A December 2011 Conference on Roman Architecture in Memory of William L. MacDonald, FAAR'56 (1921-2010)

A December 2011 Conference on Roman Architecture in Memory of William L. MacDonald, FAAR'56 (1921-2010)
Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli. Credit: Gjon Mili (LIFE/Google)

It was on 12 July 1921—precisely 90 years ago today—that noted architectural historian William L. MacDonald, FAAR’56 was born in Putnam, Connecticut. His death on 6 March 2010 deeply touched his numerous friends, colleagues, and former students, many of them linked by their connections with the American Academy in Rome.

Three distinguished scholars from this group—Diane Favro (California, Los Angeles), Fikret Yegül RAAR’98 (California, Santa Barbara), and Trustee John Pinto FAAR’75, RAAR’06 (Princeton)—have aimed to celebrate his achievements by organizing an international conference on Roman architecture.

The American Academy in Rome will host the conference on 6-7 December 2011 in its Villa Aurelia. Entitled Roman Imperial Architecture: Design, Meaning and Progeny, scheduled presenters include Corey Brennan (FAAR’88), Diane Favro, Elizabeth Fentress, Sandra Gatti, Pierre Gros, Lothar Haselberger, Tom Howe, Guy Metraux, Eugenio La Rocca, Tom Morton, Luisa Musso, James Packer (FAAR’64), John Pinto, Gianni Ponti, Marcello Spanù, Mark Wilson-Jones, and Fikret Yegül. Panels are projected on “Rome Builds: Construction and Design”, “Urban Armatures: The City Shaped”, “Hadrian, the Empire, and Beyond”, “The Nature and Legacy of Classicism”, and more. Further details to follow in the months to come.

At St. Peter's, William L. MacDonald (1951). Photo: Alice Sedgewick

What follows below is an appreciation of the relationship of William L. MacDonald (1921-2010) to the American Academy in Rome, by John Pinto and AAR Trustee Emeritus Henry A. Millon (FAAR’60, RAAR’65), with the first part composed jointly, then with individual remembrances.

“Through his inspired teaching and award-winning publications, Professor William L. MacDonald (FAAR’56) exerted a powerful influence on the field of Roman imperial architecture, injecting vitality and shifting its study in significant new directions. As an architectural historian, MacDonald extended his interest to the nature and legacy of classicism, ranging from Late Antiquity through the present. “

“Bill’s enduring legacy is the series of seminal books he published over the arc of three decades. The first of these, a slim volume on Early Christian and Byzantine architecture published in 1962, reveals his sensitivity to the molding of space and effects of light that would emerge powerfully in his later work. In the first volume of his Architecture of the Roman Empire (ARE I), which appeared three years later, Bill examined the revolutionary role played by materials and structures in shaping monumental design.”

“One of the key monuments examined in ARE I was the Pantheon, on which Bill wrote a general book (1976), which still provides the single best introduction to the design, meaning, and progeny of this architectural icon. Ten years later ARE II appeared, in which Bill explored the shaping of public space through the fashioning of urban armatures in cities throughout the Empire. All of Bill’s books spoke not only to specialists, but also to a wider audience that, significantly, included architects. This was particularly true of ARE II, which drew on contemporary theories of urban design and employed illustrations and analysis that elucidated design principles, as well as interpreting archaeological evidence. The theme of the legacy of the classical world, specifically the reception of ancient monuments by the architects of the Renaissance and later periods, was evident in The Pantheon; it was taken up again in his final book, Hadrian’s Villa and its Legacy (1995, written with John Pinto), in which the rich and complex site near Tivoli emerges as a paradigm of classicism’s role in Western art.”

“Our purpose in what follows is not to provide a detailed assessment of Bill’s scholarship and academic career, but to explore in a more personal way Bill’s long association with the Academy and with Rome. We each knew Bill at different times and in different ways, and it is our hope that by joining forces we may better capture his unique qualities as a friend, colleague, and mentor.”

“When Bill and wife Dale MacDonald arrived at the American Academy in Rome in the fall of 1954, they were fortunate to encounter two seasoned second-year fellows in the School of Fine Arts who knew the Academy, its staff, Monteverde Nuovo, and Rome.  The painter James Hoffman [FAAR’56] and composer Yehudi Wyner [FAAR’56] had traveled in various parts of Italy and were eager to pass on useful knowledge. Arriving with the MacDonalds were new fellows with a spread of generations—architects Warren Peterson [FAAR’55], James Gresham [FAAR’56] and Robert Venturi [FAAR’56];  painters Alfred Blaustein [FAAR’57], Alan Gussow [FAAR’55, RAAR’87] and Walter Hood [FAAR’55]; sculptors Robert White [FAAR’55, RAAR’69] and Ira Matteson [FAAR’55]; composers Billy Layton [FAAR’57] and Robert Moevs [FAAR’55, RAAR’61]; writer Richard Wilbur [FAAR’55]; and four additional members of the School of Classical Studies: William Anderson [FAAR’55], John Hanson [FAAR’55, RAAR’71], Martha Leeb Hadzi [FAAR’55], and Kathy Geffcken [FAAR’55].”

“In addition to the members of this distinguished group, Bill also enjoyed the companionship of two Fellows who arrived during his second year: the writer Ralph Ellison [FAAR’57] and the archaeologist and architect Norman Neuerburg [FAAR’57]. The poet Anthony Hecht [FAAR’52, RAAR’69] became another friend, whom Bill visited on Ischia during the summer of 1955 and with whom he maintained a lively correspondence.

“Director Laurance Roberts and his wife Isabel, opened the year in October leading a tour of Umbria and Tuscany for fellows in the School of Fine Arts.  Lily Ross Taylor [FAAR’20] (Bryn Mawr), serving her second term as Professor in Charge of the School of Classical Studies, led her fellows to a number of sites in and around Rome.  Bill’s second year, the Residents included Mason Hammond [RAAR’52], William Thon [FAAR’48, RAAR’56, ‘65], Edmund T. Silk [FAAR’31, RAAR’56], William B. Dinsmoor, Richard Krautheimer [RAAR’56, ‘68], Goffredo Petrassi [RAAR’56] and Van Wyck Brooks [RAAR’56], who all contributed to the community. Professor Paul McKendrick [FAAR’50, RAAR’58] directed the Summer Session, assisted by Bill. By all reports the fellows, residents and guests were a convivial group. In the diary Bill and his wife Dale kept in Rome, almost every entry mentions encounters with friends, other Fellows and visitors, often over drinks before or after dinner or both. (We thank their sons Nick and Noel for giving us access to Bill’s unpublished journals.)”

“Judging from the entries in MacDonald’s journals, it was colleagues who arrived with him, Residents and guests of the Academy, and—with them—visits to sites that garnered most of his attention and time. And it was during the first of his two years that he and Dale made a lengthy, March to May, spring trek by automobile to Syria and back, passing through Greece and Turkey, then returning from Syria overland through the former Yugoslavia. In two months they covered over 7,600 miles. Prior to their departure, the Academy Director, Laurance Roberts, remarked that he was confident they would run out of money while on the road and that when that happened they should wire him and he would take care of them. Bill was quite proud of the fact that they managed their limited funds well and thus did not have to call on Roberts’ generosity. The journal he kept with Dale records the total spent while traveling: $881.39, an average of $6.60 a day per person.”

“Bill referred to this as ‘the trip of a lifetime,’ and the journal entries bear him out. Many of the most lively and personal entries were written by Dale MacDonald; Bill’s were more concerned with bricks and mortar, illustrated by sketch plans and details drawn on site. Nonetheless, his entries convey the immediacy of the experience.  He notes that at Mistra they visited the convent of the Pantanassa: ‘Dale picked flowers for the pleasant and hospitable nuns. Lizards scattered as we walked, stopping now and then in the cool shade. Byzance at last!’ After having been admitted to the nunnery by one of eight sisters they were, as Dale described, ushered into a pleasant parlor overlooking the valley and Sparta, fed mastica—Abesse a very domestic, candid sweet lady who wanted to know about dacron…Again on the mountain, the carpet of daisies (red, yellow and white), snowdrops, lavender flowers—cool almost liquid shade.”

“In Istanbul, where they met up with Robert Venturi, they ascended to the dome of the Hagia Sophia.  Dale tells the story: ’Climbed on hands and knees in a circular staircase…by flashlight, crawling at the turns with our fingers gripping inches deep in pigeon droppings; climbed up and down on the exterior of domes, under buttresses—a forest of large and various mounds—from a ledge on a sheer drop I backed out on a more protected lead roofing….’”

“In Istanbul they were joined by John B. Ward-Perkins, Director of the British School at Rome and an authority on Roman architecture, who traveled with them as far as Baalbek. The professional respect they shared in later years, as the two men rewrote the history of Roman architecture, was no doubt forged by their experiences while travelling together. On a visit to the hilltop site of ancient Termessos they were accompanied by two soldiers (one fully armed), a young Turkish student and an older mountaineer. Camels had to be pushed off the narrow track going and coming. In the journal Bill records, ‘one of our splendid lunches of cucumber sandwiches, but this time in a mixture of light rain and hail. The boys built a fire for us.’ On the way down, Ward-Perkins became separated from the others. ‘Mustafa took the soldier’s rifle and went back after him. We expected JWP to return riding limp across tough Mustafa’s shoulders.’ Professor Ward-Perkins was eventually found and returned to the group, ‘fuming at being thus rounded up and at his herders’ familiarity.’”

“And Palmyra, first seen from the height of the entrance pass, was set, as Dale wrote, ‘in pale rose and purple sunset on acres of warm yellow columns (and carving on fallen capitals and entablatures)—silence and desert enclosing all. Then full moonlight!’ The images and memories of this trip stayed with Bill for his whole life and inspired his writing and teaching at every stage of his career.”

“Bill spent his teaching career primarily at Yale and Smith. He retired early from Smith, in 1980, but stayed on in Northampton for several years, after which he moved to Washington DC, to an apartment in McLean Gardens.  He was pleased to accept teaching invitations both before and after his move. From DC he lectured at Georgetown, Catholic and George Mason universities. In Washington and beyond, he could often be found at promising symposia, colloquia and lectures, pursuing old and new fields of interest.  He frequently participated in colloquia at the National Gallery’s Center for Advanced Study (where he chaired a colloquium), in addition to lectures and discussions at the Smithsonian, where he had lectured. “

“The move to McLean Gardens led to an initial dispersal of objects, prints, drawings, books and furniture to family and friends. His large slide collection went to Princeton. In spite of the downsizing, the apartment was replete with objects, works of art and other memorabilia-—including an Egyptian basalt head; a bronze trumpeting elephant by Tex Schiwetz (a guest at the academy in Bill’s years); a drawing of Pamplona by Kenneth Conant; photographs of Thomas Whittemore and Ataturk, Bill with a Patriarch, and Byzantine monks in a refectory; several Russian Byzantine icons with elaborate frames; Gaspare Fossati’s Interior of Hagia Sofia, an axonometric drawing of Trajan’s Market by Michael Boyle; several prints by sculptor Dimitri Hadzi [RAAR’74] (a friend from Academy days); a number of prints by Piranesi; Bill’s AAR Fellowship Certificate; Hitchcock Awards for both The Architecture of the Roman Empire II: An Urban Appraisal and Hadrian’s Villa and Its Legacy were among the collection.”

“The following memories of Bill give, we hope, a sense of the man as we knew him.”

Hank Millon Remembers

“Bill MacDonald first drew my attention in an encounter that is likely to have been similar for its striking effect on many of his students at Yale and Smith College. Our meeting took place in the spring of 1954, while Bill was a TA at Harvard for Kenneth Conant in a course on medieval architecture. A friend and classmate, Carl Weinhardt, and I chose as our term project to build a model (always required), and write a paper, about the medieval church built inside the ruins of the great Temple at Baalbek. MacDonald never passed up an opportunity to point out error and foolishness, but he was kind to us, his comments rewarding and instructive way beyond expectations. His interest and enthusiasm for the project, our report as well as the balsa model, were more than encouraging. They stimulated further serious study of the history of architecture. At this time, Bill must have known he had been awarded a two-year fellowship in the School of Classical Studies at the American Academy in Rome, but he breathed not a word.”

“It was, I believe, the summer of 1969 that Bill, Milton Lewine (FAAR’61), sculptor Dimitri Hadzi and I went on a trip to visit both the ancient remains between Rome and Naples (among others, the Temple of Jupiter Anxur, the Grotto of Tiberius at Sperlonga, Minturnae, and Baia) and the battle sites of WWII between Anzio and Rome in the Pontine area. We visited the military cemeteries at Pontinia (German), Lavinio (British), and Anzio/Nettuno (US). Bill and Dimitri had read a great deal about the battles, the burning of the ancient ships in the Lago di Nemi, the famous Fly Over that figured in the battle near Aprilia, as well as the location of the military cemeteries of Germany, Britain, and the US, and they were well prepared to give a fascinating survey of these already historic sites. Dimitri’s and Bill’s time in the Air Force during WWII likely developed their interest in military history. They both read constantly about battles—ancient, medieval, modern—the Revolutionary and Civil Wars in the US, as well as World Wars I and II. In later years, Bill often spoke of interesting programs seen on the Military History Channel.”

“In 1959, and again in July 1969, Bill arranged visits to the top of the Pantheon. On 30 June 2008, he sent a xeroxed photo along with one of his always amusing post cards stating that he had ‘no memory at all of this railing rising toward the oculus,’ inquiring whether it might have been put in before July 1969 when we were up there together?  Or later? The embarrassed student, I could not recall the railing nor when it may have been installed. Questions, comments (often about the Pantheon), observations, useful tidbits, and humorous quotes, usually on cards, often stimulated shared thought and laughter.”

“Bill’s apartment in Washington was not far from The Two Amy’s Restaurant.  According to Washington sages, Two Amy’s prepared legendary Neapolitan pizzas.  Once a week or so in the academic year Bill, Chuck Brickbauer (FAAR’57), a colleague from their fellowship days, and I, or another who might know the Academy, would gather there for lunch.  The exalted reputation of the Two Amy’s notwithstanding, Bill always ordered Escarole Salad with a hard-boiled egg and a bottle of Peroni beer. Chuck, almost invariably, ordered the Two Amy’s pizza.”

“At this time Chuck had been asked to prepare plans for the conversion of a garage at Harvard’s Villa I Tatti to scholars’ studies. Permits for conversion and construction were less than rapid and we often engaged in anecdotal banter about Italian bureaucracy, as well as about the proposed architectural transformations. Conversation then often shifted to people and life at the Academy. Bill’s memory included a lengthy list of Fellows, guests, and staff from those rich years at the Academy, some deeply appreciated, others anecdotally rich in memories. Maria, Bianca, Margherita Rospigliosi, Antimo, Pietro, Alfredo D’Ettore, Nina Longobardi, and Nicola were often cited.”

“Many former students and admirers kept in touch with Bill and some would detour from commitments or professional meetings for coffee or a meal. Fikret Yegul, Diane Favro, John Pinto and Meg, were among his frequent visitors.”

“Bill’s doctor advised he relinquish the daily three-story climb to his apartment and so Bill moved again.  He chose the Chevy Chase House, he said, because of the existing bookcases adjacent to a well-lighted study, and the ability to retain his telephone number. The smaller quarters meant yet another dispersal of objects, prints, etc. of all sorts, including, for example, three chairs Bill had rescued forty years earlier from the renovation of the interior of H. H. Richardson’s Sever Hall at Harvard.”

“The Two Amy’s was replaced by meals at Ruccola, within two blocks of his new quarters. Conversations now had moved to reminiscences about Italy, Rome, the Academy, Middle East, North Africa, trips, and the more frequent visits from his sons. Always engaging was his conversation about work underway on two publications. One concerned the recent construction of sizeable columns in the US, usually historiated; their dimensions, materials, commemorations, dedications and ancient sources mined were artfully entwined in the MacDonald manner. Another project was ‘Climbing Famous Buildings: Inside and Out’ intended to include towers and spires, but also domes such as the Pantheon, St. Paul’s, London, and the National Capitol.”

John Pinto Remembers

“My relationship with Bill went through several stages from that of student at Harvard, where he was a Visiting Professor in 1968, to friend and colleague at Smith College in the late 1970s, and eventually to collaborator on the Hadrian’s Villa book. The research and writing of the book consumed the decade between 1985 and 1995, and the time spent together—on site and on numerous visits to the McLean Gardens apartment—understandably brought us closer together.”

“In the summer of 1987, with support from the Getty Foundation, we carried out a comprehensive photography campaign at the Villa. Based at the Academy, we left for Tivoli early each morning in a car driven by Nicola di Petto, whom we both recalled—and respected—from our days as Fellows. The drive out allowed us to plan the day, and the return trip provided valuable time to reflect on what we had learned while it was still fresh. The hours spent together on the site, broken by a simple picnic lunch in the shade of an olive tree, were intense. Bill memorably observed (in ARE I) that for architectural historians ‘there can be no substitute for leaning against one’s buildings,’ and lean we did, in search of new insights, but occasionally, towards the end of a long day, seeking support as well.”

“As our manuscript gradually took shape, we would meet to edit the latest drafts. Sitting across the table from one another in Bill’s study, we would take turns reading aloud, but with a twist: each read from the draft the other had written. Painful as these sessions were—Bill likened them to visiting the dentist—they ensured a consistent voice that mattered greatly to both of us. Over time, these sessions took on a ritual quality: my arrival around mid-morning, followed by discussion and reading around the table; a short break for lunch, then more work; a late afternoon walk down Wisconsin Avenue to observe the glacial progress of work on the National Cathedral (would they finish before we did?), followed by a final session on the manuscript. In the evening we would adjourn to the mezzanine, where, stimulated by a glass of wine and surrounded by evocative images of Rome and the Mediterranean world, our conversation would turn to family and mutual friends, literature, our love for Italy, and inevitably, the Academy.”

“And a final note from Bill himself, who, on the morning of his departure from Rome and the Academy in 1956, wrote: ‘Rome touched with a wash of orange: horizon seen through the domes of churches and their lanterns, from the Garibaldi terrace; night’s dusty dusk still settled well down between the domes, as yet unaroused by dawn.’”

Press inquiries

Andrew Mitchell

Director of Communications

212-751-7200, ext. 342

a.mitchell [at] aarome.org (a[dot]mitchell[at]aarome[dot]org)

Maddalena Bonicelli

Rome Press Officer

+39 335 6857707

m.bonicelli.ext [at] aarome.org (m[dot]bonicelli[dot]ext[at]aarome[dot]org)