Global approaches to material cultures of labour, poverty and charity

Date: 31 August 2017, 02:30–05:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 340



Against the backdrop of the revolutions and ruptures that form the theme of this ENIUGH conference, this panel proposal is aimed at focusing on the material cultures of several large-scale socioeconomic arenas of change. We propose to explore the perspective on global history produced by the material culture of labour, poverty, and charity. Adopting the approaches of micro-global history, and integrating material culture studies, history, and art history, it explores the underside of global history; the macro-designs, lived realities, and representations of poverty, systems of charity and labour. Poverty, charity, and labour are themselves complex social regimes, at once quotidian realities and universal ideas. Shifts in the boundaries of these social frontiers have themselves been forms of social revolution. Such shifts can be intellectual, ideological, or spatial. While global designs of labour, poverty, and charity can vary, experiences can be shared, and exploring global history through the lens of these phenomena can contribute to the reconfiguration of our understanding of the historical geopolitics of empire. This panel adopts a trans-temporal as well as trans-regional perspective to contribute to our historicisation and contextualisation of the ephemeral conditions of poverty and hard labour. It attempts to use material culture as a platform to excavate phenomena which have otherwise left little trace, turning the spotlight on the physicality of labour, poverty, and charity, which has formed the fabric of revolutions, ruptures, and empires.

Convenor / Chair

Anne Gerritsen (University of Warwick)


Christian de Vito (University of Leicester)

Julia McClure (University of Warwick)

Marco Musillo (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz Max-Planck-Institut)

Uroš Zver (European University Institute Florence)



Christian de Vito: Presos desnudos: Convict transportation and the material culture of poverty, punishment and labour coercion

This presentation focuses on convict transportation in the late eighteenth-century Spanish empire and addresses the material culture of poverty, punishment and labour coercion. Two aspects are especially foregrounded here. On the one hand, I look at the dialectics between the ubiquitous "nakedness" of convicts and the effort of the imperial administration to provide them with clothes, food and basic assistance during transportation and at destinations. Based on extensive sets of primary sources held in Seville, Simancas, Madrid, Buenos Aires and Quito, I address the convicts' conditions, the complex organisation of convict transportation, and the circulation of the objects aimed to cover, feed and secure them. On the other hand, I discuss the spatial and social exclusion/inclusion of transported convicts within sites of convict labour. Here I especially build on the findings of the archaeological-historical literature on the material culture in the Spanish military settlements (presidios) of the Caribbean, California, and Patagonia.

Julia McClure: The charitable face of global history: The material culture of confraternities and the Spanish Empire

Often the global history of material culture has been read as the flows of commodities and luxuries; instead, in my research I explore poverty, a powerful but often silent vector in global history. Poverty, a situation of existential precarity, has often been conditioned by an absence of things, even the things necessary to sustain life. Consequently poverty has not been a natural subject for material culture studies. Yet poverty was both a lived condition and the subject of complex socio-cultural phenomena centring around practices of charity. In my research I look at the connection between charity and colonialism in the early unfolding of the Spanish Empire in the sixteenth century, and in this paper I will offer the case study of the material culture of confraternities in the Spanish Empire to illustrate the way in which poverty and charity can offer an alternate reading of global history.

Marco Musillo: Visible Asia and invisible bodies: Tartar slaves and soldiers in 14th and 15th century Italian painting

In the history of the visualization of East-Asian people in Europe, inside or outside ethnographical practices, some significant trajectories are mostly composed by voids. These are inhabited by human experiences that for generations shaped the cultural space they traversed. The present study explores one of these trajectories by looking at the pictorial representations of Tartar people that surfaced in Italy from the XIV to the XVI century; as detailed ethnographic studies - as in the case of Pisanello (c.1395-c.1455)–, or as elements in sacred narratives such as for example in The Martyrdom of Franciscans in Tana by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1282-1348). Although such examples, with few more depictions, have been studied as rare occurrences, emblematic of the encounter between Europe and the Mongol empire, they stand for a cultural framework that greatly expands outside its main historical periodization. Here the history of female slavery and the portraying of the martial body, within universal and geographical views, become part of a multi-layered narrative hinting to languages for describing the “other” not reducible to mere exoticism or curiosity. They display powerful links with cultural and artistic issues that can be found in later European visualizations of Asian people. Even though invisible, Tartar slaves should be in fact added to the bigger picture composed by objects, illustrations, commercial encounters, and cultural exchanges, that shaped the Eurocentric vision of the globe before the modern era.

Uroš Zver: Poverty, politics, and allegory: Talking to and about the poor at the court of the Mughal Emperor

The encounter between the Mughal emperor of India and his Jesuit guests at the turn of the seventeenth century gave occasion to a mutual cultural exchange in a number of areas including most famously painting, but also architecture and works of literature. These documents of their tryst, literary and lithic alike, speak to a Mughal imperial ideology where poverty and its imperial corollary, generosity, were brought together under the idealised umbrella of the ruler’s dispensation of justice. This paper draws on two architectural and literary sources in particular – the tomb of Emperor Akbar, and a Jesuit mirror for princes in Persian – to show how the salience of poverty as a political and religious concern at court opened the way for the missionaries’ and others’ thinly veiled criticism of the imperial response to penury, perceived lack of material and personal modesty, and the redeeming wisdom of asceticism.

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