A Celebration of Modern Studies at the BSR

Aristotle Kallis (Balsdon Fellow 2014-15) reflects on the one day conference A Celebration of Modern Studies

On Wednesday 22 October 2014, the BSR organised and hosted a full-day event dedicated to modern Italian studies. It was an occasion born from an auspicious synergy between current and former BSR award-holders, Research Fellows, Faculty members, and distinguished external speakers. The presentations cast exciting light on many different aspects of modern Italy, from the architecture of the Roman palazzine (Ricardo Agarez) to the meaning of ‘consensus’ in Mussolini’s Italy (Paul Corner & Christopher Duggan) to new genres of Italian historical novel (Kate Willman) and to influences on the cinematic work of Michelangelo Antonioni (Jacopo Benci). The talks and discussion panels generated a lively discussion that extended well into coffee breaks and meals.

Aristotle Kallis, Photo: Antonio Palmieri

Aristotle Kallis, Photo: Antonio Palmieri

It is hard to do justice to the diversity and richness of the presentations that spanned three sessions from the early morning until well into the afternoon. Together they showcased the depth of the BSR’s research culture in modern Italian studies, with fascinating intersections in architecture, film and painting, as well as memory, spanning the entire twentieth century and beyond. A large number of presentations either focused on, or traversed, the Fascist ventennio, capturing unique aspects of its difficult and still sensitive legacy for modern Italy: Claudia Baldoli’s intimate look at the Catholic-Communist movement during the war; Simon Martin’s fascinating talk on the rather bewildering painting by Luigi Montanarini, The Apotheosis of Fascism, that still dominates the main hall of the CONI building in the Foro Italico; Sofia Serenelli’s journey into the Fascist ‘mountain of Rome’, the resort of Terminillo; and Giovanni Graglia’s look at the complexity of local identities in Piedmont during the Fascist years.

It was once again Fascism that provided the focus for the penultimate session of the event. The almost concurrent publication of two significant books by Paul Corner (The Fascist Party and Popular Opinion in Mussolini’s Italy, Oxford University Press, 2012) and Christopher Duggan (Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy, Oxford University Press, 2012) offered the opportunity for a fascinating panel discussion on how ‘ordinary’ Italians viewed and interacted with ‘Fascism’. Each of the two authors spoke about their different motivations behind their respective research: for Paul Corner it was a growing ‘irritation’ with the existing historiographical emphasis on the notion of popular ‘consensus’ for the Fascist regime, especially in the mid-1930s (considered by Renzo De Felice as the peak of the parabola for Mussolini’s regime); for Christopher Duggan, on the other hand, it was the desire to privilege more intimate channels and voices coming out of private diaries and letters, in which ordinary members of the public interacted rather more spontaneously with Fascism – and Mussolini in particular – than in the staged parades and choreographed rallies of the regime. The two authors intimated a series of fascinating episodes from their encounters with their wide-ranging sources and the ‘ordinary voices’ that they captured. Predictably, the picture that emerged from the 90-minute discussion was complex and resistant to generalisation: there was evidence of proceeding alienation from Fascism, especially on the local level, that sat alongside moving private accounts from members of the public that betrayed a still strong sense of loyalty and support, if not for the Fascist regime or party as institutions then definitely for Mussolini.

The keynote lecture that concluded the event was delivered by John Foot (University of Bristol; BSR). Titled ‘The Republic of the Mad’. A History of the Movement to Reform Mental Health Care in Italy, 1961-1978, it took us on a fascinating journey into the corridors of the psychiatric hospital of the border town of Gorizia, where, under the stewardship of the complex personality of Franco Basaglia, a fascinating experiment in revolutionising mental health care unfolded in the course of the 1960s. John Foot illustrated how a range of ground-breaking practices in this particular institution were shaped by Basaglia’s strong conviction that mental health care was failing both those it was supposed to help and society as a whole. His radical approach targeted the oppressive structures of exclusion, confinement, and punitive power over the patients as the first steps towards the full elimination of the institution of the psychiatric hospital itself and the mentalities, scientific and social, that had sustained them. The experiment itself had its own parabola, from the highly successful spell of the late 1960s to the gradual dispersal of his team shortly afterwards. However, the legacy of this relatively brief spell of reforming momentum for the history of the movement to reform mental health care in Italy is evident in the 1978 large reform of psychiatric care.

The audience that filled up the Sainsbury Lecture Theatre at the BSR  made up of members of the public, researchers from other foreign academies in Rome, and the scholarly and artistic community based at the BSR, contributed the most supportive and engaged input imaginable throughout the event. In the early hours of the evening, when the lights of the lecture theatre dimmed and the crowd started dispersing into the warm autumnal night, the BSR was still buzzing from the intellectual richness of a day-long event that promised to be a ‘celebration’ of modern Italian studies and delivered in every possible respect. We are immensely grateful to everyone who contributed, in their own special way, to the success of the day: to the Director of the BSR, Christopher Smith,  the mastermind of the entire event; to all participants at the various sessions who contributed such an incredible range of insights into their fascinating work on the history and art of modern Italy; to Peppe Pellegrino, who juggled technological and logistical challenges for the entire day, tirelessly and efficiently; and to Christine Martin, who welcomed, directed and organised everyone who honoured the event with their participation.

Aristotle Kallis (Balsdon Fellow 2014-15)

Claudia Baldoli and Sofia Serenelli

Claudia Baldoli and Sofia Serenelli, enjoying the cortile, Photo: Antonio Palmieri

And a note from some familiar faces who took part in the day…

Claudia Baldoli (Balsdon Fellow 2012-13): Two years have passed since I was Balsdon Fellow at the BSR, and it has been very exciting to be back and meet previous and current scholars for a very stimulating day of discussion. I was especially interested in hearing about other projects that have developed both there and in the UK in the meantime, as well as in the opportunity to take part in intense debate about different but related topics – mostly, but not only, concerned with Italian Fascism and new perspectives on the issue of ‘consensus’. The day also reminded me of the extremely active intellectual life of the School, which is what made my stay two years ago so remarkable. My three months at the BSR were indeed crucial in the development of my work, both intellectually and in terms of the research I had the opportunity to undertake. The continuing intellectual exchange with other award holders, during both scholarly events and social occasions, made me think differently about aspects of my own project. The fact that all award holders live in the BSR and meet regularly meant that I could test my research findings and ideas, and discuss other fellows’ projects, almost on a daily basis. It was wonderful to see that nothing has changed in the last two years.

Sofia Serenelli (Rome Fellow 2012-13, Current Research Fellow):This event was a very exciting way to conclude my stay at the BSR as Rome Fellow, when not only had I the opportunity to carry out original research on the memory and reception of fascism but I also achieved new methodological insight through daily exchange and social activities with the scholars, artists and research fellows residing at the school. I strongly benefited from the BSR’s thriving cultural life and interdisciplinary outlook. By gathering different strands of research from a wide array of disciplines (mostly on fascism but also on ground-breaking fields such as mental health institutions), in my opinion this conference has mirrored the true strength of the British School at Rome that made my stay so valuable for my research experience and methodological approach.

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