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

October 19-20, 2017

Thursday, October 19, 6–8 p.m.
Keynote at the Embassy of Italy (view recording of keynote)

Friday, October 20, 9:30 a.m.–6 p.m.
Symposium in McEvoy Auditorium, Smithsonian American Art Museum

This international conference will examine 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 seeks to update and broaden 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. Among the topics to be explored are: an investigation of the roles of Italy and the newly built American Academy in Rome in keeping alive classical and Renaissance traditions at the turn of the twentieth century; an examination of the ways in which public commissions of the 1920s and 1930s (including New Deal and Italian Fascist programs) maintained a romance with the Renaissance fresco tradition; and an analysis of the increasing cross-cultural exchange between Italy and the United States in the Cold War era, with the inauguration of the Venice Biennale and the formation of the Peggy Guggenheim gallery.

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” is 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 is pleased to present this program in collaboration with the Embassy of Italy in DC and the Italian Cultural Institute. We are 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 is provided by Purchase College, SUNY; Kenyon College; Università di Pisa; Università degli Studi Roma Tre; and the American Academy in Rome.