Research during COVID: the experience of three Marie Curie Fellows

Three Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellows from the Department of Humanities (DSU) share their experiences of international research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The individual Marie Curie fellowships envisage a period of research to be spent outside the European Union, following which the fellow returns to a European university for one year. Our interviewees tell us about their research projects and the effect of the pandemic on their work.

Elena Bacchin - Political prisoners: a transnational question in 19th century Italy

What is the basis of your research project and what are the countries you work in?

My research project is a transnational historical investigation into the role and international representations of Italian political prisoners during the nineteenth century. The aim is to investigate how and to what extent political prisoners were key figures in the construction of the Italian national-patriotic discourse and in the foreign understanding of the Risorgimento.

During the nineteenth century, a large number of activists, politicians and intellectuals spent part of their life in prison as a result of their struggles to obtain Italian independence and unification or the affirmation of liberal principles. Moreover, in the same period, the concept of political prisoner was given a specific configuration thanks to the work of some liberal thinkers and jurists who emphasised the moral aspects and the relativity of political crime, declaring it less serious than common offences. Therefore, thanks to precise political and media strategies, the treatment of political prisoners became an international concern in the nineteenth century: political prisoners began to be represented as heroes ready to sacrifice their lives for the nation or for political liberalism.
The description of the bodies and sufferings of the prisoners became the emblem of the despotism of Italian governments, arousing emotions and driving a political commitment even abroad.

The aim of the project is therefore to investigate political prisoners as transnational actors of the nineteenth century, underlining the emergence of a commitment and sensitivity towards political prisioners and people persecuted for political opinions. There is a common thread between these historical issues and the issues relating to political prisoners in the world today, thanks to the growing international awareness that is emerging about the role and conditions of imprisoned political activists and refugees fleeing persecution; just think of Nasrin Sotoudeh and Fariba Adelkhan imprisoned in Iran, or the intellectuals imprisoned in Turkey.

As this is a transnational project, the primary sources - such as diplomatic documents, newspapers, parliamentary debates, memoirs and letters - are scattered across several countries. In addition to Italy, the project includes research in the United States, Great Britain, France, Austria, Brazil and Argentina.

What has been the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on your work?

In March, precisely when the pandemic outbreak occurred, the outgoing phase should have started at Columbia University and I actually landed in New York on the same day as they closed the university for the first case of Covid and Veneto was declared a red zone. Finding myself unable to work overseas, in agreement with the Project Officer - the manager of my project at the European Commission - and the international research office at Ca’ Foscari, I decided to return to Europe. I landed in Rome as President Trump was declaring the closure of the borders for people travelling from the Schengen area.
So, my stay at Columbia University was abruptly interrupted and replaced by remote work. Given the exceptional situation, in fact, the European Commission authorised teleworking, which enabled research projects to continue.

However, last spring I also had research trips planned in Argentina and Brazil. In fact, in order to reconstruct the events related to the deportation of some political prisoners of the Papal State and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the territories of the Brazilian Empire and the Argentine Confederation, I had to visit to the archives in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador de Bahia. Clearly, the plan was blown.

How did you manage to do your research during the months of lockdown?

During the lockdown I continued my research by working on archival material I had previously collected and digital resources. In the historical field, the digitisation of sources is becoming increasingly important, making it possible to safeguard rare material and making it available to scholars regardless of their place of work. To give an example: during the lockdown, I was able to study the newspapers and journals published in Great Britain during the 1850s through the online database of the British Library which has digitised and made available its vast collection. When dealing with a transnational project, these are fundamental sources.
Finally, an increasing number of scientific publications - journals, but also monographs - are available in digital format in some library repositories, allowing you to keep up-to-date with the latest research acquisitions.

Do you think the current situation will leave its mark on the world of international research?

The main risk I believe is of limiting the possibilities of conducting transnational research projects, such as the one I am working on. In fact, these are rather expensive projects, which involve periods of research in different countries and which can often only be conducted with European-type funding.
Other problems concern mobility and access to sources. While hoping that, once the pandemic is under control, the ban on international travel will be lifted again, the increase in costs of transport could make research abroad more problematic.
Furthermore, the current regulations for access to the archives (in Italy, but also abroad) make research almost impossible. Even when the archives were reopened, researchers were faced with waiting lists of months, a drastic reduction in the material that can be consulted, and - almost inexplicably - research rotated every other day or for time slots of a couple of hours. Each research trip is very expensive and not very productive. In a situation already difficult in terms of facilities for archives and libraries (due to staff problems and lack of funds), the humanities field, which has its own research laboratory in these buildings, is encountering serious difficulties.
The current situation calls for a review of the work of historians, but it can also be an opportunity to rethink the methodology for using sources.

Matteo Favaretto - InProv: an Inventory of the Prosimetra in Vulgar Tongue in the Early Centuries of Italian literature (1250-1500)

What is the basis of your research project and what are the countries you work in?

My research project aims to trace the history of the tradition of prosimetra in the early centuries of Italian literature. By prosimetrum, we mean a text composed in both prose and verse: one illustrious example is Dante's Vita Nova. To this end, I am examining the texts that display this prosimetric form, and drafting a catalogue that will also be available online. I did the first year of my research at the American University of Notre Dame in South Bend (Indiana), where I should still be today; unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I am continuing my project from London, where I live. My third year, however, will be spent in Venice.

What has been the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on your work?

In my case, the pandemic had some repercussions as regards participation in academic events: the second part of a specialist course on Boccaccio that I was following at Notre Dame University was continued on Zoom; a Renaissance studies conference I was due to attend in early April, which was supposed to take place in Philadelphia, was cancelled; there was no chance of the week of training at the Accademia della Crusca during the summer going ahead. For the type of research I conduct, the greatest limitation was the period of closure of the libraries, making it impossible to loan and consult resources useful for my research.

How did you manage to do your research during the months of lockdown and what sort of support did Ca’ Foscari provide?

Before the University of Notre Dame was closed, I was able to borrow some books from the library that I would need to continue my research in the following months; I bought other books online, while I found some articles in electronic format through jstor or At the moment, I’m continuing with areas of the project for which I have, or can easily get hold of, sufficient resources, without the research suffering significant delays. Throughout the lockdown period, I received great support from the staff of the Department Research Unit, who monitored my situation continuously.

Do you think the current situation will leave its mark on the world of international research?

Definitely. I believe that there will be a greater enhancement of the online methods of accessing bibliographic sources and participation in academic events: for example, the possibility for researchers and students from different countries to take advantage of distance learning (I myself am now following a specialist course organised by the University of Warwick), or to participate in seminars normally open to members of the departments of individual universities.

Sabrina Minuzzi - MAT-MED in Transit. The Transforming Knowledge of Healing Plants

What is the basis of your research project and what are the countries you work in?

My project focuses on the local and exotic Materia Medica used in Italian therapeutic practices between the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, not only by professionals, but also by ordinary people who loved to study the natural kingdoms, of whom there were many in in the past, who also created certain medicinal remedies themselves.
The Materia Medica is in fact the set of knowledge relating to the medicinal properties of mainly plants, but also of animals and minerals, which constituted the raw material from which medical remedies were obtained. The expression derives from the Latin title of a substantial compilation drawn up by the physician and botanist Dioscorides in the first century A.D. (De Materia Medica libri sex).

With an interdisciplinary approach based on my dual specialization in Social History of Medicine and History of Books, MAT-MED in Transit looks to Materia Medica as a window to healing practices and the underlying theoretical framework it in the early modern age; however, with the ultimate aim of increasing current awareness of the value of nature as a resource for our daily life. In fact, I will also examine the dissemination of the current knowledge of the therapeutic properties of certain plants and herbs.
The project, which began on 1 October 2019, included an outgoing phase at Brown University (Providence), with a supervisor in history of science, starting in February 2020.

What has been the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on your work?

I had to interrupt my stay in the US after just two months, which were, however, important to get to know personally my supervisor - whom I had only contacted via email - and the people of the Center for Digital Scholarship with whom I was supposed to develop one of the two digital tools required for my project (the online digital edition of a wonderful herbarium kept at the Marciana National Library). The atmosphere was exceptionally welcoming, starting with my supervisor, whom I knew only by reputation, and who began to involve me in seminars and conferences.

How did you manage to do your research during the months of lockdown and how did you redefine your research activities? What sort of support did Ca’ Foscari provide?

Fortunately, I had the initial human contact with the US university, because this allowed me to continue designing my site with the digital edition remotely with the Brown CDS. We speak every 15 days or so via Zoom or Googlemeet, to assimilate the necessary digital expertise, albeit more slowly than in person - explaining technical things remotely is rather laborious. I used the period of total lockdown - including closure of archives and libraries - essentially to write articles and texts, except for some targeted checks in the Italian institutions that reopened in fits and starts.
I wouldn't have been able to do anything if I hadn’t had some research set aside almost ready for publication. Contact with my US supervisor, on the other hand, has eased a little, in part because my sources are Italian and, if the emergency situation continues, I will rely on using more sources found in Italy. However, I’m counting on starting up again in the spring, when I have accumulated analysis of more historical material, for an essential comparison. I have always had tremendous support from the research office and the Ca’ Foscari administration, including during the health emergency. All my contacts are very helpful and quick to reply.

Do you think the current situation will leave its mark on the world of international research?

There will undoubtedly be a change. I hope it will also be positive, in terms of planning remote activities (preparatory meetings, even some seminars etc.), while at the same time adding value to certain selected initiatives held in person. I hope that the current forced use of new technologies can also lead to such tools becoming an additional aid for teaching in the classroom, not to replace it, but to enhance it.