Bettina Bergmann

Citation for 2007 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

If you work at Mount Holyoke, and you’re lucky enough to go to one of the places where art historians congregate—the American Academy in Rome, say, or the museums lining upper Fifth Avenue in New York—someone is sure to say, “You must know Bettina Bergmann.”  Bettina, a leading expert on Roman art and the Helene Phillips Herzig ’49 Professor of Art at Mount Holyoke, is an insider among insiders.  Much sought after as a lecturer and visiting professor, and the author of many path-breaking articles on Roman art, she is known as both a bold and imaginative thinker as well as a painstaking and careful scholar—a rare combination in any field.     

Bettina, who began teaching at Mount Holyoke in 1985, had a wide-ranging education to prepare her for the kind of richly interdisciplinary work in which she excels.  After getting her B.A. in comparative literature at Berkeley, where she studied German, Greek, and Latin, Bettina got her M.A. in classical archeology from the Archaeological Institute in Bochum, Germany, and her Ph.D. in art history and archeology from Columbia.  Among other awards, she has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Graham Foundation, as well as residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation at Bellagio and the Classical School of the American Academy in Rome.

Bettina may be best known for her imaginative work in reconstructing how Romans decorated their houses.  "Their sense of space was very different from ours," she told an interviewer in 1997.  "We have TV to engage us visually, and we tend to leave our floors, walls, and ceilings relatively bare. But the Romans used walls, ceilings, and floors as a kind of visual stimulation, something that would make them think.”  They made Bettina think as well.  She began creating three-dimensional models and computer simulations to explore the visual and intellectual world of the ancient Romans.  She has reconstructed several of the houses buried at Pompeii, as well as luxury villas elsewhere in Italy.  "I pick up where archaeologists leave off, and then put back what they have removed," Bettina says.  Her scholarly articles arising from this work, such as “The Roman House as Memory Theater,” are themselves models of close visual attention and theoretical sophistication.  She argues that Romans had a “protean and cinematic” sense of architectural space, and experienced something like time travel as they contemplated depicted landscapes from ancient Greece. 

Another reason why Bettina is so well known is that she is a deeply collaborative worker.  She created her architectural models with Victoria I, an artist and one of Bettina’s former students.  With Christine Kondoleon, she co-edited The Art of Ancient Spectacle, based on a symposium held at the National Gallery and published by Yale University Press in 1999.  That same year, working with Mount Holyoke curator Wendy Watson, she mounted a wonderful exhibition called “The Moon and the Stars: Afterlife of a Roman Empress,” which focused on the newly acquired bust of Faustina the Elder, known among other things for her exotic hairdo.  Not only did the exhibition make clear what a treasure the Mount Holyoke Art Museum had acquired, but it shed new light on how public women were commemorated (and sometimes divinized) in ancient Rome.  

Bettina’s work has a wide applicability.  Literary scholars have learned from her articles on how landscape is portrayed in Roman painting and lyric poetry.  A scholar investigating how Goya late in his life decorated his own house with terrifying images of violence and despair drew on Bettina’s work on how Roman houses expressed the inner world of their owners.

Bettina has brought the interdisciplinary excitement of her work and her collaborative instincts into the classroom.  For many years, she has co-taught a popular course with Professor of Classics Paula Debnar on “Gods and Mortals: Myth in Ancient Art and Literature.”  She also teaches courses on such seductive subjects as Cleopatra, the goddess Venus, and the cities of Vesuvius.  At home among the treasures of the past, breathing new life into ancient spaces and forgotten ways of thinking, Bettina Bergmann is a deeply valued scholar, teacher, and colleague at Mount Holyoke.