Amid the Ruins
Southwestern professor divides his time between Texas and Italy
For the past 13 years, art and art history professor Thomas Noble Howe has spent much of his time amid the ruins of ancient Roman villas in Stabiae, Italy.
Stabiae is not a normal town site, but rather a series of enormous villas just south of Pompeii; one villa measures 236,000 square feet. They are built right next to one another on a high sea cliff with stunning views of the Bay of Naples and have some of the highest quality frescoes ever found. Stabiae was buried by the same eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79 that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum.
While the specific owners of the villas are not known, Howe has argued in a recent article that the villas at Stabiae housed an elite community both of senators from Rome and local “municipals,” that is, town councillors.
“This was a major scene of political power in the late Republic,” Howe said. “Some of the most important events of the late Republic and early Empire occurred in these villas, often over dinner. During the Senate holidays in April and November the capital virtually moved from Rome to the villas of the Bay of Naples. Only at Stabiae can archaeology recover that environment.”
A partial excavation of Stabiae was attempted in the mid-18th century, but the site was reburied and the location forgotten until excavation reopened in 1950. The first excavation was started by a local high school principal who used a janitor and unemployed car mechanic for staff. Since then, only a small part of the huge villas has been reopened. The latest excavations have been done through an innovative Italian-American foundation called the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation, (RAS), which was started in 2002.
Howe said R.A.S. represents a very innovative approach in world archaeology: a semi-private, semi-public permanent foundation which is meant not only to excavate and conserve a great site, but to help the government manage it in a sustainable way in perpetuity. The foundation is run by a board of three − two Italians and one from the University of Maryland. It is a legal non-profit foundation under the Superintendency of Archaeology of Pompeii and is an official arm of the Italian government. Most of the site is open to the public at no charge.
Howe traces his involvement with the foundation to 1998, when he was approached by University of Maryland Professor Richard Etlin, who asked him to “help save Stabiae.”
“I thought about it for half an hour, and said yes,” Howe said. “I saw this as a really classical kind of liberal arts life experience: the challenge to reach into my diverse past experiences in order to transition to a radically different career role.”
Howe’s past experiences include earning a Ph.D. in ancient architecture from Harvard and working as a field architect in archaeology. He has been a member of the Southwestern faculty since 1985.
Howe serves as “coordinator general” for the foundation – a role that has included being the chief author of the master plan for the site; co-curating major exhibits in Washington, Hong Kong and St. Petersburg; and generally coordinating all of the site planning and archaeology for the creation of the park. It’s a job that involves traveling some 150,000 miles a year and conversing in four languages.
Howe said he is grateful to Southwestern for giving him the flexibility required to take on so much responsibility.
“Thanks to the Internet age, faculty from small universities can now be as competitive as faculty from major research universities in managing large international projects,” he said.
So far, R.A.S. and the Superintendency of Archaeology have worked on three known villas at Stabiae − Villa Arianna, Villa San Marco and the so-called Second Complex. There are at least three more very large villas on the site.
In 2007, archaeologists found evidence of a garden at the Villa Arianna that is preserved exactly as it was the day Mt. Vesuvius erupted. “The plants are gone, but the root cavities preserved the form even of the hair roots,” Howe said. He believes this garden is one of the first examples of true landscape architecture in Roman culture: the shaping of space and panoramic views with plantings.
The past few summers, work at the site has focused on this garden and on two other villa sites. Howe directly managed the architectural recording team, mainly from the School of Architecture of the University of Maryland, further developing techniques that he first pioneered in Rome in the 1990s.
“Being a part of the team at Stabiae was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had at Southwestern,” said Chandler Johnson, a sophomore who helped with the excavations last summer. “I not only experienced Italian culture and ancient art firsthand, but I gained valuable skills such as surveying and reflectorless theodolite recording.”
In 2007 R.A.S. also opened the Vesuvian International Institute for Archaeology and the Humanities, a fully equipped academic center with 90 bedrooms, a theater, auditorium, classrooms and a dining room. To date, the institute has hosted students from 60 different universities in the United States, Europe, Russia and Brazil who have come to study everything from Roman cuisine to world geography through resources available around Stabiae. The Institute is the first major research institute in Italy south of Rome.
Howe is working with Paul Gaffney, dean of the Sarofim School of Fine Arts, and a task force of Southwestern faculty members to establish an innovative semester- or year-long study abroad program for Southwestern students in Stabiae. The planned program is intended to lower the cost of study abroad by taking advantage of lower costs in southern Italy, and by developing high-quality synchronous distance learning between Stabiae and Georgetown.
This could mean that Southwestern faculty members who go abroad may not need to be replaced on campus and students who have highly sequenced majors may be able to follow a crucial course at Southwestern when they are in Italy, making it easier to add semester abroad into their curriculum.
“International experience is going to be crucial for the coming generation of students,” Howe said. “This will be a wonderful opportunity for Southwestern students − and faculty members − if we can get it off the ground.”
How said the program could involve anywhere from 20 to maybe 60 students. “This could be a large program and one of the distinguishing features of Southwestern,” he said. “Many faculty members are itching to go from all disciplines, even the sciences.”
The proposed program at Stabiae is also integrated with the forthcoming Paideia “cluster” of courses called “Mediterranean Studies.”
Howe said he is looking forward to continuing his involvement at Stabaie. “For me, personally, it’s been a real liberal arts experience,” he said. “Chandler says I’m the real Indiana Jones. It’s pretty close…though my attitude toward collecting antiquities and using a bullwhip is somewhat different. I’ve had a great time.”
− Devin Corbitt