Venetian Encounters: Cultural Contact, Collision and Change           


Venetian Encounters: Readings 

Venetian Encounters: Syllabus 

Venetian Encounters: Course Objectives

Venetian Encounters: Bibliography 

•    "A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see."—Boswell: Life of Johnson
•    "The commonwealth of Venice in their armoury have this inscription: "Happy is that city which in time of peace thinks of war." —Robert Burton (1577-1640), English clergyman & writer; also known as Democritus Junior, from Anatomy of Melancholy
•    "We're drowning in information, but starved for knowledge."—John Naisbitt
•    "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."
•    "Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one"—Malcolm Forbes
•    "Live as if you were going to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever."—Mohandas K. Gandhi
•    "The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated. .... As long as such ideas persist there is no hope of our ever knowing the true value of education. "—Mohandas K. Gandhi, True Education
•    "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page."—St. Augustine
•    "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."—Mark Twain
•    "Travel is more than a visitor seeing sights; it is the profound changing--the deep and permanent changing--of that visitor's perspective of the world, and of his own place in it."—James Ferguson, 19th century Scottish architect
•    "Remember, we are all one. Find out for yourself what a miraculous world we live in, contrary to media the global village shrinks, we become increasingly aware of our interdependence. Because we all play a part, however small, in the interlocking of cultures, our new objectives should include having firsthand interactions with the staggering beauty and diversity of our planet."—Bruce Northam, Globetrotter Dogma

 People have always traveled. The reasons vary from desire for conquest to a manifestation of religious devotion, for trade, education, and just plain curiosity. Contrary to the common view, tourism is not an invention of the modern world. Romans, Greeks, and other peoples of the ancient world were tourists. So in being a historical tourist, you will following in a venerable tradition.


 This course will look at the principles of the discipline of history through various lens including those of travelers. We will look at travelers from different cultures and explore cultural exchange and conflict, which have been important in shaping modern relationships between cultures. The readings will be both primary and secondary sources as well as work with maps, which are essential in linking history to its geography. Think of this class as a kind of journey, as it will be when we go to Italy. As Mark Twain said, "Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.  

Looking at the intersection of court culture and humanistic thought in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, we will see a time of political and intellectual ferment in Europe, with a nascent nationalism, the beginnings of new ways of thought, the exploration of new worlds, and the concomitant changes in the economic life of various areas. But remember that life did not change overnight, and many aspects of medieval thought and society coexisted with new ideas in the arts and sciences. Many historians like to work in the realm of dynamic change, but keeping the continuities in society in mind is just as important as charting changes over time.

The fifteenth century, poised between the medieval and early modern eras, was one of remarkable change throughout Europe. Contact with other cultures, which had begun much earlier in the medieval period, accelerated. Trade, war, and religion all caused conflict within the European setting and between Europeans, Africans, and various peoples of the Ottoman Empire. This course will explore the opportunities and tensions, continuities and changes that are the hallmark of this turbulent century and how the events of the fifteenth century set the stage for the early modern world. Centering on Padua and its proximity to Venice, a center for banking, overseas trade and artistic patronage, the course will look at the events leading up to the fall of Constantinople, including the important visit of the Byzantine emperor to Florence in 1439, and what happened to Italy in the aftermath of the end of Byzantium. In addition, the effects of Spanish and Portuguese exploration, which eventually shifted the balance of trade north and west and removed the Italian city-states as the middlemen of trade, will be analyzed.

The fall of Constantinople and the Italian Wars will highlight not only military conflict but political aims and religious issues. Increasing fluidity in class structure through the creation of a mercantile society and the depredations of plague will highlight social tensions. Racial issues, always present in the conflict between Muslims and Christians, become even more prominent as Europeans gain a foothold in Africa. In addition, the formal creation of the Ghetto in Venice not only concentrated the Jewish population there in one enclosed space but also served as a model for other cities where in many cases the Jews had already chosen to live in close proximity, but now were required to stay in one area.  This development brings with it questions not only of control but also of the idea of a safe area.  So we can ask how much control was there over “foreign” populations but also how effective was that control, and how safe were those who were put into these controlled living environments.  We can also look at variations in toleration of difference in Venice and other communities.  

One debate among historians of the late medieval and early modern periods is whether the term Renaissance is truly apt (it was created in the 19th century by French historian Jules Michelet) and whether there was really a rediscovery of classical texts that had been "lost."  Key classical authors used by Renaissance scholars included Aristotle and Cicero, whose works were also important to medieval scholars. Writers at the time talk about the "rediscovery" of classical texts but one question is whether or not these texts were really unknown.  In some cases the "rediscovery" was really just bringing classical knowledge from the east (Byzantium and the Muslim world). The new uses of these texts was a driving force behind change, but equally important were political events such as war on the Italian peninsula, the demand for changes in religious practice, and the fall of the Byzantine Empire.  Both external and internal forces were at work in shaping various societies in Europe and although both are on the Italian peninsula, Florentine and Venetian experiences and preoccupations, for example, were very different from each other as well as from those of the French, English, and Burgundians. 

While texts and writing will be an important part of the course, seeing the material culture—especially the art and architecture of fifteenth and sixteenth century in Venice with side trips to other cities in the Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy, will give an enriched view of what could be argued was the pivotal century in terms of European entry into globalization.

The class will look at the time period through various topical prisms such as art, literature, philosophy, gender, class, science and magic as well as through studies of Italian cities and the court of Burgundy.  The readings will give the participants background that will be invaluable in choosing a research topic as well providing some of the material that will contribute to the required research paper. In addition students will develop skills in understanding and using historiographical methodologies and primary source analysis. The small class size and seminar format should engender a collegial environment in which to debate ideas, analyze each others' work, and present research findings. Each week while we are on campus, a team of students will function as the class discussion leaders for the various readings.For each film a review will be required and there will be discussion of the film at the beginning of the next class session.

Images from Jacopo de'Barbari map, 1501

Fifteenth-Century Europe

Basilica of St. Anthony, Padua

Map of Historic Area, Padua

Map of Constantinople