Marco Polo Centre research activities are aimed at exploring innovative topics as religious identities, migrations, climate change, history of the relations between Europe, Asia and Islamic World from a transcultural point of view. In particular, we are interested in historical, religious, philosophical and artistical processes, in the impact of ICT in the linguistic and symbolic production and in the study of emergent areas such as South West and Central Asia.

Research activities

Marco Polo Centre research activities mainly include post doctoral research grants dedicated to specific aspects of the topics of interest and the organization of workshop and symposia involving the most  recognised experts in the world in the topics covered: you will find more information about our ongoing and past projects in the tabs.

Chinese Investment in Italy and the BRI

Supervisor: Renzo Riccardo Cavalieri
Fellow: Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi
Starting date: 01 June 2020



In the last decade, Chinese companies invested more than 350 billion Euro in Europe and Italy has been one of the countries that enjoyed more this huge flow of money. Almost all industrial sectors have been affected by Chinese acquisitions, from tourism to pharma, from fashion to machinery. This phenomenon raises expectations and fears, in particular when it involves sensitive industries like ports or civil infrastructures, telecommunications or media or hi-tech. In the last five years, the flow of Chinese overseas direct investments (ODI) towards Europe has been framed within the Belt and Road Initiative, the big connectivity project launched by President Xi Jinping in 2014. Despite its importance and actuality, Italian academic literature on the subject is quite limited and – with a few exceptions (Spigarelli, Amighini, Goldstein) - out of date, while there some interesting but specialized studies are constantly produced as papers by think tanks and industrialists’ associations, but of uneven quality. Statistical analyses (e.g. the database of REPRINT-Politecnico di Milano-ICE) seem to be unable to cover the whole picture. Taking into account the existing relation between Chinese ODI and the BRI, this project’s aim is first of all to map Chinese direct investments in Italy and the related literature; on such basis, analyze by a formal (legal and business) viewpoint the methods and forms of their establishment (M&A, greenfield, etc.) and their subsequent post-acquisition operations, trying to understand whether there are issues and problems that can be considered typical of Chinese investments. Last, the present shift in the political attitude of European politics and legislation on foreign investments towards a more closed and cautious approach, with particular reference to the proliferation of protectionist tools like the “golden power” that governments can exercise to stop foreign investments in sectors that are considered strategic.

The Chinese Alternative: Beijing’s Evolving Role as Economic Option for the Middle East and North Africa 

Supervisor: Maria Cristina Paciello
Fellow: Francesco Saverio Leopardi

Once marginal, economic relations between the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and China increased significantly over the last three decades. China still does not match European and American economic presence in MENA countries in terms of trade exchanges, direct investments and strategic partnerships. Nonetheless, its developing presence, today heralded by the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as its patterns and models of intervention, have been acquiring growing relevance for local authorities and thus hold the potential to become a viable alternative to Europe and the US. In this context, there is urgent need to investigate a topic that has been so far only marginally covered by the academic literature.
This research aims at reconstructing the evolution of Chinese economic presence in the MENA by focusing on its relations with one of its main regional partners, namely Algeria. In particular, as far as the selected case study is concerned, the research will be dedicated to identify the major sectors and models of intervention that the Chinese authorities pursued since the late 1980s up to the present day. It will furthermore investigate how and to what extent Algeria welcomed Chinese economic assistance and how its importance evolved throughout the scrutinized period.
Signed treaties and trade agreements with China during the selected period, will represent the main primary sources to delineate the evolution of Chinese economic penetration in Algeria. The conditionalities and the language used to frame such documents will provide fundamental insights on the themes that this study addresses. Moreover, aiming at tracing the reaction of Algerian authorities, this research will also rely on declarations issued by relevant officials following the signature, implementation or conclusion of treaties and agreements. To this purpose, the research will be based on Arabic written sources. The archives of United Nations economic agencies for the region such as the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) or the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) will provide a further source of documentation on China-MENA economic relations. This corpus of primary sources will be analysed on the basis of a comprehensive review of the literature on the economic presence of China in the region, with particular attention to the selected case study.

Read the article The Pandemic, Debt and Sino-Algerian Relations

Kazakhstan: The Nation-Building process in between Russia, China and the Islamic world

Supervisor: Aldo Ferrari
Fellow:Paolo Sorbello
Starting date: 01 September 2019

The project aims to deepen some relevant aspects of contemporary Kazakhstan, with particular reference to the country's relations with Russia and China. The research will initially focus on the processes of construction of the Kazakh national identity and, subsequently, will take into consideration the current trends, with a special focus on Kazakhstani elites relations with and perception of Moscow and Beijing.
The relation between Russia and Kazakhstan will be examined starting from the historical linkages established over the last three centuries. The critical evaluation of the historiographical debate on the conquest and tsarist domination between the XVIII and early XX centuries will represent the starting point of the research. In particular, the research shall explore the opportunity to apply to the Kazakh context the interpretative categories of colonialism and orientalism, widespread in Western research and increasingly used in the post-Soviet countries. A key element of the research will also be represented by the creation of a modern Kazakh national identity within the Soviet policies of nationality. Indeed, Russia/USSR has played a decisive role in shaping contemporary Kazakhstan, from the linguistic and the political-administrative level up to the very delimitation of the state borders. It may be precisely for this reason that Kazakhstan strongly feels the need to emancipate itself from Russia - with which it maintains a close collaboration, particularly within the Eurasian Union - following a path that will be completed with the forthcoming abandonment of the Cyrillic alphabet in favor of the Latin one.
On this backdrop, the ultimate goal of the research is to identify the main vectors for the construction of the Kazakh national identity in the aftermath of the USSR dissolution, with a particular reference to the analysis of the local elites perceptions, as they suddenly moved from the margins of the political, economic and ideological Soviet system to the direct control of a vast country, rich in natural resources and strategically located among Russia, China and the Islamic world.
A further aspect of the investigation will be the perception by the elites of the West, whose importance appears to be indisputable but at the same time limited by the unavoidable geographical and cultural distance. Of particular relevance within the research will be the evaluation of how the Chinese model of development is assessed in today's Kazakhstan. The latter is particularly important in light of the prominent role played by Kazakhstan in the framework of the infrastructure projects proposed by Beijing (Belt and Road Initiative), which not by chance were announced for the first time in 2013 in its capital city, Astana. In fact, the awareness of the positive economic repercussions of the project seems to be accompanied, in Kazakhstan, by the widespread fears resulting from Chinese growing political and economic power. Thus, the Central Asian country may offer a privileged research perspective in order to evaluate the broader and long-term outlook of the Chinese strategies. Moreover, the relevance of Kazakhstan as a producer and exporter of hydrocarbons to the East and the West offers a further and significant starting point to study and assess the key-role of the country to the development of regional cooperation in a multi-vector perspective.
Finally, the ethnic dimension represents an additional element to be taken into account by the research, especially as both the Russian-Kazakh and the Sino-Kazakh relations come to the fore. Indeed, the research shall take into due consideration the presence of a sizable Russian community in Kazakhstan as well as the large Kazakh communities living in the Russian Federation and in the Chinese Xinjiang, where about one million Kazakhs currently live.
The study of these cultural and ethnic dynamics is ultimately aimed at identifying the geopolitical equilibriums of a composite reality like Kazakhstan, whose identity is in a continuous redefinition stage and whose strategic location, in the very heart of the Eurasian landmass, ensures guarantees of lasting relevance in the coming decades.

Strategies of linguistic leveling in Arab television productions: transcultural dynamics and sociolinguistic norms in the use of patterns

Supervisor: Antonella Ghersetti
Fellow: Vicente Marti Tormo
Starting date: 01/06/2019

The project intends to analyze the macro-strategies of linguistic leveling of various television productions and the consequent adaptation of cultural elements specific to different regions of the Arab world: among these, the use of pre-fixed formulas and linguistic structures (patterns) showing significant differences between the varieties of Arabic (“Arabic dialects”). The sociolinguistic rules of communicative exchanges in Arabic will be analyzed in a contrastive and transcultural perspective, comparing the interactions within local productions in colloquial Arabic and productions of Arabic and European transmissions having the same format. The project will drive to the creation of an annotated multimedia corpus. This corpus must contain audiovisual material, transcriptions and translations, and also annotations concerning linguistic and pragmatic aspects (cultural and social dimension of discourse, contextual factors, non-verbal language) to allow understanding of the socio-cultural and communicative dynamics of the speaking communities in Arab countries. This aspect, so far little investigated, will have possible repercussions on teaching: the corpus may constitute a resource for teachers and students not only accessible online, but also compatible with different digital platforms, contributing to the development of an innovative didactics of the Arabic language and its cultures, as well as autonomous learning and E-Learning development.

Networks of Science and Waters: the diffusion of traditional irrigation techniques in the Islamic world

Supervisor: Simone Cristoforetti
Fellow: Massimiliano Borroni
Starting date: 01 April 2019

Networks of Science and Waters will conduct an in-depth mapping of hydrological competences and knowledge of irrigation techniques in Arabic sources of the Islamic age, from the seventh until the thirteenth century. To this end, a research grant will be awarded to an individual researcher who will retrieve all information on irrigation techniques, water management and hydraulic engineering available in written works composed in Arabic in this period.
Data retrieved over the course of the project will be stored in a graph database developed by the researcher, and it will lead to the publication of a study on the diffusion of specialist knowledge about irrigation techniques and water-related phenomena among Arabic speaking elites in the lands under Muslim control during these seven centuries. The Database will allow the researcher and the proponent to conduct social network analysis, conducing to a quantitative evaluation of the diffusion of this specialist skill-set among relevant social groups.
The researcher will have to locate and register three categories of primary sources:
a) Written works explicitly devoted to themes under the scope of the project
b) Passages dealing with themes under the scope of the project that may be found in written works devoted to other subjects. For instance, a digression on hydrological matters found in the Athar al-Baqiya by al-Biruni is already under study with the cooperation of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Brescia.
c) Descriptions of historical events relevant for the project, such as mentions of the building of canals, extreme or exceptional climatic events, or notable regional customs in the field of water and soil management.
All data derived from primary sources will be stored in a graph database and put into relation with modern scholarship. Notable attention will be payed to archeological evidence. The database will be made available to the public at the end of the project, as a crucial instrument for future advancements of ongoing research on the diffusion of traditional irrigation techniques between the Mediterranean and Central Asia.
This is subject of well-known relevance for the material history of Eurasia and North-Africa. Traditionally, in many countries of the Mediterranean basin, of the
Middle East, and of Central Asia, which are characterized by water scarcity or even aridity, agriculture has been possible only in highly anthropogenic environments, such as the oasis. There, the symbiosis between man and nature saw the emergence of strikingly coevolutive agricultural systems. Throughout history, traditional irrigation techniques, e.g. Qanat, dams, terraces, Zaï, and water pulling tools allowed man not only to bring or store water where needed, but to fight back desertification as well.
Today, the value of said techniques is much more than that of local heritage. They spread through the societies of a wide world area, where they have been adapted to the challenged peculiar to the new lads where they were introduced. This adaptative feature is making these techniques a pivotal starting point for a new evaluation of the role of agriculture in the protection of the soil, as key objective land planning. Today, an adequate understanding of the historical processes that these techniques underwent seems essential.

Lightness and meta-textuality: from India to Europe and back

Supervisor: Thomas W. P. Dähnhardt - Andrea Drocco
Fellow: Veronica Ghirardi
Starting date: 01 March 2019

The project Lightness and meta-textuality: from India to Europe and back attempts an analysis of two peculiar aspects characterizing hindi prose literature at the end of the 20th century, i.e. the concept of ‘lightness’ and the importance of meta-textual reflection, which in their turn are encountered in a considerable amount of post-modern Western literature, in particular in the European literature of the second half of the 20th century. Primarily, the research wants to address the concept of lightness -as intended by Italo Calvino in his American Lessons - through the works of authors such as Manohar Śyām Jośī, Vinod Kumar Śukla, Uday Prakāś. A first comparative approach will be attempted though an analysis of Calvino’s prose works and those of other renowned authors of European literature, including Juan José Millás and Angela Carter.
At the same time, the project intends to examine the frequent recourse to meta-textual reflection in hindi prose literature as, for instance, with writers such as Manohar Śyām Jośī, Mṛdulā Garg and Kṛṣṇa Baldev Vaid, trying to put evidence on the expressive and semantic value their works contain. In this context, the main sources of reference in European literature will be Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, John Fowles and Vladimir Nabokov.’world literature’
The present research project took shape from the desire to single out transverse patterns and tendencies, present in different and apparently distant literary traditions, such as the European literatures and the Indian literature in hindi language. Especially in the age of globalization it is increasingly important to propose visions oriented on broader horizons which, if accompanied by an
analysis of single literary realities, can aim at overcoming the narrowness of conventional cultural barriers. While inserting itself into the recent debate on the need to review critically the concept of ‘world literature’, the project wants to trace ‘significant geographies’, going beyond the monolingual models of literary history so typical today, which tend to confine the literary traditions of non-European regions to the periphery of world literature.

The Belt and Road Initiative. Perceptions from Japan, Pakistan, and Iran

18 February 2020

Venue: Aula Baratto, Dorsoduro 3246, Venice - 9am -1pm

This Colloquium will focus on how different Asian countries (either governments or civil society) perceive China, its foreign policies, its growing international role and the Belt and Road initiative.This is the first of a series of conferences, Colloquia, that will host high level scholars to talk about a number of relevant topics.


Tiziana Lippiello: Ca' Foscari University's ProrettriceProfessor of Classical Chinese, Religions and Philosophy of China at the Department of Asian and North African Studies, Ca’ Foscari University Venice 

Guido Samarani: Marco Polo Centre's DirectorProfessor of History of Contemporary China at the Department of Asian and North African Studies, Ca’ Foscari University Venice 

Aldo Ferrari: Marco Polo Centre's Deputy DirectorProfessor of Armenian Culture, History of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and History of the Russian Culture at the Department of Asian and North African Studies, Ca’ Foscari University Venice

Anoush Ehteshami: Professor of International Relations in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University. He is also the Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah Chair in International Relations and Director of the HH Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah Programme in International Relations, Regional Politics and Security. He is, further, Director of the Institute for Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies (IMEIS) at Durham, one of the oldest and noted centres of excellence in Middle Eastern studies in Europe. 

Shafei Moiz Hali: National Defence University, Islamabad, Pakistan.He has written extensively on Chinese foreign policy as well as on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Axel Berkovsky: Professor at the University of Pavia and Co-Head of Asia Center at ISPI. Berkofsky is also a regular contributor to the Zurich-based International Security Network (ISN), the Asia Times, as well as to other newspapers, journals and magazines on Asian politics and security, EU-Asia relations, Japanese domestic and foreign, Chinese foreign policies and North Korea

Brussels Looks East. The Caspian Region and the New EU Strategy towards Central Asia

29 November 2019

Venue: Aula Berengo, Dorsoduro 3246, Venice - 10am -13:30pm

International workshop
Organized by Carlo Frappi and Paolo Sorbello, Department of Asian and North African Studies


Welcoming Addresses, h. 10:00 – 10:20

  • Prof. Marco Ceresa Department of Asian and Northern African Studies, Ca’ Foscari University, Director
  • Prof. Guido Samarani Marco Polo Centre for Global Europe-Asia Connections, Ca’ Foscari University, Director
  • Amb. Stefano Ravagnan Former Italian Ambassador to Kazakhstan. Observatory on Central Asia and the Caspian, Board Member

Keynote Speech, h. 10:20 – 10:40

  • Amb. Peter Burian EU Special Representative for Central Asia

1st Panel: The Strategy as seen from Europe, h. 10:40 – 12:00

  • Chairs: Fabio Indeo Observatory on Central Asia and the Caspian
  • Giovanni Scopa Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Russia, Central Asia and Caucasus desk
  • Jos Boonstra EUCAM programme, Centre for European Security Studies
  • Carlo Frappi Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

2nd Panel: The Strategy as seen from the Caspian region, h. 12:00 – 13:20

  • Chairs: Paolo Sorbello Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
  • Aigoul Abdoubaetova OSCE Academy in Bishkek
  • Anar Valiyev ADA University, Baku
  • Aliya Tskhay University of St Andrews

Concluding remarks, h.13:20 – 13:30

  • Amb. Peter Burian EU Special Representative for Central Asia

Study Retreat on ecology and society along the New Silk Roads

16-18 September 2019

Venue: Cansiglio Forest 

Right before millions of people all over the world took to the streets to demand urgent action on climate change, a group of international scholars from different fields of research came together for a study retreat in the Cansiglio woods, where they analyzed the socio-ecological implications of the new Belt and Road Initiative
An innovative scientific retreat, based on the Theory-U approach, with the goal of examining the environmental repercussions of the BRI from different perspectives and drafting a declaration that could steer research towards the topic of socio-ecological relations along the BRI routes.
The idea and impetus for this retreat emerged from growing anxieties about the risks posed by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for socio-ecological communities along its routes. This was further coupled with an awareness that the development of the BRI also opens for every partner a window of opportunity to reflect deeply about the kind of progress that we want for the future of humanity: does it suffice for us to do business as usual? Or are we rather called to embark upon more radical, systemic transformations?
Reflecting on such critical matters requires that different perspectives be considered simultaneously, and for this purpose a group of people from a wide range of cultural and disciplinary backgrounds were gathered together: a conservation biologist and development practitioner (Marc Foggin), a biosocial conservation researcher (Shekhar Kolipaka), an environmental and cultural heritage legal expert (Stefan Gruber), two architects (Yun Gao and Nicholas Temple, the latter specialized in urban history and theory), and a China studies scholar working on sustainability transformations (Daniele Brombal).
In the forest they employed co-creative techniques by embodying different human and more-than-human entities (vulnerable human beings, animals, plants, artefacts). This process, coupled with individual reflection and meditation in the woods, helped in reaching a wider, holistic understanding of foreseeable impacts of the BRI. Together they sought to identify core values that could help lead us toward the kind of future they wish to see, and around which could commit their efforts and contribute to through their academic work about the BRI.
This vision for the future was condensed in a declaration, which they will be refining over the next few months and eventually employ as a basis for their future work on BRI socio-ecology, as well as to bring other people on board. It speaks about the sense of belonging to a socio-ecological community positioned along the BRI and calls for caring pathways of action that may help to bring about a future that is not primarily concerned with only material growth, but rather shaped by the concern for the whole environment as well as for current and future generations, with ecological awareness and recognition of the intrinsic value of nature with people as part of nature.

Within the activities of the Marco Polo Centre, the aim of the Project China 70-100 is to highlight and discuss new trends and perspectives about some important aspects and questions related to China’s development both at the national and international level, with particular attention to two fundamental anniversaries: the May Fourth Movement (1919-2019) and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949-2019)

Cina-Italia: 40 anni di relazioni commerciali tra opportunità e incomprensioni

December, 16, 2019

Lecturer: Antonella Piva (Far East Asia International Business Developer)

Antonella Piva studied in Ca’ Foscari and she is now Far East Asia International Business Developer. Dr. Piva’s presentation will deal with the problem of China-Italy commercial relations during the last decades.

The Elite and the Popular: The tradition of May Fourth intellectuals and its critique in the long 20th century

November, 28, 2019

Lecturer: Sebastian Veg (Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, EHESS)

The new culture movement gave birth to a figure that played a central role in the history of 20th century China: May Fourth intellectuals. At various points, intellectuals similarly attempted to give substance to an alternative tradition of engaging with grassroots society and producing knowledge outside the legitimacy framework of state institutions. The presentation will attempt to sketch out these two traditions in China’s twentieth century history and to disentangle some of the strands of the controversial legacy of the May Fourth intellectuals today.

Changing Historiographies on The Great Mongolian Empire, or: When Memory is a Strategic Tool

November, 26, 2019

Lecturer: Merle Schatz (Leipizing University)

An historical and historiographical analysis of the relevance of the role played by the Mongol Empire and the Mongol Yuan Dinasty in the context of contemporary Belt and Road strategy.

On the Edge of the Cold War: Chinese UNESCO Youth Essays in March 1949

October, 2, 2019

Lecturer: Prof. Margaret Tillman (Purdue University)

In the postwar era, UNESCO and other UN-organizations sought to foster a new subjectivity of internationalism among the youth of the world. This lecture examines Chinese essays, written by middle school students in March 1949, for a UNESCO competition. Highly sensitive to the effects of the atomic bombs and the emergence of global superpowers, these essays reflect a wide variety of preoccupations among Chinese youth on the eve of the conclusion of China’s Civil War.

Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy in China from 1919 to 2019

October, 1, 2019

Lecturer: Prof. Jeff Wasserstrom (University of California Irvine)

The relation between science and democracy in China as seen in an historical perspective (1919-2019) as part of China’s research of its own path towards modernity and national autonomy.