The library is pleased to feature the influential and cutting-edge work of our AUS faculty researchers. In a newly launched library series, faculty from across the schools discuss their work and areas of research focus.
AUS Featured Researcher: Dr. Matteo Salvadore, Assistant Professor – International Studies, CAS
My long-lasting passion for history can be traced back to growing up around my father’s vast home library and to a remarkable high school history teacher. My specific interest in African history developed during both my undergraduate years at the Università di Bologna and an eye-opening volunteering experience in Zimbabwe. Later, in graduate school, I initially pursued modern Ethiopia and Italian Colonialism, but I quickly redirected my focus to the early modern period. I spent the last decade contributing to the study of African-European exchanges by writing accounts of Ethiopian travelers to Renaissance Europe, and the European presence in early modern Ethiopia.
The protagonists of these transcultural exchanges are what some scholars call elite Africans as a way of contrasting their experience of freedom, and in some cases of power and privilege, with that of millions of Africans victimized by the slave trade. The historiography of the African diaspora has seen tremendous growth in the past decades, but development is uneven, and there is a lot more work to be done on elite Africans. Most of my work spans from the first contacts between Ethiopians and Europeans, in the early 1400s, to the disastrous Jesuit mission to Ethiopia in the early 1600s.
What binds together the stories I have told are two fundamental contentions. While skin color was emerging as a paramount marker of otherness used to justify ignominious practices, in Renaissance Europe, Ethiopians related to their interlocutors as peers by virtue of a shared religious identity, and in some cases gained positions of considerable power. Furthermore, as Ethiopians ventured into Europe and shared valuable geopolitical knowledge with their hosts, they contributed to what is known as the Age of Exploration. With my work, and my monograph in particular, I joined a growing group of historians who have been arguing that the Age of Exploration should be regarded as a composite rather than an exclusively European phenomenon.
Writing history is about telling a story, and good history can be more engaging than fiction: when I write, I strive to contribute to the scholarly debate, but also keep the reader awake! Historians are lonely world-builders: they spend most of their time in solitude, having imaginary conversations with people who are long dead, trying to figure out what they did and thought, while seeking to recreate worlds that no longer exist.
It takes quite a bit of imagination, but also confidence and discipline. The first I’ve always had, and the second I owe to my advisor who barely supervised me, claiming that I was better off finding out right away whether I could be a scholar capable of self-direct research. That’s not what most graduate students want to hear, but I can see how it was a turning point as he forced me to come to terms with my insecurities. The third I developed in Kuwait shortly after graduating, courtesy of a remarkable colleague and a tiny little book: they made me realize that writing is no different than exercising. Every day you can find a boundless list of excuses not to write, but if you persist, it becomes a habit first, and eventually a physiological need. So far, I have single-authored about four hundred thousand words worth of scholarship: I cannot wait to reach a million!