A Conversation with Professor Emeritus Ron Ridley, Recipient of the 2019 Premio Daria Borghese
It’s not often that you will hear an esteemed academic describe him or herself as the “last of the scallywags”, but this phrase trips easily off the tongue of Professor Emeritus Ronald T. Ridley. His career has been distinguished by a dazzling versatility and range, earning him a long list of accolades. But he somehow manages to combine prodigious scholarship with a rare talent for conversation and friendship. He found time recently to talk to Larissa Tittl, in a discussion that ranged from his early academic career to his latest published works and future plans.
I’m sitting with Professor Ridley in an alcove at University House, where the sunshine is green-tinged, filtering through the garden area outside. It would be difficult to find someone who more completely embodies the ideal of an erudite, methodologically rigorous and curious scholar; and one with a wit to match Paul Keating in his finest moments (not to mention a dapper style of dress that is legendary in the School). Ron’s combination of outspokenness, scholarly seriousness and enthusiasm for history might be why he refers to himself as a scallywag; for me, and I am sure many others, this is part of his charm. What is also evident, from my conversation with Ron, and from what others say about him, is his kindness and generosity, as both scholar and person.
In May 2019, Ron received the highly prestigious Premio Daria Borghese award for the best book on Rome by a foreign author. In a ceremony held at the lavish Palazzo Borghese in Rome, Ron received a gold medal featuring a profile of the Princess Daria Borghese, born in Russia as Countess Daria Olsoufieff in 1909, and later marrying into the elite Italian Borghese family. Ron shows me the medal, shining gold in its dark red velvet case, noting with a chuckle, “I haven’t bitten into it yet!”
Ron received the medal for his 2017 book, The Prince of Antiquarians Francesco de Ficoroni. Ficoroni (1644–1747) was the leading Italian antiquarian of his time and one of the most important of the Roman ciceroni (guides) for aristocratic visitors taking the Grand Tour. His knowledge of Roman sculpture, antiquaries and monuments was extensive, and his activities ranged from archaeological excavations to writing guides to Rome’s monuments. Many objects uncovered by Ficoroni are held by the Vatican Museum, and his texts on Rome were well read. Yet he has recently relatively little sustained attention from scholars, and Ron Ridley’s book is the first comprehensive study of his life.
Ron’s research for this book became a journey of discovery and serendipity. The journey culminated in the book’s launching in Ficoroni’s birth village in 2017, when dozens of Ficoroni’s descendants came to have their books signed by the author. Ron has donated copies of Ficoroni’s letters and other primary sources to the village, where there are plans to establish a municipal library named after Ficoroni, as well as a research centre. This seems a wonderful outcome, both for Ficoroni’s legacy and Ron’s fastidious research. Ron tells me that he’s proud of the fact that, in this book, he succeeded in “bringing back to life someone that nobody knew anything about”.
Can you elaborate on your research process for this book?
There’s a massive collection of letters of his, in various archives around Italy. He has the most atrocious hand! Look, there’s one of his more legible pages …
[Ron shows me a piece of wafer-thin paper, covered in barely discernible writing.]
What’s happening is that the paper’s too thin, the ink’s too strong, and it’s bleeding through from the page behind.
You train yourself after a while to have a kind of filter on your eye, to read the line in front, not the line behind – you filter it out. It takes a bit of practice, but you can do it.
I went through five hundred letters altogether, to all the most important people. And they were full of stuff about himself and about them! But no one had ever read them!
Last year the American University in Cairo Press published your book on a completely different topic: the ancient Egyptian ruler Akhenaten [an Eighteenth Dynasty ruler in the New Kingdom, who established a new capital at Amarna, moving it from Thebes, and a new lone ruling deity in Aten, represented by a sun disc]. How did you come to write this book, so far removed from your work on Rome?
Egypt’s always been a passion, since I was a child. And I was trained, in Sydney, where I was a student, to treat history as a continuum. My teachers understood that. The more you know about history, the better the historian you are, because you’ve got a frame of reference. If you can bring in, when talking about the end of Rome, the French Revolution, for example, it makes it so much more interesting.
The patterns recur.
The patterns recur, but you’ve got something to check against. There’s nothing more sad than the classicist who thinks that everything began with the Greeks and Romans. It’s so sad. They would laugh their heads off if you suggested that to them. The Greeks would say, “where would we be without the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians?” They contributed so much.
We’re told to specialise, to find our own niche …
Well, of course, you need a toehold, so to speak – somewhere where you can feel secure and build up an expert knowledge. That’s true. But I think at the same time you should try to broaden it, just by intelligent reading, choosing good things to read. Don’t waste your time on second-rate books. I always say to my students, you can judge a book by its cover.
What is it about Akhenaten that interests you?
It’s that he excites such intense reactions – people either love or hate him. And the terrible thing is that among the modern scholars who are doing most of the work, these passions are dominating the thing.
Barry Kemp, the coordinator of the Egypt Exploration Society, he has a very respectful view of Akhenaten. He’s a scholar who’s simply trying to find out about him. The excavations [that Kemp is leading represent] a shift from the old 1920s and ’30s excavations, which tended to concentrate of course on the temples, and the palace, and the houses of the nobles. Kemp’s now looking at the houses of ordinary people; and he found their cemeteries! We had, of course, the rock tombs of the nobles, we had the royal tomb; but now he’s finding all this out, he’s transforming the field. He’s a solid scholar who’s not pushing any line. But [some of the others are] a total disgrace.
What is so controversial about Akhenaten?
The full Amarna style [in which Akhenaten and other members of the court are represented with elongated skulls and other exaggerated physical features] is rather grotesque, and people tend to react against that. But they don’t understand – I always say to students: if you see a Picasso painting, do you think that a woman really had three eyes? There are artistic conventions; and he’s up to something which we don’t yet understand. We also have perfectly normal portraits of him.
And then, of course, there’s the monotheism issue. I think that some people are truly alarmed by this. I call Akhenaten the first monotheist because [he made this claim] … in a way before the Hebrews had any thoughts about it. If his texts mean anything, then that’s what they’re saying: Aten is the only god.
There’s also the question of the so-called persecution of the other cults. [There is a widespread perception that Akhenaten persecuted those who continued to follow the more traditional Egyptian deities, but] it turns out that the more we look into it – and there’s been some very serious work on this done by the French – the more that’s a kind of misunderstanding. We know that the mass of the ordinary people in Amarna still worshipped all the traditional gods – Tawaret, the goddess of childbirth, for instance. They’ve still got all these scarabs and toys.
So it’s a bit like what the Romans did?
Yes, it’s syncretism.
As long as people paid some kind of lip service, they were allowed to do what they wanted.
Yes, exactly, that’s a good way to put it.
That’s often a good way of maintaining control.
Yes! To hear the critics, though, you’d think there’d been a mass civil war! But you never hear a whisper of any revolt. And yet the modern view is … they love this word ‘totalitarian’, but this is a totally twentieth-century concept! It’s not possible in the ancient world. Not even the Romans could have had a totalitarian regime. They might have wanted to, but they couldn’t do it.
So I felt I needed to write a decent account, to get it down on record; I thought I had a duty [to do this].
That kind of passion often results in the best books.
Yes, and if you’re trained properly in historical method, you can do any history. You can write the history of any person, any place, anything – you can write the history of glasses, of coffee! The methods are the same. You’ve got to gather the sources, analyse the sources, and draw rational conclusions … 1, 2, 3, bang! And you’ve got to know the limits of the evidence.
It’s no problem for me, because I’m an agnostic; I’m used to saying, well, “maybe this, maybe that”, so there’s no psychological drama. But other people want to have answers, or can’t live without answers, and so they twist things to get an answer. But historians have to know that there are some things you can’t answer.
Questions are important; you have to ask the questions. It doesn’t matter if you can’t answer them.
Often research will come up with more questions than answers.
Yes, more questions!
Tell me about the highlights of your career so far. Which of your many accomplishments do you take most pride in?
I earned a DLitt here in 1992. The DLitt is a Doctorate of Letters; it’s a super-doctorate. I submitted all my published works, the equivalent of eight or ten PhDs. I got that in ’92 and I was very happy about it. And then the Honorary Doctorate at Macquarie University in 2017 – that was magic, a really magical occasion. So I’d say that, and the [Borghese] medal last year – that put me on the map in Rome, because I’m the first Australian to have won it.
What projects are you working on now?
I’ve got about six books on the go. I’m just finishing what began as an article, but has turned into a small book, on the history of papal legislation to protect cultural heritage. The popes were the founders of European laws to protect cultural heritage, beginning in the fifteenth century. So I’m tracing that through. It’s around 40,000 words long at the moment; it will grow a bit more, but that should be a nice small book with lots of good illustrations.
And then I want to write a biography of the saviour of Rome, Camillus, the hero of the Gallic sack in 390 [BCE]. Many people say he’s totally mythological. I’m just going to go through the sources and try to make sense of it, to see what we can hang onto and what needs to be thrown away. This is the fundamental exercise in the historian’s life: trying to see how much is left of the legend.
And then I want to write a history of Rome over 30 centuries, using eyewitness accounts.
Just a small task, then!! What kind of sources will you use?
Well, they vary; I mean, if you’re looking for eyewitnesses, then we’ve got nothing for Rome until the last century BC, until Cicero’s lifetime.
Will your focus be Rome the city, or the Rome the empire?
Rome the city; I’m fascinated by Rome the city. And when you get to more modern history, Rome’s rich in diaries. I’m trying to gather them all. They’re wonderful to go through.
I like to get accounts from people on the spot at incredible events, like the trial of Pope Formosis in the tenth century. He was an anti-pope, and they regarded him as a heretic after his death. So what did they do? They exhumed his body, they dressed it up in papal robes, they hung him from a hook on a wall, and they got a young priest to stand beside him – poor bugger! – to speak the words, and they put him on trial for heresy. They condemned him, and then they chucked his body into the Tiber.
How long had he been dead for?
Oh, a while, I mean, he was putrefied! They say the poor young priest was nearly asphyxiated!
So to have an eyewitness account of that – just imagine it! Or of the capture of Rome by Napoleon in 1798!
My next book’s due to come out soon any moment; all the proofs have been corrected. There are three volumes on travellers to Rome from the Middle Ages to 1900. So I’ve already gone through hundreds of visitors to Rome, who provide many many eyewitness accounts of events, and descriptions of people. I’ve got all the groundwork – it’s just filling in the gaps.
You’re such a prolific writer! How do you manage it?
Well, you see, my motto is non liberi sed libri – not children, but books. A lot of older scholars had that motto.
My wife and I decided not to have children. When we first met, we spent a lot of time talking about our childhood, and basically how unhappy we’d been. We didn’t want to start it all over again. And what do you do, as a parent? I mean, God, it’s the most difficult job in the world, really.
It doesn’t make sense to talk about my work and my career without highlighting a major factor in the equation: Thérèse. With Thérèse, I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of a truly shared and enriched life. Thérèse trained as a violinist, then became a linguist – French, German, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. Most recently, she turned via translation to history; after translating Muenzer, she’s now been working for twenty years on Giannone. Thérèse has been my best colleague since our marriage, and has edited every word I have ever published. Every breakfast, the main topic of conversation is history!
We do give thought to our legacy, and to how we might find ways of ‘giving back’. Last year we established a postgraduate scholarship to Rome, and we also commissioned Australia’s best composer, Ross Edwards (Thérèse and he were students of Peter Sculthorpe), to write a string quartet for our 50th wedding anniversary (actually five years ago). It will be premiered by the Australian String Quartet around the country in July.
Do you read wider than history? Where do you find your inspiration?
Out of nowhere, you’ll suddenly get this flash of inspiration – about a topic that’s fascinating, that other people haven’t worked on yet – and off you go! As to where that flash of inspiration comes from … I think the more you read, the more your mind is inspired. Reading’s the richest source of inspiration.
My favourite novelist is Anthony Trollope; I think he’s greater than Dickens. The political novels – they’re a knockout! He spent a lot of time in the House of Commons, observing; he really took the time to understand [how it worked].
I love biographies; and I love letters, the great correspondents – but all that’s now finished; gone [with the advent of e-mail and the digital age]! It’s so sad.
A lot of academic writing is not very inspiring.
No. It doesn’t come alive. You’ve got to have blood in your veins! You’ve got to be involved. You’ve got to see the big questions, the anguishing questions – the tragedies of human life – and deal with them; confront them! You’ve got to say when people are right, and when they’re wrong.
Are there books that you enjoy re-reading?
Oh yes! The great novels and so on that you read when you were twenty. Come back to them when you’re 50, and you find they’re different books.
When I was twenty, I was a resident tutor in St Andrew’s College in Sydney for 18 months, and I made a very good friend, a sixth-year med student, who was a great reader, and so we inspired each other. We read all the novels of Evelyn Waugh, all the novels of Aldous Huxley.
And then later, a dear friend who we met here when we came to Melbourne, he sent us in another direction: the novels of Ford Madox Ford, and E. M. Forster – to re-read those later was a totally different experience. You’re too young, sometimes; you haven’t had enough life experience. But you know, you’ve got to start sometime! It doesn’t matter if you only understand half of what you’re reading.
One last question: why is history important, especially ancient history?
Because it’s history! Don’t say ‘ancient’! It’s history!! And the same for archaeology – it’s history!
Most of my students, once they hear it, never stop quoting Cicero: the person who’s ignorant of what happened before themselves, before their own time, remains always a child. I haven’t quoted it exactly, but that’s the gist of it. That is childish, of course; the child thinks the world starts with them. Growing up is realising there are other people, other places, other times.
Ron Ridley’s most recent books include Magick City: Travellers to Rome from the Middle Ages to 1900 (in three volumes) (London: Pallas Athene, 2017–2020); Akhenaten: A Historian’s View (The American University in Cairo Press, 2019); The Prince of Antiquarians Francesco de Ficoroni (Edizioni Quasar, 2017); Rome: Twenty-nine Centuries – A Chronological Guide (Gangemi Editore, 2017); and Fifty Treasures: Classical Antiquities in Australian and New Zealand Universities (Australasian Society for Classical Studies, 2016). His next book, The Birth of History (Egypt to Herodotos [3000–430 BC] has just been accepted for publication by Peeters in Belgium.
In 2019, Thérèse and Ron Ridley established a scholarship to enable a PhD student in the Classics and Archaeology program at the University of Melbourne to travel to the British School at Rome. Read about the scholarship here.