Professor Michael Koortbojian’s graduate seminar “The Historiated Columns” focused on two of the greatest extant examples of Roman monumental art—the Column of Trajan, with its 2,662 human and divine figures presenting a pictorial narrative of the Dacian Wars of 101–106 c.e., and the later Column of Marcus Aurelius, modeled on Trajan’s column and similar in scale, but depicting Marcus Aurelius’s Danube campaigns in a more dramatic style executed in higher relief. After a semester of intensive study of the columns in Princeton, the seminar culminated with a week-long trip to Rome over winter break, allowing the students in the class—Nicole Brown, Brandon Green, Megan Goldman-Petri, Leon Grek (comparative literature), Daniel Healey, Laura Lesswing, Caroline Mann (classics), Betsy Osenbaugh, and Heather Russo—to examine the monuments at first hand.
One of the highlights of the trip was the opportunity to study the complete set of casts of the frieze of the Column of Trajan that were made for Emperor Louis Napoléon III in 1861–62 and are now exhibited in the Museo della Civiltà Romana. In addition to being displayed at eye level, where every detail of the frieze can be examined closely, the plaster casts also present the sculptures of the column in a more pristine state, before a century and a half of weathering and deterioration. During their extended examination of the casts, the class nearly froze in the unheated rooms of the museum’s cavernous, uninsulated halls, which were originally built to house the Universal Exhibition of 1942.
The weeklong stay also included visits to many of Rome’s major monuments and museums—the Musei Capitolini and Conservatori; the Vatican, where the group was joined by scholars Matteo Cadario and Elizabeth Bartman; the Palazzo Massimo; and the Palazzo Altemps. The students found it especially instructive to be able to compare the monuments they had studied all semester with other relief sculptures in Rome’s many museums.
A real bonus was a tour of the exhibition Augusto, one of the largest exhibitions ever on the subject of Rome’s first emperor, held in commemoration of the 2000th anniversary of his death. Exhibiting 200 works from the reign of Augustus, the show featured objects that many in the class had never seen, as well as offering fresh perspectives on favorite works from a pivotal moment in the history of art.
In addition to avidly consuming the visual culture of ancient Rome, the class also relished many excellent meals and bottles of wine.