The Rome Winter School Tapes

December 6, 2017
By Ben Vandenput

I don’t drink coffee. Not because I don’t like the smell of the freshly-roasted – I actually love it – but simply because I never learned to drink it. When Sabrina – an incredibly shrewd Swiss from Sicilian descent but living and studying in Amsterdam – and I stopped by in a Prati espresso bar on the very first sun-drenched day of many to come, the Roman baristo did consider refusing the black tea S. ordered for me. I won’t blame him for doing that. He was very right for several, very obvious reasons. It made me realize that my (for now) single New Year’s resolution is the following: to learn to drink and appreciate coffee, also in order to avoid infamous Roman situations in the near future. Obviously, when in Rome do as the Romans do; and when not there, it most of the time doesn’t hurt to keep up with these peculiar versions of Italian citizenship (never to leave the house without shiny black shoes, have Da Michele-pizza for lunch or name your dog ‘Marco Aurelio’ to call only three).

Such good intentions have marked the Winter School “Cities, Borders and Identities: Towards an Interdisciplinary Approach”, organized by the University of Amsterdam for RMa students and early PhD researchers, and located at the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (which was instantly renamed into the “KNNRRRRR” by Will, my Norwich-born roommate who critically introduced me into the dynamics of UK’s ‘lad culture’, which was greatly appreciated: again, thanks a lot, W.). The course itself then attempted to look into the dialectics of “the ongoing refugee crisis, combined with the continuing aftershocks of the financial crisis of 2008 which have seen the re-emergence of identity politics across Europe in a space that is increasingly divided in cultural, political, social and economic terms, and whose borders are more and more contested. European border cities have historically been crucial sites within which processes of identity-making and contestation have been particularly visible.” To be fair, Rome indeed proved to be a very fertile ground throughout the entire week to reflect on the construction of identity questions of difference and sameness in a city whose essence is imagined and physically constructed by the clash and claims of several historical layers and protagonists. In various seminars, the fifteen of us were confronted with methods to actually read various urban landscapes and analyze several techniques and perspectives that are used by historical and contemporary cultural and literary actors, policymakers and citizens. All of them of course in some way or another construct different identities and apply these to concrete spaces and urban peripheries as a way to engage with the contemporary and longer-standing challenges of the border cities and conditions in which they live. Similar interdisciplinary research questions and methods were to be applied in a research paper in which I chose to focus on the confrontation and the resulting border conditions of Napoleonic architectural programs in Rome. Such nineteenth-century monumental ensembles were juxtaposed to the ancient heritage of Rome, a possibly striking example of assimilating imperial identity politics through the medium of architecture.

The diversity of the participants’ disciplinary backgrounds – Archaeology, Sociology, Urban Geography and Cultural Analysis, etc. – was also reflected in the diversity of the various seminars and site visits. Under the title of ‘Urban History’ for example, lectures and excursions were organized on hybrid urban characteristics in Ostia Antica, as well as an ominous session entitled “Living and Dying in Rome’s Peripheries: the Case of Pier Paolo Pasolini”. Seminars discussing William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments subsequently alternated visits to contemporary neofascist housing squats and one’s poetical contemplations while standing on the Piazza del Campidoglio. In short, none of the participants was completely at ease with every single one of these subjects – none of us actually was in the face of CasaPound’s Mussolini-worshipping gang of thugs – but there were without doubt moments where one could feel expert in a session that was closely related to one’s own field of interest and expertise.

Considering all this, the Winter School has raised some questions. The PriArc teams are meeting in Paris later this month – maybe this will be a good occasion to discuss these thoughts? Here are the two most striking ones I remember:

  1. A recurring question when discussing my and others research papers in the context of this Winter School, co-organized by the Amsterdam Department of European Studies, was the ways in which dynamics and debates in historical urban contexts are still relevant for what is happening nowadays. I do acknowledge that there might be something highly problematic in this question, but since I have on several occasions tried to answer this in Rome, it might also be something for you to consider this. To what extent is it reasonable and interesting to stress historical phenomena in the light of today’s events/debates/challenges?
  2. The fact that I was mainly involved with monumental architectural ensembles has raised some debates on the critical position towards this. (Architectural) history is as such again narrated along the lines of well-known events, protagonists and networks. It has raised questions on the viability of a Latourian Actor-Network Theory for the discipline of (architectural) history, as well as the importance of ‘micro (architectural) histories’ and the narratives of those who were the direct victims of large-scale architectural interventions.

See you all in Paris!