Friday, May 31, 2013

A conversation with Professor Clarissa Clò

Pro. Clarissa Clò

                                                               Part II

Issayas: Rosalia also raised funds for the Eritrean-Italian children. According to the aforementioned book, She was a brilliant strategist in raising funds for the children. Why was she interested in the children?

Prof.Clò: This is an important issue which surprisingly only surfaces toward the end of the book, with a couple of chapters dedicated to the discussion of Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi’s philanthropic work in favor of the children born of the union of Italian soldiers and African mothers, the so called “meticci.” She was indeed successful in obtaining funds for the Istituto degli Innocentini, or the Institute of Little Innocents as the orphanage was named. She seemed genuinely worried about the fate of these children once their Italian fathers returned to Italy or died in the battlefield and their mothers would not be caring for them for one reason or another.

Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi in Eritrea

One cannot help, however, to also note the racial biases behind these concerns. It is well-known that a major preoccupation of colonialism was the fear of miscegenation, the mixing of different bloods, especially in the racialized context of the end of the 19th century ripe with discourses of racial superiority and inferiority, partly devised in Italy by Cesare Lombroso in his observations of various “inferior” social groups such as southerners, prisoners, prostitutes, anarchists and so forth. Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi is explicit about her disgust for the union of a white man and a black woman but I would tend to agree with Jonas that perhaps it was not so much the racial mixing as much as the fate of the abandoned children that concerned her. This is in line with the contradictory position Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi inhabited. And indeed , the issue of miscegenation became a far more pressing and urgent one at a later stage of Italian colonialism during Fascism when mixed-race unions were explicitly banned and forbidden.

Still, Cristina Lombardi-Diop points out that the philanthropic endeavors of Pianavia Vivaldi had a self-interested motif to them in that they allowed the author to navigate the public sphere freely in ways that would have otherwise been impossible for her. In this way Rosalia Vivaldi becomes a “symbolic mother” to these children (189) taking a place that did not belong to her and substituting herself, and “white women’s authority” by extension, for other local and communitarian forms of child caring. I agree with Jonas that her gesture, no matter how laudable and well-intended ultimately was “a palliative” in that “it never addressed the contradictions inherent in empire” (66).

Issayas: In the above mentioned flyer about your lecture, were there similarities between Rosalia and Sibilla?

Prof.Clò: My lecture, and my research on this topic, brings together texts and authors that would usually not be discussed in relation to one another. Although the similarities between the colonization of the Italian South on the part of the North during the process of Italian unification and nation-building and the Italian colonization in Africa have become a topic of study (Ben-Ghiat and Fuller, Moe), more needs to be done to tease out the forms in which such connections manifested themselves or transpired in various literary genres and at the hands of different, sometimes unexpected, authors.

Specifically as an Italian scholar, my interest was in comparing the ways in which Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi’s move to Africa resonated with and at times distanced itself from, Sibilla Aleramo’s novel Una donna (A woman), in which the protagonist, a veiled representation of the author herself, moves with her family to a village in the South of Italy. Una donna is a foundational book that in the Italian literary canon and especially for Italian feminism, and I was rather surprised when I first read it to notice the disparaging terms with which the protagonist of the novel described Italian Southerners, not dissimilarly to the ways in which Pianavia Vivaldi was condescending to the Africans. In this sense, the real surprise for me was Aleramo’s narrative where the Italian South and Southerners are treated as internal colonies to Italy. It is the connection between different yet related types of “otherings” that interests me.

In Aleramo’s novel the journey to the south and from city to countryside and the changed status from single to married woman becomes metaphorically and psychologically a descent to hell, while Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi’s travel to Africa was described quite clearly as a rise to a terrestrial Eden, a place where an upper-class white woman could take advantage of a freedom and an independence she would have rarely enjoyed at home.

Sibilla Aleramo

Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi’s Tre Anni in Eritrea and Sibilla Aleramo’s Una Donna both mediate the experience and identity construction of privileged women. Yet, even when they most strongly adhere to the nationalistic rhetoric, as women authors caught between superiority and subalternity they destabilize the process of nation-building and its structures of national belonging. At a time when female authorship, and the education of women and children, generated much anxiety in Italian culture (Re 159; Stewart-Steinberg), these two authors adopt writing as a powerful means to articulate and negotiate their position in a patriarchal society.

Finally, in my work I claim that these two texts, Tre anni in Eritrea and Una donna, which also represent two distinct literary genres - a colonial diary and an autobiographical novel – through their alternating “rhetoric of identification” and “rhetoric of differentiation” (Lowe 32), produce an unsettling destabilization of the traditional gender role assigned to women and expose some of the fictive foundations of the nation. One such fiction is that of citizenship, which far from being universal, in its abstract connotations really represented only men, particularly privileged and property owners.

Issayas: Rosalia was in Eritrea for only three years. Did she ever return? What was the impact of her stay in Eritrea on her life?

Prof.Clò: To my knowledge, she never returned to Eritrea nor did she publish any other books. So we do not know the impact that her stay in Eritrea had on her life, even though we might venture to imagine that it was probably a transformational experience of sort. In the last chapter of the book, entitled “Addio,” she mourns her departure and explicitly acknowledges that by returning to the so-called “civilized world” she would in effect lose the independence and freedom that she had
gained in Africa (328-329).

Issayas: Stephen C. Bruner in his article entitled "Leopoldo Franchetti and Italian Settlement in Eritrea: Emigration, Welfare Colonialism and the Southern Question" wrote that "Emigration, Colonialism and the Southern Question come together in the history of Leopoldo Franchetti's1891 plan to provide land for Italian peasants in Eritrea. He continues to state that Franchetti's plan was a political masterstroke in theory, yet despite burgeoning Italian emigration to other parts of the world and rural restlessness at home, virtually no peasants sought land in Eritrea and the plan failed within five years".

My question is, are there similarities and differences (in the ideas or concepts, but not in the style) between the aforementioned argument about Franchetti and the subject of your presentation entitled "Colonialism, Migration, Southern Question in Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi and Sibilia Aleramo”?

Prof.Clò: Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi recounts the establishment of the first emigrant settlement in Eritrea in a couple of chapters entitled “Tentativi di colonizzazione” (Attempts at colonization) and “Il primo villaggio italiano” (The first Italian village). It is important to notice that in Italian discourse colonization and emigration are often conflated and that in nationalistic rhetoric emigration is often packaged as a form of colonization (Gabaccia).

Pianavia Vivaldi’s narrative is invaluable because it carefully records the first attempt by the Italian government to form a stable settlement in the region through the relocation of a few Italian farmers’ families to Eritrea. Her account provides first-hand documentation of the event and voices upper class concerns about the extent of Italian emigration at the time. Like a state archivist, she meticulously reports in her diary the arrival on 10 November 1893 of the first “carefully chosen” (169) families of Italian colonists destined to cultivate the lands of Eritrea. Seven families were from Lombardy, and two from Sicily (165). That the majority of the families were from Lombardy is important, because it testifies to the fact that emigration at the time was a phenomenon that characterized both Northern and Southern regions of Italy. The reference to Lombardy is also important because this is Aleramo’s Una donna’s geographical point of departure. This aspect enables us to see connections and similarities between the situation of peasant families in different parts of Italy and to cast social
class, rather than just geographical location, as a crucial marker.

Vivaldi’s position as the wife of one of the highest-ranking officials in Eritrea grants her a role as representative of the local Italian authorities. She is among those who welcome this small unit that she defines as “the avant-garde of a numerous emigration, the substratum of a new Italian region (in Africa)”(166). Despite all the compliments paid to these happy and hardy farmers, Vivaldi interestingly comments that on the way into town, “they sang native songs imitating, without their knowledge, the customs of the Africans when they celebrate some occurrence or festivity” (167), thus
equating the lower class Italians to the Africans. Such analogy is also reinforced by the fact that the village where the emigrants are lodged is made of tukuls, whereas the author herself occupies “an elegant palace” in the city (26).

Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi with her husband

Pianavia Vivaldi provides a careful description of the contract that was offered to these farmers, detailing the interest that the Italian state had in establishing a permanent colony in Africa in order to try to solve the increasing national problems of emigration to the Americas and of social unrest in Italy. Like other prominent intellectuals of her time, she sees the creation of the Italian colony in Eritrea as the solution to social upheaval in the homeland and as a way to control the masses. To this end, she manipulates and mobilizes topics that would have been sensitive to an Italian audience of the time, like her subtle reference to the grave episodes of racism against Italians in America, and more
specifically to the lynching in 1891 of 11 Italians in New Orleans, the largest lynching case in US history, which caused a commotion in Italy and would have been still fresh in the mind of Italians.

In contrast to the unwelcoming reception in America, Pianavia Vivaldi suggests that Eritrea is like home, having similar soil and weather conditions (169). Here it is also interesting to notice, once again, how emigration and colonialism are treated as linked phenomena by the author, one providing the solution for the other. Despite Vivaldi’s complicity with the Italian nationalistic agenda, she is also critical of the faults and responsibilities of the Italian colonial authorities for the failure to retain the emigrants. She notes rather sarcastically that if the plan to emigration to Eritrea failed, the fault cannot solely be attributed to the “infertile African sands” (170).

Issayas: Prof.Clò, thank you for your time.

Prof.Clò: Thank you.


Aleramo, Sibilla. Una Donna. 1906. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1998.

Ben-Ghiat, Ruth and Mia Fuller, eds. Italian Colonialism. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Diop-Lombardi, Cristina. “Mothering the Nation: An Italian Woman in Colonial Eritrea.” ItaliAfrica: Bridging Continents and Cultures. Ed. Sante Matteo. Stony Brook, NY: Forum Italicum Publishing, 2001. 173-191.

Gabaccia, Donna. Italy’s Many Diasporas. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2000.

Jonas, Raymond. The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011.

Lowe, Lisa. Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Moe, Nelson. The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question. Berkeley, U of California P, 2002.

Polezzi, Loredana. “The Mirror and the Map: Italian Women Writing the Colonial Space.” Italian Studies 61.2 (2006): 191-205.

Re, Lucia. “Passion and Sexual Difference: The Risorgimento and the Gendering of Writing in the Nineteenth-Century Italian Culture.” Making and Remaking Italy: The Cultivation of National Identity around the Risorgimento.Eds. Albert Russell. Oxford: Berg, 2001.155-200.

Steward-Steinberg, Suzanne. The Pinocchio Effect: On Making Italians (1860-1920). Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

Vivaldi, Rosalia Pianavia. Tre Anni in Eritrea. Milano: Cogliati, 1901.