Interview with Corey Brennan, PhD

By TammyJo Eckhart, PhD

TammyJo Eckhart: Thank you, Doctor Corey Brennan, for answering some of my questions today about your work for the Flyover Zone newsletter and website readers. Would you tell us what your field of academic study is and where you currently teach?

Dr. Corey Brennan: All my training is in Classics and ancient history, and for the past 20 years I have been teaching on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey. Before that I taught at Bryn Mawr College for a decade. I think I would describe my field of academic study as shifting over the past decades from Roman history to history of the city of Rome, pretty much up to the present day.

TE: You have a YouTube channel. When did you get started with that social media platform? Do you find that platform to be a good way to reach out to the public about your scholarly passions?

CB: I manage a private archive in Rome—the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi, the family of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni, who in 1582 introduced the Gregorian Calendar, and Gregory XV Ludovisi, who canonized the first Jesuit saints in 1622. I set up the YouTube channel to promote all the archive’s initiatives, and also explain a bit about the history of the family, with footage live from Rome. I am glad it exists though it is definitely niche.

TE: How did you become affiliated with the American Academy in Rome (AAR)?

CB: I was very fortunate to be selected as a Fellow in ancient studies in 1987, and since then I’ve been involved with the institution on both sides of the Atlantic, including a three-year stint on the staff of the Academy, in 2009-2012 as head of Humanities programming in Rome. Right now, I am the chair of the Advisory Council to the AAR, which is a group of about 90 supporting American institutions, some dating back to the Academy’s earliest days in the 1890s. I’ve been a part of a lot of institutions, but this is the one that I am 110% devoted to.

TE: There is a monument to WWI service members who were in the AAR on their Rome campus. Why isn’t there one for WWII when that was also a global conflict?

CB: Yes, there is a splendid monument by the sculptor Paul Manship and the painter Frank Fairbanks to two Fellows who died in WW I. Each were camouflage artists. As far as WW II is concerned, this is a big puzzle, since 58 Fellows fought on active duty and numerous others assisted in other ways in the war effort. One Academy Fellow died in service, and three were killed in action—two on the same day, both in Normandy in late July 1944. In addition to this sacrifice, I think a case can be made that the Academy’s fundamental involvement in the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Commission—the so-called “Monuments Men”—is one of the largest contributions in the AAR’s long history to society as a whole. Plus, the Academy was directly impacted during the war. It had to suspend operations for seven years and would have been requisitioned by the Nazi occupiers of Rome were it not for the efforts of the Swiss diplomats who took up residence on the campus and protected it. I can go on. My sense is that the AAR found the events of the war so traumatizing that it never got around to commemorating its record of service in it. The issue is that we are now more than 75 years past V-E Day.

TE: You’ve made a push at the AAR for a WWII monument for the members who served during that global conflict. Could you briefly explain why you think such a memorial fit into the AAR campus?

CB: In the years 1940-1945, fully a third of AAR Fellows then living served in the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. I haven’t run the numbers, but I suspect that the proportion of Affiliated Fellows—visiting artists and scholars—was about the same. This represents a massive and selfless contribution, by individuals who of course were trained as artists and humanists. I really feel strongly that this needs to be formally acknowledged memorialized, somewhere on the AAR’s eleven-acre campus.

TE: You have an idea of a work of sculpture that could make a good memorial, and you’ve made a video about that, but for our readers would you highlight one or two reasons why you think Gibb’s Fountain Group is a good choice?

CB: It is hard to be succinct here. Yes, I have a special and rather emotional interest in Harrison Gibbs, an Academy Fellow in Sculpture who served as a rifleman with the 15th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. This was the heavily decorated Audie Murphy Regiment and Division. His promising artistic career cut short when he was killed in action in eastern France on 26 December 1944—part of the famous Battle of the Bulge. As it happens, Harrison Gibbs’ activities as a Fellow from 1936 to 1938 are lavishly and beautifully illustrated, thanks to an extraordinary gift of a massive photographic archive of Academy life from those years, given by Washington-based architect Richard A. Ayers. His father was a Fellow at the AAR at the same time as Gibbs, and there are hundreds of photos of Gibbs and his travels and activities where he really comes alive for us. Now, while Harrison Gibbs was in Rome at the American Academy, he had created the plaster model for a fountain, part of a collaborative team project for sculptors and landscape architects to redesign a courtyard—specifically, our Academy’s courtyard, where there is now a striking work, called the Bass Fountain, dedicated in 1994. Well, in 1938, when his fellowship in Rome ended, Harrison Gibbs shipped to Rosemont, Pennsylvania the plaster model for this work, which he called Fountain Group. The model remained in a barn there until 2006, when the artist’s daughter, Ramona Gibbs, began to relocate any works by her father and mother, also a sculptor. Ramona Gibbs shipped the plaster model for the fountain to Chicago for casting in bronze. And in April 2013, Gibbs’ original plan to cast Fountain Group as a working fountain was finally realized when it was installed thanks to his daughter Ramona, in the Sculpture Garden of the Peoria Illinois Riverfront Museum. I can’t imagine a more touching tribute to the veterans of WW II than to have one also at the Academy in Rome.

TE: So far, the AAR has not moved on your suggestion to recast the Fountain Group and use it as WWII memorial. Have they talked with you at all about your suggestion?

CB: I have floated the idea at various levels of the AAR, and I can say that in general I’ve received a warm response and some good feedback on the practicalities, especially in fall 2019 when I was a Resident at the Academy in Rome. But the global health crisis understandably has swept away all considerations except basic safety and security of the community. As things settle down, I will pitch it again! However, my thinking has really developed on what this might look like. Perhaps the memorial might take the form of a digital wall rather than a 1:1 recreation of the fountain. The Academy has so many gifted artists in all media that I am 100% positive the final result would be amazing if the project is greenlighted.

TE: How did you first become aware of Harrison Gibbs’ work? [FAAR for Sculpture 1938]

CB: I think what initially got me excited was the amazing photo archive of the architect Richard Ayers, with images of the Academy in the years 1936-1938.  And the fact that an email group discussion of the archive put me into close contact with Ramona Gibbs. My own modest contribution to Gibbsiana was finding contemporary Italian newsreel footage of his sculptures as they were exhibited at Academy shows in the late 1930s. But I want to learn more, and one of my ambitions is to visit Ramona Gibbs in Peoria as soon as it is practicable.

TE: Flyover Zone is making a 3D model of Gibbs’ Fountain Group. How did you learn about FZP and decide that we were a good fit to work with on this modeling of and recreation of this sculpture?

CB: I have known Flyover Zone founder Bernard Frischer for at least 35 years, and to my mind he is absolute synonymous with cutting-edge digitization of sculpture—plus so much else. The relative proximity of Flyover Zone’s Bloomington Indiana headquarters and the installation of Gibb’s Fountain Group in Peoria Illinois cinched this in my mind.

TE: What are the advantages and disadvantages to a digital version versus another bronze cast of it?

CB: The digital model of course is scalable—it can recreate the original at any size. It is eminently portable, and it is much much more economical to produce than a cast bronze fountain, which would need an endowment to maintain. It also allows 3D printing, again at any scale. And viewers can interact with the piece in new and interesting ways.

TE: Are there other Gibbs’ works that you think would befit from being digitized?

CB: Yes, all of them! One of my absolute favorites is called ‘La Source’ and was a centerpiece of the 1935 Philadelphia Flower Show. I have to check with Ramona Gibbs what she has, in terms of models and originals.

TE: You are currently editing a project that will compile the work of all AAR fellows. Would you tell us more about that?

CB: I’m glad you asked! It’s tentatively called “The New Centennial Directory of the American Academy in Rome”, and I’ve been working on it off and on for more than a dozen years. It’s a thorough revision and expansion of a really great print volume that appeared in 1995—for the 100-year anniversary of the Academy—but this one is online and rich in images. The notion of the project is that it’s a collaborative effort eventually to engage every living AAR Fellow, Resident, or Affiliate. There is an online template in existence to get things started, but still, lots of work to do before a true rollout. Right now, the site adds over 1000 AAR community members to the 1995 print volume: obviously everyone who has been involved with the Academy since that year, but also about 300 names from the pre-WW II period, mostly of affiliates, that had gone missing.

TE: Do you plan to include digital versions of AAR fellows works as well as a printed version?

CB: Yes, totally. The idea is to take full advantage of the digital medium and for Fellows to be able to upload whatever they would like to share, in the arts or the humanities.

TE: Will the “The New Centennial Directory of the American Academy in Rome” be available to the public or only to AAR members?

CB: The New Centennial Directory is very much meant to be public facing, and fully searchable. For instance, I would like folks to be able to query “how many Pulitzer Prize recipients has the Academy had” and then find the precise answer, with details.

TE: Finally, how have you been doing during the covid-19 pandemic?

CB: Again, it’s good of you to ask! I’ve been doing fine, as has my family, but only by going completely underground until the vaccines were available.  I haven’t been on a plane since December 2019, perhaps my longest spell as an adult ever. Right now the plan is to return to Rome in January for a few weeks—we’ll see.

TE: Thank you, Doctor Brennan, for sharing your work and passion with us today.

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