Cotsen Institute's Visiting Scholar Alessandro Vanzetti

Alessandro Vanzetti is a short-term visiting scholar who is working at the Cotsen Institute with Richard Lesure, professor at the Department of Anthropology and a core faculty member of the Cotsen Institute, through June 2020. He is on sabbatical from his position as associate professor in Pre- and Protohistory at La Sapienza University in Rome, Italy. He will be presenting a remote Pizza Talk on May 6 on his studies on “Iconography and Symbolism of the Celestial Domain and the Perception of Space in the European Bronze Age.”


Roz Salzman: Welcome to the Cotsen Institute. How did you determine that this was the place to continue your studies during your sabbatical?

Alessandro Vanzetti: I met Richard Lesure in 2015 at a meeting in Sardinia, Italy, and in 2018 he was a visiting professor at La Sapienza University. In Rome, he held a five-lesson seminar for graduate and undergraduate students about iconography and the interpretation of art and figurines. I came to the Cotsen Institute because I am also working on symbology. I am looking at the way, during the Bronze and Iron Ages, that celestial bodies are represented as symbols in the religious domain and what this tells us about the ancient perception of space. I am familiar with the work and reputation of the Cotsen Institute and its members, even if I had not met many of them in person. My interest in art and symbolism was also raised by a discourse with Luca Zaghetto, a good friend of mine working on iron age situla art, elaborate decorations on bucket-shaped metal vessels, in northern Italy and across the Alps. He introduced me to the idea of a systematic study of iconography as a tool for the interpretation of ancient decoration. I thought this would be a wonderful topic to study at the Cotsen Institute.


RS: How did your previous work lead to this area of study?

AV: In Italy, I teach prehistory, cultural history, and European protohistory. That is more or less what we call the Bronze and Iron Ages from about 2000 BCE up to Romanization, which differs from area to area. I mainly work in the Mediterranean area, with fieldwork concentrated in southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia: areas that are part of the important connections of the late Bronze Age across the Mediterranean Sea. I am a real field archaeologist. I love fieldwork, working on sites, and taking data from the beginning to the end; all the processes of archaeological study and connecting with specialists. My work on symbology evolved from this. This is a subject that has become more and more a topic of interest in recent years, and I came to be very curious about it; curious about the possibilities to create interpretations not from inspiration, but rather from systematic enquiry. I am hoping eventually to write about such interpretations.


RS: What subjects will you be addressing in your upcoming Pizza Talk?

AV: I am trying to prepare an introduction to the topic and the area. Not many within the Cotsen Institute are involved in European archaeology. But there are wonderful and important developments in this field. I want to explain how we interpret the imagery that we have found and the knowledge associated with this. I would like to try and explain what the connotations of these symbols are. As I describe in the introduction to the Pizza Talk, this discussion involves phenomenological, conceptual, cognitive, and religious aspects, which often remain difficult to disentangle.


RS: How has your visit changed now that everyone is working remotely?

AV: When I first arrived in March from Italy, I self-quarantined for two weeks. I then only had time to check out a few books from the library before the campus shut down. One always thinks of a sabbatical as a period of intense research, but also intense connections. This is a little bit different, but it is fine. I started working on some elements of the iconographic analysis, and I will eventually have some meetings with Richard Lesure, who is very busy teaching remotely. But I think of this mostly as an expansion for the mind; to help thinking. I feel that any kind of collaborative effort opens new doors because if you look at anything for too long, without outside input you will stop seeing all its facets.


RS: Is this your first visit to Los Angeles?

AV: No, I was here briefly last October to prepare for this longer visit. Before that, I had only spent time in Boston and New York, never on the West Coast. I am staying in Santa Monica near the ocean in a small apartment, which I share with Marina. ( Marina Gallinaro is also a Cotsen visiting scholar, whose rock art studies were featured in the 2019 issue of Backdirt. ) We have a rose garden, and it is very beautiful. I am actually hoping to extend my visa, so that I can spend the remainder of my sabbatical through August physically working in the Cotsen Institute.

Published on April 22, 2020.