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Republics on the Stage of Kings. Representing Republican State Power in the Europe of Absolute Monarchies (late 16th - early 18th century)

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - RISK (Republics on the Stage of Kings. Representing Republican State Power in the Europe of Absolute Monarchies (late 16th - early 18th century))

Reporting period: 2021-04-01 to 2022-09-30

When we think of the so-called Ancien Régime, i.e. the period of the European history between the Renaissance and the French revolution (late sixteenth - late eighteenth century), we usually believe that Europe has been marked by the rise of a unique political model: the absolute monarchy. Hence, our ideas about early modern cultural production, which includes poetry, art, and theatre, tend to focus either on the context of this political model (the court) or on his leading actor (the king). This ERC project studies an alternative genealogy for Europe’s identity, for it analyzes how power and society were represented in the European states that had no king to celebrate: the Italian city-states that maintained their independence throughout this timeframe (Venice, Genoa, Lucca), the Republic of Ragusa (today in southernmost Croatia) and the Dutch Republic.
In early modern Europe the representation of power is a comprehensive audio-visual expression, pivoting on several media. Writing merges not only with music, visual arts, and performance, but also with technological devices such as smoke, fountains, and fireworks; therefore, a true multimedia experience is created. There is no doubt that a sweeping metamorphosis affects this experience after the end of the Renaissance, and this transformation primarily concerns the figure of the king. During the Ancien Régime, the king goes on stage, as he plays the ancient hero (e.g. Caesar, Hercules) or the pagan deity (e.g. Jupiter, Apollo). The king appropriates mythological and literary characters to exploit the force of their cultural legacy, and, in so doing, his dramatic persona - i.e. his figure as presented to and perceived by others - comes to be the focus of a large propaganda campaign. Ferdinand III of Hapsburg, for instance, writes and publishes a collection of Italian poems to magnify his own devotion, while Louis XIII of France dances court ballets in the shoes of ancient gods and epic commanders. Thus, a direct link connecting the king and his subjects is established, as shown by the extensive expansion of the cult of the monarchy in Baroque arts, literature, and court etiquette.
However, there is no king to celebrate in the republican states. Their figureheads, the doge (Venice, Genoa), the stadtholder (the Dutch republic), the rector (Ragusa), and the gonfalonier (Lucca), have neither a divine right to invoke nor an absolutist persona to stage. When they fill their leading political position, they are not consecrated, but simply elected. They do not dress in the over-the-top mythological disguises worn by the king, because their bodies cannot fit the body politic of the state. In this respect, early modern republics seem to have little to do with the political ritualization of absolute monarchies.
Yet, are we sure that republican culture and civic ritual are not affected by the metamorphosis shaping the image of kingship during the so-called Ancien Régime? Republics eschewed any vestiges of monarchy to state their independence; still, they could not but refer to the same historical framework, marked by spectacular displays of ceremonial pomp, magnificent and clockwork rituals, and centralizing power.
In order to address these issues, the project studies republican pageantry and cultural production in their multimedia appearance, and takes into account a multidisciplinary corpus of sources, including both texts and images. By comparing the representation of kingship and the staging of the republican state, we do not merely expand the area of inquiry - from absolute monarchy to seventeenth-century republicanism - but we rather open up a whole set of new questions. To what extent does the absolutist framework influence the display of republican ideals such as freedom, equality, and the common good? How may the rhetorical devices of baroque culture extoll a power that does not apply to someone (the king) but rather to something (the republic and republican virtues)?
By answering these questions, the project not only aims at better understanding European history; it also intends to help us grasping a present that is often hard to decipher. An increased awareness of Europe’s identity as a mosaic in which different inheritances and traditions intersect to form an integrated whole is essential to face the resurgence of nationalism, populism and Euroscepticism nowadays. In this respect, early modern republicanism embodies an unconventional way of thinking about the rise of nations and representative politics, for it transmits a unique repertoire of myths and ideals, such as toleration, civic morality, and multiculturalism. Through its large-scale comparative approach to European culture, this project highlights the richness, the complexity and the heterodoxy of our cultural heritage, and suggests that every national history is the product of transnational encounters. Our shared heritage is - and has always been - both local and European, both monarchical and republican, as shown, with reference to the project’s scope, by the centuries-old interactions between Italy, Croatia and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, or by the extensive exchange of information, books and ideas between Amsterdam and Venice. By shedding new light on these exchanges, the project wants to boost awareness about Europe’s unique identity as a patchwork of entangled images and memories.
In the past thirty months, the project has gathered, ordered, and analyzed a wide range of republican displays of state power, with respect to every European republic that maintained its independence between the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century: Venice, Genoa, Lucca, Ragusa, and the Dutch republic. This means investigating an interdisciplinary corpus, including both texts and images: literary works like panegyrics, laudatory treatises, and civic orations, but also tragedies and libretti staging Republican figures and values; paintings and engravings, portraits, or etchings displaying elections and ceremonies; and finally, written accounts of public festivities, both as regards archive documents and printed literary sources. Besides, this means adopting a long chronology, which is essential for the project. By mapping the internal shifts and diversity within early modern republicanism, we strive for an overall reassessment of the century and a half that goes from the end of the Renaissance to the beginning of the Enlightenment.
Working on a similar corpus is very challenging. Indeed, if we put on the map these two guidelines – interdisciplinary approach and long chronology – the state of the art becomes very difficult to handle, because of the categories and definitions used by one or another field of study. One gets the impression that the lines of research about the representation of power in early modern Europe have never crossed. They have rather fed diverse conceptual areas that have been sealed so far, without ever communicating. This mainly depends on disciplinary boundaries, like the clear-cut separation that is normally drawn between republics and monarchies. The enclosure of languages, centuries and disciplines, which remains a salient feature of academia, has made it hard to examine the topic in a more comprehensive way, that is, by investigating its changes over time and its variations in space.
This has been the main objective of the project during its first phase. To undermine these sectoral boundaries, a multidisciplinary research team has been formed. As of November 2020, the team consists of seven members. Aside from the PI, there are four postdoctoral researchers and two PhD student. Their background and primary expertise concern fields as diverse as political, intellectual, and cultural history, drama studies, literary studies, and book history. This strong interdisciplinary approach is mirrored by the first outcomes of the project in terms of publications (one paper on a peer-reviewed journal and two book chapters) and by the many events that have been organized since April 2018, including five internal seminars, nine external seminars, three larger-scale workshops and two single-track international conferences. Moreover, the group was responsible for organizing some successful nonacademic dissemination events: a modern staging of a seventeenth-century tragedy and a local history festival, held both in 2019 and in 2020.
In order to take into account such a multi-layered topic as the representation of republican state power in the Europe of absolute monarchies, RISK is developing new interpretative frameworks, by connecting, combining and interpolating different disciplines and scientific approaches. This is the main aim of the second phase of the project, which is currently in progress. Team members are integrating their case studies, which they studied separately in the first phase of the project, within a comprehensive transnational framework. To achieve this objective, they are working together, comparing their results, highlighting national specificities, and stressing wider commonalities in relation to qualitative aspects such as rhetorical devices, figural processes, and iconology.
This wide-ranging comparative work is expected to lead to the publication of several articles (eight papers have been already submitted and accepted, both on peer-review journals and in edited volumes). Moreover, three edited volumes, inaugurating a new series co-directed by the PI for a major international publisher, will be printed in 2021-2022. The editorial plan of this series has been carefully outlined, according to the composition of the team and the scientific structure of the project. The three books are published in gold open access, focus on RISK’s main case studies (Venice, Genoa, and the Dutch republic), and have two editors each: the PI and the postdoc in charge of the case study concerned. The workshops and the symposia organized within the project contributed to shape the table of contents of these publications. However, we are not talking of proceedings, but rather of fully autonomous books taking stock of the scientific activities of the group. Indeed, these three edited volumes share the same methodological approach and enhance communication between the disciplinary fields, by including contributions from very influential scholars that work on the same topic, but operate from different methodological perspectives (performance studies, intellectual history, literary studies, and art history). This allow examining each case study in its multimedia appearance, which has not been done yet.
Finally, a shared monograph will be written by the research group. All team members will work jointly on the rhetorical motifs and the ideological patterns of early modern republicanism, in order to publish a ground-breaking volume crossing different disciplines, dealing at once with all the case studies, and addressing in the most complete and radical way the questions presented by the project.