June 14, 2013

Three Scholars at a Leaning Tower

Three scholars at a leaning tower. It sounds like a title for an obscure work of Chinese brush painting. But it is not. It was a scene from my summer in Italy, circa 1990. I had accompanied my husband on a month long trip to Italy, where he had won a National Endowment Fellowship grant to study in an on location seminar organized by Professor Julia Geiser and Professor Phyllis Bober. We were based in Rome for the six week engagement but took a number of sojourns around Italy, both as part of the NEH entourage of scholars as well as to follow our separate interests.

During our stay in Rome, for the most part I made my own daily arrangements for museum going and sight seeing while my husband attended seminar lectures and other official functions. But occasionally I would tag along on some of the NEH study tours and lectures organized for the seminarians. One such educational tour was an outing to Bomarzo. Bomarzo was a curiosity from the Renaissance. Apparently it was all the rage at the time to create “faux” Etruscan ruins replete with half buried semi-deteriorated looking statues and architectural fragments. One such manufactured ruin that caught my eye was a leaning tower and I made several sketches of this. I recently discarded them all save one. I chose the one which included three art historians, partly because I had used the sketch as a basis for two paintings, but also for sentimental reasons. I remember vividly the male art historian but cannot recall his name. The two women were Professor Phyllis Bober and her graduate assistant Marjorie Och (now a professor of Art History at Mary Washington College).

As I cleaned and revised my sketch, fleshing it out with charcoal and grey pastels, I recalled Phyllis Bober. Professor Bober was one of those rare gems of humanity, compassionate, a gifted educator with a brilliant mind and a wry wit. And despite her stature in academia she was entirely without pretense. It was a great comfort to me that Phyllis Bober was leading this seminar because although most of the attending scholars were pleasantly approachable, a few were somewhat diffident about my being an occasional tag along spouse at official NEH event. It was good to have on someone on hand who had egalitarian leanings and could make a community out of any group of people. In my fleeting opportunities to speak with Professor Bober, I was always charmed by her insights and by her attentive interest in my own observations. She was interested in a broad range of topics both in and outside of the field of art history. Her book Art Culture & Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy is certainly evidence of her range.

I could see that Professor Bober was much admired by her students. Who could not help but admire a trail blazing woman academician who advanced scholarship in a field that, at the close of World War Two, was still the provenance of men? I recall being moved by her self-effacing story of her reluctance and fear on her way to defend her dissertation before a panel of all men. It was a poignant story even then. I recall that women art historians among the attending seminarians outnumbered the men about nine to one. It seemed as though university art history departments in the later part of the twentieth century had become a safe haven for female PhD’s.

The three art historians at the tower in Bomarzo from the summer of 1990 are amorphous forms in my drawing. Yet I recall them as if it were yesterday... the man was looking up contemplating the tower, Marjorie was standing in a patch of sunlight which made her platinum blond hair glow like a gold nugget. And Professor Bober was standing, thinking, I know not what. An anonymous form that still embodies a pleasant piece of history.

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