Programme: Architectural History - PhD

Year: 2021

Studying at ECA, under the guidance of Alex Bremner, allowed Tommaso to turn his fascination of the middle ages into a PhD research proposal. Tommaso was awarded the 2021/2022 Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellowship by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (Yale University, London) to pursue research at the British School in Rome.

While studying at ECA, Tommaso also convened the Prokalò Research Seminar Series, was Convenor of the Edinburgh College of Art and ESALA PGR Representative and taught architectural history at ESALA and presented internationally in several academic settings.

Why I chose to study Architectural History - PhD

Umberto Eco believed that we are dreaming of the Middle Ages. In my case, I believe that everything started when, as a toddler, my godfather gifted me a Rusconi edition of The Lord of the Rings. If the ‘dreams’ of the Middle Ages have held a strange fascination for me ever since, the University of Edinburgh enabled me to turn this fascination into a PhD and specialise in a cross-disciplinary understanding of architecture in relation to medievalism studies and modern Italian history (and to do so in one of the capitals of medievalism).

I graduated (MArch, BArch) magna cum laude from the Politecnico di Milano, I chose to pursue my PhD at Edinburgh College of Art because of Professor Alex Bremner at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, who is, without doubt, one of the world’s leading scholars on the history and theory of Gothic revival architecture, and was uniquely placed to be my primary supervisor and integrate my work on the Italian context with broader debates on revivalism. ESALA, with its unique concentration of architectural historians, a dedicated PhD programme in Architectural History, and world-leading research, provides a terrific opportunity to forge new directions in the history of architecture.


"The University of Edinburgh enabled me to turn this fascination into a PhD and specialise in a cross-disciplinary understanding of architecture in relation to medievalism studies and modern Italian history."

Tommaso Zerbi, Architectural History - PhD alumnus

My time at ECA

In a cross-disciplinary understanding of architecture in relation to medievalism studies and modern Italian history, the doctoral thesis I completed at the University of Edinburgh (‘The Tricolour, Shield, and Cross of Savoy: “Sabaudian Medievalism,” the Risorgimento, and Neo-Medieval Architecture in Italy, c.1814–1864’) constitutes the first study on the reworking of the Middle Ages as a tool for legitimation of the House of Savoy (‘Sabaudian medievalism’), the first on its architectural manifestation (‘Sabaudian neo-medievalism’), and the first on the role of mythic views of the medieval past in the political revision of the identities of crown and nation during the Italian Risorgimento, from the Restoration of the Throne of Piedmont-Sardinia (1814) to the decision to transfer the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy from Turin to Florence (1864). Awarded the Barrie Wilson Award by the University of Edinburgh and a scholarship by Il Circolo Associazione Culturale London and the Italian Embassy, my PhD was recommended for publication. By focusing on medieval revivalism in Italy, the project aimed to breathe new life into a topic that has struggled to gain a foothold among architectural historians. It also suggested that architectural history can be considered fruitfully alongside the study of medievalism and modern Italy and, while exploring what I term ‘Royal medievalism’, turned attention to a modern Italian case of political medievalism and to its role in the creation of the myth of the House of Savoy.

While conducting research and securing a series of research grants, in Edinburgh I convened the Prokalò Research Seminar Series, was Convenor of the Edinburgh College of Art and ESALA PGR Representative and taught architectural history at ESALA. I also presented internationally in several academic settings, among others: at Lambeth Palace, the Palazzo Ducale di Urbino, SAHGB workshop, École du Louvre, University of Cambridge, University of Warwick, and K&Q, MAMO, and EAUH conferences. Among my publications, the article released in January 2021 on the Architectural Histories journal countered the biases that read Italian revivalist architecture as an exercise in taste and suggested that medievalism and neo-medieval architecture mirrored a calibrated political strategy during Italy’s ‘resurgence’.

My experiences since graduating

I felt extremely fortunate and blessed to have successfully completed my PhD amid the global pandemic. I will be forever grateful to the examination team, my supervisors, family, and friends, and to the University of Edinburgh and all the institutions that supported my work.

In the period that followed the submission of my doctoral thesis, I was profoundly honoured to be elected an Early Career Member of the Royal Historical Society. While working on different research projects and publications, I presented (virtually) in a variety of academic settings: at the Monastery of Batalha, Bartlett School of Architecture and UCL European Institute, Deutsches Historisches Institut and Österreichische Historische Institut in Rome, and the sixth edition of the conference of the European Architectural History Network (in Edinburgh!). I also spent some months in the north-west of Italy to work on a research project on the Risorgimento rediscovery of Medieval architecture in the literary work of Piedmontese statesman-historian Luigi Cibrario (1802–1870), leading to an article in a refereed journal.

One of my greatest achievements since leaving ECA is probably the award of the 2021/2022 Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellowship by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (Yale University, London) to pursue research at the British School at Rome.

My advice to new and current students

Keep dreaming (of the Middle Ages)!


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