Portrait of the art historian as a young escapist
The shy teenager has managed to survive his ordinary life in 1990s provincial Italy, to visit, study, and work in many of the places he had so wildly dreamed of, and to find a way in the competitive fields of arts and culture without losing the simple pleasure of wonder, and still enjoying the healing and exciting effect that art has always had on him.
My first encounter with art history happened when I was about eleven years old. My sister was about to begin secondary school and, among the many new books she got, there was this Storia dell’Arte volume I. It immediately caught my attention. There were images, big images of wonderful stuff: sculptures, and ruined, majestic spaces, fascinating remnants of past civilisations. In the first pages, statues seemed clumsy and a bit stiff, although their big eyes and smiling faces made them look friendly, serene. By reading the captions, I understood that these works came mainly from Greece, Turkey, and southern Italy. Italy? How was it possible that I had never come across such interesting objects? I felt a desire for exploration mixed with some frustration: wonderful treasures were scattered around me, maybe even below my own feet, and, for a strange conspiracy, I had been kept unaware of them. They seemed close and familiar, and yet inaccessible; there was a treasure, I had the will to find it, yet there was no map to guide me there.
While advancing in my exploration of the book, I observed how statues got more and more naturalistic, until reaching a point of unbelievable similarity to the real thing; and how beautiful and sensual they were! The architecture got grander and grander: my imagination was fired by the dramatic black and white pictures of the ruins of the Caracalla Baths, the temples of the Foro, the Pantheon, and the Imperial Palace in Rome…Rome! I knew it was not far from my small, boring hometown. Like all young escapists, I snubbed my own place, being absolutely certain that real wonders could be found only at a reasonable distance. In fact, Fondi vaunted some pretty decent stuff: medieval and Renaissance churches with some paintings and sculpture of interest, an imposing castle, bits of pre-Roman and Roman city walls, but everything was difficult to access, or closed.
However, there was one place that I loved: at the time, some Roman fragments of statues and architecture that had been found in the area were gathered in a fifteenth-century cloister with a well, among orange and lemon trees. It was open to the public and completely unsupervised, not bad as a roaming field to spend some hours alone. Occasional visits to local archaeological sites such as the Jupiter Temple in Terracina or Tiberius’ Cave in Sperlonga increased my desire: I wanted to wander among the ruins; I wanted to see the sculptures that were the model of the fragmented copies lying on the floors of the cloister in Fondi. I wanted to go to Rome! I tried to temper my curiosity by reading the Rome Touring Club Guide owned by my grandfather Ezio, and studying the map of the city: the curves of the river Tiber, the main thoroughfares, the parks, and the areas highlighted as ‘being of interest’, the precise locations of the archaeological sites, the piazzas, monumental fountains, and museums. When, much later, I went to Rome with a school trip, I was able to tell my friends what the huge buildings we were seeing through the windows were, while the bus drove us around.
Meanwhile, there were journeys to Rome, but, although I could catch some glimpses of what I had seen in the books, it was always slightly frustrating, because often the people I was with did not share my curiosity. I learned that the statues that I was so eager to see were kept in museums, and museums were not among the priorities of our day trips to the capital. Thus, I started developing a craving for those big palaces, where you had to pay to get in and look at the magnificence of their interiors, and the beautiful pieces of art created by people in the past! When I came back from a three-day school trip to Pisa, Florence and Siena, my mother was so disappointed at the fact that the pictures that I took (I was given a camera for the first time), once developed, showed just buildings and statues. I have a vivid memory of the places that we visited: Piazza della Signoria and the copy of the Michelangelo’s David in Florence, Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa, and, above all, climbing, unseen, the façade of the never completed new cathedral of Siena, getting on the open-air terrace on top of it, and find the stunning view of the city and the hills around, while the snow begun falling. How beautiful it was! How happy I felt.
Florence, Piazza della Signoria, 1992 (photo by the author)
When it was my turn to decide which secondary school I wanted to go to, I had no doubt: the Scientific Lyceum in a town nearby offered classes of history of art and drawing. Unfortunately, my teacher was not very keen in the art history teaching but, at least, when it came to drawing, he let us copy from our art history manual. I started looking at Renaissance and Baroque art for subjects, and my interest slowly shifted to more recent forms of creative expressions. By the end of secondary school, I had never studied art history, and yet I was sure of what to choose at university: Heritage Studies. I immersed myself in the study of art, and since then, I have been lucky enough never to stop. The shy teenager has managed to survive his ordinary life in 1990s provincial Italy, to visit, study, and work in many of the places he had so wildly dreamed of, and to find a way in the competitive fields of arts and culture without losing the simple pleasure of wonder, and still enjoying the healing and exciting effect that art has always had on him.
-Dr Antonio David Fiore, PhD OU alumnus
Antonio received his PhD from the OU in 2017 on ‘The Artist as an Instrument of Propaganda: Giulio Rosso and the Decorative Arts in Italy during the Fascist Ventennio.’ For info on our PhD programme, check out the Art History website. If you’re interested in antique sculpture and reception, watch our Open Arts Objects film on the Laocoön. Watch Antonio’s why art history matters film on youtube!