An Interview with Diego Pirillo and Enza Perdichizzi (FBF 2021)

July 27, 2023

The study of the Republic of Letters, the pivotal period commonly considered to have invented “intellectuals” between the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has largely focused on European capitals and the male intellectual elite. Together with students at the Scuola Normale in Pisa, Diego Pirillo, now an intellectual historian and professor at Berkeley, and Enza Perdichizzi, a lecturer in the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Strasbourg, are working together to diversify the understanding of the geography of the Republic of Letters and to rediscover actors, groups, and cultural practices that have been neglected by scholars. With their respective skills and fields of interest, they link the Mediterranean, Eurasia and the Atlantic world in a common intellectual history, making Italy emerge as a crossroads of knowledge. 

We spoke with them to learn more about the motivations behind their project, the nature of their research, and the opportunities that the France-Berkeley Fund offered them. 

Enza Perdichizzi  Diego Pirillo 

Can you both introduce yourselves and talk about your academic journeys that lead you to this project?

EP: I am Maîtresse de Conférences in the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Strasbourg. My research focuses on the relationship between theater and politics in eighteenth-century Europe. I’ve worked on the Italian dramatist Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803), using the methods of genetic criticism and examining his manuscripts and reading notes. I began investigating Alfieri’s network, his relationship with contemporary models, rivals, printers and secretaries, as well as his reaction to French cultural hegemony and the Revolution, which he witnessed during his stay in Paris. I then turned my attention to the cultural dynamics of the Republic of Letters, considering the tensions between its centralizing and its centrifugal tendencies, and studying expatriates and cultural mediators such as Giuseppe Baretti (1719-89). 

DP: I am an intellectual historian and I’ve been teaching at Berkeley since 2011. My work focuses on intellectual and religious mobility in early modern Europe and the Atlantic world. I’m especially interested in the history of displaced communities, and I’ve published on religious refugees, diplomatic intermediaries, intellectuals in exiles. My interest in this project came out of my last book, which traces the history of the Republic of Letters in early America, recovering the relationship between knowledge and colonialism. 

What made you interested in the Republic of Letters? 

We both work on early modern Europe, when the ideal of the Republic of Letters shaped the lives of scholars and intellectuals. The concept was first formulated in Renaissance Italy and became widespread through the work of the prominent Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). The Republic of Letters is commonly described as the age of polymaths, who moved freely between “the two cultures,” or as the epoch that invented the “intellectuals,” or even as the birthplace of the modern notion of objectivity. Some scholars argue that its cosmopolitan ideal is still alive in today’s academia, where English and digital technology have replaced Latin and letters as the primary means of scientific communication. Because of its long history, the Republic of Letters is inevitably a polysemic concept and its meaning is often difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, it also constitutes a powerful analytical category. It allows scholars to transcend traditional specialisms and disciplinary divisions, linking classical antiquity to the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth-century formation of modern academic disciplines. 

How and why did you decide to work together on your research? 

We’ve known each other since our time in Pisa, as we were both students at the Scuola Normale. We decided to work together as we share a common interest in in the circulation of ideas, books, and knowledge, and also because our approaches complement each other: Enza focuses on philology, genetic criticism, and literature, and Diego is interested in the history of books and information and in how knowledge travels across religious and linguistic borders. While we both share an interest in Italian culture, Enza has focused on Franco-Italian relations, while Diego has explored the exchanges between Italy, England and early America. Our different approaches seemed well suited to an interdisciplinary project centered on the Republic of Letters. 

Can you explain a bit more in detail what your research focuses on? 

The historiography on the Republic of Letters has largely focused on European capital cities and the intellectual male elite. Instead, we turn our attention to smaller ‘contact zones’, ports and frontier towns that served as ‘crossroads of knowledge’ enabling the circulation of ideas, objects, and people across linguistic, religious and cultural barriers. Our aim is to rethink the geography of the Republic of Letters and to recover actors, groups, and cultural practices that have been neglected by scholars. Against the traditional idea of the Italian decline, caused by the Counter-Reformation and the Atlantic discoveries, we frame Italy as a carrefour, an intellectual crossroad, connected not only with the Mediterranean but also with Eurasia and the Atlantic world. While focusing on Italy, the project also traces the exchanges between the Italian peninsula and the world of the first globalization, in Europe and beyond. To this end, we draw on the concept of ‘mobility,’ well known to social scientists but still new to the humanities. 

What are the next steps within your research? 

The project began with a conference held at Berkeley in October 2022. Participants included faculty and graduate students from U.S., French and Italian universities, who shared their work, spending two days discussing the Republic of Letters and the future of the field. We’ve organized a second conference, which will be held at Strasbourg in December 2023. Our findings will be available both in print, through a collective volume, and in digital form, through a website, which we’re about to launch. 

What are the reasons that pushed you to apply for the FBF (France-Berkeley Fund)? 

We decided to apply to the FBF to collaborate with faculty and graduate students in both North America and Europe, and ultimately to create a partnership between Berkeley and Strasbourg. The project has benefitted not only from the expertise of the two main coordinators but also from the work of colleagues and graduate students in several fields and departments at both UC Berkeley and the University of Strasbourg, both renowned centers for the humanities. Particularly, beyond hosting the biggest faculty of foreign cultures and languages in France, Strasbourg is the seat of many EU institutions and is part of a network of Rhenan universities (“EUCOR – Le campus européen”) that makes it an extremely valuable partner for its cultural variety and its international vocation. 

What has the FBF done for your research? What type of opportunities did it open for you? 

The FBF transformed our project and gave us the opportunity to create an international research team. Along with financing two conferences (the first at Berkeley and the second at Strasbourg), the FBF has also allowed us to find other funding opportunities to continue working on the project in the future. We were able, for example, to submit an application for an IdEx program (Initiative d’Excellence, “Sciences en société et en territoire”), with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute and the BNU (Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire) of Strasbourg. Through the generous contribution that we obtained, we’ll organize a series of lectures for the general audience and we’ll create videos for the Strasbourg open-access digital platform.

Republic of Letters Conference Poster