Paddi Alice Benson

Each month, we offer the spotlight to one of our funded researchers to exhibit their research projects in more detail.

The Featured Researcher for November 2022 was Paddi Alice Benson.

HEI The University of Edinburgh.

Paddi Alice Benson

Venice, ‘an inky palimpsest’

In September 2021 I was invited to take up a residency placement at the Vittore Branca International Centre for the Study of Italian Culture with the Giorgio Cini Foundation in Venice. And in December 2021 I was awarded the SGSAH Visiting Doctoral Research Fund to help cover the placement. The residency itself ran between the end of February and the beginning of April 2022. During this time, I carried out a sequence of (field)works, as a part of my PhD, concerned with ‘(mis)navigating island topoi’.  What follows is a brief description of this study and the materials that I came across, both in archives and on-site visits.

The island-as-purgatory

During the second year of my PhD (2020-21), I explored the island-as-purgatory through the works of Kafka (In the Penal Colony), Chekhov (Sakhalin Island), Heaney (Station Island), and Dante (Purgatorio).  Central to this island topos is the idea or place of quarantine, the carceral and the liminal or ‘limit condition’.  To foreground and expand the purgatorial chapter in my PhD, my research project at the Cini Foundation began with looking at Venice as the historic origin (or kernel) of quarantine; from the development of leper colonies on the edge of cities, to the 30-day isolation of ships in Dubrovnik, to the Venetian Lazaretti and borrowed defensive architectures ‘at sea’.

Archives, sources and site visits

I consulted three critical bodies of material: historic maps of Venice and its ‘other’ island territories held within the Correr Archive (in particular written portolans, portolan charts and portolan atlases); Renaissance isolari (island books) together with other illustrative / chorographic works from the same period in the Cini Library and Correr Museum (specifically, Jacopo de’ Barbari’s ‘View of Venice’); and illustrative records regarding the construction of ‘artificial’ islands around Venice and the defensive works of the ‘Serenissima’, in Archivio di Stato di Venezia and the Cini Photo Library. These library-based studies were carried out in parallel to a series of site visits that included: Lazaretto Nuovo, San Lazzaro degli Armeni, San Francesco del Deserto, Isola de San Michele, Isola di Ghetto, Torcello and Verona.

Since then, and during my time in Venice I have come across a number of other materials as well as those outlined in the proposed study that has helped situate a part of my ‘thesis itinerary’ within this inky city of many island territories, both real and mythologised.