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Miriana Carbonara, University of East Anglia



‘Border’ is a useful critical term as it brings out a series of conceptual metaphors, contradictions and complexities inherent in early modern visual culture, while calling to mind modalities of modern globalization. In recent years, studies have explored the border and its traditional association with linearity and fixity. Instead borders can be understood as zones characterized by a transnational flow of people and by conflictual relationships between geographical regions and modalities of power. These conditions are exemplified today by multitudes of people challenging borders, including those who are crossing the Mediterranean on a daily basis and by the brutal policies of containment that cause the emergence of new borders. Within this contradiction, borders themselves question the fixed conditions of separation and stability, they both generate and reveal ambivalence. The border appears now in its paradoxical character: an area which offers both inclusion and exclusion, conflict and agreement.


The ambivalent and paradoxical character of borders as capable of generating opposite phenomena is particularly evident in the early modern world, when they were not conceived as straight lines marking territories and political dominions. They did not block or obstruct the movement of people or objects; rather their presence challenged stable conditions of power, people and resources along constructed lines of demarcation.


A seventeenth-century map from the Modena Archive (Fig. 1) is a case in point. The area between the State of Bologna and Modena was demarcated by two waterways that are represented along the two sides of the map. The map also presents a system of roads that divides the woodland into six sections, each of which is assigned equally to the Bolognese and Modenese. The map conveys the idea that in the early modern period power was far from being a spatially fixed political unit from which it asserted its control. Instead, it creates realities that are fluid and in a state of becoming, and a tension between unity and heterogeneity, closure and disclosure. The geometric measurement of each section of land contrasts with the movement of the waterways, rendered through curves and irregularities. The pictorial emphasis on the movement and fluidity of the waterways stresses the ambiguous nature of a border marked by waterways. On one hand, the map brings forward the idea of borders as territorial limits, which have played and continue to play an important part in the constitution of the nation-state. On the other hand, borders result in places continuously subjected to negotiation and interpretation – as sites that are in constant flux.


In relation to the ‘Making Worlds’ project, the border as a theoretical framework opens up questions about conflicting and paradoxical discourses emerging from early modern material culture. It is a useful term to describe the shifting political and social dynamics of defining boundaries and territories, which are often characterized by contradictions, oppositions and disruptions. Conceptually, this approach to the border challenges established categories of understanding processes, changes, relations and contradictions in early modern visual culture.


One challenge of the project is to see early modern visual culture not as a means of representation, but as an assemblage of materials and images in flux within global passages of people and objects. In this sense, placing the terms ‘materiality’ and ‘globalization’ with ‘art’ is crucial for understanding the heterogeneity and unpredictable combinations of material and practices in a historical moment characterized by experimentation, exchange and cultural interrelation. 


© Miriana Carbonara, last modified 6 May 2016





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Fig. 1. Map of border between the Modenese and the Bolognese territory on the side of Navicello and Nonantola, profile view of Nonantola and the wood, early 17th century, ink and green watercolours on paper, 60x52cm. Mappario Estense, Topografia dei terreni, f. 37/1. Archivio di Stato di Modena (Courtesy of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali - Archivio di Stato di Modena, n. 1184, April 19th, 2016).

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