Life after the Warburg: Olivia Garro

After completing her MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture in 2018 , alumna Olivia Garro went on to pursue a PhD in Art History and Cultural Memory at the Centre of Arts, Memory and Communities, part of the Institute for Creative Cultures at Coventry University. 

We caught up with Olivia to find out more about her research project, her experience at the Warburg, and why she recommends the Institute as a place to study. 

You’re currently undertaking a PhD at Coventry University. Could you tell us more about your research?

I am in the second year of my PhD in Art History and Cultural Memory at one of Coventry’s research centres - the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities, part of the Institute for Creative Cultures. I am focusing on the iconography and representation of witchcraft in the Italian Renaissance and up to the seventeenth century. My case study is the illustrated witchcraft treatise by friar Francesco Maria Guazzo, the Compendium Maleficarum (1608). While some details are still unclear, Guazzo was surely connected to the Roman Inquisition, so I examine these images in the context of the Inquisition’s trials and the theological debates of the period. The Compendium has 33 original woodcuts, which is an unusually high number for this type of demonological or inquisitorial texts. 

You recently presented at the Renaissance Society of America’s annual conference. How was your experience?

I loved every minute of it! It was my first RSA conference, held this year in Puerto Rico. I heard from many other participants that it was the most successful thus far! It was, of course, easy to enjoy a conference in such a beautiful setting. Given it was my first big international conference, I was quite nervous about the scope and fame of the RSA, but I truly enjoyed it. There were some great questions and discussions after the papers, very kind comments, and more established scholars genuinely engaging with and supporting PhDs and early career researchers. I would absolutely recommend it.

The British Pavilion at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Any highlights from your research so far? 

I am writing from Venice, where I am undertaking a joint fellowship from CAMC and the British Council, undertaking a research project on the Venetian dispatch of the Inquisition, while also helping at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This has definitely been a highlight! I must add, however, that it is truly the small things that make a difference, particularly when undertaking a PhD project. I just mentioned the RSA, which is one of the biggest conferences in our field, but the more intimate symposiums, PhD seminars, and networks have continuously surprised me for the level of support, intellectual exchange, and encouragement that you can find. Getting involved with a couple of PhD networks and presenting in a relatively small-scale setting has given me just as much fulfilment and is a great way to gain experience and build self-confidence.

A copy of the first edition (1608) of the Compendium Maleficarum at the British Library. Photo by the author.

What key things have your learnt while undertaking your research project?

That it is always worth a try, but at the same time, you cannot say yes to everything. It sounds quite contradictory, but at the beginning of my PhD I was reluctant to apply for anything because I felt that I wasn’t ready yet; and then, when I finally started applying, I found out that there was a real interest in my research – I even started receiving invitations to give papers! This both surprised and excited me, and for a few months I took on too many things at the same time. There are many exciting projects, workshops, and conferences that PhDs can take part in – but, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, particularly in academia, so I am trying hard to balance the two. 

A group of witches paying homage to the Devil, anonymous, woodcut, Compendium Maleficarum (1608 edition). Photo by the author.

Research-wise, when I begun my in-depth reading of my case study, the Compendium Maleficarum, I was truly surprised and intrigued by what I found. From a sixteenth-century Catholic friar, I was expecting a strenuous attack towards the evil witches, but instead, I found an organized and learned cosmology, which was coherent with the theoretical framework of his time. It even concluded with a declaration that the witches were victims of the devil - deluded and abused. I did not expect this, and it opened up a whole new world into Medieval demonology and Renaissance theories of magic that has became one of my favourite topics of research.

What did you study at the Warburg Institute, and did your experience equip you with the skills and knowledge to pursue a PhD? 

I undertook the MA in Art History, Curatorship, and Renaissance Culture. What helped me the most was its focus on visual culture and the culture ‘around’ the artworks, as well as the encouragement in every module to look closer, contextualise, and compare with other images and texts in the period. The languages and palaeography classes have also proved fundamental in approaching primary sources.

Do you have any particularly fond memories from your time here?

First and foremost, wandering around the library and looking for books. It is such an incredible space, and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to spend hours in there. I am also very fond of the time spent in classes, particularly the National Gallery modules. One of my favourite memories is going into the National Gallery’s archives to research for one of those modules. What a moment - to step in there and find a reserved seat and a folder with your name on it!

One of my favourite memories is going into the National Gallery’s archives to research for one of those modules. What a moment - to step in there and find a reserved seat and a folder with your name on it!

Would you recommend the Warburg Institute as a place to study, and why?

Absolutely. If the library alone was not enough, the classes were kept small enough to allow students to really engage with teaching staff, the materials, and each other, which resulted in great depth and scope of study. Staff members spent time getting to know each of their students – no one was ever too busy to answer your questions or give you feedback.

Staff members spent time getting to know each of their students - no one was ever too busy to answer your questions or give you feedback.

Any advice for graduating students? 

If you’re thinking about a PhD, do not rush into it. Finding a good research topic (or question) takes time, and even more importantly, you need to be sure that it is something you are willing to commit to for at least three or four years of your life. The same goes for the institution you are applying for, and for the supervisor. Take some time to get to really know both. On a similar note, it is also a good idea to think about some work experience between your MA and PhD: placements, internships, or jobs – particularly in cultural institutions – are a great option. There was a time when I thought that I had wasted too much time working rather than developing a research proposal, but a couple of years later and a few applications accepted, I now see how much my time at the British Museum helped. 

And on funding – apply for everything. We are undertaking research in a world that, after Brexit and the COVID pandemic, is not the same. The funding available for humanities’ students seems to have plummeted, so each award is even more competitive than before. Make sure you work with your supervisor on your applications, and do not take rejection as an indicator of your proposal’s value – it isn’t! Good luck! 

Do you have any future plans? 

Sadly, I’ll have to come back from Venice in a couple of weeks! But back in London, I will go back to working part-time at the British Museum, where I currently work in the Events and Conferencing departments. I also have another couple of conferences planed. Most of my summer will be spent going over the material that I am collecting here and preparing for an archival trip in September. While in Autumn, I will start teaching Italian and helping with some lectures for the new BA’s in Philosophy at Coventry, which is really exciting.

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Olivia Garro is currently in the second year of her PhD at the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities at the University of Coventry, where she is also the CAMC’s research representative and British Council fellow, and conference convenor for the IHR’s PGRs network, the History Lab. Before beginning her PhD, she undertook her MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture at the Warburg Institute, and an MA in Curatorship and BA in Prints and Drawings at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. Alongside her studies she also works part time at the British Museum and has volunteered at the Courtauld Institute for the Archival Digitisation Project.