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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

All seminars will meet over Zoom for the 2020-2021 academic year. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change. 

Meeting Schedule

09/11/2020 Online Meeting
6:15 PM
#Milanononsiferma (Milan Won’t Stop): Disguising Disease in Politics and Visual Arts in Post-Unification Italy
Sharon Hecker and Arianna Arisi Rota, Università di Pavia (Italy)


Considered an isolated event, the Italian government’s resistant initial response to the COVID19 crisis, emblematized by the defiant, hastily assembled video cum hashtag #milanononsiferma, has a history worth examining. The denial of social fear and risk during cholera, typhoid, syphilis and malaria outbreaks occurred repeatedly in post-unification Italy, because these diseases clashed with the official narrative of an emerging modernized urban setting and challenged a myth of political stability. In the cultural realm, while disease was romanticized in Scapigliatura literature and opera (but always limited to the sick female body) or used in verbal attacks of new styles (critics denigrated ivisionism as “painted measles”), representations of disease were negated or erased in painting and sculpture. This seems to be an Italian phenomenon, given that images epicting the sick male and female body can be found in the art of other countries in the same period. Perhaps one can see this negation as rooted in a vestigial romantic faith in the moral mission of art. There was also likely a wariness about art needing to be uplifting and beautiful if were to be sold and exhibited in public spaces or private homes. The
tendency to exclude images of disease is evident in the anecdote of Giovanni Segantini being forced by his dealer to repaint and rename a work depicting a sick girl with cheeks red from typhoid fever, called Tisi galoppante, to represent a healthy rosy image with the new name Petalo di rosa.

The proposed seminar will examine links between the political realm and the visual arts in not wishing to admit diseases, both physical and “moral”. To what extent was the imposed narrative harnessed to support the metaphor of the nation’s “healthy body” and how did the visual arts validate it? What evidence is there of suppression in visual arts and public discourse focusing on the “infection/purification” couplet? What role does the arket/public response logic play in silencing the representation of reality? Finally, what is the relationship between disguising disease and broader questions of stifling the realities of illness, disability, deformity and otherness in Italy?

Respondent: Vivien Greene, Guggenheim Museum

10/16/2020 Online Meeting
6:15 PM
Place, Memory and the Picturesque in Bronx Oral Histories: The Bronx Italian American History Initiative and Community-Engaged Scholarship
Kathleen LaPenta and Jacqueline Reich, Fordham University


The Bronx Italian American History Initiative locates and creates spaces of social and inter-racial exchange that center around the subjective experiences of life in the Bronx in the twentieth century. Since the project’s beginning in 2016, our work has set out to collect and to interrogate stories of encounter and conflict within the frameworks of personal memory and oral history interviews. We draw upon the 43 interviews we filmed, coded and migrated into our new database, as well as those of our sister project, the Bronx African American History Project, in order to demonstrate how meaning-making unfolds in the context of Italian American culture.
Even before the 2020 COVID pandemic, our project set out to create virtual spaces of encounter – through our social media platforms, our database, and derivative products – by placing oral histories of Italian Americans alongside select stories told by individuals from different raced and racialized vantage points. We show how a textually-based, qualitative analysis of oral histories within these newly and virtually created venues produces an intertextuality of personal experience and contributes to community engagement with and knowledge about the Bronx.

In this paper we focus on one aspect of our project: how subjects internalize and process the notion of place in their filmed interviews, and what their memories say about the process Italian Americans experienced in their negotiation of whiteness, an end-process that some of our subjects reject. Our subjects often express their sense of place through paradigms used to racialize and “other” Italians in the course of the 20th century: the iconography and imagery of the picturesque.

Respondent: John Gennari, University of Vermont

11/13/2020 Online Meeting
6:15 PM
Paralysis, Piety and Miracles: An Agnostic’s Letter to Paul VI
William J. Connell, Seton Hall University


This is a paper in which I build a microhistory—a genre many early modernists (myself included) have experimented in—around a 20 th -century document and the life it describes. Important themes include the self-written experience of disability, the special way fiction illuminates historical understanding when set in particular ethnic and spatial contexts, and the manner in which religion exerts power over ordinary lives. A remarkable window is opened onto the emotional and religious life of a man in some respects typical and others extraordinary by his autobiographical letter, addressed to Pope Paul VI in 1977, requesting a miracle for his son. Paul Lenzi immigrated as a boy with his father and brothers from a town in the hinterland of Salerno Province, arriving in Newark in 1924. He later established himself as a grocer in the Down Neck neighborhood. In the 1950s he was progressively immobilized by multiple sclerosis. When he wrote his letter in 1977, he could move a pen with his right hand, and he could speak, but otherwise he was completely paralyzed and would remain that way down to his death in 1996. The writer’s struggle with multiple sclerosis resulted in an engaged and skeptical view of the Church and of Christianity that evolved over four decades and finds parallels in the themes and plots of novels by the two greatest writers on New Jersey’s ethnic life: Pietro di Donato and Philip Roth. Searches in the records from Ellis Island, the digital collections of the Newark Public Library, local newspapers and surviving family documents provide additional background and context. The paper explores how a person laboring under a severe physical disability renegotiated his relationship with divinity and the cosmos. The letter-writer could move a pen with his right hand, and he could speak, but otherwise he was completely paralyzed from the early 1950s down to his death in 1996. Previously he had had an active life as a grocery store owner and band-leader in Down Neck Newark. His letter to the Pope is written in a clear Italian prose that reflects occasionally the dialect of his paese natio and the influence of Italian “Nevarca,” but more commonly employs a vocabulary sustained by years of listening to opera. What is most remarkable in the letter is the way it shows a person plagued with a physical disability rethinking his relationship with divinity and the cosmos.

Respondent: Fred Gardaphé, Queens College, CUNY

12/11/2020 Online Meeting
6:15 PM
Amara Lakhous: Canonical Literature or Just Another Who Dunnit?
Ryan Calabretta-Sajder, University of Arkansas


Amara Lakhous, the author of six novels written in Italian, is still often cited by literary critics as a “migrant” author, even though his works lack any “foreign accent,” according to Hamid Naficy’s theoretical model. 1 Although Lakhous’s voice is at times characterized as “Othered,” I argue that his narrative voice is as Italian as those of Carlo Emilio Gadda, or even Leonardo Sciascia, two of the most noteworthy giallo authors of the Italian canon. Italian scholars who have studied Lakhous’s oeuvre focus primarily on language, which is a rich aspect of his opus, but only one of many to be seriously studied.

This presentation shifts the focus of Lakhous’s work to question his role within the genre of the giallo, both Italian and international. I will argue that as a contemporary giallo writer, Lakhous challenges the traditional confines of the genre. On the one hand, his works follow numerous characteristics of the traditional genre: attention to a few geographical locations, a murder occurs in medias re (when applicable) with importance placed on language. Yet on the other, Lakhous probes the role of the traditional investigator, plays with the plot (not all novels revolve around a murder), incorporates issues of migration and language, and using satire he creates a socio-political commentary on contemporary Italian society.

Reflecting upon Lakhous’s oeuvre as a whole in my current book project, I argue that Lakhous’s artistic voice is not one of migrant but of an Italian, just as Amedeo, the main character, is more Roman than any Italian in Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore in Piazza Vittorio. For this particular presentation, however, I will demonstrate Lakhous’s unique, and at times, revolutionary nature as a 21st -century giallo novelist.

Respondent: Meredith K. Ray, University of Delaware

01/15/2021 Online Meeting
6:15 PM
Discovering Antiracism: Italian Catholic Culture and the ‘Black Question’ (1945-1968)
Matteo Caponi, Università di Genova (Italy)


My paper will explore the rise of a new, antiracist sensibility in the post-WWII Italian Catholic panorama dealing with the ‘Black question’. After pointing out some breaks and continuities at the turn of 1945, the seminar is intended to focus on the tropes and narratives of the Catholic ‘interracialism’ presenting itself as a ‘true’ antiracism opposed to both anti-black prejudice and militant antiracism supporting black protest. My assumption is that the notion of antiracism struggled to be accepted within the Catholic mainstream culture, and it was not accepted as an independent variable until the 1960s modernization.

This interracialist discourse will be analyzed from a transnational perspective, in its interaction with three world-wide known phenomena: the Jim Crow segregation in the United States, the apartheid in South Africa, and the decolonization. In particular, the Italian missionary literature offers interesting insights on the way Catholic mass culture looked at the ‘Negro race’ over the time. White suprematicist stereotypes went hand in hand with rethinking the ideology of Christian civilization which aimed at redeeming black people from their assumed inferiority. Furthermore, in his bestseller Il risveglio dei popoli di colore [The awakening of peoples of color,1956], Fr. Piero Gheddo argued that anti-black racism was not only unfair, but also harmful for the church, because it fostered Communism. Working against anti-black discrimination and recognizing the just demands of the ‘Negro race’ sounded urgent, so that Africans and African Americans did not fall prey to revolution and atheism.

The pontificate of John XXIII, the Vatican II aggiornamento and the ‘long 1968’ gave Catholic antiracism greater exposure. In that context, antiracist claims merged with anti- Americanism, non-violence and criticism of the bourgeois system. Ironically, the time when interracialism became mainstream in the Catholic arena also marked the success of a more radical model of antiracism. This implied a shift of objectives: from the defense of natural rights to the fight for civil and political rights, from the ‘Negro apostolate’ to the secular goal of social equality.

Respondent: Shelleen Greene, University of California, Los Angeles

02/05/2021 Online Meeting
6:15 PM
The World Fascism Laid: National Refugees, Infrastructure and the Foundations of Postwar Italy
Pamela Ballinger, University of Michigan


Drawing upon my recent book, The World Refugees Made, and its account of the migrations out of former Italian possessions in Africa and the Balkans in the wake of Italy’s “long decolonization,” this paper explores efforts to integrate persons displaced from Overseas Italy into life on the Italian peninsula. Focusing on resettlement policies and refugee housing projects, the analysis reads these efforts as re-instantiations of the famous fascist projects of land reclamation or bonifiche integrali and thus as attempts to reclaim and render productive the ruins of the fascist project. Drawing upon both archival and ethnographic data, the paper focuses on three case studies: the refugee New Town of Fertilia, the settlement of Gebelia built near Anzio for Italians from Libya, and the small Homeless European Land Program (HELP) to resettle foreign refugees in Simaxis (Sardinia). HELP was the exception that proved the rule that Italian authorities did not envision post-war Italy as a place for permanent resettlement by foreign refugees.

As the paper evidences, in the Italian peninsula national refugees and repatriates often completed the work of internal colonization spearheaded by the regime in the 1930s, albeit through different means. As had occurred in the former colonies, then, in the metropole itself the process of decolonization proved protracted and profound, rather than abrupt and transitory. In this sense, sites like Fertilia and Gebelia constitute as “foundational ruins,” repurposed ruins that helped form the postwar Republic. They serve as both remainders and reminders of the enduring “infrastructural power” harnessed by the fascist regime as a key technique of rule.

Respondent: Victoria de Grazia, Columbia University

03/05/2021 Online Meeting
6:15 PM
Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone in the pages of La difesa della razza
Martina Piperno, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium)


«La difesa della razza» («DR»), the famous fortnightly magazine established by Telesio
Interlandi in 1938 and regularly published until summer 1943, was primarily devoted to racist and anti-semitic propaganda. In the last 20 years, the journal has been the object of several studies that have shed light on the main narrative axes, and the complex communicative visual and rhetorical mechanisms that contributed to spreading racist feelings in Italy in conjunction with the implementation of the 1938 racial laws. This paper is inspired by a close analysis of the articles on «DR» dedicated to Italian literary authors, particularly to Giacomo Leopardi. Indeed, Leopardi and his philosophical diary, the Zibaldone is the object of special and persistent attention on the pages of the journal, with a dedicated regular column, the Pensieri di Leopardi (1938-1940). Leopardi’s Zibaldone had been published posthumously (1898-1900), and celebrated during the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death (1937): it was then perceived as a rather fresh addition to the Italian literary canon, still offering large opportunities for interpretation and popularization. Close reading reveals hidden practices of cut, correction and subtle manipulation of the text in order to obtain a domestication of its original meaning,
useful to the journal’s narrative. This analysis is an opportunity to observe some ontributors to the journal at work on a literary text and to highlight how they struggled to fit Leopardi’s complex, nuanced text in the violent, racist, simplistic propaganda of the journal. My work raises questions on a variety of levels, which will be the object of discussion with the Members of the Columbia Seminar in Modern Italian Studies: were the editors at work on the literary parts of «DR» inspired by genuine passion and philological zeal towards Leopardi of by pure dishonesty? Does their work show that there is a Leopardian racism or anti-semitism, or are their results completely constructed? What does this “search for precursors” in the literary tradition tell us of the needs and dynamics of Italian racism? How is this celebration of Leopardi in the aftermath of the 1937 anniversary inherently different from the 2019 anniversary of “L’Infinito”?

Respondent: Alessandro Giammei, Bryn Mawr College

04/09/2021 Online Meeting
6:15 PM
Can a Forest Be Fascist? A Case of Socio-Environmental Entanglement in Central Italy
Damiano Benvegnù, Dartmouth College


Between 1938 and 1939, on the slopes of Monte Giano, above the town of Antrodoco (Rieti), recruits studying at the nearby Academy of the Forestry Corps planted 20,000 black Austrian pines to spell out DUX, Benito Mussolini’s title in Latin. The outcome was an arboreal inscription so grand in scale that it is still today visible from Rome, some 100 kilometers away. The project not only changed the landscape and the ecosystem of the area, as that species of fir tree was not endemic to the region, but also represented a prime example of the fascist appropriation of landscapes to mark the regime’s domination of both the country and its nature.

This controversial formation stood intact until August 2017 when a fire – deemed an accident – burned down part of the forest, giving rise to a critical conversation about the meanings and values of manipulated human landscapes.

My presentation charts the socio-environmental history of the DUX forest as well as the
debate that has ensued about the future of this arboreal monument to Italian fascism. In
analyzing the varied reactions to the 2017 fire from outsiders – some advocate its total erasure, while neo-fascist groups have begun plans to restore it – as well as within the local community, I investigate how the DUX forest is not just a spectacle but a repository of material stories, a concrete three-dimensional shared reality characterized by a series of processes and connections that weave together political institutions, human communities, and the nonhuman environment. Ultimately, through my study of the forest in an environmental, socio-political, and historical context, I aim to present a nexus of community, justice, and ecology to serve as a model for reflecting on the relationships between eco-politics, landscape planning, and our current socio-environmental crisis

Respondent: Karl Appuhn, New York University

05/07/2021 Online Meeting
6:15 PM
“Bianco...Bianchissimo!”: Latent Fascism, American Culture, and Blackness in Postwar Italy
Jessica L. Harris, St. John’s University


The end of the Second World War marked a new beginning for Italy as the country sought to transition from Fascism to a modern, industrialized, American-style economy based on consumer capitalism, distancing itself from the racialized and xenophobic discourses of its totalitarian past. An important aspect of these desired transformations was the notion of race, in particular how Italians understood Blackness in their own country and its relation to Italian national identity. Additionally, the strong presence of American culture in the country via consumer products, music, and film, played a significant role in influencing Italian perceptions and ideas of race. This lecture will examine two manifestations of American culture in Italy in the decades following the war: hygienic standards and their attendant cleaning agents, and the Italian career of African-American singer, actress, and dancer Lola Falana. By juxtaposing the two, the talk will shed light on the intricacies of Blackness in Italian society, its intersection with American culture, and the subsequent effect on the construction of contemporary Italian national identity.

Respondent: Silvana Patriarca, Fordham University