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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rome's Worst Public Sculptures: Nominees, Group 2

Exhale.  Continue on down via delle Sette Chiese, around the curve to where it dead-ends at via Ostiense.  Move ahead into the Park L. Schuster, and right, north toward the Centro.  Here you'll find one of our sculpture nominees. It's nothing to write home about, but then that's the theme of this post. More monoliths, as if invoking Stonehenge was all that was required of an artist. Hugging both sides of a walkway, the pieces seem to suggest passage, but to what? The road beyond? A flower bed? We don't know who made this, but then, do we need to?

A short walk south, beyond the Basilica San Paolo and a few meters to the left, is the San Paolo stop on Metro B.  Take the Metro to the end of the line--Laurentina--after the line curls around EUR.  Emerging from below, you'll find yourself in a piazza of sorts.  At the far end is the sculpture--this one a sculpture/monument.  We'll mute our humor here, because the subject of the work could not be more serious.  Dating from February, 2003, it is dedicated "To the martyrs of Istria, Venezia-Giulia, Fiume, and Dalmatia, 'infoibati' and drowned for their love of liberty and of Italy (1943-1947)."  Although every aspect of the events being memorialized here is controversial, what is clear is that at least hundreds and probably several thousand (perhaps as many as 20,000) Italian soldiers and civilian citizens were massacred--summarily executed--between 1943 and 1949, in the areas mentioned--especially the massive Istrian peninsula--mainly by Yugoslav Partisans seeking to cleanse these areas of ethnic and political populations likely to oppose Communist Yugoslav rule.  In some cases, the motive was revenge for years of repression of the slavic population under Italian Fascism.  (During the interwar years, Istria was part of Italy). 

We have set off the word "infoibati" because it bears so importantly on these events.  The word derives from "foibe," a word that appears in the Bepi Nider poem, "Istria," that accompanies the sculpture (see verse at right).  Foibe refers to a particular type of deep sinkhole for which the area was known.  Some of those murdered, though by no means all, were thrown alive into the "foibe," there to end their lives in the most horrific way.  So powerful is the image that the word foibe (and infoibati, the verb) has come to have a larger, symbolic meaning: to refer to all those who were killed and disappeared in the Yugoslav-occupied territories.  So the killings are often referred to as the "Foibe killings" or "Foibe massacres."

It is remarkable that the commemorative assemblage that we see before us exists at all.  Not until 1991, when Slovenia became independent, was there an investigation of the foibe by any country or international body.  The Italian government was reluctant to bring up the subject because to do so would have meant raising issues of Italian treatment of slavic populations under Fascism.  The Italian Left was equally reluctant to acknowledge the role of Communist partisans in the foibe killings.  Early in the new century there was a change, and both Berlusconi's center-right coalition and the Left, under the leadership of Walter Veltroni,  agreed that it was time to make some effort to come to terms with the events of the 1940s.  "The time has come," said Italian President Ciampi, "for thoughtful remembrance to take the place of bitter resentment." 

Edvard Munch, "The Scream," 1893
We can appreciate the monument as part of this remembering and healing process.  But the sculpture, and Nider's poem, seem less about healing than about remembering the horrors of the foibe, of a slow death in a deep cave.  That seems to be the purpose of the humanoid shapes that dominant the monument, figures of agony, screaming in disbelief at what is being done to them.  Complicating the presentation, these tortured souls seem both derivative--some version of Edvard Munch's much-publicized "Scream" series, painted between 1893 and 1910--and curiously unreal and even comical or gay, akin to shouting flowers. 

It should be said that few such commemorative efforts have the power to evoke powerfully loss and tragedy; Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the tribute to those who died in the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome, are exceptions to that rule.  The monument to the Istrian massacres and the foibe killings is not at that level, and its location in an unattractive piazza at the end of the subway line works to deprive the sculpture of any profundity it might otherwise have.


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