Founding the American Academy in Rome, 1894-1897

Interior courtyard of the Palazzo Torlonia. The American School of Architecture in Rome first rented rooms here from November 1894 to July 1895. Photo: Nancy Austin

Visiting Scholar Nancy Austin spent February 2010 at the AAR researching the material traces of the original  Academy during its first twenty years, from 1894-1914. Her focus has been on the physical situation of the AAR before its 1911 merger with the American School of Classical Studies in Rome, and the 1914 establishment of a new home on the Gianicolo for the united institutions. In an earlier article on this blog, Austin discussed the role of the Villa Aurora in the life of the Academy from 1895-1907. Here is Nancy Austin’s second posting on the earliest history of the Academy…

“Not quite 130 years ago, the Rotch family of Massachusetts and Charles Follen McKim set up the very first traveling scholarships in America, for young architects.  These pioneering bequests are landmarks in American support of the arts. The Rotch Traveling Scholarship was founded in 1883 and continues to this day. McKim established a similar traveling scholarship in 1889 with a bequest of $20,000. In each case, the early prize winner was left to devise his own itinerary before heading off with no supervision, contacts, or any expectation besides the minimal requirement to send back letters and drawings from their travels abroad.  It was a tempting freedom, but many a pilgrim needs a host.”

“Back in America, it didn’t take long for McKim to imagine the value of establishing an American Academy in Rome as a centralized and united home base for the proliferating number of traveling scholarships and other fellowships that sprang up in the 1890s.  From the beginning, McKim envisioned the American Academy in Rome as a national embassy of the arts, and host to the proud winners of prize scholarships in architecture and the “allied arts” of painting, sculpture, and music.”

“From the beginning, McKim embraced a partnership with classics, and sought out the renowned classical archeologist, Edward Robinson (1858-1931), as the hoped-for first Director of the Academy.  Together, this interdisciplinary community based in Rome would transform the possibilities of the nomadic traveling scholarship, and send back to America a networked community of artists-as-catalysts.”

“It should not be a surprise that McKim, the architect, thought of the developing genre of traveling scholarships as an opportunity for place making, despite the apparent paradox. Nor should we question the lightning-quick rapidity with which he moved from the documented first mention of what became the American Academy, in late March 1894, to the successful launch of his pilot program, the American School of Architecture in Rome, a mere eight months later.”

The Palazzo Torlonia is on the right, at 78 Via Bocca di Leone and Via dei Condotti. Photo: Nancy Austin

“In November 1894, the first branch of the American Academy in Rome opened in eight rooms on the top floor of the Palazzo Torlonia, at Via Bocca di Leone and Via dei Condotti. It was an ideal location, near the Spanish Steps and in jealous proximity to the French Academy at the Villa Medici. One could breakfast with other artists at the famous Caffè Greco around the corner, and dine at the Hotel d’Angleterre across the street.”

“The Palazzo Torlonia rooms provided the winners of the Rotch, McKim, and a third Traveling Scholarship with a live/work residency in the center of Rome, and the mentoring oversight of a former Rotch Traveling Scholar. As befitted this first-year start-up, the studios were only equipped with basic drafting tables and no frills, like chairs.”

“However, a draconian budget did not prevent the first investment in the library to begin in October 1894 with the purchase of six books on Roman history. (Copies of these books are still in the Library collection of the American Academy in Rome.)”

Above, one of the first six books purchased for the new American School of Architecture—Lanciani’s Ancient Rome (London 1891). Photos: Corey Brennan

The American Academy in Rome leased the Villa Aurora from 1895 to 1907. The first director, A.W. Lord, took this photograph in 1897. By permission of the John Hay Library, Brown University

“For its second year, from 1895-1896, the American School of Architecture in Rome partnered with the American School of Classical Studies in Rome. With eager seriousness, the nascent Academy upgraded from a walk-up apartment to the prestigious Villa Aurora—an historic walled compound, ‘the size of the enclosed space in Gramercy Park’, and even closer to the French Academy at the Villa Medici.”

“As early as February 1895, McKim petitioned to have the next winners of the Rotch, McKim, and Stewardson Traveling Scholarships in architecture again be sent to Rome. To further this goal, an additional Rome Prize Scholarship in architecture was announced, apparently funded by Columbia University. All four architecture competitions were co-coordinated to use the same ‘problem’ and have the same deadline of 6 April 1895. However, the Roman Scholarship jury would meet after, and independent of, the three other Traveling Scholarship juries. In this way, John Russell Pope, winner of both the $2000 McKim and $1500 Rome Prize Scholarships, has entered institutional history as the first Rome Prize Fellow of the Academy.”

“After January 1896, the prize winning architects were joined by sculptors awarded the Rinehart Scholarship, and the following January saw the first painter, George W. Breck, winner of the new Lazarus Scholarship. This kind of growth caused inevitable conflicts over space allocation at the Villa Aurora. For this and other reasons, the classicists decided to move to their own headquarters before the start of the third academic year, rejoining the Academy again in the 1914 move to the Janiculum.”

“McKim only allowed himself three short years, from 1894-1897, to leverage the American School of Architecture in Rome into a stronger, broader alliance. And he succeeded. On 8 June 1897 the American Academy in Rome was formally organized, with architects and artists from many disciplines elected as trustees. Like the French Academy, the American Academy in Rome would pay tribute to the national standing of the arts in America. Unlike other countries, the American Academy would have to bear the burden of passing from generation to generation the accrued opportunity of each hard-won, privately funded Traveling Scholarship, mostly tumbleweed bequests left by artists for artists.”

“There would be no American Academy in Rome without the founding leadership of these architects and artists collaboratively choreographing private funding for the arts into something more than the sum of each individual bequest. And it began with the vision of one architect who wanted to make this place, a particular kind of place, which many have called home.”

Rare interior view of the American Academy in Rome in 1897 at the Villa Aurora, taken by the first director, A. W. Lord. By permission of the John Hay Library, Brown University.

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