions as Mellon Professor-in-Charge?

Most of all, helping create an atmosphere where the Fellows in both the School of Fine Arts and School of Classical Studies keep thinking of themselves as a unit. The two Heiskell Arts Directors with whom I’ve worked, Martin Brody (2002 Resident) and now Karl Kirchwey (1995 Fellow), have done an equal bit, if not more, from their direction. Other than that, building what I hope will be some lasting alliances. My closest collaboration has been with Prince Nicolò and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, who reside in the Villa Aurora on the Pincio, which was of course the young Academy’s home from 1895 to 1907. It would take about five thousand words to outline everything they have brought to me, my family, the Academy. Other partnerships range from those with the sports and cultural association Reale Circolo Canottieri Tevere Remo to what I think is the world’s greatest neighborhood association, Comitato Gianicolo. I am also very pleased with the recent progress the AAR has been able to make on digitally showcasing our stunning archaeological collection. But I still have four weeks on the job, which leaves plenty of time to mess up, so I had better stop there.

As a classicist, how has the field changed since you were a student? What do you consider to be among the most interesting trends of enquiry?

I think the field in the Anglo-American world is a lot more multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary than it was in my youth. It is now at their peril that philologists can ignore material culture, and no one can write ancient history just from literary texts. Plus, classics as a field is no longer under a compulsion to be inaccessible and dull. As an example, I thought that Mary Beard’s recent BBC2 series Meet the Romans brilliantly presented much challenging material—especially Latin inscriptions and some difficult-to-read artifacts and sites—in a really seamless and engaging way. One of the venues for the show was AAR, and I drifted in front of the cameras on two of the episodes, but when I saw how well the whole thing came together, I found myself pumping my fist at the TV screen and yelling “right on!” I am slowly convincing myself that what we call “reception studies” is a very exciting way forward. But most exciting of all for me is the comparative or synthetic work that folks are doing who have taken the trouble to learn ancient languages outside the classicists’ canon—say, Aramaic or classical Chinese.

How has the Academy changed since you were a Fellow in 1988?

It is no longer in danger of falling down—quite the opposite—and the Fellows’ families are infinitely better integrated into the fabric of community life. We are doing a lot more by way of public programming, which I think is essential for keeping the cultural prominence of the Academy high in the city of Rome and further afield. Other than that, all the great essentials are remarkably the same.

You’ve earned a reputation at AAR as a tireless docent with an encyclopedic knowledge of Roman history ranging from ancient to modern. What’s next for “the hardest working man in both show business (as a guitarist and DJ) and the classics”?

Well, maybe an encyclopedia of Roman history that features only the letters k and x! But if that’s the perception, I’m both pleased and embarrassed. When I return to my home institution, which is Rutgers-New Brunswick, I’m going to try to find just a bit more balance, which is not the first noun that comes to mind when I think of my time here at the AAR. Lots of projects to keep me busy: a book on elite women of the Roman Republic that for many years has been about 5/8 complete, editing the proceedings of the AAR Luigi Moretti workshop that I coordinated in April, numerous initiatives concerned with the mountain of new Boncompagni Ludovisi archival material that surfaced during my time in Rome. With luck, on return maybe I can get my job back as resident DJ at a hair salon on Nassau Street in Princeton.

How do you anticipate your experience over the past three years will influence your future work?

My degrees are all in the field of classics, and though I’ve published in both Greek and Roman history, I’ve always seen myself essentially as a literary prose person. Since coming to Rome in 2009 I think I’ve become a bit more of an historian, with an interest in larger questions that cut across cultures and time periods that extend beyond the Mediterranean and the fifth century AD, which is where and when I traditionally used to leave off.

What do you anticipate you’ll miss the most once you are back at Rutgers?

The ability to read something in an article about some monument in Rome—whether it be on the Aventine or down in EUR or up in Foro Italico—and within an hour to be examining the thing itself.

For those with perhaps less time to experience Rome than you have had, which places are on your "must see" list?

The best list of which I know is that which James Ackerman (Fellow in 1952, Resident in 1965, 1970, 1975, and 1980) put together when he visited the Academy in 2009. But here are the first less-traversed sites that come to mind, to which I find myself returning again and again, all within an hour’s walk from AAR, in no particular order:

1. “Roman Houses” of the Caelian Hill (a surprising little bit of Pompeian-style street life in Rome, opened in 2002)

2. Via Margutta (the story of this pedestrian street, an artists’ quarter for over five hundred years, is now stunningly illuminated in a painstaking work by Valentina Moncada)

3. Caffetteria Italia del Vittoriano (improbable views of the Forum and Colosseum from this stylish but unpretentious al fresco cafè that thankfully most folks don’t manage to find, even with a guidebook and map)

4. Museo Missionario di Propaganda Fide (an exquisite museum space on the east end of Piazza di Spagna opened just in 2010, and the essential place to meditate on Borromini vs. Bernini, plus much else)

5. Chiesa di S. Francesco a Ripa (especially the upstairs Capella di S. Francesco, where you have to ask for the “mechanismo” for the surprise of a lifetime)

6. Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen (shattered dreams of an early twentieth century world city dominated by monumental hypersexualized sculptures several times the size of the Statue of Liberty)

7. Chiesa di S Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (handsome early eighteenth century church by Ferdinando Fuga, but what’s not to be missed is the ultraghoulish crypt)

8. Statue of the so-called “Cacciatore”, in the woods just off the Via di Villa Madama (massive 1936 sculpture positioned apparently by Luigi Moretti, on axis with his landmark Casa delle Armi; overgrown and mistaken for a large tree until its public rediscovery in 2009)

9. Basilica di S Croce in Gerusalemme (more major relics per square meter that any other church of which I am aware)

10. Despar supermarket in Stazione Ostiense (stunning Fascist-era mosaics in the floor of the beverages section; however if you have to skip this for the Galleria Doria Pamphili, it’s OK)

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