ROADS TO ROME: COLLABORATIVE ARCHIVAL RESEARCH FROM AFAR
Can we research Rome and art history without setting foot in the city or touching the contents of the archive? Dr Nia Davies explores the insights and questions raised by a collaborative project to make a fine arts archive digitally accessible to the public. Unlocking the British School at Rome’s Fine Arts Archive was part of the 2021 Collaboration Labs project; Nia worked alongside two other researchers, Dr Peter Buckles and Ksenia Litvinenko, to create a window onto BSR’s Fine Arts archive (1913 - 1930) on a new site, available to explore at bsrfineartsarchive.network.
So many roads lead to Rome. Not just Rome the city, the locus in a web of ancient pathways, but also Rome the repository of imagination and thinking - maps, books, libraries, images, archives, sketches, mythologies and now the Rome of the internet, all layer over each other. With so many paths and such a palimpsest of texts and materials, might it be possible to research Rome without setting foot there? The current digital landscape and curbs on travel due to the pandemic and concerns around climate change make armchair research, or rather screen-based remote research, more accessible than ever. The challenges and limitations of online research are still considerable. And yet I found in a recent project with Collaboration Labs at the University of Manchester and the British School at Rome, that even when exploring a distinct slice of history from a digital distance, that there was much to discover as a writer on one of the many roads to Rome.
Presenting British School in Rome’s Fine Art Archive, 1913-1930
Our task, as a team of three researchers from the humanities, was to find a way to present a selection from the BSR’s Fine Art archive to a digital audience prevented from accessing the collections in person. Even within this selected period of 1913 to 1930 - the early years of activity in the fine arts at the BSR - this online exhibition focuses on a small group of artists working in sculpture, painting, architecture and engraving. From 1913 onwards these artists, winners of the Rome Prizes, came as scholars for one to three year long residencies at the BSR’s new building at Valle Giulia. Reams of material have been left by these artists in the BSR’s archive, including photographs and negatives, letters, postcards, artworks, sketches, objects, designs and more.
We were three researchers: historian Dr Peter Buckles from the University of Liverpool, myself, a poet with a recent PhD in Creative Writing at University of Salford, and the University of Manchester’s Ksenia Litvinenko, a PhD candidate in architectural history. Between the three of us we had spent very little, if any, time in Rome and, at the time of our work, the COVID-19 pandemic ruled out travel to Italy. Much like many other researchers and students, we had to approach this material from an already digitally-mediated perspective, cognizant of the limitations remote working might have. We couldn’t pretend that this project would provide a complete picture of the archive, but we might be able to provide glimpses into it and open up its potential for future inquiry.
Our collaboration involved pooling our discipline-specific knowledge and methodologies and engaging with the BSR’s archivists and researchers. Ksenia surveyed the work of the BSR’s architects and engravers and explored creative solutions for how to present the findings on the BSR’s media. Peter’s archival and technical methods allowed him to design a navigable platform and piece together the narratives and contexts of these artists into a visualisation of a network. As a creative writer new to archives, I approached this material with an eye for artistic practices and materials, stories and images that would spark curiosity so that I could bring these to the reader’s attention.
Adapting Methodologies: From fragment to network
We posed ourselves as potential digital explorers: if we as creative researchers found something curious or notable, perhaps future audiences would too. We arranged biographies, images and stories into navigable networks, connecting the relational dots and labelling images and objects. I was drawn to images, textures and idiosyncrasies, to photographic negatives on glass, a recurring face or reminiscent gesture in a painting. A sculptured head here, a sheaf of postcards there. I wondered at the sepia geometry of a room in spare 1920s decor in which a painter seems small, even hunched against the huge plan of their mural in progress. Perhaps, like many artists before and after them, they are nearly cowed down to the ground by Rome’s rich rubble and overwhelming cultural history. We were aware that translating a three-dimensional tangible material archive onto the two-dimensional screen was risky; much could be lost to the compression and flattening of these objects and human stories.
One prominent example of this problem is posed by murals. The winners of the Rome Prize for Decorative Painting went from art schools in Britain to live and work at the BSR studios. The intention of the British cultural establishment was that these painters would be surrounded by Roman frescos and the murals of the Italian Renaissance, such as the works of Piero della Francesca, and they would return to Britain to adorn the walls of municipal and private buildings in future commissions. When such work was always intended for large-scale contexts, we puzzled to think how we might translate these processes into something an online viewer could access and contemplate, probably on a mobile phone screen no bigger than the size of a 1920s cigar case. What is more, we researchers have never had a chance to see those murals in situ either.
But we weren’t tasked with reproducing whole artworks. Instead, we were contextualising and creating stories around the material, accepting from the start the fragmentary and piecemeal nature of digital experience. Without trying to create the illusion of completeness, we worked through the disparate images and clues found in objects, papers, figures, and stories, tracing a network of relationships between people and places and artworks. The resultant site - https://bsrfineartsarchive.network/ - is a foundation on which to build and explore further, the beginning of artistic research. Perhaps one day a viewer will be able to experience an artwork such as a mural in its intended setting (although many have in fact been destroyed and only exist in these reproductions). For now, we have to accept what the space of the internet is and try to provide enough for a new researcher to make their own way towards Rome.
Between-times: British artists in Rome 1913 - 1930
The majority of scholarship in and around the BSR looks towards the immensity of other periods, to the Roman, Renaissance and Baroque periods, or to the contemporary. The context in which these artists worked in, from 1913 to 1930, is instead overlooked (with some notable exceptions, research which we gratefully acknowledge and cite). It seems to me that this was a fragile and confusing moment. Of course, all moments are; I am learning as a writer on new archival work that historical collections always reveal liminality, fragility and confusion. This was a time of artmaking in the aftermath of one extremely violent war and in the build-up towards another. These artists do not fit neatly into golden eras, nor are they emblematic of avant-garde movements of the time. In the literature we studied for this project, several authors report that these artists failed to fulfil their ‘potential’ (I am intrigued by this sense of ‘failure’, what do we mean when we speak of such potential?). These artists were working as new political and artistic forces emerged in Europe and beyond, with fascist movements on the rise and new technologies challenging their practices. Classically-trained thinkers at this institution, and the art schools that the scholars came from, often clung to the traditions of previous centuries. Accounts we studied show how BSR administrators in this period sometimes tried to rein in the slippery modernistic imaginations nascent in the resident artists.
We weren’t able in this project to judge what the effect of this traditionalist strategy was on British art of the twentieth century, or what significance the artworks created hold today (others have and may still explore these questions). However it was possible to tease out threads of enquiry and some of the dynamics at play through studying these artists’ biographies and their collections. Some stories and exceptions stand out to me. Architecture scholars were tasked with classical methods of hand drafting to survey ancient ruins so that they may restore or replicate them faithfully. But one interesting exception to strict traditionalism is architect Amyas D. Connell. Connell’s practice went from immersion in classical subjects and techniques whilst in Rome towards an ambitious experiment in a later collaboration with art historian and one-time BSR director Bernard Ashmole, on the modernist house ‘High and Over’. Others took daring paths and deepened their collaborations during their stay at the BSR, such as Barbara Hepworth who visited the school briefly with her then-husband, Rome Scholar in sculpture, John Skeaping. In Italy, they studied marble carving with Italian master sculptor Giovani Ardini. How did this grounding in sculpture traditions facilitate later experimentation?
Some artistic careers went in other directions; often it seems the women and artists from working class backgrounds became restricted by disastrous events, social pressures, slow progress, expensive materials, and discrimination. Some of them went from flare and inspiration to obscurity and compromise under the drudgery, demands and wars of the following decades in Britain, as can be detected in the stories of Winifred Knights and Alfred Hardiman. The earliest scholars interrupted their residencies to fight as soldiers at the fronts of WW1, only to be later tasked with memorialising the violence in monuments and massive idealistic tributes. It appears that other artists, such as engraver and printmaker Lilian Whitehead, might have been forgotten to the historical record if it had not been for this archive. We might ask, in the midst of this, whether the trap between administrative traditionalism and artistic experimentation can ever be generative?
Casual group photographs capture the artists and scholars in moments of comradely relaxation in the BSR courtyard. I imagine these breaks in the garden as brief liminal moments before going back to hard work, heavy expectation or perhaps rebellion. At other times, we wondered what these artists were thinking as they sketched among bucolic scenes, focusing on a crumbling ancient monument or picturesque human figures, as if on a holiday in the brief time between mass violence. These were people deeply immersed in their subjects, practices and communities; experts in their niches, perhaps toiling at projects that now seem outdated or even obsolete. Some of the characters we researched, such as the brilliant classicist and BSR assistant director Eugénie Sellers Strong, present stories which complicate a comfortable view of cultural history as naturally progressive. Strong was among those who attempted to please Mussolini in his rise in this period; she is one of several scholars who appeased powerful elites so that they could be left alone to plough on with their research and see it funded.
An Archive Raises more Questions than it Answers
And many as yet unanswered questions come to my mind as a writer new to these periods and subjects: How is an engraving made? How does an artist relate to their nation and deal in their day to day practice with the expectations of institutional ambition and nationalistic strategy? Why do some images and cultural historiographies and archaeologies, especially Roman, appeal to fascism? I repeatedly wondered at the shortness of the gap between the wars and how artists either remembered or seemed to forget the trauma of the first before the onslaught of the second. Faces of the scholars reoccur, as friends modelled for each other in busts and portraits. How co-influential were these relationships, or was this a tense and repressed community? This archive begins to show how artists train and develop within their social and communal contexts, and how they do or do not exchange with cultures new to them. Were they tourists or artists on location? Were they students experimenting with new ideas or tools of soft power?
My colleagues and future researchers will ask different questions. This will not be news to archivists and historians, but I learnt that the absences and unanswered questions raised by an archive can be just as intriguing as the presences. The ghosts here might be of artists who were not at the BSR. Or the identities of the so-called peasantry of the Italian villages who crowd into the edge of early photographs originally intended for the purposes of archeological record. Their ambiguous faces, unfamiliar garments and figures captured mid-movement complicate the ruined monument or picturesque scene depicted. What were the lives of the locals of Anticoli Corrado who posed as models for the painters? I think of the forms of people not depicted in the idealistic style popular at this time, the people whose bodies didn’t fit the fascist ideologies on the rise in 1920s Europe.
Remote and Future Pathways
At a time when arts institutions are trying to adapt and innovate in the face of rapid change and challenge, it might be informative to return to a period when institutions such as the BSR were beginning and early manifestations of the concept of the artist’s residency and training were being sketched out. This period is telling of the pitfalls and successes of artistic education, public art and cultural custodianship, allowing us to think anew through cultural change and the politics of nationalism and internationalism.
No doubt our bodily presences in Rome would have led to an entirely different project. And it still could. A digital archival research approach does not replace practice in situ amongst the material itself. Instead, it sparks questions and comparisons, adds layers to the stories and depth to the literature. Hopefully, it also sparks curiosity and draws new readers and viewers onto multiple new pathways. There are still many proliferating fractal roads spanning out and in and around Rome. All of these are still open to future artists and researchers.
This research project was facilitated by the Collaboration Labs Programme, based at The University of Manchester and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The British School at Rome - Fine Arts Archive can be explored at https://bsrfineartsarchive.network/. Read a historical overview of the period here https://bsrfineartsarchive.network/2021/06/11/overview/
Collaboration Labs Case Study report is available here https://www.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/researcher-development/knowledge-exchange/case-studies/british-school-at-rome/
The BSR Digital Collections site: http://www.bsrdigitalcollections.it/
Dr Nia Davies is a poet based in Wales/Cymru engaged in writing, literary curation, research and performance. She recently completed doctoral research in ritual and poetry at the University of Salford. Her publications include All Fours (2017, Bloodaxe) and editorship of the international journal Poetry Wales (2014-2019).
Life at the British School Rome Blog https://britishschoolatrome.wordpress.com/category/library-archive/
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