Beyond the Past: sponsoring cultural heritage in Rome

•October 24, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The other day, as I viewed the new exhibit, L’eta’ dell’equilibrio, in the Capitoline Museums, I pleasantly came across the ongoing conservation project of the Marforio statue in the courtyard of the Braccio Nuovo.   The colossal, reclining river god became one of Rome’s most famous “talking statues” and was located in the Roman Forum before being transferred to the Capitoline Hill.

The sponsor is Swarovski, and its 100,000 euro contribution represents a new phenomenon thatI predict will constitute a growing trend, for the benefit of Rome, Italy, and cultural heritage at large.  The German luxury brand joins the ranks of other, related sponsors, including, most noticeably, Tod’s, which gave a 25 million euro donation for the Colosseum sponsorship and Laura Biagiotti in 2007 which gave 200,000 euros, for the fountains of Piazza Farnese. Although the Tod’s contribution is not without headaches and pitfalls, the more that such agreements are made, and clearly delineated, the greater the success.

Other, related sponsorships that have have been conducted successfully include the American Express Foundation‘s longstanding support for World Monuments Fund, involved in Rome projects Santa Maria Antiqua, Temple of Hercules and Temple of Portunus in the Forum Boarium.  (AmEx Foundation also gave my organization the funding to study and excavate in the Park of the Aqueducts, an undervalued and understudied area of ancient Rome’s suburbium.)  Another example is the Alda Fendi Foundation’s important excavation and preservation of an important section of the Basilica Ulpia in the Forum of Trajan.
As cool and avant-garde as these initiatives are, however, they are largely absent in the social media discourse.  It is truly a missed opportunity since these great projects  easily can be formatted into readily consumable packages of visualization, like Instagram photos and short videos, to further their impact on the public, always interested in cultural heritage and its preservation.  It’s time to change that and make #culturalheritage trendy.

Digging through time

•October 18, 2012 • Leave a Comment

There is so much talk in the news– you can’t escape it- about the many hot new online educational sites.  These  include courses listed by universities (for example Yale and Stanford),  MITx, edX, Udacity, Coursera, and TED lectures. but probably none is hotter Khan Academy, recently partnered with SmartHistory, run by Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.   After corresponding with them  on Twitter, I had the good fortune to meet with them this past July and become a contributor for SmartHistory, starting in one of my favorite places in Rome, the Roman Forum (here’s my quick take on the area).  In that setting, beneath some shaded trees beside the Basilica Julia, we chatted about the forum’s history and importance, as well as its layers, describing how what you see in the archaeological site is the summation of several forums, one on top of another, with different chronologies visible simultaneously, often due to modern excavations.  Steven and Beth called our conversation “Digging through Time,” to address why so many of the ancient remains in Rome are located several meters below the modern street surface.  Have a listen, and let me know what you think!   (I certainly look forward to contributing again.)


Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror

•October 8, 2012 • 3 Comments

Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror has aired in the US on October 9 and will air in Italy on October 28.  I had a lot of fun filming this documentary in Rome and Herculaneum, and am proud to be part of a great group which includes colleagues here in Rome: Valerie Higgins, Gabriel Radle and Katie Parla.

Living History in Rome day by day

•May 11, 2012 • 2 Comments

Living in Rome has proved to be an exciting adventure over the past 20 years, more interesting than I could have imagined.  (And way more interesting than what appears on reality TV- House Hunters– however entertaining that was). Now, as the summer season is upon us- with several overlapping programs and a slew of documentaries to film- I can’t help but reflect on the many ways I get to live history daily in Rome.

Latin dead? Not when I can host a Latin tweet up #LTNL  every couple of weeks with colleagues and anyone interested in speaking Latine.  (In less than a month, students will attend our upcoming summer Latin program, coming from schools big and small, from Stanford to Steubenville. Our guru is Nancy Llewellyn of SALVI:


EUR, Palazzo dei Congressi (roof)

It’s been said frequently that Rome is a living museum.  Even more amazing is just how much that truism is indebted to the efforts of Mussolini and his forced connection to the ancient concept of romanita‘ or Romanness.  So I’ve steered our intrepid NEU film students to the centro storico, Foro Italico, EUR, and peripheral neighborhoods to record the impact of Fascist architecture and urban planning in Rome past and present.  #NEURome12

Palazzo Altieri, stairwell

Connecting the dots.  The majority of a unique set of marble panels once decorating the portico surrounding the Temple of Hadrian in the Campus Martius are to be found in Palazzo Massimo, Capitoline Museums, and Museo Nazionale di Napoli.  But the other day, visiting a friend and collaborator from Banca Finnat in Palazzo Altieri, I caught a glimpse in the staircase of another one of the same panel set.  Just when you though you had seen it all.

Not just archaeology and Roman culture but cultural heritage. All in all working beyond my initial range and training in archaeology to concentrate on heritage matters and a larger scale and range of participants has been rewarding. In a short time we’ve taken Unlisted2011 conference ideas and made concrete projects, such as a conservation project in Ostia Antica and FastiONLINE videos.  I look forward to further collaboration with this year’s participants (VIDEOS 2012 conference are already online).

Chariot cruising

Riding in a chariot for the day is great work, if you can swing it. So many film documentaries to do and so little time.  You’ll get no complaints from me riding around in a chariot in the Alban hills and talking about the thrill of that experience in front of a camera.

Protecting the past— It’s truly special to be able to assist in saving Hadrian’s villa petition from the projected landfill- an ongoing effort- and pleased we are up to nearly 5000 petition signers. Sign up!

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Sunlight time machine.

  • April 21st, Rome’s birthday.  Taking the family to see the sunlight pass through the Pantheon oculus and strike the entrance of the Pantheon, a one-a-year event.
  • Then, heading to the Circus Maximus to mix with the Romans of the 2nd century AD.

Ancient reflections:

  • After heavy rain-always, always something new, something special to observe, e.g., Column of Marcus Aurelius.
  • Fendi Fondation’s annual experimental art show followed by drinks in the Fendi gallery, which contains a section of Trajan’s Basilica Ulpia.
  • Taking an American family friend to the Colosseum hypogeum and arena floor on her 21st birthday,  though I don’t think she could appreciate it that day… The carnage apparently took place the night before.

Hadrian’s Villa and the proposed landfill- the straw that broke the camel’s back

•March 15, 2012 • 3 Comments

The shocking decision to create a massive landfill within a few hundred meters of Hadrian’s Villa, one of most well known, important cultural heritage sites in the world is, to say the least, astonishing.  See last December’s CBS news video for a summary of the landfill project.

In light of the recent pummeling from the media that Italy has undergone due to the lamentable condition of the heritage management at Pompeii and the frequent fragments falling off the Colosseum in the past couple of years, it seems even more shocking to learn about the new plight of yet another world-famous site.

And, of course, in the face of it, one frequently asks, but what can I do?  What difference can I make?  With the decision announced late last year (to be confirmed this spring), there was not much time to act, either.   Luckily, a dear colleague and friend, Prof. Bernard Frischer, picked up the torch, as it were, and in a few minutes created a petition on ipetition, reaching out, first, to colleagues in the fields of classics and archaeology.  Early on, he also contacted my organization, asking us to sponsor the initiative; I quickly agreed.  Between Frischer’s outreach and my AIRC colleagues’ tweeting and blogging, we have been happy to see the numbers to quickly grow to almost 2800 signatures in just 2 weeks’ time.   The petition is starting to have a life of its own- and we’ve done our part to personally deposit, for the record, the signatures with the proper authorities in Rome (the end result of the petition).

Why are people so upset?   Why do they care, regardless of nationality?  Just read some of the comments on the ipetition, from students and members of the public to esteemed professors of Oxford Jas Elsner and Salvatore Settis of La Normale di Pisa to organizations like World Monuments Fund.

One look at Hadrian’s Villa from satellite photos, or the many, famous “plastico” models of the site, or, if you are lucky enough, a trip to the site, make you understand why. (See this great, academic site for recent studies of Hadrian’s Villa).

The emperor Hadrian’s organic creation of space over 250 acres represents some of the best examples of Roman architecture at the height of the empire.   You can’t help but fall in love with the site, surrounded by olive and cypress trees, isolated from the effects of urban development.  (Read UNESCO’s short summary of the site.)

Let’s put this landfill project into perspective with what’s going on with cultural heritage around the world.  A recent assessment of China has revealed the devastating effect of unchecked urban expansion on heritage sites (circa 44,000 heritage sites and monuments lost). Social unrest and war threatens sites in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Libya.  Back in Italy, so many of the sites are at a critical juncture, after so many years of comprehensive neglect and/or prolonged exposure after excavations (from Pompeii to Ostia Antica).  A lack of comprehensive management plans and lack of implementation of funds toward the critically-needed daily care of sites have led the public at large to conclude that Italy does not care about its heritage, even as the number of tourists is rapidly increasing in the same sites.  The reality is vastly more complicated than these brief observations.  While funding is challenged, new private sponsorship is on the horizon (e.g., Colosseum, though not without problems of implementation).  And there are many success stories.  In our upcoming Unlisted 2 conference we’ll talk about the challenges to cultural heritage in archaeological sites worldwide (and some solutions using social media and local financial models concentrating on local communities)  and highlight the success that the Via Appia Antica park has become.  This includes the superb work at Villa dei Quintilii (recently filmed for the newest Woody Allen movie, Nero Fiddled).

Overall, though, Italy is perceived, through its face-value lack of investment in its heritage management (vs. most European countries) ,  the garbage-strewn, often abandoned heritage sites,  rampant graffiti, and less-than-caring attitude of employees at sites– as not consistently caring about its heritage.   And this is despite all of the great work that Italy  and important Italian organizations (e.g. Italia Nostra, FAI) are doing.

On all accounts, it is agreed by those signers of the petition that the landfill will do irreparable harm– not just to the site itself–  but to Italy itself.   This is a PR disaster in the making; Italy must show it can avert this new crisis to its cultural heritage. The Economist recently likened Prime Minister Mario Monti to Cincinnatus who selflessly devoted his life to his country in time of need.  Let’s hope that Cincinnatus can arrive in time from the fields to save one of Italy’s great treasures- Hadrian’s Villa.