CLAIS Faculty Q&A: Professor Lisa Voigt

February 16, 2024

Lisa Voigt holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. from Brown University. Prior to becoming a Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Department at Yale University, she taught at the University of Chicago and The Ohio State University. Her research focus is on colonial Latin American literature and culture. Her areas of expertise encompass diverse subjects, such as narratives of captivity and shipwreck within the Spanish and Portuguese empires, mestizo historiography in New Spain, and the examination of Baroque festivals and festival accounts in the Andes, Brazil, and Portugal. 

Dr. Voigt is the author of Spectacular Wealth: The Festivals of Colonial South American Mining Towns (University of Texas Press, 2016) and Writing Captivity in the Early Modern Atlantic: Circulations of Knowledge and Authority in the Iberian and English Imperial Worlds (Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture/University of North Carolina Press, 2009), which won the Modern Language Association’s Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize for an outstanding book published in the field of Latin American and Spanish literature and cultures.

She has received backing from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mellon Foundation, Fulbright, and, most recently, an ACLS Collaborative Fellowship to co-author a book focusing on reused and duplicated illustrations depicting the non-European world in early modern European travel narratives. Additionally, she is contributing to various publications emerging from her engagement in a Portuguese-funded research project, Public Rituals in the Portuguese Empire (2018-2022), including a special issue for Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, a collected volume to be published in Lisbon, and a monograph on the portrayal and involvement of extra-European peoples and places in early modern Portuguese festivals. Furthermore, she serves as the Special Issues Editor of Colonial Latin American Review.

Dr. Voigt shared with CLAIS her thoughts on key topics, offering a glimpse into the passion and expertise that characterize her scholarly journey.

1) How did your interest in culture and performance in colonial Latin America develop?

The seed of my interest in festive performance was surely planted by witnessing the spectacular Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions during my junior year abroad in Seville, Spain. The mixture of the sacred and the profane in celebrations that involved the whole city for an entire week made a big impression on me, as someone who grew up in a more austere and private religious culture in Wisconsin. Semana Santa gave me a glimpse of the richness and complexity of public festivals that I began to explore in graduate school, through coursework on colonial Latin America and conversations with my advisor Stephanie Merrim, who was beginning to work on her own book on the spectacular: The Spectacular City, Mexico, and Colonial Hispanic Literary Culture (University of Texas Press, 2010). I didn’t end up working on festivals for my dissertation, but soon after grad school I started writing articles on the topic that eventually grew into my second book, Spectacular Wealth: The Festivals of Colonial South American Mining Towns (also published by the University of Texas Press, in 2016).

2) How have your interests or approaches changed throughout your career?

One thing that has remained consistent is my recognition of the value of collaboration, although the shape that has taken has evolved. In my first job at the University of Chicago, I was in a small Spanish section of a Romance Languages and Literatures department, and that pushed me to find interlocutors and collaborators (through conferences, workshops, etc.) in English, Art History, and Renaissance Studies, in particular. That experience, as well as the interdisciplinary dialogue while on fellowships at the Newberry Library and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, contributed to the comparative, transatlantic, and hemispheric dimensions of my first book, Writing Captivity in the Early Modern Atlantic. Although I found similar, valuable cross-departmental collaborations during my subsequent years at The Ohio State University, being part of a large Latin American section of a Department of Spanish and Portuguese surely contributed to the South American (while still comparative) focus of my second book, Spectacular Wealth. More recently, collaboration with scholars outside of my field has taken on new dimensions of my work, through my involvement in Public Rituals in the Portuguese Empire—a multiyear project with Portuguese funding that involved an international team of scholars collaborating on conferences, publications, and the creation of an online digital archive of festival-related texts. I am also currently working on a co-authored book project with Stephanie Leitch, an art historian at Florida State University, which began under the auspices of an ACLS Collaborative Fellowship.

3) Can you elaborate on the research and writing process of Spectacular Wealth and Writing Captivity?

Essential to the research and writing of both books was the experience of residential fellowships at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island. Beyond the time for writing that they allowed, I learned through those fellowships the value of working directly with primary sources, of making new discoveries in collections, and of discussing work-in-progress in fellows’ seminars—in addition to the more informal exchange that happens when you work in close proximity to other scholars. For Writing Captivity, my fellowship at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture was even more transformative, as it allowed me to expand the project to tell a broader Atlantic story incorporating English-language materials. While working on Spectacular Wealth, a trip to Bolivia was productive not only for the archival research I was able to do in Potosí and Sucre, but for the religious festivals I was able to witness in both cities, giving me a glimpse of both continuities and ruptures in festive practices.

4) What are your current ongoing projects and research interests?

I continue to be interested in the study of early modern festivals, but in recent years have turned to the other side of the Atlantic to examine the representation and participation of extra-European peoples and places in Portuguese festivals during the period of overseas imperial expansion. My next solo-authored book will explore how racist stereotypes on one hand, and Amerindian and African knowledge and cultural practices on the other, shaped public perceptions of the global world and its inhabitants in early modern Portugal. A second, related area of investigation concerns the visual representation of distant lands in early modern European print culture, in particular the illustrations accompanying printed travel accounts. In a co-authored book project with Stephanie Leitch, provisionally entitled “The Epistemology of the Copy in Early Modern Travel Narratives,” we are studying how copied and recycled illustrations of peoples and animals shaped stereotyped perceptions of the extra-European world, helping to justify colonial projects and imperial self-imaginings.

From her formative experiences witnessing the vibrant Semana Santa processions in Seville to her current explorations of Portuguese festivals and representations, Dr. Voigt consistently demonstrates a keen interest in the intersection of culture, performance, and the dynamics of imperial expansion. As she continues her groundbreaking research on the visual representation of distant lands in early modern European print culture and the impact of recycled illustrations, Dr. Voigt remains a leading figure in the field, contributing invaluable insights that bridge continents and centuries.

By Katherina Frangi, PhD Student of Spanish and Portuguese.