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European Walkabout

PhD candidates recount their experiences with the Academy for Advanced Study in the Renaissance
August 25, 2015

Katelyn McCarthy

Katelyn McCarthy
PhD candidates Caitlin McHugh and Jessica Apolloni

Two English PhD candidates were among 12 fellows selected to participate in the second annual Academy for Advanced Study in the Renaissance (funded by the Mellon Foundation)which involved a two-week residency in Rome and Oxford and a dissertation workshop and international conference in Evanston, IL.

Residency in Rome and Oxford

Our stay at the American Academy in Rome encouraged us to rethink our own scholarship in light of connections across disciplines as well as political, social, and cultural borders. Our initial tours of the Borghese and Farnesina galleries were led by prominent Italian art scholars like Marco Ruffini from the Sapienza University of Rome. As we experienced everything from Bernini's graceful statues to Caravaggio's carnage, the professors guided us through the intricate layering of images, texts, and theatrics that collectively fashioned Renaissance society.

Later, in a walking tour of Rome, we gazed at the ceiling of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome, strolled through piazzas, and hit up famous espresso bars and gelato stands. We were then able to put together these more visual concepts of the Renaissance with fascinating talks such as Giorgio Caravale's analysis of textual censorship in Rome, James Hankins' insights into Renaissance intellectual history, and Carlo Vecce's study of global cultural exchange in the Renaissance.

Jessica Apolloni with an English breakfast


Our first day in Oxford was one of the trip's most memorable. Staying in college at St. Hughes, our morning began with full English breakfast: sausage, eggs, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, hashbrowns, baked beans, toast, the works. It was a magnificent experience—especially after the light Italian version of breakfast—but a bit overwhelming. (See Jessica at left.)

A guided walking tour (thank goodness) followed, with Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute. Highlights included portions of the original city wall; a small cobbled area on Broad Street where the Oxford Martyrs (Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer) were burned; and, of course, Christ Church College, including the Hall and the Cathedral.

After the tour, we had time to share our projects with Professor Dobson over a pint at the Turf Tavern. We then had an extraordinary dinner with Baron Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury emeritus. Dr. Williams spoke to us about connections between law, culture, and religion in the Reformation—repeatedly illustrating how drastic changes in religious culture in the Renaissance still affect the Church of England today. His ability to extemporaneously connect ideas and respond to our questions with in-depth insights into Renaissance life was truly inspiring.

The rest of our stay in Oxford included a lecture by Shakespearean Simon Palfrey; a visit to Hampton Court Palace, one of two surviving palaces owned by Henry VIII; and a viewing of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henry IV Part I, directed by Gregory Doran, with a pre-play lecture and discussion led by Ewan Fernie, Chair of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute.

Dissertation Workshop and Conference

This portion of the Academy, at Northwestern University, involved three hours of workshop for six days, followed by a two-day international conference entitled Renaissance Continuities and Discontinuities. To facilitate the workshops, the fellows submitted dissertation abstracts and chapter examples. Each fellow was asked to articulate his or her argument, the stakes of the project, and his or her audience—in part to help with job market preparation. The workshops were intense but remarkably effective.

Caitlin received feedback that helped her to outline her introduction for her dissertation. Jessica was able to enhance the connections between Italy and England in her project by discussing her work with experts in both Italian history and English literature. The opportunity to experience each fellow's work was fabulous. The two-day conference proved a valuable means of synthesizing the entire experience. In affording fellows the occasion to meet scholars of the Renaissance from all over the world and think deeply about our individual projects, the Academy helped us visualize and consider the future of Renaissance studies—and make friends for life!