Birkbeck History of Art in Rome!

I do hope many of you were able to join in Arts Week last week, and come to one of the more than fifty events laid on by colleagues in the School of Arts between Monday 15th and Saturday 19th May. There were lectures, seminars, film screenings, readings, performances, panel discussions and a sound installation – not to forget the fantastic Friday night concert at which we were treated to the musical talents of Dr. Jo Winning from the Department of English and Humanities, and Anthony Shepherd, Programme Administrator for MPhil/PhD Research across the School of Arts. All of our History of Art research students will know Anthony very well indeed – but some of you may not know that he is also one half of the highly successful folk music outfit, Pepper and Shepherd!

More than 1,500 people came to Gordon Square to take part in Arts Week – but, if you missed anything of interest, or want to relive a particular event, then do take a look at the Arts Week page. You can listen to podcasts, read reviews and blogs, and see photographs of events. Also, the new Peltz exhibition launched during Arts Week will be running until 25th July 2017, so there’s still plenty of time to visit the powerful Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: a selection of works from the Adamson Collection. This is an internationally renowned archive of art objects made by residents of a long-stay British psychiatric hospital between 1946 and 1981, under the guidance of art-therapy pioneer Edward Adamson. One of the highlights of Arts Week was a panel discussion of Mr A – but do also read this blog by Dr. Fiona Johnstone, Co-Curator of the show and Associate Research Fellow in History of Art.


I want to take this opportunity to remind you about a couple of funding opportunities available for our students, before I hand over the rest of this blog to one of our MA History of Art with Photography students, Ruth Houlsby, to give her account of the recent departmental field trip to Rome.

One is the London Art History Society Research Fund, generously established by the Society to help postgraduate students in History of Art with expenses relating to their research. This is awarded on a first come, first served basis, but we do have a small amount of money remaining to allocate before the end of the academic year – so please send in any applications before it runs out! MA students can apply for up to a maximum of £150; MPhil/ PhD students for up to a maximum of £300.

The other is an exciting opportunity I was delighted to announce a few weeks ago to all students in the School of Arts: the British Council Venice Fellowships scheme. The School is inviting applications for two Steward-Research Scholarships at the Venice Art Biennale 2017, running between 29 October and 26 November. The successful candidates will each be given a grant of £1600 for the month towards their expenses, and will work four days per week as an invigilator in the British Pavilion. The rest of the time is for study and research around the biennale theme, Viva Arte Viva. If you are interested, then please do look at this page for further details.

It is now my great pleasure to hand you over to Ruth, to tell you about the Easter departmental trip to Rome, led by Dr. Peter Fane-Saunders and Dr. Piers Baker-Bates!


Ruth Houlsby, MA History of Art with Photography, on the Easter trip to Rome, April 2017

“In the midday sun we passed the crowds outside the Colosseum to gather near the Arch of Constantine, meeting our fellow students and tutors Dr. Peter Fane-Saunders and Dr. Piers Baker-Bates. During the introductory session back in London, Peter and Piers had asked us to think about the notion of ‘palimpsest’: something built or layered on top of something else, or an object made for one purpose and later reused for another. They said that Rome abounds in palimpsests and we were to encounter this idea again and again. The Arch of Constantine was a useful introduction to this theme, with many of its decorative panels and sculptures having been re-used from other monuments. I knew a few fellow students, but the trip included a mix of students from the Graduate Certificate, BA and MA, so there were many new faces. Everyone looked pleased to be there and eager to get started!

We progressed to the Forum, the well-known space in the heart of the busy city that almost transports visitors back to ancient Rome. Many of the group had visited before, but it seemed a new experience exploring under the guidance of Peter and Piers. We split into two groups as we would for most of the week, forming two more manageable sized parties, and explored the vast and slightly overwhelming site. Seeing the immense Basilica of Maxentius, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Julia Basilica, the Atrium Vestae and many others, we had a fascinating introduction to ancient Rome that set the scene for ideas we would encounter throughout the trip; a culture that deifies its own kinship, a city built on the spoils of Jerusalem, the hidden passages and crypts, a culture which even in antiquity looked after its own antiquity. The huge site of Domitian’s Palace (Palazzo di Domiziano) at the top of the Palatine Hill was particularly impressive. Built to be ‘as high as the heavens’, even in ruined form, it was astonishing.


A lovely walk took us via the Piazza del Campidoglio, the monumental civic square commissioned by Pope Paul III on the Capitoline Hill and designed by Michelangelo to create a unique piece of urban planning, featuring the giant order. Peter explained it was ‘an erudite citation of the antique’ and featured one of the first balustraded staircases of the Renaissance; a symbol of turning away from ancient Rome and looking towards a new future for the city.


Onwards we walked to a restaurant for a group dinner to end the first day in great style, with talking, wine and pasta, helping us to get to know our fellow students and refreshing everyone ready for the rest of the week.

The following days saw visits to many churches to look at and discuss Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture. Highlights included the Church of the Gesù, designed during the Counter-Reformation to ‘enflame the people’. Beyond its relatively simple façade by Giacoma della Porta, an exercise in moving on from the classical, is a striking ceiling fresco by Giovanni Battista Gaulli.


Another fascinating church and possibly the ultimate palimpsest was the Basilica San Clemente, with three layers of a church on one site. After entering the twelfth-century basilica at ground level, we descended into the remains of a fourth-century church, buried in the eleventh century and re-discovered in the nineteenth. Frescoes from the tenth and eleventh centuries are still visible, at least in part, and several walls are lined with a nineteenth-century display of sculptural fragments found during the excavations. The whole site had an evocative feeling of the passing of time and a changing attitude towards conservation and modes of display. Moving down more steps into a dark space, we saw the remains of a second-century Mithratic temple. Piers explained that the exact nature of the temple is disputed, but that many early Christian churches were based on Mithras and were often to be found in dark, underground spaces, on frontiers or areas of conflict such as Hadrian’s Wall. Back up into the sunlit twelfth-century basilica, we admired the beautiful twelfth-century mosaics in the apse, featuring the cross symbolizing the tree of life, and the fresco series by Masolino, c.1428-31.

In the Church of St. Louis of the French (San Luigi dei Francesi) we battled school groups and tours to see Caravaggio’s cycle of three paintings in the Contarelli Chapel: The Calling, The Inspiration and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. We learned more about the Baroque – as Peter explained, the viewer ‘gets caught up in the entire experience, there is a sense of movement and the eye can never rest’.


At San Gregorio Magno al Celio, the priest granted us access to the three Oratories; St. Andrew, St. Silvia, St. Barbara featuring frescos by Guido Reni and Domenichino. In typical Roman style, once outside we were reminded again of the ancient, seeing the ancient Roman road and wall tucked away behind the church.

No trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Vatican! The crowds meant that the group were free to explore on their own or stay with Peter and Piers if preferred. I choose to split off and enjoyed seeing some art works from different periods; from ancient cultures outside Rome in the Egyptian gallery, to Medieval and early Renaissance paintings and altarpieces.

I also enjoyed the quiet galleries showing more modern and contemporary works of art from the twentieth century by artists such as Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland. And I came across a work commissioned by the Vatican for the 2013 Venice Biennale by an artist called Lawrence Carroll. Carroll was someone I hadn’t previously come across, but I enjoyed standing considering his work, not least because the rest of the crowds largely bypassed it – a quiet moment during a hectic day.


Of course, we also followed the crowds and spent some time in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms, which despite being packed with visitors offered a truly special experience; head pulled back, gazing upwards, jostling alongside people from all over the world gathered to see Michelangelo’s painting.

During an optional bonus visit, we were treated to a guided tour by Dr. Thomas-Leo True, Assistant Director at the British School at Rome. Erudite and enthusiastic, Dr. True explained that the Baroque is ‘fundamentally Roman’ and invited us to play ‘Borromini or Bernini; who is best?’ by looking at the neighbouring churches of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Borromini, and Bernini’s Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale. It proved a fascinating insight into the differing styles within the Baroque movement and how the best architecture often comes out of challenging sites.

A steep climb up the Janiculum Hill (or a relaxing cab ride for some!) lead to San Pietro in Montorio to see the Borgherini Chapel featuring Sebastiano’s Flagellation and Transfiguration (1516–1524). Many of the group had seen the chapel recreated in the current National Gallery exhibition, Michelangelo & Sebastiano (for which Piers was an academic consultant) and it was fascinating to see the real thing. As was often the case, thanks to being with Peter and Piers the priest kindly obliged us with extra lighting, allowing us to see the best of the work in an otherwise dark corner; Sebastiano’s use of oil, his employment of colours from Venice, and the sense of space he created in the shallow chapel. Outside, we explored the small but beautifully formed Tempietto by Bramante.


As a second-year MA History of Art with Photography student, whose option modules all dealt with much more recent art, I approached the trip with less knowledge than some of the other students, but it offered a fascinating experience. I was able to catch some more contemporary exhibitions in my spare time, such as a retrospective of Letizia Battaglia’s photographs at the MAXXI gallery. I was also lucky to benefit from the knowledge of other students, visiting churches with some of them in our spare time to see Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and Carravagio’s The Conversion on the Way to Damascus and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter.

It was a privilege to visit the historic sites with Peter and Piers who were so kind in sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with the group. The week was absolutely fascinating and a reminder of why the History of Art is so worthy of study. The chance to see a city through its art and architecture, surrounded by fellow enthusiasts and lead by two experts was an amazing opportunity and without doubt one of the highlights of my time at Birkbeck. When next year’s trip is open for booking please do not hesitate to secure your place! And enjoy every minute.”


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Arts Week is Nigh!

There is so much to tell you about this week, I fear I will be unable to cram everything in! I’ll start with a word on upcoming Careers and Employability events. On Thursday 18th May, at 6pm, the Careers and Employability team will be running an event called ‘What Employers Want; Media’, featuring alumni speaking about their careers and experiences post-Birkbeck. There will be some guests of particular interest to students in the department, notably Cristina Lombardo who completed our MA History of Art in 2009, and is now Rights and Clearances Manager at VICE Media. The following week, we have the last of the workshops in the series which Careers and Employability and the History of Art department have been running this academic year, thanks to support from the Alumni Fund. Sign up and come along to the Keynes library on Wednesday 24th May, at 4pm, to find out how to ‘Manage your Digital Footprint’.

Arts week 2017 banner

Arts week is nigh! I hope everyone has been combing through the lists of events which will ensure the School of Arts will be a hum of activity and excitement all the way from next Monday through and into the weekend – and reserving their free places on Eventbrite. In my last blog posting, I pulled out some highlights, from an introduction to the upcoming Peltz exhibition of works from the Adamson collection, through a session on modernist architecture, to a panel discussion about the politics of landscape. And don’t forget the photo competition! Do you have any photographs of animals who look like politicians?! If so, send them in – there are prizes to be had!

The first Arts Week event organised by my colleagues here in the History of Art department will take place on the Monday: Steve Edwards and Patrizia di Bello speaking about the Jo Spence archive. And here’s Steve to tell you about a valuable new addition recently made to that archive:

Steve Edwards on Picture Post

“The History of Art department has just acquired a complete set of the photo-magazine Picture Post (forty thick volumes). We are excited to have found a good-quality complete run – which is now rare.

Set up by Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian picture editor and refugee from Hitler, Picture Post was published by Hulton Press from 1938 to 1957. Lorant bought with him new ideas from Germany concerning journalism, photography and magazine layout and he hired important photographers, including Bert Hardy and Kurt Hutton. Tom Hopkinson took over as editor in 1940. At its high point during WWII, Picture Post was selling nearly two-million copies every week.

Accounts of modern media often focus on film and television, but the picture magazines were at the heart of the new visual culture of modernity. Along with magazines such as Life (USA), Vu (France), USSR in Construction, and AIZ (Germany), Picture Post pioneered an approach that combined photographs edited in narrative sequences with captions and short news items, to tell stories about everyday life. Often this meant focusing on aspects of society overlooked by the more traditional press, whether unemployment or an afternoon at the football. Significantly, Picture Post also paid a lot of attention to women’s experience and employed Grace Robertson as a photographer as well as women writers such as Dorothy Parker and Ann Scott-James. This focus on the ordinary and the ignored doesn’t mean it ignored politics; Picture Post covered world events as well as British life and took a particularly clear anti-fascist stand.

Our set of Picture Post will prove invaluable for teaching and research in the history of photography, but it will also be important for anyone interested in the visual culture of the twentieth century. It will be housed in the Jo Spence Memorial Library at Gordon Square (at one point Spence worked on the magazine). We will be organising special sessions with Picture Post for those interested, so look out for announcements.”


Even with everyone caught up in preparatory work for Arts Week, there are lots of other activities and events to tell you about. On Tuesday 17th May, at 7pm, you can go and hear Gabriel Koureas at the newly re-designed National Army Museum, taking part in a panel organised to coincide with the current War Paint exhibition. The discussion will look at how art – historically and today – influences public perceptions of the army. Or, this very evening (5pm, Wednesday 10th May, Keynes Library), the Murray Seminar will be given by Joanna Cannon, on her ‘Second Thoughts: Redating the Frescoes by the Maestro di San Francesco at Assisi’. The mid-thirteenth-century murals in the Lower Church of San Francesco at Assisi mark a key moment in the construction of the narrative of the life of St Francis.  But when, precisely, was that moment? Dr. Cannon will be revisiting her often-quoted article of 1982, ‘Dating the Frescoes of the Maestro di San Francesco at Assisi’, to argue against some of her earlier conclusions, and to explore the implications of this change of mind.


I shall save further news until my next posting, as I’m keen to hand over the rest of this blog to another of my colleagues, Zoë Opačić, to tell you about a very grave and pressing situation concerning Central European University, where Zoë will be spending a couple of weeks later this month as a visiting lecturer. If, having read her piece, you would like to add your voice to the widespread protest against what’s happening in Hungary, then do sign the petition.

Zoë Opačić on Central European University

“Just over a month ago the Hungarian government passed new legislation that not only takes a step towards limiting academic freedom but also makes the existence of Central European University all but impossible. CEU is a liberal English-language university accredited in the US and Hungary and situated in Budapest. It was founded in 1991 through generous sponsorship of the philanthropist George Soros with the aim of promoting democratic values at the end of the Cold War. For decades this university has provided a truly international platform for research and has been particularly active in bringing together young scholars from the former Yugoslavia under the umbrella of scholarship. In my field, the Middle Ages, CEU has been one of the leading and most forward looking institutions, always coming up with new initiatives, collaborative projects and publications:

The current threat to the university’s survival in Budapest is one of several questionable policies promoted in recent years by the nationalist Hungarian government under PM Viktor Orban. However, the issues at stake are universal – the freedom of universities in Europe and everywhere to exist and operate without political pressure. Over the last few weeks thousands of Hungarians, supported by the international community, have protested on social media, on the streets of Budapest and abroad, but the government in Hungary remained unmoved. Recently the European Commission finally stepped in and sanctioned Hungary for its undemocratic education laws. However, as things stand, the university’s licence will be withdrawn in October, leading to its departure from Hungary and the loss of hundreds of jobs. In the words of the CEU’s rector, Michael Ignatieff: ‘This is a line in the sand. If universities can be shut down in the heart of Europe, then what does it mean for the future of democracy?’

Many of us at Birkbeck have had contacts with CEU and with its scholars and alumni. In 1993, Birkbeck’s distinguished philosopher, Eric Hobsbawm, gave a prestigious lecture at the CEU (later published in the New York Review) reflecting on Central Europe, which he described as the backbone of the European Union. He also singled out the political role of historians, especially their duty to resist the formation of national, ethnic, and other myths. Unfortunately many of his warnings proved prescient.

I will be taking up a position as a visiting lecturer at the CEU for two weeks at the end of May. As well as teaching a post-graduate course and delivering a public lecture, I hope to extend our support to colleagues and fellow students in Budapest.

If you wish to find out more about the current state of play, follow this link to BBC news, and get more information about CEU’s on-going campaign and ways to support it here:”

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