James Fortuna- European University Institute, Florence

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Let’s hear from James, a Postgraduate Study Abroad student, currently researching at the EUI in Florence!

James Fortuna, February 2020
  • How did you find out about this opportunity?

I actually met my EUI supervisor at a conference last winter in Berlin. We got to talking, she told me how to get the process started on the Italian end, and before I knew it, I was a confirmed 2020 Erasmus+ researcher. Plenty of paperwork in-between, of course, but I’m happy to say that it was a relatively straightforward and painless process.

Sala del Torrino, a seminar room in the fourteenth-century Villa Salviati, home of the EUI’s Department of History and Civilization. The villa (a converted castle) also houses the official archives of the European Union and served as the Florentine headquarters of allied command toward the end of the Second World War.
  • What does your PhD research entail?

The project itself is concerned with the world’s fairs of the late interwar period, the years right before the outbreak of World War Two. Specifically, I consider the role of architecture and design in what amounted to massive international rebranding campaigns launched by Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the New Deal United States. I explore the way each country presented itself to the world at these events and how their presence affected both diplomatic relations and popular perceptions. I want to find out what everyday fairgoers thought of these ideological expressions of national identity, especially, but not exclusively, within the ‘melting pots’ of American cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. I think there is a sense that the world was much more partitioned between 1933-39 than it actually was. There was a steady flow of cultural, scientific, and scholastic cooperation and exchange between world powers at the time. Even though their eventual conflict would set the world order ablaze, I think it’s important to consider the blueprints, as opposed to just the ashes, of the structure which eventually burned to the ground between 1939-45.

As for where those questions lead me in physical terms; I spend a lot of time in very different types of archives. One week I’ll read through diplomatic papers of the US State Department, the next I’ll find myself reading transcripts of closed-door meetings between Nazi officials who spent months debating whether or not participation in the 1935 Brussels Expo would be worth the financial burden. Here in Florence, I’m only a short walk from the archives of Marcello Piacentini, one of Fascist Italy’s most influential architects – if you want to reach me anytime between now and early spring, that’s probably where you should send the postcard!

Badia Fiesolana, the heart of the European University Institute, is a converted fifteenth-century monastery. The structure pictured here dates to 1456, but the original monastery on this site was erected in 1025.
  • How is the social life at the EUI?

I hear it’s great!

No, I do try to meet people every now and then, I promise. For example, the ski club makes regular trips to the Dolomites and I always look forward to the weekly screenings of the EUI Cineclub. Since I got here in January, they’ve played everything from H.G. Wells’ 1936 “Things to Come” to Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s 1988 “Akira.” I also heard just heard yesterday that the institute’s own student-run Radio Cavolo will go live this semester!

  • What is your favorite part about living in Florence?

Not sure that I could pick a single favorite, but I am very happy to finally get to know a different part of Italy. I’ve spent a lot of time in the north over the years, made plenty of research trips throughout the peninsular south, and Sicily has long been a familiar getaway (I still have some relatives near Catania) – but I have plenty left to learn about Tuscany (and much of the Adriatic coast), so I’m hopeful that I can use part of my time here to do just that.

P.S. That said, I really enjoy my frequent trips to the Florentine markets. There are several in town, and every time I stop in I can’t help but think about how the twenty-first century market experience is more or less the same as it was centuries ago. Very few urban spaces or human interactions have remained so unchanged for so long – no glitz, glam, or trendiness here!

Facing east from the modern art wing of Palazzo Pitti
  • Any advice for our Postgraduates preparing to go abroad next academic year?

Every research student is going to have a different set of expectations or needs, so it’s tough to give general advice, but I should say that having a clear idea of what I was looking for seems to have worked well this time – I find myself energized by the people I’m surrounded by every day here. I’ve got a great supervisor, the other PhD candidates I’ve met are all highly engaged, and the range of seminars is seriously impressive. I could only ever have hoped for all of those to prove true, but in weighing different options I prioritized the proximity of certain archives, relevance of the seminars scheduled this term, and how productive (undistracted) I’d be during my time here. I’m comfortable living and working in Italy, and with no undergrads to be found at the EUI, a certain sense of gravity dominates its libraries and seminar rooms. I love working amongst undergrads, of course, but I think I wanted a quick shot of this intensity to help push me past the halfway point of the dissertation. So yes, every situation is different, but figuring out exactly what you want out of the experience is probably a good idea.

  • Describe a day in the life of James currently.

Depends on the day! I’m fairly routine-averse, but I do catch myself slipping into a comfort zone which seems to come and go in something like weekly cycles. Most days, I wake up far too early, pour some hot Passalacqua coffee into my lucky green mug, and read for an hour two. I then migrate over to the computer, write as much as I can before losing the flow, and eventually step out into the world. Like I mentioned, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Piacentini archives lately, but when I’m not stuck at a familiar desk, I’m looking for a new place to set up for the day. Outside of the many great nooks across the EUI and its Villa Salviati, I can probably be found haunting the Biblioteca delle Oblate or a local café.

After dinner I usually wander. I find a new street and follow it until I feel like turning back. A good night of wandering means I managed to avoid taking the same street twice. This isn’t so easy in a relatively compact city like Florence, but I do try! I’ve made some good discoveries this way – not only places of architectural interest, but plenty of record stores, wine shops, and bakeries, too –pretty great!

Giotto’s Campanile, completed in 1359. The 84.7m tower is clad in marble from three different Tuscan cities. White from Carrara, red from Siena, and green from Prato.

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