A symposium convened by Gianmarco Mancosu, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Advanced Study (Institute for Languages, Cultures and Societies) at the University of London, and Teaching Fellow in Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Sassari. He recently published his first monograph, entitled Vedere l’impero. L’Istituto Luce e il colonialismo fascista (Mimesis, 2022).
Gianmarco Mancosu is the CIRN – Intesa San Paolo Visiting Fellow 2022-23 at CRASSH in Lent Term.
Q: Gianmarco, what is your event about? What drew you to the subject?
Italy’s imperial debris: spaces, objects, and fantasies of an unburied colonial past explores how archaeological remains have contributed to fashion colonial and racial discourses in modern and contemporary Italy. It seeks, in other words, to assess the extent to which modern Italian expansionism in the Mediterranean (Libya) and Africa (Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia) referred to previous imperial experiences, and especially to the Roman Empire, to justify a new imperial presence. Specific attention will be paid on the projection of imperial fantasies as they materialised in public spaces and buildings, in archaeological objects and remains, in colonial collections, yet also in different literary and visual representations. These themes elicit some reflection on the material legacies and representation of the colonial past as well as on the contrasting series of emotions that they provoke today, especially in light of the protests against the material and cultural legacies of empires still corroding our societies. In this regard, the use of the word ‘debris’ intends to point out not simply the static nature of the ruins of the imperial experiences, yet also their haunting presence still affecting political discourses, urban spaces, social and legal practices.
Q: Around which themes did you decide to structure the event, and to what end?
The convenors will tackle the multi-layered and multi-directional dynamic of the tangible memories of the empire, which travelled across the boundaries of political experiences, and which were seamlessly re-signified according to different political and cultural settings. The event will be structured around three thematic sessions: Imperial materiality: the past in the present tackles the persistent use of colonial archaeological, architectural, and exhibiting practices in Italy and beyond, by pointing out the historical and discursive setting that allowed the re-signification of those objects and remains. The talks featuring in the session Visions, fantasies, and literary re-mediations shed light on literary and linguistic representations of imperial debris in modern Italian cultures, by revealing to what extent fantasies and discourse about archaeological remains helped in defining the national and fascist character of interwar expansionism. The last session, Contemporary landscapes of (post)colonial memory, focuses on the spatial dimension of colonial memories, and on the modalities through which it is either nostalgically revived or critically contested in some specific sites and places.
Q: Who did you have in mind when you organised the event? Would it make sense to someone outside your field?
I really wanted some speakers coming from very different disciplinary fields and backgrounds: modern and art history, archaeology and classics, film studies, literature, critical studies. Such a variety of methodologies and perspective is essential to unpack the entangled historical and cultural dynamics related to the significance of imperial remains in modern societies. In this regard, although the symposium centres on Italy, it is intrinsically open to further transnational comparison and dialogue. The reference to nowadays issues (instances of racially motivated violence; intolerance towards migrants and refugees; resurgence of neo-fascist movements) will prompt reflection on the conceptual structure of colonialism, delving into its material and immaterial legacies, and into the continued – though concealed – influence of that structure either in the former metropoles and in the former colonies, all matters of crucial importance if we are to reach an enhanced understanding of our shared present.
Q: Could you contextualise the event image and explain why you chose it?
The picture was taken in Libya in 1937. Since 1912, Libya was an Italian colony. In the image, we see the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini visiting the city of Sabratha, one of the most significant cities at the time when the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean Sea. The image was shot by an operator of the Istituto Luce, that is the fascist propaganda branch for film and photo. We see Mussolini walking through the archaeological remains of the old city, thus embodying the continuity between the ancient Roman Empire and the new fascist one. For this reason, I thought it was the most appropriate image to encapsulate the historical and cultural themes that will be discussed during the symposium. However, to a closer look, we notice that the original image has been slightly distorted: its black and white nature veers towards different and unsettling colours, while some lines and shapes are now blurred, almost disturbing the viewer. This editing aims to question the status of archaeological objects and sites (and of their representation) as neutral and objective evidence to recollect the past, helping us to point out the active strategies to critically tackle the imperial debris still present in our times.
Q: Where might one find more details about the event?
All the info about the event, abstract and speakers’ bio can be found on the dedicated event page on the CRASSH website. The event will be recorded and uploaded in the CRASSH YouTube channel; media coverage will be via my personal Twitter account (@GianmarcoMancos). I take this opportunity to really thank the CRASSH staff for their fantastic job in setting up the logistics of the event, and for the great hospitality. I am likewise extremely grateful to the Italian section of the Faculty of Modern Languages, and to all colleagues and friend with whom I have had a great and enriching time here in Cambridge.