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Thursday, May 30, 2024


North Cape May Native Heading to Rome After Winning Coveted Fellowship

Shannah Rose, who grew up in North Cape May, on the Ponte Sisto, near the Vatican in Rome. She recently was awarded a prestigious fellowship to study in Rome for her doctoral dissertation.

By Karen Knight

Imagine being able to live in Rome for five to 10 months, having been awarded the Rome Prize — a gift of “time and space to think and work.” You will receive a stipend, workspace and room and board at the American Academy in Rome’s 11-acre campus, as one of 31 American artists and scholars who received this year’s highly competitive fellowship, which supports advanced independent work and research in the arts and humanities.

Well, North Cape May native Shannah Rose doesn’t have to imagine it, because she will be living it this September, as she joins other highly motivated scholars and artists immersing themselves in the ancient and modern experience of Rome.

“The idea is to remove any distractions so you can research and write your dissertation,” she said.

Rose’s project is a mouthful – “The Codex Ríos and the Reception of Mesoamerican Pictography in Early Modern Italy.” As a doctoral candidate in art history at The Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, she is studying the ancient books of the Nahua (more popularly referred to as the Aztecs), as they depicted Mexican culture in the 16th century and were transported to Italy so the scholars there, especially those in the papal circle, could better understand the language, culture and religion of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Shannah Rose at the Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy, during her studies abroad.

Her interest in art seems natural, as her mother, grandfather and two sisters are artists.

“I’m studying pictorial manuscripts from that time and the transfer of those books between Mexico and Italy,” the 30-year-old said from her home base in Brooklyn. “I look logistically at how they were moved between the two land masses, how they were copied, how they depicted Mexican culture for foreign audiences at that time.

“The Renaissance period is more than Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo; this complex period also saw the colonization of the Americas, and the illustrated manuscripts I am researching are encyclopedic in their scope. They visualize the Aztecs’ way of life, their religion, and preserve linguistic aspects of Nahuatl, the indigenous language of central Mexico.

“Sometimes people compare Aztec pictography (that is, writing with images) to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Similarly, the Aztecs related their history and customs through images before the arrival of the Europeans, who introduced alphabetic text. In order to deepen our understanding of how indigenous languages were translated in this period, I am also translating the Nahuatl, Italian and Spanish texts in these books.”

The objects Rose is studying are manuscripts that were copied from Aztec books that were destroyed by Dominican and Franciscan friars during the European colonization of the Americas because they were considered heretical to the Catholic faith. The content is partially religious, she explained, including Aztec divinatory calendars. The Italians were interested in this content in the 16th century as part of their efforts to better understand the ongoing colonization of the Americas.

“Ultimately, I want to be a college professor, and I want to be able to paint a broader picture of the Renaissance for my students,” Rose said. “This period was an early chapter in the modern era of globalization, which we hear so much about nowadays.

“But it was happening 500 years ago, although more delayed. My work will help to better understand the interconnectedness of diverse cultures. I also think there is a lot of opportunity for public engagement here, whether through the context of the classroom or the art museum.”

Rose is no stranger to Italy, as she lived in Florence as an undergraduate in 2015, a move, she said, that changed her career trajectory. She has been living in Florence for the past several months because she is also a master of arts candidate in Italian language and literature through Middlebury College, Vermont. She said that speaking the language in a country often gives a person more access to learning about the culture.

“I was one of those brainy artsy kids in high school,” she said, laughing at the memories. She graduated from Lower Cape May Regional High School and initially went to college for chemical engineering.

“That didn’t last very long,” she chuckled.

Her high school Spanish teacher inspired Rose’s interest in cross-cultural history, having taken her and her sophomore classmates to the teacher’s home country of Puerto Rico. “I remember that was my first time on a plane,” she said. “It sparked an interest in me that hadn’t been there before. I started taking some art history classes in college, and that did it!

“I’ve been lucky in that my family and my parents have supported me all through grad school and along the way. They’ve trusted me to find what makes me happy, and while it won’t be a very lucrative job in the end, it’s what I want to be doing.”

Rome Prize winners are selected annually by juries of distinguished artists and scholars through a
national competition. This year’s competition received 1,106 applications — a record high — from
applicants in 46 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The acceptance rate was 2.9%. The winning class members range from 26 to 70 years old, with an average age of 42.

Shannah Rose pressing woodcut prints at a studio at the University of Virginia during her undergraduate days.

Rose said that after she applied, she was contacted by the Academy and flown to New York City for interviews by the jurists. She found everyone to be “very warm and welcoming” and is looking forward to living in Rome after a summer in Brooklyn and visiting the Shore.

“I expect that I’ll need one more year to finish my dissertation after I finish in Rome,” she said. “I hope to apply to be a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico afterwards.”

Since 1894 the American Academy of Rome has functioned as a residential center for research and
creativity. Its fellows and residents have been recognized with 622 Guggenheim fellowships, 74 Pulitzer prizes, 53 MacArthur fellowships, 26 Grammy awards, five Pritzker prizes, nine poet laureate appointments and five Nobel prizes.

Contact the reporter, Karen Knight, at


Karen Knight is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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