Sunday, 19 October 2014

Travels with Li Dongni - Fiesole, Italy (September 2014)

During a trip to the wonderful Renaissance city of Florence (other elements of which I'll no doubt be blogging about in due course), we took the chance to head out into the Tuscan countryside to see some other sites.  In this instance, it also allowed me to see some of the more ancient landscape around Florence, as the city's own Roman past is now quite hard to see.

Fiesole is roughly a thirty minute bus ride northeast of Florence and sits in a wonderful position, rising up into the mountains away from the valley that Florence sits in, and offering superb views.  The bus ride itself was fascinating as it winded its way up the narrow, curving roads, as we started chatting with a friendly Australian chap who had moved to Fiesole a few years earlier and clearly loved his new home.  We actually went in the later afternoon, as we'd been on the train to Pisa that day already, but intended to catch the sunset after seeing the town and its Roman remains.

The origins of the town lie with the Etruscans, and it was probably founded in the 9th-8th Century BC.  Only sections of the walls of this original settlement exist, which we'd almost given up on seeing until we stumbled across them while exploring the hillside.




The town came under the control of the expanding Roman republic in 283BC, and became known as Faesulae.  It was made a colony by the infamous general and dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

The visible Roman remains today are contained within an archaeological park, which includes a lovely museum, which is where we'll begin the tour...



The museum sits just inside the entrance to the park, and is deceptively large inside.  Situated on higher land than the main remains, there are also some nice teaser views of the ancient remains, particularly the theatre, from the windows.  The collections are varied, encompassing finds from the town from the Etruscan, Roman and Lombardic (Early Medieval) periods.  The collections of Roman bronzes and stone carving are particularly fine, if a little old fashioned in their presentation.










The Lombardic material isn't usually my cup of tea, so I confess I didn't spend as much time looking at it, but the presentation of a single warrior burial, combined with the fabulous quality of the weaponry and belt fittings on show, certainly made it memorable.






An unexpected surprise was a large selection of Greek ceramics.  Their origins weren't clear, but the quality and variety certainly was.  Sadly my old nemesis - display case reflections - stopped me taking as many photos of these as I might have done.








Before we leave the museum and head out into the remains themselves, I have to mention the interactive tablet the museum had available (they didn't have a catchy name for it though, sadly).  I confess I don't usually go for these, but this one was very well done and provided a good overview of the development of the site, and had some nice animations showing the development of key structures






In the archaeological park itself, there are three main structures to be seen - a theatre, a temple and a bath house.  The theatre is by far the most visible and the easiest to interpret of all the remains, and is a remarkably impressive and well preserved example.








Just around the corner sits the remains of the temple.  The earliest temple on the site was Etruscan, but the Romans were to later enlarge this structure.  The site interpretation suggested that the temple was dedicated to Minerva, but I confess I don't remember seeing any finds or inscriptions in the museum that confirmed this attribution.  The steps up to what would have been the entrance survive to a good degree, and I found them very evocative.  Although not very clearly labelled for the casual visitor, it was wonderful to be able to wander into the cella and imagine what the structure was once originally like.  In front of the steps stands a large altar, again a striking reminder of the activity that once took place here.






No Roman site is complete without the ubiquitous baths.  The Fiesole baths contain the usual suites of rooms and pools, with some nice pilae from a hot room and a set of three arches from the frigidarium still standing.









To finish our visit, we wandered up to a viewing point recommended to us by our new Australian friend, close to the monastery of San Francesco and watched the sun setting over Florence.  The photos below, then, are some of these more general shots of the town and its setting.








Monday, 28 July 2014

Tutmania at the Ashmolean

I was very pleased to be able to pay a quick visit this weekend to the new 'Discovering Tutankhamun' exhibition at Oxford's Ashmolean museum, especially since (swanky showoff alert) I'd been invited to the preview event but not been able to go.



The really nice thing about the exhibition is that the focus, as the title suggests, is on the discovery, recording and analysis of the tomb rather than the bling that was recovered.  Admittedly this is slightly risky considering that the average tourist will have a very specific set of expectations when hearing the name 'Tutankhamun' - but this reaction is exactly what the exhibition plays upon so well.  Just how did this discovery lead to the creation of a worldwide phenomenon and a flood of interest in everything Egypt?  Why does the name have such international recognition ahead of Pharaohs such as Rameses II or Thutmose III?

The early rooms of the exhibition focus on Carter and his colleagues, and its nice to see that characters such as the photographer Harry Burton get as much attention as the more famous Carter.  I was particularly pleased as Burton is a native of Stamford, in Lincolnshire.  The photographs and drawings on show beautifully illustrate that posterity hasn't given the team anywhere near enough credit for their attempts to carefully and scientifically record their findings.  In particular, Carter's drawings show his skill as an artist and draughtsman, and the guache paintings of artefacts by Winifred Brunton are genuinely stunning artworks in their own right.

The exhibition moves on to examine the public reaction to the discovery and the emergence of 'Tutmania', through a series of displays focussing on music, fashion and music influenced, and attempting to cash in on, the find of the century.  Its an interesting subject, though perhaps a little too much of the exhibition space was taken up with this material for my taste.

One thing I did find very interesting was the display with letters received by Carter after the discovery.  Some were simply congratulatory, others seeking to buy the artefacts.  Sadly, even today some people seem unable to appreciate history unless they personally own a piece of it, as this letter from an Australian to Carter demonstrates:

"Please could you send me a souvenir from the tomb of King Tutankhamun.  I am intensely interested in history and would like very much like to see and handle a relic of ancient times.  I am enclosing a postal order to cover costs."

I sincerely hope the request was never acted on!


Friday, 11 July 2014

A trip to Coventry - 'Roman Empire: Power and People'

The latest British Museum touring exhibition doing the rounds is currently residing at the Herbert in Coventry, and having failed to make it down to Norwich to see it at its previous venue, I was very pleased to be able to head across this evening to not only look around the exhibition, but also attend a very good lecture on Roman numismatics, of which more later.



I have to start with a tiny grumble, though not one that the Herbert has any control over.  Its something that afflicts every BM touring exhibition - a ban on gallery photography.  I get why some exhibitions have copyright problems, but the archaeology in this show doesn't suffer from this hindrance.  Likewise, some material is susceptible to light damage, but only allowing non-flash photography is now standard in most institutions.  There are no photographic restrictions when the objects are on display in the BM or in their local galleries, so why the change in policy when they are part of a formal exhibition like this?  It feels like such a backward step when we should be encouraging people to share their gallery experiences and promote the subject in the process.

But enough with the grumbles as the exhibition is very good, and strikes a lovely balance between BM material (British and international in nature) and local material.  This is a nice parallel with the study of Roman archaeology in general, which can vary hugely in scale between the truly classical and international and the incredibly local picture encountered in the different parts of Roman Britain.  A particularly nice example of this was the film of the Herbert's archaeology curator, Paul Thompson, teleporting around the Midlands to talk about local sites, which I really enjoyed.

Some of the objects on show are wonderful, and the selection for a touring show is adventurous.  Items like the gilded bronze Hercules from Birdoswald, the stone carving of Horus in armour, the flourite 'Crawford Cup', and the variety of fine marble tomb monuments and altars are objects of the highest quality and benefit from the detailed attention they are given.  Also to be lauded is the decision to place so many of them on open display.  The lack of a pane of glass between viewer and object, as we all know, enhances the experience immensely.

On a more local level, it was an unexpected thrill to see items such as the Mars rider figurine from Norton Disney and a votive plaque with Vulcan from the famous Barkway hoard - both items I only knew from photographs and had not expected to come face to face with during my visit.  I was also very happy to see the coins and pot from the Selby coin hoard, which I have previously blogged about because of the funky science used to examine it.

One area where photography was allowed was a neat section where visitors can step into a Roman coin and become the Imperial portrait of Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine the Great.


The second element of the trip was a very enjoyable evening lecture by Dr Clare Rowan of Warwick University.  Her topic was 'Coinage and Communication in the Roman Empire', which she tackled with palpable enthusiasm, keeping a good balance between the development of Roman coinage and its myriad imagery and social contexts.  Her blog on Roman numismatics can be seen here, and is well worth checking out.