Monday, March 2, 2009


Achille Campanile was an Italian humourist who did his best work in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties, in novels such as Ma che cos’è questo amore and Se la luna mi porta fortuna. However my favourite writings of his are the very short plays he wrote during that period, and that were collected decades later by Rizzoli in Tragedie in due battute ('Two-Line Tragedies'), a book that my sister found at a remainder bookshop’s and gave me for my birthday in 1993. See, thanks to that inscription of hers I’m able to pinpoint the exact day when I became a fan.

Here’s a typical two-line tragedy:


THE HUSBAND Coming home with a large parcel
I brought the gas masks.

Great. Tonight we can go to sleep with the gas on.

Critic Guido Almansi coined for Campanile the term ‘umorismo scemo’, dumb humour, although he didn’t mean it derogatorily. It had to do with levels of surreality and confounded expectations - the Marx Brothers brand of silliness would be another example. Yet very occasionally there was a little edge in Campanile as well. The above excerpt for instance might seem entirely innocuous to a contemporary reader but at the time would have had a slightly different resonance. Here are two kids modelling the spring/summer fashions in Rome in 1935:

Photo by Adolfo Porry Camporel

Those are uniforms, by the way: the boy is a balilla, the girl a piccola italiana. At different ages you’d graduate to another stage of fascist life. For boys it went like this: at age four you’d become a figlio della lupa (son of the she-wolf - that’d be the kind beast at whose teats suckled the mythical foundling founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus) and wear your first black shirt; then at eight you were made a balilla, at fourteen an avanguardista. For the girls it went figlia della lupa, piccola italiana and then giovane italiana. My mother was seven (hence a daughter of the she-wolf) when she was made to line up alongside the railway tracks outside her village to be part of the cheering crowd that saluted Hitler’s train as it sped past towards Rome during his visit to Italy in 1938. And she would have been wearing a piccola italiana uniform much like the one pictured above some years later, when she was made to greet with a poem and a bunch of flowers her former neighbour, a father of fourteen returning on a train from Russia, minus his legs.

Meanwhile throughout Italy the process of 'defascistizzazione' (literally de-fascistisation, but I prefer Graziella Parati's phrase 'unbecoming fascist') was about to begin in earnest. Mussolini had been deposed a mere twenty-four hours earlier, on July 25th, 1943, when the fellow in this picture started chiseling off the fasces from the headquarters of the national postal service in Milan.

Photo by Vincenzo Carrese

Already the Ventennio, the twenty years of Mussolini’s rule, was well on its way to never having happened at all. A marginally more figurative bracket was about to be closed, in the form of the amnesty of 1946 that bears the name of Palmiro Togliatti.

Except nowadays the spectres and the apologists of the old regime are everywhere, of course, including the seats of government. It will happen when history and memory are not so much repressed as removed, when symbols are banned in place of ideas, when you allow yourself to be convinced (neorealism has a lot to answer for) that we weren’t so bad, that the monsters of history lived elsewhere and spoke a harsher tongue. The circle of reconciliation hasn’t quite been closed yet: we still insist to celebrate and demonstrate on April 25th, on the day of the liberation, only in the name of those who died to defeat fascism; but perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the slogan of the far right Movimento Sociale, ‘Italiani - Dimenticate la guerra civile’, forget the civil war, will reach the highest institutions. Somebody then will have to get up that ladder again and restore the fasces to their original glory, for the citizens pay their taxes and have had to put up with broken buildings for far too long as it is.

And what say you, dear reader, isn’t this a picturesque view:

We’re at Antrodoco, in the province of Rieti, in central Italy. The pine forest above the village was artfully planted between 1938 and 1939 to spell out DVX, that is to say ‘il duce’, that is to say Mussolini. After years of tireless campaigning, local tourism councillor Clarice Serani finally managed to obtain funding from the regional administration to restore and protect the monument. ‘The project had been stuck for years,’ he explained at the time, ‘because people who weren’t from around here insisted to give to this piece of writing an ideological meaning.’

Stupid out of towners

Now can you imagine a portion of the Black Forest spelling out the word Führer, and the local population being allowed to take pride in it and call it a 'monument'? No? Well, the genius of Campanile had foreseen exactly what the Italian reaction to this news would be. Take it away, Achille:


The scene takes place nowhere.

Keeps silent.


The historical images are from the catalogue of the exhibition Fotografia della libertà e delle dittature - da Sander a Cartier-Bresson 1922-1946, Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta, Milan 1995.
On a not entirely unrelated note, Wellington readers ought to make their way to the National Library over the next couple of weeks to view the excellent Welcome Sweet Peace exhibition about the return of New Zealand soldiers from World War I, with materials from the Alexander Turnbull Library collections. I'll put up info on the Web side of the exhibition soon, but it's worth seeing it in person - closes March 14. A guided tour with curator and all-round nice guy Andrew Francis is scheduled for 12.10 pm on Thursday 12th.

Update: You Cannot Press a Flower Between Two Web Pages*

This is little more than a placeholder, but I quivered in my boots (unseasonable, I know) when I chanced upon the hand crafted books of Pania Press, and had to wave frantically to you all about it and at least point you to their Web front, for you to visit forthwith. Here's an image from their most recent creation, Minotaur, reproduced with kind permission.