As a first-year PhD student at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, University of Warwick, I felt truly fortunate to be selected to present a paper at the Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference at Chicago’s Newberry Library. In my PhD project, I investigate the development of the town atlas genre in early modern Europe, with Joan Blaeu’s Theatrum Italiae, the series of town atlases the Amsterdam publisher dedicated to the Italian peninsula in the 1660s, as main focal point. Originally starting to appear alongside city descriptions, travel guides and related cartographical works, the emergence of the town atlas is connected to contemporary theories and practices of travel, and to social trends such as the peregrinatio academica and Grand Tour. In the works, multiple perspectives on the cities of Europe are presented through a combination of city depictions, maps and texts; it is precisely because of their hybrid nature, that town atlases could serve a function that was, to a certain extent, similar to travel. The works were, however, not meant to be taken or used abroad in a practical sense, but could rather, as aide-mémoire, remind a traveller of a past journey, or help imagine or construct places that the viewer would never visit physically.
In my paper, Italy from the Armchair: The Production Process of Blaeu’s Theatrum Italiae (1663), which I presented as part of an excellent panel on print culture, entitled Negotiating the Production Process of Material Objects, I explored the ways in which the Blaeus’ use of Italian contacts to accumulate textual and visual material for the atlas series has contributed to the outstanding quality of the Theatrum. Both within my panel and at the conference at large, I found myself in great company: it was stimulating and inspiring to receive feedback in a truly international and interdisciplinary context, attend papers and meet other researchers working on topics related to the early modern world, from a very diverse range of angles. My time in Chicago furthermore enabled me to study a great number of precious Blaeu maps, depicting various Italian regions, cities, and the islands of Ischia and Elba, at the Newberry Library. I am especially indebted to the people at Special Collections who helped me make the most of my time by allowing me to consult ‘extra’ materials even after the official time for setting up requests had terminated!
After the conference had ended, I visited the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library to consult material relevant for the first chapter of my thesis, in which I treat the genesis of the atlas format: a rare copy of Antonio Lafréri’s Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (c. 1570). The Speculum is a collection of engravings of Rome and Roman antiquities gathered under a title page printed by Lafréri, the core of which consists of prints published by Lafréri himself. The University of Chicago’s Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae contains nearly 1,000 prints and is the largest in the world.
It was incredible to be able to consult such unique material, first produced in 16th Rome and 17th century Amsterdam, in Chicago and thereby trace physically the ‘journeys’ these maps and prints, which centuries earlier would have allowed Europeans to travel mentally, have made to reach modern day collectors and researchers. Other wonderful experiences during my trip included a refreshing Sunday morning run, during which I admired the particular beauty of Chicago’s skyline covered in fog, and a visit to the city’s Art Institute.
Being able to travel to Chicago and participate in such a vibrant conference has been an unforgettable experience, and a great contribution to my academic development. I am deeply grateful to the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance for their very generous support, without which all this wouldn’t have been possible. I would like to explicitly express my gratitude to the Director of the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, Ingrid De Smet, and to Jayne Brown, for all their help and valuable advice. A big ‘thank you’ goes out to Karen Christianson and the organisers of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference 2016 as well. I am convinced that in my future career as a researcher I will be able to benefit in many ways from this priceless experience.