Meet the Warburg: Alessandro Scafi, Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Cultural History
In this blog series, we introduce you to the people who bring the Warburg to life. From library staff to lecturers, find out more about the people working at the Warburg Institute.
In this interview, we chatted with our Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Cultural History, Alessandro Scafi. Read on to discover more about his career, what prospective students can expect from his upcoming short course, Mapping Worlds: Medieval to Modern, and how the Warburg informs his wider research interests.
Please could you tell us a bit about your background and career?
I grew up in Rome, where I attended the Liceo Classico, and went on to study at the Sapienza University of Rome, writing my BA thesis on the ideal city that was planned by a Florentine Renaissance architect who called himself ‘Filarete’, a Greek term meaning ‘lover of virtue’. Filarete’s proto-Utopian dream, which was written in Italian, was translated into Latin for Matthias Corvinus, the late-fifteenth century king of Hungary. The connection inspired me to go to Budapest to study the cultural interchange between Italy and Hungary in the Renaissance, and I worked there from 1990 to 1992. The age-old question addressed by Filarete of how to improve human society has been posed innumerable times in the course of history, but it seemed to have particular resonance in a country that had recently been released from the yoke of Soviet-style communism, but was struggling to achieve prosperity and a liberal system of justice.
Visions of earthly perfection exerted a special fascination for me, and as I pursued my research into the ideal cities imagined in the Renaissance, I repeatedly encountered a cliché about medieval people, who were said to be so sure of the existence of monsters and marvels that they actually located the earthly paradise on their maps. I wanted to know more! And that’s why, in 1993, I arrived at the Warburg, armed with a grant to enable me to study the depiction of Eden on Renaissance maps. I was instantly captivated by the Warburg, and my good fortune was magnified when the editor of publications at the British Library expressed enthusiasm for my research project. I was still only a postgraduate student when he invited me to publish a book on the mapping of paradise, and my excitement knew no limits! Nonetheless, I was well aware that I needed to improve my skills and knowledge, so I completed my PhD at the Warburg, after which, in 2000, I went back to Italy, where I began my career as a university lecturer, teaching iconography and iconology at the Ravenna campus of the University of Bologna. In 2007, after publishing my monograph on the cartography of Eden, I was given the opportunity to return to the Warburg as a lecturer, and I was over the moon. I’ve been teaching here ever since, lecturing and publishing articles and books.
After studying maps of paradise, I maintained my interest in the history of cartography, researching various aspects of medieval and Renaissance mapping. I have also worked on pilgrimage practices, journeys to the other world, and subjects including money design as symbol of cultural identity. In addition, I’ve studied several topics relating to Aby Warburg, notably his interest in the birth of opera, his views on Dante, Arnold Böcklin and Gabriele D’Annunzio, and his approach to antisemitism and political propaganda. My main project now is a book that will be called Sex in Paradise.
What led you to working at the Warburg Institute?
At the age of twenty it dawned on me that I was irresistibly attracted by the symbolic forms in which meanings and values are embodied. I had a kind of epiphany when I went with my parents to the city of Rovigo, in northern Italy, to attend my brother’s swearing-in as an officer of Italy’s Financial Police. We made a special trip to Padua. Seeing Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel, I was stunned by his synthesis of the Christian faith in such a magnificent and coherent visual form. I had heard of the Warburg as a renowned research institute for the study of cultural history, and when I arrived here, I found my own scholarly paradise. It was a place where I could study philosophy, art, literature, religion and politics, without worrying about the supposed boundaries between disciplines, exactly as Aby Warburg, the founder of the unique Warburg library, had planned.
I soon realised that the institution was not only extraordinary on account of its collection of books, but also for the people working and studying there – the teaching and library staff, and also the scholars from all over the world who are drawn like bees to the honey pot of the library and its unique arrangement of books. Luckily, those scholarly bees are always ready to share their own nectar with others! At the Warburg I have discovered cultural history as a way of visiting, understanding and respecting our shared human past, in the context of the broader aims of learning how to act in the present and prepare for the future.
Could you tell us a bit more about your role as Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Cultural History?
My teaching work at the institute includes contributions to the MA in Cultural, Intellectual and Visual History, which is the core course on Reviving the Past, and the optional course on Religion and Society in Renaissance Italy. I am also the convenor of languages and palaeography teaching and exams. In addition, I am involved in examinations more generally, as well as advising on dissertations and tutoring students. I also supervise and co-supervise PhD students, and occasionally act as examiner of external PhDs. I enjoy disseminating the Warburg culture when I teach and lecture outside the institute in a variety of contexts. I help to organise international conferences and seminars, and I give specialist advice to external bodies, including publishers and governments bodies, and I also do peer reviews for a range of scholarly publications and research organisations. Finally, for many years I’ve run several series of public readings of Dante.
This April you will be running the 5-day online short course Mapping Worlds: Medieval to Modern. Could you tell us a bit more about what participants can expect across the five days?
Maps are not just visual aids to help us find directions. They unlock meanings, connect sites and ideas, and bring to life places at the margins of the imagination. I hope that participants in our weeklong event will be inspired by seeing the ways in which maps come to life.
We will be exploring how maps have been made, viewed and read by different people in a range of contexts, and how they are used to serve to different purposes. Maps can represent physical worlds, suggest social realities and construct imaginative dimensions. We will be guided by a few seminal questions: How do maps associate words and images? How should we define maps? What is it that makes a map a map? How do maps differ from diagrams and more representational views?
We will take the opportunity to look closely at individual examples of maps, studying their backgrounds and purposes. These examples chosen include medieval world maps produced as independent artefacts or drawn as book illustrations, mural map cycles of the Italian Renaissance, early modern prints that were made to identify and describe places mentioned in the Bible, and also maps that are closer to our daily lives, notably the London Tube map and contemporary digital maps.
We will consider mnemonic maps, thematic maps, allegorical maps and maps drawn for political and rhetorical purposes. We will investigate the value of maps as historical testimonies, while taking account of their creative and projective power. Maps engender new worlds, and I hope to persuade participants on the course that it is up to us – the viewers and users of maps – to decide whether the empty white spaces on maps should entice us to explore or just blend back into the page.
Who might be interested in this course? Are students encouraged to attend?
As Nicholas Crane – the geographer, explorer, writer and broadcaster – puts it: ‘Maps codify the miracle of existence.’ They are a fundamental article of our culture, and I feel sure that almost everyone can feel the fascination of the cartographic miracle. That includes students, teachers, professionals of all kinds, and the widest general public. If you speak to maps (as I do!), they sometimes speak back to you. So, everyone is invited to discover some new and unknown places on the maps we’ll be studying.
What would you say to prospective students considering the Warburg’s postgraduate programmes?
Please join our community! Look at the Warburg’s emblem, and join the cosmic dance that is described there. It incorporates the four classical elements, the four seasons and the four humours of humankind, all of which work together in an intricate network – just like the books that form the collection in the Warburg library. To search for books in our collection is to follow a trail, like a hunter in the woods, except that your prey are texts and images, visions and ideas – all hidden on the shelves. And we – the teaching staff, librarians and supervisors – are there to help you sniff them out!
How does your work at the Warburg inform your wider research interests?
My work at the Warburg has fundamentally informed my own quest for knowledge. It is the only place in the world where I can pursue my research and prepare my publications. The very road map of my intellectual journey has been sketched out by the library itself, and the boundaries of my work have been continuously redefined by the fruitful discussions I have with the people I work with and meet there.
What do you love most about the Warburg?
For me the Warburg is a place that I find very easy to love. I think of the way in which the library shelves serve as the starting point for intellectual voyages of discovery, as well as the joy of sharing my travel reports with colleagues and scholars from all around the world, and the pleasure of hearing their own reports. In particular, when I discuss my cultural explorations with students at the Warburg, I’m repeatedly thrilled to receive back from them a hundred times more than I feel I’ve offered. I love the fact that the teaching and learning practices at the Warburg help us to understand the complexity of history and its relevance for the present. I am committed to the Warburg tradition of intellectual rigour and an honest approach to history that does not pursue any agenda, except for the pure urge to return to original sources. That approach vividly shows that the past is not only as complex as the present, but even that the history of humanity actually is our present. As the American historian and geographer David Lowenthal beautifully puts it: ‘To be is to have been.’