D’Ambra embraces hands-on approach to ancient art

Professor of Art Eve D'Ambra specializes in ancient Greek and Roman art. She plans to travel to the Norwegian Institute on October 24 to deliver a lecture on Roman imperial female portraiture. Photo credit: Cassady Bergevin.
Professor of Art Eve D'Ambra specializes in ancient Greek and Roman art. She plans to travel to the Norwegian Institute on October 24 to deliver a lecture on Roman imperial female portraiture. Photo credit: Cassady Bergevin.
Professor of Art Eve D’Ambra specializes in ancient Greek and Roman art. She plans to travel to the Norwegian Institute on October 24 to deliver a lecture on Roman imperial female portraiture. Photo credit: Cassady Bergevin.

Professor of Art Eve D’Ambra is busy this semester, immersed in cultures of the past— ancient Greece and Rome. She teaches seven lectures in the Art History 105-106 course, Greek and Roman Studies 210: Art, Myth, and Society in the Ancient Aegean, and Ancient Roman Art 211.

She does not only teach ancient Greek and Roman studies. Last semester, she taught a class titled Greek and Roman Studies 215: Art and Archaeology of ancient Egypt. This was a new class for Professor D’Ambra, which she found very interesting because she had never really taught a class like it before.

She acknowledged that many people have developed a strong interest in ancient Egypt because of Egypt’s current political situation, a topic that has been covered in the news heavily as of late. “Egypt is in the news today with the Arab Spring. Mubarak was considered a Pharaoh before,” she said.

The last three years, Professor D’Ambra has also been working with the Faculty Appointments and Salary committee. However, she is no longer working on the committee and is instead teaching more classes.

Even when she was working with the Faculty Appointments and Salary committee, Professor D’Ambra continued to teach her section of Art History 105. Her lectures encompass art from the ancient Near East, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and ancient Rome. She also teaches two conferences sections per week. Art History is her favorite class to teach. Every year she has taught her seven lecture sequence.

“Since it’s a large, formal lecture, some will go off to be Art History majors, some won’t, and some just want to take it before they leave Vassar. There are ways in which one repeats the material, but it’s not quite the same each year,” she said.

For example, art from the ancient Near East is a fairly new topic. In the past, lecturers of the course have done other topics, such as cave drawing.

Also, since Art History is a larger lecture, she has to walk a fine line between delving into her passions, and keeping the material simple enough for students who are not as knowledgeable of the art world. Still, she strives to teach material that is interesting for all students in the lecture, those who have backgrounds in art history and those who do not.

One of D’Ambra’s favorite ways to make her classes more interesting, which unfortunately she cannot do with Art 105 because of the sheer size of the lecture, is using the Loeb’s vast collection of art.

She takes her students to observe work both on display and in storage. For instance, when she was teaching her class about Ancient Egypt, she took her students to view the mummy, Shep.

“For a scholar in my field, there are two choices: work in a museum or teach. I thought teaching at a college would be more interesting,” she said. She thinks that teaching at a liberal arts college offers more variety of tasks rather than maintaining projects or collections.

She chose to teach at Vassar specifically because of the College’s Art department’s renowned introductory course, Art History 105-106. Also, Vassar’s art collection in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, proximity to New York City, student body and colleagues—both inside and outside of her own department—appealed to D’Ambra.

She sees the College’s access to New York City as a special advantage, allowing classes to visit its prestigious museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.

Typically, professors are involved in many research projects outside of their classes. Professor D’Ambra is no exception. She recently published an article in the October issue of the American Journal of Archaeology. The article is titled “Mode and Model in Flavian Female Portraiture,” and discusses distinctions between imperial and private portraits of women during the Flavian dynasty in Rome.

Alongside her article, D’Ambra is traveling to Rome to deliver the L’Orange lecture for 2013. She will also be speaking at the Norwegian Institute on October 24. She tried to make the dates coincide with October break, but unfortunately she was not able to. The title of her talk is “The Elite and Mass Appeal of Roman Imperial Female Portraiture.”

Professor D’Ambra is especially interested in portrait sculptures of empresses as well as private citizens. She is intrigued by how the sculptures vary from the top of the social elite (empresses) to the lower end of the social scale (the private citizens).

Mariah Vitali ’14, a student in Art 105 this semester, spoke to D’Ambra’s abilities as a lecturer.

“Professor D’Ambra brings an immense amount of passion to each lecture. She thoroughly explains not only each monument in its own right, but also illuminates the context and scholarship surrounding it,” Vitali said.

“I have seen some works, such as the Nike of Samothrace, in museums. However, even with pieces I see the first time from my seat in Taylor Hall, Professor D’Ambra’s descriptions make me feel as if I’m standing right in front of them,” she added.

D’Ambra looks at various physical aspects, particularly the hairstyles. The hairstyles can act as an identifying aspect to inform the observer of the social standing of the figure in the portrait.

She also looks at the beauty, the adornment and the moral character of the sculptures, as they reveal a lot about both the female sculpted and the attitudes of the time.

“Art 105 is unlike any class I’ve had at Vassar in my 4 years— I’m enjoying both the course and Professor D’Ambra’s snapshots of antiquity,” Vitali concluded.

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