IL GENTILUOMO INGLESI

Twenty years after my biography of the extraordinary archaeologist, Thomas Ashby, was published by the British School at Rome. Now it has become the basis for a sensitive and timely novella by Lucia and Maria Scerrato and published by Valtrend Editore, Naples.

Here is an English version of my foreword:

The memory of Thomas Ashby lives on with all who knew him: classically English, with a well-cut beard, always distinct and correct. When he went in the country he dressed in a grey outfit with wool socks and mountain boots, a wool sweater even in summer, a hat and neck scarf. Her carried his camera, and a string bag in which he kept his map, food for the day, his binoculars, a tape-measure, another sweater, a small flask of whisky – that normally he did not drink, though I did – a candle, an electric lamp, and other possessions. Summer and winter he also carried a green umbrella of the type used by peasants, fastened to his shoulder-belt with string, and often sun-glasses: he seemed like the brigand Gasperone. ….beneath this bandit’s attire was concealed a great archaeologist of world fame…
Giuseppe Lugli, 1946.
Thomas Ashby by Winifred Knights

Thomas Ashby was a pioneering archaeologist who specialized in the study of the topography of ancient Rome and its hinterland, the Campagna Romana. Born on October 14, 1874, he was the only child of Thomas and Rose Ashby, Quakers who owned a brewery in Staines, Middlesex. After Winchester College, Ashby won a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, studying ancient history, classics and archaeology with Francis John Haverfield and J.L. Myres. He pursued a doctorate on Roman antiquities, exploring the hinterland of Rome in the company of the British and American Archaeological Society of Rome which included his father as well as the distinguished Italian archaeologist, Rodolfo Lanciani (1845-1929).

In 1902 he became the first student of the newly created British School at Rome, continuing this institutional association when he became the School’s Assistant Director (1903-06) and then its third and most distinguished Director from 1906-25. During his directorship, with Eugénie Strong as his assistant Director from 1909-25, he established the School as an academic force in Italy, overseeing the move to the present location in the Valle Giulia, and winning critical operational support from the British government’s newly founded British Academy in 1919. In 1924 the School ’s executive committee decided not to renew either Ashby or Strong after 1925 to the dismay of the academic community in Rome. Thereafter, Ashby, who had married May Price-Williams in 1922, moved to a small apartment in Rome, where he lived until his untimely death on May 15, 1931.

Ashby was primarily a topographer of Rome and its hinterland during the Roman period. As an avid photographer and enthusiastic walker, he followed the Roman roads and aqueducts out of the ancient metropolis, mapping them as he did. He was also a serious bibliophile, assembling a large library of post-Renaissance books about Rome and its hinterland. The most important of a prodigious number of publications included many essays and reports on the monuments in the Campagna Romana, which later formed the nucleus of his popular book The Roman Campagna in Classical Times (London, Benn 1927) and his encyclopedic, posthumous masterpiece, The Aqueducts of Ancient Rome (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1935). He also published important studies of metropolitan Rome such as a revision of Samuel B. Platner’s A Topographical Dictionary of Rome (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1929) and Turner’s Visions of Rome (London, Halton and Truscott Smith, 1925).

Ashby’s interests were not confined to antiquity. He studied Sardinian nuraghi and the prehistoric megalithic tombs of Malta and Gozo, and wrote a lyrical ethnographic study on Italian life and folklore: Some Italian Scenes and Festivals (London, Methuen & Co., 1929). His collection of photographs, besides his archive of notes, remains an important source for the study of Italy before mechanized agriculture, and of Rome as it was being made into a capital city.

Deeply respected by his Italian contemporaries, this shy and serious scholar established a benchmark for topographic fieldwork in Italy that was not surpassed until the 1960s. His archive of photographs in the British School at Rome has won him a new generation of admirers. Many of his thousands of glass plate images bring vividly bring to life an Italy predominantly of peasant farmers. From these photographs Ashby’s unalloyed passion for his adopted homeland is more than evident. This much, too, is at the heart of Lucia and Maria Scerrato’s sensitive novella which all lovers of Italy and its archaeology must welcome. Knowing Ashby must have been a pleasure. Binging him back to life in fiction is the next best thing!

Featured Posts
Recent Posts