Despite the fact that it largely came into place more than a century ago, it has to rank as one of the least-known small museums in Rome. But now thanks to the digital age, the antiquities collection of the American Academy in Rome is finally coming into its own.
The antiquities collection comprises more than five thousand artifacts in all, many now viewable on the website nvb.aarome.org. For pottery, there is everything from Greek geometric vases of the eighth century BCE to late Roman ware. And that’s just a start. Cinerary urns, jewellery, coins, oil lamps, all sorts of sculpture, Etruscan mirrors, even bits of timber from Caligula’s now-lost ships from Nemi all find a place. Then there are the Roman inscriptions. There are almost two hundred of them, most embedded in the walls of the Academy’s courtyard. Together they offer so much information about ancient social relations that a recent BBC2 documentary series on everyday life in imperial Rome (Meet the Romans with Mary Beard) focused on them in the show’s opening episode (17 April 2012).
On the 9th and 10th of May 2012 the American Academy put a selection of these treasures on open display, apparently for the first time since February 1995. The venue? There were three in all: the Reading Room of the Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library, the new Norton-Van Buren Seminar Room, and (exclusively for the opening on Wednesday 9 May) the Cryptoporticus of the Academy’s McKim Mead & White Building. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this mini-mostra was that a team of undergraduate students from the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies (ICCS) and IES Rome study abroad programs served as the curators.
The purpose of the exhibition was especially to raise awareness of the advances that have been made over the past two years (and most visibly in the last three months) in the public database nvb.aarome.org that highlights the Academy's Archaeological Study Collection.
This website has moved forward thanks to efforts of students from the Accademia di Belle Arti Frosinone (under the direction of Advisor of the AAR Luciana Festa); IES Rome (under the direction of AAAR Gianni Ponti); and the ICCS, and the Rome Center, Loyola University, Chicago (each under the direction of AAR Mellon Professor Corey Brennan, assisted by Malissa Arras).
For this occasion the focus was on the work of students from IES Rome and the ICCS. Students who worked with the collection in spring 2012 each selected several objects of unusual interest for display; these ranged from stunning samples of important Roman marble types to small antiquities from the first strata of the Academy's collection (assembled 1895–1913).
The collection came together through purchases and donations prior to WWII and the international antiquities laws enforced today. The true founder was archaeologist and connoisseur Richard Norton, director of the old American School of Classical Studies in Rome, a predecessor to today’s AAR. He was born in 1872 as the youngest child of Charles Eliot Norton—social critic, public intellectual, Harvard art historian, and first president of the Archaeological Institute of America.
Born into immense privilege, the younger Norton led a life that was robust even by the standards of Teddy Roosevelt’s era. In the space of two decades he survived art world intrigue, marital scandal, bitter archaeological rivalries, widely-publicized political missteps, and a 1911 assassination attempt in Libya, finally to earn top French and British war honors for his work in launching (with the help of Edith Wharton and Henry James) and directing the American Ambulance Corps. Sadly, he had no time to relish his hero status; Norton was felled by meningitis in Paris in August 1918.
In his lifetime, Norton found himself locked in a fierce rivalry with the famed connoisseur Bernard Berenson; they fought as competing art agents to Isabella Stewart Gardner for the new Boston museum she created in 1903. Evidently the antiquities that Norton did not send to Boston went to the American School in Rome. His sheer scale of high-quality purchases then served as a magnet for other contemporary donors to fill out that collection.
The Academy’s inscriptions and larger marble pieces have been continuously visible, if not always noticed, in the public spaces of its Gianicolo quarters (established 1914) for most of the past century. However, the many smaller artifacts of the museum collection ended up spending a good fifty years in the dark. The outbreak of WWII forced the closure of the AAR museum and the transfer of its contents to storage. There the objects remained until the late 1980s, when a group of energetic and learned Academy veterans under the direction especially of current Trustee Helen (Ili) Nagy (1986 Fellow, 2009 Resident) and Larissa Bonfante resolved to make these evocative examples of ancient material culture once again available to AAR scholars and artists.
Following two decades of effort, the work is nearing completion. The collection has found a new, stylish space in the Academy compound known as the Norton-Van Buren Seminar Room—dedicated to the memories of Richard Norton and the classicist Albert William Van Buren (FASCR’06), who studied and cared for the collection in its first incarnation.
The online database features detailed work by Academy scholars on several thousand individual items, with a round of updates newly completed in spring 2012. A conservation program is in full swing, in collaboration with the Accademia Belle Arti di Frosinone, and a new print publication on the collection’s highlights (edited by Nagy and Bonfante) and a separate volume on the inscriptions, edited by Charles Babcock (1955 Fellow), are slated to appear soon.
For now, scholars outside the AAR can only access the museum collection online at nvb.aarome.org. But still there are hundreds of permanently displayed objects to discover while attending one of the many open events that the Academy offers. It’s amazing that they’ve been there all along.
—T. Corey Brennan, FAAR’88
Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge, American Academy in Rome
Adapted from his article in Wanted in Rome, 2 January 2012
US Undergraduate Institution Rome Program
Gabriella Ansah, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (ICCS)
Melissa Arliss, Bowdoin College (ICCS)
Ranjani Atur, Georgetown University (ICCS)
Anastasia Rose Baran, Georgetown University (ICCS)
Haley E. Bertram, Wellesley College (ICCS)
Michele Carlucci, New York University (ICCS)
Jonna H. Cottrell, Brandeis University (IES Rome)
Jesse Dubois, University of Pennsylvania (ICCS)
Katherine Fox, Vanderbilt University (ICCS)
Adeline Harrington, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (ICCS)
Jessica Jordan, Wesleyan University (ICCS)
Mariah Lapiroff, Whitman College (ICCS)
Margaret A. Larkin, Georgetown University (ICCS)
Jeremy Scott Lilly, Columbia University (ICCS)
Paola A. Micheli, Occidental College (IES Rome)
Theodore Ovrom, Reed College (ICCS)
Katie Anna Oyama, Grand Valley State University (ICCS)
Sylvia Peterson, Mount Holyoke College (ICCS)
Joseph A Predebon, Virginia Military Institute (IES Rome)
Julianne Ragland, Macalester College (IES Rome)
Janelle Sadarananda, University of Richmond (ICCS)
Mahmoud Samori, Columbia University (ICCS)
Inbar Scharf, Denison University (ICCS)
Karilyn Goden, Sheldon University of New Hampshire (ICCS)
John Streiff, Wabash College (ICCS)
Kayla B. Surrey, George Washington University (IES Rome)
Megan Wilson, Wellesley College (ICCS)