Organising “Fertile Furrows”, a conference on Early Modern soils
Written by Anca-Delia Moldovan
Anca-Delia Moldovan's (who was recently a Frances Yates Fellow at the Warburg) work investigates calendrical and agricultural portrayals, with a particular focus on the olive tree, exploring their crossroads with art, science, intellectual traditions, and material culture.
In this blog, Delia tells us more about her experience of being a fellow at the Institute and how her time researching at the Warburg culminated in a two day conference exploring Early Modern soils.
My Time at the Warburg Institute
I had the tremendous opportunity to be part of the vibrant community of scholars at the Warburg Institute with a Frances Yates Fellowship, awarded to conduct my research on the imagery and imaginary of the olive tree and oil in sixteenth-century Tuscany (October 2022–June 2023).
The Warburg has been a place of discoveries and encounters, whether with books, images, and ideas or with people. A large diversity of events represented sites for learning and conversation. I presented my findings in one of these occasions, and the stimulating discussion opened new, exciting avenues for my work. The unique multifaceted view promoted by the Institute, as well as conversations with Miglietti, Tresch, Taylor, Duits, Burnett, and many others, moved my interests forward towards the history of science, and intellectual and environmental studies, and inspired me to adopt a holistic approach. The olive became a lens onto exploring broader attitudes towards classical knowledge, nature, art, and artisanship in the late sixteenth century. The Warburg has deeply marked my way of thinking, by pushing me to look beyond the obvious, and to make connections across different objects and domains of culture, traditionally considered separately.
‘Fertile Furrows’: A Two-Day Conference on Early Modern Soils
Ideas Behind the Conference
The Warburg fellowship presented a fantastic occasion to organise an international virtual conference entitled ‘Fertile Furrows: Ruling and (Re-)Working Soil in the Early Modern Period,’ between the 27 and 28 of June 2023. Cross-disciplinary approaches at the heart of the Warburg guided two days of conversations on ideas, uses, and representations of soils in the Early Modern period.
The idea of bringing the premodern soils to the centre of the intellectual discussions happening at the Warburg was born at first from my interest in Italian Renaissance agricultural representations. It was, in fact, during one of my visits to the Warburg Photographic Collection, while still a doctoral student at Warwick University, that my attention was first turned to the soil. When examining folders of precious iconographic material, I came across a peasant spreading manure with a fork from atop a wagon in the bas-de-page of an early sixteenth-century manuscript treatise pertaining to Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua (r. 1484–1519). I began then to investigate what happened in this period to encourage a learned and politico-economic interest in the soil and the improvement of its fertility, so profound that it impacted the worlds of images and ideas.
When reflecting on matters of soil one cannot ignore the contemporary relevance of this subject. We are today experiencing more than ever the negative effects of highly industrial-intensive agricultural practices and chemical fertilisers on climate change, soil depletion, and loss of biodiversity. But the attention to soil fertility and degradation is not unique to contemporary concerns. Since farming is one of the oldest forms of culture, soil fertility has been at the centre of human thought from its earliest civilizations.
In a Golden mythical Age recounted by Hesiod, Vergil and Ovid, or its Christian counterpart, the Garden of Eden, the abundance of the earth was such that the plough did not need to break the land for nature to generate its fruits. The image used for the poster of the conference represented instead a different moment in the age of humanity, the so-called Silver Age. Accompanying the moral degradation of humankind was that of the soil, and the history that followed was marked by the need to restore its condition so that it produced food once more.
Knowledge on how to correct the natural complexion of the land was transmitted through classical treatises to the Early Modern period when it became an object of new studies and alchemical experimentations across Europe. The need to enhance the power and economy of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European states motivated efforts for land improvements. These gave rise to a new consciousness of the human capacity to transform and govern nature and justified violent interventions and appropriations of indigenous peoples’ lands.
All forms of life depend on soil, just as they depend on water and some of the papers looked at the interaction between these two elements. Soil sustains both natural and built environments. It affects the health and livelihood of local communities. At the same time, the soil is the subject of intervention by different actors: from workers, private landowners, centralized states, alchemists, and agronomists to the influx of Heavenly bodies. Furrows build myths, draw borders, house seeds, and change landscapes. Early Modern soils allow us to open wider windows to social, cultural, religious, and intellectual concerns that characterised the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both from European and Indigenous perspectives.
Despite increasing attention to soil science and theory in recent years, we missed a comprehensive view, bringing together our knowledge of the way in which Early Modern people thought about, represented, used, and interacted with soil. This conference attempted to do exactly that by addressing the topic of soil across geographical spaces from a wide breadth of disciplines. The Warburg represented the ideal place to hold these conversations, and the conference benefited from enormous administrative and intellectual support from the Institute.
The conference “Fertile Furrows” addressed five overarching topics, assembled in five respective panels across the two days of the event. We also had the luxury of three outstanding keynote lectures.
Foundational Soils: Myth, Politics, and Architecture
The first day privileged visuals and popular interactions with soils. The conversation started with “Foundational soils” as the basis for myths, politics, and architecture.
Furrows acquired apotropaic and propitiatory intents in Claudio Sagliocco’s (‘La Sapienza’ University of Rome) talk. Using historical, anthropological, and artistic sources, Sagliocco analysed the sacred gesture of furrowing from the foundation of the city of Rome by Romulus’s plough to Christian adaptations, still practised in Italian popular celebrations.
Remaining in the Italian space, art historian and soil activist Anna Cruse (University of Warwick) interpreted pastoral and propagandistic ideas of abundance in the tapestries of the Month's designed by Francesco Bachiacca for Eleonora and Cosimo I de’ Medici (1550s). Cruse reflected on the analogy between, on the one hand, painted natural growth and decay, and on the other hand, the tapestries’ organic materiality.
David Karmon (Holy Cross, Worcester, MA) argued that both farmers and builders relied on soil science. Painters and architectural thinkers explored the intersection of buildings with the earth. By giving agency to the soil in architecture, Karmon reconsidered habitual anthropocentric narratives.
Wet and Flooded Lands: Social, Scientific, and Artistic Interactions
“Wet and flooded lands” examined low social-economic classes in their interaction with seventeenth-century wetlands. Joe Crowdy (Oslo School of Architecture and Design) reconstructed Fenlanders’ perspectives on the benefits of perennial flooding in England. He read them alongside contemporaneous debates on Fen drainage, showcasing contrasting opinions on soil fertility.
Both Cowdy and Sarah W. Mallory (Harvard University) discussed the cultural, socio-economic, and ecologic impact of peat, a wetland soil. Mallory addressed the depiction of female peat labourers in Netherlandish art—most famously by Rembrandt—between lucrative figures and socially and artistically contested bodies.
The Wasteland as Fertile Ground for the Early Modern Imagination
Soil fruitfulness invited discussions on antagonistic forms. Christine Göttler’s (Universität Bern) keynote lecture engaged with barren landscape imagery as fertile ground for poetic, religious, and natural philosophical imagination. Through the alchemy of pigments, seventeenth-century Netherlandish painters recreated the rain of sulphur and fire that overthrew Sodom and its once fertile countryside.
Soil Management: Between Experience and Authority
The second day of the conference started by exploring “Soil Management” across different types of literary productions and practices, and across pan-European geographies. Ada Arendt (University of Oslo) examined the circulation of nutrients between fishponds and arable lands in German, English, and Polish Hausväterliteratur. Arendt understood the management of fishponds as a practice of care, engaging with notions of household, temporality, and territorial ecology.
Joana van de Löcht’s (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg) explored the German laus ruris poetry and its idealisation of country life between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Authors of this genre engaged with soil through readings, translations, and adaptations of Horace and Vergil’s works, rather than through experience.
Ana Duarte Rodrigues (University of Lisbon) noticed that Herrera’s Libro de Agricultura (1513) combined both Latin and Islamic authorities and practical knowledge. Like the human body, soil suffered from illnesses and Herrera published recipes for its amendment.
Chemistry and Land Improvement
Continuing this latter idea Christopher Halm (Deutsches Museum Munich / University of Regensburg) looked at the development of soil pharmacology between seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany. Chymists/physicians diagnosticated the soil’s fertility/infertility and applied chymical treatment to reduce labour.
Rising from the Bones of the Mighty Mother. Post-Diluvial Fertility and the Spontaneous Generation of Human Beings
Ivano Dal Prete’s (Yale University) keynote lecture brought us back to themes of world destruction, as well as to the topic of the fertility of flooded lands. Classical and post-classical thinkers explored ideas of periodical cataclysmic floods meant to restore primordial fertilities and renovate uncorrupted humanities. Human presence in the Americas, despite the lack of contact with Europe and its Biblical cosmography, confirmed theories of spontaneous generation from post-diluvial earth.
Colonial Soils and Indigenous Perspectives
In the last panel dedicated to colonial soils, Roberto Chauca (University of Sydney) looked at European encounters with the geography, bountiful nature, and waters of the Amazonia, seen as a possible location of the terrestrial Paradise.
Patrick Bottiger (Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio) introduced the ecological knowledge of native North American farmer-women in the context of the maize-based agriculture adopted around 1200 CE. Indigenous peoples saw humans and other-than-human forces as co-creators. Farming implied both empirical and spiritual practices. Ceremonies ensured life, seasonality, and the fertility of the earth.
Frances E. Dolan’s (University of California at Davis) keynote address synthesized Early Modern ways of imagining and promoting soil health through four figurations: the mouth (the hungry earth), the dunghill, the plough, and the community. Dolan ideally concluded the soil conversations by touching on some of the main arguments discussed: artistic rendering, reception of classical knowledge, primordial fertilities, types of soil amendments, non-human actors, indigenous encounters, and soil gendering and anthropomorphizing. Moreover, Dolan highlighted the way in which Early Modern attitudes enlighten current understandings and reactions to the soil crisis, as well as how the latter can inform our investigation of the past.
Soil: A Window unto the Early Modern Period
The conference showed how fertile the topic of Early Modern soil is in drawing together different spaces and contexts, sources, actors, approaches, and domains of knowledge. The latter include the histories of science and technology, national and indigenous histories, environmental history, and their ramifications on art history, history of ideas, history of poetry, and literature. “Fertile Furrows” showed soil as a growing field of study with new, exciting cross-disciplinary methodologies.
Soil allowed for wider reflections on the Early Modern period in its engagement with its past, with imagery and imaginary, with build environments, arts, and nature—in its various forms—with non-human actors, and other-than-human forces. My hope is that the “Fertile Furrows” conference will open new and exciting avenues of research and raise awareness about the importance and fragility of the ground beneath our feet.
Anca-Delia Moldovan was a Frances Yates Fellow at the Warburg Institute between October 2022 and June 2023. Her work investigates calendrical and agricultural representations (especially the olive tree) at the intersection of art, science, intellectual, and material cultures.
Delia gained her PhD in History of Art from the University of Warwick in 2020, and previously studied at the Universities of Florence (MA, History of Art) and Bucharest (BA, History). She received fellowships from the Newberry Library in Chicago; Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel; the Warwick Institute of Advanced Studies; and NIKI in Florence. She is currently an I Tatti Fellow, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence (2023/2024). Delia authored articles in the Rivista di Storia della Miniatura (2018); Renaissance and Reformation (2021), and Renaissance Quarterly (2024). Her forthcoming book Illustrating the Year: The Calendar in Northern Italy during the Late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries was awarded a Weiss-Brown Publication Subvention Award.