Behind the deceptively austere neo-classical frontage of the BSR resides a lively multi-cultural community where ideas are swapped over the communal dining table.
Since this is the year of EXPO Milan, it is intriguing to think that the British School at Rome, which rears solid, lofty and august above the Valle Giulia on the fringe of the Villa Borghese park, was originally conceived as a pavilion for the International EXPO Rome of 1911.
At that time, Britannia ruled the waves, and the British government was determined to create a showcase that would reflect the glory of the Empire. Eminent architect Edwin Lutyens (whose works include the Cenotaph Memorial in London and the India Gate at New Delhi) was charged with the task. Taking as his inspiration the upper story of St Paul's Cathedral, London, he designed a grandiose neo-classical façade atop a sweeping flight of stairs worthy of a Palladian palace.
The facade, however, was just that – an imposing frontage to house an exhibition of British art. Along with most of the other buildings created for the World Fair, it was not intended to be permanent and almost all the pavilions were demolished once the show was over. However, Sir Rennell Rodd, the British ambassador at the time, had a better idea. The precursor of the present institute, the British School of Archaeology, History and Letters of Rome, was housed in somewhat cramped conditions in Palazzo Odescalchi in Piazza SS. Apostoli and needed a new seat. Rodd convinced the Italian government to donate the land where the British pavilion stood so that the school could move to more suitable premises. Only the façade was preserved. The interior had to be rebuilt to provide resident facilities, a library and a dining room for the Fellows. It was granted its Royal Charter on 22 June 1912 and the first resident student arrived in 1916.
Although the empire is long gone, the school maintains close links with the Commonwealth countries, hosting many scholarship winners from Commonwealth nations, as well as from the UK and Ireland. This leads to a lively mix of talents and differing cultural backgrounds.
“We have a very special community here,” says director Christopher Smith. “The most important thing about being part of it is how much stimulating and exciting work we do. We have a communal table so that our fellows can eat together and discuss their work projects and research programmes in a relaxed, congenial atmosphere.”
The BSR caters for the full range of the arts, humanities and social sciences. Accommodation, however, is limited, with only seven artists' studios and 23 twin and single bedrooms available, with no provision for accompanying family members.
“However, we do have a big turnover,” Smith explains. “The average stay is ten days. In a single year as many as 600 visitors may pass through our doors.”
Smith is also president of the Rome Foreign Academies Association, coordinating a network of activities involving many of the 30 or so foreign cultural institutes, as well as Italian universities, archaeology departments and researchers. During the first three months of this year alone, the BSR held three international conferences on themes ranging from the Adriatic and Byzantium, Roman port societies and Italy and mediaeval Europe, in addition to its regular programme of talks, seminars, book launches, workshops and exhibitions, while carrying out its core activity of hosting the constant flow of award-winners and fellows.
With such a complex organization, funding is a priority. Smith is proud of the fact that the school manages each year to match the grant it receives from the British government with the assistance of private donations and financial backing from outside sources. This year, he says, the school needs major maintenance work done on the roof as well as a new heating system to make the building more energy efficient.
The BSR is probably best known for its archaeological achievements. During its 100-year history it has been the leader in many important projects, involving sites in the Campagna Romana, the Tiber Valley, Etruria, Abruzzo, Campania and Molise. In recent years, it has also led the way in promoting the use of cutting-edge technologies, such as georadar and magnetometry, to explore and study archaeological sites.
One of the School's most acclaimed successes is the Herculaneum conservation project – the epitome of a well-run archaeological site and a real pleasure to visit. The project was launched some 14 years ago in collaboration with the archaeological heritage office of Naples and Pompeii and with financial backing from the Packard Humanities Institute of California. Recent research has focused on the old sewage system, where fruit stones, pips and animal bones have revealed new insight into the diet of the first-century citizens, and also produced the odd surprise like a gold ring that some Roman lady must have been sorry to lose!
In recent years, BSR has branched into the web, backing initiatives like the Portus Project, a stimulating online archaeology course, free and open to all, centred on Trajan's port near Rome's Fiumicino airport and run by the British University of Southampton. In addition, it is contributing to the new European Eagle Project (launched in 2013), which aims to digitise the vast collection of Greco-Roman inscriptions of the ancient world and make them available online.
Meanwhile, BRS award-holders continue to make their impact on the outside world. Last year, former residents could be found exhibiting or curating events at major museums and venues like the Tate Modern, the Hayward Gallery and the Royal Academy in London, as well as the Venice Architecture Biennale.
Smith believes that foreign academies fill a vital role in supporting research and culture. “This is a very special community that brings different talents and cultures together.” It isn't enough to study books, he says, you have to see the real thing and Rome provides the right stimulation and environment.
In an average year the BSR holds 70 events and three exhibitions which are all open to the public. All details are listed in advance on the website, www.bsr.ac.uk, while to join the events mailing list contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The British School at Rome holds a regular programme of fascinating and diverse events. Here is a selection of events happening in May.
6 May. Lo scavo dell’Ospedale Militare Celio: dalla prima alla seconda schola dei dendrofori a Roma, by Paola Palazzo and Carlo Pavolini (La Tuscia, Viterbo). City of Rome lecture series. 18.00-19.30.
13 May. Pagan priests, Christian prefects, and religious change in late antique Rome, by Carlos Machado (St Andrews). City of Rome lecture series. 18.00-19.30.
18 May. Rebooting the Postwar Academy, by Denise Costanzo (AAR; Penn State). What is a “modern academy”? From 1945-1960, Rome’s academies resumed their operations in an eternal city but a new world, and confronted this question, even as a widening circle of nations also chose to establish new centres in the city. 17.00–19.30.
20 May. The Byzantine Sack of Rome, by Robert Coates-Stephens (BSR). City of Rome lecture series. 18.00-19.30.