14 Mar 2024 09:45 - 18:00 Online & SG2, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DP


A symposium convened by the CIRN Intesa Sanpaolo Fellow 2023-24, Giovanna Di Matteo

Scholarly literature on islands and mobilities is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, even though islands are often described as remote and isolated, separate from macro-histories and global geographies, scholars have demonstrated how they are fully immersed in the logics of globalisation and engaged with both human and non-human mobilities and immobilities.

Today, we find ourselves in a time of crises where climate change poses a threat to both human and non-human life on islands and the mainland. Simultaneously, war and violence encroach upon the shores of the Mediterranean and further away around the world. Rather than dismantling barriers, artificial islands are constructed to segregate those deemed unworthy of residing in our democratic Europe. Global relations and connections are primarily harnessed to fuel a capitalist economy, benefiting the few at the expense of the many.

In this complex context, islands, with their rich and intricate current realities and histories, emerge as products of this world. They possess the ability to reflect it, revealing hidden aspects and serving as exemplary sites for experimentation. Despite and through these challenges, islands still have much to teach, offering valuable insights to guide us towards a collective reflection on better futures for all.

Confirmed speakers

  • Arturo Gallia (Università Roma Tre, Roma)
  • Stefano Malatesta (Università Bicocca, Milano)
  • Marco Nocente (Università Bicocca, Milano)
  • Nicola Montagna (Università degli Studi di Salerno)
  • Giovanna Di Matteo (Gran Sasso Science Institute, L’Aquila/University of Cambridge)
  • Elena Emma Sottilotta (University of Cambridge)
  • Lavinia Gambini (University of Cambridge)
  • Marthe Achtnich (University of Cambridge)

In beloved memory of Prof Federica Letizia Cavallo


Please email any enquiries to fellowships@crassh.cam.ac.uk.


09:45 - 10:00

Opening Remarks

Robert Gordon and Giovanna Di Matteo

10:00 - 12:00

Session 1

Islands and (im)mobilities

Chair: Fernanda Gallo

Arturo Gallia (Università Roma Tre, Roma)

‘Italian small islands in the Late Modern era: moving, populating and controlling the maritime space’

Stefano Malatesta (Università Bicocca, Milano)

‘Small islands geographies of temporality: a cyclical fractal. A future beyond seasonal adjustments’

12:00 - 13:00


13:00 - 15:00

Session 2

Materialities of (im)mobilities

Chair: Marina Inì

Elena Emma Sottilotta (University of Cambridge)

‘Weaving magical islandness: the journeys of Sardinian fairies across centuries and media’

Lavinia Gambini (University of Cambridge)

”Cyprus powder’ and Cretan secrets: experiences and notions of Eastern-Mediterranean healing in Early Modern Italy'”

Marco Nocente (Università Bicocca, Milano)

‘Let the prison disappear in the landscape: the islands of Capraia and Asinara’


Coffee Break

15:30 - 17:30

Session 3

Forced (im)mobilities

Chair: Erica Bellia

Marthe Achtnich (University of Cambridge)

Migration and Mobility Economies in Libya and Malta

Giovanna Di Matteo (Gran Sasso Science Institute, L’Aquila/University of Cambridge)

“Geographical objects, symbolic subjects”. Islands and ships as spaces of (im)mobility’

Nicola Montagna (Università degli Studi di Salerno)

‘Quarantine ships as spaces of bordering and confinement policies of immobility in Italy during the Covid-19 pandemic’

17:30 - 18:00

Final discussion and concluding remarks


Arturo Gallia

‘Italian small islands in the Late Modern era: moving, populating and controlling the maritime space’

The control of the maritime frontier of the Kingdom of Naples often benefited from the logistical support offered by the small island territories, sometimes placed as outposts and sentinels in the middle of the sea and, at other times, as coastal antemurals. As is well known, the defence system of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily was based on a dense coastal cordon of towers, castles, and forts, which dotted the Neapolitan and Sicilian coasts in an almost continuous manner. The small islands, both those belonging to Sicily as well as the Partenopean, Ponziane and Tremiti islands, supplemented this cordon. However, it was precisely the small island territories that most often turned out to be the weak link in this chain of sighting and defence points, facilitating enemy incursions from the sea. As early as the second half of the 16th century, Philip II had already realised that in the extensive process of fortifying the Mediterranean coastline, islands played an important role, without, however, being able to give sufficient impetus here. It was only from the 18th century onwards, also thanks to the populating policies promoted by the Bourbons, that effective control of the island territory and, therefore, of the maritime frontier spaces took place. Through the exemplary case of the attempts to control and defend the Ponziane Islands throughout the Modern Age, up to the populating processes of the 18th century, the contribution aims to highlight the key role of the small islands in the defence dynamics of the northern maritime frontier of the Kingdom of Naples.

In the 15th century the island of Ponza, depopulated, was first emphyteusis and then feud of the Farnese family. In 1571-72 Philip II, in an attempt to provide for the fortification of the archipelago, affirmed Neapolitan sovereignty over it, but at the same time confirmed the Farnese as feudal lords. By means of lease contracts or exploitation of raw materials – timber, first and foremost – they tried to favour permanent presences on Ponza. It was only from 1734, when Charles of Bourbon promoted the populating of the island by sending several families from Ischia, that the real control of the archipelago began. This process took place in three phases (1734, 1768, 1772) and was supported by the building of infrastructure and the foundation of a new urban core. The defence system was strengthened through the construction of three forts and the consolidation of the only watchtower that existed until then. In addition to controlling the northern maritime frontier, the islands formed part of a concentric defence system of the capital and its Gulf, well protected by the sentinels Ischia, to the north, and Capri, to the south. The investigation was carried out through the systemic analysis of published literature and archival sources of a different nature, including historical cartography, which will be re-presented in the intervention both as a historical source and as a narrative tool.

Stefano Malatesta

‘Small islands geographies of temporality: a cyclical fractal. A future beyond seasonal adjustments’

The EU’s Cohesion Policy aims to prevent the marginalisation of peripheral regions by promoting a balanced distribution of economic and social resources among Europe’s regions. Since the 2007-2013 period (i.e. before Brexit), the future of small islands has been identified as one of the objectives of these strategies. De facto, small island archipelagos have been labelled as peripheral and vulnerable to marginalisation. The last decade, before and after the pandemic turning point, confirmed this mission through the national and regional declinations of NextGeneration EU. These policies are inspired by a ‘developmentalist’ vision of spatial planning, a progressive and linear idea of island temporalities, setting the implementation of connectivity as a key priority and identifying seasonal adjustments (the so-called de-seasonalisation) as a ‘mantra’. The contribution articulates a discussion on the temporality of Italian small islands. Drawing inspiration from Lefebvre’s rhythmanalyse (1992) and May and Thrift’s “Timespace” (2001), I present the cyclical and mobile rhythms of small islands’ “geographies of temporality” shaped as a fractal: day, week, and year. Finally, I propose a reading of the future of these places that goes beyond de-seasonalisation as the only possible horizon.

Elena Emma Sottilotta

‘Weaving magical islandness: the journeys of Sardinian fairies across centuries and media’

Sardinian fairies appeared in a cornerstone of the European fairy-tale tradition, Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones) (1634-1636), penned by Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile. In Basile’s masterpiece, the ‘fairies on the island of Sardinia’ came to the aid of Zezolla, protagonist of ‘La gatta Cenerentola’. Their otherworldly powers and exotic provenance were underlined in the first European literary version of Cinderella’s tale. The connection of these fairies with the island is deep. Also known as janas, these creatures, according to popular belief, lived in the domus de janas, tombs with origins in the prehistoric period that preceded the advent of the Nuragic civilisation on the island. Starting from the allusion to Sardinian fairies in Basile’s tale, this paper will retrace the journeys of the janas across centuries and media in selected works by Grazia Deledda, Maria Lai and Michela Murgia, showing how these creatures – and the weaving of their stories – created a bridge between Sardinian culture and the world beyond the island.

Lavinia Gambini

”Cyprus powder’ and Cretan secrets: experiences and notions of Eastern-Mediterranean healing in Early Modern Italy'”

Early modern Italian contemporaries often described the world of the Venetian and Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean (especially the Aegean archipelago) as lacking basic medical infrastructure. As a common trope, this alleged lack of trained physicians and surgeons in the East was used to justify Italian travellers’ engagement in heterodox medical practices that crossed the boundaries between licit healing and illicit magic. Nevertheless, contemporaries also ascribed a distinct medical expertise to those Eastern-Mediterranean migrants who managed to rebuild a life as vernacular practitioners in early modern Italy. These migrants (of which a large portion were Christian women from Candia/Crete and Cyprus) sold their medical ‘secrets’ across cosmopolitan port towns such as Venice and Livorno. These secrets, they claimed, had originated on their native islands and had been passed down from generation to generation. Likewise, early modern Italians marvelled at Aegean islanders’ expertise in extracting and handling indigenous medical ingredients. Some Tuscan travellers to the Ottoman dominions described the spectacle of seeing the inhabitants of the Ottoman-Greek island of Lemnos extracting and refining precious terra lemnia/terra sigillata, a quintessential ingredient in early modern pharmacy. The proposed paper will explore early modern experiences and notions of medical expertise in the Eastern Mediterranean. It will argue that similar notions and experiences challenge ideas of (alleged) isolation from the intellectual, medical, and pharmaceutical life of the Western/Christian mainland.

Marco Nocente

‘Let the prison disappear in the landscape: the islands of Capraia and Asinara’

In this contribution I present two witnesses of the erosion of the carceral landscape through the case studies of the islands of Capraia and Asinara. The recent processes of re-territorialisation triggered by the tourist growth of the islands have caused the prison past, which made these islands contested places, to be forgotten. Through a series of intertextual references that testify to the role that prisons have played for these islands and the prison islands for the territory in which they are situated, I put these places back into the centre of history. The changing landscape of the islands, which at different times has turned to a new touristic revitalisation, brings new questions concerning the relationship between new identities and memory. Instead of starting from the prison, the landscape of these islands is made up of new elements that eliminate the old: the prisoners’ agricultural terraces disappear in exchange for the natural beauty of the national parks. Dismantling the memory in these cases becomes slow violence, a process of selection and exclusion of everything that does not fit in with the landscape to come, and which should be reconsidered.

Giovanna Di Matteo

‘”Geographical objects, symbolic subjects”. Islands and ships as spaces of (im)mobility’

Islands have been often used as spaces of exclusions and marginalisation for ‘disposable’ or ‘dangerous’ people (prisons, quarantine areas, spaces of confinement). Nowadays, island spaces all around the world are also spaces of migrants’ detention, transforming them into crucial borders and containment zones. Some islands, such as Lampedusa, are exemplary of this phenomenon and their position within the context of the Mediterranean Sea plays a crucial role in the management of migration by the European Union. However, the European borderscape is constantly evolving, in particular at time of crises. The covid-19 pandemic outbreak accelerated and transformed some of the processes involving migration policies. For example, the Italian government decided on April 2020 to use cruise ships and ferries as ‘quarantine ships’ for the people on the move arriving in Italy. This is not the first time that these ‘floating islands’, or ‘floating prisons’ would be used to contain migrants, the most recent previous attempt was made in 2016. Scholars have focused on the use of these ships as forms of externalization of the border, the application of bio-political power, as floating hotspots, or as ‘hygienic borders’, suggesting a certain continuity within the migration management system but missing to identify the role played by geographical space, both materially and symbolically. Concrete uses and metaphoric meaning allow to draw some connections between ships and islands: they are spatially defined by ‘natural’ apparently clear and defined boundaries, which can be, by a specific will, turned into isolating and reclusion spaces. The artificial well-defined boundaries of a ship can play a similar role. They are used as spaces of isolation, of movement, as spaces to occupy or conquer, as extra-territorial spaces, and as idyllic tourist destinations. From this perspective, some continuities and discontinuities between islands and quarantine ships can be drawn. Through the analysis of traces collected throughout past and current research, anchoring my reflection on elements in the existing literature, the media, institutional documents and reports, migrants’ and humanitarian workers’ memories, this contribution aims at spotlighting the underlying connections between these two geographic ‘objects’ – the island and the ship – and their possible interpretations.

Nicola Montagna

‘Quarantine ships as spaces of bordering and confinement policies of immobility in Italy during the Covid-19 pandemic’

The COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity for bordering, that is, for measures that aim to delineate foreigners’ access to citizenship and membership and to further securitise migration policy. Among the areas affected by these bordering measures is the central Mediterranean migratory route to Italy. In Spring 2020, the Italian government introduced two measures aimed to block migrant arrivals by sea: the closure of ports to search-and-rescue (SAR) operations and the use of quarantine ships to confine migrants arriving on SAR ships. While the former was only partially implemented, the latter has become a cornerstone of securitisation policies during the pandemic in Italy, an experiment to be replicated by other governments, see for instance the use in the UK of a barge, the Bibby Stockholm, berthed at the port in Dorset, intended on ‘a no choice basis’ to confine about 500 men while they await the outcome of their asylum applications. This presentation interrogates the use of quarantine ships during the pandemic as a means of stopping COVID-19’s spread by irregular migrants arriving along the central Mediterranean. It shows how this measure, presented as a humanitarian mission to preserve public health, became an opportunity to securitise national and EU borders and how quarantine ships became ‘floating hotspots’ aimed at filtering and containing the mobility arriving migrants.

Speaker Bios

Arturo Gallia is a researcher in Geography at the Department of Humanistic Studies at the University of Roma Tre, where he teaches History of Cartography and Didactics of Geography.
His research topics include island societies in the modern and contemporary Mediterranean, Historical Cartography and History of Geography. He is PI of the PRIN 2022 project “Islands 4 Future” and coordinator of the Roma Tre unit in the PRIN 2022 PNRR project “Envisioning landscapes”. He is national coordinator of the research group “Geography of small islands and archipelagic states” of the Association of Italian Geographers. He has published in several Italian and international scientific journals and is the author of the volumes “Le risorse idriche dell’isola di Ponza” (Carocci, 2019), “Enogeografie Itinerari geostorici e geografici dei paesaggi vitati ” (SGI, 2023), “Evangelista Azzi, cartografo risorgimentale” (Carocci, 2023).

Stefano Malatesta is  a geographer and Associate Professor at the University of Milano-Bicocca. He is member of the Board of MaRHE Center (Rep of Maldives) and former member (2018-2022) of the Executive Committee of the International Small Islands Studies Association (ISISA). He teaches Human Geography of Small Island Systems, and Geography of Tourism. He served (2018-2021) as chair of the Working Group on Small Island and Archipelagos (AGeI). He coordinates one of the research groups of Island4Future (https://is4future.uniroma3.it/progetto) and the University of Milano-Bicocca unit of MEDiverSEAty (https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/101119700 ). In 2017, he has been awarded from the Italian Geographical Society as best under-40 geographers. His main research topics are: human geography of small islands, geopolitics of Indian Ocean, Ocean Literacy, children and youth geographies, citizenship education and education for sustainable development.

Elena Emma Sottilotta is a Research Fellow at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. Her research interests include folk and fairy-tale studies, intermedia studies, children’s literature, Mediterranean studies and island studies. She has recently published the essay “(Re)Collections of a ‘Piccola Streghina’ from the Heart of the Mediterranean: Gender and Class Consciousness in Grazia Deledda’s Folkloric Writings” in I.S. MED. – Interdisciplinary Studies on the Mediterranean (2023). She is the co-editor with Sara Delmedico of the special issue “Women in Sardinia: Creativity and Self-Expression” (2022-2023) in Chronica Mundi, and the founder of the Cambridge Research Network for Fairy-Tale Studies.

Lavinia Gambini is a 3rd-Year PhD student in History at Jesus College, Cambridge, supervised by Prof Mary Laven. Her research investigates the presence and activities of non-elite Eastern Mediterranean practitioners, artisans, and retailers in early modern Italy. Before joining Cambridge, Lavinia obtained a BA in History and Philosophy from Humboldt-University Berlin (2020). In 2021, she completed an MPhil in Early Modern History (Jesus, Cambridge). Lavinia has worked as a Research Assistant (Humboldt University, 2017-2020) and has held pre-doctoral fellowships with the Medici Archive Project (Winter 2022) and the German Centre for Venetian Studies (Summer 2023). Her research is generously funded by the Cambridge International Trust.

Marco Nocente is a postdoctoral fellow in carceral geography at the University of Milano-Bicocca. His work explores Italian prison landscapes from an abolitionist perspective. The main topic of his PhD research was the development of prison governmentality as witnessed by an archive of prison letters. His current research investigates the continuities across space and time of carceral landscapes. The study concerns the memorisation of prison spaces. He has recently deepened these analyses on the process of re-territorialisation of some former prison islands in the Mediterranean Sea.

Marthe Achtnich is Assistant Professor in Development Studies at the Centre of Development Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. She is an anthropologist working on migration and mobility. Her research centres around the lived experiences, governance and economies of migration, with a focus on migrants’ journeys, particularly to and through Libya, the Mediterranean and Europe. Marthe has conducted multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork with migrants in Libya and in Malta. Her book ‘Mobility Economies in Europe’s Borderlands: Migrants’ Journeys through Libya and the Mediterranean’ was published with Cambridge University Press in 2023. Before starting at the University of Cambridge, Marthe was a Fellow by Examination in Anthropology (Junior Research Fellow, JRF) at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, and previously also a Wiener-Anspach Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie des Mondes Contemporains (LAMC), Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), in Brussels, Belgium.

Giovanna Di Matteo holds an inter-university Ph.D. in Geography obtained from the University of Padova, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and University of Verona with a project entitled “Migrants’ Support Volunteer Tourism in Border-Islands. Space and Memory in Lampedusa (Italy) and Lesvos (Greece)”. She is currently a research fellow at the Gran Sasso Science Institute, where she is carrying out a project on inner areas and peripheral areas in Italy and forced migration. Her research activity to date encompasses Migration Studies, Mobility Studies, Islands Studies. Additional research interests include the Geography of Tourism, Critical Tourism Studies, Landscape Studies and Heritage Studies.

Nicola Montagna is an Associate Professor in Criminology and Sociology at the University of Salerno and received his PhD from Middlesex University in London, where he did research and taught for 20 years. He has extensive research experience in social movements, urban conflicts, international migration, borders and migration policy and has published in several leading international journals, including Sociology, Ethnicities, Ethnic and Migrant studies, the Sociological Review, International Migration, Citizenship Studies, International Migration Review. He has recently worked on migration flows and policies in the Mediterranean and col¬laborates with the research centre ISMU (Iniziative e Studi sulla Multietnicità – Milano).

Upcoming Events


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk