Postcard from Italy

From left to right: Dr. Matt McGowan, Martin Nelson, and Bryan Whitchurch.

The History Department’s own blog contributor and MA student, Martin Nelson, spent the beginning of his summer helping the Fordham Classics Department guide a study tour that explored ancient Roman sites in Naples, Ostia, Herculaneum, Pompeii, and, of course, Rome. As part of the blog’s Postcard series, he had this to say about the experience…


Dr. McGowan in his natural habitat.

Thanks in part to some generous grants from Fordham, I joined Professors Matt McGowan and Bryan Whitchurch in the waning days of May as they led undergraduates from multiple departments through the ancient sites in and around Naples and Rome. The study tour was run in conjunction with the Paideia Institute, an interdisciplinary organization that aids groups with European study tours.


Paul Maloney tells the group about The Dying Gaul.

My role on the trip was threefold. As a medieval historian with a background in Late Antiquity, I supplemented the site presentations of both professors and students with additional medieval information whenever appropriate. To test the students’ knowledge on their individual sites, I often asked pointed questions they could only answer if they had read beyond the normal survey books on their subject or site. For those in honors programs or considering graduate school, I would pose these questions on the spot during their presentations, but for those who joined the tour as part of a broader degree requirement or simply for fun, I asked them privately afterwards. It wasn’t pure schadenfreude that led me to ask these questions, but my own interest in the subjects as well. I wanted to know the answers!


Mithraic Temple below the Basilica of San Clemente. This area is off limits to visitors, but can be seen through a locked iron door.

The second element of the tour was research. I received two grants from Fordham to explore the importance of location in religious sites so that I might better understand the concept outside of my geographical and temporal focus present in my own research. My thesis explores the importance of location highlighted in religious text for the purpose of establishing a new royal cult site in high medieval Denmark, and this trip allowed me to examine the concept’s universality or lack thereof at the Cathedral of San Gennaro in Naples and the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. I would also like to extend my sincerest thanks to the Rector of San Clemente, Father McCarthy, for providing me access and permission to photograph the Mithraic temple and Mithraic schoolroom below the church. These sites are normally off limits to the public, and photography throughout the church is strictly prohibited. I’m hoping the photographs I took will help me understand how early Christians felt about locations when choosing their places of worship. Since I am prohibited from posting my own pictures of the restricted areas of San Clemente, the attached picture comes from the Basilica’s website and not my own camera.


Uncle Marty goes to the Vatican.

The final element of this trip was as chaperone. Professors McGowan and Whitchurch maintained a tight schedule, and were always leading the group of undergraduates through the busy streets of the Urbs Aeterna. As anyone who has been on Fordham’s Camino trip can attest, not everyone moves at the same pace. Having traveled extensively prior to graduate school, they trusted me to ensure any straggling students did not get lost, separated, or end up as the subject for the next Liam Neeson movie. The students were well behaved, yet often lagged behind to take pictures of the limitless ruins, monuments, and churches. As a result of my ushering them along to stay with the rest of the group, the students quickly gave me the moniker “Uncle Marty”.


The group poses atop Vesuvius.

The trip was an overall fantastic learning experience both pedagogically and academically. My own research and experience with accessing archeological sites grew immensely as a result of the study tour with the Classics Department. I only wish that I could accompany the Classics to Greece this year.

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