BLOG: Heterochronies Through Different Media by Michele Monserrati

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Heterochronies Through Different Media

Michele Monserrati (Williams College)

This semester I taught the latest Igiaba Scego’s novel, La linea del colore (2020). It made me think about our conversations around reimagining the future of Italian Studies programs and the place of the national paradigm within it. The book reads almost as a meta-poetic meditation of the potential of teaching Italian culture beyond the straightjacket of the national domain and Italian monolingual texts. Charles Burdett and Loredana Polezzi summarize the problem many programs are facing in a few words; “In the conventional organization of the discipline […] the object of research and teaching is Italian culture, mostly understood through its manifestation in literature written in Italian or through the events and processes that have shaped the geographical area that we refer to as Italy.” The novel, written in Italian, challenges the link between language and territory by presenting an image of Italy as manifested in the 19th century Grand Tour. The protagonist Lafanu Brown first encounters ‘Italy’ while living in New England under the guidance of her teacher, Lizzie Manson, who introduced her to a country known for its sublime art and majestic past, but also for its current corruption, violence, and unrestrained passions.

The author makes an effort to suspend her native view of Rome to introduce a Protestant look on the city capital, “Io a Roma ci sono nata (e ci vivo), ma per scrivere il romanzo ho dovuto disimparare tutto quello che so. Ho dovuto attraversare la città con lo sguardo di altri.” (p. 356) Scego validates the prescriptive power of this North European literary canon by presenting it as authentic and in competition with coexistent Italian views instead of dismissing it as an artifact.

But when the time comes in the novel to introduce the subjective view of a black artist in Italy, the literary canon remains in the background to embrace a fully interdisciplinary mode of representation. The fountain of the “quattro mori” in Marino becomes the gravitational center of the story, where the gaze of Lafanu and Leila meet across time in an identical reaction of horror and fear. History, art, and material culture take center stage in the plot. The reader is filled with information about the Lepanto Battle, the artist who built the fountain representing four black women captives held in chains, and the Fascist origins of the grape festival in Marino, which is unabashedly still celebrated today. It is necessary for the author to take a foray from the literary canon to showcase an invisible Italy, “ma c’è un’Italia che non si vede, quella dove la presenza nera sbuca da un quadro o da una scultura” (p. 359). Beyond the analysis of the sculpture in itself, the adaptation of this monument to a wine fountain during the grape festival, which Scego attends in the novel with her friend Loretta, would further reveal the author’s staged contrast between the ‘visible’/canonical Italy and the ‘invisible’/uncanny Italy. By expanding the area of research into wine studies and grape festivals, students learn that agricultural practices are nonetheless an expression of Fascist ideology. Fascists invented wine as a national beverage for middle and upper social classes (Griffith, 2020) while promoting grape festivals to subsume regional traditions as part of the collective body of the nation. Therefore, the fountain gushing with wine is a mise en abyme of fascist ideology aimed at erasing the presence of Black Italy by signifying the monument with one of the symbols of ruralist rhetoric, Christian symbology, and colonial ambitions. In fact, the imperialistic dimension of this event can be convincingly argued by comparing the Marino grape festival with a similar festival held in the near town of Maccarese. Here, a float “composed of a fasces and disembodied African heads made a paper mache that resembled grapes” (Lo, Ruth W, 2016: 264) was a disturbing reminder of Fascist imperialism amid a folkloric event.

The power of Igiaba Scego’s writing is to re-signify the reading of the monument by gesturing to the history of violence against Black bodies that are made invisible in canonical views of Italy. In doing so, she joins a network of contemporary artists from Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Caribbean who recently gathered in the Florentine Villa La Pietra to speak of alternative ways to represent black/African bodies as objects in art. “ReSignifications” – according to the catalog’s curator Awam Amkpa – “invoked a vision of art that straddled multiple times (heterochronies) and multiple futures (heterotopia), in ways that challenged systems of significations that codify, ethnicize, and arrest human subjects with narrow frames of ‘non-being’” (Amkpa, 2016: 20). Crucially, what allowed Scego to trace the history of Black Italy (“heterochronies”) and read it as an anticipation of today’s humanitarian crisis of migration to Europe (“heterotopia”) is the embrace of a transdisciplinary mode of representation. La linea del colore warns the readers that national literary canons have played a significant role in defining what Italian culture is and where to look to find it. Particularly, she shows the hegemonic part of British culture in presenting a ‘translated’ image of Italy that fits into the history of the Western civilization and travels back to Italy in the form of historical festivals celebrating the Lepanto victory and Italian wine. 

To counteract such a monochronical and Eurocentric view of the peninsula, Scego eschews the verbal media to find an invisible Italy that speaks of Black violence waiting for somebody to give these ‘objects’ a gaze and a voice. Programs of Modern Italian Studies should follow Igiaba Scego’s lead and explore the uncanny presence of these statues across the peninsula. The fountain of the four Moors in Marino echoes the one with four Moors enchained at the feet of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Livorno (1626), or the black servants holding the effigy of the Doge in the Frari’s Church in Venice (1665-69). A more porous and inclusive Italian culture needs to recuperate these lesser-known artifacts and challenge their colonialist representation.


Works cited

Amkpa, Awam. “Echoes of the Past, Inscribing the Present: Resignifying the Blacamoors.”In Amkpa, Awam Ed. ReSignifications: European Blackamoors, Africana Readings. Rome: PostcArt, 2016, pp. 12-23.

Burdett, Charles and Polezzi, Loredana Eds. Transnational Italian Studies. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020

Griffith, Brian J. “Bacchus among the Blackshirts: Wine Making, Consumerism and Identity in Fascist Italy, 1919-1937.” Contemporary European history. 29.4 (2020): 394–415.

Lo, Ruth W. “Celebrating the Festa dell’Uva: Invented Traditions, Popular Culture and Urban Spectacle in Fascist Rome.” In Martin-McAuliffe, Samantha L. Ed. Food and Architecture: At the Table. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, pp. 243–270.

Scego, Igiaba. La linea del colore. Milan: Bompiani, 2020.