Feb. 20, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 11

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    Profile: Ingrid Rowland

    Ingrid Rowland, Associate Professor in Art History, took an unconventional route to her career as an art historian -- her Ph.D. is in Greek Literature -- and she continues to approach the subject in an unconventional way, focusing her studies on the creators of art more than on the art itself.

    Her research centers on the creators of ancient Mediterranean art and architecture, and she is a prolific writer on the topic. She is the author of numerous journal articles and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.

    As the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of alumni, Rowland can trace her academic roots throughout the history of the University, where she has taught since 1990. One of Chicago's oldest and most familiar honors, the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, was bestowed upon her in 1994.

    "My teaching philosophy is based on the fact that I'm a child of alumni," she said at that time. "My mother was a student in the College during the tenure of President Robert Hutchins, and my whole way of teaching has been influenced by that ideal of liberal education. I've felt a connection to Chicago since I began teaching in 1979."

    Before coming to Chicago, Rowland taught at St. Mary's College, UCLA -- where she received the Mortar Board Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching in 1987 -- and Columbia. She received her B.A. in 1974 from Pomona College and her M.A. and Ph.D., in 1976 and 1980 respectively, from Bryn Mawr College. You've won two teaching awards, one for teaching undergraduates here at the University. Is it safe to say you enjoy teaching in the College? Oh, I really do. The Core is the great strength of the University. It shows that the University kept its principles about learning consistent for a century. It's one of the places that hasn't compromised. So that's part of it.

    But, also, I think teaching is my vocation. I was one of those horrible child pedants. My dad would whip out a pad of yellow paper whenever I asked him questions. I would ask something simple, and there he'd be, drawing diagrams, making charts. And my mother would say, "She doesn't want a yellow-paper answer." But he loved teaching, and so do I.

    Your dad's a professor also? Yes, in chemistry. He did his graduate work here. Actually, he's on the T-shirt, because he won the Nobel Prize. He was also very interested in ancient peoples, so in a way I'm following an interest of his that he was never able to develop.

    For instance, your current work has to do with Etruscan art. Right. Actually, I'm in the early stages of a book called The Scarith of Scornello: An Etruscan Fraud in the Age of Galileo. It's about a teenage forger in the 17th century.

    Why would one need a forger in the 17th century? The Renaissance was very influenced by Etruscan art, and people in Tuscany were very proud of their Etruscan heritage. But none of these proud Renaissance Etruscans could actually read Etruscan, so they faked their past. They had forgers make up an Etruscan history for them that they could read. Complete fictions.

    But this turned into a political mess the year after Galileo's condemnation by the Inquisition, because his family used this teenage forger to try to prove the Etruscans had foreseen Galileo's use of the telescope in ancient times. They tried to say that the Romans were holding this flower of Etruscan thought under house arrest.

    We tend to think of "political messes" as a modern phenomena. Are there any other ways in which Renaissance life was "modern," so to speak? Oh, yes. For example, in my book Order and Abacus: Ancients and Moderns in 16th-Century Rome, which is coming out this fall, I write about how the Renaissance people may have looked back at the past, reviving the ancient Greco-Roman values -- but they didn't want to do it without their modern technology, like gun powder. It's like all those people who go to Renaissance fairs and dress up in gowns, but don't want to do without their penicillin. They have nostalgia without jeopardizing their gains.

    You were quoted in a Chronicle story a couple of years ago as saying that you wanted students to learn to talk to dead people. What exactly does that mean? It was said about the Renaissance architect Borromini that he had an anxiety to communicate -- he wanted to talk to people who hadn't been born yet. I try to make that a two-way communication by interpreting what artists and architects wanted to say and then writing books in response. If more can people understand what these artists were trying to say, they can communicate better. It gives the artists a voice again.

    In addition to your teaching and scholarship, you are known for the alumni art tours you lead to the Mediterranean every summer. What do you enjoy most about these trips? The people who take them ask such smart questions. They might not have any education in my field, but they've lived a long time, and they make me rethink my perspective. It's very different from undergraduates. A student in the Core course "Greek Thought and Literature" is likely to ask something like: What is justice? The people on my tours are more . . . I don't want to say cynical. They're more worldly. They'll ask: Is there justice?

    In 1993, author John Updike took one of your tours and later wrote a thinly veiled piece about it for the New Yorker, in which he referred to you as "Killer." (Laughter) Actually, I think he might have been jealous that another author was the center of attention on the tour. Homer was getting all the praise.

    -- Jennifer Vanasco