Anniversary of an Experiment: Celebrating a Consolidated Academy, 1911-2011

Planning for the present site on the Janiculum of the American Academy, 1911

In 2011 the American Academy in Rome celebrates the 100th anniversary of the decisions of the Managing Committee of American School of Classical Studies in Rome (11 February 1911) and the Trustees of the American Academy in Rome (14 February 1911) to unite so they could together more effectively advance the study, investigation and practice of the arts and humanities. Henceforth the two institutions were to be consolidated under the title of the American Academy in Rome, with a School of Fine Arts and a School of Classical Studies. This is the arrangement that remains through the present day.

In order to permit unification with the Classical School, the 1905 act of Congress incorporating the Academy had to be amended. This amendment, sponsored by Senator Elihu Root, was passed on 6 June 1912; Root received the Nobel Peace Prize that same year (though not for this!). The consolidation agreement was finally ratified by the AAR on 11 February 1913. In 1914 the two Schools took up their new home on the Janiculum, designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, and largely paid for by J. Pierpont Morgan. It was a daring merger which, at the time, came under the scrutiny of  the educated public across the United States.

The Academy’s McKim, Mead & White building on the Janiculum, shortly after completion in 1914

At 7 PM on Wednesday 13 April 2011 the AAR will mark this momentous anniversary year with a Centenary Celebration Dinner at The Plaza Hotel, New York. The Chairmen are Mr. and Mrs. Sid R. Bass; honored that evening will be AAR Trustee Emeritus Frank Gehry and current Trustee Paul LeClerc.

A bit of historical background to these crucial decisions of 1911. It was in 1894 that there was established an American School of Architecture in Rome, which soon would be renamed the American Academy. (It is somewhat uncanny that McKim, Mead & White built the Metropolitan Club building—present home of the Academy’s New York headquarters—that very same year.) In 1895 another organization (none other than the Archaeological Institute of America) created an entirely separate institution in Rome, the American School of Classical Studies.

The archaeologists soon attempted to share quarters with the architects, at the magnificent Villa Aurora, a property which the Americans rented from the Boncompagni Ludovisi family. But the experiment ended in disaster. Space issues and the mutual disdain of the two groups sent the scholars scurrying to find their own home.

Above, one of the first six books purchased for the new American School of Architecture, based at the Villa Aurora—Lanciani’s Ancient Rome (London 1891).

One hundred years ago, in 1911, the Academy began to establish a permanent home in Rome, based on the Janiculum thanks to the bequest of the Villa Aurelia by the American-born Mrs. Clara Jessup Heyland (died 1909). It took remarkable breadth of vision for the Academy to invite the classicists back. Charles F. McKim (died 1909) and J. Pierpont Morgan (died 1913) had tirelessly promoted the merger.

Villa Aurelia, 1911

Others had grave doubts. An art critic in the periodical The Nation underlined the contemporary anxiety: “The permanent alliance of practicing artists with philologers and archaeologists is of so novel a sort that it has on both sides aroused misgiving. It has seemed to some an arbitrary and unnatural bond.”

The classics world had its worries, too. There were fears that with the merger, the relatively new American School of Classical Studies would allow itself to be turned into a School of Fine Arts. By this time, the American School had a substantial library, a $100,000 endowment (perhaps as much as $12,500,000 in 2011 dollars), and continuing subscriptions from a number of colleges and foundations. Though it had only about a tenth of the resources of the American Academy, it seemed quite capable of self-support.

Villa Aurelia, 1911, Note the view in lower photo of the Garibaldi memorial and the cupola of St. Peter’s (no longer readily visible for the trees)

The question of  merger was particularly acute for the classicists and archaeologists, because the old American Academy was composed entirely of male Fellows, who, at the time, came to Rome for a three-year course of study. However, the American School of Classical Studies had women as full Fellows; indeed, a good part of its financial support came from the leading women’s colleges. Despite the perils, the merger went through at separate meetings of the two institutions on the 11th and 14th of February 1911.

Villa Aurelia, 1911

In the earliest years of this experiment, the Academy and its friends produced a tremendous amount of passionate prose on the consolidation. In 1915, Academy Trustee C. Grant La Farge tried to drown out the skeptics by offering this scenario of life in the new, multi-disciplinary Academy: “A painter discovers the wonderful picturesqueness and interest of Cretan costume, and so goes to Crete, works as an archaeologist, makes all sorts of notes, collects all sorts of objects, and then embarks upon a huge mural-painting in which he brings back to life this extraordinary, newly discovered past.”

It is tempting to dismiss this bizarre scenario as fantasy, except that La Farge seems to be recounting the actual experience of a painting Fellow of the previous year, Frederick Charles Stahr, FAAR’14.

In the years to come, the bold, multi-disciplinary experiment was to work much better that expected. It continues to work so well that, today, it is hard to imagine that the Academy ever could have been different.

Below, interior views of the Academy’s McKim, Mead & White building shortly after completion in 1914…

Entrance vestibule

Above two photos, views of “Founder’s Court” (now generally called the Cortile)

Library

“Common Room”

Dining room

Villa Aurelia gardens, 1911. Image: AAR Photographic Archive.

[The above historical sketch is adapted from an essay by AAR Mellon Professor Corey Brennan FAAR’88, in American Academy in Rome: Celebrating a Century (1994) 130-132]

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