Catherine on a boat in the Grand Canal, Venice

An Interview with Associate Professor Catherine Kovesi

Catherine Kovesi researches discourses surrounding luxury and consumption in early modern Italy; Florentine and Venetian family history; and Australian religious history. She is Chair of the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies and in recent years has worked with the Australian Council for the Arts at the Venice Biennale Arte.

To celebrate Catherine’s promotion to Associate Professor, we invited her to be interviewed by her former student Jen McFarland. The resulting conversation ranges across different aspects of Catherine’s career and expertise, from her initial interest in early modern history, through to reflections on serendipity in research, teaching onsite in Venice and her work with cultural organisations in the city.

I was wondering if you could begin by telling us about your research trajectory. How did you come to Renaissance Studies?

Sure. It was a bit of a surprise to me initially because I ranged widely in my undergraduate degree at the University of Western Australia. Although I did a double major and honours in Italian and in History, my history interests were initially in Modern History, and I didn’t do any Renaissance History as an undergraduate until my Honours thesis.

When I decided to do joint Honours in History and Italian, I approached one of my favourite lecturers in Italian, Lorenzo Polizzotto, who was also a Renaissance historian, and asked him whether he could suggest a topic for my thesis. He immediately opened up a drawer and brought out a reel of microfilm – this is back in the olden days, of course – and he said, “I’ve been waiting for a student to ask me that!”

On the microfilm was a manuscript from the State Archives in Florence, a secret record book of Niccolò Valori, a prominent member of the Florentine ruling class, and Lorenzo said, “take away my little transcript of this and see what you think”. I was completely hooked from that point on, so it happened serendipitously, really, in many ways.

I had thought that I was going to write an honours thesis in US maritime history or something similar, which I naively thought then was more ‘relevant’ and ‘real’, but from that day I just got utterly captivated by the early modern past. I then went to Florence to examine the record book ‘in the flesh’ and it was covered with all of these secret injunctions: “A curse be upon he whoever opens this book” and so on. That whole experience and the smell and feel of parchment also made me an archival addict.

The archive of Buggiano Castello, Tuscany. One of the first archives in which Catherine worked

Those ideas, or questions, around ‘real-ness’ and ‘relevance’ are interesting. What do you think is the value of looking at early modern history?

For me there are two aspects to this question.

One is the ‘weirdness’ of the past – the way in which their experiences and attitudes were not like ours and trying to uncover and capture that.

The other is the way in which, as Voltaire said, “history does not repeat itself, but man always does”. In other words, the ways in which the human response to situations resonate down the ages, and through the archival trail – a reminder about the long history behind our present.

So, you began on the Valori family. How did you shift to your current work on sumptuary law and discourses around luxury?

Yes, initially I worked on the Valori, and my early publications were on Niccolò in particular and his secret record book. He wrote the first biography of Lorenzo de Medici, and through that book I was able to re-date his biography and give it context. Valori and Machiavelli were godfathers to each other’s sons, and he was also a staunch follower of Savonarola – he was right in the thick of everything that happened in Renaissance Florence.

I was going to write my DPhil at Oxford on the family more broadly, because no one had written a history of them – they still haven’t. But six months into my doctoral research on the family, the archives in Florence closed in order to move to new premises. Because of the uncertainty, I decided with my supervisor that it was too risky to carry on, and so I changed tack.

I had known about sumptuary laws – legislation which controlled in minute detail what you could consume – of which the Italians passed an enormous number. I thought ‘this is kind of an odd thing’ – everyone mentioned them in passing, as a ‘what in the weird’, but almost in a laughing, condescending kind of way: “look, people were so quaint back then that they spent hours and hours legislating about how many silver buttons you could put on a dress”. I thought, “well … I wonder why, and should we look at this a bit closer?” So I shifted to sumptuary law and then became really fascinated by the social implications of consumption and of the idea of ‘luxury’ more broadly.

What is ‘luxury’ in the Renaissance and how has your understanding of it changed across your research?

That was actually a bit of a shock to me about my own research. Because in all my previous work on sumptuary law, including my early publications, I just kept unreflectively using the world ‘luxury’ and saying, “these laws were against luxury consumption”.

And then a former student and now a great colleague here at Melbourne, Jennifer Spinks, who was in Vienna, sent me a postcard of a drawing by the artist Pisanello [c1395 – c1455] from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, on which she wrote, “this is for you”, because the drawing’s title was translated as Allegory of Luxury.

I thought, “wow, I haven’t seen an allegory of Luxury in this period before”. And then I looked at it and I thought “nothing in this picture relates to Luxury, what’s going on here?” I then saw its original title was Luxuria and when I looked at that more closely, I realised that they had mistranslated this Latin word luxuria as luxury, whereas in fact in that period it meant lust.

And, so, analysing this image and realising why it related to lust and not luxury, I suddenly thought, “oh my goodness, what if I too have been mistranslating luxuria all this time?” I had one of those terrible panics about my own work and started revisiting all of my work on consumption and looking at it through this new lens. So that’s a rather longwinded way of saying why I started looking at ‘luxury’ specifically.

Luxuria in ancient Latin, as the Romans used it, did also have the sense of ‘luxury’ as we use it today. In addition, it was used to mean ‘lust’ and ‘excess’.

It was a major word of insult for the ancient Romans – it wasn’t anything positive. They applied it to aspirational consumers, ‘wannabe’ consumers – like the nouveau riche, as we would call them now. Instead, they used the word magnificentia – magnificence – for those in positions of power who were using their money ‘appropriately’, like a good philanthropist, for example, giving back to the community. Also, they included in that expenditure on temples, so you could also applaud such expenditure for churches or other big structures that were for the public benefit, not just for your own private gain. But for anyone just spending money for personal aggrandisement, they used the word luxuria.

During the early Middle Ages, when aspirational consumers pretty much ceased to exist because there wasn’t much money in circulation, that word with the sense of ‘luxury’ completely disappeared. Throughout all of the Middle Ages luxuria is only and exclusively used by the Church to mean one of the Seven Deadly Sins, that of lust, and the use of it for expenditure just disappeared. All of the vernacular languages used variations of luxuria to mean lust – in Italian it’s ‘lussuria’, in French it’s ‘lussure’, in Middle English ‘luxurie’ and so on. And so then I started thinking, “well, when on earth does luxury come about? When did it happen?”

I started with an exhaustive examination of historical dictionaries. Of course, a dictionary is a historical construct in and of itself, but my research indicated that the very first use of a vernacular word for ‘luxury’ in our modern sense is in 1441, in a poetry competition in Florence. In its first outing it’s paired with a really derogatory adjective – stomacoso – relating to your stomach, kind of ‘vomitous luxury’.

So, I became obsessed with finding out when this consuming class first really appeared and when their consuming habits gained pace, and with the deeper questions as to what are the longer-term implications of the first consumer society, which of course go on to the present day. So, this interest in ‘luxury’ relates very much to my work on sumptuary law but it was really a focus on what might be happening here conceptually, and what is happening here in this particular society that needed a new concept and word to describe what these consumers were doing.

The implications for the modern day, particularly issues of overconsumption and conservation are themes that you’ve looked at. How have these themes influenced your work?

Well, then what really started to attract my attention was the way in which those who were using money, perhaps in the way that the Ancient Romans would have approved of, the magnificent consumers, were driven to further expenditure by the aspirational consumers frenetically consuming behind them. So, luxury kept pushing the barrier, creating this endless game of catch-up – which is what we see today, of course. It’s now consumerism out of control. And so that’s what I wanted to track – that this phenomenon that we see beginning in, say, the late fourteenth or fifteenth centuries just doesn’t stop, and what are the implications of that?

In 2017 I was contacted by a wildlife warrior, Lynn Johnson, who does extraordinary work, particularly against rhino horn consumption. She had gone to an exhibition I’d been involved with at the Victoria and Albert Museum called What is Luxury? I had written the essay of the same name for the exhibition’s accompanying journal.

On reading my essay, Lynn had been struck by the conceptual similarities I described, because rhino horn has only recently been branded as a luxury object. Previously it had always been consumed at a fairly regular low rate in its use in Chinese medicine.

It was the Vietnamese in particular who, for whatever reason, decided about twenty years ago that rhino horn was the new ‘luxury’ symbol, a bit like your Louis Vuitton handbag. Every major business deal is sealed with a drink of ground rhino horn in Vietnam – the so-called ‘millionaire’s cocktail’. And it’s had catastrophic consequences obviously, on perilous populations of rhinos – one of which is killed every eight hours to satisfy demand.

That then led Lynn and I into further work looking at all sorts of wildlife, which is never included in the sustainability discourse, and certainly not in the sustainable fashion discourse. So this new work was really a natural consequence, I suppose, if you’re interested in societal effects of what you’re researching rather than just looking at them for their own sake.

Standing by the exhibition banner for the Exhibition Rhinoceros: Luxury’s Fragile Frontier together with University of Melbourne Arts students Ryan Brown and Oriana Fitzgerald

In 2018 I curated an exhibition in Venice called Rhinoceros: Luxury’s Fragile Frontier – that was really a wonderful experience! That exhibition and its accompanying symposium brought together an unlikely pairing – the city of Venice and the rhinoceros. It was stimulated by artists, conservationists, and a poet, all of whom I had met in Venice, especially Gigi Bon, who’s a Venetian, and Shih Li-Jen, who is a Taiwanese sculptor.

Both Gigi Bon and Shih Li-Jen had seen links in their own cultures and countries between the rhino as a kind of iconic beast for all civilisation in a sense – it’s the oldest mammal still walking the earth. That it could be brought to the point of extinction has parallels with Venice, which was, as you know, the world’s longest lasting republic, for 1000 years. So there was a link between the rhino as an iconic beast, and an iconic city, that we can’t imagine a world without. And yet it too has become the subject of its over consumption, brought to its knees in all sorts of ways.

So, we did this strange, unlikely, but curiously successful kind of pairing – well, at least I hope it was successful – of getting people to think about the consequences of overconsumption for a fragile city and a fragile beast. We had a symposium to launch the exhibition – ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – and a special issue of the journal Luxury: History, Culture, Consumption, ‘Luxury’s Fragile Frontier: The Rhinoceros and Venice’, is devoted to papers that arose from that symposium.

You also take a group of students biennially to teach the subject Venice and Cultures of Consumption. How do you find being in the city to teach a subject like that changes students’ engagement with the content?

I think fundamentally, and utterly, and it’s another tragic consequence of COVID that we haven’t been able to take students this year, and I’m not quite sure when we’ll be able to be in a situation to take them over there, because it really is the aspect of my teaching that is without parallel. You know, it’s wonderful, obviously, to teach here on campus in Melbourne, but really immersing students in the culture of a city has a transformative impact on their learning – they live there for a month, living and breathing the culture and history of a unique city, and they form a strong bond with each other as well. The students that my colleague Andrea Rizzi in SOLL [School of Languages and Linguistics] and I took in the first group that went there in 2007 still socialise regularly and just call themselves ‘The Venetians’. Each successive group has formed that kind of bond.

Venice is a unique cityscape. It’s impossible really to describe what it’s like until you’re there and see what it’s like to create an improbable and extraordinary city in the most improbable situation of small mud banks and water, and what are the implications for this location and situation on your everyday life. Students can’t really get that from looking at endless images in a lecture theatre until they’ve had to cope with situations such as: how do we get to class through high water today? Or how does it work using boats to get from A to Z? How do you construct a building on wood pylons and mud? What are the implications there for everything that you’re doing?

University of Melbourne Venice overseas intensive students at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac, 2015

The last group I took in 2019 – boy, was that a tough group to take! Venice was hit that November by what they call an aquagranda, which is not just the regular high water which is the regular tides that come in twice a day, but an exceptional high tide that intersected with a mini-tornado and just wreaked unprecedented damage on the city. The students arrived ten days after that, and then we had another series of exceptional high tides after that. So many of the sites that I would normally have taken students to were closed for catastrophic repairs and the students spent a lot of time wading through the city in gum boots.

But I liked to think of it as what Obama would call a ‘teachable moment’. It was a chance to really show them the reality of an iconic city in a situation as vulnerable as it gets, and to prompt them to ask: what are the challenges here? So, taking the students around to meet people who’d been impacted by that, seeing how fragile the city is, but also how extraordinary the Venetians are at coping with these extraordinary circumstances, and what they do to get around it, made a big impression.

And those students were amazing. I was incredibly moved when five of them went off and got tattoos, with a beautiful Roman ‘V’ for Venice, tattooed onto their ankles, and I just went ‘wow’. I’m not sure any teaching moment could beat that really, just in terms of the impact that that made on the students, and on me, actually.

And as a researcher too, of course, being able to travel to go to archives not just to get to the documents but to actually understand the space you’re researching …

Yes, and that’s again the agony of COVID – there are, as you would know too, so many things you miss not being in the place. Of course, you can get an enormous amount, particularly now with technology when people send you through transcriptions of things, or photographs of things. But sometimes it’s the document next to the document that you’re looking at, or the way in which it’s stored, or the other things that have been secreted into that collection of documents.

I’ve recently been doing a lot of work in a private family palace in Venice, and you can’t get access to that otherwise. I can’t just send in a research assistant and say “build up a relationship with this family and get in there, and open the cupboards and have a look”. When you’re in there yourself, you suddenly go, “oh my goodness, look at that painting on the wall, I wonder who did that, and what’s the story behind that and how does that connect?”

All of those experiences are the same things that got me initially excited with that Valori manuscript – the ‘oh my goodness, I’m opening the secret door’ moment. You just can’t get that from your office here. I mean, it’s hard work, it’s really difficult work, and often there are lots of questions that you can never answer, actually – bits of the document that have disappeared forevermore, and you will not know. So it’s hard, hard work, but for me it’s really what makes the excitement of being a historian.

As well as your work on this family history, what are some of the projects you’re currently working on?

So, this is the family of the Donà dalle Rose, a very old esteemed noble family in Venice, and they are one of only two families still living uninterruptedly in the family palace that they constructed 400 years ago.

Leonardo Donà dalle Rose was Doge of the city of Venice in the early seventeenth century. He was the Doge that Galileo first demonstrated his telescope to at the top of the Campanile, the belltower, of Venice.

I was invited into the palace and formed a small historical and archival group of experts to assist the current Count, Francesco Donà dalle Rose, with the complex issues of conservation, and a kind of delicate balancing act with the body that governs preservation of the city, and who have extraordinary powers over what you have in your home, even if they are your own ancestral documents and artefacts.

Detail of the Donà dalle Rose family tree

When he invited me into his house – well, not just a ‘house’, but rather his palace– and I saw the extraordinary repository of family documents, I asked him whether I could have a look through them, and he incredibly generously gave me full rein. Again, it was another one of those extraordinary archival moments.

I’ve been working through the private record books of Doge Leonardo Donà Dalle Rose. He was a really miserly person – notoriously so – and he details everything that he spent on everything, down to the last few soldi. How much he spent on presents for his fellow councillors for Christmas, that kind of thing – it’s all documented. So again, it’s the consuming aspect that is, of course, unsurprisingly, attracting me there.

I am also the Co-General Editor together with Timothy McCall from Villanova University in Philadelphia, of the Bloomsbury six-volume A Cultural History of Luxury. This ‘A Cultural History Of …’ series has the same pattern: six volumes taking the same theme from the classical world, through to the present day. Tim and I are also co-editing the Medieval and Renaissance volumes within the series. We’ve got the 48 contributors lined up and we’ve recently pressed ‘Go’ on that, so I’m hoping that that all of those essays will come in in the middle of next year and that the editorial work will get going from that point. It has been a lot of fun gathering together a whole lot of people from the classical world through to the present day working with issues of consumption, fashion all of those things. So I’m very excited to see what the essays will bring together.

You’ve also written several commissioned histories, on Australian Catholic religious history. How did those projects come about?

That’s been a whole different aspect of my work, too, which was really born out of necessity, in the first instance. I have four children, and when they were little and it was very difficult for me to carve out time to get back to Italy, I was approached by the Sisters of Mercy in Western Australia in 1996, which was their anniversary year of their arrival in Australia. They wanted a woman and they wanted someone who wasn’t one of their own to write their history, because they realised that too often histories of religious women are written by other members of the order, and they often have a very hagiographical tone. They wanted to get away from that.

So I took on the commission and wrote the biography of the first Sister of Mercy to arrive in Australia, a woman called Ursula Frayne who arrived in 1846 in the Swan River colony, from Ireland, with Bishop Salvado, now a very well-known missioner. She was already an experienced missionary in Newfoundland, and arrived with a small group of Sisters in the nascent colony of what is now Western Australia before coming to Melbourne in 1856.

Researching her story opened me up in many ways to the ways in which these women are often sidelined – not just in broader histories, but even within Catholic histories. It’s usually the archbishop who lays the foundation stone of the school, the cathedral, whatever, who gets all of the attention, whereas a lot of the backbreaking day-to-day work is done by these unpaid women. So I became quite a passionate advocate for the huge contribution to Australian history by these women.

From that, other commissions have also followed. I was approached by the Order of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who were at Abbotsford, that huge complex here. They wanted a history not just of Abbotsford but of all of their foundations in Australasia and Tahiti. So that was a huge project, much bigger than I had originally anticipated. But again, there are very few of them left now, and they were very aware of the lack of voices to be able to tell you these histories.

This work has opened up a whole sideline, in a sense, for me, and I would really promote strongly anyone taking on a commissioned history. It comes with its own kind of baggage in some ways, but I’ve been very fortunate that each time they’ve given me completely free rein, they haven’t tried to dictate the way things should go, and seeing these extraordinary archives of material in Australia, I would strongly recommend that people would follow those sorts of opportunities if they arise.

Do you find that being involved in two research or specialist areas informs the work that you do in the other area, do you find that it changes your approach?

That’s a great question because I was really anxious at first in taking on this new work as I didn’t have a background in Australian history, or in religious history – I had to do a lot of background work on that. But then of course, these sisters come from a long European tradition that I was very familiar with in the Renaissance and late Medieval period and so, tracking the ways in which women religious had been viewed from that period through to the present – what are the similarities, what are the changes – increasingly informed my work and I found the two did speak to each other in continually surprising ways, actually. 

Recently you have also worked with the Australian delegation for the Biennale Arte. How did you become involved with the programme, and what have you enjoyed most about it?

In recent years the lived experience of the city of Venice has become my deep passion, and bringing others to an appreciation of the city has now become a big part of my work. In many ways this was the natural outcome of my teaching activities in the city, but I have become increasingly enmeshed in the city’s artisanal culture and with raising awareness of the pressures facing the city.

In 2017 I was asked by the Faculty to curate a day’s activities for a select group of university alumni who had contributed to the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Then in 2018 to 2019 I was signed up more formally by the Australian Council for the Arts as a consultant to curate a programme of thirty-five concurrent activities for the 200 high level donors of the Australian Pavilion visiting the city in both May and October 2019.

Catherine together with Kerry Gardner AM (Chair of the Venice Biennale Committee) and Louisa O’Toole, from the Australia Council for the Arts, at the Biennale Arte 2019

Part of the brief was to ensure participants – many of whom knew the city well – were taken to places, introduced to people, and given experiences that were unique and not part of a usual itinerary. It was one of the most high-pressured things I have ever done – but was immensely satisfying and enjoyable, especially as the AusCo team were such terrific people to work with.

During that period, the University of Melbourne became the official Education Partner of AusCo, and so I was asked to organise an additional event in Venice for the Vice Chancellor and chose to do it in one of the oldest areas of the Venetian Arsenale hosted by the navy.

These experiences of high-level engagement – bringing people from Australia to intersect with the many places and people I love in Venice has been a deeply moving and satisfying experience for me.

The special issue, Luxury’s Fragile Frontier: The Rhinoceros and Venice, was published in July 2021. In Semester 2, 2021 Catherine is coordinating the honours-level subject The Long History of Globalisation (HIST40037), and the ‘Who do you think you are?’ stream within the third-year capstone subject Making History (HIST30060).

Feature image: Catherine Kovesi on a boat in the Grand Canal, Venice