“You know when you’re reading ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ there’s seven major characters named John? Imagine 70 named Giuseppe, and you’ve got Italy in the 14th century.”
That’s how local author and scholar Giacomo Calabria describes the number of city-states in Italy, and how their maritime trade model contributed to the spread of the Plague in 1347-48. This mash-up of pop culture and history is what makes his courses both approachable and memorable.
In leading a discussion about the Black Death – also known as the Great Plague, or simply, The Plague, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history – at the University Club of Albany, he references both The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, (written 1558–66, published 17280, and the 1971 film “Il Decameron,” which was an adaptation of nine stories from Boccaccio’s “Decameron.”
Calabria also describes Decameron as “a story within a story” by comparing it to something a lot more contemporary – the movie “The Princess Bride.”
“Remember, the grandfather is telling Fred Savage a story, and that’s boring? But then you have Inigo Montoya and Dread Pirate Roberts and Rodents of Unusual Size, and that’s great!”
Calabria says the Black Death “had always fascinated me since I read about it in a book called ‘Timespan Disasters’ in my elementary school’s library.”
“The book horrified me and my classmates, particularly its two-page splash of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Triumph of Death,'” he recalls. “This was before Wikipedia, so graphic images like these would’ve otherwise never entered our imaginations. I was shocked and hooked.”
“After studying the subject in the US and Italy, I began offering classes on the Black Death in Pennsylvania and New York using ‘The Great Mortality’ by John Kelly – which was recommended to me by a doctor- as our chosen text.”
Calabria is nothing if not incredibly prolific and knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects – Albany’s own Renaissance man.
He has led discussions on Machiavelli’s “The Prince” (at Albany Public Library and Albany High School); Presidential Campaigns: An Election-Year History, (at the New York State Museum); Women’s Suffrage: A Documented History, (at the Albany Institute of History & Art); and The Narrative in Medical Art & Literature, (at Albany Medical College).
He’s also a frequent participant in the Friends of Albany Public Library Tuesday book reviews.
He has been a teaching scholar for Humanities New York since 2015, which helps to explain his ubiquity on the lecture circuit. The mission of this 501c3 nonprofit, formerly known as the New York Council on the Humanities, is to strengthen civil society and the bonds of community, using the humanities to foster engaged inquiry and dialogue around social and cultural concerns.
With a B.A. in History and a Minor in Political Science from Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, and a year studying abroad at Syracuse University in Florence, Calabria has the right background for a Humanities Scholar, but what inspired his exploration of these disparate topics?
“So much of history is interconnected,” he says. “While studying Italian poetry in Florence, for example, my classmates and I received a brief education on the plague as documented by Petrarch and Boccaccio, whom we studied as part of a larger course on Dante.”
“As I researched this in more detail after college, researchers confirmed that the Plague of Justinian in 541 A.D. was caused by the same bacterium responsible for the Black Death, thus expanding its history across the centuries. This made me recognize and respect the plague as something integral to the whole of history, which I feel all audiences should know about.”
Beyond leading scholarly discussions, Calabria is a prolific writer. Last year alone he contributed book chapters titled:
– “Abolition Movement,” and “Northwest Conspiracy” in Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories in American History, edited by Jeffrey Webb (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2018);
– “The Alternative Electorate: Mapping Trumped-Up Claims of Voter Fraud in the 2016 Election,” in Alternative Facts: Making America Question Again in an Era of Donald Trump Politics, edited by Salvador Murguia (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2018); and
– “Spielberg Things: The Nostalgic Heart of Stranger Things,” in Uncovering Stranger Things: Essays on Eighties Nostalgia, Cynicism and Innocence in the Series, edited by Kevin Wetmore (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018).
In addition, Calabria has written two novels, “The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy,” (St. Martin’s Griffin; First Edition – Aug. 5, 2014),. and “License to Quill,” (St. Martin’s Griffin; First Edition – Dec. 15, 2015).
His latest book, co-authored with Ian Doescher, “MacTrump,” will be published by Penguin Random House in September.
Whether you call him a renaissance man, a polymath, or an author, scholar and educator, you’ll always come away with a fresh perspective when you spend some time with Giacomo Calabria.
Your next chance is Wednesday, June 12 at the University Club, where he will lead a discussion of The Black Death in Literature, Art, and Music. The full syllabus is online here, for more info or to RSVP follow this link.
– Colleen Ryan has always been a storyteller. An innovative communications professional with experience in government, nonprofit and business sectors, she recently launched CMR Communications.