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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.

Molly Tambor

Giulia Ricca

Meeting Schedule

09/15/2023 Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University
6:15 PM
The Voice of the Rural and Migrant Moroccan Men in Umbria
Alessandra Ciucci, Columbia University

Respondent: Pier Mattia Tommasino, Columbia University

10/06/2023 Remote
12:30 PM
Industrious Skies: The Chemistry of Fascist Nature
Rebecca Falkoff, University of Texas, Austin


Abstract: I will present the first chapter of my manuscript-in-progress, Industrious Skies: The Chemistry of Fascist Nature The book is a cultural history of Italy’s interwar initiatives to fix atmospheric nitrogen – that is, to take unreactive nitrogen gas from the air for use in fertilizers and explosives.I show that the promise of these technologies—that of making bread from air—defines fascist strategy from the very outset of the regime. The availability of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, explosives, and chemical weapons powered major fascist initiatives, beginning with the Battle for Wheat in 1925, and including the draining of the Pontine Marshes, the demographic campaign, and imperialism. Attending to the materiality of industrial processes and products of nitrogen capture as well as more abstract elemental and atmospheric poetics, my study will offer a new perspective on Italian fascism and will shed light on a critical shift whereby discourses of global scarcity give way to ecological crisis better understood through attention to structural violence and injustice. The chapter focuses on the period between 1919-1925 and draws on research I conducted last semester at the National Archives in College Park, MD, and the Othmer Library of Chemical History in Philadelphia. Declassified reports at the National Archives attest to extensive intelligence collaboration between America, France, and the United Kingdom in efforts implement the German Haber-Bosch process during and just after the war. Italy was left out of this intelligence-sharing and was largely disregarded in reports of national progress toward nitrogen capture. In the pages of the Giornale di chimica industrial e applicata, between 1919-1924, Italian scientists including Giacomo Fauser, Arturo Miolati, and Carlo Toniolo discussed the absence of government investment in fixed nitrogen despite the strategic importance of synthetic fertilizers for the national economy.

Respondent: Suzanne Stewart Steinberg, Brown University

10/20/2023 Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University
6:15 PM
Metamorphosis of an intellectual: Gaetano Salvemini exile between Europe and the United States
Renato Camurri, University of Verona, Italy

Respondent: David Forgacs, New York University

11/17/2023 Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University
6:15 PM
The Republican Roots of the «Buon Colonizzatore»: Italy and its Decolonization
Alessandro Pes, University of Cagliari and Remarque Institute

Respondent: Elleni Centime Zeleki, Columbia University

12/08/2023 Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University
6:15 PM
Fragments of Female Becoming: Conducting research with Italian teen audiences
Danielle Hipkins, University of Exeter

Romana Andò, University of Rome La Sapienza

01/19/2024 Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University
6:15 PM
Rebuilding Italy after World War II: Casabella Continuità’s Search for New Alternatives
Elisa Dainese, Georgia Institute of Technology


Abstract: After World War II, the problem of housing in Italy had reached dramatic proportions. At least six million houses had been either destroyed or damaged during the war causing pressing concerns on rebuilding and the urgent need for dwellings for the poorest population. After years of totalitarianism and oppression, distinguished intellectuals, architects and planners approached housing as a service to the collective; exhibitions and meetings focused on housing after removal and relocation; new experiments joined politics, industry, and architecture and investigated participatory design ideas. Challenging to some extent the interest in Italian housing as mere physical reconstruction, the magazine Casabella Continuità by Ernesto Nathan Rogers became the engine of a new social ferment which explored unexpected and, at times, non-canonical manifestations to rebuilding. This presentation investigates the connections between Casabella Continuità’s research on Indigenous Africa, the magazine’s explorations on alternative reconstruction models, and the broader postwar search for social and political alternatives in the mid-1950s. The seminar also uncovers important tensions that link legacies of dissent to Italian colonization and urbanization in Africa with the refusal of an authoritarian and systemic oppression under the fascist regime. Results illuminate how years of pre-war control and the consequent brutality of the war promoted a culture of openness in Rogers’ postwar magazine which led to the investigation of a multifaceted and polychrome microcosm of alternatives. Presenting itself as a cultural tool for change, Casabella Continuità guided postwar intellectuals in their search for a new building tradition as well as the reformulation of Italy as a democratic country.

Respondent: Mary McLeod, Columbia University

02/09/2024 Remote
2:30 PM
Jews and the Italian Colonization of Libya
Shira Klein, Chapman University

Respondent: Pamela Ballinger, University of Michigan

03/08/2024 Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University
6:15 PM
The Risorgimento and International Law
Steven Soper, The University of Georgia


In many histories of the Italian Risorgimento, the principles and practices of international law are overshadowed by great power politics. A string of dramatic international events defined the “Italian question,” from the revolutions of 1820-21 to the start of Italy’s second war of independence in 1859. But the legal implications and consequences of these events often remain obscure. Recent studies of the 1830s and 1840s by Miroslav Šedivý and Sebastiano Granata, among others, reveal a keen awareness of international law among Italy’s established rulers and emerging patriots, in particular a sensitivity to the Italian states’ vulnerability as “secondary powers” in the European state system. Did this Italian mindset continue into the 1850s, across the dramatic divide of the revolutions of 1848-49? In this essay, I look closely at the debate surrounding the British politician William Gladstone’s mobilization of European public opinion against the Bourbon King of Naples, Ferdinand II, and his government. I examine Gladstone’s famous pamphlet, Two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen, on the State Prosecutions of the Neapolitan Government, published in the summer of 1851, but also the many pamphlets written in defense of the Neapolitan government, including four Italian publications. In these Italian texts I find echoes of two themes present in studies of the period before 1848: frustration with a brazen disregard for the common European ‘law of nations,’ and criticism of the arrogance of the great powers, including Britain and France. However, these texts also reveal a growing tension between defense of the established principle of non-intervention and support for intervention on behalf of the “cause of humanity.” Although Gladstone did not call for intervention in 1851, five years later, after the conclusion of the Crimean War, the British and French governments effectively staged a “humanitarian intervention” to force Ferdinand to offer amnesty to a large number of Neapolitan political prisoners.

Respondent: Isaac Nakhimovsky, Yale University

04/12/2024 Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University
6:15 PM
Fanciulli Girovaghi: Child Migrants during the Age of Mass Migration
Victoria Calabrese, Lehman College


Although the story of Italian emigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is well documented, the experience of children, who made up about 20% of migrants during this period, is largely understudied. This project will focus in part on a group of these migrants known as fanciulli girovaghi, or travelling child musicians, who performed in major European and American cities in the mid to late 19th century. While some children emigrated with their parents, siblings, or relatives, others migrated under the care of agents. Parents signed contracts with agencies that promised to take the children, teach them to play an instrument, and then transport them to cities abroad where they would peddle on the streets for money. Generally originating from poor, agricultural areas of Italy, these children, some as young as six or seven, were visible on the streets of foreign cities. The practice peaked in the decades after Italian unification, largely due to the social and economic circumstances that pushed desperate parents to send their kids abroad in exchange for money. By the end of the century, the practice subsided, coinciding with the publication of stories like Pinocchio, and a growing awareness of the need to protect children to prevent their exploitation both at home and abroad. This study adds to our understanding of Italian migration by considering emigrating children, and demonstrates how the socio-economic problems in post-unification Italy pushed families to contract their young children to questionable agents making false promises. Furthermore, as the emerging Kingdom of Italy attempted to build its reputation among the European powers, poor Italian street performers were a cause of shame and embarrassment and perpetuated images of Italy as impoverished and backwards, a reflection of the shortcomings of the government.

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

05/10/2024 Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University
6:15 PM
Inventing Italian Aids. Discourses, narratives, and representations of Hiv/Aids in Italy from 1981 to 2019
Marco Rovinello, University of Calabria

Respondent: Jennifer Brier, University of Illinois at Chicago