The 2013 conference of the Association for the Study of Modern Italy, which took place on 22 and 23 November at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, London, put in sharp focus a gap in the literature that Pieri had highlighted during her paper at the SIS (Durham) conference in the summer: the study of visual culture and the field of visual cultural studies. It is fair to say that Italianists in UK universities, whilst they have come to embrace cultural studies and particularly the study of cinema, now embedded in the curriculum in many departments around the country, showed less enthusiasm for the study of visual culture, which after the departure of art history from the pages of the journal Italian Studies, seemed to occupy a very marginal place in both research and teaching in Italian Studies. This two day conference, organized by two specialists in photography and visual culture, Alessandra Antola and Martina Caruso, showcased an array of very exciting research on images as vehicles for cultural and political identity in modern Italy. As the President of ASMI, Prof. Stephen Gundle, noted in his address, a conference with a focus on images would have been unthinkable when ASMI was first founded in the 1980s by scholars with research interests in political science and history. The cultural shift was accompanied by a visual one; both are testament to the significant changes in research and teaching within the field of Italian Studies and the role of visual and cultural material in the research and teaching practices of social scientists and historians. We now have a more complex and nuanced conception of history and politics in which cultural production sits more comfortably alongside other social, anthropological and economic factors. This shift does however call for interdisciplinary perspectives and a renewed dialogue between the social and economic sciences and the humanities.
Of the many iconic images that filled two very busy days, one seemed to be particularly significant in the context of an interdisciplinary dialogue: Michelangelo Pistoletto, Venus of the Rags [Venere degli stracci], 1967, 1974 (Tate Modern) which formed part of the analysis by Prof. Robert Lumley (UCL) of the role of monuments and anti-monuments in Italian art as central vehicles for national identity and its critique in modern Italy. Pistoletto’s Venus, facing a mountain of rags, is in the words of Lumley ‘gently mocking’ the grandiosity of the monument. The choice of medium is significant: Venus is not a precious marble statue reminiscent of the grand narrative of classical art but she is made of cement a material with very modern connotations. The rags are the tangible representation of the ephemeral and the everyday celebrated in Arte Povera. Politics, art practice, economic and social history and theory are some of the disciplines which could make this work their own by looking at the role of counterculture and social and political unrest in Italy in the late 1960s and 1970s.
What are your iconic image(s) of Italy?