Touring Rome, past to present

Michael Cassin of the Clark traced Roman art and architecture from antiquity to modernity.
Michael Cassin of the Clark traced Roman art and architecture from antiquity to modernity.

On Thursday, Michael Cassin, director of the Clark’s Center for Education in the Visual Arts, conducted a unique tour of Rome and its art while nestled, 4000 miles away, in the heart of the Berkshires. In the first installment of the “When in Rome” program, a series of lectures given to complement the Clark’s new Steps off the Beaten Path: Nineteenth-Century Photographs of Rome and Its Environs, Cassin cast new light on some iconic pieces of antiquity. Mixing interesting minutia with amusing historical anecdotes, the tour’s points of interest ranged from the personality of the city’s architecture to character sketches of a few key figures pivotal in the foundations of Roman political life.

Cassin began with an overview of the exhibit as well a sampling of some featured works. Steps off the Beaten Path features photographs of Rome from 1850 to 1860. The city during this time was to become a new urban center, and the modern world had to weave around millennia‑old architectural traditions. This intermingling of old and new can be seen in the catalog, with one prominent image depicting a broken Corinthian column that, according to Cassin, represents Rome’s elegance lapsing into disrepair.

Cassin was able to reconstruct some of this splendor with his words. He emphasized that each shot presents a different perspective, from a flooded Piazza Navona to a cityscape of Rome that seems minute in comparison to the surrounding countryside. The Triton Fountain by Bernini, for example, is shown with two small boys beside it to emphasize the scale of the imposing statue; another photograph of a Franciscan well with a monk posing beside it depicts the only remnant of one of the city’s demolished cloisters.
The best example of how 19th-century Romans incorporated such majesty into their lives is found in the image of an elegant covered pathway. Dedicated to a woman by the emperor Augustus, the pathway served in the modern era as a fish market. The exhibit brims with special moments like these, offering a reminder of how people’s proximity to history allows them to incorporate the past into their daily lives.

A summary of some key Roman emperors shaped the remainder of the lecture. According to Cassin, Augustus Caesar, who declared himself the “first among equals,” glorified his name at his own expense. In portrait statues, he was portrayed as a general, orator and high priest. He built among other things the first stone bridge over the River Tiber, as well as the Theater of Marcellus. Cassin showed present-day photos of both, and even the ruins speak to the fact that the first Roman emperor “inherited Rome made of clay but left it made of stone.”

The following Roman rulers continued to leave their mark: Caligula extended the imperial palace to the Temple of Castor and Pollax, brought an obelisk from Egypt and erected floating palaces that were reconstructed after sinking to the bottom of a lake; Vespasian is known for the Colosseum and pay‑toilets; Titus had an arch dedicated to him that depicted the looting of the Temple of Jerusalem; and Trajan’s famous column (with a Victorian plaster cast now in London) showed the victory over the Dacians. Hadrian designed some of his own projects: He is known for his forum, the Pantheon, and his wall on the British border as well as his mausoleum, which he ordered to be bigger than Augustus’. From the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius to Cariculla’s expansive baths to Constantine’s arch, the Roman rulers’ artistic additions to the city have created a lasting impression for audiences ever since.

All in all, the lecture highlighted Steps Off the Beaten Path as a visually compelling collection. The exhibit, which will continue at the Clark until Jan. 3, offers insight into both past and present, the Rome of antiquity and the city of an industrialized age.