School of Art

Telling the stories behind ancient objects is the task for a University of Arizona archaeologist and art history professor. Take a look inside the career of the School of Art’s Irene Bald Romano.

In the summer of 2019, Irene Bald Romano was digging through archival records researching Greek and Roman artifacts the Nazis had looted from archaeological sites, museums and Jewish collectors in Europe from 1933 to 1945.

Romano, a professor of art history in the School of Art and an expert on Greek and Roman sculpture, was looking at archaeological excavation records from Minturno, an ancient Roman site in the Italian region of Campania. Many artifacts from the site were unearthed in the early 1930s by a joint American-Italian team with the artifacts divided between the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the local museum in Minturno, the latter looted by Nazi soldiers during the regime’s brutal campaign.

Romano at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, or the Central Institute for Art History, in Munich. (Photo courtesy of Irene Bald Romano)

Telling the stories behind ancient objects

Romano, who also holds a faculty appointment in the School of Anthropology and is curator of Mediterranean archaeology at the Arizona State Museum, was familiar with the sculpture from the site. In fact, during a more than 20-year tenure with the Penn Museum, she published details about the Minturno sculptures in a catalog of the museum’s classical sculpture collection.

Now, as part of her research studying how the Nazis plundered antiquities during their regime, Romano sought answers about where some of Minturno’s missing sculptures had gone. In searching through the online catalogs of major museums, Romano found one of them on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s website. It showed a photo of a Roman imperial portrait bust, likely of the emperor Maximianus Herculius from the late third or early fourth century, and text explaining that it was “said to be from” Minturno.

The Arizona State Museum’s Mediterranean archaeology collection includes this black-figured skyphos, or drinking cup, from 500-490 B.C. The skyphos was a gift to the museum from the first governor of Arizona, George W.P. Hunt. (Photo by Jannelle Weakly/Arizona State Museum)

Romano turned back to a 1939 Italian report about the marble sculptures from the Minturno excavation. Going down the list of items, she came across a photo of the very portrait bust in the MFA Boston. Romano knew then that the head was not “said to be” from Minturno. Indeed, it was.

The records told the story. Archaeologists found the sculpture in 1931, Italian scholars documented it eight years later, and then, sometime during the war, it vanished. Italian museum specialists had already documented the disappearance of many artifacts from the local museum in Minturno during that period. Romano sent an email to MFA Boston’s provenance researcher, notifying her of the discovery and recommending a closer look.

By October of 2020, the Roman portrait bust was removed from the MFA Boston’s listed holdings, and in spring of 2022 it was sent back to Italy. Romano’s email to MFA Boston staff effectively got the repatriation started, the museum noted in a news release earlier this year.

“That was an easy one,” Romano said, recalling the episode recently in her office at the Arizona State Museum. “The evidence was clear, and the MFA Boston acted professionally and expeditiously to carry out their ethical responsibilities.”

Such repatriations are not uncommon for Romano, an archaeologist and art historian whose name is among a list of experts authorities keep on speed dial to help identify stolen ancient Mediterranean artifacts. Her 45-year career of telling the stories of ancient objects has made her a leading expert on Greek and Roman sculpture and has taken her on countless trips to Greece and other countries to study objects at archaeological sites and museums.

Irene Bald Romano visiting the ancient city of Lykosoura in Greece in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Irene Bald Romano)

“Dr. Romano’s interdisciplinary expertise in archaeology, art history and provenience studies creates a fascinating and highly relevant bridge between art of classical antiquity and a broad range of contemporary issues,” said Colin Blakely, professor and director of the School of Art. “The high-profile recognition her work has garnered is well deserved.”

‘Wow, this is it’

Romano’s first visit to Greece came during a backpacking trip across Europe in the summer of 1971, after her sophomore year studying English at Manhattanville College. Romano and a friend, tired of train rides and big cities, hopped on a plane to Athens, then a boat to the island of Naxos, where they rented a house for several weeks.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is it,'” Romano said. “It was the natural beauty of the place that struck me first – the sea and the light and the marble and the mountains – and then I became curious about the culture.”

She started taking classical archaeology and art history courses, topics that later became her minors. Romano worked on her first excavation in 1973 on the Spanish island of Mallorca.

Romano attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where the Penn Museum and its collection of thousands of Mediterranean artifacts became her classroom. In the museum’s storage rooms, surrounded by ancient Greek pottery, Romano and her classmates were trained in how to research collections of antiquities and decipher their meanings.

By 1976, she was back in Greece, this time as an archaeologist with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, a U.S.-based advanced research center that trains graduate students and assists scholars in conducting fieldwork and other research in Greece. Romano also worked with a University of Pennsylvania team at Gordion, in central Turkey, the home of King Midas and his mythical “golden touch.”

In grad school, Romano met her husband, David Gilman Romano, a fellow classical archaeologist who is now the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Professor of Greek Archaeology in the School of Anthropology. The Romanos have since logged countless trips to Greece. Their three daughters – Katy and twins Sarah and Elizabeth – practically grew up there, she said, adding that none of them has pursued a career in archaeology.

“We always have interesting topics of conversation, and sometimes debate, about the ancient world that continue virtually every day of the year,” David Gilman Romano wrote recently in an email from Greece, where he still conducts fieldwork at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mount Lykaion, southwest of Athens. “Never a dull moment!”

Originally published on UA@Work by University Communications on Aug. 17, 2022.
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