Talk with Gabriella Johnson and you may never view the sea the same way again. That’s what’s happening for her as she works on her Ph.D. dissertation, “Galatea’s Realm: The Art of Coral, Shells, and Marine Fossils in Early Modern Sicily, Naples, and the Maltese Islands.”
Her study helped her win the 2023-24 Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome.
Established in 1894, the academy is one of the United States’ oldest centers abroad for independent studies and advanced research in the arts and humanities. It has given the highly competitive award annually since 1921, providing recipients with a stipend, room and board, and workspace on its 11-acre campus in Rome. In September, Johnson will join 35 other winners (from among 988 applicants representing 44 states) and for the next 11 months will continue her dissertation journey.
“It’s a huge deal, and I’m honored. It means my research is important and supported outside my university,” said Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Delaware. “The award gives me access to all the collections and libraries I’ll need, and the time to research, develop my ideas, write, experience Rome, and travel. Living alongside other scholars at the academy also poses the opportunity for interdisciplinary conversations and to learn from other perspectives, including the cultural perspective offered by doing continuous onsite research in Rome.”
In her study of the Mediterranean Sea’s influence on Neapolitan still-life painting, Sicilian coral art, and marine fossil illustration, Johnson explores how humans related to and understood aquatic nature in the early modern period.
“These works of art were emblematic of an increasingly interconnected Mediterranean world. They bridged local and global histories, served as cultural mediators, influenced the early modern imagination, advanced theories in natural philosophy, and expanded knowledge about the sea,” she said.
Look through early-modern eyes and you’ll see shells and their spiral forms as evidence of “the variety of divine creativity that facilitated spiritual enlightenment,” she said. “Coral, pliant underwater and rigid above, wards off evil and symbolizes sacrificial blood. Marine fossils, once-living plants and creatures now turned to rock, only reinforce the divine mysteries.”
Enter Galatea, the ancient Greek goddess of calm seas, one of 50 Nereids, or sea nymphs, frolicking off the coast of Sicily. She was also Pygmalion’s ivory-sculpted creation brought to life—a symbol of metamorphosis, which is a major theme running through Johnson’s dissertation.
“The little that’s been written about early-modern Sicilian and southern Italian art has described it as excessive, naïve, and backward,” she said. Johnson counters this condescension with eco-materialism, “adding new, holistic, and nuanced dimensions to the links between early-modern colonialism, natural-resource extraction, and western Mediterranean art.”
Johnson ventures into how sea-related miracles and marine species are depicted in still life paintings, travelogs, and folklore; how coral represents Spanish Habsburg dominance and overfishing altered its artistic production and technique; and how Agostino Scilla’s (1629-1700) paintings and scientific engravings of marine fossils led to his conclusion that they’re “not the petrified tongues of St. Paul’s serpents,” she said.
Meanwhile, her dissertation has connected her to her own childhood by the sea. “Growing up, I felt like I was straddling two cultures. My grandmother never learned English,” said Johnson, whose Sicilian-immigrant grandparents settled in Ventnor, N.J., where she was raised. “I was always at the beach collecting shells and sea glass. I loved the sound of the water, the smell of the sand.”
She also enjoyed playing the piano and making drawings from her father’s Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac album covers.
A major switch
At Colby, she first considered English and music and played vibraphone in the Colby Jazz Band. Then she took a survey course in Western art taught by Michael Marlais, the James M. Gillespie Professor of Art, Emeritus. “I can still hear his voice in that dark classroom with the slide projector running. His storytelling was evocative and compelling. He brought the context behind every work of art to life.”
As a junior, Johnson spent six months at Trinity College in Rome and fell in love with the Baroque part of the city and 17th-century art, taking classes in art history and Italian studies. She ended up with a B.A. in both.
“Art history requires you to be curious about everything, to be an informed and piercing observer, and to develop a keen visual literacy and understand how images create meaning and are entrenched in cultural values,” she said. She worked at the Colby Museum of Art as a curatorial intern and research assistant in her senior year, setting her sights on graduate school and a career as a professor or museum curator.
“Gabby was perfectly clear about what she wanted to do,” Marlais said. “But she also understood you need to know how to do more than one thing and know more than just 17th-century art, but also contemporary, if you wanted to get a job in life. At an early age, she was a real professional.”
James Kriesel, associate professor of Italian and director of the Italian Studies Program at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, was a Colby assistant professor from 2010 to 2014 and served as Johnson’s college advisor. “Gabby took a vocational approach toward learning about Italy and art history and was especially passionate about the material. Unlike law or medical school with its professional trajectory mapped out, at each stage she has had to invent herself, her research, and her studies,” he said.
After Colby, Johnson took a year off to intern at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, and conduct research for various private Baroque art collections. At the University of Delaware, she also has taught, and she said, “I try to emulate my Colby professors, who made the material accessible and brought academia down to earth.”
In September 2022, as one of three fellows for nine months at the Center for the Art and Architectural History of Port Cities at Capodimonte’s “La Capraia” in Naples, Johnson kept at it with her dissertation. She spent hours in libraries, with collections, talking with fishmongers, reading, and writing.
Her research in Naples prepared her well for the Rome Prize application.
“I had to read my acceptance email three times to ensure I wasn’t dreaming, and even then, it took a few weeks to sink in,” she said.
Coming up, she’ll focus on her dissertation’s third chapter, on marine fossils. “I’m looking forward to new experiences and to keep feeding my curiosity. It might take two more years to finish my dissertation, so hopefully, I’ll get the grants to stay in Italy.”
After Johnson receives her Ph.D., she’d ideally like to be a study-abroad professor of art history in Italy. She said, “I’d love to show students all the works of art I’ve seen. It’s exciting. But also, something special happens when you move abroad. You foster deeper connections with other people and are bonded by experience, circumstance, and mutual affection and interest.”
While Johnson teaches others, she’ll keep learning—and never stop collecting shells and sea glass on the beach.
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