Teaching Roman Monuments

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Categories: GSI Online Library

by Kimberly Cassibry, History of Art

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

In the highly charged natural and man-made geography of Rome, where a monument stood was very much part of the story.

Ann Kuttner, “Some New Grounds for Narrative” in Narrative and Event in Ancient Art, 1993, p. 208.

In recent lectures on monuments of the Roman Empire, my students had learned nuances of style, structure and subject matter. In my discussion sections, I needed to teach them the elusive significance of site. Unfortunately, slides and textbook illustrations divorce these monuments from their urban context and distort their relative scale. Plans of Rome are particularly problematic because the city has been continuously occupied for more than 3000 years. Even plans that peel away the layers of modern, Renaissance and mediaeval Rome tend to stop in late antiquity, and record the city as it looked in 300 CE, by which time most of ancient Rome’s monuments coexisted. I wanted my students to recognize the urban impact of such monuments as the Colosseum and Trajan’s Column, and to do that, I had to help them imagine the way Rome looked before these structures existed. I also wanted them to understand the power of association in Roman architecture. By the first century BCE, Rome had been occupied for over 600 years and leading citizens had left their mark on the city center. Rome’s emperors savvily exploited the various associations of these monuments by building near them.

While studying in Rome, I had collected several large, foldout maps which showed the ancient city from different angles and from both the early (1st century BCE) and late (4th century CE) phases of the Roman Empire. Because students participate more actively in front of smaller audiences, I divided each discussion section into four groups of five students. I allocated each group a different map and a list of monuments from different periods of the empire. Each group had to point out the assigned sites to me before trading maps with a neighboring group and beginning the process again. Looking for these monuments on several different maps not only helped them see the city from different angles, it showed them which buildings coexisted, and which monuments, when added, disrupted former connections and created new ones.

Now that I had connected the buildings horizontally, how could I restore a sense of the vertical cityscape? In general, the academic technology of art history (only slide projection gives us maximum resolution) lags behind the entertainment technology that undergraduates take for granted, especially video game animation. In a promising development, however, several virtual reality DVDs have recently resurrected ancient Rome, and their reconstructions permit the modern visitor to walk though different neighborhoods of the city. Students’ eyes always light up when I bring this new teaching tool into the classroom. For this section, I played an animated tour of ancient Rome’s city center once so that students could orient themselves, and subsequently ran the tour repeatedly while we discussed it. Because students respond better when I begin with a broadly framed question, I asked them what new information they were gaining from this digital reconstruction. “The buildings are all different heights.” “The buildings are not perfectly aligned — they look squished in.” This last comment lead to a discussion of why Roman emperors would prefer to build in the congested urban center rather than on airy tracts in the suburbs. Building on what they had learned from the maps, the students engaged in a lively and insightful discussion of the power of site association, one of the principles of Roman architecture I had hoped they would take away from that day’s section.

Because discussion sections are interactive, the GSI receives instant feedback on the success of her lesson plan. In this case, the responses to the questions I asked during groupwork on the maps, and the dynamic discussion that followed the virtual reality tour showed me that the students had grasped the significance of monument location in ancient Rome.