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A Q&A with Expert John Dobbins

By | April 6, 2014

Q: You have a Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology and you specialize in ancient Roman art, archaeology, and architecture. What first led to your interest in the history of Italian art and architecture?

A: Corny as it may sound, my high-school Latin studies provided my first serious encounter with Italy. Further study in college opened my eyes to Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque Italy. My first visit to Italy was a celebration. A close college friend had returned from Vietnam and each of us was about to begin graduate studies. We seized the day and went to Italy to celebrate life. There is no better place for such a celebration! My relationship with Rome and Italy was cemented. But Fate works strangely. My summers in graduate school were spent on the banks of the Euphrates River as a member of an American excavation in Syria. I thought that I would become a Roman frontier archaeologist in the East, but Fate declared otherwise. I was asked to direct the excavation of a Roman villa in Tuscany. The rest is, as they say, history! I have excavated in Sicily (at Morgantina), and I am now the director of the Pompeii Forum Project. I am delighted that our trip will take us to Pompeii.

Q: Italy did not become a unified country until relatively recently, in 1861, and regional differences in culture, traditions, architecture, and cuisine remain very pronounced. This special Smithsonian journey covers extensive historical and geographical ground, traveling through several of Italy's twenty regions: Campania, Lazio, Umbria, Marche, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and Veneto. What kinds of artistic, cultural, architectural, and gustatory differences can Smithsonian travelers look forward to discovering in the course of the journey?

A: An excellent question. I will focus on Campania, Rome (in Lazio), and Tuscany and discuss landscape and food.

First, the landscape.

Campagnia and Amalfi

The sheer cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, the blue sea, the view to nearby Capri, and the crescent shape of the Bay of Naples with the looming and still-active Vesuvius offer incomparable and unforgettable images. Nature is a major player in Campania and we are fortunate to start our journey there.


One can see the Alban Hills that surround Rome on clear May days, but what one sees in Rome is ROME! Stand with me on Rome's historical fulcrum, the Capitoline Hill, where the Piazza del Campidoglio designed by Michelangelo allows us to place Rome, its history, and its architectural presentation into a broad context. We first examine the piazza itself. Then we look down at Rome's ancient center, the Roman Forum, and at the Palatine Hill where Romulus and the later Roman emperors lived. Next we turn around 180 degrees and look at the New Rome, the Rome of the Popes, where the domes of churches, including St. Peter's, dominate the skyline. From that position we draw it all together: ancient Rome, Renaissance and Baroque Rome, and the modern city flowing vivaciously below us!

Tuscany (ah, la bella Toscana)


John Dobbins

John Dobbins is a field archaeologist who has excavated in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Syria. He specializes in ancient Roman art, archaeology, architecture and urbanism, and he regularly teaches the History of Art I course at the University of Virginia. John holds the posts of the Richard A. & Sara Page Mayo NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor and Professor of Classical Art & Archaeology in the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. Professor Dobbins received a B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross, an M.A. (English Literature) from Boston University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan.

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