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2003 Distinguished Scholar Session

Ingrid D. Rowland is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the American Academy in Rome.

Phyllis Pray Bober

Phyllis Pray Bober

Phyllis Pray Bober, Leslie Clark Professor Emerita in the Humanities at Bryn Mawr College (photographer unknown)

When Phyllis Pray Bober died in her home on May 30, 2002, at the age of 81, it was with the majestic grace that had characterized her whole life. Few scholars have taken such evident joy in learning; few have worn such deep erudition so lightly or shared it with such infectious passion. Like every woman scholar of her generation, she made her way outside a conventional cursus honorum but did so with a kind of endless wonderment at the strange turns a life can take. Her primary interests moved over the years from classical archaeology to Renaissance art history to the history of food, but she never entirely abandoned any subject altogether, storing each one in her formidable memory in photographic detail.

Bober ascribed the fiery aspects of her character to her French-Canadian ancestry, and from her French-Canadian grandmother she adopted some choice French interjections (“Tiens!”) and, surely, the mischievous gleam in her eye. Her love of learning was a headlong chase from the very beginning. Her mother tied the three-year-old Phyllis to the clothesline to keep her from running away to “schoo”; the dauntless toddler had already taught herself to read. Soon enough, however, Phyllis and school came together, never again to part ways.

At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she majored in art and minored in Greek, then moved on in 1941 to the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University (NYU) to study with Karl Lehmann-Hartleben (as he was then still called). On her first day of class she met her future husband, the medievalist Harry Bober, whom she married in 1943. In 1946, as a newly minted PhD, Bober traveled to Europe for the first time with Harry: to France, Belgium, and finally, in January 1947, to England and the Warburg Institute of the University of London. There, on the suggestion of Fritz Saxl, during what she later described as “the worst winter in British memory, back under rationing and with chilblains,” Bober first began to compile the work with which she is most closely associated, the Census of Classical Works of Art Known to the Renaissance. It was a project for which her archaeological training, trained eye, and phenomenal memory suited her uniquely, and by 1949 the Warburg Institute officially adopted the project.

For Aby Warburg’s world of nymphs, emblems, gestures, and eloquent passion, Bober probably had as profound an empathy as any of the scholars who have been associated with that remarkable institution. Like Warburg, she instinctively understood the power of myth and gesture to communicate profound human truths; hence she deplored the arid studies she called “motive-hunting” and demanded instead that any scholarly analysis always probe the deeper meanings of art and expression. She provided her own example of that more rewarding method in her first book, Drawings after the Antique by Amico Aspertini (1957), which in turn inspired an entire series of sketchbook publications in the series.

Phyllis Pray Bober Renaissance Artists and Antique Sculpture

The second, revised edition of Phyllis Pray Bober and Ruth Rubinstein, Renaissance Artists and Antique Sculpture: A Handbook of Sources (2011; originally published in 1986)

On her return to the United States, her academic career followed her husband’s movements between Massachusetts (where she taught at Wellesley) and New York (at NYU) until the end of the marriage in 1973 prompted her to accept an offer to become dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania; she retired as Leslie Clark Professor of the Humanities in 1991. At NYU, she weathered the campus turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s with compassion, political engagement, and considerable physical courage; these same years marked her first forays into the history of cooking, sparked initially by a course on the ancient Roman cookbook of Apicius but quickly extended to every culture and every age. During her tenure at Bryn Mawr, she produced an annotated, illustrated edition of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Statue di Roma and, with Ruth Rubinstein, a book based on her years of work on the Census: Renaissance Artists and Antique Sculpture: A Handbook of Sources (1986). By 1981, however, her greatest enthusiasm had turned to the history of food, an enthusiasm shared in an unending bounty of historically accurate banquets that delighted, surprised, and sometimes (as with the live goldfish in aspic) horrified her guests. The first volume of Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1999; the second volume, beginning with the Renaissance and ending with John Cage’s macrobiotic breakfasts, was still unfinished at the time of her death.

Bober served as president of CAA from 1988 to 1990; she was also president of the Renaissance Society of America in 1983. Her many honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979, election to the Dames d’Escoffier in 1995, election to the American Philosophical Society in 1999, and election as Foreign Member of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1995. She leaves two sons, Jonathan and David, her longtime companion, Ted Barnett, and a host of friends and students for whom her sheer delight in life was the chief joy of knowing her.

New York Session

Ingrid D. Rowland of the American Academy of Rome chaired the posthumous Distinguished Scholar Session, which took place on Thursday, February 20, 2003, in the East Ballroom, Third Floor, Hilton New York, 2:30–5:00 PM. The panel included James S. Ackerman of Harvard University, who shared “Reminiscences of Phyllis Bober,” and Julia Haig Gaisser of Bryn Mawr College, speaking on “Humanism in Ancient Rome.” In addition, Maureen Pelta of Moore College of Art and Design talked about “A Taste of Antiquity; or, How Greece Brought Correggio to Rome,” and the food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins described “Phyllis as Foodie.” The session began with a reading of Emperor Hadrian’s poem, “Animula vagula blandula” and concluded with a reading from Bober’s 1995 Charles Homer Haskins lecture, “A Life of Learning.”

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