Category Archives: Exhibits

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part 6

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts on global pandemics written by the staff of Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department.  Like the firstsecond, third, fourth, and fifth posts, it is edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.  The following post is written by Heidi Madden, Ph.D. , Librarian for Western European and Medieval Renaissance Studies.

You have all probably seen them: online reading lists created expressly for the bored souls forced to stay indoors because of the restrictions on movement imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  (If not, check out the “Meta-List of the Books You Should Read in Coronavirus Quarantine,” created by the writers at Open Culture).  Some booklist-makers promise to provide prospective readers with cathartic relief from coronavirus fears through curative stories. Others focus on escapist fantasies that keep you sitting on the edge of your seat (Literary Hub Round).  Still others recommend plague novels that let us walk with our fears in virtual communities and to experience our common humanity through empathy. But no matter where you find them or who writes them, most online reading lists created during the COVID-19 pandemic—such as this piece in Vogue magazine, significantly entitled “Six Centuries later, The Decameron is Suddenly the Book of the Moment”—reach back to the Italian Renaissance and, more specifically, to Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) and his Decameron (multiple copies of which are available in English translation, in both print and electronic format at Duke University Libraries).  In this blog post, I will try to provide some context for understanding this seemingly irresistible attraction to what more radical literary critics would dismiss as a canonic work of yet another dead, white, Western male.

Giorgio Vasari, Six Tuscan Poets (c. 1548-1570). Boccaccio (third from left) peeks out over the shoulders of Petrarch and Dante

First, let’s begin with some historical and biographical context.  In 1347, when the bubonic plague—or what Joris Roosen and Monica H. Green’s 2020 bibliography on the state of Black Death research in the era of COVID-19 called The Mother of All Pandemics—arrived in the port of Messina, Sicily, and quickly began to spread across the Italian peninsula, Boccaccio was a 34-year-old struggling writer living at home with his parents.  The illegitimate son of a prominent and prosperous citizen of the city of Florence, Boccaccio aspired to follow in the footsteps of his older and more famous contemporary, the great Italian poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374), and their even greater role model, Dante Aligheri (d. 1321), the author of the Divine Comedy.  That is, Boccaccio wanted to become a “humanist,” i.e. a scholar-writer who used the classics of Greek and Roman literature to create a rich and vibrant, vernacular Italian language, in place of what he and his allies dismissed as the stilted, officious Latin tongue, the language of both Church and State.  In effect, to transform the irredeemably corrupt world that they had inherited from previous generations and to lay the groundwork for a metaphorical rebirth (It. rinascimento, Fr. renaissance) of the beauty and splendor that the humanists associated with the lost world of classical antiquity.

The Black Death in Florence. Decameron. BNF Fr. 239, f. 1r.

When the plague reached the city of Florence, in 1348, tens of thousands of people died of the deadly infectious disease, at least three times the number of those that had died of the same disease during an earlier outbreak back in 1340.  This time, Boccaccio’s father and stepmother were among the victims of the deadly infectious disease—a personal loss that also left the writer in possession of the family fortune.  Now that Boccaccio had the financial means to pursue an independent literary career, he embarked upon an ambitious, multi-year, book project, one that would eventually come to be known as his literary masterpiece.  The setting for this work, which was written between 1348 and 1353, was inspired, at least in part, by the author’s personal experience as an eyewitness and survivor of an outbreak of the plague.

Boccaccio, Decameron (Ferrara, c. 1467). MS. Holkham misc. 49, fol. 5r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

However, the Black Death was more than just the immediate stimulus to Boccaccio’s most famous literary work.  It also served as the literary framing device for the 100 novellas contained in the anthology to which he gave an Italian name that he had coined, as one would expect of a Renaissance humanist, from ancient Greek (< δέκᾰ, “ten” and ἡμέρᾱ, “day”).  This was a reference to the number of days that the book’s main characters—consisting of a company of 10 young Florentines (seven women and three men, representing various vices and virtues)—spent in bucolic self-isolation, regaling each other with stories, while the pandemic raged outside the walls of their villa and all around them.

The description of the plague with which Boccaccio’s begins his book was not just an eyewitness account of the outbreak in Florence in 1348.  It was a mini-literary work in itself, inspired by the classic description of the plague of Athens in the History of the Peloponnesian War, written by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides (460 BC to 400 BC).  Like Thucydides, Boccaccio’s description of the plague in the introduction to the Decameron offered a realistic account of the outbreak of the disease, its symptoms, and its impact on society; and like Thucydides, he focused on earthly matters rather than on supernatural powers.  In this, as in many other instances—for example, in many of the plots and themes of the novellas in the Decameron—Boccaccio reveals the humanist project of translating classical stories, motifs, and images into the literary language of the contemporary author and his era. In effect, Boccaccio can be seen as a node in a network of literary texts and their authors—both those that preceded him and those that followed him—and thus as part of a much more complex web of cultural linkages than is usually depicted in the old syllabi of Western Civ courses.

Connections between Boccaccio and literature before and after the publication of the Decameron

A striking visualization of the connections between Boccaccio and literature before and after the publication of the Decameron was created in 2016 by Kristján Hannesson, a graduate student in the UNC Department of English and Comparative Literature (you can download the full chart from Scribd).  Kristján was one of the grad students who took a course on Boccaccio taught by Duke Professor Martin Eisner, a renowned expert on the Italian Renaissance and an authority on Boccaccio.  Professor Eisner helped Kristján and the other students in the course to organize and curate an exhibit on Boccaccio and the Genealogy of Stories, which was held on July 20, 2016 – October 16, 2016 in The Jerry and Bruce Chappell Family Gallery at Duke University Libraries.  As the title suggested, the exhibit sought to show the genealogy of all of Boccaccio’s stories: where they came from and whom they influenced.

Each circle in the genealogy of stories corresponded to an exhibit case in the Chappell Family Gallery that allowed for the exploration of the texts found in beautiful rare editions held at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Boccaccio and the Genealogy of Stories Exhibit (2016)

The exhibit cases teamed with beautiful Boccaccio related editions from the Rubenstein Library.  One case, for example, displayed a painting and an actual potted plant next to a book showing the opening lines of John Keats’ Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (1818), a narrative poem in which the English Romantic adapted the story of Lisabetta (Fourth Day – Novel 5): Her lover has been murdered and appears to her in her dreams; she goes to dig up the lover’s body and plants the head in a pot of basil that she tends to day and night.  Isn’t that romantic?

John Keats, “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil “(1818) uses the story of Lisabetta (Fourth Day – Novel 5)

Another exhibit case included a depiction of a (literally) heart-wrenching scene from the Decameron (Fourth Day, Novel 1): juxtaposing a painting (c. 1650) by Bernardino Mei (1612 – 1676) of Ghismonda, cherishing the heart of her murdered lover, Guiscardo, with a miniature on the same theme from one of the illustrated editions of the Decameron, held by the Rubenstein Library.

Ghismonda cherishing the heart of her murdered lover Guiscardo, by Bernardino Mei (Fourth Day –Novel 1)

As these two examples suggest, and as the prominence of female characters in the Decameron demonstrates, in Boccaccio’s case, the “human” in humanist explicitly included women.  As the compiler of an encyclopedia on the lives of famous women (De Mulieribus Claris, available in English transation)–the first in what became a literary genre that stretches from the 14th-century to the present–the Florentine author was acutely aware of the important role that women play in society, not just in traditional familial roles, but as free agents and independent thinkers.  Boccaccio’s recognition of the role of women in society and the importance of hearing their stories is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the Decameron appears so modern.

But perhaps the best explanation for the appeal of Boccaccio’s work is also the simplest.  The Decameron is an anthology of love stories, which are by definition based on perennial themes (jealousy, anger, fate, desire, hatred, lust, virtue) that change much more slowly than the societies around them.  Pandemics may come and go, but a good love story will always stick with you.

 

New Exhibit: Tobaccoland

Tobaccoland
On display January 10 – June 20, 2020
Mary Duke Biddle Room, Rubenstein Library, Duke West Campus (Click for map)

Please check our website for current library hours.


About the Exhibit

Explore the history of cigarettes in the United States, from their initial unpopularity, to their emergence as a ubiquitous element of American life, to rise of vaping today. Tobaccoland examines the role that tobacco marketing, branding, and nicotine addiction have played in twentieth-century American history. The National Cancer Institute estimates that by the 1950s, as many as 67 percent of young adult men smoked cigarettes. But as smoking rates spiked, so did illnesses associated with cigarettes. In the past sixty years, anti-smoking campaigns, lawsuits, regulations, and public smoking bans (like Duke’s pledge to be smoke-free by July 2020) have led to a drastic reduction in the numbers of Americans who smoke. Still, cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States.

Image of 1950s tobacco advertisements
Following World War II, the number of smokers in the U.S. reached unprecedented levels. The 1950s saw a boom in tobacco advertising. Ads featuring film and television stars and athletes became commonplace alongside tobacco-sponsored television programming and advertising at sporting events.

The exhibit is divided into several sections, including early cigarette marketing innovations, moral opposition to tobacco, targeted marketing to women and youth, the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report linking cigarette smoking and cancer, the search for new markets, government regulation and industry response, e-cigarettes, quitting and prevention, and the complicated legacy of tobacco in building the Duke family fortune and, ultimately, Duke University.

Image of exhibit case
Tobacco was the foundation of the Duke family fortune. And the foundation of Duke University is inextricably tied up with the Dukes’ tobacco wealth.

Tobaccoland was curated by Joshua Larkin Rowley (Hartman Center Reference Archivist), Meghan Lyon (Head, Rubenstein Library Technical Services), and Amy McDonald (Assistant University Archivist).


Exhibit Book Talk: Please Join Us!

Date: Friday, February 7
Time: 3:00 p.m.
Location: Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room (Rubenstein Library 153)

Dr. Sarah Milov, Professor of History at University of Virginia, will discuss her recently published book, The Cigarette: A Political History (Harvard University Press, 2019), in conjunction with the exhibit.

Free and open to the public.

International and Area Studies Exhibit: Anti-Americanism: A Visual History

Come see a new exhibit from the International and Area Studies Department which displays anti-American materials spanning 130 years and four continents. Inspired by the recent acquisition of a Cold War-era comic collection from the People’s Republic of China, the exhibit expands to capture a broad range of responses to America’s presence on the world stage throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

The earliest materials on display date from the time of the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century. These include famous critiques of American imperialism by Latin American thinkers like José Enrique Rodó and José Martí, as well as political cartoons from the period which reveal both Cuban responses to the war and dissenting voices from within the United States.

Moving through the 20th century, the exhibit features reproductions of Italian World War II propaganda posters which can be found in the Rubenstein Library’s Broadsides and Ephemera Collection. The bulk of the materials focus on the Cold War and the anti-American sentiment invoked by lingering U.S. military presence in East Asia. Highlights include the allusion-rich and satirically humorous Chinese comics from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as published photograph collections documenting anti-American protests in Korea and Japan.

From archival posters to reproductions found in secondary sources, the Duke Libraries’ collections provide a wealth of visual anti-American material to research and explore. Come to the second floor of Bostock Library by the Nicholas Family International Reading Room to view the highlights, and learn about the complex and competing narratives which have shaped international perceptions of the United States through the years.

Special thanks to Yoon Kim and to the Exhibit Services Department for their kind help in providing resources for the exhibit.

Upcoming International and Area Studies Exhibit

Stayed tuned for our upcoming exhibit of anti-American materials from around the world! The display will feature historic Chinese comics from a recently-acquired collection. These visual propaganda pieces were published in the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Cold War drove tensions between the two nations to new heights. The exhibit will also highlight materials from Europe, Latin America and the United States itself. Take a look below to get a sneak peek at two items which will feature.

Entitled “Be Clear about the Nature of American Imperialism,” this comic illustrates American hypocrisy. A serene President Kennedy poses like the Buddha. On his right, arms reading “The Peace Corps” offer gifts of harmony and prosperity, including a sack labeled “Food for Peace.” On his right, arms reading “Preparing for war against Cuba and Lumumba” wield tools of violence.

This comic,  “Thus Is America,” vividly depicts the perceived vices of the United States, including the oppression of workers, the Ku Klux Klan, loose morals and international aggression. Can you spot General George MacArthur?

The exhibit will be displayed on the second floor of Bostock Library next to the East Asian Magazine Reading Room starting in July.

Last Chance to See Exhibit: Graphic Narratives from Around the World

Come explore the truly global popularity of graphic novels at the International and Area Studies exhibit on the second floor of Bostock Library, next to the East Asian Magazine Reading Room. The exhibit will be up through next Tuesday.

Since ancient times, human beings all over the globe have been bringing text and images together to tell stories. In this selection of graphic novels and cartoons from Duke’s collection, you will see retellings of classics and tales of adventure that have gained massive popularity in Japan and China. You will see stories of revolution and bold political movements from Russia, India, South Africa, and Colombia. You will see tales of atrocities, survival, and redemption in Germany and Israel. You will see humor, both lighthearted and political, in Turkey, Portugal and Spain, and everyday life in Korea and Côte d’Ivoire. This variety demonstrates the power of graphic narratives to reflect and lend new visual interpretations to all aspects of the human experience. We welcome you to explore one of the world’s most popular modes of storytelling in the Duke collection.