The Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, the foundation which runs the Finnish Institute in Rome, was established in Helsinki on 4 November 1938 on the initiative of Finnish businessman and patron of the arts Amos Anderson.
Villa Lante came into the picture after the war, when Göran Stenius was chargé d’affaires of the Finnish Embassy to the Holy See, which was based there. The Renaissance villa still had immense artistic and historical value, but was in disrepair. Stenius informed Dr Anderson that General Demetrio Helbig, who owned the villa, would be willing for the Institute to use the premises on very favourable terms.
In the spring of 1950, Anderson and Torsten Steinby, secretary of the Foundation, travelled to Rome, and Villa Lante was purchased for Finland on 23 April 1950 with funds donated by Amos Anderson. The villa thus became the property of the Finnish state, but the Foundation was to use it, and the building was restored for the Institute.
After long and difficult renovations, the Institute was finally inaugurated on 29 April 1954.
Academics and artists had been using the building even before the inauguration. Formal academic activities started after the opening: from the first, the idea was to organize both specialist and generalist courses, to set up research groups, and to enable individual scholars to carry out research in Rome.
Under the first director from 1953–55, Torsten Steinby (1908–1995), there were still no formal courses or research groups. The most important course of this period started as soon as the Institute opened, taught by Edwin Linkomies, then Rector of the University of Helsinki and Chair of the Board of the Foundation. The course was on Rome under Augustus, and it was attended by students of history and classical philology. Many of these students, such as Iiro Kajanto and Päiviö Tommila, later took on significant roles in Finnish universities.
Under its second director from 1956–59, Henrik Zilliacus (1908–1992), the Institute homed in on the field that was to characterize its research for decades to come: the study of ancient inscriptions, or epigraphy. Zilliacus taught two long courses in epigraphy and assembled a research group to submit all the unpublished inscriptions to the Vatican Museum’s Lapidary Gallery. As part of the research group, Iiro Kajanto and Henric Nordberg studied the inscriptions and related personal and place names.
Students of the world-famous colloquial Latin specialist Professor Veikko Väänänen (1905–1997, director 1959–62) studied and published the graffiti scrawled on the walls on the Palatine Hill.
Professor of history Jaakko Suolahti (1918–1987, director 1962–65) ushered in a new era of research at the Institute: on brick stamps. Initially, he focused on brick stamps from the Roman port city of Ostia. Later on Eva Margareta Steinby extended this research to include the whole brick industry that flourished around Rome.
Another later professor of history and internationally renowned numismatist, Patrick Bruun (1920–2007, director 1965–68), worked with his students on the problem of Etruscan Romanization, mainly through art and language history.
Another research group led by Veikko Väänänen (1968), in cooperation with the Vatican Museums, collected and published the inscriptions at the imperial cemetery along the Via Triumphalis. The Latinist Tuomo Pekkanen (director 1970–72) and his group were interested in early written sources that referred to Finns and Finnic tribes.
Art historian Henrik Lilius (director 1972–76) was a Renaissance art historian. Under his supervision, Villa Lante was restored, and Professor Lilius composed a thorough study of the architecture and decoration of the building. His research group worked on Renaissance bathrooms – stufettas.
The Institute’s long tradition of research into personal and place names and inscriptions was furthered by Heikki Solin (director 1976–79), an internationally renowned expert in these fields. Prof. Solin’s group explored the history of Latium, mainly based on inscriptions.
Besides the director’s own team, other research groups were set up at the Institute in the 1970s, mainly related to larger archaeological projects. A joint Nordic excavation began in 1976 at the site of ancient Ficana, the early prehistoric predecessor of Ostia.
Some of the archaeologists who gained their first experience on a classical site at Ficana were later involved in a major project led by Eva Margareta Steinby (director 1979–82) on the history of the area around the Lacus Iuturnae pool at the Roman Forum. The project involved not only an archaeological survey of the area, but also an analysis of its extensive literary and historical tradition. Besides the brick research, the Lacus Iuturnae project is the largest and highest-profile research project in the history of the Institute.
Veikko Litzen (1933–2011, director 1982–85), the first Professor of Cultural History at the University of Turku, was interested in the cultural transition during Late Antiquity.
With his students, Unto Paananen (director 1986–89), an antiquarian and docent at the University of Oulu, researched the Conflict of the Orders in Roman Republic.
Anne Helttula’s directorship in 1989–92 saw a return to research on inscriptions. Her research group published and commented on the imperial period inscriptions at the Portus Cemetery in the port city of Rome, called Isola Sacra.
Eva Margareta Steinby served as director again in 1992–94, studying the political, ideological, and social aspects of Roman building activity, but was invited to become a professor at the University of Oxford and did not have time to set up a proper research group.
Päivi Setälä (1943–2014, director 1994–97) focused on women, wealth, and power in the Roman Empire. Her research group compared men’s and women’s wealth, and looked at how women spent it.
Archaeologists from the Nordic countries worked together on the shores of Lake Nemi in 1998–2002 to excavate a large imperial villa. The Institute has supported other archaeological projects, such as the excavation of prehistoric Crustumerium north of Rome between 2004 and 2008.
Christer Bruun, Professor of Roman History at the University of Toronto (director 1997–2000), was studying the ancient Roman water supply but since Villa Lante was then closed for renovation, he was unable to set up a traditional research group.
Christian Krötzl (director 2000–2003) was the first medievalist to head the Institute. He researched diverse aspects of communication in medieval Rome.
The epigraphist Mika Kajava (director 2003–2006), who later became a professor of Greek language and literature, led research on oracle institutions and consultations in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
Historian Kaj Sandberg (director 2006–2009) studied the development of the political system during the Roman Republic.
Katariina Mustakallio (director 2009–2013) and her research group published studies on childhood, youth, and religion in the ancient and medieval world.
Medieval scholar Tuomas Heikkilä (director 2013–2017) concentrated on medieval calendars and conceptions of time. A separate research project in 2013–2015 focused on the town of Naxos, the earliest Greek settlement in Sicily. The project was a three-way collaboration between the Naxos Museum and the Finnish Institutes of Athens and Rome.
Arja Karivieri (director 2017–2021), Professor of Antiquities at Stockholm University, organized a major exhibition on Ostia in Tampere, accompanied by an in-depth scholarly publication. Her research group is working on Ostia and Portus from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages.
Ria Berg has been director since 2021 and her key research interest is in the relationship the ancient Romans had with nature.
In addition to all these directors’ research groups, the Institute has enabled many individual studies. The other key long-standing research positions at the Institute are the Wihuri Fellows (from 1965) and vice directors (from 1973). The latter became a post-doctoral researcher position in 2009. The doctoral theses of several vice directors that were mainly researched here have been published by the Institute.
Besides academic research, the arts, especially the visual arts, have always played a key role in the Institute’s activities. The artist’s studio on the ground floor of Villa Lante, built with the support of Rakel Wihuri, was completed in 1966. Since then, dozens of leading Finnish artists have been able to work in a unique environment.