Reflections on SRS2016

July 29, 2016
By Tom Nichols

Blogpost by the British School in Rome: BSR in Glasgow – 2016 SRS Bienniel Conference

SRS in Glasgow: taken from the Bulletin, April 2017

It was a great privilege to be invited to organize the Society for Renaissance Studies’ seventh Biennial Conference at the University of Glasgow. Planning for the event, which was held over three days 18-20 July 2016, inevitably began several years earlier. A small academic committee, including staff from a range of Schools within the University’s College of Arts, was formed to help shape the conference in intellectual and practical terms; to decide on plenary speakers; and to help select among the papers and panels subsequently submitted. A particular strength of SRS Biennial conferences is the potential they offer for the development of exciting new cross-disciplinary perspectives. Another is the platform these large-scale gatherings provide for bringing new or emerging young scholars together with more established academics. In thinking about the shape or structure of the Glasgow conference, it was important that the academic committee included representatives of a range of disciplines, thus establishing interdisciplinary thinking from the very outset. With Professor Laurence Grove (French), Dr Rob Maslen (English), Dr Victoria Price (Theatre Studies), Dr Steven Reid (History), and Drs Debra Strickland and John Richards (History of Art) on board, the committee was able to set about the task of structuring the conference in a way that would best facilitate the strengths mentioned above.

We decided quite early on that it would be better to avoid a singular conference theme, which might slant the conference in one direction or another. It was important to maintain the sense of comprehensiveness or ‘overview’ that is a particularly value of the SRS Biennials. The main themes of the conference were, we agreed, to be indicated in the titles of the academic sessions. The trick here was, on the one hand, to make these titles sufficiently broad to attract submissions; while, on the other, not to deny the possibility of disciplinary clusters talking to one another. At the same time, of course, we had to make these themes as representative and cutting edge as possible with regard to the current state of research into Renaissance studies. Flexibility was of the essence in this regard and we acknowledged that our initial list of themes should not be cast in stone, but that new ones might be incorporated once we opened the call for papers. In the end, more than 160 papers were accepted and delivered at Glasgow by delegates from an impressive array of institutions and countries. Our main themes survived, and alongside an Open session, the papers were organized under the following headings: ‘Conflict and Resolution’; ‘Textual Studies/ Print Culture/ Translation/ Reading’; ‘Reformations and Recusants’; ‘Visual Art/ Word and Image’; ‘Beasts’; ‘Theatre/ Shakespeare’; ‘Milton/ Davenant’; ‘Imaging the Nation’; ‘Anachronisms’; ‘Music’.

The wide range of themes meant that the research interests of delegates were not compromised, while there was also enough specificity within them to encourage scholarly bite and accuracy. Some themes were obviously less cross-disciplinary than others, but this did not prove to be problematic, and the conference was ultimately successful in negotiating the potentially contrary demands of scholarly focus and comprehensiveness. A good number of excellently conceived and run panels (typically discreetly-titled and featuring three thematically-related papers) were organized, and these again helped to provided focus and coherence within a given strand. The sessions were found highly stimulating by many delegates, and functioned especially well in bringing together Renaissance scholars at different stages in their careers. For some delegates, perhaps quite early on in their postgraduate studies, this was only the first or second time they had ‘performed’ at an academic conference and their attendance was often kindly supported by SRS bursaries. But they frequently had the opportunity to speak alongside established or leading scholars in their fields, and to share an exchange of ideas in both formal and informal discussions after delivering their papers. Closer organization of the sessions was supplied by the delegated academic chairs for each session, whose kind readiness to take on this role must be particularly commended.

The committee also put much thought into the selection of plenary speakers, and was delighted with the stimulating lectures delivered by Professor Neil Rhodes (St Andrews); Professor Evelyn Welch (KCL); and Professor Willy Maley (Glasgow). Focussing on ideas of ‘the common’ in sixteenth-century literature, on depictions of skin in Renaissance art, and on perceptions of Presbyterianism in seventeenth-century Ireland, these speakers offered richly stimulating and challenging commentaries on Renaissance culture. In each case, whether from a literary, art historical or historical perspective, the speaker opened up an original theme which ultimately suggested the artificiality of boundaries between the different disciplines. In this way, their contributions, delivered with the expected skill, lightness of touch and humour, reconfirmed the wider value of a multi-disciplinary conference such as the SRS Biennial.

Vital to the overall success of the Glasgow conference were the supporting events: a Book Fair; two wine receptions (sponsored by Glasgow City Council and Wiley Blackwell publishers); a concert of Renaissance Music in the University Chapel (the Cantainn vocal ensemble); an exhibition of Renaissance prints (Hunterian Art Gallery, with accompanying lecture by Professor Michael Bury); and a visit to Stirling Castle. This range of events provided great context for the rigour of the academic sessions, and also gave a wider sense of the important place of Renaissance studies in and around Glasgow. Cantainn demonstrated the extent of local interest in the recreation and performance of Renaissance music, while the Hunterian exhibition displayed some leading examples from the fine collection of prints by leading masters such as Andrea Mantegna, Marcantonio Raimondi and Parmigianino. The visit to the sixteenth-century royal palace at Stirling was well-attended, and excellently led by Dr Sally Rush, whose recent work has played a key role in the recent recreation and interpretation of this key monument of Renaissance architecture.

Many people assisted me in the organization of these events, and I owe a special debt to Andrew Bradburn and Dr Peter Black. Dr Luca Guariento masterminded the organization of the wonderful concert and played a fundamental role in the successful administration of the conference. The group of ten or so student helpers from the University who volunteered their time to help orientate delegates and to staff the various desks played a key role in the overall smooth running of the event. I owe a particular debt to Leah McBride, whose hard work lay behind the provision of conference badges and bags. One decision among the many that had to be made in the course of organization was whether or not to use the grand Victorian space of Hunter Halls, at the very heart of Glasgow’s Gilmorehill campus, as the central hub for the conference. In retrospect, our decision to go ahead with this was an excellent one, offering the entire event both coherence and a sense of occasion. I also managed to control the weather more or less for the duration of the event, though it did revert to type on the final morning, raining torrentially for a while, as many of you may remember. Ah well, you can’t have everything.


Tom Nichols


Posted in