Reimagining Italy through Black Women’s Eyes


Every year, in the village of Marino in the Roman countryside, there is a riotous festival to celebrate a centuries-old battle. In the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, the naval army of the Holy League, comprised of the major Catholic maritime states, triumphed over the Ottoman Empire. The last in a series of great wars fought between the Spanish (Catholic) and the Ottoman (Muslim) empires for dominion over the Mediterranean, Lepanto came to symbolize the superior morality of the Christian West over the Islamic East. Such a military and moral victory, perhaps, demands a monument to mark it, and the small city of Marino, 13 miles southeast of Rome and home to one of the prominent Italian combatants, obliged in 1632 by erecting the Fountain of the Four Moors.

Today, the fountain remains the centerpiece of the Lepanto festival. In fact, during the festival wine flows from the fountain and people gather around to drink from it. Attempts have been made to reorient the festival around the harvest of the grapes and thereby provide a more civilized pretext for the free-flowing wine. But the fact that the festival occurs each year on the anniversary of the Lepanto victory betrays a grotesque attachment to an event deeply rooted in religious intolerance. What escapes many of the festivalgoers—what they choose not to see as they revel in the abundance of the wine—are the four enslaved Black figures in chains sitting at the bottom of the fountain, their bodies frozen in contorted shapes that convey eternal agony and subjection.

It is this fountain that narratively links the characters of the latest novel, La linea del colore, by Afro-Italian writer Igiaba Scego. And foregrounding the fountain is one of only a number of ways that Scego in the novel unapologetically stakes a claim for Italy in a larger global Black history. Using Rome and its monuments as the cynosure of three Black women’s lives across different historical periods, Scego reveals that Italy’s past, present, and future are no less marked by race than any other former colonial power.

The novel’s title, as perhaps even those unfamiliar with Italian might guess, translates to The Color Line and pays tribute to The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous 1903 treatise on race relations in the United States. Du Bois was convinced that the conflict between Black and white people would become the dominant conflict of the 20th century.

In Scego’s novel, however, the color line (as represented, for example, by the fountain) also unites Black female voices across time and space. Scego weaves the tales of three Black women whose lives are intertwined: the Afro-Italian curator Leila; her Somalian cousin, Binti, an aspiring cartoonist; and the African American painter Lafanu Brown (a composite representation of two real-life Black women, namely the obstetrician and feminist activist Sarah Parker Remond and the sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who lived in 19th-century Rome).

While working as an art curator, Leila decides to organize a retrospective honoring Lafanu, whose life and legacy have been forgotten, for the Venice Biennale. As Leila delves into her research on Lafanu, Binti embarks on a journey to Europe in search of a better life. Feeling at once assimilated and alien to Italian society, Leila bridges the temporal and spatial gaps between these two Black women—Lafanu and Binti—whose twin struggles for freedom take them a long way from home. And Leila bridges this gap, partly, through one of the novel’s temporal gateways: the Fountain of the Four Moors.

It is in front of this real-life monument that Leila discovers her true calling. Her dismay at the crude, racist imagery is exceeded only by her shock that those around her fail to perceive the pain and suffering of these bodies as she does. The daughter of Somalian immigrants, she is the only Black person at the festival. Leila’s encounter with the monument prompts her to study art history with the goal of exposing the legacies of slavery, colonialism, and fascism that lie hidden behind the grandiose statues and palaces scattered throughout the Bel Paese.

While Leila’s story is told in first-person narration, Lafanu enters the story as a remote historical figure, her life narrated partly in a third-person voice marked off from the main text by a different font. At the same time, Scego introduces Lafanu’s voice by inserting lengthy excerpts from her letters, thus reemploying first-person narration and sometimes casting doubt on the identity of the “I” of the story.

Such ambiguity also reinforces the creation of a collective voice, tied together by the color line, in the mind of the reader. The deeper Leila plunges into researching details of Lafanu’s life for the exhibit, the more we see that Leila has, quite literally, followed in the African American woman’s footsteps. Her research culminates in the cathartic discovery that Lafanu had also once stood transfixed at the sight of the Fountain of the Four Moors in Marino.

For Lafanu, the encounter with the statue reopens old wounds, reminding her at once of what she has endured to win her freedom and how far she still has to go. She has fulfilled her dream of becoming a painter and living in Rome, but not even here can she escape the weight of her history and the specter of anti-Black racism. As a young Black woman in small-town Massachusetts, Lafanu had studied under the tutelage of a wealthy white woman who wanted to impress liberal society with her altruism toward Black people. The upside to this arrangement was that Lafanu received an enviable, mostly classical education, whereby she came to know and fall in love with the culture of Italy.

The thought that Black people had been enslaved there, too, had scarcely crossed Lafanu’s mind. How, she wonders, could the country that launched the Renaissance and produced so much beauty have endorsed such a despicable practice? The thought is unbearable. And yet, throughout her travels in Italy, it continues to bedevil her, as she repeatedly encounters depictions of Black enslavement such as the Fountain of the Four Moors.

Literature allows us to see monuments anew, to make them speak.

So prominently situated in the urban landscape, the Fountain of the Four Moors is all but invisible to the city’s inhabitants, who grow accustomed to its presence over time. This makes the fountain serve at least two functions at the same time. First, the fountain is what historian Pierre Nora called a lieu de mémoire, a site of a specific historical significance capable of evoking a shared collective memory; and yet the statue is also the opposite, what Israeli historian Guy Beiner called a lieu d’oubli, a site of a specific collective forgetting.

It seems that for both Leila and Lafanu the fountain’s historical value lies more in what has been forgotten about it: that moors (depicted in the fountain with stereotypical African features) were brutalized and enslaved as the result of the Lepanto victory. Transposing the Fountain of the Four Moors from a concrete, quintessentially Italian physical space to a literary one populated by Black women allows Scego to reveal the fountain’s value as a site of collective transgenerational memory of Black enslavement.

Literature allows us to see the monument anew, to make it speak; or, as Igiaba Scego said in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (quoting Italian writer Gianni Rodari), to add onto it. Scego’s fictional addendum, which should reverberate beyond the physical monument and fill the empty spaces that Italian public history has conveniently left barren, reveals a new formal dimension of her long-standing interest in Italy’s Black past.

For instance, in 2014 Scego published the nonfiction volume Roma negata: Percorsi postcoloniali nella città, with photographer Rino Bianchi, a work that explores how vestiges of Italy’s colonial campaigns in East Africa can be found throughout the author’s beloved Rome. More recently, Scego has used her journalistic platform to call for the memorialization of 12-year-old Destà, the child bride of Indro Montanelli, a notoriously racist Italian journalist whose bronze statue appeared in Milan in 2006.

The cleverness of Scego’s La linea del colore lies precisely in its foregrounding of the Fountain of the Four Moors, which celebrates a cornerstone of Italy’s mythical identity as a white, Western nation-state. Scego punctures that identity and traces a vector through which another violent history—a nuanced Black history—of Italy can be told. The Fountain of the Four Moors becomes a testament to Italy’s complicity in the systematic, global devaluation of Black lives across time.

The pieces collected in this series—an interview with Scego on the relationship between history and literature, an essay on the first anthology of short stories written by Afro-Italian women, a reflection from the two African American women who are currently translating that anthology into English, and an epistolary exchange between two Afro-Italian women exploring their reflections on Black Lives Matter—are but the beginning of what I hope will be a longer process of reimagining Italy through the eyes of women like Leila and Lafanu.

 

This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabriel. icon

Featured image: Fountain of the Four Moors in Marino (detail) (2020). Photograph by Edoardo Scialis / Wikimedia Commons



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