Theses Doctoral

The Value of Dust: Memory and Identity at Italy’s Margins

Sbuttoni, Claudia Maria

This dissertation, “The Value of Dust: Memory and Identity at Italy’s Margins,” is a transnational cultural history that studies the role cultural institutions in Italy’s borderlands play in defining, defending and memorializing a conception of Italian identity (italianità) at the margins of the Italian State, from the turn of the twentieth century to the contemporary period. This study examines the relationship between literature, language, Italian identity, marginality, and memory in the Italian community of Istria and its exile community in Trieste.

By drawing on archival and ethnographic data, as well as textual analysis, it traces the cultural production of Italian organizations and intellectuals in Trieste and Istria from the late Habsburg period to the postwar period, and analyzes two sites of memory established in Trieste after the community’s uprooting there after World War II. It explores how the narratives surrounding specific cultural artifacts— from literature and folklore to a musical and museum exhibits — and cultural organizations operating in the Julian March borderland act in service of the project to reinforce a certain vision of italianità and contribute to a discourse on Italianness in a contested borderland.

I first analyze the discourse of a 1913 collection of writings sold to raise funds for the Lega Nazionale (the National League)— a cultural organization in the Adriatic borderland tasked with the defense and promotion of all things Italian — in order to expand the scope and purview of our discussion of italianità, not only geographically but thematically. I demonstrate that studying the different conceptions of Italianness that emerge in the writings of 14 participants in the pamphlet can help further illuminate the link between cultural identity and marginality.

By putting all these disparate voices together — the contributors to the Lega Nazionale pamphlet from the borderland and not, asked to write on “Italy”— it becomes clear that a unified image of italianità does not emerge. By widening the canon on the nation and expanding the scope of what is considered when thinking about Italianness, we are left with a mosaic of diverse interpretations, the definitive proof that there is not one way to interpret Italian identity and that we should take further care when we treat it as an overarching, hegemonic idea. To these border writers, Italy is coded in terms of language, education, cultural patrimony, patriotism, cuisine, local dialect, geography and the metaphor of twilight.

Next, I explore the “civilization” promoted in the Civic Museum of the Civilization of Istria, Fiume and Dalmatia (Trieste, Italy) and analyze how Istrian folk literature (1877-1977) was appropriated by folklorists, demologists, historians, politicians, intellectuals, musicologists and writers for a specifically political purpose. I examine the prefatory materials found in the introductions to editions of Istrian folktales and show how they are intimately involved in the "recovery" of ancient links to Italy through folklore. The political motives of folklore were thus to figuratively excavate the italianità in folklore at the margins of the State, in order to underscore "indigenous" Italian roots and fold these territories into the national project. The Civic Museum, too, demonstrates a similar insistence on connections to Italy, by selectively assembling a mono-ethnic representation of Istria and through the recreation of peasant environments.

Lastly, I analyze an important site of memory for the exile community of Trieste, Magazzino 18. A warehouse-museum of the Istrian exodus at the Old Port of Trieste, Magazzino 18 was established through the efforts of I.R.C.I., which also organizes tours of the site. The objects contained within this site participate in the repackaging of contemporary history in a contested borderland. This constellation of objects—brought by Istrians as they left their homeland in the postwar and often pertaining to the domestic sphere—has been used by the exile community to construct a historical narrative that inscribes its history into that of the Holocaust. I explore how this liminal community sought to solidify its ties to the Italian nation from the periphery and later establish its victimhood in the postwar. My research identifies the use of narratives that expose the community’s reliance on the tools of Holocaust memorialization, insisting on a frame of uniqueness and competition and thereby undermining attempts of intercultural understanding. I argue that the preferred narratives of this exile community elucidate anxieties about self-definition, and bring these anxieties into conversations about trauma, recognition, and the obfuscation of the fascist past in Italy.

By studying the various ways people interpret Italianness in an ethnically, culturally and linguistically heterogeneous zone, I elucidate how this identity is adopted and transformed in different ways by the different communities residing there, exploring the specificities of the work each of these entities—whether discursive or material—is attempting, their commonalities and differences, and how and when they are effective. I show that there are different forms of italianità, of senses of belonging to the Italian nation, and that the Italians of these border regions decenter Italy and place it into a wider context of the Adriatic and beyond. In doing so, I develop a methodology that can be applied to other contested areas where groups have battled over questions of identity to show how a marginalized community can come to occupy a main role in debates on contemporary politics and memory.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Leake, Elizabeth
De Grazia, Victoria
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 18, 2023