URI art professor awarded NEH grant to focus on monumental staircases

Media Contact: Jan Wenzel, 874-2116

KINGSTON, R.I. — December 29, 2003 — Mary Hollinshead follows her passion one monumental step at a time. Thanks to a recently awarded $40,000 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, the URI art professor is about to start a year’s sabbatical pulling together her vast research, copious notes, and numerous slides of Hellenistic monumental steps and staircases.

When speaking of Greek architecture, most scholars ignore steps to concentrate on where they lead. No one has ever written a book about these staircases, something Hollinshead hopes to accomplish during her sabbatical.

She will write the book at her nearby Massachusetts home where she built a series of rustic steps on her property. “I love stones and getting my hands in dirt and I also have an appreciation of dimensions,” explains the art historian who trained as a classical archeologist.

The staircases appeal to the professor because of their interaction with human use, the surrounding landscape, and built structures and because they also tell a great deal about the social and political issues of the day, which Hollinshead will include in her book. “Architecture,” the professor says, “is the most political of the arts because it takes great economic and organizational resources to achieve.”

A good example of a monumental staircase is the one at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous by a confident Rocky Balboa played by actor Sylvester Stallone in the movie Rocky.

But back to antiquity. After Alexander the Great died, the world was in flux. It was also a fertile time for architectural changes. A variety of cultures, some Greek and some non-Greek, Western Asia Minor and Italy, appropriated Greek forms, reinterpreted them, and transformed them. Rome was just coming into play. Steps and staircases began to emerge as important architectural components during this Hellenistic period (the 4th through 1st centuries B.C.).

The steps’ function reveals many clues about the society that built them. Were they used as a retaining wall, as a way to go from terrace to terrace, or as a facility for spectators at festivals and in sanctuaries?

Hollinshead visited and identified 50 sites with these broad, predominantly marble steps in Greece, Turkey, and Italy, which she will include in her book.

Gaining written permission is required to study antiquity even for something as simple as measuring. To circumvent the often cumbersome and time consuming authorization, the art historian always packed her navy blue shoes and often placed them on the steps as a unit of measure. “No doubt other visitors who saw me photographing them probably wondered why a barefoot American woman was taking pictures of her shoes,” she says dryly.

Hollinshead’s URI office is crammed with busts, paintings, model temples, and other pseudo antiquities. Many are found objects she just couldn’t throw away like the Styrofoam column that stands near her desk. “Someone tossed it out after a prom,” she explains.

She finds she isn’t the only one who enjoys her architectural clutter. She purposely keeps many of her old and “new” artifacts on her desk. “I have found that students are more relaxed and talkative when they can be picking up and examining something,” says the professor.