At the Academy in Rome, Opening Up Off-Limits Italy

AAR Fellow Matthew Bronski investigates burial niches (columbaria) underground in Rome’s Doria Pamphili park. Photo: Diana Mellon

AAR Arts and Humanities Intern Diana Mellon writes:

In his first few months at the Academy, current Fellow Matthew Bronski has already gained access to scaffolding on the colonnade of St. Peter’s, consolidation works on the Palazzo Braschi, and restricted areas in Herculaneum. “If one is to do this type of work, binoculars just don’t suffice,” he says. “You really have to be hands-on. You have to be right there, have your face in the materials and be able to even poke and prod a little bit and see what’s happening.” Matthew’s historic preservation project aims to understand the physical strengths and weaknesses of ageing buildings of all time periods through up-close observation. “That’s really one of the most essential parts of my project. It’s really, in my case, the primary research,” he says.

Carabinieri examine Academy credentials at the entrance to a closed section of the Villa Doria Pamphili. Photo: Diana Mellon

Bronski isn’t the only Fellow whose project requires close contact with Roman sites. Type designer and printer Russell Maret needs access to some largely unseen and practically inaccessible Latin inscriptions throughout Italy to catalog and analyze their lettering. Filmmaker Abigail Child must shoot on locations frequented by the British Romantics in the 19th century for her feature film on the lives of the Shelleys in Rome. And art historian Susanna McFadden must be able to visit the artworks she will include in her monograph on late Roman wall paintings.

Works in progress in the Roman Forum. Photos: Corey Brennan

All of these projects, and many others pursued by Academy Fellows, require permessi. Put simply, in Italy a special permission, or permesso, is required to gain access to closed areas, photograph artworks, or secure a space to film. Permessi are granted through a delicate combination of bureaucratic paperwork and personal relations. At the American Academy, it is the Programs Department that handles all permission requests—not just for resident members of the community, but also for the Academy’s three summer programs, its Trustees, its biweekly walking tours and numerous educational events.

AAR Fellows explore the columbarium of Menophilus (discovered 1984), Doria Pamphili park. Photo: Diana Mellon

In the past ten years, these kinds of permessi have become significantly more difficult to obtain. But Fellows, Affiliated Fellows, Residents and summer school Directors still need access to Italian sites to do their work. In 2008/9, the three staff members of the Programs Department processed about 200 permissions requests, an increase of more than 30% over each of the two previous years—and the numbers are bound to continue rising.

Trying to secure special permission alone would take up much of a Fellow’s 11 months at the Academy. “If I came in here trying to do a project like mine without the Programs Department it would be essentially impossible,” says Bronski. “I’d probably just be getting onto buildings in ten or eleven months, at the time I had to leave.”

Matthew Bronski photographs the main columbarium of the Villa Doria Pamphili. Photo: Diana Mellon

So how does an Academy researcher or artist get access? For a start, be specific and demonstrate need, says Programs Assistant Giulia Barra. “The key is to send a request with a lot of information about the project,” stresses Barra, who handles the majority of the permission requests that come through the office.

Formal requests are sent to anywhere from one to three different governing bodies per location. For years, the Programs Department has worked with the four Soprintendenze (supervisory departments) for the regions of Rome, Lazio, Ostia, and Etruria, as well as the Comune di Roma and the Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra. But sometimes the governing authority is the local parish priest.

In other cases, it’s unclear who within the target institution is directly responsible. Many of the more frequently visited museums and sites have hired private ticket management companies to handle the flow of visitors in recent years—and these companies are not authorized to grant special permission.

AAR group enters the closed Round Temple (generally called ‘Hercules Victor’)  in Rome’s Forum Boarium. Photo: Annie Schlechter

Having received his first “no,” which later developed into “maybe” and then finally to “yes,” Bronski now follows a two-pronged approach to access: “So there’s kind of the bureaucratic way, and then sometimes there’s getting to the right person. They’ll just say, well, I’ll take you there myself. So I’m working both fronts and actually the Programs Department is helpful on both.”

There is no doubt that special permissions have become harder to acquire in the past several decades. When James Ackerman (FAAR’52, RAAR ’65, ’70, ’75, ’80) was a Fellow in the early 50s, access seemed easy. “Things were very disorganized in Rome at that time,” he says. “You were not likely to find any rules. One could pretty much go to any of the places that are now hard to get into.”

Inside the Round Temple, Forum Boarium. Photo: Corey Brennan

Senior Programs Associate Anne Coulson says that when it comes to turning a “no” into a “yes,” creativity on the part of the department’s staff is crucial. “It’s not always obvious or mechanical. You also have to be kind of creative. When they say no, you have to think, well, can we do it this way, or can we do it that way?” Dealing with the un-codified Italian access system requires patience, flexibility, and diplomacy. “As an institution we’re very well regarded,” says Coulson, “and that helps with the permissions immensely, especially in the scholarly world.” But some places, of course, are just more difficult to access than others.

AAR group at the base of Trajan’s Column, and as seen from the top of the Column of Marcus Aurelius. Photos: Corey Brennan

The increased supervision of museums and archeological sites today is only partly responsible for the current accessibility challenge. The other part is due to the wider variety of projects Fellows now bring to the Academy. Filmmakers, installation artists, performance artists, and engineers sometimes need even closer contact with locations than scholars have had in the past.

For instance, in 2007, Programs Associate Lexi Eberspacher headed a year-long quest to secure permission for visual artist and Academy Fellow Jenny Holzer (FAAR ’04) to project poetry by night onto monuments such as the Castel S. Angelo and the Acqua Paola in her installation “For the Academy”. Eberspacher had to think on her feet, eventually winning the enthusiasm of the Minister of fine arts, and arranging for a light company to sponsor the event and a Roman contemporary art gallery to assume indemnity responsibility.

Jenny Holzer, from “For the Academy”, Teatro di Marcello 23 May 2007. Photo: Atilio Maranzano

As the territory around permessi becomes more and more difficult to navigate and as Fellows bring increasingly complex projects to the table, the Programs Department continues to develop the Academy’s public programming—which it sees as yet another means of strengthening the Academy’s relationship with Rome, and therefore its chances of giving Fellows the keys to their new city. “Everything we do in public programming somehow feeds back to the Fellows,” Coulson explains, whether it’s collaborating with local individuals or with international institutions.

Above all, the intricate network of personal relationships, built carefully by AAR staff over many years, is fundamental to the work of many Rome Prize recipients. As Matthew Bronski put it: “The fact that the Academy and the Programs Department in particular builds those relationships means that each Fellow who comes in each year isn’t starting from scratch.”

AAR Programs Department at Bramante’s Tempietto. From left: Senior Programs Associate Anne Coulson, Heiskell Arts Director Martin Brody, Programs Associate Lexi Eberspacher, Mellon Professor Corey Brennan, Programs Assistant Giulia Barra. Photo: Diana Mellon

Afterword by AAR Mellon Professor T. Corey Brennan:

Many AAR alumni/ae consider the permissions process, which Diana Mellon here has sketched out so lucidly, to be the key to the Academy experience. Indeed, architects Stephen Kieran (FAAR ’81), FAIA, and James Timberlake (FAAR ’83), FAIA, of the Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake, felt so strongly about the benefits they received from permessi as Rome Prize Fellows that they recently have made a major challenge gift to the Academy to help endow the staff position of Permissions Assistant. You can read about it here.

We seek in this campaign to secure the crucial role of Permissions Assistant for all time with an endowment of $850,000. This position has been partially endowed through an NEH Challenge Grant, and the gift by Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake—a gift issued with a challenge to their fellow Fellows to express their gratitude to the many members of the Academy staff for their unstinting efforts on their behalf, and to help assure that this support and attention is always there for members of the American Academy community of years to come. For more information, or to make a gift, you can contact AAR Vice President for Development Elizabeth Gray Kogen here.

AAR Fellows explore the San Spirito Hospital near the Vatican. Photo: Diana Mellon

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