Alessandra Russo Looks at Everything Through a Global Lens

The new chair of Latin American and Iberian Cultures plans to foster dialogues that engage Columbia, New York, and the world beyond.

Eve Glasberg
January 24, 2024

Alessandra Russo, a professor in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (LAIC), as well as its new chair, brings a global perspective to everything she does. Her teaching and scholarship focus on the theory, practice, and display of the arts in early modern times, with a special emphasis on artistic dynamics in the context of Iberian colonization.

Russo shares her thoughts with Columbia News on a wide range of topics, including her research and background, her students and her advice for them, and her plans as chair for LAIC.

What is the single unifying thread that runs through your broad body of research? 

Since I was an undergraduate, I have been interested in studying the impact of the arts created outside Europe in terms other than exoticism, showing their relevance for what we think of today as art. So that unifying thread is also a pulling thread: I have named it de-exotization—the process of undoing the discourse on exotic alterity that has informed, for many decades, the way we see and study the supposedly “non-European” cultures, both in academia and in the museum. Only by undoing that discourse, only by pulling that thread, can we devise new histories of our disciplines.

My first book, El Realismo Circular, explored Mexican cartography in times of colonization: I demonstrated that the beautiful maps painted in Mexico in the 16th century were among the first landscape paintings in art history. It was a kind of reversal of the hegemonic dynamic of conquest—having to forcibly comply with the imperatives of colonization (the maps were commissioned by Spanish authorities to control and settle the territory), Native and mestizo artists pioneered ways to paint their natural surroundings.

My second book, The Untranslatable Image, was devoted to the effervescence of the larger artistic scene in 16th-century Mexico. I argued that the intersection of pre-Columbian and European aesthetics and imagery produced completely novel artifacts (feather mosaics, graffiti, pictographies, etc.), which eventually played a role in art terminology—what a painting or a figure, for example, could mean. A major publication that I co-edited, Image Take Flight, tackled this impact in a large variety of artifacts, produced both in Mexico and Europe between 1400 and 1700.

In my forthcoming book, A New Antiquity: Art and Humanity as Universal, which will be published in February, I contend that the magnificent pieces of art that are today displayed in museum galleries devoted to non-European cultures generated, in early modern times, lively debates that put art-making at the center of the definition of humanity. Paradoxically, this happened at the same time that these works were often looted and even destroyed or melted down. But, again, in a reversal of the hegemonic dynamics of conquest, art became a condition of humanity at large.  

Other fields are today undertaking a similar approach. De-exoticizing non-European specimens and cultures is happening in the study of the histories of medicine, botany, geology, and so on. For example, we now know that two trees that come from the Americas, Cinchona and Guaiacum, were used to treat illnesses that had been brought to the Americas by Europeans—malaria and syphilis. This is comparable to the separation in museums between European and non-European galleries, which has silenced connections that should be restored in order to understand and assess our cultural lineages and histories, including unveiling the depredations and biases that are embedded in what and how we study today—in order to do it differently.

What are you working on now? 

I am writing a book, The Great Custodian, which is about Sebastiano Biavati, a little-known, 17th-century Italian who was in charge of one of the earliest global collections of art and artifacts. Until now, he was scarcely mentioned in scholarship, and always disparaged as a wonder himself of the collection. In other words, he, too, was approached through an exoticizing lens: As a little person, his body was monstrified, and his intellectual capacities dehumanized. After a decade of archival research in libraries, churches, palaces, and museums, I have reconstructed Biavati’s biography with a completely different perspective. His trajectory becomes paradigmatic of our own aesthetic experience in the museum, and of the function of the museum in its mission of custodianship. Additionally, I’m planning an exhibition on Biavati.

I am also working on two other books related to the Connecting Art Histories project that I co-direct, thanks to a Getty Foundation grant, with my colleague, Michael Cole, from the Department of Art History and Archaeology. One is an anthology of our research group, Spanish Italy and the Iberian Americas; the second is a book the two of us want to co-write on the arts of Spanish Italy.

Long-term, I am gathering materials and ideas on arts and sciences as an early modern unit, when they worked and were understood in a practical and theoretical continuum. We know how that continuum broke apart with the invention of the modern disciplines, especially when seeing the unseeable became possible, and advanced technology transformed scientific practice. But thinking of the arts and sciences as a single active unit may be newly relevant today.

What are you teaching this year? 

In the fall semester, I taught Early Modern Museums, a new graduate seminar on the first public museums in the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy, Denmark, Spain, France, England, and elsewhere. The first cohort of students taking this seminar was incredibly responsive to a challenging reading list—including primary sources written in Latin, Italian, and Spanish—and to vital topics that animated the discussions, such as how to think about the relationship between colonization and the birth and existence of the museum as an institution.

This spring, I am teaching the Spanish section of my global course, Artistic Humanity: The Making of Human Creativity (which I also offer in English, in other semesters). We study how, between 1400 and 1600, artworks made in—and mostly looted from—the Americas, Asia, and Africa revolutionized the definition of what it means to be human. The topic is related to my new book mentioned earlier, A New AntiquityArt and Humanity as Universal.

As a new chair, what are your plans for the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures? 

Having been a faculty member in this department for 16 years, I take this as an opportunity to contribute to fostering the exceptional work done at LAIC. I wish to stimulate new dialogues and collaborations within the department, throughout the University, and beyond to public outreach. We are launching a conversation series where our faculty and office can bring ideas or prompts for curricular work and research, and even fundraising. Our events series in the spring bring to campus museum curators, scholars, writers, and performers, around topics and methodologies that are relevant to the humanities at large.

At LAIC, we have a tradition of opening each school year with a faculty lecture; along those lines, I would like to reinstitute our research seminar series, where we present work in progress, which can benefit both professors and students. The graduate cohorts at LAIC organize symposia and events that attract a lively audience (for example, the recent Afterlives of Dictatorship, which was hugely successful), and our undergraduates are also active interlocutors and contributors at Casa Hispánica, including an outstanding undergraduate research journal, Portales, which has already published a dozen issues.

I would like to encourage more collaborations between undergraduate and graduate students. With the support of the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, students are organizing events on topics relevant for their training and research, including a workshop on the archives of feminism. Casa Hispánica is also the home of the Hispanic Institute (and its review, Revista Hispánica Moderna); a new literary press, Sundial House, which focuses on Latin American and Iberian literature in translation; and a book club that highlights contemporary writers living in New York City. I look forward to developing more such initiatives and programming at LAIC, with diverse contemporary constituencies both on and off campus.

Additionally, I hope to increase LAIC’s contribution to one of Columbia’s major strengths—linguistic diversity. At LAIC, we serve every year an undergraduate population of about 4,700 students studying in Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese. Our students come to us not only with the desire to learn or perfect new languages, but also to take classes in different languages. Sometimes, because they are native or heritage speakers and have acquired a good level of fluency, students want to learn in these languages. Many students in the Spanish section of my global Core course, Artistic Humanity, for instance, come from Columbia Engineering and write their papers on 16th-century art theory in Spanish!

Linguistic diversity is not only one of our current strengths, but should be part of the future of Columbia, as much as research on climate change or artificial intelligence. With the Institute of Latin American Studies and the departments of History and Anthropology, we are discussing how to promote the learning and scholarship of the Náhuatl language at Columbia. We may find that, among our students, there are heritage speakers of this language who are interested in cultivating it here.

What was your path to an academic career?

In Italy, I had a solid classical training in the humanities—Latin, Greek, Dante, philosophy, art history, philology, and so on. My parents and step-parents had the same training, but chose different professional paths—Sinology and psychoanalysis. This made me realize that the so-called Western canon is not everything. As the 20th-century Italian poet Giorgio Caproni wrote: “Errata/ You are never where you know/ Corrige/ You never know where you are.” Two foundational family figures for me were my maternal grandfather, who was a painter, and my paternal grandmother, a special education, elementary school teacher, who, in the 1960s and 1970s, fought to keep students with different abilities among other students in the same classroom.

When I was 21, I went to Holland to study Flemish art and, serendipitously, a book I encountered changed my path. My focus shifted to Mexico, and after completing my thesis, I went to Paris to study historical anthropology with the author of that book—Serge Gruzinski, a French historian who specializes in Latin America. I got a grant to go to Mexico, where I met my husband, a comparative literature scholar, who then became a curator of Latin American art and introduced me to the liveliness of the contemporary art scene. We lived in Mexico for many years, where I was a researcher at the University of Mexico. Back in Europe, I taught in Geneva at the School of Fine Arts, and I then received a major grant from the Getty Foundation to organize, with two distinguished colleagues, an international exhibition, which occupied us for a decade.

With this rich, unorthodox background, we arrived in the U.S., and I started working at Columbia in 2007, shortly after defending my dissertation. The global turn in art history was still taking place, and at LAIC, I worked with the conviction that—especially in those generative years of a major disciplinary shift—no decompartmentalizing international perspective could be achieved without teaching and working in languages other than English. Working in Spanish, Náhuatl, Italian, French, and Portuguese, in addition to English, has greatly impacted my scholarship.

Another fundamental aspect of my academic career is collaborating with museums. Curating and being a member of museum advisory boards, as well as writing exhibition catalogues, have informed the way I teach.

What is special about teaching at Columbia and in New York?

My colleagues and students here have been both generous and exacting with me. In other words, I have been able to pursue my research passions, while also having to demonstrate their relevance beyond myself, especially in the classroom. Both undergraduate and graduate students have been crucial in this process, as they always discuss our materials enthusiastically, as well as uncompromisingly.

Perhaps this also applies to New York, a city that can be both exacting and generous. Recently, I was walking home on Broadway with my son after his basketball practice, and a long day of school and work for both of us. We were overtired, but first we had dinner at a ramen bar, where the meal was prepared by friendly Mexican cooks with whom we chatted in Spanish. Then, as we continued our walk, we watched a street dance and a karate class, spoke in French with a woman from Haiti selling vintage clothes, and, finally, played tag on campus, where all sorts of activities were going on, with the beautifully illuminated Butler Library in the background. I love how, in New York, you can feel connected to so many other places, cultures, people, and languages.

There will be a panel discussion about A New Antiquity sponsored by the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities at 6:15 pm on March 7.