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Luke Gramith Essay

Travel is a fact of life for historians. We go to the sources because, in most cases, the sources can’t come to us. But if travel is a pleasure, I think it’s a necessary pleasure. There’s something highly enlightening about walking the same streets as your subjects, sipping espresso at the same cafés and passing through the same neighborhoods. In many cases, it’s the hours spent out on the town after the archives close that allow us to comprehend fully the documents that we identify during our 9:00-to-5:00 rummagings. Perhaps as a historian of the twentieth-century I am exceptionally lucky, as the Italy of today closely resembles that of the 1940s. But I suspect that even historians of the ancient world would have anecdotes similar to the one that I now wish to share.

Last summer I researched for the first time in the Italian port city of Trieste. I was struck by the degree to which Trieste’s history was woven into the urban fabric, a different epoch seeming to be on display for each city block. One evening, I walked along a narrow street past the remnants of a first-century Roman theater before turning up a steep incline to reach the San Giusto Hill, the high-point of the city upon which sits a famed sixth-century cathedral. From the summit I looked out to the northwest and discerned the distant Mirimar Castle, the nineteenth-century home of an Austrian archduke, resting in my line of sight just above the twentieth-century cranes that populate the wharves of this vibrant port. In a span of minutes I viewed the physical remnants of twenty centuries of history – not an experience easily forgotten.

Having seen Trieste with my own eyes I realized that I had long known of it, but that I had never known it. It became clear to me in that moment that I needed to account for the importance of space in shaping people’s past actions. It mattered if a twentieth-century triestino regularly walked past his city’s Roman ruins, as this might remind him of his city’s ties to ancient Rome and consequently his belonging to some primordial Italian nation. It mattered too if he daily passed over the San Giusto Hill and looked out over the city to the distant Mirimar Castle. In calling to mind a period in which Trieste was ruled from Vienna, this experience might give rise to feelings of resentment or nostalgia, perhaps even driving the individual to seek significant political change.

Too often historians make the mistake of de-spatializing history. They write as if all space is equal or if space does not matter. The fact is, people act within particular spaces, not irrespective of them. My experiences in Trieste have forced me to think deeply on this reality and to seek out new methods that better account for the impact of space on human action.  I’ve become more cognizant of how social hierarchies are constituted in space, how political action always has a spatial dimension, and how seemingly trivial or quotidian occurrences within particular spaces can feed into transformations of global importance.

Without getting into the details, I should note that I’m writing my dissertation on migration from Italy to Communist Yugoslavia in the early Cold War years, specifically migration from the town of Monfalcone. With my newfound appreciation for space I’m now asking new questions. For example, why did some people choose to stay in Monfalcone and others to relocate to Yugoslavia? Maybe, just maybe, some future migrants became increasingly susceptible to Communist promises of full stomachs because their paths to work took them past markets full of foodstuffs that they could see but not afford. Maybe it was in these moments more than any others that they reflected on concepts like justice and community. These possibilities won’t jump off the page of a report on rationing or food prices, but they might occur to one who has walked those same streets and seen those very markets. I can thus say without hesitation that I’m glad my source materials are stashed away in small, local archives. It forces me to become familiar with these spaces and opens up new ways of reading the documents held within.