Stanford PhD students Dillon Gisch and Danny Smith are among the winners of the 2020-21 Rome Prize, which is awarded annually by the American Academy in Rome. The prize is a fellowship that supports advanced independent scholarly research in the arts and humanities.

Gisch and Smith join 20 other accomplished scholars and artists in this year’s cohort. Recipients receive a stipend and room and board for a period of four to seven months at the academy’s 11-acre campus in Rome. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s winners will travel to Rome between January and August of next year. Starting this fall, academy staff will also host a series of online programs for the winners, including orientations, language classes, presentations and individual support for scholars’ projects.

The Rome Prize supports scholarly work in 11 areas: literature, music composition, visual arts, architecture, landscape architecture, design, historic preservation and conservation, ancient studies, medieval studies, renaissance and early modern studies and modern Italian studies.

Dillon Gisch, a doctoral student studying classical archaeology, is a winner of the Rome Prize. (Image credit: Catherine Teitz)

Dillon Gisch is a seventh-year PhD candidate studying classical archaeology at Stanford. The award will support his dissertation research on Roman replicas of the Aphrodite of Knidos, one of the most famous statues in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

“I am overjoyed to have been awarded the Rome Prize,” Gisch said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete my dissertation among a vibrant and diverse community of artists and scholars, all while in residence in Rome.”

The Knidian Aphrodite ­– created by renowned Greek sculptor Praxiteles – is notable for being the first known monumental statue of an unclothed woman in European art. Although it was destroyed more than 1,500 years ago, hundreds of ancient images that replicate it remain to this day. Art historians tend to study the surviving replicas to reconstruct Praxiteles’ masterpiece and understand his artistic genius. But Gisch’s dissertation takes a different approach. Through five case studies, he investigates how Roman viewers interpreted surviving replicas of the Knidian Aphrodite in their own times and places.

“I first draw on feminist and postcolonial thought to demonstrate that modern scholars have organized holistic studies of these images around problematic assumptions, such as the authors’ perceived sexual desirability of the images in question,” Gisch said. “Then, I demonstrate that, irrespective of modern scholarly judgement about the aesthetic and erotic values of my case studies, these images are capable of providing crucial insights into what artistic, social, political and religious significances each group of images held for ancient Roman viewers.”

In doing so, Gisch offers both a critique of the Eurocentrism and misogyny that pervade classical art history and archaeology, as well as novel, contextual interpretations of understudied Roman visual culture.

Gisch is a native of Texas. He earned a BA in classical studies and art history from the University of Washington in Seattle. He previously worked as a gallerist of early modern and modern European, American and Japanese graphic art on paper at Davidson Galleries in Seattle. He has also excavated in central Italy at the sites of Poggio Civitate, an ancient Etruscan settlement, and Cosa, a Latin colony on land that was confiscated from the Etruscans.

Danny Smith, a doctoral student studying art history, is a winner of the Rome Prize. (Image credit: R.H. Harrison-Smith)

Danny Smith is a rising sixth-year PhD student in art history at Stanford. The Rome Prize will support his dissertation research on public art in Rome. Smith said he is excited for the opportunity to research and work in the city, alongside a talented cohort of artists and scholars.

“Dissertation writing in the humanities is an awfully lonely sport and so it’s a particularly extraordinary privilege to be able to work in an interdisciplinary institution with so many other incredible artists and thinkers,” he said. “But more than anything, it’s a chance to really immerse myself in the city of Rome with a group of people studying the city from myriad different perspectives. And there’s this really great sandwich spot in Rome where I’m excited to become a regular.”

Smith’s dissertation investigates how dreaming was depicted in the visual arts in Rome in the 13th century. Specifically, he looks at how depicting dreams in frescoes and mosaics in public places served some – often explicit – political purposes. In researching the social, scientific and historical contexts of these images, he will study records of sermons, papal libraries, medieval commentaries and other texts, many of which are accessible through the city’s archives and libraries.

“A lot of the artworks themselves have been damaged or destroyed over time,” Smith said. “So a lot of my work requires studying sketches, drawings, even written descriptions, also mostly in archival collections. So first and foremost, the Rome Prize gives me the opportunity to really work with these materials at length.”

Smith is from Cleveland, Ohio. He earned a BA in art history and studio art from Carleton College, and an MA in art history from Williams College. He has worked as a studio assistant to conceptual artist Jenny Holzer.