Every once in a while, I feel the need to return to my art history roots. I was thinking about this today and wondering exactly what that means. What are my art history roots? The first art history I studied was that of the Italian Renaissance, like so many of us, but I’d say that my roots actually go back to the year I spent in England when I was 10 years old. I think that even at that point, it was in my blood. It was certainly already in my environment: My dad was a historian who always included art in the classes that he taught, and my mom was also an art lover, particularly interested in the Impressionists. So when we went to England, we hit as many cathedrals, museums, and historical sites as possible. One that really sticks in my mind is Verulamium — Roman ruins that were so nearby, we went there repeatedly.
The ruins at Verulamium are within the borders of the town of St. Albans. In fact, many of the exposed buildings (most of Verulamium is still under our ground) lie within a 100 acre park called, fittingly, Verulamium Park. In Roman times, the settlement here was large and important enough by 61 CE to be sacked by Boudicca. It was rebuilt (several times, actually) and remained inhabited by Romans until the early 5th century CE. St. Albans, after whom the present town is named, was martyred at Verulamium and was the first British Christian martyr. And later, on the edge of Verulamium Park, what is now the oldest pub in England was built, dating from the 11th century CE. This place is old, old, old.
Here’s what I love, and what definitely sparked my imagination as a child (and, I’ll admit, now, as well): The Roman bricks were reused to build the Norman abbey that became St. Albans Cathedral, much of which dates from the 11th century CE. Seeing those Roman bricks on the church and going into that church that dated back, in some parts, over 900 years, definitely influenced me deeply.
I remember climbing on the walls of Verulamium, running around with my sister and our friend from New Zealand (as the only non-Brits at our school, we quickly banded together), imagining what it would have been like in the Roman Amphitheatre. I doubt that anyone climbs on these walls anymore, which is a good thing. But standing on them, experiencing them as part of our space rather than as something to be revered, made it come alive. It was our playground, and it was ancient Rome, all in one. So the love of art and architectural history that was already in my blood was deepened and expanded by experiences like this. And even if you can’t walk on the ruins anymore, you can still walk among them. Dan Rice‘s words express exactly how I feel about it: “Architecture is art you can walk through.”