2020 College Art Association Annual Conference, Chicago
IAS-Sponsored Session

From Cloaca Maxima to America: Italy’s ‘History of Shit’

Hilton Chicago - 4th Floor - 4M
Thursday, February 13, 2020, 9:30AM - 11:00AM

Organizer: Sasha Goldman, Boston University

Organizer: Danielle Abdon, Temple University

Chair and Discussant: Pamela O. Long, Independent Scholar

Dominique Laporte’s 1978 History of Shit, argues that modern subjectivity should be seen as developing in direct relation to the history of human waste management, offering a theoretical grounding for the adage ‘you are what you eat.’ An Italian ‘history of shit’ reaches back to the Ancient Romans, who established a legacy of excellence in waste engineering with the Cloaca Maxima, one of the world’s first sewer systems. While in the past, human waste remained a topic of architectural and urban interventions due to its association with disease and the formation of ‘corrupt airs,’ immersing the theme in environmental and public health histories, engagement with the scatological has persisted in Italian art making, exemplified recently by Maurizio Cattelan’s America (2016). Considering its impact on all levels of society, a history of artistic commentaries on and social interventions into the presence of human waste remains critical to cultural ideas—often revealing attempts to control bodies, buildings, and the environment. Yet, despite the current infrastructural and ecological ‘turns’ in the humanities, art and architectural histories of Italy have tended to shy away from discussions of human waste.

This panel invites papers that examine Italian engagement with or uses of human waste as a material, method, or impetus for artistic and architectural invention. Topics might include, but are not limited to, architectural and urban infrastructures of waste management; artistic responses to or uses of fecal matter; and waste as a signifier of humanistic production and consumption throughout Italian history.


Danielle Abdon, Temple University
“Latrines and Sewers for the Sick Poor: Waste Management in Italian Renaissance Hospitals.”

Designed by the Florentine architect Filarete, the Ospedale Maggiore (1456) in Milan is considered today a model example of Renaissance hospital architecture. Besides reaching a new scale of monumentality, the architect’s innovative use of the cruciform plan promoted several therapeutic and sanitary novelties in the structure, including an elaborate sewer system known as the destri. Intended to prevent the formation of putrid waters and ‘corrupt airs’ inside the hospital building by facilitating the removal of human waste from the infirmaries, the destri received significant attention in Filarete’s Treatise on Architecture (ca. 1460-64). Despite their evident importance for the architect, scholars of hospital architecture have focused on the cruciform plan’s quick spread throughout southern Europe, while the circulation of infrastructural innovations connected to the design has not received much attention. Bridging this gap in scholarship, I will consider the potential adoption of the cruciform plan and its associated technological novelties in the construction of the Ospedale di Messer Gesù Cristo (1474) in Venice, a hospital originally envisioned as a solution to the Venetian refugee and poverty crisis of the late fifteenth century. While documentary evidence points to exchanges between Venice and Milan, the existence of a system similar to the destri at the Venetian hospital has not been firmly established. Building on the impact of the Ospedale Maggiore and contemporary understandings of health, this paper will consider the contributions of the Venetian context to our knowledge of waste management in Renaissance hospital architecture.

Alan C. Braddock, William & Mary
“The Saintly Sewer: Ludovico Carracci, Saint Sebastian, and the Waste of Rome”

In 1612, Ludovico Carracci painted Saint Sebastian Thrown in the Cloaca Maxima for the Barberini family chapel in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome, but the work was never installed because Cardinal Maffeo Barberini decided to keep it for his private collection. Now owned by the Getty, Ludovico’s painting responded to Counter Reformation decrees of the Council of Trent requiring artists to make biblical narratives and characters more earthly, persuasive, and appealing to the faithful in order to buttress the Catholic Church against Protestantism. Ludovico treated the Saint Sebastian theme in an unusual way by representing his corpse being thrown by Centurion-persecutors into the main Roman sewer (the Cloaca Maxima) instead of the familiar iconography of his living body shot with arrows outdoors.  The saint’s pale, beautiful corpse contrasts with the swarthy, contorted soldiers in the dark underground sewer.

This paper considers the possibility that Cardinal Barberini withheld Ludovico’s picture from public display for reasons of propriety pertaining to contemporary environmental conditions in Rome. The painting’s intended location was believed to mark the spot where Christians retrieved Sebastian’s body from the sewer in the year 288.  Once a marvel of imperial engineering, the sewer had fallen into disrepair in the early modern metropolis, aggravating sanitation problems that prompted a campaign of infrastructure renewal called the renovatio Romae.  Ludovico’s idiosyncratic iconography threatened to conjure scatological sensations of disgust within the sacred church confines, inviting an irruption of the present that could detract from the painting’s moral-historical narrative.

Ana-Maria Milcic, Courtauld Institute of Art
“Droppings From the Sky: Futurist Interwar Protests and Fears”

Gabriele D’Annunzio’s 1919 occupation of the city of Fiume (Rijeka) is considered to have a central place in the genealogy of fascism by influencing Mussolini’s political rhetoric. During the occupation, D’Annunzio gave the Italian Prime Minister, Francesco Nitti the nickname Cagoia  (Shit-itis or Shit-bag) which became a metonym for the Italian left-leaning government. Cagoia and the derivations cagoieria or cagoiesco made their way into political speeches, Futurist manifestos, and satirical cartoons.

The paper examines the implications of using feces in a Futurist aerial theatre performance carried out by a lesser-known artist-pilot Guido Keller. In 1920 he flew from Fiume to Rome and dropped a used chamber pot on the Palazzo Montecitorio (the seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies) protesting the Deputies’ support for the Treaty of Rapallo, which gave Fiume to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. I argue that the performance echoes the works of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire and Marcel Duchamp, political cartoons from local newspapers as well as D’Annunzio’s and Mussolini’s speeches − the organic, fecal and terrestrial imagery is associated with political enemies, the mechanical, pure and celestial with allies. By discussing the use of feces in the broader context of the Futurists’ engagement with politics the paper asks: What kind of fear was expressed through scatological imagery in art in the ascent of fascism? I argue that Keller’s performance, as a political and artistic act, is emblematic of the Futurist sense of political urgency caused by the fear that Italy will lose its geopolitical standing.

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