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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 October 2011

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The article begins by looking at the body of written and visual material that was produced on the colonial world in the interwar years. It considers various reading strategies that can be applied to this body of work and how it can be addressed through post-colonial criticism. The article argues that the work of the sociologist Peter Berger offers a series of insights into the way in which this material represents the social world, and the notions of collective identity and alterity that are central to that world. In the light of Berger's thinking on the socially constructed nomos, the essay examines some of the definitions of the relation between metropolitan and subject communities that recur in writings on the reality of colonialism. The essay explores the relationship of an individual author to the nomos of his or her time by looking in detail at one text: the journalist Ciro Poggiali's diary of the time he spent in Ethiopia in the immediate aftermath of the Italian conquest of the country. It examines how Poggiali's diary can be interpreted as a complex account of how the coerciveness of the social world is experienced by individual consciousness and how its definitions of racial and cultural belonging can be appropriated or challenged. The essay concludes by arguing that the analysis of strategies for defining identity and otherness within the Italian colonial context can be taken further by working within a comparative framework.

L'articolo inizia considerando il corpus del materiale scritto e iconografico prodotto sul mondo coloniale negli anni tra le due guerre. Il lavoro prende in considerazione varie strategie di letture che possono essere applicate a questo insieme di materiale e come possa essere affrontato attraverso la critica post-coloniale. Si deduce che il lavoro del sociologo Peter Berger offre una serie di prospettive sul modo in cui tale materiale possa rappresentare il mondo sociale, e le nozioni dell'identità collettiva e dell'alterità che sono centrali a quel mondo. Alla luce del pensiero di Berger sul nomos socialmente costruito, il saggio esamina alcune delle definizioni della relazione tra la comunità italiana e quella indigena che ricorrono negli scritti sulla realtà del colonialismo. Il saggio esplora la relazione di un autore individuale con il nomos del suo tempo, guardando in particolare un testo: il diario del giornalista Ciro Poggiali scritto nel periodo passato in Etiopia immediatamente dopo la conquista italiana del paese. Il saggio esamina come il diario di Poggiali può essere interpretato come un complesso resoconto di come la coercizione del mondo sociale è vissuta dalla coscienza individuale e come le sue definizioni di appartenenza razziale e culturale possano essere appropriate o respinte come una sfida. Il saggio conclude deducendo che l'analisi delle strategie per definire l'identità e la diversità all'interno del contesto coloniale italiano possa essere ulteriormente sviluppata, seguendo un approccio comparativo.

Research Article
Copyright © British School at Rome 2011

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1 This is not to mention other forms of literary or visual culture: such as the numerous examples of colonial cinema or indeed fictional texts, the production of which the regime was keen to encourage. On Italian colonial cinema, see Ben-Ghiat, R., ‘The Italian colonial cinema: agendas and audiences’, in Ben-Ghiat, R. and Fuller, M. (eds), Italian Colonialism (New York, 2005), 179–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the production of fictional texts on the Italian colonial world, see Tomasello, G., L'Africa tra mito e realtà: storia della letteratura coloniale italiana (Palermo, 2004)Google Scholar.

2 The list of journals and magazines that sought to publicize the development of Italy's expansionist project is a long one. It includes such titles as Annali dell'Africa Orientale Italiana, L'Oltremare (the journal of the Fascist Colonial Institute), Il Mediterraneo, Razze e Popoli della Terra, Rassegna dell'Espansione Italiana and La Rivista delle Colonie.

3 Figures at the very highest levels of the colonial administration, like Rodolfo Graziani and Alessandro Lessona, wrote on their ideas for the colonies. For the work of Graziani, see below (note 29). The writings of Lessona include such texts as La missione dell'Italia in Africa (Rome, 1936) and Scritti e discorsi coloniali (Milan, 1935).

4 See, for example, such works as Africa romana (Milan, 1928) by Franco Ciarlantini, or Mario Appelius's text, Il crollo dell'impero del negus (Milan, 1937). Much of what we would now call travel-writing was, in the Italy of the interwar years, written by foreign correspondents. On this subject, see Burdett, C., Journeys through Fascism: Italian Travel Writing between the Wars (Oxford/New York, 2007)Google Scholar.

5 The Rivista delle Colonie was particularly keen to track developments in the wider colonial world.

6 Recent work on the analysis of the representation of the colonial world includes: Polezzi, L., ‘L'Etiopia raccontata agli italiani’, in L'impero fascista: Italia ed Etiopia (1935–1941) (Bologna, 2008), 285305Google Scholar; Lombardi-Diop, C., ‘Fascist women in colonial Africa’, in Ben-Ghiat and Fuller (eds), Italian Colonialism (above, n. 1), 145–55; R. Pickering-Iazzi, ‘Mass-mediated fantasies of feminine conquest 1930–1940’, in Palumbo, P. (ed.), A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture from Post-Unification to the Present (Berkeley, 2003), 197224Google Scholar.

7 This article originally was given as a paper at the conference ‘Language, Space and Otherness in Italy since 1861’, British School at Rome, 24–5 June 2010.

8 There is a number of figures who would lend themselves well to this kind of examination. One good example would be the writer Mario Dei Gaslini, who wrote both fiction and reportage on the colonial world of the interwar years; another would be the colonial official Angelo Piccioli, who published travel literature, speeches and an extensive series of reports on Italy's African colonies.

9 Said, E., Orientalism (New York, 1978)Google Scholar.

10 For an assessment of the importance of Berger's work, see Woodhead, L., Heelas, P. and Martin, D. (eds), Peter Berger and the Study of Religion (London, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Berger, P., The Sacred Canopy (Garden City (NY), 1967), 128Google Scholar.

12 Berger, The Sacred Canopy (above, n. 11), 6.

13 Berger, The Sacred Canopy (above, n. 11), 4.

14 See, especially, Il culto del littorio (Rome/Bari, 1993) on the construction of the secular religion of Italian Fascism and the part it played in the enterprise of world-building.

15 Ben-Ghiat, R., Fascist Modernities: Italy 1922–1945 (Berkeley, 2001)Google Scholar.

16 Modernism and Fascism: the Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (Basingstoke, 2007), 74–9Google Scholar. Griffin has written: ‘Peter Berger, who, long before poststructuralists started painstakingly deconstructing human realities — as well as anthropologists to conceptualize them — became fascinated by the cognitive and ritual techniques through which our species fashions ‘society’ in its countless permutations', p. 74.

17 Gray, J., Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (London, 2007)Google Scholar. The emphasis in Gray's work is on the continuation of elements of eschatological thinking within Western culture beyond the apparent paradigm shift of the Enlightenment.

18 On the question of the relation of expansionism to generic fascism, see Kallis, A., ‘To expand or not to expand? Territory, generic fascism and the quest for an ‘ideal fatherland’', Journal of Contemporary History 38 (2) (April 2003), 237–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 For a history of the nature of the Italian occupation of Libya and East Africa, see Labanca, N., Oltremare: storia dell'espansione coloniale italiana (Bologna, 2002)Google Scholar, and the three volumes of Del Boca's, A.Gli italiani in Africa Orientale (Rome, 1976–82)Google Scholar. Del Boca, Angelo spoke elsewhere of the construction of ‘a sinister universe of [racial] segregation’, ‘L'impero’, in Ishenghi, M. (ed.), I luoghi della memoria: simboli e miti dell'Italia unita (Rome, 1996), 418–37, at p. 430Google Scholar.

20 For a discussion of the use of time within the colonial narrative of Italian Fascism, see Burdett, C., ‘Italian Fascism, Messianic eschatology and the representation of Libya’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 11 (1) (March 2010), 325CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 On this point, see Aldo Valori's article in the Corriere della Sera, ‘Come Mussolini trova la Libia’, 12 March 1937.

22 On the trope of Italian expansion as a return to the ancient past, see Fuller, M., Moderns Abroad: Architecture, Cities and Italian Imperialism (London/New York, 2007), 3944Google Scholar.

23 What is immediately noticeable is not only the recurrence of these terms but the slippage between the two. For recent analyses of the understanding of the concept of race in Fascist Italy, see Gordon, R., ‘Race’, in Bosworth, R. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Fascism (Oxford, 2009), 296316Google Scholar, and De Donno, F., ‘La razza ario-mediterranea: ideas of race and citizenship in colonial and Fascist Italy, 1885–1941’, Interventions 8 (3) (2006), 394412CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 There is no shortage of works of this type. One example of an author's conscious attempt to define himself as an exemplar of the Italian mission in Africa is the work of Giacomo Bensi, a schoolteacher who worked for a brief period in southern Cyrenaica, Un anno di scuola nell'oasi di Giarabub (Bologna, 1936)Google Scholar.

25 The work of Poggiali, see below, is an excellent example of this. Given that Italian expansionism was so male-dominated, the few contemporary accounts written by Italian women offer a series of intricate adaptations of the discourses of Italian colonialism. On this subject, see Lombardi Diop, ‘Fascist women in colonial Africa’ (above, n. 6).

26 H. Bhabha, ‘The other question: stereotype, discrimination and the discourse of colonialism’, in Bhabha, H., The Location of Culture (London/New York, 1994), 6684Google Scholar.

27 Mia Fuller recently has elucidated the various categories or ‘scales of population’ into which the subjects of colonial rule were officially and unofficially placed: see Moderns Abroad (above, n. 22), 50–8. In her words: ‘colonial populations were ranked simply according to their perceived cultural and social distance from idealized modern Italians’ (p. 52). At the farthest end of the scale were the indigenous inhabitants of East Africa, while the greatest level of ambiguity was shown in Italian attitudes towards Libyan Arabs.

28 A good example of the conscious enactment of a kind of behaviour for an audience of Ethiopian onlookers is provided by Orio Vergani's account of his journey through Ethiopia in the aftermath of conquest: La via nera: viaggio in Etiopia da Massaua a Mogadiscio (Milan, 1938), 120Google Scholar.

29 This is a point on which Graziani, for example, insisted in his account of the period of Italian rule in Libya, Libia redenta (Naples, 1948)Google Scholar.

30 For an analysis of the photographic record of the Italian presence in Africa, see Palma, S., L'Italia coloniale (Rome, 1999)Google Scholar.

31 On this subject, see the recent collection of essays, Andall, J. and Duncan, D. (eds), National Belongings: Hybridity in Italian Colonial and Postcolonial Cultures (New York/Oxford, 2010)Google Scholar.

32 One of the most explicit uses of the concept in this context is provided by Angelo Piccioli's description of the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in the centre of Tripoli in La porta magica del Sahara: itinerario Tripoli–Gadames (Intra, 1934)Google Scholar.

33 On the Corriere's construction of an image of Italian East Africa, see Bricchetto, E., La verità della propaganda: il Corriere della Sera e la guerra d'Etiopia (Milan, 2004), especially pp. 254–66Google Scholar.

34 Poggiali, C., Gli albori dell'impero. L'Etiopia come è e come sarà (Milan, 1938)Google Scholar.

35 Poggiali, C., Diario 1936–1937 (Milan, 1971), published posthumouslyGoogle Scholar.

36 Del Boca, A., Gli italiani in Africa Orientale 3 (Milan, 1992; first published 1982)Google Scholar. See also Labanca's reference to the importance of Poggiali in Oltremare (above, n. 19), 248–9.

37 De Grand, A., ‘Mussolini's follies: Fascism in its imperial and racist phase, 1935–1940’, Contemporary European History 13 (2) (May 2004), 127–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 According to the figures given by De Grand (‘Mussolini's follies’ (above, n. 37), 141), the number of people who lost their lives in the savage acts of reprisal was between 1,400 and 6,000.

39 In the diary, Poggiali referred to the act of taking photographs. However, little information was provided on the provenance of the photographs that appear in the printed edition of Diario AOI.

40 De Grand, ‘Mussolini's follies’ (above, n. 37), 141.

41 Bricchetto has seen the difference between the public utterances and the private observations of Poggiali to be so extreme as to represent a certain ‘schizophrenia’ on his part: La verità della propaganda (above, n. 33), 266.

42 On Poggiali's admiration for the labour involved in the building of the new colony's infrastructure, see the introduction to the diary, pp. 11–14.

43 For Poggiali's account of the working of the judicial system, see Diario, pp. 39–41.

44 A similar incident occurred when Poggiali related his encounter with the former Minister Ato Fassica (Diario, pp. 105–6) who denounced the iniquity of racial discrimination of the empire. Poggiali commented: ‘Costui e tutti quelli della sua risma, non potranno mai esser con noi. Sono come quegli aristocratici russi che il rovesciamento dello zarismo precipitò di colpo nell'abiezione e nella miseria’ (‘He and all those belonging to his class can never be with us. They are like those Russian aristocrats that the overturning of tsarism immediately precipitated into abjection and poverty’) (Diario, p. 105).

45 In the vision of colonial rule that Graziani offerred, for example, in such works as Libia redenta (above, n. 29) or Pace romana (Milan, 1937), he presented himself not as an oppressor but as a liberator. He legitimated his actions in the colonies by claiming that the promised new world would be brought into being only through the total destruction of the forces and people that opposed its coming.

46 This interpretation is indebted to elements of Emmanuel Levinas's thought, as put forward in Totalité et infini (La Haye, 1961) on the encounter with the Other. For further elucidation of this specific point, see Davis, C., Levinas: an Introduction (Cambridge, 1996), 4951Google Scholar.

47 Poggiali repeated a comparison between what the Italians were doing in Africa and what Bolshevism had done in Russia (Diario, p. 195). In the view that he expressed, both were predicated on the annihilation of what went before.

48 Said, E., Culture and Imperialism (London, 1994; first published 1993)Google Scholar.

49 Said, Culture and Imperialism (above, n. 48), 61.

50 Representations of travel to Ethiopia written by British journalists, either on the eve of the Italian invasion or during its progress and immediate aftermath, offer a rich field of inquiry. A number of the correspondents who covered the war for the national dailies, like G.L. Steer of The Times or Mortimer Durand of the Daily Telegraph, published books on the conflict shortly after the invasion was declared to have reached its successful conclusion in May 1936. As the work of Baldoli, C., Exporting Fascism: Italian Fascists and Britain's Italians in the 1930s (Oxford, 2003)Google Scholar has documented (pp. 106–12), a number of right-wing journalists published books and articles that were ready, unambiguously, to defend Italian action in East Africa.