Held in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 has been one of the first events of a kind later defined as ‘media events’ (Susman, 1983). Set up in a liminal period for American life, this ‘event’ was a ‘rite of passage’ paving the road to modernity out of traditional life, as Henry Adams recognized when he defined the Fair as “the first expression of American thought as a unity.”
I suggest the Columbian Exposition is a worthwhile case study for this special issue from a historical point of view. The Fair was indeed one of the first cases in which the interplay among urban planning, communication technologies and marketing strategies — a mark of the contemporary production of urban space (McQuire, 2008) — can be observed. I would also suggest it is important from a genealogical point of view because it contributes to unveil the conditions of emergence of such interplay as the outcome of a process of interactions among several social actors which had the task of marketing an imaginary of the city adequate to the new economic and social conditions of America (Harris, 1990).
I will therefore attempt to show how the Chicago World’s Fair was both a place where to trace back the genesis of modern American urban life and an opérateur of such emergence, given the fact that the experience of its ideal city life contributed in shaping the imaginary at its foundation. Through a description of the Fair I show how the representation (a literal ‘staging’) of a temporary ideal city — a land of enchantment freed from pain and poverty, with beautiful marble–like buildings, basins, theatres, palaces of consumption, spectacles, entertainments and wonders — was strategically conceived to produce actual effects on the imaginary of the public. As Lewis Mumford (1934) and Louis Sullivan (1949) recognized, the ‘liminal’ characters of the fair became ‘permanent’ features of modern cities and their everyday life through the staging of illusory (but with real consequences) effects.
World’s fairs and modernity
Chicago World’s Fair as rite of passage
‘White City’ and Capital City
The innovation of the Midway Plaisance
Chicago World’s Fair and the imaginary of the city: Or making the ‘liminal’ permanent through representation
World’s fairs and modernity
World’s Fairs — later defined as International Expositions — are specific types of mega–events (Roche, 2000). They are those with the longest history, with the first World’s Fair held in London in 1851. The next fair, Expo Milano, will take place in 2015. They are almost two centuries old and have exerted a deep impact on our modern history since the beginning. In particular, world’s fairs introduced to their public — a veritable mass audience — the new imaginary of “world—society”, considered as the ripe fruit of progress and Western civilization (Rydell, 1989; Harris, 1993; Taylor, 1991). Such vision was — literally — displayed through images, representations and spectacles that solicited fairgoers’ eyes and senses in a new and effective manner.
A genealogy of international exhibitions goes beyond the limits of the paper, but I need to briefly mention their link with medieval fairs, a central background issue for my main argument. Medieval fairs were half–religious and half–carnivalesque (Bakhtin, 1984), a mix masterfully captured by Bruegel’s painting The Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559). Fairgrounds were liminal spaces (Turner, 1967; Susman, 1983), that is in–between places and out of ordinary situations where the exchange of luxuries and exotic goods took place once or twice a year in a colourful, licentious, even violent context which revitalized the ancient ‘techniques of ecstasy’ (Ehrenreich, 2007). The fair was not the place where household goods or goods for family subsistence were exchanged: they were exactly the opposite of the permanent, local market. Within fairgrounds, strangers met and set up an economic performance, acting as functions of buyers and sellers outside the ordinary social context. Medieval fairs were a temporary break of medieval city and village life tempo. Such out of ordinary situations, being exciting and risky at the same time, eventually reinforced the desire of going back to the ordinary community life. International Expositions partake with medieval fairs the liminal and out–of–ordinary structure, and, as we shall see in studying the Columbian Exposition, even the carnivalesque and festive aspects.
With this background in mind, we can now inquire into what was special about the Chicago World’s Fair. Certainly it was peculiar; Henry Adams defined the Fair as “the first expression of American thought as a unity”  and Lewis Mumford stated that the Fair was the first manifestation of “the rise of a new order in America’s economic life” .
In order to properly answer this question we need a deeper insight into a description of the event. I will first summarize my main thesis for purpose of clarity: the Chicago World’s Fair was a truly epoch–making event as it marketed and shaped an imaginary of the city and of urban everyday life adequate to the new economic and social conditions of America. The exact manner by which organizers of the Fair tried to accomplish this task had a lasting effect on the content of that very imaginary, as ‘the spectacle of the city’ contributed to promote the ‘city as spectacle’.
Chicago World’s Fair as rite of passage
The Fair was visited by about 25 million people and many more had a mediated experience of the Exposition thanks to newspaper coverage, public discussions all over the country, and images printed in many magazines and journals. Moreover, the circulation of the first souvenirs prolonged the experience of the Fair both in personal and collective memory far beyond its closure on 30 October 1893. Objects, from silver trays to paper cutters and powder boxes, were stamped with the Fair’s mark or logo and sold as a remembrance of the exhibit . These artifacts were tools to promote a modern social imaginary of America and eventually were permanently displayed in museums . Picture postcards, too, were used to spread images of the Fair and, as urban marketing evolved, became instruments to advertise the city and create its brand identity (Amendola, 1997).
Following the suggestion of Susman (1983) we can define the Columbian Exposition one of the first kinds of ‘media events’ (Dayan and Katz, 1992). Such identification is accurate not only for the mediated experience made possible by media coverage but also, and more significantly, because the organizers recognized ‘event potential’, exploiting it through the Department of Promotion and Publicity, directed by Moses Handy.
A division dedicated to the organization of communication and public relations was set up with the task — in a very contemporary marketing language — of ‘creating the event’, of selling the excitement of participating in an event and transforming the public into actors and actresses in the event (Harris, 1994). The idea here was that the fairgoer, being a spectator, was at the same time an actor in the spectacle, as the public was an essential part of the event (Bennett, 1988; Roche, 2000). Therefore the fairgoer must be involved in order for the event to be a hit.
Handy and his colleagues recognized that a purposive and professional handling of advertising and public relations would have been decisive for the success of the Fair as much as its inner features. The Department planned the Fair as a very special epoch–making event. We can say that Chicago World’s Fair was an event in itself — its inner potential — as much as it was strategically constructed as an event by the Department, being a pioneer experiment in urban and experiential marketing. It was a pseudo–event (Boorstin, 1992) because it was strategically planned in order to become something worth experiencing and remembering. The inner potential of this ‘event’ was rationally exploited, empowered and nurtured through a managerial handling of advertising and public relations . As epoch–making, it became a national rite of passage to modern urban life for rural and traditional America (Downey, 1981; Susman, 1983; Harris, 1990).
Here we come close to the aim of the ‘event’ and the means by which the organizers tried to accomplish it. Such aim and means made the Columbian Exposition different from previous fairs. The Exhibition was not only a modern, industrial version of medieval fairs, where buyers and sellers from all over the world could meet, present their products and exchange them — as in the past. It was not only an opportunity to celebrate and showcase to the world the achievements reached by the organizing nation — like previous exhibits. For the first time the Exposition was constructed to promote a new ideal of urban planning, as Daniel Burnham, the architect who coordinated works at the fair, explicitly stated:
“The World’s Fair came, and disclosed what all were unconsciously waiting to receive, a lesson in landscape architecture. What the matter was with our public improvements, the Columbian Exposition made forever plain. Here, studied on the spot by millions, and by millions more through the activities of the Bureau of Publicity and Promotion, a great truth, set forth by great artists, was taught to all our people. This truth is the supreme one of the need of design and plan for whole cities.” 
It was the exact manner by which this aim was realized — through the staging of a representation of an ideal city — that had a stamping effect on the content of that very imaginary. It was a half–purposive, half–unintended outcome of a colossal performance set up by the Fair’s organizers.
‘White City’ and Capital City
Under the supervision of Daniel Burnham, a group of architects built an ideal Chicago, in direct comparison with the real one; very interestingly they called the Fair’s city the ‘White City’ in contrast to the real black and grey, industrial city of Chicago. Thus, the Fair became “a controlled experiment of a larger urban planning movement” . The City Beautiful Movement stemmed from the experience of the White City and exerted a deep impact on American urban planning and landscape architecture for years to come. More broadly, the Fair’s organizers were an active part of that turn-of-the-century progressive movement that wanted to foster progress and reformation through social planning and rationalization (Schlereth, 1981; Hines, 1974).
The controlled experiment was built south of Chicago along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Its focal point was the Court of Honor (see Figure 1), bounded west by the Transportation Building and east by the lake. At its center, the Administration Building, with its huge dome, stood out against a beautiful basin. The main buildings were grouped around the court: among them, the monumental Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, where new American brands and products were presented to the nation and the world; the Anthropological Building, where visitors were educated about new anthropological and ethnological findings; and, the Electricity Building, dedicated to the display of the revolutionary power of electricity. Every place was well connected by avenues and boulevards and many canals and basins crisscrossed the fairground, giving a Venetian atmosphere to the whole complex.
Figure 1: Court of Honor, image courtesy of Drawings and Documents Archive, Ball State University.
The important point to underline here is that the purpose of planning an ideal city, in comparison with a real one, was performative in itself, because it contributed to molding the imaginary of the modern American city. I will support this statement with three specific examples. The first one has to do with the extensive use of bird’s eye views at the Fair. These perspectives made possible something special that we can define as a new mode of observing the city: it shifted the sight line from an internal position, the position of participation — the position of the actor — to an external position, the position of separation — we could say the position of the spectator. This perspective was neither natural nor usual at that time. Hence, the city was experienced as a spectacle. Here we face a careful and fully purposive staging of a (theatrical) representation, aimed at promoting a new vision of the city, a very ideal. We could dare to suppose it is not by chance that the first Ferris Wheel in history was built at the Exposition (see Figure 2) . It was built in order to make possible the experience of the Fair and the White City from an external, vertigo–inducing and breath–taking perspective . We may also note that for many fairgoers the first sight of the Fair were the magnificent vistas opened up once the Administration Building was ascended through one of its elevators, where the outer open colonnade, surrounding the whole dome, was reached.
Figure 2: Ferris Wheel, image courtesy of Drawings and Documents Archive, Ball State University.
Here we approach the second example which regards the careful disposition of the buildings, an urban landscape realized in order to produce specific effects on fairgoers. The Fair’s entrances are very telling is this respect. People were forced to enter the Fair only from two entrances, from the Transportation Building or from the Lake Michigan shore. They were both planned to produce an effect of monumentality. The first was directly connected to the Administration Building with its beautiful dome. Built in the style of the French Renaissance and enriched by many statues and decorations, the building was intended as an “ouverture”  for visitors reaching the Fair by land. The second entrance by the Lake opened up the most beautiful vistas on the basin and the Court of Honor (see Figure 3). They were therefore strategically planned in order to impress the visitor, as the Handbook of the Fair explicitly stated:
“It does not matter by which of its entrances you approach the Fair — whether you come by water [...] or whether you come by rail and, passing through the splendid vestibule which this building forms, stand in the Plaza, with the fountain in the foreground and the Basin beyond [...]. It does not matter, for in either case your point of view will have been carefully planned for as a first point of view. First impression always count for much; and the way in which our Fair builders have thus provided only two great entrances, but have given each of them monumental magnificence, and opened in front of each the most splendid and harmonious of their vistas, is certainly one point where they have proved their superiority to the builders of any previous exhibition.” 
Figure 3: White City, Entrance from the Lake, image courtesy of Drawings and Documents Archive, Ball State University.
It was, in Weberian terms, a rationalization process: something studied and realized in order to produce an intended effect. Since the beginning, the sight of the fairgoer was prepared to face and be astounded by a masterful representation, as the spectator in a theatre (Harris, 1993).
The third example regards the use of electric illumination as a tool for producing an effect of enchantment. At the Fair, over 90,000 lights were used and the electric power for night illumination was three times more than that used for evening illumination of Chicago (Barrett, 1894; Adams, 1995). Electric illumination at night was a “wondrous enchantment” and “the most spectacular sight at the fair” . Nightly illumination sharpened the contrast between the white of the buildings and the dark of the sky, making the great Basin of the Court shimmer like a dream (see Figure 4). The electric fountains, too, contributed to the enchantment as visitors stood “at points of vantage about the great court each evening to watch the ever–changing beauties of these fountains”; they gazed at how the projector lamps illuminated “in the most pleasing manner the ever–varying streams of water projected through the nearly 400 apertures provided.” 
In brief, the White City with its Court of Honor was strategically planned as a monumental staging of an ideal city (Trachtenberg, 1982). It was a land of enchantment free from pain and poverty, with beautiful marble–like buildings, basins, avenues, palaces of consumption, spectacles, entertainments and wonders. Its monumental urbanism contributed to promote the primacy of urban vista over architectural coherence, which is a mark of the modern imaginary of urban space since “Haussmann’s undertaking” .
Figure 4: Nightly illumination at the Fair, image courtesy of Drawings and Documents Archive, Ball State University.
The important point to stress here, however, is that the White City was a temporary construction akin to a theatre set. All buildings were constructed knowing in advance they would have been dismantled at the end of the Fair. They were made by a new construction material called ‘staff’ — made of a mixture of plastic, cement and other materials — which was marble–like, but not real marble. Its use not only made possible the neo–classical effect desired by the architects, but it also produced the impression that the buildings were permanent constructions of high architectural value (Hines, 1974; Ewen, 1993). They were not, as one of the architect of the group, Henry Van Brunt, made clear:
“It must be borne in mind, however, that all this is not architecture in its highest sense, but rather a scenic display of architecture, composed (to use a theatrical term) of ‘practicable’ models, executed on a colossal stage, and with a degree of apparent pomp and splendor which, if set forth in marbles and bronze, might recall the era of Augustus or Nero.” 
In taking the form of a colossal representation, the White City ‘staged’ an ideal city and made its comparative function very effective. Yet, in the eyes of the visitors the illusive representation was accepted and the Fair was experienced as something real. Being temporary, the architectural landscape was constructed in order to appear and to be experienced as something permanent. Thus, the reality of the city was compared to the reality of the Exposition that, being a planned representation, was relieved of all negative aspects which are always present in an inhabited urban space. All this was not without effect from an architectural point of view, as both Mumford and Sullivan acknowledged when they defined the Fair’s buildings as ‘simulacra’. Such undertaking promoted a cosmetic vision of architecture and “reduced the work of the architect to that of putting a pleasing front upon the scrappy building” . Furthermore, the comparison of a represented ideal–city with a real city had consequences that went far beyond the vision of the architecture, first and foremost suggesting a very modern vision of reality as a (social) construction.
This tendency was empowered by the idea that the whole exhibition should impart an “object lesson”, a form of education which depended less on language than on pictures and images, thus stimulating a notion of a visual vocabulary as the most effective medium for knowledge (Bronner, 1989; Harris, 1993). Through the mixture of expositions and spectacles, the Fair taught a lesson about civilization and progress: from the ethnological displays of the Anthropological Building to the showcase of technologies in the Machinery and Electricity Buildings, through the exposition of industrial products in the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building to the American Court of Honor at the centre, everything was part of a great lesson for the eyes. Even the carnivalesque Midway Plaisance, with its wonders, entertainments and exhibitions of customs and traditions of other civilizations was intended to reinforce the narrative of the Fair’s world–image.
The innovation of the Midway Plaisance
For the line of investigation followed in this paper, the Midway Plaisance was much more than a counter melody intended to enhance the imperialistic and ethnocentric score of the Fair. With its “picturesque exotica”  the Midway was either an empowerment of the Fair’s illusive nature and a decisive force in marketing a modern imaginary of urban space and life through representation resulting from the Fair. I will support my argument with a brief description of the Midway and its peculiarities.
First of all, the Midway Plaisance of Chicago was the first modern International Expo in history with an explicit link to its roots in medieval and carnivalesque fairs. The organizers took some of the festive aspects of the previous world’s fair — in Paris in 1889 — and went a step further. They incorporated on the border of the fairground, but within the site, an avenue a mile in length “lined on both sides with so remarkable a collection of shows of one sort or another that one man could never hope to find them all in a lifetime were he compelled to search through the world for himself” .
This strip of land was composed of rationalized staging of entertainments, spectacles and simulations conceived and perceived as places of multi–sensual stimulation and enchantment. In the Midway you could find the representation of tribal life from the most exotic places from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans. You could walk through Algerian and Tunisian villages (a representation, a simulation) towards ‘Old Vienna’ and into a Chinese village or Turkish village. You could look at the most beautiful simulations made possible by the joint use of electricity, theatrical display and mechanical devices, such as the simulation of the Italian ‘Capri Grotto’, the Cyclorama of an Hawaiian volcano or the representation of ‘A day at the Alps’ inside the Electric Scenic Theatre, from the sunny morning through an afternoon thunderstorm and then into the silent night, with stars brooding over it all.
The Midway Plaisance was a controlled space of wandering and experiences that made possible a safe solicitation of the senses; a carnival freed from violence and the elements of uncertainty always present in the past. Technology and savagery, past and future, far and near, familiar and exotica were all mixed in an architectural, musical and cultural patchwork very close to postmodern taste. Elements from different epochs and distant countries were brought together in the same space and at the same time. Such time–space compression, together with the theatrical nature of the Fair, loosened the accent of reality and ignited the power of imagination by stimulating senses and emotions, being a first step towards the society as spectacle (Debord, 1967). The display of customs, traditions and civilizations, with their achievements or primitiveness became therefore an experience of divertissement and entered into the everyday life of the masses (Rydell, 1984; 1989). The Midway Plaisance was indeed a direct source for the development of theme parks and luna parks, such as Coney Island in New York (Kasson, 1978).
As a matter of fact, we can trace here the distant root of that mixture between spectacles and business that would become a must for contemporary “experience economy” (Pine and Gilmore, 1999; Ritzer, 2005). The first is a case strikingly similar to present–day example of mixture between spectacle and restoration, the “Hungarian Orpheum”:
“The exhibit consists of a café and concert pavilion [...] with a covered garden on the roof. The theater is in the lower part, and concerts are given every half–hour. The performers are Hungarian artists, brought directly from Budapest, Hungary’s capital city. The native costumes and modes of life of the different nationalities which compose this empire are shown. The roof–garden is filled with chairs and tables where meals, lunches, etc., are served. The guests are waited upon by seventy–five Hungarian maidens, dressed in their rich national costumes; and at intervals Hazay Natzy’s famous Hungarian band discourses choice music. There is also a gipsy band under the leadership of Paul Olah.” 
Manufacturers, too, displayed their new brands through spectacular and entertaining shows, even outside the Midway Plaisance. For example, within the Baker’s Cocoa and Chocolate Pavilion, breakfast cocoa was served by young maidens dressed in the costume of Liotard’s ‘La belle Chocolatiere’, chosen as the trademark logo of the brand few years before (Wade, 1893). Within the Agricultural Building, the American Cereal Company realized the panorama ‘The Procession of the Seasons’ which was painted by H. Bolton Jones and Francis C. Jones of New York and showed “in poetic art the story of the old and new way of Agriculture” , following the course of grain from seed to manufactured product, ready for breakfast. The Lever Brothers, British soap manufacturer, realized a reproduction of the Windsor Castle as the main attraction of its exhibit .
The autonomous works of young impresario Sol Bloom and the Harvard anthropologist Frederick Ward Putnam, who was the appointed supervisor of the anthropological expositions at the Fair, put the Midway Plaisance at the centre of the Fair, even if the intentions of the organizers were to keep it separated from the dignified and solemn lessons of the White City. The Midway indeed demonstrated how information, entertainment and spectacles could be joined together as a pleasurable public experience. Far from remaining a sideshow, it joined the White City in shaping the imaginary emerging from the experience of the Fair.
Chicago World’s Fair and the imaginary of the city: Or making the ‘liminal’ permanent through representation
Louis Sullivan, one of the architects of the Fair, later recognized that the Fair produced an effect of overstimulation on the public . Such overstimulation was in part intended as a tool for promoting the ideal city architects had in mind, and was in part the unintended outcome of a perfect mixture emerging from the staging of an ideal city centre in the White City and a land of enchantment in the Midway Plaisance.
Through the colossal staging of a representation which showed something temporal as permanent, the Fair “created an over–empowering emotional impression”  that molded a vision of what an ideal city should have been. The “most illusive piece of scenic architecture” ever built — as critic Montgomery Shuyler  defined the Fair — made a dream–like and fairyland environment real for visitors. As in theatre, the staging of an illusion, an enchantment, had real effects on people who experienced it — fairgoers looked at the Fair, a staging, a representation, as a concrete possibility for a real city. They thought the city could be the enchanted city of the Fair with all its wonders and spectacles, freed from negative elements always present in real cities and real life. As Lewis Mumford recognized: “The World’s Fair suggested to the civic enthusiasm that every city might become a fair” .
The imaginary of the modern American city was shaped by the experience of the Fair with its mixture of divertissement, spectacles and fairyland environment; a place where dreams come true and the personality of the citizen can be expressed through every kind of stimuli and experiences. The Columbian Exposition of Chicago was strategically staged in order to produce effects on the public. In trying to promote “the full acceptance of a new way of life, new values and a new social organization”  through the staging of a representation of an ideal city at the Fair, the temporary characters of fairs as liminal and out–of–the–ordinary situations were shifted into the imaginary of urban space and everyday life, making permanent and ordinary in the city what was liminal and out of ordinary in fairs.
About the author
Cesare Silla is research fellow in sociology at Catholic University of Milan. He is currently working on the topic of consumer capitalism and modernity at the ARC Centre (Centre for the Anthropology of Religion and Cultural Change).
E–mail: cesare [dot] silla [at] unicatt [dot] it
This paper is published with support from the ARC Centre (Centre for the Anthropology of Religion and Cultural Change), Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan.
1. Adams, 1946, p. 343.
2. Mumford, 1934, p. 124.
3. My genealogical perspective is largely based on the theoretical and empirical works of Árpád Szakolczai (1993; 1998; 2012), who has connected Nietzsche and Foucault to Max Weber, arguing that historical sociology should be ‘genealogical’ in order to properly question the taken for granted of social phenomena in the present. I tried a ‘genealogy of consumer capitalism in America through marketing’ (Silla, 2013).
4. Rydell, 1989; Bronner, 1989. See, for example, the curent exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago entitled “Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair” (http://worldsfair.fieldmuseum.org/); the Field Museum was originally the Columbian Museum of Chicago at the Fair (see http://www.fieldmuseum.org/about/history-museum).
5. Here we notice the seeds of a modern trend towards urban marketing which frames into a strictly economic category the classic ideal of ‘civic improvement as the task of urban development’ (Rydell, 1989).
6. Burnham, 1902, p. 619.
7. Hines, 1974, p. 74, see also Ross, 2013.
8. As additional evidence of the growing importance of aerial view for the new imaginary of the city, the Department of Promotion and Publicity sponsored a competition for a bird’s–eye view of the fairground. The prized image was printed in 100,000 copies and distributed around the world to advertise the Fair (Rydell, 1989).
9. At the Paris 1889 Expo, something similar was realized in the form of the view of Paris from the tallest structure humans had ever built: the Eiffel Tower. The difference between the Chicago Ferris Wheel and the Paris Eiffel Tower is that the former was built in order to view a representation of an ideal city while the latter gazed at a real city. On the vertigo–inducing perspective, see de Cauter (1993). On the relation between cultural enthusiasm for viewing the city from above and the birth of the city planning profession, see the Ph.D. dissertation of Rebecca Ross, “All above: Visual culture and the professionalization of city planning, 1867–1931” (Harvard University, 2012; http://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/10288472).
10. Van Brunt, 1892, p. 90.
11. Wade, 1893, p. 60.
12. Platt, 1986, p. 20.
13. White and Igleheart, 1893, pp. 306–307.
14. McQuire, 2008, p. 35.
15. Van Brunt, 1892, p. 88.
16. Mumford, 1934, p. 131; see also Sullivan, 1949.
17. Hines, 1974, p. 73.
18. White and Igleheart, 1893, p. 561.
19. Wade, 1893, p. 212.
20. Booklet ‘At the World’s Fair — 1893’, Vertical Files Box 1 Cereals Folder 2 Quaker Oats, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
21. See Vertical Files Box 6 Soap Folder 3 Lever Brothers, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
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Received 20 October 2013; accepted 27 October 2013.
Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Cesare Silla. All Rights Reserved.
Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: Marketing the modern imaginary of the city and urban everyday life through representation
by Cesare Silla.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 11 - 4 November 2013