Charlie Donley ’20 Researches the Obelisks of Rome

Charlie Donley ’20 shares insights from his research trip to study obelisks in the piazzas Rome.

This summer, I am using my Hurford Summer Research Fellowship funding to continue an independent project that came out of a critical theory class during the Fall 2018 semester. I am working with Assistant Professor Alessandro Giammei in Bryn Mawr’s Italian and Italian Studies Department to further develop my research in an effort to recontextualize Catholic icons—in particular, obelisks—in Rome as more hybrid and cosmopolitan than they seem in their Catholic contexts.



Since I have already completed and synthesized a considerable amount of theoretical reading for this project, my task for the summer is to develop a further understanding of the cultural contexts and origins of the obelisks across the city. In fact, their origins reflect what I argue to be a certain form of colonialism that persisted throughout Rome’s history, particularly during the Roman Empire but also during the Renaissance and Early Modern periods of Rome’s history.

The grave of Antonio Gramsci, the father of Italian Communism

To do this, I spent the first two weeks of my fellowship visiting Rome for the first time to get a better understanding of the city in person. As a history of art and growth and structure cities double-major, I have studied Rome from a number of angles including its history, art, and architecture. Visiting the city in person gave the scholarship I am working with a new layer of depth while providing me with more authority as I study and write about the city. Seeing in person many of the sites I have been reading about and analyzing, particularly Piazza San Pietro which is a focal site in my project, allows for a much more concrete understanding of place and history which was previously quite abstract. Apart from the academic portion of the project, visiting Rome was an amazing experience. The culture is wonderful, and the history is so alive in nearly any section of the city. Since this was my first time in a European city (all alone too!), it was such a valuable opportunity, and I cannot wait until I can go back another time.

For the rest of the summer, I will be doing a focused course of reading (lots of very thick books) and discussing with Professor Giammei how to strengthen my analysis of these Catholic icons. The reading will be broad in hopes of establishing a deeper understanding of the origins of the  hybrid icons of Catholicism in Rome and how they reflect both a history of colonialism and a transhistorical culture of cosmopolitanism.

Enjoying a gelato at sunset in Piazza San Pietro!

My goal for the end of the summer is to have a solid and extensive bibliography of scholarship that will allow me to expand my existing paper into work that can be submitted to a research journal for publication (hopefully)! To do this, I will be completing an independent study course with Professor Giammei in the fall—all while writing my cities thesis and preparing for my history of art thesis. I am very grateful for having the opportunity to do this research when I have the time to really delve into the scholarship during the summer. I am excited to learn what it is like to conduct independent research outside of the context of a formal class and pursue a topic I am passionate about!

Written by Charlie Donley ’20, history of art, growth and structure of cities double major

Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19