Ruth Noyes Thrives on the Hunt for Printed Images in Rome

November 22, 2013
Ruth Noyes in her study
Myth of Cadmus and the Dragon, engraving by Hendrick Goltzius, 1588
Creation of the world by Hendrick Goltzius
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Ruth Noyes is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Post-Doctoral Rome Prize winner in Renaissance and Early Modern Studies and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Art History Program at 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 grew up in the town of Newbury, Massachusetts, on the coast of the Atlantic about an hour north of Boston. I’ve spent significant time living in Cambridge Mass., Baltimore, Maryland, and Richmond, Virginia. Rome is of course in many ways vastly different from all these places, but I think what they have in common is a sense of history.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

My current project, a new book about artist-engravers who came to Rome circa 1600 as Catholic converts from northern Europe, grew out of dissertation research I completed in Rome in 2007 and 2008, so I knew that being in Rome would be vital to my work. Actually, what first brought me to Rome in 2007 was a conference at the American Academy where I was fortunate to present a paper. Though I was only at the Academy for a few short days, I was struck by the community’s collaborative spirit, and how delicious the food was! Both are still the case.

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

Though this might sound a bit corny, my studio-office in the Academy’s McKim, Mead & White building has proven itself an unexpectedly inspiring location. For a junior scholar unaccustomed to having so much creative space all to myself and my work it’s a luxury. My research brings me down the hill from the Academy and into the center of Rome, where I hunt for and document archival sources and printed works of art on paper – a process that is equally thrilling and exhausting. Having my own space where I can process and ponder my findings in the city has driven my project in unanticipated and delightful ways.

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

I first conceived of my project as a series of case studies on three northern European-born artists trained in copper engraving: French Philippe Thomassin, German Mattheus Greuter, and Belgian Valerian Regnard. All created printed images around 1600 in a trademark northern style prized by Italians, and all came to Rome as Catholic converts from Protestantism, and as refugees of the Protestant-Catholic conflicts in their Northern homelands. While this structure hasn’t altered, the biggest and exciting change to my project is my decision – since my arrival here (see below) -- to add a fourth Dutch artist, Hendrick Goltzius, to this group. Adding Goltzius is stimulating for a few reasons: his biography is especially compelling, as his hands were horribly burned and disfigured as a child, but he trained himself to adapt to holding the burin, the tool the engraver used to incise lines on the copper printing plate. Goltzius produced some of the most magisterial engravings of the period. His reasons for coming to – and then leaving – Rome, as well as his personal religious beliefs, are less clear-cut than the other three convert refugee artists I am researching, and this only makes Goltzius a more intriguing individual. His works of art take up the theme of connections between printing and religious conversion at the core of my book in especially subtle and problematic ways.

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

I have been fortunate to experience in my first few months here a kind of breakthrough moment at the Casanatense Library, located near the Pantheon in the heart of Rome. There, I have been pouring over albums of printed engravings, assembled as very early “scrapbooks”, which contain many works of art by the artists featured in my project, two of which I share with you here. It was there that I saw up close for the first time Goltzius’s striking engraving of the Dragon (technically a serpent) devouring the followers of Cadmus, a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I couldn’t shake it from my mind. I felt that it was not only awe-ful, but somehow important to my research in a way I couldn’t initially understand. This fellowship has afforded me the time to return to these images in the library for repeated, close viewing, and then revisit them in photographs and my imagination in my Academy studio. This process of visual recombination allowed me to rethink the scene of Cadmus as the artist’s imagining of the violent side of conversion process: the destruction of one’s old self in order to produce a new creation. This, in turn, helped me reevaluate the place of Goltzius in my research, and the possibility that pictures that may not openly represent religious conversion could still thematize the idea of transforming oneself.

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

I thrive on the thrill of the hunt for archival sources and beautiful images – and the libraries of Rome are excellent hunting grounds. For example, I’ve identified a rare printed book (ca. 1610) on astronomy by the Belgian engraver Valerian Regnard. A copy I found in Rome still contains special pages to be cut out and fashioned into an inexpensive do-it-yourself paper version of the astrolabe, an early scientific instrument previously available only in more expensive metal versions before the age of printing. The copy of Regnard’s book with the “astrolabe kit” in the Angelica Library, near Piazza Navona, is the only surviving example I know of which preserves this important evidence of how early printed materials were both used by and marketed to a growing consumer public.

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

I think the physical and logistical realities of navigating the multiple libraries and archives in the center of the city where I carry out my research is most challenging. That’s why having a personal space and communal place where I can retreat at the Academy has proved invaluable; here I can rest, recharge, and review the wealth of material I gather down in the heart of Rome.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

More than once I’ve lived in Rome for a couple of months at a time, and loved the city, but the shorter stays were devoted to research, and I tended to run myself ragged going from library to library, and archive to archive in the brief time I had. So I think I missed truly living in Rome. I think what surprised me the most is this fact in of itself: I’ve lived here off and on over the past years, without really living. The extended time afforded me by this fellowship has allowed me to slow down a bit and enjoy daily life, exploring the center of the city, and getting to know the other members of the Academy community.

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

From what I’ve gathered of my experience so far, the fellowship will enable me to balance time in the archive with time with my thoughts, as well as time spent with my own research with that spent sharing it and benefiting from the experience and expertise of experts and practitioners in other fields.

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

In Rome, I have to say my favorite spot is actually a constellation of sites that orbit the Pantheon: the Angelica and Casanatense libraries, both beautiful historic buildings with breathtaking interiors (and are open to the public), and the Caffè Sant’Eustachio, where I like to break from work in the libraries with my favorite cappuccino. Together with the Pantheon, these three spots are also excellent for people-watching and celebrity-spotting – I’ve already twice crossed paths with a certain renowned British actor, and come face-to-face with the canine lead of the popular Italian television series “Inspector Rex”!