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Uncovering Abandoned Voices Of Antiquity With Hérica Valladares

July 20, 2021 | Kristen Chavez

Associate Professor of Classics Hérica Valladares talks about her current research project regarding the material culture of domestic Ancient Rome.


Philip Hollingsworth: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and Friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode I speak with Assistant Professor of Classics Hérica Valladares. In our conversation, Professor Valladares speaks on studying domesticity in Roman antiquity through material culture. PH: I have one question. Do you mind me asking, you know, I’ve heard some discussions and some people about eliminating classics departments for one reason or another. Is that annoying to ask that of you? I don’t know if that’s — Hérica Valladares: I don’t think it’s annoying. I mean, you know it is something that is very much in the news and you just see these editorials and articles and interviews appearing everywhere. And also, I mean, there’s also the very concrete case of Howard University and the Classics Department there. PH: Yeah, yeah. That’s pretty recent, right? HV: Yeah, this was this came out in the past month and I mean, to me, it’s a very sad situation. And not just because I’m a classicist, but because what is evident in the situation at Howard is that you have their really strong department of individuals that are very much devoted to teaching. We have students who love that department. That is a huge, you know that is a historically important department, not just for classics but for American literature and culture. You know Toni Morrison was not only an alumna of Howard, but an alumna of that classics department, right. And you know, there’s been this kind of a fraught conversation about classics and contemporary culture, especially since I’d say the election of Donald Trump and the emergence of much more vocal fascist or neo-fascist groups that appropriate the language of classical art and literature, and the imagery of classical art and for their own nefarious purposes. And this is not new right. I mean, we know that classics has been adapted, adopted, invoked by those kinds of political belief systems for a while. Think back about even Nazi Germany or fascist Italy and the use of the Roman, the Greco-Roman past as a kind of you know, mirror of the present for those fascist regimes. But classics is much more complex and diverse and it is, you know, to say that that is the correct reading of classics — as I think very limiting — classics is also very foundational for our contemporary notions of democracy, right? Of republicanism, you know of living in a republic as opposed to monarchy, right. So yeah, it’s a major, it is a source of inspiration for, you know, a wide variety of artists and writers and philosophers. And you know, Kehinde Wiley has recently turned toward the classics to explore, you know, the relationship between Black identity and Black culture and art in relation to you know this kind of Western canon. And you know, we talked about Toni Morrison. I mean, we can turn, you know, to also something that classicists in the United States have begun to explore more professionally in their research, is the reception of the classics and the you know in the Americas from the early modern period to the 20th century. So I think you know, I mean no, it isn’t annoying. It’s a really important question. It’s just one that I think. Unfortunately, there’s the kind of bad rap for classics right now, which I don’t think this field or even the practitioners of the field deserve. PH: Yeah, yeah. Right, because it seems like the yes exactly and I think there’s like this zero sum game mentality with a lot of things, and so they’re like well, if you include for bringing in things like you know, trying to expand the breadth of like historical study, literary study, all the people get scared that I’m going to have to give up something else. And so I appreciate your stance, where it’s like we don’t have to get rid of it to add all these other things that can we just like expand the fields of study. And you can kind of delve deep into what hasn’t been studied in classics and things like that. HV: Or that needs reevaluation or that needs… You know, each generation brings a new lens to the study of this material, right? And because it is material that is… One of my undergraduates here at UNC wrote this wonderful paper about the influence of Roman architecture in American architecture and he was looking mostly at 20th century architecture and not even you know what we would immediately think as neoclassical. And he had this wonderful phrase in this in this paper, which was that Roman art and architecture were part of the DNA of American art and architecture, and I think that is so true about the United States. It’s also true for other places in the world. I’m from Brazil, so you know so you know, I’ve seen things always through this sort of comparatist lens because you know, I came to the States as a teenager. I’ve grown up in the United States, but I’m still very linked to the country of my birth. And it’s you know, there’s similar discussions happening there. And what is also interesting to me in these discussions is that students are interested in the classics. I mean, you know this is an argument that we have with our teams constantly. Like yes, the number of majors may be small, but we actually get a lot of students in our more you know, our gen-ed classes, right? So I co-taught this class with Vicki Rovine, who’s an alumna now of the IAH, on art and fashion from Rome to Timbuktu and it was a really wonderful experience. And one of the things that we wanted to get students to think about was, you know we have these preconceived notions, whether positive or negative or mixed, about both the ancient world and about contemporary Africa. And you know, where are these ideas coming from? And so it was very interesting to think about fashion, which is, you know, a global phenomenon in the sense that we all you know — All cultures at all times participate in fashion, right? And use fashion as a way of expressing identities, status, aspirations and so that was really very productive. And I think very productive for the students. It was a very popular class. And this past year, even though we were under pandemic circumstances, I taught a class on daily life in ancient Pompeii. And I taught the course on Roman archaeology in the spring. And there were a 100, 100 plus students signed up for that course. HV: So it isn’t…. I mean, sure, the are student requirements, but there are other things that they could be taking to fulfill those requirements, right? So there is real interest and I don’t see the students coming in, and you know, taking those classes because they want to kind of worship at the altar of classical tradition. They come in with tough questions, right? They come in, like, “So what is the deal with this thing and these things? And who are these people, and how do they live?” “How does this connect to my own experience?” And I think that they’re all very surprised to see that there are these sort of similarities and differences, but that thinking about the ancient world helps them think about the current world. And this is something that. It’s true about my teaching and it’s something I strive for with my own scholarship as well. PH: Well, I think that’s a good transition to talk about what you’re working on now. You mentioned a little bit about the course you taught with Professor Rovine about fashion. Your current project is based on that is that, am I right? HV: Well, it’s related to it. When Vicky very generously, sweetly approached me to co-teach with her, she said, you know, she opened and se just said, ‘we should do a course together. I’m an Africanist, you’re a classicist. We came to UNC at more or less the same time’ – she got here a year ahead of me. But you know, said ‘we’re both new here. We’re trying to sit establish ourselves right in this university, get our names out to students. And we work on periods and regions that are often seen as sort of the opposite right of one another, and I think it would just be really interesting to get you know somebody like you and somebody like me talking about art.’ And she proposed different things. Right now I can’t remember where they were, but she proposed various things. One of them was fashion and I jumped on the idea of teaching a course on fashion with her. Partly because that is one of her specialties, but this was I was already beginning the work on this project and I thought, OK, this is going to be a great opportunity for me to get some of the work that I need to do for the 2nd book started. So the project was already sort of growing when I met Vicky and we decided to teach together, but it has certainly become much richer and more sophisticated, I think,  through my collaboration with her and learning from Vicky a lot. But yeah I mean this is exactly when we were talking about, how do we create bridges between the past and the present? And thinking about objects of daily life is a really wonderful way to do that, right? So the objects that we encounter in the archaeological record that tell us about the daily life of individuals, most of whom are anonymous — to us — not all of their names have been preserved and individuals that come from certain social classes that don’t really get a lot of press. let’s put it that way, in the traditional historical literary record, that tends to focus on elite individuals, and members of imperial family when we’re talking about ancient Rome. So the way that I see in my work is an attempt to recover voices that have been traditionally marginalized in the historical record, right? Or in the historical literature. And so hence my fascination with domesticity. My first book was on Roman Wall paintings, and the presence of love stories in the decoration of domestic interiors. Thinking about an aspect of Roman culture that doesn’t usually get treated very with any kind of extensive attention. We tend to think of the Romans as severe, militaristic. Sometimes bloody and kind of gross. But they were a very complex society like all societies. PH: If you think about like American culture in history, like hundreds of years from now, if people just write about, you know Afghanistan and the Iraqi War and not like everything else that was going. HV: Exactly and football games, and you know supersized fast food. In the meantime, here we are. You know, super sophisticated chefs, people who are anti-war, so that’s exactly right. We have these perceptions about peoples, right. And so I think my work as a scholar has always been to try to explore the more unexplored areas of Roman culture. So love stories, for one. The Romans were really into love stories. In many ways they invented romance. And this interest in love stories coincides with the rise and expansion of the Roman Empire. So it’s very interesting to see this kind of development of the home as this ideal place for emotional fulfillment, happening exactly when Rome is most invested right in expanding its frontiers. So it seems counter intuitive. And my idea also with working on fashion has been that there’s been a huge amount of interest among classical scholars, historians, archaeologists on what we consider the ancient global Mediterranean, right? So trade routes, the exchange of raw materials from different parts of the Mediterranean world and how that impacts the way people live, the way the cities look. What happens when so much of the Mediterranean world comes under the control of the Roman Empire. And what happens to those cities? And there have been wonderful studies about the Romanization, for lack of a better word, of public spaces in various cities throughout the empire, how they’re made to all kind of look like a standard Roman city with certain spaces, institutions, and monuments. But that work of thinking about,the global impact — global in the sense of the global Mediterranean, since that’s that was sort of the known world for them –thinking about this international network, economic and political network has tended to marginalize women. So there’s a lot of attention paid to public monuments, for instance, into the larger sort of trends in the economy of the empire. What goods are being produced where and shipped to what part of the empire? And what is the cost involved. And there’s really wonderful rich work. So Professor Jan Gates-Foster, who’s my colleague and who’s also been at the IAH as done really amazing work thinking about these various quarries and the deserts in Egypt and also thinking about you know the individuals who lived and worked, a lot of whom were enslaved in this context. What I’m looking at is something else. I’m looking more at, what kinds of stories about the Roman Empire can we tell if we start looking for the objects that were made exclusively for women during this period? So I’m really thinking about the 1st to the 3rd century. So thinking about the Roman Empire at its peak and thinking about how ideas of an ideal Roman wife, the ideal of the perfect Roman woman is also being circulated through these objects and the representation of these objects because these objects appear in a number of monuments as kind of emblems of ideal femininity. Yeah, so objects that I’ll be looking at and that appear frequently represented in Roman art include mirrors, shoes, vessels designed for holding perfume, jewelry. And then there’s the question of textiles, right? Textiles are really difficult to study in antiquity because they’re so fragile. They tend to deteriorate very quickly, but we do have some latenty textiles that are preserved in Egypt. And we also have the evidence preserved for us through these paintings. You may have seen some of them. These are portraits that were produced in Egypt with what was the ancient equivalent of oil painting. So it’s wax that is heated up and mixed with pigments and applied to a wooden panel. And you have these amazing vivid portraits of individuals living in the first, second, 3rd century, BCE in Egypt. And the colors and the textures of the fabrics are very well-preserved in these representations. We also have literary evidence. So one of the things that I need to think about when I get to the chapter on textiles, is how do we handle this ephemeral bit of evidence that is clearly crucial for how people are presenting themselves to one another? And it also speaks to this kind of both this idealization of women, but also speaks to the very concrete impacts of imperial presence and imperial commerce. So we know that Romans are importing cotton from India and importing silk from China. We have the Silk Road, already. So what you’re wearing on your body is telling layered narratives that have to do with a sort of imperial presence. PH: Yeah, and that’s one thing I’ve been surprised of that you think during that period of time, people just kind of stayed where they were, but there’s a lot more movement and travel back and forth than you might think between like even East Asia to Europe and Africa to East Asia, and things like that. HV: Absolutely. PH: It’s really fascinating to realize like no, that people were moving around. HV: Yeah, people were moving around. Objects were moving around and ideas were moving around with them, and that’s really the core of the project, and you know these questions are really… There’s a lot of scholarly interest in these questions right now, and I think that what I’m introducing to this conversation — or me and a group of other scholars — is this sort of re-framing that discussion through the lens of gender, thinking about women. I think that that’s the intervention that has been in a way missing and it is picking up steam now. In a way it’s easier to talk about these larger international penetrating trends by looking at large monuments, coinage even the material objects themselves. But once you start thinking about them through this lens of women, then, you’re sort of both refining and problematizing some of the questions that are already in the air about the way that travel and trade happened in the Mediterranean during this period. Yes, but you’re absolutely right. There’s a huge tourist industry, in fact, in the ancient world. I think people don’t quite realize that there are the places you should visit, there are these sort of almost mythical sites. One of the chapters for this book looks at hairpins and one of them is designed as a little Venus and it is related to Praxiteles’ original statue of the Aphrodite for the Temple at Knidos. And Knidos was a major tourist spot, so people went Knidos to look at this very famous statue. It’s very funny to see how you know, we think about it like Instagram influencers who sort of makes certain spots in the world famous, and then you know or movies, like Game of Thrones that made certain parts of Ireland like super popular and became like touristical hotspots and there were touristic hotspots in the Ancient world itself. PH: Yeah, that’s great. I have one last question, if you don’t mind. And we ask this of all our guests: what’s a book that changed your life? HV: I will say yes, this is…. It’s an odd choice perhaps, but yeah, I’m going to say that a book that changed my life was Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy. PH: OK, when did you come across it? HV: In college. It was my junior year in college, and I was a classics major. And I was getting ready to go to Italy for a semester study abroad and I decided to take a course on Renaissance art, kind of as a preparation for going to Italy. I had always been interested in Italian Renaissance art. I hadn’t had a chance to take the course. And I took it kind of on a whim, because I was interested in the topic and because I was going to Italy. And I completely fell in love with art history. I had been up until then very much in the sort of the literary half of classics. I was majoring Greek literature, Greek language and literature. And this was a real turning point for me. First, this was the book that really opened my eyes to art history as a discipline and to thinking about everyday life, how art is experienced by viewers in a particular historical moment and culture, and this sort of precisely this dialogue that I’m interested in between objects of daily life, how they are preserved, and objects of daily life as they’re represented in images. This is part of Baxandall’s study, and it clearly has stayed with me, right? So this turn towards the visual and this turn towards thinking about the ways in which everyday life is both represented in images, but also how we can begin to access that through the very objects that appear in these images. And going to Italy, that was another turning point for me where I really began to look more at the Roman side of the Greco-Roman world. I do think that reading Baxandall during that semester prior to traveling was one of the most important — that was one of the most important books that I read as a young scholar because it really just made that turn towards Roamn culture and towards the study of visual culture happen for me. PH: Well, Hérica, thanks so much for talking with me today and sharing your work and your experience. It was a great time. HV: Yeah, thank you Phillip. And I look forward to seeing you, I guess in the fall and we’ll be in touch in between. 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