2021 College Art Association Annual Conference, New York (Virtual)
IAS-Sponsored Session

“Italianicity is not Italy”: Questioning Italian Art History

Friday, February 12, 2021
Live QA online Meetings - Meeting 1

Organizer: Tenley Bick, Assistant Professor of Global Contemporary Art, Department of Art History, Florida State University

Discussant: Carlos Basualdo, Philadelphia Museum of Art

What is Italian art history? What does it center, mask, or negate? What does Italianist art history as a practice not see about its field of study? Not unified as a nation state until 1861, Italy and what we regard and teach as “Italian” is often anachronistic. It is, and has been, the product of colonialism, fascism, and systems of power. While recent scholarship in Italian studies—on race and biopolitics, empire and mobility regimes, and postcoloniality—has shed light on Italy’s understudied and often negated histories and sites of identity, the so-called postcolonial turn has been relatively delayed in Italian art history.

Drawing its title from Roland Barthes’ famous description of “Italianicity” and the artificial and at times barbarous regulation of connotative meaning, this panel invites scholarship in Italian art history—“Italianist” or otherwise—that challenges dominant narratives of Italian Art History specifically through attention to the exclusionary discourses that undergird (and privilege) it as an area of study. Following Cristina Lombardi-Diop and Caterina Romeo’s 2014 manifesto on “the Italian Postcolonial,” this panel calls for a radical questioning of Italian art history and mapping of new critical, spatial, and temporal trajectories in Italian art history for today. Presentation themes include and surround: art, anti-fascism, and decolonization; Italy’s diasporas and understudied cultural geographies; italianità alternativa; Italy and the Black Mediterranean; postcoloniality in contemporary Italian art and cinema; art and migration in Italy; transnational and international themes; and Italy as periphery, among other topics.



Brian L. McLaren, University of Washington
"Modern architecture and the territorialization of race in Fascist Italy"

This paper will examine the intersection of modern architecture, race and biopolitics in Italy during the late fascist era, with a particular attention to the manner in which the concerns for racial prestige that existed in Italian Africa, and policies developed for their amelioration, were brought back to Italy. The central argument is that the most powerful political and cultural assertions of the time—and particularly those in the realm of art and architecture—arose from a fearful and reactive need to assert a “pure” Italian identity against the threat of international, foreign, or Jewish influences. It further contends that Fascism’s racial ideologies were a product of fear and weakness, rather than strength, and that the architecture of the period bears the mark of this combative stance.

This paper will examine the emergence of two different modalities of the territorialization of race; a first epitomized in the staging of Roman heritage for Adolf Hitler’s 1938 visit to Rome; and a second found in the presentation of African dignitaries and soldiers in the annual celebration of Empire in Rome, from 1937. The primary focus of this discussion will be two State-sponsored exhibitions; the 1942 Esposizione Universale di Roma, or E42, and the 1940 Mostra triennale delle terre italiane d’oltremare, or Mostra d’oltremare—both of which had strong imperial and racial overtones. While in the case of the E42, we see the construction of a quintessentially Roman landscape, the Mostra d’oltremare represents the transplantation of African territory within the Italian peninsula.

Tenley Bick, Florida State University
"Postcolonial Retrofuturism: Alessandro Ceresoli’s Linea Tagliero Prototypes"

In 2009, Italian artist Alessandro Ceresoli moved to Asmara, Eritrea, where he began working in collaboration with a local glassworks, resulting in a series of six sculptural objects: the Linea Tagliero Prototipi (Tagliero Line Prototypes). The works comprise precarious furniture items inspired by Italian fascist architecture in Asmara that remains from colonial rule, specifically Futurist Giuseppe Pettazzi’s airplane-shaped Fiat Tagliero service station (1938), designed for the company’s Eritrea-based dealer in then Italian East Africa.

The Tagliero Line Prototypes mimic the Futurist (and futuristic) design of the colonial-era Fiat station. By contrast, the glass sculptures are functional but also fragile and imprecise, resisting industrial aesthetics while engaging the language of mass production. The unsettlingly alluring series of historical and “Italian” design objects and furniture items, all marked with the symbol of the Eritrean glassworks, navigate violent histories of Italian colonialism and cultural heritage through a problematization of temporality, identity, and the history of Italian modernism. Specific attention is paid to the series’ critical subversion of Futurist languages of time, technology, and air travel, directly associated in the late 1930s with Italian chemical warfare in East Africa, through postcolonial rupture of process, material, and form. Through engagement with recent scholarship on temporality and Italian colonialism and with Ceresoli’s own artist book on the project, Ritorno al futuro, I argue these works model a “postcolonial retrofuturism”: a critical disruption of an historical, colonial view of the future (and of italianità) to open up new histories and to generate future possibilities yet to come.

Allison Kim, Skidmore College
“Imprint of the Past: De-historicizing Italian Renaissance Art History”

“Renaissance” art history has become increasingly more global in scope, adopting approaches to de-centralize Italy as the main focus and to expand from the canon in meaningful and effective ways. Nevertheless, these additive solutions can continue to uphold hierarchical systems and predominant historical narratives, namely Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550, 1568). This paper aims to destabilize Vasari’s sustained narrative and the positionality of Italian artistic production as the apex of “Renaissance” visual culture, as well as address how the dominant Renaissance narrative can obscure those of marginalized peoples and collapse coexisting histories. Through the prints of early modern artists like Fray Diego Valadés (c. 1533–82) and Giulio Camillo (c. 1480–1544), this paper explores the ways in which spiritual and secular realms preserved memory and sustained the efficacy of copying and repetition as a means of propagating knowledge. By repeating select images in multiple contexts these artists separated them from their contextual specificity and imbued them with an aura of universal significance that continues to shape public perceptions of early modern art, elevating individual value judgments and pushing for certain aesthetics. It also shows how visual imitation and memory techniques inculcated and indoctrinated notions of genius, Othering, and false nostalgia. In doing so this paper reveals how visual quotation and repetition, both during and after the early modern period, dramatically shaped the canon by standardizing hierarchies of visual culture and creating a distorted sense of the timelessness of Italian art.

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