Laat ons zuinig zijn op het Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome

Miko Flohr, 12/06/2019

En toen, in november 2004, behaagde het Hare Majesteit de Koningin om naar de Via Omero te komen. Het Nederlands Instituut te Rome werd een eeuw oud, en mocht zich vanaf dat moment Koninklijk gaan noemen. Het leidde tot bijzondere taferelen: daar stonden we dan, in de zaal waar we normaal onze presentaties hielden, en uren discussieerden over het Rome van 100, 1500 of 1940 na Christus – en daar stond Beatrix, die uitgebreid de tijd nam om met de geselecteerde gasten te praten over hun werk. Het was een prachtige dag.

De verlening van het predicaat was, vond ik – en dat vind ik nog steeds – een terechte kroon op het werk van het oudste en belangrijkste interuniversitaire instituut van Nederland: met beperkte middelen, vaak tegen de tijdgeest in, had het instituut zich tot een betrouwbare thuishaven ontwikkeld voor Nederlandse wetenschappers – scriptieschrijvers, promovendi, gepromoveerden, hoogleraren – die om wat voor reden dan ook voor korte of langere tijd in Rome moesten zijn: voor de archieven van het Vaticaan, voor de Nationale archieven van Italië – en voor de archeologie. Ik was geen wetenschapper geworden zonder het instituut: mijn eerste verblijf, in Januari 2001, was de eyeopener van mijn leven: sindsdien brandt het vuur, soms harder dan ik hebben kan. Ik ben niet de enige.

Van niemand, voor iedereen

Het KNIR is van fundamenteel belang voor het Nederlandse geesteswetenschappelijke ecosysteem – als plek waar je onderzoek doet, inspiratie vindt, discussies voert en mensen ontmoet buiten de gestaalde academische verhoudingen zoals die ‘thuis’ gelden. Het kan die rol in belangrijke mate zo spelen omdat het instituut niemand toebehoort – en dus ons allemaal. De wetenschappelijke staf wisselt iedere paar jaar van samenstelling – men werkt er maximaal zes jaar – alle deelnemende universiteiten komen zo aan bod. De laatste directeuren kwamen achtereenvolgens van Leiden, van de UvA, uit Groningen, van de VU, en uit Utrecht; Nijmegen was vertegenwoordigd op andere posities. Zo kon het instituut worden wat het is: voor iedereen, maar van niemand. Een baken van (relatieve) zelfstandigheid in een academisch landschap waarin alles in toenemende mate centraal ingesnoerd moet zijn.

Het is ontzettend belangrijk om zuinig te zijn op dit soort kleine, kwetsbare instellingen. De impact van het instituut is niet gemakkelijk meetbaar, maar bestaat in de inspiratie die wetenschappers die er maar kort waren soms hun hele carrière meenemen, uit de netwerken en samenwerkingsverbanden die er gesmeed worden – we kennen elkaar allemaal beter uit Rome dan uit het haastige Nederland, waar nooit tijd is – en uit de ideeën die er vorm krijgen. Ja, er wordt ook meetbare ‘output’ geproduceerd in de prachtige bibliotheek – en veel ook – maar die valt eigenlijk in het niet bij het onmetelijke dat iedereen meeneemt.

Groningse Geldingsdrang

In Groningen – ieder buitenlands instituut heeft een ‘penvoerder’ in Nederland die voor de financiële zaken zorgt, en in 1991 werd het NIR aan Groningen toegewezen – wordt daar blijkbaar anno 2019 toch wat anders over gedacht. Men heeft besloten om het Koninklijk *Nederlands* instituut onderdeel te maken van de eigen internationaliseringsagenda, en de capaciteit van het instituut voor een deel te gaan reserveren voor de ‘internationale ervaring’ van BA-studenten – zoals de ‘notitie’ het zegt: ‘de Italiaanse, mediterraanse (sic!) omgeving biedt studenten een waardevolle buitenland-ervaring. Cultuur, natuur en klimaat en sociaal-economische karakteristieken zijn wezenlijk anders dan die van noord-west Europa’. Maar dat is nog niet het ergste.

Het ergste is dat Groningen het KNIR onder direct gezag van de eigen universiteit wil plaatsen – de directeur wordt in de toekomst werknemer aan de RUG – en de invulling op zich wil nemen van niet minder dan de helft (!) van het programma aan het KNIR. Groningen wil het Nederlands Instituut in Rome daarmee in feite omvormen tot het Gronings-Nederlands Instituut te Rome. Het GNIR. Daarmee is het gedaan met de onafhankelijkheid van het Instituut, en komt een van de laatste echte academische vrijplaatsen op de tocht te staan.

Onnodig hard machtsspel

Zulks wordt de academische gemeenschap bovendien via een onnodig hard academisch machtsspel door de strot geduwd. De wetenschappelijke adviesraad van het Instituut – met daarin vertegenwoordigers van alle deelnemende universiteiten – is niet in het gesprek over de plannen betrokken. De wetenschappelijke staf van het instituut – de mensen die de tent draaiende houden! – is in de planvorming volledig gepasseerd. De Groningse OR heeft vragen gesteld die het CvB niet wilde beantwoorden – totdat vandaag bleek dat alles in kannen en kruiken was. De Groningse Rector Magnificus benoemt de facto zichzelf (!) tot interim-directeur van het instituut (is dat niet gewoon machtsmisbruik?). Hij kent overigens, als econoom, de kerndisciplines van het instituut niet, en hij spreekt geen Italiaans, dus die komt daar alleen maar de verandering managen. De universiteit laat weten dat hij ‘slechts’ een paar keer op en neer zal vliegen – een ronduit angstaanjagend idee. De notitie (en de officiële communicatie) doet voorkomen of er eigenlijk in de praktijk niet zo heel veel verandert, maar haalt wel de hele bestuursstructuur overhoop – hetgeen doet vermoeden dat het erom draait in de praktijk wel veel te veranderen – en veel meer dan men nu vertellen wil. Een belabberde gang van zaken, die dit mooie instituut niet past.

Het Nederlands Instituut kreeg in 2004 niet voor niets het predicaat ‘Koninklijk’. Het kreeg dat omdat het in ons academische ecosysteem een heel bijzondere rol speelt, en omdat het ons land op fantastische wijze vertegenwoordigt in een van de belangrijkste academische centra van Europa – in Rome komt iedereen, en in dat internationale netwerk speelt ons kleine land met dit instituut een onevenredig grote rol. Het instituut hoeft niet per definitie te blijven zoals het nu is – de tijden veranderen, het instituut verandert logischerwijs mee, stapje voor stapje. Maar dat Groningen het nu zo halsoverkop en half in het donker zichzelf toe wil eigenen is bij de wilde spinnen af, en vraagt om een ondubbelzinnig weerwoord. Van ons allemaal, maar misschien ook wel van de Majesteit zelf. Of, zoals dat dan gaat, van Zijn Minister.

Bethlehem

Miko Flohr, 24/12/2018

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. Excavations in 1934 unearthed late antique mosaics possibly belonging to the original church built under (and by) the Roman emperor Constantine in the early fourth century.

Design (7) – Animals from Bavaria

Miko Flohr, 21/12/2018

Here we are on the other side of the Alps, outside the Mediterranean, where things worked differently. This greyish-black vase from ca. 500 BC is decorated with geometric patterns (stamped) and an animal-frieze (hand-drawn). It was found in Matzhausen, which is northeast of Regensburg in Bavaria, and belongs to the early La Tène-culture.

Design (6) – Abduction in Bronze

Miko Flohr, 20/12/2018

This large bronze vessel (Met) is thought to date back to the fourth century BCE, and it shows how, by the time of Aristotle and Alexander, the Greeks had developed a quite distinct style in depicting the human body. The scene is thought to depict the abduction of Ariadne by Dionysos, but what strikes me is the detailed quality of the decoration, which is not something you encounter in earlier periods. While the body of this hydria was hammered to shape, the decorations were made in molds and then fixed to the vessel. You can read more about how these vessels were made here.

Design (5) – Fear of emptiness?

Miko Flohr, 19/12/2018

This sixth century BCE pyxis probably comes from Corinth and  currently belongs to the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art. Note how the decoration uses three different colours (background yellow, black and dark red) combining geometrical patterns with mythological animals and floral motifs – typically for its time, there is a tendency to fill up all ’empty’ space with motifs and other elements.   

Design (4) – Lines and Birds

Miko Flohr, 18/12/2018

This is an early seventh century BC vase from Etruria, now in the Lowe Art Museum in Miami. Classical archaeologists would typically look further eastwards in this period, towards Athens and Corinth, but Central Italy is alive and kicking, and has its own ways of doing stuff. There is more red, and less black, but basic ingredients are similar, combining repetitive decorative elements with simple geometric patterns – in this case, lines. Still, this vase stands out in its simplicity. 

Design (3) – This is not modern art

Miko Flohr, 17/12/2018

This is a tiny fragment of a Hellenistic bowl, probably dating to the second or first century BCE, and probably coming from somewhere in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean; it was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by J.P. Morgan Jr. in 1917; typically, its precise origins remain unknown. But what is it? Clearly, this is not pottery – nor is it metal. It is, in fact, glass. While glass-blowing was not invented until the first century BCE, there was a tradition of glass-working in the eastern mediterranean – and by using molds, you can cast the glass in the desired form. Often, elaborate color schemes would be applied, but they were unable to fully control the casting process, so the result always looks a bit messy. Still, it is one of those indications that the ancient world was much more colorful than we tended to assume until not so long ago. 

Design (2) – Griffins on bronze

Miko Flohr, 16/12/2018

This so-called kylix comes from somewhere in central Italy and dates back to the seventh century BCE, when Rome still was in its infancy, and Athenian democracy had yet to be invented; it belongs to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is made of bronze, but it actually looks quite rough on the surface, and a bit irregular – part of this may be preservation, but certainly not all of it (e.g. look at the handle). What I find particularly interesting, though, is the way in which the frieze of griffins has been made – they have simply been engraved in the bronze, without any relief, as would become the norm later on. This makes the bowl look simple and basic compared to some of the more complex artefacts of later periods.

Design (1) – Etruscan Baroque

Miko Flohr, 15/12/2018

This stemmed chalice was made in Etruria around the middle of the sixth century BC. Perhaps, it comes from Vulci where such vases have been found in great numbers. It is, to put it mildly, rather elaborately decorated (and not necessarily technically very functional for drinking). It is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The greyish-black color of the vase is typical for the so-called ‘Bucchero’ technique, with which this vase was made. The decoration seems at least partially, hand-shaped rather than mold-shaped – particularly as far as the details are concerned.

A fantastic new inscription from Pompeii – but what does it mean?

Miko Flohr, 05/09/2018

Despite the spectacular new excavations that are currently unfolding in the northern part of the city, the most significant discovery at Pompeii in recent decades was made just over a year ago, outside the main southern city gate, where a  large and well-preserved funerary monument was dug up alongside the road that probably connected Pompeii to its harbour. It contained a uniquely long inscription, which, so we knew, was a detailed eulogy for an unnamed individual who had done incredible things for the Pompeian community (the name probably featured somewhere on the monument, but it has not been found back). As of this week, we finally have access to the full latin text, and, in my own rough translation (based on the text and Osanna’s Italian translation, it reads something like this:

When he got his toga virilis, he gave a banquet for the Pompeian people with 456 triclinia accommodating 15 man each. He gave a gladiatorial munus so lavish and splendid that it could be compared to any splendid colony beyond the city, as he had 416 gladiators in the arena – and as this munus coincided with a price hike in the annona, he fed them for a period of four years. The care for his citizens was dearer to him than his family matters: when a modius of triticum (grain) cost five denarii, he bought, and he offered it to the people for one and a half, and to make sure that his liberality would reach everyone, he personally distributed, through his friends, quantities of bread equivalent to one and a half denarius to the people. For a munus that he gave before the senatusconsultum, for all days of the games, he gave beasts of any kind, in a mixed composition. Moreover, when the Caesar had ordered to lead away all families to more than two hundred miles from the city, he permitted only him to bring the Pompeians back to their country. Also, when he married his wife, he gave the decuriones fifty nummi, and, for the people, twenty denarii to the augustales and twenty nummi to the pagani. Twice, he gave big games without any burden to the community. Yet when the people recommended, and the ordo unanimously agreed that he would be elected patron of the city, and the duovir brought the issue forward, he personally intervened, saying that he would not be able to bear being the patron of his citizens.

The translation needs quite a bit of finetuning, and some parts of the Latin text are only partially understandable – but the general message of the eulogy should be clear enough.  Yet, what does it mean, and what does it tell us about Pompeii? The inscription is very nicely written, in full sentences and with very few abbreviations – it is almost true prose, compared to the formulaic texts full of standardized abbreviations that dominate our epigraphic record – clearly, we are in the first century CE, when the epigraphic habit is in full development.

Some of the phrasing is strange.  I am fascinated by the use of the word ‘caesar’ as sole reference to the emperor, which as far as I know is not common – usually you get an entire range of names and titles – and therefore meaningful; it points to the reality of damnatio memoriae, but in a more subtle way than the excisings that we know from Geta in the third century. Here, the damned emperor has no name, and is not referred to as ‘Augustus’,  but simply as ‘the caesar’ – he had to be mentioned, for the narrative, but was mentioned as briefly and vaguely as possible – a reference to the institution rather than to the person. Intriguing, for the Julio-Claudian period, when empership is still institutionalizing itself. Still, it must have been clear to all who that caesar that should have no name was: it must be Nero, and the inscription is likely to have been written at some point after his death in 68 CE – otherwise, his name would have been mentioned in full glory.

Who is this text talking about? Some have suggested that the unnamed benefactor was Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius, a wealthy patron who dominated Pompeian political life in the decade preceding the eruption of 79 CE. I am looking forward to the arguments supporting this identification, but I remain sceptical: our anonymous hero seems to be operating on an entirely different socioeconomic scale (for instance, his gladiatorial shows are much bigger), and no mention is made of any of the offices that defined the career of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius. Of course, there is no intrinsic reason why this person should already feature in our known Pompeian epigraphic record. Unless we find direct, additional evidence, there is a serious possibility that we have to do with a homo ignotus.

We do know, however, that this guy, whoever he was, had (a) a stupendous amount of wealth at his disposal that (b) partially is likely to have been inherited rather than earned (you get the toga virilis  at some point in your teens, so where would he got the money for this insane banquet unless from within the family) and (c) that, at a later age, he was incredibly well-connected to the imperial authorities at Rome, and possibly the emperor personally, to the extent that the emperor offered him a personal privilege. The combination of being well-connected and having a lot of money whilst not boasting about local political functions points to a clear direction: this may very well be someone from the equestrian or even senatorial elite – many senators and equestrians had lavish villas in the Bay of Naples region, and there was a large number of such villas in close proximity to Pompeii.  Indeed, if Pompeians are going to bother publicly offering someone the title ‘patron’ and advertise it on such a prominent location, he can only really come from this group: to some extent, we do not need to know his name to know who this guy was, though I’d rather prefer we just had the name.

Thus, the inscription shows, rather dramatically, how close the ties could be between a city like Pompeii, and the Roman elite, and how much the city could profit, culturally, and socially, from the physical proximity and personal involvement of people like our mr. X. There is an economic side to this, too, and one that strengthens a point that I came to realize made some time ago: if mr. X was the kind of guy I think he was, he was not just spending his personal family fortune on nice things for Pompeians – he also was spending money earned elsewhere in the southern bay of Naples region: families like the X-es had substantial property portfolios throughout Roman Italy, but they spent that money in or close to the place where they preferred to spend most of their time – and for this family, that place was, apparently, Pompeii. Hence, what you see in the Bay of Naples area is not just an export economy, or an import economy, or a complex economy that was well-integrated into the Roman imperial economic network – it also was an economy that was fed by income generated in a variety of other places – and this inscription shows what that could mean for a city like Pompeii.

Does it change our perception of Pompeii? Probably it does, but not too dramatically – it confirms several things we already suspected, and illustrates an euergetism and urban patronage on a scale that at Pompeii hitherto had been unknown. Given the figures mentioned, it will foster debate about the size of Pompeii’s population. It may point to a slightly bigger (maximum) population than I have suspected in the past, but the difference is marginal, and there are ways out. Still, however, it is a fascinating text that has a very promising scholarly future.