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Stanford Humanities Center Fellow Q&A: Comparative Literature scholar Katharina N. Piechocki

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Comparative literature professor is the first to investigate Europe’s early modern boundaries through the lens of cartography, poetics, and translation as interlocking Renaissance practices.
Stanford Humanities Fellow Katharina Piechocki uses cartography, poetics and translation to better understand the Renaissance period.
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo

Can anything new be said about early modern Europe and Renaissance studies? After all, there are thousands of books on Western European writers such as Petrarch, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Montaigne. This is precisely the point, argues Stanford Humanities Center fellow Katharina Piechocki, who is an assistant professor in Harvard’s Comparative Literature Department. Her book-length project, Cartographic Humanism: Defining Early Modern Europe, 1480-1580, questions common ideas about “Renaissance Europe” and shows that early modern Europe was very different and much more complex than we typically think. Piechocki’s book, anchored in Comparative Literature, branches out to disciplines such as geography, visual arts, history and history of science. It is the first attempt to problematize the question of Europe’s borders through the multidisciplinary lens of cartography, philology, and translation—all disciplines that emerged contemporaneously during the Renaissance period.

Piechocki’s project charts new itineraries across Europe and bridges languages and literatures from different parts of Europe that are rarely analyzed together: German, Polish, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese—against the backdrop of Latin and Ancient Greek. Cartographic Humanism shows that our understanding of early modern Europe and Renaissance humanism is often conditioned by and depends on available translations of primary and secondary sources into English. By incorporating and translating new documents, Piechocki offers a more inclusive and balanced view of Renaissance Europe and opens up new spaces to think about humanism—and the Humanities.

Q. What is the focus of your research? 
I’m fascinated with the close relationship between literary texts and maps. We tend to think of both as entirely disconnected disciples, but in Renaissance Europe maps were very poetic, while literature was, as my colleague Tom Conley shows for the case of France, cartographic. In other words: mapmakers often included fiction on maps—be it quotations from poets or the depiction of imaginary elements such as animals—while poets were composing literature with a specific cartographic imagery in mind. More and more Renaissance scholars are studying this relationship—albeit predominantly in Western Europe. Eastern Europe all too often falls through the cracks, perhaps precisely because it’s so difficult to determine a continental border between Europe and Asia.

What really triggered my research is the realization that when scholars investigate or speak about “Europe,” what we really mean is “Western Europe.” So I decided to look at Europe from a geographic vantage point, which offers a more inclusive perspective, and ask: how did Renaissance humanists think about Europe and trace continental boundaries? As it turns out, this is an incredibly difficult question. The “rediscovery” and reintroduction of the work of ancient geographers such as Ptolemy in Renaissance Europe, for example, was crucial in redefining Europe, although it made things messier—because, of course, ancient territories and toponyms did not correspond to the boundaries of early modern countries. And yet Renaissance humanists believed in the authority of ancient writers and incorporated this knowledge on maps and in their literary works. And, of course, there were already other, previous, models to conceptualize space that continued to exist alongside new frameworks.

Q. What drew you to examine Europe through the lens of cartography, philology, and translation?
Several things. I have a convoluted, although not uncommon, personal history: I was born in Poland, when it was still under the Communist regime, and my parents migrated to Austria (via Norway), when I was a little girl. As political refugees, we were stateless for ten years. At the same time, my father, who’s a philologist, taught me the love for languages, often in a playful way. I would say “good night,” for instance, in a dozen different languages every evening. And then there was the alienating impact of the Iron Curtain, which often still determines, I think, the way we perceive and study Europe. I feel very privileged to have lived “across” the Iron Curtain and to bring different parts of Europe together in my work.

I suspect that this juxtaposition between belonging to several languages, but no specific territory laid the ground for my interest in the investigation of Europe as a fascinating continent that is often studied in an oversimplified way. I studied Romance Languages and Literatures in Vienna, but interestingly, it’s only once I came to the United States as a PhD student in Comparative Literature that I discovered cartography and translation studies—both emerging disciplines in Comparative Literature Departments—as a truly eye-opening vantage point from which to look at European literatures. Cartography and translation studies significantly changed the way I now approach literature.

Q. Can you explain what this process of examination looks like? How do you conduct your research? 
You have to be very patient—and passionate! I work with texts written in eight different languages, so it took me a while to learn them in the first place—and it takes a lot of time to cultivate them. Some of the texts I work with are written in Neo-Latin, and often there are no available translations!

Consider the case of Polish humanist Maciej Miechowita: he was a hugely important historian, but his work has never been translated into English and all existing scholarship on him is in Polish. So I translate a lot of passages for the first time and make them available to a broader readership. I want to show that our understanding of Europe will be more nuanced, once we incorporate diverse and new texts into our research. A lot of texts have been forgotten, not because they are not important, but because we have stopped editing, translating, and caring for them. That a Renaissance text survives into the 21st century and is available in translation has often to do with the perseverance of individual scholars, not with the quality of a text. The more we care about researching and translating less-studied texts, the more informed our syllabus will be! Conversely, the smaller the circle of texts we use for our research and teaching, the narrower and shallower our understanding of early modernity and Europe will be.

Q. What do you think people would be most surprised to learn about your topic?
That there are still so many crucial and new things to be discovered about Renaissance Europe! Both the Renaissance and Europe are incredibly difficult and mobile concepts, but our narratives about them often tend to eclipse the contradictory elements that don’t fit a smooth narrative. Renaissance “humanism,” for instance, was both inclusive and exclusive, cosmopolitan and nationalistic, progressive and regressive. My project unearths those contradictions and complexities as I work with a wealth of new documents coming from different parts of Europe and across different disciplines.

Q. Has there been a particular finding or experience during your research that has surprised you?
Yes! That cartography would entirely change my approach to literature and my idea of what literature actually is. As a literature student, I was often disappointed with the methods I was studying—they did not “speak” to me and I didn’t find them helpful at all to understand the intricacies of literary texts, especially from earlier periods. I wanted to study Europe’s boundaries in my PhD dissertation, and it is only through my engagement with cartography—which happened quite randomly—that I finally was able to make sense of so many different texts written in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Q. In your opinion, why is it valuable to study this topic?
What I have been saying about the Renaissance period is also true for the 21st century. It suffices to think about Europe’s so-called current “migrant crisis” to realize how often we think about Europe in simplistic terms, as if it were a monolithic block—and yet, it is so dynamic and so rapidly changing! “What is Europe?” is a question that is as relevant and urgent now as it was in the Renaissance period. Studying its multifaceted past allows us to view the present—and to design the future—in a more informed and nuanced light.