Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Luca Molà

Europäisches Hochschulinstitut, Florenz
Dorit Brixius

Dieser Beitrag ist hervorgegangen aus einer Initiative von Doktoranden am Europäischen Hochschulinstitut in Florenz. Tilman Kulke, Moritz von Brescius, Robrecht Declercq und James White hatten 2013 in zeitenblicke (12, 1) damit begonnen, Dissertationsprojekte ihrer Kommilitonen und Interviews mit den Lehrenden zu veröffentlichen.
Ihr neues Projekt 'Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research' möchte diese Form des Publizierens in Zusammenarbeit mit geschichte.transnational in den nächsten Jahren weiter fortführen. Gründer und Herausgeber der ‚Research in Dialogue‘ sind Tilmann Kulke, Dorit Brixius, Ievgen Khvalkov, Florian Wagner und James White. Die Herausgeber danken dem Direktor des Seminars, Prof. Federico Romero, ausdrücklich für seine langjährige Unterstützung des Projektes.
geschichte.transnational freut sich, diejenigen Beiträge der Initiative zu veröffentlichen, in denen Studien zu und Wege in die Erforschung grenzüberschreitenden Interaktionen und großräumigen Konstellationen beschrieben werden.


Interview with Professor Luca Molà
by Ievgen Alexandrovitch Khvalkov and Laura Mesotten, 2 September 2013*

For almost five years now, professor Luca Molà holds the chair in early modern history (History of the Renaissance and the Mediterranean in a World Perspective) at the European University Institute (EUI). After finishing his MA and PhD at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he taught at the University of Venice and was a fellow of the Harvard Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti in Florence. Since 1999 he has been professor at the University of Warwick and is involved in numerous research networks and projects.

Professor Luca Molà, your interests lay mostly in the field of economic history and the history of technology, how did you choose this field of specialization? Who influenced your choice and how was it formed?
Luca Molà: I must say that when I had to enrol in university I was very much uncertain if I wanted to study science or literature and humanities. At first, I was thinking about natural sciences, biology but eventually I chose history; although, I still have the dream to obtain a second degree when I am retired. When I entered the field of history, I was initially more involved in social and cultural aspects, not strictly in economic and technological topics. I shifted to technology because it is a way of putting together my two interests: natural sciences and history. The second incentive came from a very inspiring professor, Reinhold Mueller, who was working on economic and social history of the late Middle Ages. And then, of course, if you are born in Venice and you live some months of the year in Tuscany, as I did during my entire childhood and adolescence, the choice for working on the Italian history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance comes quite naturally. Besides from the people you meet, also your location has a strong influence on the directions you take. I can imagine if you live in a small town in the United States that the Renaissance seems a distant past which you do not remember. In Venice, however, you are reminded of it every day, both physically and rhetorically.

As you said, your initial work focused on the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Later, you moved further into the seventeenth and even eighteenth century. How did this scholarly focus change in the course of time?
LM: I remember what Marc Bloch says in The Historian’s Craft (1953) that if you are a good historian your interest is in all fields of history. This notion is very inspiring; moreover, ever since I was a child I was fond of science fiction and the problem of time, going back and forward, has always fascinated me. Indeed, I started working on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the late Middle Ages. However, when I went to Baltimore to start my PhD I found myself in a different environment with a lot of professors working on early modern history. As a consequence, I focussed on the sixteenth century in my dissertation. Then I moved to Warwick where there was a large and very strong group of eighteenth century historians. I was intrigued by their work, listened to their seminars and we became good friends. Gradually, also my own research moved further into the seventeenth and eighteenth century. As I already said, the people you meet play a significant role in your academic career. To give another example, in England I met a group of art historians, Evelyn Welch and others, who wanted to organize a working group called The Material Renaissance. Due to the interactions with these art historians, I became more and more interested in material culture. Thus, again, the stimulations come from where you are physically and intellectually.
The idea of going back and forth and not being confined to a single time period is something that really appeals to me. This is what I am still doing: in the same year I organized an exhibition on Marco Polo in the thirteenth century and worked on my current research that focuses on technology in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. For me, the ideal is the work done by Carlo Cipolla, one of the greatest economic historians. He has been working on the economic history of the preindustrial period, going from the Middle Ages up to the eighteenth century.
With regard to my research topic there have also been some alterations. You can say that I moved away, in a limited way however, from being a historian of Venice to a more global historian. To a certain extent, you follow the trends in the historical field, at least the ones you recognize as being valuable for your own research. Additionally, this change of focus was connected to the globalization happening in the real world. For instance, when I started working in Warwick, I had to face students coming from China, India, Japan and other parts of the world. As a result, I was confronted with the larger picture and this was reflected in my research interests.

You mentioned your current work that focuses on European technological development. Technological innovations during the Renaissance have been approached in contrasting ways by various historiographical traditions. Where do you place your own research?
LM: Yes, there exist several historiographical traditions; the notion of a rapid growth in the Renaissance is contrasted by the idea that the turning point in the history of European technological development already occurred in the Middle Ages. Personally, I opt for a more nuanced perspective: the notion of continuity in technological evolution. However, I do think that the Renaissance triggered a shift in some perspectives, especially in the mentality of people. There emerged a connection between a strong business development, the growth of commercial activities, an expansion of technological enterprises and the rise of the state which takes an interest in supporting technology. The interaction between these factors was not very much at play during in the Middle Ages.
What I feel differentiates my own research from others working on technology is that most of them have been interested in the real artefacts, the technological side, whereas I am more interested in the cultural side, how people or groups of people (artisans, merchants, noblemen, etc.) changed their mentality regarding technological innovation. When I was in England I taught a course every year at the V&A in London about this culture of technological innovations. The change of this culture clearly took place during the Renaissance. Therefore, we can consider the period as the spark, the beginning of a new mentality, which then developed further in the seventeenth century with Francis Bacon and the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment.

At the EUI you hold the chair of History of the Renaissance and the Mediterranean in a World Perspective. Could you tell us something about the state of the art of this field? What is the future in your view?
LM: Actually, when I started at the EUI the chair was called Renaissance slash Mediterranean world. Since I was studying Venice and the silk industry, I was working in both fields then. In recent years, there is a strong revival in the field of Mediterranean studies, for example the books published by David Abulafia. There is an interest, forty years after Fernand Braudel, to reconsider the Mediterranean as one of the key players in globalization. The Mediterranean was forgotten for a long time because of the focus on the Atlantic, Pacific and Oceanic expansion. This was also the case in Warwick where I was involved in a working group on global history. Initially, they did not think that the Mediterranean was interesting for globalization after the sixteenth century because they were looking at the expansion of the Dutch, English and French after the seventeenth century. However, the importance of the Mediterranean should not be overlooked. This is one of the points I am trying to make with my other field of research: Italy and the first age of globalization.
A way of tracing these global dimensions of the Mediterranean, and more general the Renaissance, is to study the diffusion of objects. How do you make use of material culture in your own research?
LM: Currently, I am reading a book written by a psychologist about the relationship between people and objects. He shows that objects are crucial for human experiences starting from the toys you have and other things you own as a child. I certainly agree with this but I do not make as much use of material culture as I would like. Although, I have always been interested in objects because of my work on silk and the Renaissance, a moment in which objects clearly became more and more important in defining social ranks, personality, identity, fashion, etc. As I mentioned before, this fascination was stimulated when I worked with art historians and museum curators. They can really tell and teach you a lot about an object. A fine example is “The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice” (2012) by Ludmilla Jordanova, which analyses how we can use visual and material culture to study the past. Moreover, material culture is very interesting for the purpose of teaching. I took my students of Warwick to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where they gave us the actual pieces from the museum collection. This way, the students created a relationship with and perception of the real artefacts.
However, material culture also poses some difficulties. There are only some ranges of objects left. Instead of working with the real objects, our knowledge often derives from texts. For instance, I will speak at a conference held in Bologna on veils, an important aspect of early modern culture. Veils had a particular significance as it is something that makes you seen but not seen entirely. There are some types of women that had to wear a veil when they went outside; for example, seventeenth-century widows in Venice. Additionally, the veil had a lot of other symbolic meanings. It was produced massively in Bologna and Venice but we do not possess any specimen. We are trying to recover how they looked like from historical records and paintings, which can be quite frustrating at times. Another problem is the risk that if you do material culture, you only look at luxury objects since they are preserved more often. This is true for silk since many silk garments are still in museums and consequently you can study the actual object in a very detailed way.
In terms of global and world history the use of objects can make you think about comparisons and connections between different civilisations. A beautiful example is the study of Robert Finlay on porcelain, which traces the going back and forth of patterns from China to the Muslim world and Europe. Over the centuries there is a circulation of material culture that really connects cultures from Eurasia and the New World.

You discussed the fruitful interactions you had with art historians, etc. Do you think there is more need for interdisciplinary cooperation in the history of the Renaissance?
LM: Collaboration between early modern historians, art historians, archaeologists, museum curators, etc. is definitely necessary and should happen more frequently. However, for historians who do not work on the twentieth century or on contemporary issues, it is becoming more and more difficult to cooperate fruitfully with sociologists, political scientists and economists. This is something I experience here at the EUI but this was also the case at my past universities. After I finished my PhD, I returned to Venice where I taught for one year economic history in the economic department. All the time, I was dealing with economists but it was a difficult relationship because I did not use models and mathematics, as I do not think it is applicable to the sixteenth, seventeenth or even eighteenth centuries. Consequently, the communication between them and me was problematic.

Besides interdisciplinary cooperation, should historians collaborate more amongst themselves?
LM: Yes, especially now that we are doing global history or a history that encompasses the whole of Europe. On the one hand, I like erudition, I like to know a lot about a single place and a single thing and I believe that people who are experts are very useful. On the other hand, if you want to work on a European or especially global scale you need teamwork. For the moment, I am editing a book on global silk, The Thread of Global Desire (forthcoming, 2016), which resulted from a conference we held in Berlin in 2009 . Since the book is about silk in the early modern world, we have people coming from Japan, China, Persia, South America, etc. who are experts in these parts of the world. Teamwork between these individuals is the only way to publish a book that covers such a wide scale.

At the EUI we also have a rich environment composed of experts in many different fields. Could you say a couple of words about the priorities of the History and Civilisation (HEC) department at the EUI?
LM: We discuss a lot about that right now and there has been a document produced about the profile of the department. The new priorities are in line with the ideas of president Joseph Weiler, which is to get more global. Not just in terms of people and research, but also in terms of recruitment: more professors coming from Asia, America, South America and other parts of the world. I agree with this since it widens the perspective and lowers the differences amongst Europeans. Another priority would be to enlarge the postdoctoral programs. Personally, I think an additional necessity should be to make the research that we as professors do more visible, for example by organizing more regular seminars about our own developments. Currently, we do not have many occasions for this since there exists no regular output where we can present our research in progress.

In line with the global direction the department is taking, the HEC department has a chair in Russia-Europe Relations starting from September 2013. Do you feel the history of Russia and its interactions with Europe should be more represented at the EUI?
LM: I am very fond of having a colleage working on that. At the HEC department we are now with 13 professors and I think one person working on Russia in addition to scholars working on Eastern Europe and the Cold War is enough. He will certainly enrich the profile of the department. To a certain extent, we are missing professor Steve Smith because he was not only studying Russia but also China. Thus, a new chair could focus on the relationship between Europe and Asia.

To conclude, the previous academic year you taught a seminar on the history of Europe. Do you think we need a common history of Europe? Should it be an additional priority of the EUI to do research in this direction?
LM: After teaching this seminar for two years, I do not think we need a common textbook. It would be almost impossible. We are now twenty-eight countries, satisfying all of them in one textbook would be unmanageable. I have heard that a Museum of Europe is created in Brussels representing Europe’s history as if everything was fine and the wars, massacres and destructions never occurred. Of course, this is an idealistic view.
A role the EUI should play is in the first place to teach on Europe in the world. There is a growing globalization, which we cannot forget, and this should be represented in the seminars on European history. Secondly, the EUI should tackle the problem of how to bring history to the public. This is what I am currently doing with professor Lucy Riall. We are organizing a big conference on public history together with Serge Noiret, a history and information specialist at the library of the EUI and chair of the International Federation for Public History. The conference will ask how historians can translate through public media such as films, documentaries, internet, books, exhibitions, museums, etc. their work and research at the academic level (note: the conference “Public History and the Media” has been held at the EUI in February 2015). I believe this is absolutely necessary since in some countries, like Italy, historians are less and less present in the public arena; instead, mostly economists and political scientists are discussing political issues and public matters. Even if historians are present, their input is confined to the present or very near past, there is not a large span of dealing with problems. However, in England for example, there is a very large demand from the public for historical diffusion. I strongly believe that we should invest more in the possibilities of public history.

Thank you very much for your time and this interview.

* Laura Mesotten is currently writing her PhD dissertation in early modern history at the European University Institute under the supervision of professor Luca Molà. Her research focuses on the household, networks and material culture of French ambassador in Venice (1550-1610). Before moving to Florence, she received her BA and MA degree in History and her MA in Cultural Studies at the University of Leuven, Belgium.
Ievgen A. Khvalkov is a PhD Candidate at the HEC, EUI. His research is focused on the Black Sea area colonies of the maritime republic of Genova in the transnational context, thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. He received his first degree in History at the Department of Medieval Studies, Faculty of History, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow, and his MA in Medieval Studies at the Medieval Studies Department, Central European University, Budapest.


Dorit Maria Nicola Brixius
PhD Researcher
Department of History and Civilization
European University Institute
Villa Schifanoia
Via Boccaccio 121
I-50133 Florence

Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Luca Molà, 01.06.2015 Florenz, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 27.06.2015, <>.
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