Around Roma Antiqua in 7 Days!

Written by
Grant Bruner
Nov. 9, 2022

Around Roma Antiqua in 7 Days: ART 408 Travels to Rome, Italy

Salve! As a Classics major, I was accustomed to hearing the Latin word for "Hello!" at the start of a language class or as a greeting on the first day of the Princeton Certamen. You can imagine my bewilderment, then, when an Italian cashier welcomed me to his shop with a fluent Salve! on the second day of our class trip to Rome. Even after the passage of two thousand years and the gradual fading of the Latin language, the simple greeting salve somehow managed to survive unchanged. In retrospect, I should not have been so surprised—this common phrase is certainly not the most interesting heritage that the Ancient Romans have left for us today. 

A Roman imperial forum seen from Trajan's Market
View from Trajan's Market of the remains of a Roman imperial forum, house walls from the medieval period, the Renaissance of Santi Luca e Martina, and the modern Victor Emanuel II National Monument. (Photo/Grant Bruner)

Our class, ART 408: "Historical Structures: Ancient Architecture's Materials, Construction and Engineering," concentrates on the modeling and structural analysis of Roman architectural remains - in essence, which Roman buildings still stand today and why. Team-taught by Professors Koortbojian (art & archaeology) and Glisic (civil and environmental engineering), we study the development of the engineering techniques the Romans used, where those techniques were utilized, and how modern graphic statics can explain their structural stability. Yet, for all the PowerPoint slides, readings, and class handouts, it is still difficult to imagine the sheer size and scale of Roman structures. You have to be there to understand the giant blocks of travertine marble that the Romans cleaved for the Theatre of Marcellus or the number of bricks to fill up a single house in the city of Ostia. Our trip to Rome presented a unique opportunity to go beyond the measurements, statistics, and theories from class and experience these buildings ourselves.

Professor Koortbojian lecturing at Hadrian's Villa
Professor Koortbojian guiding the group through Hadrian's Villa (Photo/Ashton Fancy)

On this whirlwind trip, each day was a different adventure. We hit the ground early in the morning, always before 9:00 am, and immediately started our walk to our first site, descending the Esquiline and heading south to the Roman Forum. As we approached each site, professor Koortbojian led the front of the group, seemingly effortlessly recalling the building's history and discussing the construction machinery required to build its specific architectural feature. Professor Glisic, on the other hand, kept pace at the back, pointing out the various forces and stresses that the Romans and archaeological conservators grappled with in their designs. We often split into smaller groups for lunch after our first site visit. Three or four students was the perfect size to travel down a quaint back alleyway eatery or discover a small piazza with a sandwich shop. Later, we regrouped under the harsh midday sun to visit more sites and finally returned, absolutely exhausted, to the hotel.

Professor Glisic speaking in front of wall at Ostia
Professor Glisic speaking in front of a wall at Ostia Antica (Photo/Ashton Fancy)

Of all the wonders of Old Rome, what fascinated me most were Trajan's Market and the Pantheon. Trajan's Market is an example of the excellence of brick architecture in Rome. Built into the side of a hill, the Market forms a hemicycle shape, with the barrel vault in each stall curving in two dimensions to fit snugly with each other. In class, we learned that brick construction was particularly adapted to this design. However, the effect was much more impressive in person than a picture could have suggested. Walking through the restored buildings, one cannot help but imagine the visual effect of bustling small shops operating from the stall entrances or merchants hawking their wares along the curved street.

A partial view of the Markets of Trajan, showing many bricks and travertine blocks in situ.

A partial view of the Markets of Trajan, showing many bricks and travertine blocks in situ (Photo/Grant Bruner)

The Pantheon was a visual wonder, inside and out. In class, we had seen pictures of the massive dome and the coffered ceiling, lessening the weight of the thick concrete walls. The descriptions of the stately columnated entrance and the double pediment only magnified the presence of this incredibly preserved Roman temple. Yet I will never forget the awe I felt as Dr. Koortbojian led us around the Pantheon and pointed out the small cracks and flaws in the construction, almost invisible to someone without a sharp eye, that divulged how the construction process was halted and changed midway halfway up the structure. What seemed so obvious in person would have been impossible to appreciate from photography alone.

Street-level view of the Pantheon
Our class was fascinated by the Pantheon—we visited three times in seven days! (Photo/Grant Bruner)

Despite the burning sensation in the soles of our feet, students from ART 408 took advantage of their free time to explore the city of Rome, too. After the museums and monuments closed, students often broke into small groups to explore different parts of the city. One day, we walked along the river to the historic Campus Martius, crossed the Tiber to the trendy Trastevere neighborhood, and completed the loop through the Testaccio district south of the Roman Forum. Each person had a unique interest or background to share; at one point, I found myself standing with an architecture major and a civil engineer in front of a beautiful tempietto inside the grounds of the Spanish Academy in Rome! Our trip was incredibly enriched by the variety of perspectives of our peers and the free time to explore our interests in the Eternal City.

"Little temple" designed by the Renaissance architect Donato Bramante
The journey through Rome to reach this Classically inspired "little temple" designed by the Renaissance architect Donato Bramante was undoubtedly worthwhile. (Photo/Grant Bruner)
Group of students in the evening enjoying gelato
Dinner groups led by Professor Koortbojian and Professor Glisic indulge in the daily ritual of gelato after dinner.

Food was another significant experience for us all. We learned quickly—starting on the first night, as we struggled to keep our jet-lagged eyes open—that dinner in Italy is an extended affair. As much as we could, we tried different cuisines from around the city: kosher food from the historical Jewish areas, Roman snails, and even sheep brain (a dish, I'm told, that is not for the faint of heart). I especially loved meeting with a rotating list of one chaperone and three to four students during our "team dinners," which opened new opportunities for conversation across years and interests. And after dinner, there was always the famous Italian gelato!

Overall, ART 408 ranks among my most fondly remembered Princeton experiences. I am extremely grateful to Professor Koortbojian, professor Glisic, art & archaeology graduate student Ashton Fancy, and Assistant Dean Johanna Rossi Wagner for their guidance and commentary throughout the trip. It is easy to forget that we are so blessed to have these incredible opportunities to learn, grow, and interact with the material we study in detail in the classroom. Yet these co-curricular experiences are what makes learning at Princeton so special.

Group pose at Rome airport
We celebrated the 276th anniversary of the founding of the University charter from Rome's airport!