The land route across the Brenner Pass is one of the four great crossings of the central European Alps. It cuts through a mountain ridge that constitutes the geographical watershed between the Black Sea and the Adriatic. The Brenner has seen traffic since the Stone Age—Roman troops passed through it on their way north, and the first proper road was constructed under Septimus Severus. Later in the medieval period, it was an important trade route, connecting the markets of the Mediterranean with the merchant cities of northern Europe. Dürer and Goethe headed towards their Italian adventures on this route. In 1867, the first railway line to cross the main ridge of the Alps was built through the Brenner Pass. In 1920, the border between Italy and Austria was set up on its cusp, finally dividing the long-contested region of Tyrol between the two nations. During the late 1930s and early 40s, the Brenner route manifested an important part of the fascist “axis” between Berlin and Rome. Since the 1950s, the Brenner and surrounding region became a focal point of the European unification process. This divided and yet intrinsically connected—and connecting—region provided a literally central example for the benefits of integration. The role of the Brenner in the formation of the European Union manifested itself in architectural and infrastructural measures such as the “Europabrücke”, a motorway bridge built spectacularly into the dramatic alpine landscape near Schönberg, or the “Europakapelle”, which commemorates the workmen who lost their lives while bringing the old route up to the measure of 20th-century commercial and tourist traffic. All of these modern development projects testify to the ever-increasing importance of the route, but also to the fact that, with the acceleration of travel technology, the area around the Brenner Pass itself, in spite of its geographic centrality, has gradually turned into a mere transit zone, seemingly diminishing its local significance. In recent years, the Brenner has gained new prominence as one of the main trails used by refugees who, often after crossing the Mediterranean, continued their journey from Italy towards Central and Northern Europe. In 2016, debates over the construction of a fence to shut down this paradigmatic inner European border revealed most tellingly how global movements and dynamics are intrinsically linked to the inner identity of Europe and its regions.
Under the impression of these very contemporary developments and their historical perspectives, the Brenner Pass was chosen as a site for a five-day working retreat of the Max-Planck-Research Group “Objects in the Contact Zone – The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things” in July 2016. The research group, dealing with questions of transcultural exchange, its historical conditions and its institutional frameworks, consisted of students and postdoctoral researchers, very diverse in their research topics as well as their personal and academic backgrounds. Part of the group embarked on a train ride from Florence to Innsbruck, where they were scheduled to meet colleagues from abroad in order to present and mutually discuss their work. This retreat was combined with site visits in the region, seizing and questioning the narrative of the Alps as a global crossroads. This podcast documents and curates some of the informal discussions and observations made during this working retreat – it seizes the momentum of collecting “raw material” on the fringes of personal perspective and academic personae, which usually must remain outside of the margins of academic formats, but often is an important substrate of our ideas and their development. By capturing the ambient sounds of a particular place, or recording the spontaneous comments of a person standing in front of a work of art, podcasts provide a “behind the scenes” view of research as it’s happening on the ground. It is a maxim in art history that a scholar should ideally write about what they have seen in person. While this of course may not be possible due to constrictions of politics, funding, or bureaucracy, every art historian knows the special alchemy that takes place during fieldwork. Seeing an object or building in context puts the brain into overdrive, making it possible to form impressions or interpretations that would not be forthcoming otherwise. This podcast aims to provide insight into this process. We thus invite you to discover the rich material and surprises that the Brenner Pass has to offer – a contact zone in every sense of the term.
Act 1: On the Train
We begin our journey by boarding the train in Florence, heading north towards the border with Austria. Some of the members of the group regularly commute on this route back and forth from Italy to Germany, and we discuss how they primarily experience the landscape of northern Italy at a distance, looking out the train window. We also recount close encounters that make it possible to see the landscape through another person’s eyes, especially at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Act 2: The Messner Museum
The Messner Mountain Museum in Corones is dedicated to the celebrity climber Reinhold Messner’s philosophy of alpinism, which he considers the “supreme discipline of mountaineering”. One takes a cable car to visit the site, a concrete behemoth designed by the late Zaha Hadid and dramatically perched on the summit of the Kronplatz peak. We try to make sense of this personal manifesto on the preservation of tradition presented in a contemporary “museum mountain” setting.
Act 3: The Brenner Pass
As the group makes their way through the Brenner Pass, today navigated with a towering motorway, we cross the invisible border between Italy and Austria. While taking a lunch break in a rest stop along the road, a high-end affair recently constructed to replace the customs checkpoint between the two nation states, we reflect on how the dissolution of borders within the Schengen Zone has transformed the area.
Act 4: Europakapelle
The construction of the Europa Bridge in 1963, which conveys a 777-meter long stretch of the highway snaking through the Brenner Pass, was a symbol of both modern infrastructure and the European unification process. The Europakapelle is a modernist chapel commemorating the 22 workers who died bringing the bridge to fruition. We visit the site to understand the cycle of frescoes that decorate both the exterior and interior of the site, and along the way discover other haunting myths and local legends about loss and hardship in this point of passage.
Act 5: Innsbruck Panorama
The Tyrol Panorama is a 360-degree immersive painting that depicts a key event in the region’s history, the 1809 battle between Napoleonic troops and local Tyrolean rebels committed to preserving their independence. Painted in 1869, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, the panorama can still be seen today in a museum located on the precise location where the battle originally took place. We visit the museum to consider how this painting reveals shifting notions of local identity, from the mid-19th century to 2011, when the museum was created.
Act 6: Ottoman Spoils at Schloss Ambras
A 16th-century Renaissance castle in Innsbruck, Schloss Ambras originally served as the seat of power for Archduke Ferdinand II. The caretakers of the palace, which is now a museum, decided a few years ago to recreate the “Turkenkammer” in the archduke’s armory. On display are a myriad of objects seized from Ottoman forces in the ongoing battles for Austrian territory. Besides serving as a meditation on the longstanding orientalist fascination with the “other”, the present display exposes Tirol as a land that connects not just North and South, but also East and West.
Act 7: Ferdinandeum
We pay a visit to “object friends” both old and new at the Ferdinandeum, the state museum of Tyrol that is colloquially named after Archduke Ferdinand. We take in an exhibition on Renassiance portraits, and are surprised to discover that the famous Innsbruck plate—a masterpiece of medieval Islamic craftsmanship and one of the stars of the museum collection—is traveling on loan to another institution. In front of an empty display case, we still manage to discuss how this medieval masterpiece still holds many secrets, from its original place of production to its provenance.
Act 8: Tyrolean State Library
Librarian Roland Sila introduces us to the collections of the local state library. The group asks Selan to reflect on how libraries are changing and what is their role in terms of making collections more accessible, while serving as a tangible, material archive for the memories and objects of the local community. We dive into the history of the massive book collection of Andreas Alois diPauli (1761-1839), a longtime public servant to Tyrol, which reflects the tastes of a local elite and also to the secularization of knowledge in the 19th century.