School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS)


Prof Robert Lumley

Prof Robert Lumley



  • Emeritus Professor
    Faculty of Arts & Humanities

Joined UCL


Research Themes

My research has changed and evolved over the past thirty years but coheres around a number of concerns in the domain of cultural history with a focus on Italy in the second half of the twentieth century. Earlier research was concerned in particular with political culture and the relationship between social movements and cultural forms. The book States of Emergency. Cultures of Revolt in Italy, 1968-78 (Verso, 1990) embodies this set of inquiries. My research from 1996, when I was a visiting scholar at New York University, turned increasingly to contemporary art and visual culture. My work on the Arte Povera art movement and its urban contexts was part of a collaborative AHRC research project on the Italian city. Work on Arte Povera led to collaboration in the preparation of the exhibition Zero to Infinity, Arte Povera 1962-1972, held at Tate Modern and the Walker Arts Center in 2001-02 that included a catalogue essay and the curating of a film programme. I have enjoyed, when possible, to combine research with curating. Further research on Arte Povera was disseminated through books but also in an exhibition at the Estorick Gallery in 2004 entitled From Futurism to Arte Povera: The Marcello Levi Collection, co-curated with Francesco Manacorda. I am very interested by the material forms of the art work and modes of exhibition as well as by the historical context in which they were originally realised. I have continued to do research on artists associated with Arte Povera, notably Pino Pascali, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Piero Gilardi, and to publish through catalogues of exhibitions, including the major cycle of exhibitions across Italy organised by Germano Celant in 2011. However, my research extended into cinema from 2004 when I began a project on the experimental filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. I had been fascinated by their palimpsestic use of found footage and archival material from the silent era for some years and followed their progress from the mid 1990s. The coming together of contemporary art practice with visual 'research' on historical memory in the films closely engaged many of my own interests. My research has also included advocacy and getting the filmmakers work better known within the UK and internationally. In November 201, I co-curated (with Stuart Comer) the retrospective, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi: Alchemists at the End of Cinema, that  at Tate Modern. I continue to do research in this area.

I studied Modern History at Oxford University before following a MA at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham where I subsequently completed a Ph.D on social and cultural movements in Italy, 1968-78, under the supervision of Richard Johnson. At Oxford I had Richard Cobb as my tutor for the special subject on the French Revolution, and I regularly attended the Ruskin History Workshop conferences initiated by Raphael Samuel. I was, partly as a consequence, interested principally in social history and ‘history from below’. At CCCS, then under the inspired directorship of Stuart Hall, I participated as a research student in the formation of the newly emerging field of cultural studies, and  sought to bring this approach to the study of politics and culture in Italy. My fascination with all things Italian goes back to the months between school and university - a shorter equivalent of what is now called a 'gap year' - during which I did a language course in Perugia followed by an extended period of hitch-hiking that involved seeing all the works of Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio in the peninsula. But this attraction to ‘high culture’ was offset by an interest in politics and the contemporary. Looking back I realize how fortunate I was to be free of debts and free as a postgraduate student to experiment with new approaches to research. I would like students today to enjoy at least some of that freedom to study without immediate anxiety about careers and earning a living. Life after the completion of the PhD was difficult because cuts in education funding in the 1980s made finding a permanent university job hard. I did a good deal of part-time teaching in different institutions in the Midlands and London before securing a lectureship in Italian Studies at Sussex University in 1989, and then UCL. In the interim, I edited a book – Museum Time-Machine – that brought a cultural studies approach to a long-neglected field, and co-organised (with Zygmunt Baranski) a conference ‘Turbulent Transitions: Culture and Conflict in Contemporary Italy’ whose papers formed that basis of an eponymous volume, now a document in the history of Italian cultural studies. From 1990, UCL has constituted an ideal environment for research. Not only have I benefitted from the historic strengths of department of Italian, but work being done in other departments, notably Anthropology, Architecture, the Slade, and History of Art, have presented wonderful opportunities for collaboration of an interdisciplinary kind. I worked closely with colleagues in these areas in research on the city and on art movements. In 1996 this led to four months at NYU as part of a UCL/NYU exchange connected to urban research directed by Richard Sennett. This milieu was helped me to redirect my work towards visual culture and contemporary art, notably Arte Povera. Seminars at UCL with Joy Sleeman (the Slade) and Briony Fer (History of Art) anticipated the international conference I co-organised at Tate Modern in 2001 at the time of the exhibition Zero to Infinity, Arte Povera 1962-72. From 2004 my research extended into avant-garde film, focusing on the work of the pioneers of historical found-footage or archival cinema - Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. 


20th century politics|*|Art|*|Italy|*|city|*|experimentation|*|found footage film|*|history|*|visual culture