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No Place Like Home

Bryn Mawr and the American Academy in Rome

Hills and Streams

Four thousand miles away, in a capital city founded on the myth of twins, there’s a palazzo that could be said to be the historical twin of Bryn Mawr College. High over the city, on the Janiculum Hill, stand the apricot-colored walls of the American Academy in Rome (AAR). Founded in 1894, 10 years after Bryn Mawr (“Big Hill” in Welsh), the Academy grants coveted residential fellowships to artists and scholars of, predominantly, the ancient world. Across the 20th century, so many Bryn Mawr students and faculty held AAR fellowships and leadership roles that the institutions came to feel like each other’s home away from home. There was, as Professor Emerita Dale Kinney puts it, a “BMC-AAR pipeline.” The metaphor is important; the Academy is built over the Aqua Traiana aqueduct, which was constructed in the late first century when water was power. The flow of scholars between Bryn Mawr and Rome has, over the years, carved out channels for women in classical studies, higher education, public office, and the arts.

The Roll Call

The long roll call of Bryn Mawr faculty and students at the AAR persists to this day, with current-day professors holding not only fellowships, but also leadership positions. Darby Scott, whose Academy field trips are legendary, has been both resident and professor in charge, and Karl Kirchwey, director of the Bryn Mawr Writing Program 2000–10, was the AAR arts director from 2010 to 2013. But it wasn’t always easy to be Bryn Mawr at the Academy. At first, women weren’t allowed to be resident or dine with the men. Classical Studies admitted women early on, but the first female fellow in the arts didn’t arrive until 1960. Nor was sexism the only challenge. Philologist and archaeologist Louise Adams Holland, a “Bryn Mawr Special Traveling Fellow” in 1916, had to do lifeboat drills on the steamship over for fear of submarines. And T.R.S. Broughton, who taught classics at Bryn Mawr from 1928 to 1965, was so broke when he received an invitation to the Academy in 1927 that he could only afford the steamship to Glasgow. In Edinburgh, he bought a one-speed bicycle for 3 and named it Bucephalous, after Alexander the Great’s horse. Broughton pedaled the length of Britain, France, and half of Italy, until he flipped out his kickstand on the Janiculum Hill.

This kind of pluck defines the earliest Bryn Mawr fellows at the Academy. Here are three of many examples: In 1930 Irene A. Rosenzweig won the Rome Prize in classical studies and archaeology. She would later become tutor to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s family members during their time in the White House. Aged 9, Lucy Shoe Merritt saw stereopticon images of Pompeii at Memorial Hall in Philadelphia. The fascination planted in her then took her to the Academy, where, in 1937, she was the first woman to be allowed to eat with the men (instead of at a rickety table tucked into the butler’s pantry). The Silver Latinist Berthe M. Marti, Ph.D. ’34, was at the Academy in 1948, taught at Bryn Mawr for 33 years, and is remembered by such tender nicknames as “Dragon Lady,” “The Martinette,” and “Berthe Noir.” In her 80s, Marti is said to have defended her purse by biting off a mugger’s thumb.

Even when you think an early 20th-century classicist or archaeologist was not a product of Bryn Mawr, just dig a little deeper. Esther Van Deman, one of the most famous archaeologists of the 20th century, spent a year at Bryn Mawr, as its first fellow in Latin. “You have to understand,” says the sparklingly erudite classical studies scholar Kathy Geffcken, Ph.D. ’62, (FAAR ’55), who is writing a history of women at the Academy. “My teachers [at Agnes Scott College] made it very clear that the only place I should go to graduate school was Bryn Mawr.” For generations, Bryn Mawr had the only undergraduate classical archaeology program in the U.S., and the classics department overshadowed prestigious male institutions; Princeton students came to Bryn Mawr to get dissertation advice. “Then when I was at Bryn Mawr,” Geffcken continues, “It was fully expected that I would go to Rome. Usually about two of the five or six classical fellows were Bryn Mawr women. It was a home away from home.” Geffcken reminds us that not all women’s history shows up in written records: “There were also lots of Bryn Mawr women in the background, who had married male academicians," she says. “There was a sisterhood between us [fellows] and them.”

Case in Point: #1 Lily Ross Taylor

The Bryn Mawr graduate who was either the first, or the fourth, female Fellow of the Academy (depending on how you count) was Lily Ross Taylor. Rutgers classicist Corey Brennan, who taught at Bryn Mawr from 1990 to 2000, hails Taylor as the “greatest scholar of classics and … Ancient historian that North America has produced.” In 2019, Bryn Mawr celebrated Miss Taylor, as she was known to all, in a symposium organized by Associate Professor Annette Baertschi. Taylor was brilliant, beloved, and intrepid. After landing in Rome for an AAR Fellowship in 1917, she chose war service over scholarship by joining the Red Cross effort in the Balkans, where the director considered her his “ablest assistant.” Taylor had a rather more exacting assessment of her usefulness: “A Bryn Mawr Ph.D. does not fit one to plan the arrangement in warehouses of some 10,000 boxes of surgical supplies [. . .] particularly a Ph.D. in Latin does not help you weight out quinine and make the best disposition of anti-tetanus serum.”

If it was her sense of public service that she’d followed to the front lines, it was as a public intellectual that she would later be saluted. In 1950, Time magazine celebrated her as one of the foremost and most passionate American educators of her age; she “slips quickly into the habit of running her hands excitedly through her white hair. At the end of a lecture, if her hair is very much mussed up, students know that Miss Taylor has enjoyed herself.”

Taylor wrote six monographs, was dean of the Graduate School at Bryn Mawr, was twice professor in charge at the AAR, and, at the end of World War II, spent two years working as an “analyst,” which is to say spy, in the Office of Strategic Services in Washington. From 1932, Taylor lived with her partner Alice Martin Hawkins (Class of 1907). Alice is thanked in each of Taylor’s books, and they lived together until 83-year-old Taylor was killed by a hit-and-run driver on Montgomery Avenue. To say her legacy lives on is both true and apt. “My aim as a teacher,” she wrote, “is to make my students feel that they are walking the streets of Rome, and seeing and thinking what Romans saw and thought.”

Case in Point #2: Dale Kinney

Dale Kinney, Bryn Mawr professor emeritus in history of art, was a Rome Prize Fellow from 1970 through 1972. She remembers sitting on a couch in the Academy salone watching “The Fight of the Century.” It was March 8, 1971, and the academicians were staying up to watch Muhammad Ali fight Joe Frazier. “We had a merry time!” she recalls. Sitting next to her was Charles Mitchell, chairman of the Bryn Mawr history of art department. A year later, when Mitchell was hiring, “he remembered me,” she says, “and wrote me a two-page letter, personally typed (no secretary) on air mail paper (which I still have), offering me the job. I accepted and wound up staying a while.” That “while” was 38 years, during which time Kinney served as department chair, became the Eugenia Chase Guild Professor in the Humanities, and was acting provost and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Kinney retired in 2010 but continues her research on the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which sits at the foot of the Janiculum Hill. When I was given a tour of the church this past fall with other Academy fellows, Kinney’s identification of the pagan figures on the Roman columns that line the aisles of the medieval church was cited with reverence and pride. “She’s the spolia sleuth,” the group leader said, gesturing at the recycled, mismatched Ionic capitals Kinney identified. “And she was once a young scholar starting out here at the Academy. She showed us how old forms persist in new.”

Fountains and Courtyards

The early 20th-century architectures of both the Academy and the College were exercises in bringing old forms to bear on the new. Walter Cope’s Collegiate Gothic style imitated Oxbridge as an effort to associate the new enterprise of women’s education with permanence and longevity. Charles McKim, whose architectural firm designed the Academy, was the leading proponent of the style known as American Renaissance. Both were built as utopian spaces for scholars that might have the same staying power as the Eternal City. And it works; as Brennan says, “For both Bryn Mawr and the Academy, you have to pinch yourself because it’s hard to believe the place exists. They are both marvelously outlandish.”

But like all fairylands, they are beautiful and ugly. Both are architectural fantasy spaces that were designed to invoke a European past in order to forge an American future. As such, both have fictions of whiteness compounded into their foundation stones to this day. Both institutions will always have to reckon with the sediment of intense racial and cultural chauvinisms, as they forge a more just future.

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"My aim as a teacher is to make my students feel that they are walking the streets of Rome and seeing and thinking what Romans saw and thought." —Lily Ross Taylor