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Department of History

Society (and politics) on stage: The History Department welcomes Carlotta Sorba

Carlotta Sorba has joined the EUI Department of History as Part-time Professor of Cultural History. In an interview, she describes her research interests and her expectations while at the EUI.

06 November 2023 | Research

Sorbia_PT Prof_HEC News

Please introduce yourself. What is your background, and how did you choose to specialise in cultural history?

I obtained my first degree from the University of Bologna and my PhD from the University of Turin, after two scholarships at the Centre de Sociologie Urbaine at the French CNRS in Paris. Initially, my field of research was in fact the government of cities in France and Italy between the 19th and 20th centuries, from the joint perspective of the history of urban spaces and the history of local institutions. Almost by chance, during my doctoral research, I came across a very rich set of archived documents about theatres in many Italian cities, which curiously had been studied very little. This gave me the idea of a new topic of research: theatre spaces and their use in the first half of the 19th century, when the Italian peninsula was literally awash with theatre buildings used both as spaces for socialising and spaces for entertainment. From the very beginning, my research thus combined social (spaces, publics, circuits) and cultural (representations, imaginaries, narratives) approaches. In the meantime, having become a professor at the University of Padua, I worked intensely to enhance and support cultural history studies in Italy. In 2009, after launching a course in History and Cultural Theory in Padua, together with colleagues from the Universities of Bologna, Pisa, and Venice, I founded the Inter-University Centre for Cultural History (CSC). With other centres of cultural history in France and Switzerland, we then created a European Network of Cultural History Centres called METIS.

Your current research focuses on the actress Adelaide Ristori as one of the first global celebrities. Could you tell us more about her, and how her story helps us understand the evolving relationship between cultural production (especially theatre) and society?

After moving away from it for a while, I recently returned to the world of theatre and started to study this extraordinary actress' artistic journey, which can be investigated in depth thanks to the existence of a large personal archive. Very early in her career, with great determination and personal commitment, Adelaide Ristori decided to build her profile as a global celebrity. Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse would also do the same some twenty years later, in a situation where the world's theatrical circuits were much more solid and experienced. Ristori's is therefore a truly significant case for investigating, through a female figure, the functioning of theatrical mobility and its strong connections with the transformations of the media regime of the time. For example, she was one of the first actresses to use photography as a means to disseminate her own image globally. Through her, it is also interesting to reconstruct the transnational pathways in the construction of 'Italianness', a process which increasingly turned out to be open and mutable, affected as it was by different contexts.

Another focus of your recent research has been political objects in 19th-century Europe, especially focusing on Risorgimento Italy. Could you describe a specific object that caught your attention?

By and large, my main research area has been the cultural history of 19th-century politics, with a particular focus on its theatrical and performance aspects. Within this framework, I recently devoted my attention to political objects that played a large part in the renewal of the communicative and symbolic practices of the 19th-century political sphere. Through them, we can study the politicisation of the daily life of men and women, looking from the grassroots level and developing a material history of politics that still has interesting manifestations even nowadays.

Among the objects I have studied, the one I am most fond of is certainly the Ernani hat, a wide-brimmed hat with a long feather worn by many Italian patriots and taken from a Verdi opera that was extremely popular at the time. It is actually a hat that in 1848 was also found elsewhere in Europe with different names, as a gesture challenging the established order and as a sign of recognition. It fascinated me as an example of the plurality of exchanges that were then possible between theatre, romantic literature, and society.

What are your first impressions and/or immediate expectations as you join the EUI? Can you tell us something about the courses you are teaching and your projects in the near future in the History Department?

Dividing my time between the EUI and the University of Padua, where I continue to teach part-time, is undoubtedly a challenging but also exciting experience, convinced as I am that it can add greatly to my teaching skills and enrich my intellectual path. I therefore started this new adventure with great enthusiasm and the initial responses have been very positive. For several years no cultural history seminar had been held at the EUI History Department, hence the large attendance we had at the seminar organised together with EUI History Professor, Monika Baar, and with the invaluable support of Max Weber Fellow, Karolina Koziura, where we focused on what the cultural turn in historiography has meant and what legacy it has left. It is a complex story, which I have partly lived through, and on which I have tried to reflect in many different ways, that also forms the core of my research work. It is a journey open to many suggestions and which I am sure can establish fruitful exchanges and collaborations with many colleagues working in related areas, such as intellectual history, gender history, history of emotions or sexuality.

Last update: 06 November 2023

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