The first GEMS in portraits of 2018 is with Nele De Raedt, assistant and doctoral researcher at the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning. Nele is now in the final phase of her PhD, writing a dissertation on palace architecture in fifteenth-century Italy under the supervision of Maarten Delbeke and Anne-Françoise Morel. More specifically, the focus of her project concerns practices of violence (defilement, confiscation, destruction) of these palaces, as well as the possible interactions between this culture of violence against buildings and contemporary architectural theory. From January 2015 to June 2016, Nele worked as a research fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut in the research group on Ethics and Architecture. At Ghent University, she enjoys the combination of research and teaching. Recently, she also taught a course in art history as a guest teacher at the KASK School of Fine Arts.
How did your interest for your research arise?
After studying architecture, I started working as an engineer architect at the architecture firm Urban Platform. After one year, I participated in a summer school on “Roma in Festa: Staging and Experiencing Festival Culture in Early Modern Rome”, which sparked my interest for research again. I applied for the assistant position at Ghent University and started planning my PhD. As for the subject, I had always been interested in theories on beauty, ever since I was a student. When I read an article on the defilement of houses at the beginning of my PhD, I knew that I wanted to link these two elements. Whereas architectural theories are often studied within the evolution of their own discipline, I wanted to join the limited body of work that studies them within their contemporary social and political context. What I find most interesting is the system in which violence against houses took place. I focus on practices of private conflict, but in fact it also happened legally within the official judicial system. Interestingly, architectural treatises already anticipate this violence. The texts that I study date from the latter half of the fifteenth century, and they explicitly promote beauty and ornamentation in the design as protective measures against attackers.
Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary?
Yes, very much. I consider architecture a societal construct, which automatically links it to other disciplines that try to understand human society. Methodologically, I start from a limited focus and then look at it from various angles: legal history, philosophy, politics, ethics, and aesthetics. I do have to add that architecture stays my central focus at all times. Whenever I zoom out to include other disciplines, I always keep in mind that it has to be in service of my architectural research subject. The texts that inspire me the most do exactly this: they guard the specificity of their subject but they try to put it in different perspectives. I also learned how productive this approach might be from my research stay in Florence, where discussions would fan out, but in the end, they would always lead back to art and, in doing so, bring forth valuable new insights.
Have you ever experienced a Eureka moment in your research?
‘Eureka’ sounds too sudden and euphoric to me, as if you would experience a stroke of genius from one moment to the next. That is usually not how it works for me. My process is slower, more laborious than a ‘Eureka’ moment seems to imply. I find it exciting whenever I get to connect the dots and my sense of direction grows. During such a time, I either start writing immediately, or I go out for a walk to clear my head and give my thoughts new space. To me, this process of slow growth works very well, and is – in the end – more sustainable.
What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read?
My promotor will smile when he reads this, but it is Building the Kingdom. Giannozzo Manetti on the Material and Spiritual Edifice (2006), by Christine Smith and Joseph F. O’Connor. It is a critical edition of Manetti’s texts with an elaborate introduction that inspired me very much. I particularly like their analysis of Manetti’s word use. For example, the word ‘spatium’. In the twentieth century, the importance of ‘space’ is obvious to architecture theory, yet studying its use in the fifteenth century is quite innovative and therefore insightful. Or take the chapter on Pope Nicholas V’s project for the Apostolic Palace. By means of word analysis they reconstruct the way the text was used and how this relates to the resulting constructions. Like Smith and O’Connor, I too am confronted with the methodological question of how to research historical architecture in the face of such a scarcity in physical and graphical source material. Often, the buildings themselves have been largely transformed or disappeared altogether, and unlike for the sixteenth century and later, there is not all that much contemporary graphic material for fifteenth-century Italian architecture. It is very important to find innovative ways of dealing with the kind of source material you have.
And the most recent one?
This is Magnanimité. L’Idéal de Grandeur dans la Philosophie Païenne et dans la Théologie Chrétienne (1951), by René-Antoine Gauthier. It was in fact the advice of a fellow scholar, that I should read it, “even if it were only to rebut the book’s central thesis.” The book discusses the concept of magnanimitas throughout the centuries, until the scholastics and Thomas of Aquino. The latter tries to reconcile the concept with the ideal of modesty that ruled the Christian world. At first, I was hesitant to read the book. It seemed a lot of work to read 500 pages in elaborate French, just ‘to rebut its thesis’. But still, I read it, and I am very happy that I did. Its broad overview of the history of philosophy and theology across time offered me new insights for my own research, although I must also say that with a general approach such as this, it is difficult to maintain the nuances.
About the image: drawn in the margins of Fileno della Tuata’s Historia di Bologna (origini-1521), we see the destruction of Palazzo Bentivoglio. Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, ms. 1439, 597v.