Christopher Celenza, Ph.D. '95

Renaissance man
August 1, 2011
  
Christopher Celenza Ph.D. '95

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The American Academy in Rome provides a select number of arts and humanities practitioners and scholars opportunities for independent study and advanced research. It also sponsors several summer programs; maintains a library of more than 140,000 volumes in the fields of classical studies and the history of art and architecture; and hosts a variety of exhibitions, lectures, performances, and conferences throughout the year. And for nearly two decades, the academy has become something of a second home for Christopher Celenza.

From 1993 to 1994, Celenza was a Rome Prize Fellow at the academy. The prize is awarded to thirty artists and scholars in the early or middle stages of their careers who represent the highest standard of excellence. From 2002 to 2005, he returned as director of the academy's summer program in palaeography (the study of ancient handwriting, such as in manuscripts). And since July of 2010, he has served as the academy's director, an appointment that puts him at the helm of the esteemed institution as it celebrates a centenary.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the merging of the American School of Classical Studies in Rome and the American Academy in Rome, Celenza says. "That decision to merge the arts and humanities set the direction for what the academy has become, a place where you find scholars from different disciplines working side by side with artists of many different disciplines."

A historian and Latinist who specializes in European intellectual history, Celenza is on leave from the Johns Hopkins University, where he is a professor in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, with secondary appointments in the departments of history and classical studies and in the humanities center. He is also the founding director of the university's Singleton Center for the Study of Premodern Europe.

During his stint as a Rome Prize Fellow, Celenza spent mornings conducting research on fifteenth-century manuscripts in the Vatican Library and, after lunch, conducted further research at the academy's library. He recalls how his own scholarly pursuits were augmented by the work his colleagues were conducting. "Seeing artists at work changes the way you think about the humanities," he says. "It's an incredible experience to walk through a museum with a practicing artist who has insights into brushstrokes and layers of paint and how the artist relates to other painters who were making art at the same time."

After earning his undergraduate and master's degrees from SUNY Albany, Celenza came to Duke for his doctoral work. History professor Ron Witt became his mentor and adviser, and he interacted with scholars affiliated with Duke's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, including David Steinmetz, the Amos Reagan Kearns Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School; philosophy professor Edward Mahoney; history professor Thomas Robisheaux '74; and associate professor of history Kristen Neuschel.

Celenza says that one of the things he relishes the most about living in Rome is "the cultural and historical levels you find everywhere— layers upon layers of civilization. The city is well over 2,000 years old, and it is unique in the way it combines antiquity and modernity. There's a kind of cultural cosmopolitanism that I have always loved."

—Bridget Booher