The Course of Empires: American-Italian Cultural Relations, 1770 – 1980

October 19–21, 2017

This international conference examined the persistent fascination of American and Italian artists with the cultural achievements of ancient Rome and the Renaissance. In creating national identities, both countries turned to history for similar reasons: to find inspiration for enlightened political practices; to locate models of artistic, political, and economic preeminence; and to seek ways to ward off imperial decadence and decline. Yet alongside this tendency toward emulation, some American and Italian artists looked askance at the myths of antique and Renaissance glories, demonstrating a skepticism toward the notion of imperial greatness. They utilized imagery of the Roman Colosseum, for example, as a multivalent symbol to articulate the rise, grandeur, terrors, and fall of empire.

This conference updated and broadened our understanding of American-Italian cultural relations from the Revolutionary Era through the Cold War by encompassing the diversity of voices and approaches in contemporary transnational scholarship.

Thursday, October 19, 6–8 p.m.

Friday, October 20, 9:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m.

  • Symposium in McEvoy Auditorium, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Saturday, October 21, 11:00 a.m.–12:15 p.m.

  • Scholars’ Day on “Washington as the New Rome,” MacMillan Education Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum
    Please note: We are providing this recording for archive purposes, but we must warn viewers that the quality of sound is very deficient.  We apologize for the shortcomings. (view recording of Symposium)

Symposium Webcast Playlist

Organizing Committee

Melissa Dabakis, Professor and Chair of Art History, Kenyon College
Paul Kaplan, Professor of Art History, Purchase College, SUNY
Daniele Fiorentino, Professor of U.S. History and Political Science, Università degli Studi Roma Tre
Sergio Cortesini, Assistant Professor of Art History, Università di Pisa
Karen Lemmey, Curator of Sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Amelia Goerlitz, Fellowship and Academic Programs Manager, Smithsonian American Art Museum


“The Course of Empires” was the companion conference to Hybrid Republicanism: Italy and American Art, 1840-1918, held at the American Academy in Rome in October 2016. Both events were made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art, which is dedicated to fostering exploration, understanding, and enjoyment of the visual arts of the United States for national and international audiences. SAAM was pleased to present this program in collaboration with the Embassy of Italy in DC and the Italian Cultural Institute. We were especially grateful to His Excellency Armando Varricchio, the Italian Ambassador to the United States, for serving as the honorary patron for this conference.

Additional support was provided by Purchase College, SUNY; Kenyon College; Università di Pisa; Università degli Studi Roma Tre; and the American Academy in Rome.

Smithsonian American Art Museum logo, Terra Foundation logo, Italian Embassy logo, and Istituto Italiano di Cultura logo.
Purchase college logo, Kenyon college logo, Universita di Pisaa logo, Roma Tre logo, and American Academy in Rome logo