The Place of the Humanities

Geographies of Risk: a Conference and Book Exhibit

By Eleonora Stoppino

NOTE: This exhibit has been extended and will be on view until November 24th!

Since the 1990s, risk has emerged as a central category in disciplines as different as medicine, security studies, finances, and sociology.  The meaning of the word ‘risk’ is still subject to debate, but in its common use it refers to the representation of a danger that might or might not become real in the future.  The Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese organized a conference titled “Geographies of Risk” (which took place on our campus on September 23 and 24, 2010) to offer perspectives from the Humanities on the issue of risk and its representations.

The organizers of the conference (Ericka Beckman, Luisa Elena Delgado, Javier Irigoyen-García, Mariselle Meléndez, Emanuel Rota, and myself) coupled the concept of risk with geography in order to stress that, like maps and other representations of the earth, risk is both objective and subjective, and the discussion of risk is always connected to the position of the observers.  The conference covered topics as different as the representations of colonial and post-colonial spaces, gambling, terrorism, migration and border patrol, novels discussing the conditions of life in a failed State, and the shifting boundaries between animals and humans in medieval and early modern literature.  Risk emerged from these discussions as a concept that becomes relevant in the presence of an unstable border that subjects are both invited to and discouraged from crossing.  Modern subjects are required to assess risk on their own in the political, economic, social and literary world.  Risk, its language and its geographies, as forms of representation, are, therefore, the common ground where the humanities, the social sciences, and even sciences such as Biology and Medicine can find a point of coordination.

In the Book Exhibit, on display until October 26 at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the variety of topics connected to the geographies of risk can be appreciated through a selection of early modern (that is, pre-1800) printed books.  The areas explored by the exhibit range from constructions of gender to representations of piracy and exploration, to the management of natural and political risk.  Once again, the concept of risk is the unifying factor of a history of representations of nature, newly discovered populations, the self and the state.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are the recently rediscovered Private disavventure d’una donna di vero spirito by the economist Gian Rinaldo Carli (Lucca: Benedini, 1750), one of two extant copies in the world of the life of his wife Paolina Carli Rubbi, first written and then doomed to destruction by Count Carli himself; the copper plate engravings of the Americas by Theodor de Bry (Das sechste Theil Americae, Oppenheim: 1619); the incunabulum containing Leandro di Cosco’s Latin translation of Columbus’s letter to Luis de Santángel (In laudem Serenissimi Ferdinandi Hispania[rum] regis Bethicae & regni Granatae obsidio, Victoria, & triu[m]phus, Basel: Bergmann, 1494).

Figure 1: Bry, Johann Theodor de. Dritte Buch Americae. Frankfurt am Mayn: 1593. Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

From times that did not use risk explicitly as a category of definition of the real, these volumes witness the burgeoning need to represent elements of the unknown (whether a new land, a new population, or a natural phenomenon like a volcano) as a threat, and the exploring subject as a risk-taker.  In this process of self-fashioning, risk emerges as one of the defining elements of modernity.

Figure 2: Saavedra Fajardo, Diego de. Idea de vn principe politico christiano, representada en cien empresas. Monaco: Enrico, 1640. Courtesy of the Rare Books and Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Geographies of Risk: An Exhibition on Early Modern Conceptions and Representations of Risk, held at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (27 August -26 October).  Catalog curators: Mariselle Meléndez, Javier Irigoyen-García, and Eleonora Stoppino; design and photographs by Dennis J. Sears.

For further information on the conference and book exhibit and to access the full catalog online, please visit

Eleonora Stoppino is an Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research and teaching interests include literature and culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance; epic and romance (Italy, Spain, Provence, France, Catalonia); Dante; Boccaccio; Early Modern travel narratives; and Medieval and Renaissance conduct texts among other topics.


About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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