Between Masaniello and Gobetti
The story of the Italian pavilion in Venice – despite the fact that Italy is the country that has hosted the Biennale every year since 1895 – could recall the one of an emerging country, that struggles to find its place in the United Nations plethora that the pavilion business in Venice embodies. As a matter of fact, the name “Padiglione Italia” is still connected, in the mind of many, to the International Pavilion where the main exhibition takes place every year for decades now. This collective memory is probably due to the fact that a sculptural frieze spelling “Italy” was installed by the Fascist government in 1932 and removed only much, much later – on the pavilion built in 1984 as “Pro Arte” as an international exhibition space.
Just recently, in 2007, Italy has found its new collocation in the Tese delle Vergini in the Arsenale area, realigning itself to the ever-growing group of National pavilions populating the spatial premises of the two venues of the Venice Biennale exhibition. With the tendency, starting with this edition, to understand the pavilion buildings in a transnational sense, the Auriti’s Palazzo Enciclopedico, in the guise of a new Tower of Babel, might find a new meaning in the art world Turtle Bay that the Arsenal area is gradually turning into.
When I was asked to write this text about the Italian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, I thought a lot whether an ideological guide needed to say something about the relationship between art and politics, in Italy, at this moment in time, or rather address the intricacy behind the encounter between the national art system and its governmental counterpart, at the most diplomatic of their meetings. Could an analysis of the exhibition say something about the ideological superstructure that comes before such a public international moment? I would say, very little, in fact, considering that the selection procedure took place through a rather rare, democratic and transparent procedure, which happened during the seventeen months of Monti’s,so-called technical government. A period when politics, and their supposed ideological drive, were suspended in the name of a super partes common sense for soft austerity, and its subsequent impact on the global markets. These institutional conditions made a rupture possible from the much more traditional familial-oriented approach, that connoted the last two editions, when the curators of the pavilion were nominated directly by the Minister of Culture of the center-right wing government led by Silvio Berlusconi. So, while the two previous pavilions showed the symptoms of a direct political influence in their process, and therefore stood out as direct emanations of that particular political constellation, the current one is perhaps readable as the son of a temporaneous moment of normalization, that is likely to find no continuity in two years time.
What would have an ideologically charged pavilion looked like this year? Perhaps the hypothetical artist called to give account of the current Italian political scenario could have worked within a discursive space created in between two national figures – Masaniello and Piero Gobetti – that could well describe where Italy is, ideologically speaking, at the moment. The former is a Neapolitan fisherman who in the 1647 became what we might define today as a populist leader, when he became the chief instigator of the malcontent by the people of the Kingdom of Naples, that ensued due to the multifarious taxes being imposed by Habsburg Spain, and then ended up being killed by his own supporters, once they found out he was colluded with the established foreigner governors. After becoming a popular hero, often idealized in romantic readings of his story, his name became a synonym for a populist leader, a “Masaniello” is someone who uses demagogy to channel a popular malcontent and then uses it for his own favor and power, describing a peculiar feature of many politicians, especially in the Italian genealogy. The latter, Piero Gobetti, was a brilliant intellectual that actively fought fascism in its early years, at least until the age of 25, when he was severely attacked by a group of fascists that forced him to escape to Paris, where he died few months later. On the year of his death, in 1926, Gobetti writes probably the brightest of his texts, where he describes fascism as an autobiography of a Nation. “We fought Mussolini first as a corrupter, and then as a dictator (…). Fascism is a heir apparent of Italian democracy, that is eternally ministerial and conciliatory, fearful of popular initiatives, oligarchic, parasitic, and paternalistic.”
In between Masaniello and Gobetti’s legacies, is it perhaps no big wonder that Italy has never really built its own national pavilion?