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A Q&A with Expert John Dobbins

By | April 6, 2014
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A: The first and most important thing to accept is that Pompeii is not a small archaeological site. It is a city! Much of it is closed off to tourists, but you can still get a very keen sense that this was a big place, a living place where people lived their lives in public spaces, religious spaces, and domestic spaces. Follow the streets and discover where they lead. This is a city! Experience it! My presentation on reading a Roman city will focus on Pompeii.

Q: In Rome, Smithsonian travelers can look forward to exploring the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Vatican, including St. Peter's Square and Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel. Completed in A.D. 80, the Colosseum in particular provides a unique glimpse into ancient life in the "Eternal City." What do you hope Smithsonian travelers will take away from their visit there?

A: Let's put our cards on the table. Rome is my favorite city! The evocation of Rome as the "Eternal City" is key. The most resonant experience for an American in Rome is the city's multilayered nature. That is not our experience in the United States. We are too young! Old hand or first-timer, no matter, Rome's multilayered history hits us right between the eyes. I am struck every time. I will offer a complex reading of the Colosseum in one of my presentations. On the following day we will visit the Colosseum itself. My hope is that we can understand the Colosseum as a complex monument whose function may be repugnant, but that (love it or hate it) we can understand it, and appreciate it within its cultural, historical, topographical, architectural, and functional (in many senses) contexts. The Colosseum does not need to be a touchstone for one's visit to Rome. It is simultaneously splendid and distasteful, and I am very straightforward about my conflicted views of the Colosseum. Then that afternoon is free. May I propose that those interested literally go down into Rome's layered history with me? San Clemente, not far from the Colosseum, will take us through four layers of Roman history and will make a lasting impression on your visit if you have not been there before.

Q: The region of Tuscany holds a special place in people's imagination, and makes frequent appearances in contemporary culture, books, and films. Smithsonian travelers will have the opportunity to explore different aspects of this breathtaking region. As the origin of the Italian Renaissance, the time spent in Tuscany will provide insights into Italy's artistic and cultural legacy. What should travelers look for in Tuscany?

A: Embrace Tuscany however it presents itself. In all cases we will look closely so that we can see special sights/sites. In Tuscany we might focus on three things. The first is the landscape. Except where quarries and modern roads have marred nature the landscape of Tuscany is spectacular. Look out the window! Force yourself to stay awake on the bus! The second is the individual feeling of each city. I will not tell you — no, you tell me how Siena, Florence, and San Gimignano differ from one another. That exercise amounts to an explanation of Tuscany. And third, and related to the second, is the architecture and art. The Renaissance (meaning "rebirth") saw the rebirth of something. That "something" was the ancient world that we will have seen in Rome. Apart from the specific message (Old Testament theme, or Gospel message) what are the Renaissance painters achieving in their paintings? You do not need to be an art historian. Jettison the history. Simply, what do the painters in Siena, Florence, and Venice achieve? How do you respond to it?

Q: The grand finale of this Smithsonian journey is Venice. Venice's art, architecture, and music are legendary and enduring. As an art history expert, what aspect of Venice's illustrious art and cultural history fascinates you most?

A: Venice is magical because Venice is all about light, architectural forms, and water. Nothing more needs to be said — we just need to keep our eyes open for splendor at every turn, but a couple of specifics might be offered. The Doge's Palace next to San Marco is a splendid example of weightless architecture. The light and airy lower arcades support a more solid third story, but that level appears to be more a tapestry structure than a masonry one. During your stay, you'll see the Ca'd'Oro and other buildings along the canals, which dance at the water's edge. 

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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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