90060 - Cultural History of Science (1) (LM)

Course Unit Page


This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Quality education Responsible consumption and production Climate Action Life on land

Academic Year 2021/2022

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course the student will be familiar with the historical and cultural dimension of science and, through the reading of original texts, of the different forms of scientific communication

Course contents

Keywords: environment, science, society, Anthropocene, geography, philosophy of landscape, ecology

Landscapes of Science: Places, Spaces and People in the Early Modern Period

The course basic premise is that the places that early modern naturalists and 'scientists' studied shaped, sometimes in very distinctive and unique ways, the research and technological development fostered by these individuals. The simple fact of being born under a volcano, near the sea, or in the proximity of imposing mountains, could offer some of these people not only inspiration, but also precious material to conduct their studies and experiment. For those who were not close to these places, the only option was travelling or obtaining second-hand information through assistants or correspondents. The course will investigate the dynamics of this relationship with the environment through a series of case studies and the reading of primary sources that could provide students with a glimpse of the rich sources available but also of the methodology of investigation – at the crossroads between the geography of science, environmental history, and cultural anthropology, – that historians can apply to their study. The aim is to make students aware of these historiographical and methodological approaches, and to help them think about the choices that modern science makes when scientists choose topics and regions for their studies, and how these choices leave significant traces in the history of science that are not always easily intelligible and motivated by 'scientific' and 'objective' criteria.

The themes discussed will include:

-The historiography of science and the geography of science (4 hours)

-the rivers (4 hours)

-the seas (4 hours)

-mountains (4 hours)

- volcanoes (4 hours)

-museum visit (2 hours)

-library visit (2 hours)

- Epilogue: from the nineteenth century to the present day (4 hours)

Attending students will be able to offer a presentation of about 10-12 minutes on a place, object, text or concept chosen in agreement with the professor (2 hours).


Much of the literature available in the field of geography of science and environmental history is written in English. Interested students should have a decent knowledge of English and be able to read these texts reasonably well.

The texts that will be presented or/and discussed include:

D.N. Livingstone, Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Pietro Camporesi, Le belle contrade. Nascita del paesaggio italiano (Milano: Il Saggiatore, 2016).

the following articles:

Tina Asmussen e Pamela O. Long, “Introduction: The Cultural andMaterial Worlds of Mining in Early Modern Europe,” Renaissance Studies, 34 (2019), pp. 8-30

Bruce T. Moran, “German Prince-Practitioners: Aspects in theDevelopment of Courtly Science, Technology and Procedures in the Renaissance,” Technology and Culture, 22 (1981), pp. 253-274.

Will Steffen et al, “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 369 (2011), pp. 842-867.

and specific chapters from the following books (available on Virtuale, the online platform)*:

Karl Apphun, A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance Venice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010)

Vera S. Candiani, Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2014)

Pratik Chakrabarti, Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2020)

Sean Cocco, Watching Vesuvius: A History of Science and Culture in Early Modern Italy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Pamela O. Long, Engineering the Eternal City: Infrastructure, Topography, and the Culture of Knowledge in Late-Sixteenth Century Rome (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018)

Chandra Mukerji, Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009).

Gregory Smits, Seismic Japan: The Long History and Continuing Legacy of the Ansei Edo Earthquake (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press. 2014)

Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

*Students attending at least 2/3 of classes will be examined on one book between Livingstone or Camporesi and three chapters/essays of their choice from those available on IOL.  Students who do NOT attend classes will be able to choose between Livingstone and Camporesi, but will be expected to prepare ALL chapters loaded on IOL.

Teaching methods

The course is run as a seminar, with brief lectures followed by class discussion on the assigned readings. Student preparation and participation is essential to the success of the seminar. Students will be required to offer a brief presentation of the duration of 10/12 min on a topic agreed with the professor.

Assessment methods

For attending students: 50% essay (3000 words excluding bibliography; the topic needs to be agreed by the professor); 25% oral exam; 25% presentation.

For non-attending students: 50% essay (3000 words excluding bibliography; the topic needs to be agreed by the professor); 50% oral exam. 

The course aims to meet the following objectives:

-to demonstrate adequate knowledge of the main aspects of the course;

-to demonstrate the ability to approach critically both the primary and the secondary sources so as to situate the primary sources within the historiographic debate that emerged over time;

-to demonstrate the ability to elaborate a coherent and organic analysis both in writing and orally around a specific theme, aspect, or question (both textual and historiographical), with the aim of reaching some original conclusions based on the evidence in the text(s);

The criteria adopted for an evaluation of the candidate and their work are the following:

1. familiarity with the content of the texts;

2. the ability to understand and analyse the texts;

3. the ability to construct an argument and use evidence appropriately to support it both in writing and orally.

The exam consists of an essay and an oral interview (each counting 50% of the total mark) aimed at assessing the methodological and critical skills acquired during the semester. The examination will focus both on the student's command of both the primary and the secondary literature. The student will be invited to discuss the texts covered during the course and to contextualise them in their historical period. Top marks (28-30) will be given to students who demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the material discussed in class and contained in the texts, critical and analytical skills, and the ability to express ideas and concepts clearly and cogently. Those students who will demonstrate a good knowledge of the material but tend to repeat it mechanically rather than demonstrate full understanding and the ability to build connections and present an argument will be rewarded with average to high marks (23-27). Students who demonstrate superficial knowledge, gaps in preparation, poor critical and analytical skills and difficulties of expression will receive average to low marks (18-22). Severe lacunae in one or more areas listed above could lead to the student repeating the exam.

Teaching tools

Slides; material uploaded on IOL; bibliography; websites; museum and library visits. 

Office hours

See the website of Monica Azzolini