This summer I am being funded by a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society to work in Italy. Primarily I am here to continue researching for a book project that I hope will trace the fortunes and misfortunes of a logo, or coat of arms, used for centuries by Italy’s longest-surviving dynasty, the Estensi. The project began some years ago when I was studying a kind of popular poetry that was beloved and produced around the Estensi between the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Some of this poetry - most famously the Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto - enjoyed international success and influenced the history of the European novel and the genre of fantasy fiction. So I was stunned to realize that the family crest of the Este played a major role in its character development and plots. Was this a case of early modern “product placement” or were the ties between brand and stories more profound?
My research will be largely based in the city of Modena where the dynasty’s archives and library collections are held today. I am looking for a variety of sources to better understand how the dynastic brand was developed, (re)designed, and contested. For instance, one of the documents that I am looking for is a fourteenth-century chronicle in which the Este logo is traced back to some of the medieval conflicts between Christians and Muslims for control over Spain. I’m also looking for presentation-copies - often finely illustrated by hand - of some fifteenth-century poems that began to locate the logo’s origins in Troy, in line with the growing interests in greco-roman antiquity at that time. There are legal documents and family trees, which offer still more perspectives on how the brand was built and maintained.
I will continue working on the project next academic year as a Regional Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Wolf Humanities Center Forum, which next year is dedicated to the theme of “Kinship” (https://wolfhumanities.upenn.edu/annual-topics/kinship). Studying Italian culture through the lens of the coat of arms inevitably means studying it through the lens of the family. The Italian Renaissance has traditionally been characterized as a turning point towards the development of modern individuality, breaking away from the family and other feudal structures. So I am tremendously excited to have this platform to be able to talk with other scholars in the region about the continued vitality of kinship and genealogy in the Italian context, and to explore connections between the Renaissance and so-called traditional cultures from this point of view.
All of this work bears upon my Connections 1 course this fall dedicated to the relationship between branding and storytelling. Here l will read with students some of the latest research about branding alongside works of fiction and images from medieval to modern times. On a much wider canvas, the course poses many of the same core questions as my book project: Why do brands need stories? Why do brands fail and how do they succeed? Can business interests and the liberal arts continue to enrich one another in their contemporary forms? In another side-project for my summer abroad, I am investigating some of the lively discussions about fantastical animals that took place amongst poets, explorers, naturalists, and medical experts in early modern times - species like the griffin, hydra, and phoenix. At this moment, I am taking advantage of being in Florence specifically to gather some of the incredible drawings and writings on this subject to share with advanced students in my spring 2020 seminar, which will explore the theme of Italian travel(ers) to the Orient.