Art historian Diana Kleiner leans on buildings, and inspires others to do the same

Since Yale art historian Diana E. E. Kleiner first fell in love with ancient Roman architecture as an undergraduate, she has leaned on many of the world’s oldest buildings, monuments, and ruins.

Leaning on a building was a habit she developed after taking a course at Smith College with William L. MacDonald, an eminent architectural historian who specialized on classical Rome. In the forward to his 1965 book “The Architecture of the Roman Empire,” published by Yale University Press, MacDonald wrote: “In the study of architecture, there can be no substitute for leaning against one’s buildings.”

“I remember being so taken with that sentence,” says Kleiner, the Dunham Professor of History of Art and Classics. “I think what was — and still is — important to me about that quote is that it describes the interaction between architecture and the experience of architecture: that you have to see a building and walk through it in order to truly understand it.”

Kleiner, who is the founding director of Open Yale Courses, is the author of the recently published e-book “Roman Architecture: A Visual Guide” (also Yale University Press), which explores nearly 200 of the great monuments of the Roman Empire, both in Rome and beyond. She took most of the photographs that accompany her concise descriptions of each site. She dedicated the book to MacDonald, as well as her son, Alex Kleiner ’08, in thanks for leaning with her on so many of the buildings.

With her e-book and through her undergraduate courses and seminars at Yale, as well as through her Open Yale course “Roman Architecture” — also offered as a MOOC on Coursera — Kleiner has introduced tens of thousands of people to the great monuments of the Roman Empire. Barely a day goes by, the art historian says, that she doesn’t receive a request for advice from a traveler about which Roman sites to see, and she responds to them all (but hopes her new book will now serve as a traveler’s guide).

YaleNews recently spoke with Kleiner about her passion for Roman art and architecture, her new book, and her travels. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

In her eyes: Kleiner's Top 10

In ancient Rome

1) The Pantheon

2) The Colosseum

3) Ara Pacis Augustae in the Ara Pacis Museum

4) Markets of Trajan

5) Basilica Nova (Basilica of Maxentius/Constantine), Roman Forum

6) Imperial Palace, Palatine Hill, especially the undulating fountain next to the Domus Flavia triclinium

7) Theater of Marcellus

8) Baths of Caracalla

9) Temple of Portunus

10) Pyramidal Tomb of Cestius and contiguous Aurelian Walls

In the environs of Rome:

1) Canopus and Serapeum, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivol

i2) Teatro Marittimo, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli

3) Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, Palestrina

4) Insula of Diana, Ostia Antica

5) Theater, Piazzale delle Corporazioni, and its business offices, Ostia Antica

6) Thermopolium on Via di Diana, Ostia Antica

7) Horrea Epagathiana Warehouse, Ostia Antica

8) Domus of Cupid and Psyche, Ostia Antica

9) Large Baths, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli

10) Temple of Vesta, downtown Tivoli

Post-antique buildings:

1) Saint Peter’s Basilica and elliptical colonnade

2) Campidoglio, oval piazza, and Capitoline, Conservatori, and Senatorial Palaces

3) Piazza Navona (originally the Stadium of Domitian)

4) Trinitå dei Monti and Piazza di Spagna

5) Castel Sant’Angelo (originally the Tomb of Hadrian)

6) S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

7) Trevi Fountain

8) Victor Emmanuel Monument in Piazza Venezia

9) Palazzo della Civilitå del Lavoro, Esposizione Universale Roma, aka the Colosseo Quadrato)

10) MAXXI, Museo Nazionale della Arti del XXI secolo

How did you first become interested in Roman architecture?

I could say, like a lot of people, that my interest in architecture began after going to Washington, D.C. for the first time as child, because of all the impressive monuments there. I early on developed a passion for monumental architecture that had columns and all sorts of other wonderful things.

But college was definitely the real turning point for me. I grew up in New York City near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was a frequent visitor there. I loved art history and decided at Smith College that I was going do a major in the history of art. Like so many students who enter the field of art history, I was taken with the more modern things, with Impressionism and van Gogh and so on. But in college, my favorite teacher was William L. McDonald, who taught Roman art and architecture. I had been to Rome and loved Rome, but this incredible teacher made it all come alive — not only Rome itself but the architecture that the Romans built across a huge empire, covering three continents.

In my own mind, architecture became very intertwined with travel, that whole idea that to understand architecture you have to “lean” against buildings, you have to go there and experience them. I lived in Europe for four years — two of them in Rome while writing my dissertation and two in Athens — and, since then, I’ve spent every moment traveling that I possibly could. So I have been able to lean against a lot of buildings!

What was the focus of your Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University?

I was interested at that point in carving out a whole new field, which was to look into what the art of the non-elite was all about.

When you hear about ancient Rome, it’s mostly about the men in power, from the time of the dictator Julius Caesar through the emperor Constantine. It was these Roman rulers who commissioned most of the major monuments we see in Rome today — the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and so on.

Rome was a slave-owning society; that was one of its negative aspects. Indeed, the only way the Romans could build their monuments was through deploying vast numbers of slaves they captured in the parts of the world they conquered. The reason for this is that the Romans considered only three professions acceptable for an elite Roman male: the military, politics, and owning and running an estate. All the professions that we think of today as desirable, and that so many of our Yale undergraduates want to do — such as medicine, law, and business — as well as architecture and teaching — were unacceptable for an elite Roman male. 

And yet, since the slaves were brought from civilizations arguably more advanced than Rome’s own, many were highly educated and skilled individuals, including lawyers, doctors, architects, and teachers.

For my dissertation, I took a social/historical approach and explored Rome’s non-elites by looking at their depictions on tombs. Tombs are, of course, Roman architecture and, in fact, one of the more intriguing set of Roman buildings because they best express the idiosyncratic way elite and non-elite Romans wanted to be remembered for posterity.

Not much is known about the architects of many of these ancient monuments. Why is that?

In Greece, architects, sculptors, and painters were very highly regarded, so their names have come down to us. The Romans didn’t see things that way. They saw architects as they saw most of the other slaves they brought in from other parts of the world — as highly skilled practitioners, but not people at the upper echelons of Roman society. We do have the names of some architects, sculptors, and painters, but their names have come down to us usually because something they did was unusual and intriguing.

As one example, there was a painter during the reign of Nero who had this wonderful name: Fabullus. He was sort of the Michelangelo of his day. He was asked to paint the entire palace of Nero in Rome. Like Michelangelo with the Sistine Chapel, a commission like that could take a lifetime. His name was probably recorded because it was said that the Domus Aurea — Nero’s palatial residence — was Fabullus’ prison since he was going to have to stay there his whole life to paint all the walls and ceilings of this outrageously enormous complex.

Fabullus was also known for painting in his toga. Painting in a toga is like painting in a three-piece-suit today. Who would paint in a toga? You’d paint in a tunic or something that would allow you more motion. Whether that was true or not, we don’t know. Names of such great Roman architects as Rabirius and Apollodorus of Damascus have also come down to us, but the numbers are very small.

Your course on Roman architecture has been highly popular as an Open Yale Course and, more recently, Coursera. Do you think the subject lends itself particularly well to an online format?

I think a lot of courses lend themselves well to being taught online. I think what has made mine a somewhat different experience is that it’s something that is very deeply intertwined with travel. As I mention in my e-book, the Romans were inveterate travelers. Their travel, at least initially, was for military purposes: They were traveling to take over the world. But over time they developed real wanderlust; they simply loved to travel.

The second-century emperor Hadrian is a case in point. All he wanted to do was travel. His excuse was that he had to see what was going on in all of his provinces, to make sure everything was okay. I’m sure he cared about that, but he also relished hanging out in all of those exotic places. His villa at Tivoli is meant, basically, to be a re-creation of his travels around the empire. He had the imperial treasury at his disposal, so every time he saw a building that he liked he either came back and had a copy — or a variation on the theme — made at his villa. When you go there, you get a sense of the entire Roman Empire, Hadrian-style.

One of reasons my course is popular is that Yale and other students love to take it if they are planning to go to Rome. They learn a tremendous amount about Roman architecture and it also prepares them to tour the city and experience it at a deeper level. I’ve gotten many e-mails from students over the years who tell me: “Well, my parents took me to Rome for my graduation, and my mom said, ‘Now I know that all we spent on Yale was worth it, because you were the best tour guide we could ever have had!’”

Have you enjoyed the experience of teaching the Coursera class?

Yes, very much. One of the most appealing features of the Coursera course is that it reaches a global audience. Since, at its height, the Roman Empire covered three continents, having Coursera students who live in countries where there are Roman remains led to some very lively discussions on the course’s online forum.

One of the discussions that I most admired, and which continued throughout the entire semester, was about architecture in Roman Syria. As we all know, those who live in Syria today are experiencing very difficult times. There were five or six students from Syria taking my Coursera course. They were so excited to be able to talk with pride about the ancient Roman roots in Syria and all the surviving Roman buildings that tourists used to come to in droves but aren’t coming to right now because of what’s happening there. The students shared all of their knowledge about the sites and pictures of them and it was as if we were there with them. It was a very moving and unforgettable experience.

Roman architecture is an ideal subject for people in different parts in the world. I encourage students to share their pictures if they live near places with Roman ruins, and we get these great stories, not just from Syria but from Greece and North Africa, and from all over the Middle East. While each subject has its own fascination and its own way of grabbing people, I think that this kind of sharing of personal stories makes Roman architecture compelling in a special way.

Have you taken your Yale classes to Rome or to any of the ancient sites?

I have not done that, but I have been very active in Yale Educational Travel, which offers alumni trips. I’ve done that since coming to the university. My most recent trip was in the spring of 2013. A couple of colleagues in the classics department, John Matthews and Christina Kraus, and I led a class on campus for a week here at Yale as part of the “Yale for Life” series and then Yale Educational Travel asked me to offer a trip to Rome the week after the course. It was a way for me to try something entirely new: teaching Yale alumni here for a week and then traveling with some of them to Rome. That was great fun to do. We called it “Yale Week in Rome.” I plan to do other such journeys in the future.

Is Rome your favorite city?

Yes, it is. I love Rome and have been there countless times — some years more than once. I love a lot of cities. I love Athens and Paris. But I think for me, there’s an added “oomph” to Rome because of the ancient buildings there. I also love the South of France, which has the best array of well-preserved Roman buildings in the world — the best anywhere, including Rome. One of my prize chapters in my new e-book is the chapter about France.

What made you decide to publish an e-book?

I’m very taken with the digital world. I created very elaborate web portals for my undergraduate courses on campus, but these were just for my Yale students, not for a wide audience. I’ve been thinking for a long time about an e-book. I partnered with Yale Press to produce the Open Yale Courses Series, the transcript version of some of our Open Yale courses. The Yale Press had talked to me about doing that for my “Roman Architecture” course. So my idea for the e-book evolved over time as I was planning for the Coursera course, and people were writing to me for travel tips, and as the technology caught up with what I wanted to do. Creating the book disciplined me to write very briefly, and it features my own photographs. It also has a Flash Cards section where students — and others — can test whether they can identify a featured monument. It was a fun project for me.

What else do you like to tell people about Roman architecture?

As I tell readers in “Roman Architecture: A Visual Guide”: Be mindful of the architecture around you and how much of it can be traced back to ancient Rome. Remember that the Romans invented everything first, including concrete, the shopping mall, and the sports arena, to name just a few. Finally, the Pantheon is the greatest building ever built!