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Living Languages

The blog for the Institute of Modern Languages Research

Liberty, Irreverence and the Place of Women in Early Modern Italian Culture: a one-day Symposium in Honour of Letizia Panizza

Simone Testa reports:

The event that took place at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London, on 11 May 2018 celebrated a scholar whose research has always been marked by a strong multi-disciplinary character, Letizia Panizza. Participants from Europe, North America and Britain formed a very stimulating group of speakers and audience of three generations of scholars who were Letizia Panizza’s long-time friends and colleagues, and the first and second generation inspired by Panizza’s research interests.

The image on the conference poster represents the emblem of one of the Academies dear to Letizia Panizza, the Incogniti of Venice. It shows a mountain and a river, possibly the river Nile, with the motto ‘ex ignoto, notus’ (known from the unknown). As organisers, we thought that this emblem was applicable also to Letizia Panizza’s scholarly mission, not only because of her interest in the group of writers known as the Incogniti. The emblem also describes Letizia’s approaches to research, her deep knowledge of and commitment to understanding the true meaning of texts, and the scholarly background that has characterised her contributions.

Jane Everson, a long-time colleague of Letizia Panizza, and Stefano Jossa, a senior lecturer at Royal Holloway, opened the day. Everson recounted when Panizza organised two very successful events almost single-handedly, one on Renaissance Women, and another on Libertines. Jossa paid tribute to Panizza’s generosity in also sharing her knowledge through convivial moments, very much in the footsteps of the classical tradition of which she is a renowned scholar.

Letizia Panizza herself set the friendly and scholarly tone of the Symposium when she addressed Stephen Clucas, her former PhD student, just before he started his tribute, by saying: “Remember, Stephen, I know that an encomium is meant to be full of lies!” In his remarks, Clucas underlined the breadth and depth of Panizza’s contributions to scholarship: her early interests in Lorenzo Valla and humanism; the lives of Renaissance philosophers; and her groundbreaking commitment to give a voice to Early-Modern women. Within this very broad frame, Panizza has explored all sorts of discourses and literary genra: satire, poetry, political treatises, polemical arguments and philosophical debates.

The Space of Women in Early Modern Italy could take the shape of the intimacy of domestic piety (Abigail Brundin) or the literary efforts of a mother who wrote behavioural instructions to her daughter. As for spaces strictu sensu, Sandra Cavallo illustrated how the rooms of a palace, designed to host the family of Cardinal Spada in Rome, included spaces for women, which were surprisingly more subject to intrusion by males than male rooms, despite the narrative of the protection of women’s honour in those centuries.

The panel on poetry offered a variety of topics, spanning from Alison Brown’s new research on thus-far neglected poems by Piero de’ Medici the Unfortunate. Brown commented on the network of people surrounding Piero, including Poliziano, who was among the first readers of Piero’s poetry. Amelia Papworth explained the contradictory attitude of the poetess Laura Terracina towards a giant of Italian literature such as Ariosto. Still on Ariosto’s circulation, Ambra Anelotti illustrated the literary adaptation of the poet’s characters in the epistolary genre, in the decades between the end of the sixteenth century and middle of the seventeenth.

The roles of individuals were the focus of Unn Irene Aasdalene’s paper, which illustrated the way in which the part of the female protagonist Diotima, in Plato’s Symposium, was then used and refashioned in Ficino’s dialogue De amore. John Sellars argued that the fashion of writing philosophers’ lives in Renaissance culture matched the widespread fascination with conceiving philosophy as a way of life. Michael Allen closed the panel with reflections on Platonic ideas.
In the last panel, Marta Fattori illustrated a case study of censorship of Machiavelli in eighteenth-century Rome, where a Master of the Sacred Palace aptly defined the Florentine Secretary as an author of ambiguous faith, whose work either enthused readers or made them utterly condemn his theories. Dilwyn Knox referred to Panizza’s interest in Giordano Bruno and his Spaccio de la bestia trionfante, proposing that Bruno’s recurring maxim ‘Nature is God in Things’ was actually an expression of the coherence of his philosophy. Finally, there was a return to Panizza’s interest in the voices of Early Modern Italian women. Francesca Medioli discussed her own detailed historical research into Tarabotti’s life during the years between her taking the veil, and her connection with the prince of the Incogniti academy GiovanFrancesco Loredan.

Finally, Stephen Clucas thanked several people and institutions for their help at various stages in the organisation of the successful event emphasising the importance of Panizza’s contributions, and which attracted a large audience and saw lively debates at the end of each panel. Many thanks to the generous sponsorship of four institutions: the Society of Italian Studies; the Society for Renaissance Studies; The University of Cambridge; and Royal Holloway University of London.


Organisers: Simone Testa, Stephen Clucas, Stefano Jossa, Abigail Brundin, Susan Haskins and Chiara Bechis.

Simone Testa, International Studies Institute, Florence

British Academy plenary round table: Does Modern Languages have a disciplinary identity?

Naomi Wells reports on the British Academy plenary round table hosted at the ‘Uncommon Ground: Modern Languages and Cultures for the 21st Century’ conference held at Durham University on 16-18 April 2018


Last month, Durham’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures hosted a conference aimed at addressing ‘the pressing ethical imperatives for the study of Modern Languages and Cultures as a diverse and yet coherent discipline in a world which is increasingly – and acrimoniously – divided’. The landmark conference was also intended to act as a platform for establishing a regular UK-based gathering of the Modern Languages research community to promote the productive exchange of ideas across language and subject boundaries. Central to the conference’s vision for the future direction of the discipline, as articulated by Durham’s Head of School Janet Stewart, was the idea not of promoting uniformity but rather of highlighting a commitment to recognising but not reifying disciplinary diversity.

The closing panel of the conference, sponsored by the British Academy and chaired by Nigel Vincent, addressed more directly the ongoing questions and debates surrounding the disciplinary identity of Modern Languages. Speakers were drawn from across languages and institutions to share their experiences and reflections on the definition of Modern Languages as a discipline. Neil Kenny (Oxford), Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy, opened the panel with his own working definition: ‘The study of languages and of their associated cultures and societies from simultaneously the inside and the outside’. Kenny foregrounded the interaction of the insider and outsider perspectives as central to our approach and analysis in Modern Languages, thus emphasising the importance of a heightened awareness both of our ‘embodied’ immersion in the languages we study and of our linguistic, cultural and/or geographical mooring in the UK.

Jonathan Long (Durham) equally emphasised the need for a broad and inclusive definition for Modern Languages, explaining how no discipline is required to agree on a single shared methodology or object of study. Instead, Long emphasised that what holds us together are the shared practices of knowledge exchange, for example through subject associations and conferences such as this. Paul Starkey (Durham) followed by offering distinct definitions of ‘a discipline’, contrasting the definition based on shared faculties, subject associations and journals, with the idea of a discipline as a form of authority imposed through rigorous training and potentially elements of ‘policing’ of disciplinary boundaries. Starkey also highlighted the Eurocentrism common to definitions of Modern Languages in the UK, with Arabic, his own language of specialisation, until recently located elsewhere in Oriental or Area Studies departments.

Michelle MacLeod (Aberdeen) drew attention to Gaelic and other Celtic languages which equally often lack prominence in Modern Languages discussions. MacLeod explained how the minoritised status of these languages had meant significant funds were now available for language policy related research, but this needed to be balanced in the curriculum with more traditional areas of study such as literature. Gerda Wielander (Westminster) also highlighted the connections between the study of Chinese and political priorities, clarifying the distinction between Area or China Studies, where the language was often considered marginal, and Chinese Studies, where language learning and knowledge is central.

Wielander highlighted differing institutional definitions of Modern Languages, drawing on her own experiences in a post-92 university setting. Despite these differences, she emphasised the value and importance of sharing resources and skills across Modern Languages, and of a shared disciplinary identity to guard against the threat of being easily subsumed under other disciplines. Closing the panel, Charles Forsdick echoed the importance of external visibility and internal credibility for Modern Languages as a discipline, drawing attention to the risk of performing our disciplinary diversity as fragmentation. He also stressed the importance of developing a stronger sense of our disciplinary history beyond a focus only on contemporary events, mentioning the 1918 Leathes Report and Nicola McLelland’s work on the history of Modern Languages teaching in the UK. Bringing us back to Kenny’s proposed definition, Forsdick drew on the work of Mary Louise Pratt to highlight that central to Modern Languages research and teaching is the idea of ‘knowing languages and knowing the world through language’.

In sum, while the panel offered very distinct perspectives from across a range of languages, experiences and institutions, there was a shared emphasis on the value of articulating and communicating our disciplinary identity. Equally, the breadth of subjects covered and productive discussions held across the plenary sessions and panels I attended over the three days of the conference served to highlight the vibrancy and value of the work and debates which take place in the ‘uncommon ground’ across which Modern Languages scholars teach and research.

Naomi Wells, Post-Doctoral Research Associate (Translingual Communities, European Languages and Digital Humanities), IMLR



Changing countries and cultural identities – revisited

Eva-Maria Thüne was awarded a Miller Visiting Fellowship for 2017/18, taking up the fellowship from February to March 2018. She talks here about her research: 


The starting point for my research work at the IMLR in February/March this year was a major project of what was formerly the London Research Group for German Exile Studies and is now the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies (RCGAES): “Changing countries. The experience and achievement of German-speaking Exiles from Hitler in Britain from 1933 to today” (henceforward CC). This is the title of a book presented in 2002 produced by eight researchers (in alphabetical order): Marietta Bearman, Charmian Brinson, Anthony Grenville, Stefan Howald, Marian Malet, Jennifer Taylor, Irene Wells and Erna Woodgate). The book was the result of a study in Oral History based on 34 interviews with former refugees from Nazism living at the time of the interviews in the UK, belonging mainly to German-speaking families. These interviews were conducted from 1994 with the aim of preserving personal memories, analysing them and making them available for future research. This study has been, and still is, an inspiration for my own research, which is similarly based on a corpus of interviews with German-speaking refugees (mainly gathered during a Visiting Fellowship at Clare Hall Cambridge in 2017). Although the two interview corpora – that of “Changing countries” and mine – have much in common, my research aims in regard to the interviews are in fact quite different from those of the original CC project. Whereas their main aim seems to have been to establish the historical record, mine is much narrower and is firmly centred on the linguistic and cultural side of the experiences of the refugees. Apart from this, there are significant differences in the interviews themselves: my interviews were overwhelmingly done in German (whereas those of CC had been mainly in English. In addition, the interviewees in my project only partially overlap in terms of age with those of CC, mine being in many cases a generation younger).

During my stay at the RCGAES I started to analyse the 34 recorded and transcribed interviews available in the Archives of the Senate House Library. What I principally want to understand from my research is how linguistic repertoires are formed and how language/s have influenced the trajectory of the speakers’ lives and relationships within changing social contexts. From a methodological point of view, my research is based on the analysis of language biographies (cfr. Pavlenko 2007, Busch 2013/2017, Stevenson 2017).

Language biographies constitute one of the biographical approaches in multilingualism research and within this area there are in fact considerable differences in theoretical and methodological foundations. What language biographies most often consist of are accounts of an individual’s language development across their lifespan (Franceschini 2010) and include aspects such as language learning or the acquisition processes, the linguistic strategies which speakers use in different situations and the attitudes associated with these strategies. Thinking and speaking about one’s linguistic development or “upbringing” can help people to identify the role that different languages or different varieties have played in various stages of their lives; it can lead them to identify crucial events that have influenced their attitudes, as well as people who might have had a great influence on their attitudes to the languages and speech communities they are in contact with. Different studies in the language biographies tradition have employed different research designs (cfr. Krumm 2013, König 2014, et al.); some of them are based on live history research and narrative analysis and have shown how individuals continue to be aware of their heritage languages and see them as part of their identity (cfr. Betten 2010, Leonardi/Thüne/Betten 2016). This perception of linguistic continuity is very important because it helps to compensate for actual discontinuities in one’s personal biography (e.g. a change of location), which leave their traces in one’s memory in the same way as socio-political discontinuities (e.g. regime change). Perceived linguistic continuity may exist even where the heritage language has acquired problematic cultural and political associations. From this point of view the “lived experience of language/Spracherleben” (cfr. Busch 2017) is a key element in language biographies. The interviews of the Research Centre present a rich and multifaceted basis to focus these aspects.

Professor Eva-Maria Thüne, University of Bologna/Miller Visiting Fellow