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.
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 quantity 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.
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. After our first site visit, we often split in smaller groups for lunch. 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 on, we regrouped under the harsh midday sun to visit more sites and finally return, absolutely exhausted, to the hotel.
Of all the wonders of Old Rome, what fascinated me most were Trajan’s Market and the Pantheon. Trajan’s Market is an example par 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. We had learned in class that brick construction was particularly adapted to this design. The effect, however, was much more impressive in person than a picture ever 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.
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 imperceptible to someone without a sharp eye, that divulge 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.
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, then crossed the Tiber to the trendy Trastevere neighborhood and then 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 own interests in the Eternal City.
Food was another important experience for us all. We learned quickly—starting on the first night, as we struggled to keep our jetlagged 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 for 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.