Q&A with art history professor Nicola Camerlenghi

by Abigail Mihaly | 11/10/17 2:00am


Art history professor Nicola Camerlenghi and his colleagues from other institutions photographed nearly 4,000 maps, prints and drawings from the last 3,000 years of Roman history at archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani’s archive in Rome and created a website to house these archives, widening access to Rome’s historical objects for scholars and the general public. The Lanciani archive project was a part of the larger “Mapping Rome” project, a collaboration between faculty members across universities to map the development of Roman architecture over the last 3,000 years. He works on the Mapping Rome project with students at the Dartmouth College Rome Center and teaches Art History 1, “Bodies and Buildings: Introduction to the History of Art in the Ancient World and the Middle Ages,” as well as courses about medieval architecture and renaissance architecture.

How did you first get involved in the Mapping Rome project?

NC: I got involved when I was still teaching at the University of Oregon, so before coming to Dartmouth in 2013. There’s a pretty solid history of studying things relating to Rome and maps at the University of Oregon. I took inspiration from there and brought my own interests, in particular things that had to do with the Middle Ages, and brought a whole new facet to the project. It was a nice match because my interests are in the Middle Ages, and the ones at Oregon were more the Renaissance and Baroque period, so 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. So what I was able to do was bring it back even a thousand years earlier and bring some of my interest and expertise into the picture.

What is Lanciani’s archive?

NC: The Lanciani project is this huge treasure trove of drawings and prints and maps that this particular archeologist Rodolfo Lanciani had collected over the course of his career. We photographed about 4,000 objects, and we have catalogued them and made them available online so people can consult this archive, which otherwise is not really accessible because it is in a tower in a 15th century building in Rome. You need special permission to go in. So we’ve made a lot of that material available to scholars anywhere in the world.

The project fits in to a bigger picture called “Mapping Rome,” which is also a website. That is a more ongoing project about taking a city like Rome and its 3,000 years of architectural history, from 1,000 B.C. when it was founded all the way up to today. We’re working on placing things in space and in time, to know what was where, when. That’s kind of the idea behind the maps we’re creating — seeing how a city changes overtime, that’s what Mapping Rome is.

Why is it important to digitalize this work?

NC: It’s important to digitalize it because some of it is quite old and not in the greatest of conditions, and so every time a scholar wants to see the things, it risks damaging the objects. That said, there are particular reasons a scholar needs to see the original, but in a lot of cases the original was just as good as a high-resolution photograph.

Who do you hope will take advantage of this digitalized artwork?

NC: I think it can range from amateur, in the literal sense of the word — an amateur is someone who has a keen interest in something, in this case in the city of Rome. And there are lots of people who are kind of professional tourists, people who take the city quite seriously when they travel and want to learn about it.

And at the same time, the archives can be useful to someone who does this as a profession who needs to see, learn and compare images. When you have 4,000 images, you can do some pretty good research on the Colosseum looking at the 60 or even 80 images that we have of the Colosseum that we’ve scanned over the course of several centuries, so that you can do comparative studies on how the Colosseum has changed.

How have Dartmouth undergraduates helped with the project, and how has collaborating with students been beneficial to your work?

NC: I’ve worked with students that are both currently enrolled and alumni who for one reason or another have kept close ties with the department of art history and are now going on to do Ph.D. research, for example in art history. And in that in-between time, where they were leaving Dartmouth and not yet enrolled in a Ph.D. program, they kept in touch and we enlisted them to do pretty intensive research about these images.

That means in some cases, going to the archive, looking at the drawings, measuring, studying and making observations about the drawings, that is, people who were actually in Rome working on the material. And also students who are currently enrolled who were doing more observational things where they work on the drawings as they were scanned and digitized, trying to help us catalogue all this material. The students were quite skilled and useful at making this data available and properly catalogued.

It’s been beneficial because having a lot of smart students that are interested in art history and Rome, having them be on board, the project has meant having dialogue and conversation about the material, which brings it alive for both me and the students. Having this stuff be more than just an image on a screen, having it be part of a bigger discussion about Rome, about what buildings do, what buildings mean and things like that, that’s been rewarding for me personally, and I think for the students to have the kind of conversations that go on in preparation of the curating. We’re kind of creating an exhibition like people in a museum do, so they’ve in essence been helping organize this material in a logical way like a curator in a museum would do. The only difference is that our museum is virtual — we have a website, not an actual space where you can see all these objects physically and in person.

Has art history always been an interest of yours?

NC: I started college wanting to be a theatre major, and maybe a physics major. And then I took an art history class my freshman year and it was an enormous class, 400 students, but I had a great professor at Yale University, and I have to say, despite the size, I was pretty much hooked and completely entranced by the subject. In particular, it’s the architecture more than the art, so not paintings or sculptures but buildings. That excited me early on, and I’ve never really let go ever since.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about your work, or the “Mapping Rome” project?

NC: We are always looking for students interested in technology, computers, mapping, like using geographic information systems, using computers to create historic maps. We’re interested in people who like Rome, who like history, who like to make sense of things as they were, physical spaces that somehow, although they were build 2,000 years ago, are still meaningful, they still are exciting, they still move us emotionally.

The Dartmouth College Rome Center is a nice way to merge high-tech computer programing with the humanities, so it’s a nice way to bridge things that might otherwise be very separate and in two different niches. For students, it’s like, ‘Oh, are you a science student or are you a humanities student?’ Well this is the kind of student who is both. And it’s the kind of student that frankly I have found a lot of at Dartmouth because the interests are often very broad and students are smart and curious.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.