Peter Weller, best known for his starring role in the film Robocop, has acted continuously in theatre and film, directed television, and writes for travel magazines. Nominated for an Oscar for best direction of live action short film and recently the star antagonist on last season’s U.S. television series 24, Weller also hosted his own series, Engineering Empires, on the History Channel. At the moment, he is directing and editing the Christmas episode of NBC’s Las Vegas. These varied accomplishments alone would qualify Weller as a ‘renaissance man’, but he also holds a master’s degree in Italian Renaissance art history, is self taught on the history of late Republican-early Empire Ancient Rome, developed and teaches a course, ‘Hollywood and the Roman Empire’ at Syracuse University, and conducts field trips for Syracuse University in Florence. Weller is currently finishing a Ph.D. at UCLA, in the history of fifteenth-century Venetian art, with a minor in Ancient Greek and Roman art. All of this while playing jazz trumpet in a bebop sextet in Los Angeles.
So Peter, what have you been teaching lately?
A few years ago I was teaching ‘Hollywood and the Roman Empire’ at Syracuse in New York. It was really a classics class posing as a film course, but no one is likely to hire me to teach classics (and good for them). Some of the students had the opportunity to go to Italy with me to visit the actual sites of some of the writings and films, from Paestum to Rome. Whenever possible, I will spend a spring in Florence for the Syracuse campus to take students on art and architecture field trips. I hope to do that again soon. However, though I love teaching I am putting it all ‘on hold’ to finish up my Ph.D. at UCLA. I also have to make a buck or two in the movie business to afford this serendipitous adventure.
In some of our e-mail correspondence you mentioned your ambivalent feelings about Florence. What specifically were you referring to?
I don’t believe anyone who has ever lived in Florence for longer than a month hasn’t had terrifically ambivalent feelings about the city. It’s possibly the most evocatively ambivalent city in Italy. There’s a saying abut Florence that Professor Rab Hatfield once quoted to me: ‘Living in the middle of Florence only makes you want to leave it’. It’s a dicey and humid little provincial town, the center of which has little to no sun, relatively bad food (save the four or five exceptional places), it has mosquitoes year round, and the locals can be pretty much antithetical to the ‘warm and friendly’ Italian trope. There are also a mafia of Vespas running around everywhere, and it has tiny sidewalks and hordes of tourists. All in a claustrophobic burg without a major place to sit and relax, except two overpriced piazzas with overpriced and hostile service. Now there’s a lot to see in Florence—after all, it’s where the Renaissance started. And I have to say, I do have great friends in Florence. I prefer to hang out in the Oltrarno—the other side of the river is calmer and more of a ’hood.