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Scholars to Discuss Interrelatedness of 18th-Century Arts, Literature, Languages and History

Down the long brick walkways leading to the Rotunda, past pavilions and student rooms on the Lawn, into gardens bordered by the serpentine walls, members of the University of Virginia community walk through history every day, thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s design of the Academical Village.

The 18th-century era, which produced the Enlightenment and spawned the emerging modern era, forms the intellectual core fundamental to American history, said the U.Va. organizers of an interdisciplinary symposium, “The 18th Centuries,” to be held March 1 and 2 in the auditorium of U.Va.’s Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and at Montalto, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s education center near Jefferson’s home at Monticello.

Symposium organizer Commonwealth Professor of Spanish David Gies, said, “Everything we’ll talk about will probably be something Jefferson knew about or read.”

Cynthia Wall, a professor who chairs the College of Arts & SciencesEnglish department, and a co-organizer, noted that Charlottesville embodies the heart of the 18th century in terms of its settlement and its important place in history by the time of the American Revolution.

Compared to this world of specialization, 18th-century intellectuals did it all. “It’s the last major period when the concept of a Renaissance man or woman was attainable,” he said.

Gies and Wall hosted the first cross-disciplinary study group 10 years ago for University faculty who concentrated on the 18th century and wanted the chance to meet, discuss and learn about their colleagues’ work. The group has gathered informally twice a year ever since. Typically, one faculty member gives a brief presentation on a book just published, just about to be published or well under way.

The symposium is a way of taking their academic camaraderie to the next level, Gies and Wall said. It will give participants the opportunity to discuss their scholarship in a broader context, similar to the breadth of knowledge and interests so many historic figures, such as Jefferson, and books published then exemplified.

Keynote speakers at this year’s forum include Patricia Meyer Spacks, Edgar F. Shannon Professor Emerita of English at U.Va., and Mary Sheriff, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Art History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Spacks’ talk, “Musing on Interdisciplinarity,” will take place on March 1 at 11:15 a.m. in the Harrison/Small auditorium. Sheriff will speak on “Emotional Geographies: Watteau and the Fate of Women” March 2 at 11:15 a.m. at Montalto. (For the complete schedule, click here.)

Despite all the current talk about interdisciplinarity, most conferences are not really interdisciplinary, Gies said. Each of the panels at this symposium, however, will contain professors from different disciplines.

The participating U.Va. professors met and chose a theme for their discussion, plus a guest speaker from another school and a graduate student to join each panel. Thus, the first panel will center on the theme of “knowledge,” the second on “intersections,” the third on “aesthetics” and the fourth on “performance.” The academic fields among the participants span art history, architecture, English, French, German, history, Italian, Jefferson studies, music, philosophy, religious studies and Spanish.

Wall said they hope the speakers’ remarks will show how the arts, literature and history spoke to each other then and do so now.

The symposium is free and open to the public, but preregistration is required for the second day at Montalto, due to space limitations, by emailing Michelle Hammond at mhammond@monticello.org.

The symposium is supported by U.Va. departments, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures and the Jefferson Trust.

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