The past and present of Religions and Philanthropy in the Mediterranean: a virtual exhibition as a space for inter-cultural dialogue
The intellectual framework of the project is to connect the dots among fields of knowledge that - until now have been unrelated and unevenly developed in their articulation: religious studies, research on the Mediterranean and philanthropy This goal is shaped by using cross - disciplinary analysis as the main leverage to generate research patterns, whose basic ground is the analysis of inter-cultural process, from the anthropological, institutional and socio-economic point of view, as well as through an innovative methodological perspective. It is focused on the articulation between already consolidated studies on religions and societies within specific geographical and cultural areas - Europe, Middle East, the Balkans, North Africa - and the analysis of patterns of representation of religions and philanthropy visual, architectural, iconographic - in the Mediterranean as broad, complex, dynamic space.
The aim of the virtual exhibition is to generate an educational framework whose main feature is to be an open, evolutionary, dynamic and fully accessible path of documentation and reflection, using visual patterns as tools of representation of philanthropy conceived as a long-term social practice and as a framework of cultures inter-linked with religious traditions, largely diffused in the Mediterranean areas since the oldest times. Charitable practices have shaped various institutions and structures throughout the Mediterranean history, so that beneficence has become an important force of social cohesion and has worked as a kind of cultural glue to bind communities together. Nowadays philanthropy enters a phase of institutional, organizational and cultural change at global scale. The role of the Mediterranean in this process increasingly appears as a laboratory to explore patterns and paths, in cloth that connects the roots of the past and the evidences of the present.
Many scholars from different disciplinary perspectives, in the last years, expressed a call for research on the "look" of charity. There are words in documents postures and gestures of giving and receiving in artistic paintings and sculptures, there are distinctive monuments and landscapes in different religious traditions that have been shaped by buildings, gardens, fountains, monuments through dedicated endowments that tell a lot about giving practices and the patterns of representation, formal and informal.
It is a matter of fact that the roots of philanthropy in the Mediterranean which is considered here in the broad meaning stated by the classical studies of the historian Fernand Braudel, as an "espace-movement", dynamic and shaped by social, economic and cultural changes are deep in terms of historical legacy, anthropological patterns as well as religious traditions as well as migrations and informal contacts among social groups, economic exchanges, cultural events. From this perspective the Mediterranean is the space of different, articulated, uneven stories rather than of an homogeneous and linear history: consequently as the poet Paul Valery affirmed the Mediterranean is a fabric of civilizations, i.e. of crossing cultures and practices. It is world permanently reshaping its identity, precisely because of its multiple identities, a world in which universalism and particularity cannot be separated, at the point that we can affirm that the more the identities are rooted the more they are dynamic and open to hybrid articulations. Actually hybridization process are recurrent features in the exhibition virtual paths that are strictly related to the specific configuration of philanthropy.
The concept of philanthropy has not the same connotative and denotative meaning in the dimension of space as well as in the dimension of time, particularly when it is associated with religious practices. In the Christian tradition which is mainly - but not exclusively - associated with the concept and the practice of charity - whose evolutionary patterns are largely documented in the exhibition, particularly with the items concerning the Misericordia works and institutions; in the Jewish tradition which is mainly associate with the principle of social justice as vehicle of social equilibration; in the Islamic tradition which is mainly but not exclusively based on the offering of Zakat, implying "purification" of the donor's greed and the donor's surplus property, allowing the rest to be maintained without blame for another year.
Despite rooted differences there is however a common ground for philanthropic action with practical and theoretical implications as well: when philanthropy meets the need of societies and communities then it contributes to lower the rigidity of religious rules Despite differences there are also many relevant similarities that are connected significantly to the openness issues of the virtual exhibition and can be detected by each visitor by developing different path both diachronically and synchronically.
The aim of the project has been, in a preliminary phase, to identify in several fabrics of the Mediterranean considered as a large dynamic interactive space which includes the North African countries, the Ottoman empire, Egypt and Israel as well as Southern European countries, the Balkans - in a word the dynamic articulations among three continents - the iconography, representing symbols and artefacts which testifies, in various forms and through different functions, the articulated relations between religions and philanthropy from the oldest times to the present. The project is based on a large collaboration of European, Turkish, Egyptians, Armenian, and Israeli scholars who have been linked through the publications of several works - with a cross-disciplinary aim. Actually the project will mobilize architects, historians of arts and architecture as well as computing experts and social scientists. And last but not least historians of philanthropy historians of medieval and modern age, experts of religious movements, not only at the level of the dominant monotheistic religions but also of movements and religious identities that we continue to define minorities, such as the Armenians and the Zoroastrian .
If philanthropy is a relevant aspect of religious practices, religious traditions and practices are crucial to understand and conceptualize the role of philanthropy in the past as well as in the present: not only because faith-based foundations and organizations are a relevant part of the landscape of philanthropy but because the relation between religions and philanthropy is a crucial driver in preserving identity for displaced people. Diasporas are powerful agents of philanthropic initiatives. From this perspective philanthropy is a factor of social cohesion and preservation of traditional habits in changing contexts as well as in multi-cultural frameworks. The religious norms and their anthropological and cultural patterns are certainly factors of differentiation, which are particularly relevant in the Mediterranean areas where the coexistence of different religious traditions is a traditional feature. This statement is overwhelmed in the present configuration of European societies where, as an effect of the increasing streams of immigration and the role played in civil societies by minorities, the oxymoron of preservation of identities throughout the hybridization of social contexts is at work. Nowadays one can affirm that philanthropy and its institutional and associative networks entered in a phase of debate and change, which characterizes, with specific connotations, the Mediterranean areas and their strategic role within the global system. Since the Mediterranean is a cross-continental framework this process concerns European countries, Turkey, with its extension to the Asiatic continent as well as other continental areas, such as the Middle-East and the Northern part of Africa. It is a matter of fact, that the roots of philanthropy in the Mediterranean areas are deeply characterised both in terms of historical legacy as well as of religious traditions. It is also a matter of fact that the most diffused religious traditions in the Mediterranean areas (Jewish, Islamic and Christian Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox) - in the contemporary period as well in the past- are characterized by increasing interaction and shaped by the effects of the evolution of civil society in the framework of the persistence of long established religious and cultural practices, including social rules and legal norms. From different point of view the virtual exhibition is part of large cultural laboratory to strengthening intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding.