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This seminar is concerned with political, social, cultural, and religious aspects of Italian life from 1815 to the present. In recent years, the seminar has stressed an interdisciplinary approach to Italian studies, increasing the participation of anthropologists and scholars of art, film, and literature. The seminar meets on the second Friday of the month, from October to April, to discuss a paper presented by a member or an invited speaker. Papers cover a wide range of topics, approaches, and methodologies. The seminar occasionally holds a day- long conference or a more restricted symposium to explore a topic in depth.

Professor Rebecca Bauman

Luca Naponiello

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.

Meeting Schedule

09/13/2019 Italian Academy (1161 Amsterdam Ave, NYC), 5th Floor Conference Room
6:15 PM
The Re-Invention of Marco Polo, or: Cultural Politics of Italian Colonialism
Giuseppe Gazzola, Stony Brook University, SUNY


This talk examines how the figure of Marco Polo, the quintessential European traveler and discoverer, was constructed in the nineteenth century as it became pivotal to conceiving an alternative form of colonial contact useful to the newly formed Italian state. Despite the frequent occurrence of his name in everyday parlance, the global resonance of Marco Polo is a relatively recent phenomenon; even if his Livre des merveilles was known and appreciated in early modern times, the diffusion of the book gained traction only around the 1870s, with the almost contemporary publication of critical editions in English and in Italian. Yet, Polo’s mission was not the first Italian encounter with central Asia: the Franciscan friar, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, was successfully dispatched to the court of Guyuk Khan by Pope Innocent IV fifty years before Polo’s similar—though failed—diplomatic expedition to the same court. In this talk I compare the different fortunes of Polo’s Livre des merveilles and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine’s little-known Hystoria mongolorum, a work also based on his travels. Why have we substantially forgotten Giovanni’s mission, and glorified Marco’s? Outlining a paradox of national memorialization in which the first, successful mission to China has been forgotten, while the unsuccessful one has attained global fame, I explore the socio-cultural forces that shaped Polo’s travels into an iconic myth about Italy’s primacy in overseas exploration. The construction of the myth of Polo (as well as the myth of that other exceptional Italian explorer and discoverer, Christopher Columbus) was artfully assembled by the cultural apparatus of the newborn Italian state to craft a genealogy for Italian expansionist ventures. This included, among other things, the creation of the Italian Geographical Society, the translation and dissemination of Polo’s work, and the exceptional inclusion of the Livre des merveilles in the Italian literary canon, even though it was not originally written in the national language.

Respondent: Rebecca Falkoff, New York University

10/04/2019 Italian Academy (1161 Amsterdam Ave, NYC), 5th Floor Conference Room
6:15 PM
'Columbus Might be Dwarfed to Obscurity': Italian Americans' Engagement with Columbus Monuments in a Time of Decolonization
Laura Ruberto, Berkeley City College

Joseph Sciorra, Queens College, CUNY


Since at least the 1992 quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean, the once-glorified Columbian legacy has been increasingly challenged within and beyond indigenous communities by reiterating the atrocities he established in a genocidal approach to colonization. A renewed scrutiny of Columbus statues occurred in the wake of outcries to remove Confederate-focused statuary in public spaces. And yet, representatives of local and national Italian American organizations vigorously rearticulate their support for Columbus Day and oppose the removal of Columbus monuments in the name of Italian American victimization. We understand Columbus monuments as “sites of memory” that function within a system of rememoration (a la Pierre Nora)—the act of resuscitating the past through a lieu de memoire. Using an interdisciplinary approach combining theories on public monuments, collective memory, material culture, and migration studies we consider how contemporary Italian Americans’ attachment to Columbus perpetuates a master narrative regarding earlier Italian migration developed during the white ethnic revival of the 1970s which reaffirms a racialized ideology of privilege and exclusion. We will focus on two contemporary case studies—New York City and San Jose (California)—of the historical construction of a Columbus statue and the contemporary debates around their continued presence within public spaces. In each case, these two cities, both with Italian American mayors, have had continued and varying efforts to remove or preserve these migrant-created monuments in light of shifting cultural politics.

Respondent: Marta Gutman, City College of New York, CUNY

11/08/2019 Italian Academy (1161 Amsterdam Ave, NYC), 5th Floor Conference Room
6:15 PM
The Birth and Death of a Nation: Italy’s Monumental Cemeteries of the Nineteenth Century
Hannah Malone, Freie Universität Berlin (Germany)


Italians have a special relationship with their dead and that relationship constituted a basis for Italy’s national identity. Whereas until the late eighteenth century the dead had been buried in urban churches and graveyards, from the early 1800s, the prohibition of burial within cities across Europe led to the creation of new cemeteries, that were suburban, public, secular, and socially inclusive. Their importance reflected the celebration of death in an era of Romanticism and individualism. In Italy, many cities built new cemeteries that were unparalleled in their scale and grandeur. Although Romantic culture was widespread throughout Europe, Italy’s cemeteries of the nineteenth century were distinctive in that they were monumental rather than landscaped, and unique in their size and cost. They emerged in direct response to the evolution of Italian society and politics at the time of unification. As Italy underwent a period of turbulent change marked the rise of the bourgeoisie, the struggle for independence and the creation of the nation-state, the new cemeteries expressed the tensions and conflicts that shaped the emergent nation. Drawing on my monograph, Architecture, Death and Nationhood: Monumental Cemeteries of Nineteenth-Century Italy (Routledge, 2017), the seminar will explore Italy’s monumental cemeteries as a distinctly Italian phenomenon, and as a window onto Italian attitudes towards death and commemoration. In particular, in the context of the Risorgimento, public cemeteries were imbued with political meanings that were coloured by nationalism and a rising civic consciousness. Following Italy’s unification, they conveyed the power of the bourgeoning nation, and accommodated efforts to construct an Italian identity through a shared memory of national heroes. In that sense, the seminar will show how, in the monumental cemeteries, death reflected the narratives, mentalities, and collective memories that defined Italy as a nation.

Respondent: Richard Etlin, University of Maryland

12/13/2019 Italian Academy (1161 Amsterdam Ave, NYC), 5th Floor Conference Room
6:15 PM
Black, Jewish, and Italian: Intersections in Igiaba Scego and Claudio Magris
Saskia Ziolkowski, Duke University


Igiaba Scego’s Adua and Claudio Magris’s Non luogo a procedere (Blameless), both from 2015, weave together gender, race, and Jewishness in an Italian context. This paper explores Adua and Non luogo a procedere within the historical contexts they represent, the authors’ own trajectories, and current critical conversations on racism and antisemitism. Magris was partially prompted to write Non luogo a procedere because of the lack of place that the death camp Risiera San Sabba in Trieste has in Italian collective memory. Scego’s novel presents the challenges of a Somali father and then daughter living in Italy, in the 1930s, the 1970s, and today. Because much of Magris’s scholarly and fictional work focuses on German literature, Jewish literature, and Trieste and most of Scego’s scholarship, journalism, and fiction explores African migration to Italy, it may be surprising to find Magris’s presentation of black identity and Scego’s of Jewish characters. In this paper, I argue that both novels show how the legacies of colonialism, antisemitism, and racism intersect. One of the advantages of the belated Italian discussions of colonialism, racism, and antisemitism is that Italian debates often highlight the important connections between them, something that is at times ignored in other current discourses. Contemporary Italian literary works, like those of Scego and Magris, offer important suggestions for considering these topics together. Examining the way their multiple narratorial voices and time periods intertwine, I argue that Adua and Non a luogo a procedere both provide space to explore the ambiguities of individuals’ relationships to their own identities and Italy’s past.

Respondent: Gabriella Romani, Seton Hall University

02/07/2020 Italian Academy (1161 Amsterdam Ave, NYC), 5th Floor Conference Room
6:15 PM
'Non ho l'età': Italian Women Pop Singers, 1958-1972
Elizabeth Leake, Columbia University


This paper examines the presence of contemporary feminist concerns in the music of Italian female popular singers from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Through a comparative examination of the music of Mina, Patty Pravo, Gigliola Cinquetti, and Caterina Caselli and American counterparts Nancy Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Bobby Gentry and Brenda Lee, this paper argues that Italian popular singers did not merely reflect the zeitgeist but rather performed a much more complicated cultural intervention, an act of mediation between autochthonous and international influences on sound, visual style, and lyric contents. Implementing, in increasingly explicit ways, incipient Western European and North American feminist discourses, these musicians re-interpreted them, with differing degrees of self-awareness, in a distinctly Italian key. Moreover, in doing so, they contributed actively to the development of a set of localized discourses. In this way, popular music, which usually functions as a vehicle for conservative, pre-digested ideas, here appears finalized toward more radical goals. Beyond merely engaging with the contemporary takes on conventional issues as love, jealousy, and loss, these musicians affirm their positions on a number of subjects, such as (i) female economic, sexual and social autonomy against hegemonic masculinism; (ii) the spread of new technologies such as the telephone, television, and jukebox, and their influence on changing gender and generational relations; and (iii) a broader and more explicit concern with issues of poverty and social class, by both absorbing and rejecting American musical, sartorial, stylistic, and comportmental models of contemporary gender identity.

Respondent: Molly Tambor, Long Island University

03/06/2020 Italian Academy (1161 Amsterdam Ave, NYC), 5th Floor Conference Room
6:15 PM
The Military Twist: Re-thinking the Military in Italian Cultural History
Mattia Roveri, New York University and Hostos Community College


When Foucault introduced the concept of discipline in his groundbreaking Discipline and Punish (1975), he made ample use of the figure of the soldier and thus used the military institution as a go-to for illuminating societal processes more generally. Academia, however, has since sought to avoid close engagement with the military, even though trends outside the university show the military as an ever-popular source of discussion and inspiration across the broad spectrum of cultural production. For a long time, scholars involved in the study of the military were predominantly military officers who had personal experience of, and immediate access to, the intricate details of the otherwise closed and strictly hierarchical institution. Hence neutrality in offering hard data and facts about the military was difficult to come by, in Italy and elsewhere. Today, the military is still primarily studied within the scope of military history and political science (often in military academies) and, if brought up in other contexts, generally used as background data for the study of war and its aftermath. While the increased access to military archives has resulted in the significant rise of work focusing on different historical aspects of the military, the cultural representation of the military in literature and other media (fine arts, cinema, music, etc.) has been almost completely neglected. It is precisely this cultural and artistic production that this paper aims to highlight. Italy has had a particularly complex and multifaceted relationship with its military institutions and this is partly due to the educational-cultural role of conscription, which was officially suspended in 2005. Divided into three sections, this presentation will trace diachronically the relevance of the military in the development of artistic media in Italy. The first part focuses on the 19th century Italian novel and the establishment of national military, the second on the emergence of Rock 'n Roll music in Italian military barracks of the 1960s, and the third section on the sweeping impact of the military on contemporary fashion industry. These three micro analyses will offer a new perspective on the role of the military in Italian culture and the relevance of culture to military studies in Italy and beyond.

Respondent: Mary Gibson, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

04/03/2020 Italian Academy (1161 Amsterdam Ave, NYC), 5th Floor Conference Room
6:15 PM
meeting cancelled

05/08/2020 Italian Academy (1161 Amsterdam Ave, NYC), 5th Floor Conference Room
6:15 PM
Ethnicity and Affect in Oral Histories of the Bronx Italian American History Initiative
Kathleen LaPenta, Fordham University

Jacqueline Reich, Fordham University


This paper explores the implications of the everyday in personal history interviews from the Bronx Italian American History Initiative, an oral history research project at Fordham University that aims to recover the narratives of Italian and Italian American residents of the Bronx and to document and map the cultural centers in which they settled, lived and worked throughout the 20th century. We build on aspects of the project that interrogate performativity and performance, defined by Robert Baumann as “a form communication separated from everyday conversational ways of speaking.” For this presentation we turn to affect theory to explore the everyday, anti-exceptional elements that emerge alongside and despite of the exceptional contexts that interviews present. While interviews constitute heightened moments of encounter set apart from the everyday, we draw upon Lauren Berlant’s theorization of aesthetic genres to examine how speech patterns and bodily gestures reflect the “norms of self-management” that inhere in processes and practices of conceiving of a historical present. By examining how exceptional and anti-exceptional elements interact within these interviews, our paper engages with the broader historical and methodological contexts in which an oral history project operates. Understood as both a process and a product, oral history is distinguished from other qualitative-based interview research methods; the process (the oral history narrative and the historicization of the present) cannot be separated from the outcome (the interpretation of that narrative and of the present as history). Finally, our paper analyzes the idea of the present, which in many cases has been conceived of as post-ethnic, as it emerges from the affective filters of these Italian and Italian American stories.

Respondent: John Gennari, University of Vermont