Ingrid Rowland is a Professor in the Department of History and the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. She writes and lectures on Classical Antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Age of the Baroque for general as well as specialist readers. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Getty panel discussion titled “Can We Appreciate the Great Art of Bad People?” at The Getty Center, she spoke in the green room about why she wouldn’t want to time-travel to ancient Rome, her connection to nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, and stolen cats.
What’s one of your earliest memories of having a really powerful reaction to a work of art?
I was obsessed with picture books when I was a little kid. Apparently my first word was “see.”
Do you remember particular books from that age?
‘Twas the night before Christmas [“A Visit from St. Nicholas”] was read ritually, and it was those wonderful ’50s illustrations. And then a book called The Contented Little Pussy Cat, which has the word “dumbfounded” in it. So you got “dumbfounded,” plus the pussy cat’s tail went this way and that way, and this way and that way. And Little Toot, about the tugboat, and Mabel the Whale.
You’re a cat person?
In theory, four. Two of them have been stolen by the neighbors. One’s 16 and blind and deaf. She still goes up and down the steps.
Is there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?
Harry Carroll at Pomona College. He was my advisor, and there were several of us at Pomona who took so many classes from him. He was in the Classics Department, and so he’d teach art history, history, what archaeology there was, and then he also taught Greek and Latin. So he did everything. And he was this little tiny Irish guy from Akron, Ohio. Totally eccentric, but it was only really after he had died that we realized how refined he was, just an incredibly refined intellect.
What are you reading right now?
It’s a life of Enrico Fermi. [The Last Man Who Knew Everything] My dad studied with Fermi, so there was really an emotional attachment. This was at the University of Chicago, and they said, “If Fermi is teaching something, just audit it.” So there was this huge crowd of people that just audited his lectures. Dad took every lecture that Fermi authored. I’m halfway through it, and it’s great because I live in Rome, and so all the place references are really nice.
If you could time-travel, where and when would you go?
Probably the Enlightenment. I think the Renaissance is pretty nasty. And ancient Rome would smell so horrible. So I think probably London when Handel was there, where there’s a belief in progress.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
When I went off to college, my dad said, “Be yourself” and my mom said “Roll with the punches.”
So which did you follow?
Both. Because being myself incurred the punches that needed to be rolled with! It used to make me crazy, because [my mother] would always say, “Roll with the punches.” But, in fact, it’s more fun when you can somersault out of them and kick back! She was just in a documentary about ozone depletion, because my dad died in 2012, and he was the first person who called attention to the threat to the ozone layer. But they [interviewed] my mom, and at 91 she’s still just straightforward, and so she can say things that dad in fact would’ve been too diplomatic to say, or he wouldn’t have said them as forcefully. So unfortunately I got that from her.
What do you do to unwind?
Needlepoint. I sing in choirs if I can. I may try for a choir this fall, but I travel so much. When I was in L.A. the way I unwound was needlepoint and choral singing, because with choral singing you try to blend in, so it’s the therapeutic opposite to being solo.