On the traces of Florence’s colonial past

Whoever drinks black, earns color: A column by BHMF

Daphné Budasz, bhmf
November 12, 2020 - 10:54

Site and memory are two inescapable through lines in the narrations of Florence that must be expanded to engage in a profound restructuring of our understandings of the Afro-descendent histories of this context. There are lingering remnants of colonialism with the capacity to evade critical dialogue through the gesture of nomenclature in relation to streets and squares that refer to figures and places obscure to many contemporary inhabitants of the city. These sites and memories, seemingly distant from the Renaissance façade that pervades many imaginings of Florence still hold space. Naming a street is an honorary gesture of commemoration that is perhaps more layered and generative of the benign neutrality that keeps criticism at a distance when compared to the commemorative placard as often the location of these streets or squares has little to do with the specificities of history that they seek to celebrate. This dislocation of time and space births an abstract relationship where the demographics and social realities of a site can be in utter contrast to the namesake that it has been ascribed.

 

Post Colonial Italy is a project that was launched in 2018 by Daphné Budasz and Markus Wurzer, designed to map the legacy of Italian colonialism in Africa through the streets, buildings, monuments and sites of Italian cities. An ongoing research project, this work invites us towards a meditation on how the city retains historical memory, what political agency exists in relation to assigning or altering street names, and the capacity of a lived social environment to develop with nearly no relation to the names that frame its addresses. 

 

 

Holding Patterns, Nari Ward. From the exhibition Sporcarsi le Mani per Fare un Lavoro Pulito, Murate Art District curated by BHMF 2020. Photo courtesy of Galleria Continua.

 

 

On the traces of Florence’s colonial past

by Daphné Budasz

 

Almost every year, the streets of Florence are bustling with hordes of tourists from all over the world. They come to admire the prestigious historical heritage of the city: the cradle of the Renaissance, Florence’s identity is primarily tied to art history, an image inhabitants of the city are proud of. But who is paying attention to the Italian colonial heritage? Who can discern the ubiquitous presence of colonial traces in the public space among the glossy Renaissance buildings?

 

Rushing out of Santa Maria Novella, Florence’s main station, you do not necessarily pay attention to the modernist architecture of the railway terminus inherited from the fascist era. While crossing the road in front of the station, you might pass by piazza Adua, an unassuming square, named after the iconic battle of Adwa (Adua in Italian), during which Ethiopian forces led by Emperor Menelik II defeated the Italian army in 1896. Why name a square after a defeat? As a call for revenge for a shameful memory, piazza Adua is nothing more than a legacy of Mussolini’s colonial campaign, which ultimately succeeded with the invasion of Ethiopia and the proclamation of the Italian Empire in 1936. 

 

Taking the north-east direction towards piazza San Marco, you notice a massive commemorative plaque situated along via Cavour. This monument is dedicated to Antonio Baldissera, a general of the Italian army who is remembered for his military exploits in the colonies. Baldissera not only fought the First Italo-Ethiopian War (1885-96) but also played a central role in the creation of the Italian colonial empire as his military campaigns led to the occupation of many territories, including the Eritrean cities of Asmara and Keren. He died in Florence in 1917 and is widely commemorated with monuments in several Italian cities. Baldissera has since become a controversial figure: as recently as June 2020, a statue of him in Pincio park in Rome was doused with pink paint by antiracist activists.

 

In Florence, you might often have a hard time choosing among the plethora of museums, galleries, churches and palazzi you could go to see. Rarely would you venture in the Museo di Antropologia e Etnologia, despite its convenient location a couple of steps from the imposing Duomo. This museum, the first one of his kind in Italy, was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by anthropologist Paolo Mantegazza, whose bust can be found in the portico of the museum. Although Mantegazza maintained a certain distance towards the first Italian colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century, his natural history of humankind largely contributed to the popularization of racial theories and the idea of a natural hierarchy of ethnicities. Additionally, the collections of African artifacts held by the museum testify to Italian colonial possessions. One can also discover the work of Lidio Cipriani, a leading figure of Italian anthropology during the fascist era and one of the ten scientists that signed Mussolini’s Italian Racial Laws in 1938. Cipriani’s work notably includes a collection of plaster casts of African faces used to study the supposed biological inferiority of Black people. The museum does not explain that Cipriani’s research supported Italian colonial ambition. His work instead is awkwardly integrated in a section promoting human diversity. 

 

The material legacy of Italian colonialism in Florence is not limited to those few cases. Dozens of locations, street names, buildings and monuments propose an alternative narrative for the city. Initiated in 2018, Postcolonial Italy: Mapping Colonial Heritage is a project that aims to capture and document these material traces in order to stimulate a public debate on Italy’s silenced colonial history. In Florence, the turmoil of modern history is superseded by the city’s Medieval and Renaissance heritage and the Whiteness of the classical statues conveniently overshadow a more recent but less glorious past. Highlighting connections between local places and Italian colonial history is crucial to question the legacy of this period in today’s society. While anti-racist movements around the world are calling out the long-lasting consequences of the history of slavery and European imperialism, Italy should work to overcome its colonial amnesia. Uncovering colonial traces in Italy is not simply about recognizing moral faults from the past. It is ultimately about acknowledging the roots of racial prejudices along with the existence of Afro-descendant Italians. To trace Florence’s colonial past is to challenge a historical narrative that continues to shape Italian identity. 

 

 

To find out more about BHMF’s activities, see www.blackhistorymonthflorence.com, see Facebook and Instagram.

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