Italian Thought on COVID-19

“Italian Thought: Inside and Out,” a collaborative humanities graduate seminar taught by Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg in Spring 2020, was already underway when Italy and the U.S. successively became epicenters of the global coronavirus pandemic. As Italian philosophers and thinkers engaged in a rapid-fire analysis of the event and its implications, seminar participants and guest speakers explored those responses in turn. The ongoing collaborative project Italian Thought on COVID-19 features a series of essays and resources selected, translated, edited, and composed by seminar participants.

Introduction by Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.
When, in late February, a national and international debate exploded in reaction to an essay signed by Giorgio Agamben in the left-wing Il Manifesto, our seminar could not ignore the pandemic devastating Italy, nor the theoretical implications of this debate, implications that put into play the terminology that we had been studying together and that now took on renewed and urgent meanings: “life,” “immunity,” “biopolitics.” Read more.


Apocalypse Live: Italian Media in the Time of COVID-19 by Mariam Aboukathir, Nicholas Andersen, and Katherine Contess
While current media consumption favors on-demand viewing, the pandemic has created a specific need for live events, from the masses and blessings of Pope Francis to the “Music for Hope” of singer Andrea Bocelli. Livestreaming mediates a conception of life and a representation of global community in a time of crisis. Read more.


Heretical Reflections by Sergio Benvenuto.
Translated by F. S. Ciccone and Andrea Sartori.
Every day our televisions remind us that we are in the midst of an unprecedented event, one that will leave nothing unchanged. Italian psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto offers a disenchanted counter-narrative. According to Benvenuto, true revolutions are not so easily televised. They unfold gradually, over years, and, as such, they exceed the limits of an “event.” Read more.

Take Care: Society of Care and Self-determination Income by Cristina Morini.
Translated by Francesca Zambon and edited by Julie Dind and Katia Rozenberg. Illustration by Katia Rozenberg.
COVID-19 reveals the gap between an imagined society of (caring) mothers and state structures that make people endure distance and die in solitude. In the era of the coronavirus, journalist and essayist Cristina Morini writes, an individual, unconditional income, is a condition for true self-determination. Read more.

Life Beyond the Pandemic by Non Una di Meno.
Introduced by Sara Colantuono and Geophrey Darrow.
The invisibility of women and care workers has left them unprotected as the pandemic unfolds. The writers of the feminist collective Non Una di Meno contend that this violence and exploitation cannot be separated from questions of colonialism, environmental exploitation, and wealth inequality writ large. They advocate for an ethics of care that takes up economic independence as a vital instrument in the struggle against these injustices. Read more.

What Can “Remaining” Mean Today? by Vito Teti.
Translated by Morris Karp and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.
In the age of absolute mobility, the coronavirus crisis has suddenly forced most people into a condition of immobility. Anthropologist Vito Teti outlines an idea of what “to live,” “to stay,” and “to remain” in a place can mean in this emergency. Read more.

Coronavirus, That Place We All Call Home: Staying in Necessity and Responsibility by Vito Teti.
Translated by Morris Karp and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.
During the coronavirus pandemic, most people have been forced to stay at home. Anthropologist Vito Teti reflects on the ambivalent meaning of the home in the history and culture of southern Italy, exploring a possible new meaning for the word “home.” Read more.

The Iatrogenic Society by Raffaele Alberto Ventura.
Translated by Pablo a Marca with proofreading, copyediting, and paratext by Alessandro Moghrabi.
Nature created the virus, but it is the technological system that transformed it into an epidemic. In this way, the virus issues its extreme blackmail: either sacrifice bare life or accelerate towards dystopia. Read more.


Plague Literatures. A dossier assembled by Geophrey Darrow and F. S. Ciccone. The response to crisis and disease is thought not only in philosophy but also, and just as importantly, in literature. Texts by Boccaccio, Isabella Whitney, John Donne, Daniel Defoe, Albert Camus, and Don DeLillo can help us think the present moment. Read more.

Reading the Decameron in the COVID-19 Era. On May 26, 2020, Morris Karp and Francesca Zambon interviewed Brown University faculty members Ronald Martinez and Massimo Riva on the renewed interest in Boccaccio’s Decameron in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the historical parallels between the 14th century and the present time. Watch.

Furnace and Fugue: A Q&A with Tara Nummedal

September 1, 2020

The open-access publication of Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier’s “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) with Scholarly Commentary by Brown University faculty member Tara Nummedal and independent scholar Donna Bilak is a landmark for Brown University’s Digital Publications Initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Tara Nummedal also recently taught a collaborative humanities graduate seminar on premodern art-science with History colleague Harold Cook and in partnership with faculty at the University of Minnesota.

What made collaboration particularly valuable for the digital publication of this 17th-century text?

Furnace and Fugue is a study and edition of a 1618 printed book, Atalanta fugiens, which rereads the Classical myth of Atalanta as an alchemical recipe for making the philosophers’ stone. The book is a collection of fifty emblems, each of which contains multiple parts: a motto and epigram in German and Latin, a copperplate etching, the score of a fugue for three voices, and a Latin discourse that expands on the emblem’s themes. Earlier studies of Atalanta fugiens focused on a single element of the book: the music, for example, or the discourses. We wanted to examine Atalanta fugiens as a multimedia artifact, as a book that depends on the synergies among its parts. We quickly realized, however, that if in 1618 Maier could reasonably expect a single reader to have the wide-ranging erudition and skill-set to engage his book — that is, knowledge of not only Latin, German, and music, but also an understanding of mathematics, poetry, alchemy, art, astronomy, and music — modern disciplinary boundaries have fractured our expertise. In short, we could only make sense of Atalanta fugiens through a multidisciplinary collaboration. And so Furnace and Fugue emerged out of a series of workshops and conversations among scholars of early modern print, music, art, philosophy, mathematics, and alchemy, as well as rare book curators and singers, where we shared our specific expertise and sought out connections between the parts of Atalanta fugiens that we would have missed otherwise. Once we started creating Furnace and Fugue, of course, we embarked on another kind of collaboration, working also with technologists, graphic designers, and digital humanists. 

Credits for the project extend to digital editing, design, text and music transcription, singers, audio recording, photography, and videography. To what extent did these layers of collaboration inform your conception of the project and its final outcome?

Donna Bilak and I knew from the outset that we wanted Furnace and Fugue to be interdisciplinary and also to include music recordings. The final form of the book, however, absolutely depended on the ideas, experience, and expertise of the programmers, designers, and digital humanists who worked with us on the project. Elli Mylonas’s long experience with text encoding was crucial to the evolution of the edition, for example, as was the recording and performance experience of our contributor Loren Ludwig, who helped us realize the music. The collections feature, which allows readers to assemble their own collections of emblems from Atalanta fugiens, came out of conversations with designers Crystal Brusch and Studio Rainwater as a way to better integrate the two parts of the project — the edition and the scholarly essays. Meanwhile, Digital Scholarship Editor Allison Levy brought her own editorial experience to the project and helped keep all of the moving parts on track. The “authorship” of Furnace and Fugue, in other words, mirrors that of the original 1618 book. It took many people to create Atalanta fugiens, from its named author Michael Maier, to the printers, funders, and artisans who produced books for the publishing firm, to the unacknowledged sources of Maier’s ideas, images, and music. Although Donna Bilak and I appear as coeditors, Furnace and Fugue required just as many (if not more!) hands and minds to bring it to fruition. 

Drawing from this experience, what would you say to someone interested in embarking on a collaborative research project?

Buckle up! Once we really got Furnace and Fugue underway, it quickly developed its own momentum and swept us all in. It was exciting, but so different from the way I wrote my other books (which is to say, alone, in archives, and at my computer, and at my own pace). With Furnace and Fugue, each of the parts depended on the others, so we all had to work at a collective pace in order to coordinate these parts. I would also say that a collaborative research project requires extraordinary openness, curiosity, and flexibility. I had to learn to rethink my own vision again and again, both in response to technical challenges or opportunities, and also to incorporate the ideas and priorities of my co-editor Donna Bilak and the other contributors. 

What were the biggest challenges along the way and what did you learn from them?

Collaboration is rewarding, but it is also difficult. It can be challenging to understand and even appreciate other scholars’ disciplines, expertise, and perspectives. I learned that practice can help bridge that gap, as can exploring the same object (in this case, Atalanta fugiens) together. But beyond this, I would say that co-creating a piece of scholarship also requires giving up a bit of ego, as well as our conventional idea of “authorship.” Outside of the individual essays that Donna Bilak and I each contributed to Furnace and Fugue, much of the book was created collaboratively, and it is difficult now to disentangle who contributed what. This can make the book somewhat illegible in a profession that still prizes individual authorship. Many of us involved in the project were in a position to take this risk, but I am not sure it’s for everyone, especially those on a conventional tenure path — at least not yet.

Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier’s “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) with Scholarly Commentary is published by the University of Virginia Press and includes texts, images, musical transcriptions, and audio recordings.

Browse the digital edition.