Professor examines the making of place

"The Valtellina and UNESCO: Making a Global Landscape" by Thomas Puleo, assistant professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, was released this fall by Lexington Books, an imprint of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

The book examines the process of turning local historic landscapes into global heritage sites through an exploration of the Valtellina, a valley in the Italian Alps famous for its terraced agriculture.

A nonprofit group of the area called ProVinea applied to include the Valtellina landscape on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In the application narrative, it presents the construction of the terraces as a “heroic transformation of barren slopes into fertile fields.” Puleo, however, challenges this perception by drawing on Michel Serres’ theory of serial parasitism to demonstrate how ProVinea’s “heroic” Valtellina “discursively and materially remakes the landscapes by culling the advantageous, eliminating the detrimental, and assembling the dispersed.”

The terraces are supported by dry stone walls, allowing the unusual agricultural fertility – given the elevation and latitude of the area – which is characteristic of the valley.

The walls are constructed with stones that fit together firmly without the aid of mortar, as opposed to wet stone walls. The dry stone walls of the Valtellina were built starting probably in 700 A.D. and stretch 2,500 kilometers, or approximately 1,553 miles.

Examples of this building technique can be found all over the world and from many different eras in human history. Puleo, for instance, was struck by a dry stone wall he encountered in Port-au-Prince, Haiti during a June 2010 visit to investigate the role that humanistic activities play in post-catastrophe recovery as a form of place-making. The project was funded by an IHR Seed Grant award and titled “The Art of Recovery: Port-au-Prince 2010,” co-directed with Mark Cruse, associate professor of French in the School of International Letters and Cultures and associate director of the IHR.

The human element of the building method may be why it so ubiquitously appears throughout human history and across many landscapes.

 “What I like about the technique is its purity because it involves only one ingredient and one person,” Puleo said. “Certainly multiple people can work on one wall at any given time, but the work is “a misura dell'uomo” as one says in Italian – “at the scale of man.” It is all about one material and one technique – which I think is the definition of the purest kind of art.”

In visiting Haiti, Puleo was curious to see if and how human creation served as an active response to trauma, helping to order and heal the mind – allowing for constructive reaction. He found that creating public art, singing in groups, attending to dress and grooming, and building structures like the dry stone wall, were all acts of creation that helped Haitians imagine not only a new future, but new place – new life.

“I noticed it instantly,” he wrote of the pictured wall, “because it seemed more decorative than functional and it struck me as somewhat unnecessary but also the exact kind of thing that I would spend time and effort on in a similar situation. Place is performed as well as constructed. It is not just the wall that establishes order, but the building of the wall that does it.”

The Seed Grant project gave him an appreciation for how the process of place-making is as important as place itself, and also offered him the opportunity to explore the possibilities of transdisciplinary study, as both a scope and method of research.

“Transdisciplinary research is something I had only a vague understanding of. Involvement with the IHR gave me a great deal of confidence and power when it comes to writing about phenomenon from the transdisciplinary perspective. I’ve found the IHR to be one of, if not the most lively and stimulating and supportive centers of intellectual activity here at ASU,” Puleo said.

In his current research, Puleo is interested to see if creations of street art and actions like singing and paying attention to dress, as he found to be a means of recovery in Haiti, can also be seen in 17th and 18th century Italy. Puleo’s current book project, titled "Lively Repercussions: The 1693 Val di Noto Earthquake and its Aftermath," examines human reaction to trauma in Val di Noto, a geographical area of southeast Sicily that experienced an enormously destructive earthquake in 1693.

“The earthquake that struck Sicily's Val di Noto in 1693 catalyzed a massive reconstruction project involving over 60 cities and towns, leaving in many cases local builders to fill in as designers and architects,” Puleo wrote. “They used trattati or design treatises from mainland Italy as their guides to the standard forms, but their genius was in how they combined them. It is like the difference between fashion and style. Anyone can buy a nice piece of clothing, but there is real skill in knowing how to wear it.”

Puleo said he believes in studying history to understand the present but also in studying the present to understand history, like in the two cases from modern-day Haiti and 17th century Italy.

“The trick of course is figuring out to what extent the two events can be transposed – not only across time but also across space and culture. One might say there is an art to this kind of thing.”