Il Problema In Plain View: Italian Statues

Statues and memorials have ushered in the opportunity to address our complicated histories. However, there is disagreement over how to move forward.

Statues and Memorials Italy - Garibaldi
Xerse / CC BY-SA

Statues and memorials have ushered in the opportunity to address our complicated histories. However, there is disagreement over how to move forward.

Dystopian literature seems particularly relevant in our world today. Inspiration for what is portrayed by news media and coverage could have come directly from the pages of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. Main themes for authors such as Orwell and Bradbury were collective memory and shared history — which seem as pressing now as ever before. statues

“It was a pleasure to burn” — Fahrenheit 451

As statues of Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee are torn down across America, an age-old debate surrounding public monuments and statues is resurrected in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a policeman. The issue of troublesome statues goes beyond the US boundary and extends internationally. The UK now questions lauded British heroes, such as Winston Churchill. In Belgium, statues of Leopold II litter the streets, some even go up in flames. This debate contains at its roots a deeper discussion, that of historical memory and which parts are memorialized in the public sphere.

“Who controls the present, controls the past” — 1984

In Italy, the debate is multi-faceted. Of course, the overwhelming presence of Fascist architecture springs to mind. Ruth Bader Ginsborg aptly notes in her article, “(Mussolini) needed a multitude of markers to imprint the Fascist ideology on the landscape” resulting in the construction of massive, imposing structures such as the Palazzo della Civiltá Italiana and Foro Italico (previously Foro Mussolini) in Rome. This paired with the rising cases of anti-semitic attacks throughout the country makes for a disturbing and unsettling societal climate, not to mention a reminder of painful and atrocious past sins

problema-in-plain-view-italian-statues
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France / CC BY

Further back in Italian history, statues of unification “heroes” Vittorio Emanuele II and Giuseppe Garibaldi, whom you can find at the center of almost any piazza, are neither widely appreciated nor accepted. The south takes particular offense to these “fathers of the fatherland” for their conquest of Naples and Sicily in Italy’s unification efforts. Garibaldi’s mille of red shirts invaded and bequeathed these territories to the new Kingdom of Italy. However, complications arose from the sudden and unexpected assumption of the south, established religious, political and societal values to boot, into the new kingdom. To this day, the chistione (questione) meridionale ignites strong sentiments among southern Italians — and their regard for statues at the center of their daily lives.

“Every statue and street building renamed” — 1984

How, then, should Italians begin to approach these problematic cultural vestiges? The issue stems from the fact that most statues and monuments were erected with the intent of furthering a political ideology or extolling a hero of the time. However, through the present lens, many of these figures and philosophies are outdated, if not morally dangerous.

There have been different approaches to dealing with public effigies in recent history. President of the lower house of Italian parliament, Laura Boldrini, has explicitly called for the removal of grievous Fascist memorials, including Mussolini’s inscribed name on the obelisk at Foro Italico. Erasure is one option. Journalist Indro Montanelli’s figure in Milan has been covered in red paint and labelled as a razzista and rapist for having purchased and married a 12-year-old Eritrean girl. Defacement is another alternative, one which street artist Banksy would argue is important to immortalize in and of itself as a symbol of modern participation and awareness. 

In Bolzano, the town’s financial offices are located in the Fascist-era Casa del Fascio which displays a relief of Mussolini on a horse with the inscription “credere, combattere, obbedire” (“believe, fight, obey”). Via a public initiative in 2011, the side of the building was amended to include a superimposed, illuminated quote over the original, which reads “Nobody has the right to obey” in German, Italian and Ladin. History, author Invernizzi-Accetti argues, is a “process of sedimentation, by which the past is never completely effaced but constantly reinterpreted through the lens of the present.”

problema-in-plain-view-italian-statues
Bartleby08 / CC BY-SA

“We stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget” — Fahrenheit 451

Undoubtedly, these monuments and memorials have ushered in the opportunity to address our complicated histories. However, there is disagreement over how to move forward. Should we remove these problematic statues or do we risk living in an Orwellian “endless present” by tearing down symbols of our past? Either way, maybe now Italians will take the time to look up from their smartphones and consider the weathered statue covered in pigeons outside of their apartment.

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