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Prince Philip and the British School at Rome

I only encountered the Duke of Edinburgh once. In October 1980 he visited the British School at Rome in his capacity as President of the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851. That year, after more than fifty years of support for the British School at Rome, the Commissioners decided to spend its funding on other scholarships. The Prince agreed to visit the School before the decision was finalized. Understandably, the School held out hope that he might change the Commissioners’ minds during his hour-long visit as the Queen undertook duties elsewhere in Rome.

It was a dark autumn night. The School was surrounded by carabinieri long before the Prince arrived in full naval uniform. The Director of the School nervously took his royal guest on a tour of the library, the artists’ studios, and then the archaeological laboratory – the Camerone. With several other archaeologists, I had set out finds from my excavations – the pottery from the first season at San Vincenzo al Volturno.

In the Prince breezed, a genial determination etched on his face to make his rounds and listen carefully to our tales of digging days. We could have been naval ratings or miners. Four minutes passed as he pressed appropriate questions and listened attentively. His duty done, he cordially saluted us as he took his leave and like a gasp of wind he and his entourage were gone.

We were all expected to attend a cocktail in the grand salone where an open log fire was crackling loudly. On reaching the great room I spied the royal guest beside the fire talking animatedly to a wild-haired young man. I had never seen him before. A ring of School artists was listening to the Prince and his new friend holding forth, as was the elegantly dressed Director. In the half-light, it was impossible to make out what was happening. I sat with the School’s Librarian and she murmured bitterly about how this situation with the Commissioners had come to pass. Then we watched in awed silence, puzzled about the individual who had hijacked our visitor.

Plainly the Prince had no intention of working the room of scholars, artists, academics and the like.

Then a carabinieri officer arrived and smartly the Prince and his bodyguard marched away and out of our lives, saluting us all gamely. Around me, I sensed disgust that an opportunity to bend his ear had been lost. Then everyone started asking: who had Prince Philip befriended and found so fascinating?

The answer was a young tramp, living rough in the Borghese Gardens. He had been modelling for one of the artists when the Prince arrived. As the carabinieri had closed off all entry and exit to the building, the model found a drink and stood next to the log fire. Dressed wretchedly, smelling, and definitely wild-haired, he automatically attracted the whimsical curiosity of the guest of honour. Plainly Prince Philip left the British School not thinking about archaeology or funding strategies, but with an impish pleasure in the unusual inhabitants of this little piece of Britain on a hill in Rome.


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