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Graduate Student Profile: Barbara Di Gennaro September 28, 2015

Posted by emmiemiller in Uncategorized.

 barbara_di_gennaroBarbara Di Gennaro, “Alpini’s Balsam: Natural Knowledge across the Eastern Mediterranean,” Session T5: Knowledge in Motion, Thursday, November 19 1:30 – 3:30 PM

Prospero and the balsam (the story I’m going to tell)

I’m interested in how botanical knowledge moved in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 16th century, thus the texts of Prospero Alpini, the first Italian physician to publish about Egyptian medicine and botanics, the first European to speak about the coffee plant, were a very reasonable place to begin. In Alpini’s botanical works I expected to find some early example of that kind of European botany that erased “cultural complexities” and  “objectified” specimens in order to include them in the European classificatory system.balsam

But cultural differences were not a barrier to Alpini; furthermore, he presented “true” knowledge on materia medica as the fruit of a common endeavour, as the result of cross-cultural interaction. De balsamo dialogus, published in Venice in 1591, is a conversation between a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jewish physician establishing where “true” balsam could be found. A sought-after medical plant charged with religious meanings, balsam was a symbol of cross-cultural Mediterranean relationships. Surprisingly, Alpini gave authority to Egyptian physicians and laypeople versus classical and contemporary botanical texts. I think that Alpini was answering not only the need of reliable knowledge on balsam but also proposing a political view of the Mediterranean as a place where people could peacefully discuss certain topics. There were, of course, other different views of the Middle Sea no less real. Alpini implicitly meant to reaffirm a set of well-established cultural, religious, and commercial practices between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

Barbara and HSS

Last year was my first experience at an HSS meeting. I enjoyed every talk, met interesting scholars and students, and really appreciated the mentoring program. It was a great experience and very useful for understanding the field. This year I’m looking forward to going back and since the material in my talk is still new, I’m also eager to get feedback!


Barbara is a doctoral candidate in the History Department and in the History of Science and Medicine Program at Yale. Her academic interests include the history of medicine, science, and technology; early modern Italian social history; apothecaries, poisons, and antidotes, and the history of cross-cultural exchanges in the Mediterranean in early modern Europe.

In 2015, she was awarded the Jerry Stannard Memorial Award for the History of Pharmacy  for a paper on apothecaries in sixteenth-century Italy.  Her work has also been funded by the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

She holds a degree in Early Modern History from the University of Bologna. Her book-length thesis, Naples and the Turks in the Eighteenth Century, analyzed diplomatic sources from an ethnological perspective. Before coming to Yale, she worked as an editor for the two major educational publishers in Italy—Zanichelli and Mondadori Education—and helped publish some of the best-selling history textbooks in Italy. Feel free to write to her at barbara.digennaro@yale.edu.



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