Inside the Eternal City

Jewish and Art History Courses Take Yeshiva University Students to Ancient Rome

The city, culture and history of Rome have been important influences in the evolution of Western civilization. Rome has also played a pivotal role in Jewish history through the ages, for good and for bad. This summer, two courses offered by the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program and S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program at Yeshiva University gave students the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study the Eternal City’s unique impact on the history of art and Judaism in situ.

Students at the Capitoline Museum
Students at the Capitoline Museum

Dr. Joseph Angel, assistant professor of Jewish Studies and an expert in Second Temple Judaism, and Dr. Steven Fine, the Dean Pinkhos Churgin of Jewish History and director of YU’s Center for Israel Studies, co-taught Classical Jewish History: The Jews from Rome, which explored the complexities of the Jewish people’s relationship with Rome as a place, as well as its culture and society, from Hasmonean times through late antiquity. A course taught by Dr. Marnin Young, associate professor of art history, Classicism: From Antiquity to the Age of Revolution, tracked the history of the idea and practice of Classicism in the visual arts—arguably the dominant artistic culture of Europe prior to the 20th century—from Roman emulations of Greek sculpture through its rebirth during the Renaissance and beyond.

Students could enroll in either or both of the courses, which began with three weeks of lectures on campus in New York and visits to local museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before taking students to the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia and Rome itself for a uniquely personal encounter with art and history.

The courses included visits to some of the most famous historical sites and pieces of art in the world, such as the Arch of Titus, the subject of extensive research by Fine; the Vatican Museums, including a special tour of ancient Jewish inscriptions from the Roman catacombs that are otherwise closed to the general public; and the Coliseum, among many others. Students spent three days in Naples, where they visited the Royal Palace and were hosted by the Naples Jewish community and their leader Rabbi Umberto Piperno for dinner in their historic synagogue.

Honors Program Director Dr. Gabriel Cwilich and students at the ancient baths of Caracalla
Honors Program Director Dr. Gabriel Cwilich and students at the ancient baths of Caracalla

“At the Capitoline Museums in Rome and the Capodimonte in Naples, we tracked down and explained references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” said Young. “In the Vatican Museums, Dr. Steven Fine gained us exclusive access to the famed Augustus of Primaporta and afterward we shouldered our way through the crowds to enter Raphael’s School of Athens. Amid the quieter marginalia of the Villa Farnesina, we saw the artist’s Galatea come to life. For some of us, however, the highlight of the course was seeing Caravaggio’s Narcissus in the Palazzo Barberini.”

“Overseas study is an essential learning laboratory for undergraduates, a chance to encounter different approaches to reality,” said Fine. “This flexibility is essential for our students in particular, as they develop as committed Torah Umadda Jews. It was amazing to stand before the most important artifacts of Western culture and discuss them with our students.”

A highlight of the trip for Joshua Skootsky, a computer science major from San Francisco, California, enrolled in the Jewish history course, was visiting the archaeological dig of an ancient synagogue in Ostia Antica, where the group encountered Professor Michael White of the University of Texas, an acquaintance of Fine’s who was working on excavations at the synagogue. “He literally lifted up the tape cordoning off the dig and let us in, explaining his most recent research on the history of the site—then we davened mincha [recited afternoon prayers] there,” said Skootsky.

Professor Marnin Young speaks about a statue at the Vatican Museums.
Professor Marnin Young speaks about a statue at the Vatican Museums.

Hillel Field, a sophomore at Yeshiva College from Woodmere, New York, who was enrolled in both courses, was also moved by that experience. “It was truly awe-inspiring to have visual proof of the antiquity and integrity of one’s traditions,” he said. “Like our synagogues , this one faced Jerusalem and has a recognizable ark where a Torah scroll would be stored.” He added, “I believe it is critical for people to gain exposure to different cultures, with their own unique histories, and at the same time discover the similarities we all share. Being engaged in this experience with a group of like-minded and driven students doesn’t hurt.”

“Seeing the glory of what was Rome on-site, in Italy, has been an experience that I will continue to draw on long after the course is over,” agreed Skootsky. “Another aspect of the trip was seeing the contemporary Italian Jewish community, which has preserved a remarkable amount of unity and sense of family, despite having many different and divergent types of religious belief and practice within their community.”

Professor Steven Fine analyzes ancient Jewish tombstone engravings.
Professor Steven Fine analyzes ancient Jewish tombstone engravings.

Spencer Brasch, from Chicago, Illinois, found that even though he was only enrolled in the art history course, he benefited greatly from the interdisciplinary dialogue of both professors as they brought their expertise to discussions of great works of art. “Young and Fine engaged in a truly fascinating conversation about the Primaporta statue of Augustus Caesar as they stood literally in front of the statue itself,” he said. “Young was saying that the real purpose of the statue was to be lifelike, a part of the people, able to be touched, as if Augustus the emperor himself was forming a human connection with his people. Fine said that it was a constant reminder of the powerful fist of Rome. Both compared the statue to statues of modern rulers, around the world, like Stalin and Mussolini.”

“I know this trip will help make my learning in Rav [Moshe] Kahn’s shiur [lecture] that much more powerful in this coming year and enhance my understanding of the world for years to come,” said Brasch.

“Seeing the Arch of Titus in person for the first time was amazing not only because it was a tangible experience, but also because we were equipped with professors more than qualified to review every relevant aspect—both to the courses and to our experiences as Yeshiva University students—of the arch and its meaning,” said Jeni Rossberg, a senior at Stern College for Women majoring in biology from Baltimore, Maryland, who took both courses. “The time spent at the Arch really put our trip into a new perspective, allowing us to broaden our understanding of the plight of the post-Second Temple Jews and the relationship between art and victory in ancient Roman culture. I walked away from this trip with an entirely new knowledge base and appreciation for art and Jewish history.”