Thursday, April 19, 2018

On living under a hyperreal sky

On the morning of 11 August 1993, my partner and I took a train and then a bus from Milan, where we lived, to Courmayeur, an alpine town near the French border. We didn’t book any accommodation, but headed with our blankets a little way up Mont Blanc, in search of an open space protected from the lights of the city. It was the night of the Perseids, or ‘tears of Saint Lawrence’, when the Earth traverses a cloud of debris left by the Swift-Tuttle comet. In 1993, the gravitational pull of Jupiter had shifted the cloud along its orbit, causing Earth to travel closer to its centre. It was going to be the greatest spectacle of its kind for the last several thousand years. Like ultra-celestial fireworks in the night sky.

The night was crisp and clear, and the rarefied mountain air made the meteors streaking across the sky for one, two, three seconds each appear uncannily close. We sat gasping as they rained above our heads almost without interruption.

We weren’t there to look at constellations, except insofar as on such nights the first thing you do is locate Perseus, from where the shooting stars appear to radiate. As with most constellations, Perseus comprises stars and clusters – the most famous is Algol, an eclipsing binary star – that are thousands of light years apart from one another and appear in their distinctive shape only from our solar system. Constellations are illusions, a trick of perspective. Yet they are also a vast storehouse of knowledge and myths, such as that of Perseus, the slayer of the Gorgon. Or Orion, the hunter, the constellation I found easiest to recognise when I moved to the South Pacific. Although at these latitudes, the poor fellow is upside down.

I fell in love with Greek myths thanks to my mother, and with their imaginative projection onto the firmament after a childhood visit to Milan’s planetarium, the largest in Italy, donated to the city in 1930 by publisher Ulrico Hoepli. On the convex inner surface of a planetarium dome you can not only simulate the night sky but also fast forward through the hours, the seasons, or the millennia. It was like travelling through history, as well as through astronomy. It also had a peculiar beauty, as did the imposing Zeiss projector used for the demonstrations. (Planetarium, in fact, was originally used to describe this machine, not the building in which it was housed.)

Later, during our summer holidays, it was a star chart under torchlight, then a plastic disc that came with a copy of National Geographic. By aligning the date and hour and pointing in the right cardinal direction, the disc – known as a planisphere – would provide you with a workable, if slightly distorted, picture of the stars above. I got a lot of use out of this. Later still it was star-chart software on my first laptop, except if you looked at the backlit computer screen and then up at the sky, your eyes would take so long to readjust that you could barely remember what you were supposed to be looking at.

Now it’s smartphone apps, with names like Stellarium or SkyView. These do the work of all those old aides – the star chart, the planisphere, the planetarium – with one key difference: you can point them directly to the stars and even, using the camera, look through your phone at an augmented sky. Or point the phone downwards and see stars under your feet: it’s the sky in the opposite hemisphere, or rather its ghostly projection. This feature creates a powerful illusion: as if Earth itself had ceased to exist and you have become a point suspended in the universe.

Within days of using the apps, the map had become the territory, and I found myself looking at the ‘stars’ on cloudy nights or when indoors. This sky mapped in overlapping fashion by science and mythology. This sky that is so incomprehensibly far and yet with so few apparent mysteries left. Look, I can carry it in my pocket. I can find out at any one time where the planets are, or where the Moon will rise.

The sky has always been hyperreal. For the Greeks, it encoded a great number of their myths. For Polynesians, it was the map they read in order to perform prodigious feats of navigation, while Indigenous Australians used the heavens to orient themselves on land, when travelling in the cool of night. All cultures have used the stars to mark the passing of the seasons and to time the performance of important rituals that sustained them both spiritually and materially – such as the gathering and storing of food following the first pre-dawn winter sightings of the Pleiades, known to Indigenous Australians as the Seven Sisters and to Māori as Matariki.

All this has always been true. Yet that unique sense of awe and wonder remains, when you look up from the chart, the app, the book of legends or the astronomical treatise: the feeling that those stars – on which our ancestors practised their storytelling, and which we now know so many things about, like their size and how far away they are and how long they have left to live and the form their death will take – those stars, finally, of which we are all made, are really there.

Originally published at OverlandThe Autumn issue is out now.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Birth of a Nation

The first ever Italian film had an exceptional premiere: on a giant screen outside of Rome’s Aurealian Walls, on 20 September of 1905, that is to say on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the capture of the city by the army of King Vittorio Emanuele II that completed the decades-long process of liberation and unification of the country. The subject of the film was that epic event: La Presa di Roma, the capture of Rome. Only a few fragments survive, including an establishing scene at the Milvian bridge; the meeting between the King’s envoy and Herman Kanzler, supreme commander of the Papal army, which failed to secure the Pope’s surrender; and the irruption of the bersaglieri through the breach opened by the artillery in the city’s walls. The screen was erected next to the location of the breach.

We can only speculate on the effect that seeing those events recreated on precisely the site in which they occurred, and in a radically new medium, would have had on an audience that was likely to have lived through them. This was recent history, and still hotly contested. The Holy See was yet to formally recognise the Italian State, and wouldn’t for more than two decades, until the Treaty signed by Pius XI and Mussolini in 1929. And so to assert its own legitimacy and counter the immense moral influence of the church, the state printed booklets, financed films and staged grandiose public events on the anniversaries of the key events that led to the unification. This was a populist propaganda designed to appeal primarily to the less well-educated, and whose methods and language would later be co-opted and refined by Fascism. Its aim was to foster a secular religion based around the cult of the fledgling nation, and so the film ended in the apotheosis of Italy’s four founding figures: Mazzini, Garibaldi, King Vittorio Emanuele II and Cavour, standing on either side of the personification of Italy, ‘Italia turrita’ (so named because of the mural crown on her head), who graces Garibaldi with the palm branch, symbol of victory.

The image above is a reconstruction of what that final tableau is thought to have looked like, for the original is lost. Its symbolism, it seems to me, is closer to the medieval allegory than to the modern codes for signifying heroism and renewal. The mythology appears so distant in time also because that cult has gradually vanished.

Take Garibaldi. Giovanni Guareschi’s short story ‘Horses of a Different Colour’ includes the following passage:
When they start a new town in Romagna, they first throw up a monument to Garibaldi and then build a church, because there’s no fun in a civil funeral unless it spites the parish priest. The whole history of the province is concerned with spite of this kind.

Guareschi, who was profoundly religious and fiercely conservative, was complaining here, around the year 1950, about the last vestiges of that secular cult, which in the figure of Garibaldi found a symbol not just of nationalism but also for the revolutionary aspirations of the popular classes. That pantheon of four was a strange one to begin with – seeing as it included a republican, Mazzini, alongside the King – but Garibaldi was the most beloved and at the same time the most atypical of the founding fathers. With him, some people might still feel that they had a shot at overthrowing the State; that he would look down favourably upon such endeavours. And so the task of the propaganda at the turn of the twentieth century was to use Garibaldi for his still immense popular appeal, and at the same time to domesticate him.

Hence films like Il piccolo garibaldino (The Little Garibaldinian Boy, 1909), a 15-minute tear-jerker about a young boy of twelve who stows away on one of Garibaldi’s ships during the Expedition of the Thousand to Sicily in order to fight alongside his father, a volunteer. Here he is dreaming about his hero, thanks to a rather nifty matte effect.

Once in Sicily, the boy scarcely has time to greet his proud and exultant father that he finds himself in the thick of battle and is promptly shot through the heart. He will die, but not before having had a chance to kiss the sword of a rather inconvenienced-looking Garibaldi.

There! There! To die near him!

Finally the boy returns to visit his grieving mother in a dream, forming another allegorical tableau alongside Italia turrita.

There is naïve strangeness about these images. The crude emotional manipulation is on a par with other texts of this era, notably the novels of Edmondo De Amicis, but these cinematic beginnings preserve something else, a sense almost of innocence. They were experiments in how to instil patriotism and civic values in a country that struggled to see not just the benefits but even the tangible signs of its recent unification; a country that barely had a language in common, let alone a coherent sense of who or what it was. Its ruling class would soon learn to fear the spectre of socialism more than the spiteful rivalry of the church, preparing the ground for the advent of Fascism. But here, in this freeze frame, it was still busy crafting a quite different myth. One that now seems as immature and pathetically, almost tenderly misguided as that little Garibaldinian boy.

The classic complaint of intellectuals and politicians of our republican era is that Italians don’t have a sense of the state, that they put their own interests ahead of all intersecting and overarching collective interests. They may be some truth in that, although it begs the question of what kind of state one should make sacrifices to: the state that murders its citizens? The state that treats its immigrants like criminals or slaves? The state that pursues modernity without democracy or rules? And so forth. In my lifetime there have been few coherent pictures, few appealing allegories, or possibly too many, all competing with one another. To this day, it makes questions such as ‘where are you from’ and ‘why are you here’ very difficult to answer. I honestly don’t know. I struggle more and more to think of Italy as a place, as a social and political whole to which I belong, yet I wish to be of nowhere else. In this I suspect I am no different to many of my compatriots from one century ago. But I also think this: that the idea of Italy wasn’t always wrong, and that caught somewhere between the history and the mythmaking there have been attempts to forge a sense of shared past and common purpose worth struggling for. More on these in future instalments.

[For the background to the two films discussed in this post I relied primarily on Giovanni Lasi’s Garibaldi e l’epopea garibaldina nel cinema muto italiano. Dalle origini alla Prima guerra mondiale, to which I was guided by my friend Giacomo Lichtner.]
Originally published at Overland,

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Atlas of the Midday Fund

A book of maps. One hundred and twenty-seven of them, held together by three brass screw-on bolts. On the hard cover – the dust jacket, if there ever was one, is lost – the words Atlante della Cassa del Mezzogiorno, 1950-1962. The book has no introduction, and no text outside of a table of contents, the customary brief publisher’s information and the title, place names and legend of each of the maps. So scant is the context that we could choose to misconstrue the word Mezzogiorno in the title and to translate literally, nonsensically, perhaps a little poetically: ‘The Atlas of the Midday Fund’. And we could look past the fact that these happen to be maps of Southern Italy, seeing that they are also, and more visibly, fragments of a geopolitical body laid on a table and dissected.

This could be any country. Above, it is a map of Calabria with the territory known as the Sila and a small area north of Locri coloured in, blotchy, as if to illustrate the spread of a disease. Below, the more familiar boot shape complete with major islands is criss-crossed by red lines that resemble varicose veins. But what these maps document are interventions – in this case, land reclamations and the building of new roads. In other words, they are about the cure, not the disease.

This could be any country in which such interventions had been prescribed and carried out, for these maps are as much an attempt to represent the territory as a way of thinking about and acting upon the territory. With this key in mind, each map becomes at once text and context. Its explanation, its justification, its frame of reference is to be found in the image itself, taken as a whole and over time: we built these roads because there were none; we drained these marshes so that the land could be farmed, and so forth. The old territory, which is never shown, was the problem. The new territory – the object of representation – is the self-evident, necessary solution.

But we must restore some of that missing context. The Cassa del Mezzogiorno – which properly translates as ‘Fund for the South’ – was an organisation established by the Italian government in 1950 to administer loans granted by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Recovery Program (better known as the Marshall Plan) for the purposes of a series of ‘extraordinary interventions’ in the economically depressed areas in the southern and (partly) the central regions of the country. The Fund, at least in its initial twelve years of operation that are documented by the atlas, operated with a relatively low level of political oversight and was rigorous in its application of Keynesian theories of economic development to these depressed areas. It was in other words a quintessentially technocratic body, a quality of which the book is a direct expression. Not only the minute representational precision of the maps, but also their aesthetic aspect, the fact that this is a beautiful book to look at, are functional to the fund’s design, which was to remake the landscape: to make it better, more productive, more liveable.

I’m not entirely sure what specific information is conveyed the hydrogeological chart of the river Neto and its surroundings, above, but the lines and the colours are very pleasing to the eye. It looks like a place where one could settle. And doesn’t Sicily here look neat, efficient, modern?

If like me you’re into legends, this book is full of treasures. From a map of new facilities built in the province of Naples, I give you, second from the top, ‘X-ray laboratories and tuberculosis dispensaries’.

That is the level of detail that the project required and deployed. Psychiatric hospitals get their own symbol. So too do fruit and vegetable markets and heliports.

Finally the atlas zooms in onto a sample of individual housing developments, which naturally all look like model projects. How could they not? This is the Ex Campo Ascarelli, on the outskirts of Naples.

While for the detail of the actual apartments, we move to Secondigliano.

Decent, modern housing in decent, modern neighbourhoods: it’s what you get when you control the means of representation. Nowadays Secondigliano is plagued by a staggering slew of social problems and virtually ruled by the Camorra. Pasquale Saraceno, the architect of the fund, might as well have been referring to it when he wrote in 1990, at the age of 87, that
when modernisation is only outward and fails to invest the economic foundations, the social structures, the modes of participation in the life of the community, it lends itself to forms of bullying and enslavement, of loss of demarcation between the public and the private sphere, of exchanges of protection and personal allegiances whose roots belong instead to an archaic and feudal past.

The great modernization project failed, but it is not an outcome that could be read in the atlas: not even by its authors, like Pasquale Saraceno, nor by its critics on the Left, who would have looked at each one of those interventions and recognised its specific material value even as they warned that the politics of the extraordinary intervention would become the means for the indefinite extension of the status quo. For our South has never ceased to be in crisis and in the process of being modernized, there just hasn’t been another utopian moment comparable to the one that the atlas represents. Yet it remains such an appealing text, and such a persuasive model: to think that by improving the landscape, by better designing our urban environments we could create the basis for social progress. And if you came across this book, as I did, on the opposite side of the world, and you pretended that this could be any place, you might just believe the story.

Originally published at Overland

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Among many other, terribly important things

Here’s a question that anyone should be able to answer. What happened in Rome on 10 October 1582?

While you try to work it out, I’m going to tell you a little story. It’s about the solar clock on the floor of Milan’s cathedral, which my father showed me when I was a boy. It’s a thin bronze strip of that runs through the floor of the left nave and climbs up the lower section of one of the walls, lined up with a hole on the façade of the church. Every day at midday, the sun shines through the hole and crosses the strip. This indicates both the time of the day – midday, evidently – and the day of the year, as measured by the point of the strip that is illuminated.

These kinds of clocks work better if the hole that the sun shines through (or gnomon) is positioned quite high, which is why historically in Europe they were often located inside cathedrals. The gnomon of the cathedral in Milan – which is a very late one (1786) – is placed 24 metres up the façade. Whereas the gnomon of the solar clock in Santa Maria del Fiore, built in 1468, is the highest in the world, being drilled into the very drum of Brunelleschi’s famous cupola, 90 metres above the cathedral’s floor.

Would it help if I told you what happened in Rome on 10 October 1582 is also what happened in Stockholm on 25 February 1753 and in a small town in Russia on 16 February 1923? I think it probably would.

It may seem counter-intuitive to claim that the solar clock of the cathedral in Milan tells time, since the only time it tells is midday, but this – and not the calendar part – was in fact its primary function: a law enacted on the year the clock was installed required Lombardy to adopt so-called ‘French time’, which marked the beginning of each day as the ‘true’ solar noon, instead of the traditional bell chime for the vesper prayers, shortly after sunset.

The solar clock in Santa Maria del Fiore, by contrast, may initially strike us as rather less useful. For one thing, the sun beam hits the floor of the cathedral for a small portion of the year, from late May to late July, again on either side of the true noon.

I said the hole was drilled into the cupola, before, but it’s not quite true. It sits on a small bronze plate inside one of the windows, and it has a diameter of about two centimetres. From there, the beam – which by the time it reaches the floor has become a fairly sizeable circle – hits another graduated strip, and on certain days superimposes itself on one of two finely drawn circles.

What happens if you track the position of the sun from late May to late July is that you’ll be able to time with absolute precision the summer solstice (or the winter one, if you’re in the Southern hemisphere. But let’s stick with Florence.) A Florentine living in those times wouldn’t have cared one little bit to know when midday was, but they would have cared a lot about the timing of the solstice. If you know when the summer solstice is, then you know when the 21st of June is. If you know when the 21st of June is, you can count the days backwards and forwards for the entire, ‘true’ solar calendar. And if you can mark out the solar calendar, you can establish the correct date in which to celebrate Easter.

I used to find it quite curious, that we celebrate the birth of Jesus on a regular fixed birthday, whereas his death and resurrection fall on days that change from year to year. This is obviously a relic of a different, ancient way of measuring time and anniversaries, from a time when the solar and lunar calendars were intertwined. As decreed at the council of Nicea of 325 CE (when it became decoupled from its Jewish counterpart), the Christian Easter falls on the Sunday following the first full moon of Spring. To know when Spring begins, you need to know when the Spring equinox falls. And for that you need a reliable solar calendar.

You all know what happened here: the calendar used in Christian Europe had been established by Julius Caesar, who did a reasonably good job of accounting for the fact that the solar year does not last a round number of days. But even so, over the span of fifteen centuries the Julian calendar had started lagging quite badly, which led to Christians celebrating their holiest of days at a noticeably wrong time of the year. Hence the need to start measuring the ‘true’ position of the sun via devices such as the clock in Santa Maria del Fiore, and to create a new, more precise calendar. Enter pope Gregory XIII, who asked his scientists to study the problem and published the solution in a decree (or ‘bull’) known (as per the custom) by its opening words, in this case ‘Inter gravissimas’, or ‘Among the very serious matters…’.

The sentence continues: ‘…entrusted upon our pastoral office, not the least is to see to it that the tasks which the holy Council of Trent reserved to the Apostolic See are conducted, with God's help, to a desirable conclusion.’ One of those tasks concerned precisely ‘the annual recurrence of Easter and the feasts that depend on it, to be measured by the movement of the sun and moon’.

So, to answer our initial question: nothing. Nothing happened in Rome on 10 October 1582, because the day never existed. In Rome and in all the territories under the direct control of the Pope, Thursday, 4 October 1582 was followed by Friday, 15 October 1582, in order to make up for the time lost by the Julian calendar. Interestingly, the Bull also specifies how the celebration for the saints honoured in those missing ten days were to be rearranged for that particular year, as well as setting new rules for the 28-year cycle of the so-called ‘Sunday letters’ which helped to locate Easter and every other ‘moveable feast’ (I didn’t know the origin of that expression until I looked it up just now).

This package – the rules for the new Gregorian calendar, plus the ‘martyrology’, or list of martyrs, which I assume means in this case which saints were celebrated on which days – was to be printed exclusively under license by the Holy See, under the penance of a fine of 100 gold ducats plus forfeiture of the publications (in territories controlled by the Pope) or excommunication (in the rest of the world). Given the difficulty in delivering the Bull ‘to all Christian places in the world’, it was decreed that it would be affixed to the doors of the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome and displayed in Campo de’ Fiori, the square where 18 years later Pope Clement VIII would have Giordano Bruno burnt alive at the stake.

The new calendar was adopted almost immediately by Catholic countries and territories, and with various delays by Protestant and Orthodox countries (as hinted above, for instance, Sweden made the switch in 1753, the Soviet Union in 1923). The history of how the Gregorian calendar spread throughout nations that had never been touched by Christianity and became truly global – along with the adoption of 24 time zones starting at the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, London – was driven by very different factors and is told in a book by Vanessa Ogle entitled The Global Transformation of Time, which I warmly recommend.

As for the solar clocks in those old churches, they tell time from a different era, as if the sun that shines through those holes and onto those floors were still trapped in the Renaissance, or the Baroque period, reminding us that human time, too, has a history.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What it means when you touch your face in a certain way

I can’t recall if it was an ad by Taboola (probably) or an ad by Outbrain (I think it was an ad by Taboola). Either way, I clipped it along with the page it linked to, because surely I would have to revisit this.

What goes by the very misleading name of native advertising – one might as well call it ‘indigenous lying’ – is one of the most insidious elements of our current media age. We’ve all come across them, including on reputable sites such as the Guardian and the New York Times – the very people who have pledged to defend us against the scourge of fake news. Following on from stories that, if not always accurate, at least come with a number of explicit and implicit editorial guarantees, and subtly mimicking the almost universal design of web news content, these ads introduce themselves as ‘recommended content’, as if the recommendations came from the sites themselves. Indeed, sometimes they are actual stories from reputable and traceable sources. But more often they are not.

This one is not.

If you click, as I have, on the link under the stock photo of an elderly lady touching her face you will land on a page where a video starts to play automatically. This is a standard infomercial such as you may see on television, but it’s not playing on television. It’s playing on your computer, perhaps as far as New Zealand, across boundaries both electronic and geographic that make what little consumer protections are still in place in the country of origin (in this case, the United States) utterly ineffective.

The commercial begins with these words:
“Take a good look at your husband and children,” said the doctor. “This may be the last time you remember their faces.”
The terrifying lines (which would surely get a doctor instantly fired) are delivered in the video by a reassuring, silver-haired man who goes by the name of Martin Reilly, supposedly a science teacher from Stamford, Connecticut, but almost certainly an actor. He proceeds to tell us the sad story of Sandra, his wife, a victim of early onset dementia, while promising that ‘in the next few minutes’ he will reveal to us the ingredients of a simple plate of food that can cure Alzheimer’s disease.

He won’t. And the video – which you cannot fast forward nor rewind – doesn’t last a mere few minutes, but an exhausting seventy, by the end of which the dish has become a 21 day ‘protocol’ for you to purchase, none of whose ingredients are revealed, save for coconut oil. Nor does the presentation contain any information whatsoever on any parts of the body that, if you scratched them, it would be a sign of Alzheimer’s. That detail is just quietly forgotten in the time it takes for you to click on the link.

'Martin Reilly'

While the roots of the videos are to be traced in informercials such as those that landed Kevin Trudeau in jail, the context in which they can be consumed has changed, making them more persuasive. There are fewer signals that the video playing on your computer screens is in fact an advertisement, more ambiguity about the source of the information and its demarcation from the page that landed you here – perhaps the Guardian or the New York Times. Messages get jumbled together. And while the web can be a place where to test the claims made in an infomercial, it can also be gamed in order to reinforce it.

For instance, if you research the memory research protocol you will find pages with promising names such as ‘memory-repair-protocol-review’ which are in fact long advertorials, complete with customer testimonials and links for purchasing the product. The literacy required to separate these fake reviews from real reviews is not insignificant, and remember: it was a trusted news source that led you here in the first place.

Going over the claims made by ‘Martin Reilly’ (more on his identity in a minute) would take too long, but the story spun during the video is worth a quick summary: while visiting a nursing home as he and his wife prepare for the inevitable, Martin follows a delicious smell of food into the kitchen where an Indian lady of 107 is cooking her meal. I come from a town called Ballabgarh, she explains, and if you Google the name you’ll know why my mind is so sharp. Sure enough, Ballabgarh is is touted in a BBC report as the ‘Indian village may hold key to beating dementia’, on account of its low rates of the disease. Following this discovery, Reilly launches in a crusade to self-fund research into the local diet, which Big Pharma forbids universities to look into so it can continue to sell billion dollars’ worth of drugs that don’t stop the disease.

Finally, Reilly meets Dr Miles Fielding from Unnamed University, a ‘specialist in neuro chemistry and brain function’ whose name returns zero results in Google Scholar for papers in this field, and after much experimentation the pair develops a 21 day diet that not only stops the advance of the disease in Martin’s wife Sandra, but reverts it completely. Now Reilly is willing to share these secrets with us in a package that – and this is by far my favourite part – does not cost $997.

It costs less than that. As a matter of fact, Reilly would not even bother to sell his memory protocol, if not to pay for the cost of running the website, and to deflect the repeated but always unspecified attempts by Big Pharma to silence him.

If you try to purchase the Memory Repair Protocol in book form through Amazon, it lists as the author not Martin Reilly but one Brian Wilds, whose current catalogue includes Lost Ways: Spy Secrets that Can Save your Life, and whose past catalogue boasts such titles as Flat Belly Overnight and Lean Belly Breatkthrough. While if you keep looking for reviews of the product you'll stumble upon a Diabetes Loophole package which is nearly identical in design to the Memory Repair Protocol, and is identically advertised, making similar quasi-scientific claims, retailing for the same price through the same secure banking platform, and hawked by its own stock silver-haired guy.

'Reed Wilson'

This information may be enough to stop you in your tracks, instead of spending less-than-$997 on a recipe book of dubious value, but then it depends on just who you are. You may in fact be vulnerable, or desperate, or grieving for a loved one who is still alive but doesn’t know your face. It’s a common enough condition, even among people who possess otherwise sufficient literacy to disbelieve and disprove the claims of the Memory Repair Protocol. And for all of these people, there is little protection, or hope of redress beyond the 60 day money back guarantee, which hardly makes up for the pain of being duped on top of the misery of living with a cruel and incurable disease.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Walking Radical Wellington

I told this story before. Whenever my father was asked for directions near his place of work, in the part of Milan where he was born, he would tell motorists to either turn at the bridge or continue straight after the bridge or similar, which would have confused them greatly since this so-called bridge was removed and the waterway it crossed paved over in 1930, four years before my father was born, and you could guess its past existence only by virtue of a slight slope in the road. But when my father was growing up everyone still called it the bridge and so he kept calling it the bridge, and maybe he even saw it in his mind, that bridge that was removed four years before he was born. He certainly knew where the old rivers where, even if you could barely see them underneath the modern city.

A city is sculpted by time, by the movements of people, by changes in labour relations and the economic base of the community. And it is sculpted by social relations in all their forms, including political relations, which are governed but not completely determined by those other factors. In Wellington, as of last week, we can access this particular layer of the city’s history thanks to the Walking Radical Wellington app, a project created by Dougal McNeill and Samantha Murphy and supported by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of our main university. So I downloaded the app and went on the walk.

If you’re not familiar with these kinds of apps, they are generally overlaid on mapping software such as GPSMyCity or, in this case, PocketSights, and connect a series of location that are annotated with text and pictures. Walking Radical Wellington features 28 such locations, connected in spatial as opposed to chronological order. The two main thematic criteria are sites of working-class and socialist struggle, and sites of organisations of the LGBTQ community alongside what the authors call the ‘social spaces and outlets whether private lives of individuals could find public expression’. This network of clubs, venues and private dwellings, stretching mainly from Cuba Street to Willis Street, is perhaps the most surprising and vivid aspect of the walk, conveying the sense of a secret Wellington that struggled for recognition and ultimately liberation.

The walk can be disorienting, because it takes you backwards and forwards in time, and also because some of the old physical markers have been erased over time by new leases and successive redevelopments. Often you will look for a street number, and find that it has disappeared, as if crushed between the neighbouring addresses. You may be searching for the original site of the Resistance Bookshop at 144 Willis Street, for instance (location #18 on the walk), but the numbers jump from 136 to 148. You are standing right there, but there isn’t there anymore. Similarly, you could say that the workshop of Philip Josephs – the anarchist tailor whose life is chronicled in Jared Davidson's brilliant book Sewing Freedom – is now a Sunglass Hut, but only more or less: the actual building is long gone.

Yet there is value in those spatial relationships, even when they connect places that have physically disappeared or morphed beyond recognition. The walk tells a story, through flash backs and digressions, and the space in-between the stops is the time it takes for the story to be told. Linear time is replaced by space, or rather displaced into another form of time: the time of walking from one location to another.

Outside Trades Hall

The authors are careful to point out that the story of radical Wellington they endeavoured to tell is one of many possible stories, dictated by their particular political interests and knowledge as well as by certain constraints such as how far people could be expected to walk in a single outing (this is why, for instance, an obvious set of locations such as Newtown was left out).

One thing the walk explicitly isn’t, is an attempt to map or connect places of current activity and struggle – a fact that was made obvious to me as I passed the social centre at 128 Abel Smith Street twice in the early stages of the walk. And what it perhaps most notably isn’t – again by explicit disclaimer – is ‘an attempt to capture the history of Māori political activity in Wellington’, which McNeill and Murphy felt ill-equipped to tell. There, I think, lies the most immediate opportunity for a companion or sequel that might go even further in illustrating how much place matters to our politics.

The Bank of New Zealand building photographed by Ron Fox

I really enjoyed the walk, and found it delightfully instructive. And not just because of the many things I didn’t know – for instance: about the industrial disputes during the construction of the State Insurance, formerly Bank of New Zealand building that towers, Death Star-like over the CBD, and where I worked briefly after moving to Wellington. Individually, those are just interesting stories. But woven together, they form a lineage, a heritage.

Walking Radical Wellington didn’t speak to me of lost utopias or romantic pursuits, but rather – much more compellingly – of the concrete signs of a collective history that is never finished or exhausted, but can be retraced, and brought back to useful life.

You can download the Walking Radical Wellington app for iOS or Android from the project's web page.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The soaking man

When I was a small child, I thought there was a man who lived in a flooded house, with the water coming up to his chest. But he was very neat so he always dressed up, although he also got his shirt badly stained.

This man was known as l’uomo in ammollo, the soaking man. The soaking man was always going on about this bet he made with his wife. His shirt was very dirty. Wine, tomato sauce, grease. Such stains were once impossible to remove. But not anymore, thanks to a laundry detergent called Bio Presto.

Soon the original soaking man was replaced by a new soaking man whose name was Franco Cerri. He featured not only on the television ads but also in full colour in magazines.

The soaking man entered hour homes every night during Carosello (literally ‘Carousel’), a popular prime time show consisting solely of advertisements, mostly in the form of skits of varying duration. Some of these recurring skits are classics of Italian entertainment, including the wonderful La Linea, a character that starred in a series of stand-alone cartoons but was mostly known for his role in advertising Lagostina pots.

The comedy of Carosello was often of the surreal variety. But nothing was quite so strange – to me at least – than the soaking man.

Why was this man submerged? Where did all the water come from? What did soaking man do all day?

Bio Presto was a detergent for your hand-washing. But later they introduced a variety for washing machines.

There was a big generational gap in Italy when it came to washing machines, and I caught the tail end of it. Older women didn’t trust them. My mother bought my grandmother a washing machine. But my grandmother only used the washing machine when my mother came to visit, every second weekend. Otherwise, she washed everything by hand in the big stone laundry basin at the back of the house. I know because sometimes I spent the week there, especially in summer, in-between parental visits.

The sloping front of the stone laundry basin featured a sculpted surface with dents that acted like a washboard. My grandmother didn’t use Bio Presto though. She used big square blocs of Marseilles soap. She trusted Marseilles soap.

The soaking man was trying to sell to Italian housewives a more technologically advanced form of handwashing. Bio Presto isn’t a laundry detergent, he explained. It’s a bio-detergent. It washes clothes biologically.

The television ads included an animation showing how the enzymes of Bio Presto lifted the stains off the material, which greatly fascinated me.

The slogan of the ad campaign in all its iterations was non esiste lo sporco impossibile, there is no such thing as a stain that won’t come clean.

When they introduced the version of Bio Presto for washing machines, in the late 1970s, the ads became even stranger. The soaking man lived inside the washing machine now. But I was older so I was less fazed. Good on the soaking man, I may have thought.

The most famous soaking man was Franco Cerri who – this is also quite strange – was one of the premier Italian jazz guitarists of the last century. He’s still alive, actually. He’s 92 years old. During his very long career, he played with Chet Baker and Billie Holiday, with Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan and Stéphane Grappelli, with Buddy Collette and Gorni Kramer, who discovered him in a club in Milan in the late 1940s.

But true fame came to him via television. Carosello had an audience of 20 million. Half the country. For at least two generations of Italian children, bedtime was 9pm, or ‘after Carosello’. So everyone knew the soaking man and the ‘little man of Lagostina’ and all the other characters that populated those ten minutes of nightly television – every day of the year, except for Good Friday and the 2nd of November – all paid for by commerce, and often by multinationals (Bio Presto is a Henkel product). All so they could sell us groceries.

I don’t feel the slightest bit of nostalgia. But if I think back quite hard I can briefly reach for the sense of bafflement I felt whenever I thought of the man who lived in a flooded house.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

On the end of the internet

The internet is the future we seldom imagined. It eluded generations of science fiction writers, only to suddenly appear, fully formed, some time in the mid-1990s, and from then on quickly become an essential part of how most people communicate, research, write and work. Our new present.

It is a common experience to ask oneself: how did I do this before? Except before is receding, a not-distant past pushed out of mind by a technological paradigm that is constantly changing the meaning of old, familiar words. Not just what it means to like something or to have friends, but the very act of being social; not just the word ‘memory’ – now reduced to what fits on a microchip, or on the glimmering surface of a hard drive, or in the cloud – but what it’s like to remember.

Within that difficulty to recall, or perhaps more accurately to imagine, what life was like before the internet lies the problem of how to conceive of a future without it. It may well be – to paraphrase Fredric Jameson – that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the internet. Conversely, what is routinely presented as ‘the end of the internet’ turns out to be anything but. Two years ago, the phrase was used to describe the effects of proposed copyright legislation. Nowadays, the spectre is raised about attempts to bring the internet outside of the exclusive control of the United States, the prospect that the principle of net neutrality might be abandoned, or even increased taxation of internet traffic. Anything that might alter the regulatory or technical landscape under which the internet as we know it operates is viewed as a catastrophe, the end.

In addition to this, knowing that the internet was originally conceived as a wartime communications network makes us liable to overstate its actual resilience. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the book/app Why the Net Matters, has cited at least four ways the internet could go down. These included political interventions (some will recall Bashar al-Assad shutting down the network in Syria, but there have also been proposals to give American presidents authority over an ‘internet kill switch’); acts of cyber-warfare or sabotage; or the malicious or accidental cutting of deep-sea cables. The fourth reason – space weather – has recently come back into the news and is the most fascinating and chilling of all.

It seems that in 2012 we narrowly avoided being hit by a coronal mass ejection from our sun. As astronomer Phil Plait explained in a widely shared piece for Slate, a coronal mass ejection is the largest type of solar storm and causes the release of billions of tons of plasma into the solar system. When one of these storms hit the Earth in 1859, it wreaked havoc on the telegraph system – the effects on a more advanced society would (of course) be far greater. Plait predicted widespread, months-long blackouts if large transformers were hit, while Eagleman suggested that a major solar event ‘could theoretically melt down the whole internet’. University of Colorado astronomer Daniel Baker has put the chances of Earth being hit by an ejection of the same magnitude as the one that narrowly missed us in 2012 at 12 per cent over the next decade. ‘That’s a bit higher than makes me comfortable,’ noted Plait wryly.

If one sets to one side for a moment the staggering hardship that the sudden collapse of the world’s communications systems would cause, the threat has something of a poetic quality. Large solar storms are relatively frequent, and would have occurred many times since the beginnings of human civilisation. The only different is that now we can notice them; only now do they have the potential to suddenly halt and reverse our technological progress, if not history itself.

It is difficult to muster a human response to events that occur on a cosmic scale, but it may be useful nevertheless to reflect on that failure of our collective imagination, since a future without the internet may suddenly displace our present. It may come from the skies, or by executive order. But it could happen.

As I have noted in the past, the challenge, as I see it, is to abstract progress from technology. We need to think of our new forms of organisation not as the product of new communication tools, but as our response to them, so that we can teach ourselves to replicate those forms, those networks – which are predominantly social – even without the internet. We should do this not just because we might have to do so some day, but to build a redundancy and to make ourselves more resilient.

I also see great value in the recovery of that too-quickly-forgotten past of daily practices and long-term thinking: how we used to communicate, research, write and work. It wasn’t that long ago.

Originally published at Overland

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

On being there

I flick a switch and zoom in to my childhood home, which I sold recently after my parents were taken ill. I look into our former backyard and see my father there. I try to get closer but I am repelled by the absolute limits of the zoom function. Dad’s face is duly blurred but he is walking purposefully. There is no sign of the broken hip that made him reliant on a walking frame, no sign of the rapidly advancing symptoms of dementia that now afflicts him. He is frozen in time-sickness.

– Simon Sellars, ‘Journey to the Centre of Google Earth’

You find yourself in the middle of a long stretch of road. On either side, fields of what looks like young wheat. There are no cars in sight. The sun is shining – isn’t it always? – but of course you aren’t warm. You can choose to proceed in either direction. Eventually you will come to a road sign, or cross paths with a vehicle whose markings might shed some light on your whereabouts.

Car plates are illegible so I look out for trucks, which often provide clues such as the address of the company. Trucks can come from quite far away, so the information is no absolute guarantee you’re even in a particular country. It’s just a hint, a clue.

Or sometimes you find yourself on the outskirts of a village. When it happens to me, I like to explore the place a little bit before getting down to the business of figuring out its exact location. That is where the pleasure of the game lies: to seek information not from the shop or road signs – which is easy enough – but from the aspect of houses and people. You quickly learn to tell if you’re in a hot country or a temperate one, in a rich town or a poor one. There are unmistakable signs, things we already know at a subconscious level about the shape of people’s lives.

The earliest and most popular game in this genre, GeoGuessr, is nearly as old as Google Street View, on which it is overlaid. There are mobile apps that do the same job, but GeoGuessr is just a website. Every game of GeoGuessr takes you to five locations chosen at random from a given selection, or ‘map’. Some maps are quite specific: you can choose to be transported to urban environments only, or to specific countries. Others span several continents. In any case, after a certain number of moves, you’re going to want to make your guess by placing a pin on the world map at the bottom right corner of the screen. The game will reveal your actual location, and give you points based on the accuracy of your guess.

As Street View has evolved and expanded to cover more and more regions of the world in ever-increasing detail, so too GeoGuessr has become more difficult and interesting. Although it is possible to pit yourself against other players, I don’t play competitively, or keep track of my scores. I suspect treating the game as a pastime is the most common approach. Commentators have remarked upon its addictive nature. To me, it is a palimpsest of what the internet could be: a place of places, an infinitely interactive map of the world. A tool for transporting yourself, as opposed to grasping at whatever pieces of detritus happens to gravitate toward the orbit of your interests on any given day.

For the internet has a double nature: it connects us across time and space, and in doing so produces the illusion that those distances don’t matter, compressing all of history and geography into the here and now. I click on a link that somebody has shared on Twitter: it speaks of things and in a language I understand, but I don’t always bother to find out who wrote it or where and when. Even if I wanted to, digital content from the first decade of the World Wide Web is seldom even dated, and is often unsigned. Context is the first casualty of our unprecedented capacity to instantly access what seems at times like the entire store of human knowledge. But loss of context also impoverishes that knowledge.

Playing GeoGuessr, as I do quite often, I am reminded of these erasures even if the game makes erasures of its own. Africa is very poorly covered at a street level. So is China. But I don’t play the game to be everywhere. I play it to be somewhere.

Occasionally, the game takes the player to a location that cannot be guessed. Street View has a surprising number of such places, which are glitch-like in their appearance. You couldn’t access them from the map, so you wonder why they are even there. Once, for instance, I found myself inside somebody’s office in New Delhi. Off the reception was a utility room with concrete floors and myriad electric cables. I couldn’t tell what kind of business it was, nor was I able to exit the building and access the street.

Another time I ended up in a grass field north-west of Beneficente, Brazil, next to a donkey and some farming implements. I could see a human figure in the distance, but could not get close to it. The frustration of not being able to move past the invisible barriers around me resembled the experience of moving inside a dream.

At one level, GeoGuessr is just that: an illusion. It creates the sense of being there – wherever there is – without the means of responding to the environment. It also reflects the limits of Google’s gaze, notably its proclivity to map businesses ahead of everything else. Yet even in the unique way the internet has of turning uncanny experiences into the banal texture of the everyday, the game also acts as a reminder of how vast the world is, and how both similar and dissimilar other people’s lives are to our own. And that is no small thing.

Originally published at Overland

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

My fucking food bag: Mantuan Carnival cakes

The rough translation of frictilia, I suppose, would be ‘fritters’. This is the term that ancient Romans used to describe strips of dough fried in lard, a popular treat during the yearly Saturnalia, or feast of Saturn, a direct precursor of the modern carnival. The sweet – which exists in many cultures – has survived in Italy until the present day, with small variations and under an almost bewildering number of regional names, including merveilles (‘marvels’) near the French border, bugie (‘lies’) in Piedmont, frappe in Rome, strufoli or cenci (‘rags) in Tuscany, crostoli in the North-East and from there into Croatia and as far as Poland. In most other regions they are chiacchiere, or chit-chats.

My grandparents lived near Mantua so for my family they were the lattughe, literally lettuce leaves. Nonna made them every Spring and it was one of my favourite sweets but it’s only recently that I tried to re-create them, and only this year that I finally got them exactly right. It’s not because they’re hard to make, on the contrary: but I wasn’t just trying to make any one of the many variants. Rather, the one from my childhood. The one I would recognise.

This is a very humble dish. it is not difficult nor expensive to make but it takes labour and time, as befits its origins. As I’ve said many times before, the cuisine of the Mantuan province is historically ‘of the Prince and the pauper’, and festivals in particular required that the same rituals and dishes be accessible by rich and poor alike. None more so, perhaps, than Carnival.

To make lattughe you need to prepare a dough that sits halfway between pasta and pastry: a mixture of eggs and flour enriched with relatively small amounts of butter and sugar and flavoured with lemon peel, Marsala wine and vanilla, which you will then need to roll very thin. That last aspect in particular is what sets the lattughe apart from other variants, along with the frying in beef dripping – another pauper’s ingredient that is still found in many dishes of this region, including bread.

On we go. These are the ingredients:
300 grams flour
3 eggs
30 grams of butter
50 grams of sugar
5 grams of baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla pod (or essence)
1 lemon peel
1 shot of Marsala wine or equivalent liquor
Beef dripping (or vegetable oil) as needed

Sift the baking powder and flour, mix with salt and sugar, form a well in the middle in which to break the eggs and add the butter, peel, vanilla and Marsala. Mix, then knead until the dough is hard and smooth. Mine ended up looking not unlike like a cauliflower.

Leave it in a bowl covered with a tea towel for half an hour or so.

As I made a double batch, I helped myself with a pasta machine to roll it, but you can use a regular pin, so long as you aim for pasta-like thickness. This is more or less what we’re looking for.

Cut the pasta into strips. The traditional shape is a rectangle of 10x5 cms in size, with two parallel incisions in the middle.

You now have the option of feeding one of the corners into the opposite slit, to make a sort of bow – it has no other function than to give some of the lattughe an interesting shape.

I did about half that way, the other half I left as rectangles.

To cook, heat up the oil or dripping in a saucepan or frying pan. It needs to be hot enough for the dough to cook instantly. Dunk a strip and count to 4 Mississippis (or, in this case, “Fiume Po”), then turn it over for a split second on the way to taking it out of the pan and into a dish or bowl which you previously lined with a paper towel. They should look something like this.

And taste something like this.

No wait that’s still how they look. But you know what I mean. Enjoy, and buon carnevale.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Are we running out of poems?

Originally published at Overland

According to the Daily Telegraph, the Hope Bourne prize is a prestigious poetry competition whose chief requirements are that the each entry be ‘original’ and ‘inspired by Exmoor’. Determined to fulfil at least one of these requirements, a chap by the name of Christian Ward took a published poem by Helen Mort entitled ‘The Deer’ and handed it in as is own under the title ‘The Deer at Exmoor’. As the Telegraph explains:
Mr Ward is believed to have changed only a handful of words from Miss Mort’s poem, replacing ‘father’ for ‘mother’ in the first line, ‘river Exe’ for ‘Ullapool’ in the second verse and changing the reference to a ‘kingfisher’ near Rannoch Moor in Perthshire, Scotland, to a peregrine falcon on Bossington Beach, Exmoor.

I am admiring of Mr Ward’s scheme, which would allow someone to localise with little effort practically any work of literature – and not just in Exmoor. But literary types are very sensitive about attribution, and once the matter was put to him, some time after he won the prize, he didn’t help matters by making some rather feeble excuses:
I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work. I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. I have begun to examine my published poems to make sure there are no similar mistakes. Already I have discovered a 2009 poem called The Neighbour is very similar to Tim Dooley’s After Neruda and admit that a mistake has been made. I am still digging and want a fresh start.

I can also reveal that whenever I sit down to write an essay or a blog post, I use somebody else’s as a model. Especially if it’s supposed to be about my personal experiences. Then, as soon as I’ve changed enough words, I post it or send it to my editor. Is there any other way? But you really can’t be so careless as to forget to make the changes! Now it seems that Mr Ward may have been equally careless in the past, and so there he is now, at the forefront of the campaign to uncover his own acts of plagiarism, a task for which he seems eminently qualified and can already boast some early success.

A further incident last week – involving British ‘poet’ David R Morgan – has prompted the Guardian to come up with the headline, ‘Another plagiarism scandal hits poetry community’. Apparently this ‘community’ is now ‘searching its soul’ and ‘asking itself just how widespread plagiarism is’. I am always doubtful when such sharply defined feelings and intentions are attributed to a vast and diverse group of people, but it may be true that the issue of plagiarism is causing a degree of anxiety that is to some degree peculiar to our times. It’s even got its own, zeitgeisty how-to guide: How to Find Plagiarism in Poetry.

It is a variation on a classic contemporary paradox. On the one hand, the internet has greatly increased the human capacity to disseminate texts, including plagiarised ones; on the other, it has given people unprecedented tools for textual matching and analysis over a corpus that – thanks to repositories like Google Books – is approximating the totality of what was published in print before the internet came along, plus all the digital content. Obscure books that could once be trusted to slip further and further into oblivion are now constantly threatening to resurface as searchable texts. You could practically hear them thumping loudly through the plagiarist’s floorboards, like the tell-tale heart in that story by Poe.

I don’t intend to ask why we even care, nor the degree in which the idea of authorship is called into question – some years ago, after one of New Zealand’s foremost writers was caught in the act, I proposed using the term ‘authoriety’ to describe its current slippages – but rather reflect on the peculiar character of this anxiety. How it is bound with the fear of being caught doing what we all must, as we engage in that form of serial theft otherwise known as culture. How it ultimately points to the exhaustion of our capacity to say and mean things originally, which is centuries-old and yet always poses itself as new. Perhaps it’s a question that each generation has to ask: are we running out of poems?

In 1961 Raymond Queneau tried to answer this question, or rather ensure that humanity would never have cause to ask it again. His book, Cent mille milliards de poèmes (sometimes translated as ‘One hundred million million poems’) consisted of ten 14-line sonnets of identical rhyme scheme and matching line endings, with each line printed on an individual strip so as to enable the ‘reader’ to produce up to 10, to the power of 14 different combinations, each one equally valid from a formal point of view, but likely of different semantic and aesthetic value.

I never had the pleasure of physically handling the book, but there are a number of websites that strive to replicate the experience in a computational environment (including some in French and English). Ironically, the base-sonnets are protected by copyright, which all the sites are in breach of. Wikipedia tells me that a French court has so decreed.

Legalities aside, the problem with Cent mille milliards de poèmes is that it’s very boring. It may be a little nicer to play with the print book, but I found shuffling the lines at the touch of a button (or by hovering over the sonnet) so distracting that I had to stop at once. However, this is in fact a reframing of our media paradox: you can have the statistical certainty that the text you just composed has never been seen in this world before, and it still won’t be your poem, or new, or a piece of art (may Dada forgive me). To do poetry the customary way always involves retreading somebody else’s ground. And that’s fine. If there really is such a thing as a ‘community of poets’, it should worry less about running out of words, or about its capacity to catch the odd thief, whose presence should in fact reassure us that the culture hasn’t reached a dead end; that our canons aren’t yet so small that they can be recited by heart.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The trial of Victor Emmanuel III

The President of the Senate, Pietro Grasso, called it ‘an act of compassion’, although it’s not very clear that it in fact was within his powers to prevent it. What seems clearer is that the dead king didn’t need to return on a special army transport: we could have been spared both the official act and the final expense, along with the deference that they implied.

The remains of Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s de-facto last monarch (he reigned for a full 46 years, while his successor lasted less than one month), were flown last month from Alexandria, Egypt, to a military airstrip in Cuneo. They were then transported to the small sanctuary of Vicoforte, there to be reunited with those of his late wife, Queen Helen, which had arrived the day before from France. Their exile was self-imposed: they left in haste in May of 1946, leaving their less tarnished son Umberto in charge, in the hope that it might persuade Italians to vote for preserving the monarchy in the June referendum. It did not. Following the referendum, a ‘temporary rule’ of the newly drafted Republican constitution banished the male heirs of the family from the Italian soil, lest they tried to seize power again. The rule was finally abrogated in 2002, opening the door to the return not only of the living members Savoies, but also of the dead ones.

So, why does it matter?

The ‘act of compassion’ might have been just that, were it not for the guard of honour provided by our armed forces and – more importantly – for the fact it opened the door to new claims from the descendants of the last king. Namely, that Victor Emmanuel and Helen be buried not in the modest chapel that houses their famous forebear Charles (d. 1630), but at the Pantheon in Rome, the burial place of the few other kings and queens of our short-lived monarchy. Such a move would have a much greater symbolic significance, going a long way towards rehabilitating the Royal Family and amending the historical judgment on the role it played in a great many crimes.

Albeit initially more moderate than his parents, Umberto and Margherita, Victor Emmanuel has a lot to atone for. He is principally responsible for the country’s disastrous participation in the First World War, having invoked the extraordinary powers granted to him by the Albertine Statute to override the will of parliament. After the war, he presided over the government’s turning a blind eye to the campaign of violence of the nascent fascist movement. Most extraordinarily, he turned the farce of the ‘March on Rome’ into a successful coup d’état, elevating Mussolini to the prime ministership just as the army was poised to regain control of the capital. From that moment, he rubber-stamped every measure introduced by Mussolini not just to legalise Black Shirt violence (beginning with the abduction and murder of socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti) but gradually abolish all democratic freedoms, and ultimately hollow out the powers of the monarchy itself. In the 1930s, he was the figure-head who accepted the titles of Emperor of Ethiopia and King of Albania, and who signed off on the racial laws that targeted the Indigenous population in the African colonies (1936) and the Jewish population in Italy (1938).

That’s not all. Having given his enthusiastic assent to Italy’s late entry into the Second World War in the June of 1940 – when it looked to like the tiniest of helps to Hitler’s seemingly inexorable advance would translate into big gains at the peace-making table – the king behaved just as disastrously three years later, when he was left with no choice but to oust the Fascist leader. It was then that, after putting Marshall Badoglio in charge of the government (and it was no progressive choice: the man was a butcher), he fled to Brindisi, to spend the rest of the war under the protection of the Allied command. Left without orders, the Italian army units stationed both overseas and in the Italian regions not yet under Allied control were swiftly captured by the German army. Those who didn’t surrender, ended up fighting on the side of Mussolini’s soon to be formed puppet regime. The rest – some 600,000 men – were deported to German labour camps.

It is at this time that the deportation of the defenceless Jewish population began. And it is the Jewish community that has been most vocal in opposing any move to transfer Victor Emmanuel and Helen to the Pantheon, a short distance from the historical sites of those mass abductions. Their response has included a full-blown mock trial of the late king.

The trial, ‘written’ by Viviana Kasam and Marilena Francese, featured the testimonies of survivors of the Shoah and descendants of deportees and forced exiles, in front of a judging panel that included a former minister of justice and a prominent anti-mafia prosecutor. Focussing on the passing of the ‘racial purity’ laws of 1938 – which Victor Emmanuel had the power to veto – it found the late king, of course, guilty. But its value was primarily as a creative intervention, within a media environment structurally disposed to present historical events as a contest between opposite and equal sides.

Recorded at a theatre in Rome ahead of Holocaust Rememberance Day, the trial of Victor Emmanuel III was televised in prime time on that, which in Italy goes by the name of ‘the day of memory’. But memory, again, implies a contest: the averaging out or mediation of sometimes opposite recollections. The forensic setting of a trial – while founded in part on the institution of the testimony – constitutes instead an attempt to (re)establish a knowledge of history, as a truth determined by civil institutions that cannot be called into question barring new evidence, and a further trial.

Italian Fascism never had its own Nuremberg, and the new Republic – which was formally founded on the repudiation of the old regime – chose to proceed, both culturally and politically, by means of amnesties rather than trials. And so here we are, having to metaphorically exhume the dead not so we can defeat again Fascism back then, but prevent its deep roots from sprouting again.