«I feel. Therefore I am.» Scratch Notes on the Rome Symposium “Feelings Matter: Exploring the Cultural Dynamics of Emotion in Early Modern Europe”

Posted by Giovanni Tarantino

On 30 March 2015, in Rome, Giovanni Tarantino (CHE, Melbourne) and Giuseppe Marcocci (Tuscia University, Viterbo) convened the CHE-sponsored symposium Feelings Matter: Exploring the Cultural Dynamics of Emotion in Early Modern Europe. Hosted by the Istituto Storico Italiano per l’Età Moderna e Contemporanea, the event was held under the patronage of the Giunta Centrale per gli Studi Storici (the Italian National Commission for Historical Studies). Invaluable support was also provided by the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies of the University of Melbourne, by the Department of Humanities at the University of Eastern Piedmont and by the Department of Cultural Heritage Sciences at Tuscia University.

7. the audience

Four leading scholars (Charles Zika, Paola von Wyss-Giacosa, Ulinka Rublack, and Yasmin Haskell) presented their research, placing particular emphasis on the fruitfulness as well as the problems associated with historic inquiry into the emotions. They discussed a very varied range of sources and themes, giving participants a rich cross-section of the interpretative possibilities offered by the history of emotions. In this field of studies, historians are challenged to update their methodological tool kit and to engage with less usual sources (such as the social life of things, clothes, food, the visual and performing arts, or intaglio techniques, to mention just a few of the topics considered). For each paper, an expert discussant made a crucial contribution by highlighting strong points and problematic issues, in order to draw everyone into what proved to be lively, critically informed and intellectually stimulating discussions. Finally, a round table coordinated by Alessandro Arcangeli (University of Verona) helped to bring into focus the themes and problems that emerged during the day, and to pinpoint some further possible lines of inquiry in relation to the early modern age. The event was attended by an international cohort of forty keenly attentive scholars from Italy, Australia, Germany, UK, France, Switzerland, and Brazil.

* * *

Italian colleagues will recall that in a recent debate about the crisis in the discipline, which was on the mailing list of the Italian Society of Early Modern Historians (SISEM), there were calls for historians to show greater liveliness and to make a joint effort to be more receptive to new historiographic lines of inquiry, from global history to transcultural studies, from environmental history to the history of emotions. The Rome Symposium sought to contribute to that most welcome discussion.
5.Giuseppe Marcocci_Fernanda Alfieri

Besides the dense themes dealt with in the four keynote presentations, two more were repeatedly alluded to in both Giovanni Tarantino and Giuseppe Marcocci’s opening remarks and in the lively discussions that followed each session. The first concerns the interrelations of language, cultures and emotions (the studies of the Polish linguist Anna Wierzbicka being a key point of reference) and the pressing need to move beyond the eurocentrism that still prevalently distinguishes and restricts the horizons of historic research into the emotions. This is evident not only in the primary areas of expertise of the historians affiliated to CHE, but also in the framework of the Rome Symposium, and its title, which was evidently an expression of it, though both Paola von-Wyss Giacosa and Marcocci’s reflections evoked at once the importance and the complexity of a comparative approach.

The other theme related to the emotional involvement of the researcher and the need to have “the bodily experience of doing history”. In a stimulating essay entitled “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible,” which appeared in the periodical Rethinking History in 2010, Emily Robinson discusses the “pleasures” of historical work. More specifically, she explores the commonly felt urge of historians to personally visit sites associated with the events they are studying, to actually touch the documents (rather than getting by with digital reproductions), and to savour the dust of archives, almost as if such physical experiences were a necessary prelude to the re-enactment that historical writing seems to involve.

Such considerations prompt further reflections on the supposed “unattainability” of historic objectivity. It is certainly true that the challenge for all historians is how to balance the disciplinary need for objectivity with an acknowledgement of our own subjectivity and personal, emotional reactions to the historical event we are researching.

For example, Carlo Ginzburg has repeatedly described how, when reconstructing the trial strategies adopted by the Inquisitor, he not only identified emotionally with the victims, but also felt an embarrassing intellectual affinity with the Inquisitor, because he too, albeit with different purposes and methods, was trying to understand a culture reluctant to be inscribed within the stereotypes of his own.

Dwelling on the theme of objectivity in history in his essay “Our Words, and Theirs: A Reflection on the Historian’s Craft, Today”, Ginzburg looks back to Kenneth Pike, who coined the terms “etic” and “emic”. An “etic” account is comparative, couched in a language unspecific to any given culture. By contrast, an “emic” account derives from a specific culture. While the questions historians pose are inevitably etic, Ginzburg states, in our answers we should strive for emic responses, deriving from the specificity of the culture or historical period at which our questions are directed.

2.Daniel Barbu_Giovanni Tarantino

And this, we might say by way of conclusion, is even truer for the historians of emotions.


* * *

The following conference report has been generously provided by Lucio Biasiori (from the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti, Florence), who chaired the final session of the Rome Symposium.

History of emotions or history through emotions? This is the most challenging question that emerged from the Rome conference Feelings Matter: Exploring the Cultural Dynamics of Emotions in Early Modern Europe organized by Giovanni Tarantino of the Melbourne node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) and Giuseppe Marcocci of the University of Tuscia-Viterbo. In other words, are emotions just to be regarded as a subject of research, or should their study also inform the approach adopted by all historians, whatever their subjects of research? And to what extent are these two perspectives compatible?

These questions received a rich range of answers during the conference, which took place at the Istituto Storico Italiano per l’Età Moderna e Contemporanea at Palazzo Mattei di Giove in Rome. This was undoubtedly a suitable location for a conference devoted to the history of emotions. The palazzo is itself an emotional place (at least for Italians), as it was in Via Caetani (just in front of the palazzo, halfway between the headquarters of the Communist Party and those of the Christian Democrats) that the corpse of the Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, killed by the Brigate Rosse terrorist organization, was found in the back of a car.

It is difficult to summarize the breadth of topics touched upon during the conference. Charles Zika (CHE, Melbourne) showed that figurative representations of the witches’ sabbath concealed the construction of a hostile and negative stereotype of early modern European societies. Analysing the work of a vast number of engravers, Zika set out to highlight collective emotions within visualized action, paying special attention to the representation of dancing witches. In particular, he pointed out that a shift took place in the representation of witchcraft between the sixteenth and seventeenth century: while witches in the sixteenth century were designated as members of a group, in the seventeenth century they appear as members of an alternative community. Artistic conventions certainly played a role in this change, but – Zika maintained – the new style reflected a change in imaginative focus towards communities as forces either for stability and order, or contingency and disorder.

6.Yasmin Haskell The Jesuits, who were masters in eliciting and distinguishing emotions, could not be neglected: Yasmin Haskell, also a project leader at CHE, focused on the figure of the French Jesuit Pierre Brumoy and his reflections on passions and tragedy. Harshly polemicizing against Stoic morals, Brumoy even borrowed some Lucretian passages in order to vulgarize the Jesuit theory of the morally improving effect of the aesthetic emotions.

3.Ulinka Rublack Objects themselves are capable of conveying emotions, as Ulinka Rublack (St John’s College, University of Cambridge) showed by referring to the recent Fitzwilliam exhibition Treasured Possessions, of which she was curator. Calling into question watertight juxtapositions such as the one between Protestants and Catholics, Rublack showed the attitudes of early modern people (from Magdalena and Balthasar Behaim, a sixteenth-century Nuremberg couple who traded in textiles, through to Benjamin Franklin) towards luxurious objects, reflecting on how objects open a window onto a whole early modern emotional universe.
Paola von Wyss-Giacosa (Max-Weber-Kolleg, Erfurt and University of Zurich) focused on the widely discussed Céremonies et coutumes religieuses de tous le peuples du monde (Amsterdam 1723–37) edited by Jean-Frédéric Bernard and illustrated by Bernard Picart (both French exiles and, at the time, members of international Calvinism). She dealt with the emotional role of the images in this encyclopaedia of religions of the early Enlightenment. The authors, she maintained, relied on the intaglio technique’s power of sensual persuasion not for a sensationalistic stimulation of emotion (be it shock or disgust), but instead to help the reader to begin to dwell upon the nature of ceremonies and the essence of religion.

8.Xenia von Tippelskirch

The discussion of the various talks was lively. Three speakers out of four had an Italian discussant. This procedure was successful, as the differences in approach between Italian and English speaking historiography, far from being an obstacle to dialogue, turned into a fruitful bond between the continental sensibility and concern for accuracy in the use of sources, on the one hand, and the capacity of Anglo-Saxon scholarship to freshly interrogate the available evidence, on the other. Vincenzo Lavenia (University of Macerata) considered images of witchcraft as a source for investigating what is a highly elusive historical subject. Rolando Minuti (University of Florence) reviewed the vast recent scholarship on the Cérémonies, taking into account the various aspects of Bernard and Picart’s undertaking. Renata Ago (University of Rome “La Sapienza”) dealt with the methodological aspects of material culture and its heuristic value for the history of emotions, while Xenia von Tippelskirch (Humboldt University, Berlin) indicated some important paths for future research on the Jesuit Brumoy. Even when the debate became sharper, not only was fair play always respected, but the discussion also profited from the contributions of younger scholars.

1.The Symposium venue The final roundtable was an occasion to test the reactions of Italian historians to the outcomes of the conference. Unlike the US, UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and Australia, Italy has no academic centre explicitly devoted to the history of emotions. A lack of funding is certainly a concomitant cause, but this is also a symptom of the present state of health of Italian historiography, standing between a glorious past and an uncertain future.

Fernanda Alfieri (Italian-German Historical Institute, Trent) emphasized the need to broaden and deepen research around emotions, taking into account the Foucauldian question of power. In other words, the history of emotions should deal not only with what an emotion is, but also with who elicits it and why. Furthermore, in her view, more attention should be paid to the question of definition (Tortarolo’s remarks also moved in a similar direction). The comments of Giuseppe Marcocci and Umberto Grassi (who have recently coedited a book on homosexuality in the Christian and Muslim world) encouraged scholars of emotions to move towards a global and gender perspective, in order to write a history of emotions à part entière, which overcomes the boundaries of traditional historiography, according to a tendency advanced, among others, by the Sinologist Eugenia Lean in the 2012 issue of the American Historical Review, devoted to the history of emotions.

Finally, both Edoardo Tortarolo (University of Eastern Piedmont) and Raffaella Sarti (University of Urbino) traced a genealogy of the history of emotions. The former mentioned Johann Huizinga and Norbert Elias as two possible noble fathers of the discipline, whereas the latter recalled the names of Edward Shorter, Lawrence Stone, Hans Medick, and D. W. Sabean. Thus, at first sight, one might readily think that there is a fracture between a cultural and a social history of emotions, according to a dichotomy that has been formulated in the past for microhistory (see Alberto M. Banti, “Storie e microstorie: l’histoire sociale contemporaine en Italie (1972–1989),” Genèses 3 (1991), 134–47, at p. 145). Supposing such a juxtaposition would however be misleading, then as now.

4. Charles Zika_Lisa Beaven

Charles Zika noted that some of the insights into the nature of  emotions,  gained to some extent through neuroscience research but certainly not exclusively so, has demonstrated that “cognition, thinking and ideas, on the one hand,  and emotions, feelings and sentiments, on the other, are not diametrically opposed, as they have tended to be understood (and of course still are by many – historians and others, including popular scientists). To the contrary, emotion is not separate from cognition; cognition and emotion are two different yet related ways of perceiving and understanding the world.”  In Zika’s view this makes for some important differences in the historical approach of historians of earlier periods and those working in this field over the last two decades. It means that “all understanding, decision-making, social action, etc involves emotion as well as cognition.  Emotions therefore are not considered a separate field of research, let alone the domain of culture; they are integral to all human action. Emotion is critical to the fields of politics and society, as well as culture. It is analogous to such categories of historical analysis as gender.”

A possible way both to escape the widely perceived dichotomy between a social and a cultural level, and to acknowledge the presence of predecessors without being oppressed by them, would be to return to an “historian for all seasons” (though he was not mentioned during the conference), namely Marc Bloch. In The Royal Touch (1924) he turned an emotional phenomenon (the belief in the magic-working power of the kings of France and England) into a subject for a political, social, and cultural history of medieval and early modern Europe. On the other hand, in The Historian’s Craft, he outlined a sort of program for the history of emotions as well, when he wrote that “what is most profound in history may also be the most certain”. The future challenge for the history of emotions will thus not only be to make the past resurface, but also to connect with the most intimate spheres of men and women of earlier ages and transform those feelings into a matter of analysis. A demanding task, no doubt – but the Rome symposium was an encouraging signal in this direction.


Symposium Conveners: Dr Giovanni Tarantino (CHE, The University of Melbourne); Dr Giuseppe Marcocci, Tuscia University,Viterbo)

Keynote speakers: Prof Charles Zika (CHE, University of Melbourne); Dr Paola von Wyss-Giacosa (University of Zurich); Prof Ulinka Rublack (St John’s College, University of Cambridge); Prof Yasmin Haskell (CHE, University of Western Australia)

Discussants: Dr Vincenzo Lavenia (University of Macerata); Prof Rolando Minuti (University of Florence); Prof Renata Ago (University of Rome “La Sapienza”; Prof Xenia von Tippelskirch (Humboldt University, Berlin)

Roundtable: Dr Fernanda Alfieri (Italian-German Historical Institute, Trent); Prof Penny Roberts (University of Warwick); Dr Raffaella Sarti (University of Urbino); Prof Edoardo Tortarolo (University of Eastern Piedmont);

Symposium attendees: Prof Guido Abbattista (University of Trieste); Dr David Armando (CNR, Naples); Dr Daniel Barbu (University of Bern); Dr Lisa Beaven (CHE, Melbourne); Dr Lucio Biasiori (Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti, Florence); Dr Benedetta Borello (University of L’Aquila); Dr Maurizio Campanelli (University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’); Maria Anna Chiatti (Tuscia University); Orazio Coco (University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’); Prof Guido Dall’Olio (University of Urbino); Dr Rosanna De Longis (Istituto Storico Italiano per l’Età Moderna e Contemporanea); Prof Irene Fosi (D’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara); Dr Umberto Grassi; Dr Davide Grippa (University of Milan); Dr Sabina Pavone (University of Macerata); Elena Lugli (Rome); Dr Chiara Petrolini (University of Verona); Francesco Ronco (Scuola Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa); Dr Camilla Russell (University of Newcastle, Australia); Prof Giulio Sodano (The Second University of Naples); Prof Ann Thomson (European University Institute, Fiesole); Juliana Torres Rodrigues Pereira (UFRY, Rio de Janeiro); Prof Michaela Valente (University of Molise)

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