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Veni winner Susanna de Beer on the use of cultural heritage

Society has an impact on what is viewed as heritage. Susanna de Beer investigated how heritage can be made enduring by making use of it in the present. Lars de Kruijf, student of Dutch and Journalism New Media, spoke with Susanna de Beer.

Susanna de Beer
Susanna de Beer

Capitol Hill in Washington offers proof that the United States like to see themselves as a world power. This building – which houses Congress – directly refers to the illustrious past of Ancient Rome. It is thanks to the Renaissance humanists that the Roman cultural and literary heritage was revived, and could therefore be used, for instance to legitimate power. Dr Susanna de Beer was awarded a Veni grant which she wants to use to investigate how this process works and what motives are involved

About the Veni grants
The Veni is one of the grants awarded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to young researchers who have recently completed their PhD. They are each awarded 250,000 euro to do research for three years. This year, 161 grants were awarded, among them to Susanna de Beer.
Negentien Leidse onderzoekers verwierven een Veni-subsidie.


Back to Classical Rome


In her PhD project, De Beer focused on the Neo-Latin poetry of the 15th century and particularly on its social function. ‘You can see that the poets of the time were freely promoting the cultural Maecenases who supported them financially. But what’s remarkable is that in doing so, they made use of form and content that were typical of sources from Classical Rome. This was a way of giving meaning to the events and people of their own time. For instance, many monarchs were compared to a leader from Antiquity such as Augustus in order to reaffirm their reputation as a cultural monarch and to legitimate their power.’


For her current research, De Beer collected a large number of poems containing references to Ancient Rome. She wants to find out how these references functioned in different places in Europe. A good example of this is how the visible Roman ruins were used in Early Modern Times in the rivalry between two cities. De Beer: ‘The inhabitants of Rome saw the ruins as proof that their city was a world city which would rise, Phoenix-like, from its ashes. In Florence, people drew the opposite conclusion: the crumbled ruins symbolised that Rome had lost its power to Florence.’

Shaping heritage

In modern-day society, we also still make strategic use of the past. De Beer: ‘Heritage is something you shape. That’s why Geert Wilders can use windmills as a symbol of the Netherlands to which we should all return, while the tolerance of the Golden Century is of less use to him.’

Combining research methods

The combination of different research methods fascinates De Beer. ‘Looking at the poetry itself means being occupied with the minutest of details. But I am always trying to link these findings with greater questions of social significance.’ In addition, she finds the Renaissance, as viewed from the perspective of her field, to be a fascinating period: ‘There was such enthusiasm in those days for reviving Classical Rome. The idea that history is not dead, I find that really special.’

Work in progress

Next semester, an MA seminar is planned in which a number of poems will be compared with their classical sources. In this way, students can also make a contribution to the research. De Beer: ‘I see my research as a work in progress: in the process, the students’ ideas also shape my own.’

Conference and book

In addition to the seminar, De Beer would also like to organise an international conference with colleagues from the Netherlands and abroad to talk about this subject. ‘Hopefully, this will also lead to a conference proceedings volume. I am also planning on regularly publishing articles. But the final results of my research will be a book in which I will probably be treating three case studies.’


Academic portrait of Susanna de Beer
1994-2000 Degree in Classical Languages, specialisation in Latin and Neo-Latin Literature, Leiden University
2000-2006 Various research grants, KNIR in Rome and NIKI in Florence
2001-2008 Employed at antiquarian bookshop and auctioneering firm Burgersdijk & Niermans, Leiden
2002-2007 PhD degree (Cum Laude), University of Amsterdam
2009 Lecturer in Greek and Latin Language and Culture, Leiden University
2009 Postdoc in Greek and Latin Language and Culture, Leiden University
2010 Veni grant from NWO for research project: ‘Visions of Rome. Strategic Appropriation of the Roman Heritage in Humanist Latin Poetry’


(22 December 2010)

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