Italian Cityscapes: Culture and Urban Change in Contemporary Italyby John Foot
This book examines the transformation of the Italian city from the 1950s to the present with particular attention to questions of identity, migration and changes in urban culture. It focuses on two phases of that transformation: the years of accelerated industrialisation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the period of de-industrialisation and postmodernity… See more details below
This book examines the transformation of the Italian city from the 1950s to the present with particular attention to questions of identity, migration and changes in urban culture. It focuses on two phases of that transformation: the years of accelerated industrialisation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the period of de-industrialisation and postmodernity beginning in the 1980s.
It shows how major demographic movements and cultural shifts threw into relief new conceptions of the city whose old boundaries had become problematic. Design, fine art, literature, youth culture, film and social history all provide focal points. The contributions bring specialist expertise to each area, while the extensive illustrations give a vivid picture of the contemporary visual culture for which Italian cities are famed.
This is a genuinely interdisciplinary approach by Italian and English-speaking historians and scholars of urban studies, literature, architecture and design which introduces new debates and research to an English-speaking audience for the first time. Extensive illustrations provide a vivid picture of contemporary Italian visual culture.
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Culture and Urban Change in Contemporary Italy
By Robert Lumley, John Foot
University of Exeter PressCopyright © 2004 Robert Lumley, John Foot
All rights reserved.
Through the Looking-Glass
Research on the Italian City in Historical Perspective
In the past twenty-five years, numerous scholars have been spotted wandering amid the urban landscapes of contemporary Italy. Some declared themselves to be architectural historians: those stones, they said, had belonged to them for decades, and no one should have the temerity to trespass on such prestigious and zealously guarded territory. Yet the 'keep off' signs have, on occasion, been ignored by others bent on research born with wholly different horizons in mind. After a troupe of social historians, other scholars with the most disparate interests have taken upon themselves the task of policing the sites and themes of urbanity. Often this has led to the disgruntled first comers turning the full force of their hauteur on these latecomers.
Whoever its legitimate guardians may be, the contemporary city has gradually reshaped itself into a mirror, a reflecting surface for historical events and political transformations, economic revolutions and social privileges, morphological models and architectural fashions. The city has become the place where most cultural processes, however controversial or contradictory, find their confirmation. Irrespective of their differing methodologies and sources, historians, architects, urban planners, economists, geographers and sociologists alike seem equally intent on reading and writing the Italian city of the last two hundred years. Though the passage is not without its obstacles, we can, it seems, go through the looking-glass.
Beyond Urban Biographies
Before we can do so, however, a few preliminary matters remain. First of all, to speak of the contemporary Italian city in abstractly scientific terms, without considering the city as a whole, has by now become contentious to say the least. In this sense, it has become difficult to assign a determined and functional meaning to such notions as 'Italian urban studies' or 'Italian urban history'. Many authors, indeed, no longer concern themselves with such matters, with the result that titles featuring the national adjective seem to be on the verge of extinction. The Italian urban system can at most be re-read as part of the space of a unified Europe.
Attitudes like these reflect much wider difficulties. In scientific studies of the city, the nineteenth-century Italian city in particular, one term crops up continually: crisis. Many disciplines seem to be confounded, if not completely dumbfounded, by new and unforeseen phenomena. The urban scenarios of the near future appear to be built on quicksand, revealing the problems inherent in nearly any single-sided approach.
In the most noble cases, uncertainty gives way to fruitful scientific doubt. In others, self-pity appears to have become the order of the day, while the only concession to interdisciplinarity is a ritual gentlemanly exchange of pistols at dawn. The architects downplay social questions, urban planners do not want to hear about history, sociologists eschew planning, while economists cannot hide their contempt for all the above unmentionables. Social historians and geographers, meanwhile, have long since decided that there are other fish to fry.
The urban historian (whoever he or she may be) looks upon this framed chaos with understated detachment, while urban histories (whatever they are) continue to pile up on the shelves of libraries and bookshops. From self-published pamphlets describing the tiniest of settlements to embossed, leather-bound tomes on some swollen metropolis, every town deserves its own history. Perhaps the dream of Carlo Cattaneo is at last becoming a reality and no doubt some precious gems of urban history will lie entombed forever among the many thousands of pages being churned out, yet at the same time it would be unthinkable to analyse each one in depth.
More useful, perhaps, would be to look at some of the models employed in such writings, necessarily widening the scope of our investigations to encompass an idea of the city that throughout history has, at least until now, remained more or less unchanged. Periodisation is in effect the first part of the problem. Hovering uneasily between common sense and commonplace, historiographical debate has frequently proposed readings of the Italian city of long, if not exceedingly long, duration. Fractures, wounds, lacerations of all types have not always appeared sufficient cause to question the notion of the fundamental continuity of the history of Italian cities, a history which, one might add, has never really been adequately set out. The contemporary Italian city, many urban historiographers argue (especially those involved in morphological research, whether real or presumed), is nothing other that the last, confused and illegible avatar of a history whose origins are to say the least distant. Its roots are sunk in the modern city, and neither can be understood without first looking at the nineteenth century city or that of the last ancien régime. And so on, back up into the past. It is a peculiar phenomenon with notable consequences particularly in recent studies: rather than historians, often it has been Italian urban planners who have busied themselves reading the city of the last thirty years, coming up with original interpretations but at the risk of superimposing (occasionally with conscious intent) interpretative models and decision-making processes, history and planning.
Recent Italian historiography seems not to have reflected in great depth on such themes, as for example when a series of weighty histories of different cities appeared, spurred on by the convergent agendas of municipal councils and local universities. These works are often biographical in scope, treating the city as though it were a living body or spirit whose history could be traced from cradle to grave, or if not, to an interminable senescence. Such a phenomenon may not be entirely casual, considering the extraordinary success biography has enjoyed in recent years, though unfortunately many of these works never go beyond the level of monograph, failing even to touch upon the rich vein of contradiction implicit in even the most heroic of biographies. Along with the colossal Storia di Milano, published in 1952–63 and expanded in 1995–96, a good place to start, might be the Storia di Napoli, directed by Ernesto Pontieri between 1967 and 1973. In both cases the structure is based on the tradition of local histories which flourished between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: set out in chronological order, if possible from prehistoric times until the present day, the book's chapters, each by a different author, shed light on the main events of political, social, economic and artistic life in the city. Even the often monumental format of the individual volumes tends to represent these histories as a precious gift to posterity, almost as much of a monumentum aere perennius as the city itself.
An entirely different attitude, meanwhile, can be seen in Cesare De Seta's Storia della città di Napoli published in 1973. In its linear chronology the book is faithful to its predecessors, though it never strays beyond the dawn of the contemporary age. But in terms of its methodology and objectives there are some profound differences. De Seta's work often directly acknowledges and makes use of studies in urban history conducted by various European schools, the Paris school in particular, giving due attention to social and cultural processes underlying urban transformation, an unusual feature in the work of architectural and art historians studying the modern city in those years. At the same time, De Seta succeeds in writing a history of Naples spanning several centuries, rereading its buildings and streets, morphologies and plans, maps and vistas from an essentially architectural perspective.
Thanks to De Seta's efforts, the way was, in any case, open. Seven years later a volume on Palermo appeared. Written by Leonardo Di Mauro along with De Seta himself, it inaugurated Laterza's successful series, 'Le città nella storia d'Italia'. By 2002, the series already comprised forty-two volumes, including an expanded edition of De Seta's work on Naples, published in 1981.
The Laterza series is the most recent and wide-ranging collection of urban studies in Italy, where local history is interwoven with art and architectural history, sometimes resulting in a confusion of the city with its monuments, considered to be the most revealing trace of the past. In 1986, Laterza launched a second series on urban themes, 'Storia delle città italiane'. In this case, chronologies were abbreviated as the books dealt with the histories of a number of Italian cities of large or medium dimensions caught between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, at the moment of their supposed modernisation. The underlying idea—that contemporary history cannot be understood without city walls, real or symbolic—seems simple enough. Compared to the De Seta series, moreover, and irrespective of its numerous authors' different approaches, political, administrative, social and economic themes tend to outweigh the actual physical city of buildings and streets, demoted to the level of attractive scenic backdrop. Notably absent are reflections on urban space, while topographies are taken for granted.
As far as Italian urban history goes, the multiplication of accounts does not necessarily constitute an enrichment in terms of interpretation. In general, this appears to be a problem common to many, often remarkable, collective histories such as those of Bari, Ravenna, Lecce, Turin and Rome.16 Histories like these have another weakness. Focusing exclusively on the city itself, they tend, with few exceptions, systematically to ignore everything that occurs beyond its confines. The largely urbanized countryside of the provincial or regional territory has by now become an inevitable part of any urban history, particularly one dealing with the contemporary period. It would be practically unthinkable to write a history of Naples or Milan during the late twentieth century without taking into account the fact that both Naples and Milan are by now just handy conceptual abstractions that stand for the unending, amorphous sprawl of the actual cities: from Caserta to Salerno in the former case; almost the entire Lombardy territory in the latter.
It is therefore not entirely paradoxical that many of the finest urban histories of the last twenty-five years can be found in works conducted on a regional scale. Here, the blueprint was the Storia della Sicilia, directed by Rosario Romeo and begun in 1977. Two years later, a further two encyclopedic projects were launched with similar premises: the Storia del Mezzogiorno and the Storia della Calabria. More recent is the equally important Storia della Puglia. It is interesting to note how works such as these focus on southern Italian situations where the metropolitan milieu is less relevant than it is elsewhere and where cities can become the poles of an uneven territory.
The most interesting project from this perspective is undoubtedly Storia delle regioni italiane dall'Unità ad oggi, fashioned in 1977 from a rib of Einaudi's magnificent Storia d'Italia. In these volumes local identities emerge which go beyond the usual municipal parochialism. Built on shared premises and reciprocal correspondences, the texts encourage cross-referencing. Each city is generally viewed as a complex phenomenon, existing within a vast social, economic, political, cultural and geographical network the representation of which cannot be limited to its internal morphologies.
The Interdisciplinary City
Beyond the merits or demerits of individual cases, large-format publishing projects like these raise another question. On one hand, fields of research appear to correspond to traditional Italian geographies and biographical blurbs recount how the place where authors and editors live and work (and above all teach) has quite naturally become their object of study. All of this we would expect. More difficult to establish, however, is the existence of local schools of thought, the extent to which these scholars recognise themselves as belonging to schools and trends defined in terms of belonging to a particular place. Often, the scholars in question appear to form a single group only because they teach in the local university and are therefore sufficiently close to the research object to be able to unravel every scientific, bureaucratic and diplomatic knot while in the field. Yet none of this implies they share the same cultural goals.
Much harder to distinguish are schools and centres of study carrying out recognisable projects. There is no shortage of opportunities, given that the autocratic Italian university system implicitly favours independent initiative and personal effort. Yet when one attempts to see where urban history is really written and debated, one finds oneself faced with radically different geographies. And while in some cases the two maps may coincide almost perfectly, in others there is almost no correspondence. One example which implicates more than the field of urban history is the universities of southern Italy: though work on Mezzogiorno d'Italia is still in progress, and (often remarkable) individual contributions on single territories or cities are published with dazzling frequency, it is hard to discern in them the hand of research groups or schools operating within the academy.
Back in Naples, Cesare De Seta and Giancarlo Alisio have continued apace with their urban studies, without feeling the need to create a homogenous research group, at least for the contemporary period. There is of course the odd exception. In the 1980s and early 1990s a great deal of Neapolitan urban history's hopes were pinned on the research group instituted by Pasquale Villani and set in motion by Paolo Macry, at the history department of Naples' Federico II University. In subsequent years, however, the group's interests have shifted to family and political history. Unfortunately for urban history, research on Italian nation-building seems to have no physical or territorial coordinates: cities are regarded as the neutral set on which other histories are played out.
In Rome, after the fruitful period of studies which began with the work of Alberto Caracciolo, great interdisciplinary hopes rest on the activities of the Centro studi sulla città di Roma (Croma), directed by Carlo Travaglini at Rome III University. In 1993 the centre began publishing a quarterly review, Roma moderna e contemporanea, open to contributors from different fields. Frequently involved in Croma's initiatives is the École française de Rome, another privileged site for urban studies in the city, which has recently organised a series of conferences and seminars including 'Roma capitale', 'Le città capitali europee' and 'Cartografia e rappresentazioni della città'.
Beyond these centres, a number of individual initiatives are worth mentioning. In his research, historian Alessandro Portelli has on several occasions made the Rome of the 1940s and 1950s the living backdrop to his reflections, resulting in two of the most engaging volumes of recent Italian oral history, the first on the Fosse Ardeatine massacre of 1943, the second on the building of a Salesian community on the outskirts of Rome, in which this 'difficult' city is movingly recounted in a simple 'self portrait made of words'.
Excerpted from Italian Cityscapes by Robert Lumley, John Foot. Copyright © 2004 Robert Lumley, John Foot. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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