Visiting the ghosts of research past

The grave of Piero Gobetti, in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris

The grave of Piero Gobetti, in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris

I was in Paris for a few days at the end of last month and took the opportunity to visit the grave of Piero Gobetti in Pere Lachaise cemetery. I wrote my PhD thesis largely on the figure of Gobetti and published my first book on the subject in 2011. The research for the PhD thesis and book involved spending much time in Turin where the young intellectual had lived most of his life, and I was even lucky enough to be able to study and research in his home and offices, where a research library and archive is now based. However I had never had the chance to visit his grave in Paris and had always been intrigued by the idea of his final resting place.

An early and extremely outspoken critic of the regime, he left Italy in 1926 after his newspaper The Liberal Revolution was shut down by Mussolini, and made his way to Paris where he intended to continue his career as an editor and intellectual. However he died in February 1926, just a few weeks after his arrival in Paris. His health weakened by the violence he had previously suffered at the hands of the fascists. He is thus buried in the city where he died, but with which he had little connection during his life. However as I discovered walking through Pere Lachaise and noticing the names inscribed on tombs and gravestones, he is is in good company as an emigré, many of whom were likely also exiled to Paris for political reasons.

While there was some talk of having Gobetti reburied in Italy in the 1960s, it was decided by his family that his body should remain in Paris. They reasoned that to have him returned to Italy would allow people to gloss too easily over the politics of why he was not originally buried in his home city. However in more recent years, there has been some renewed controversy over the resting place of Gobetti in Paris. Several years ago a new (Berlusconi) government sponsored gravestone was placed in the cemetery in Paris but the wording used to commemorate Gobetti contained no mention of his antifascism or the reasons he had left Italy to die in Paris, effectively erasing his political struggle through commemoration. It was removed and a new one placed in 2011 which gives due regard to Gobetti’s “solitary struggle against fascism”. I’ve written about the memory wars over the Gobetti’s grave in my book, but had only ever seen photos of the spot itself. After so many years reading this young man’s political books and articles as well as his more personal letters and diaries, and even the account books for his journals and publishing house, I thought I should make this one last Gobetti pilgrimage. I was actually in Paris on honeymoon but my historian husband was also quite enthusiastic about the random history-themed diversion. I remember reading that Gobetti himself took some time out of his honeymoon in the south of Italy to visit a group of anti-fascist intellectuals based in Puglia so it seemed doubly fitting!

Since Père Lachaise is quite vast, it took quite a while to find the spot once we arrived there. However the cemetery itself is quite a fascinating place to wander through; filled with a vast number of tombs and gravestones dating from the nineteenth century in an impressive variety of styles; from stylish and beautiful art nouveau tombstones to the grotesquely ornamental. A hooded, slightly larger than life-sized Death guarding one tomb entrance was particularly striking. Another gravestone with an image of a zeppelin was intriguing; what a curious way to want to be remembered.DSCN1260 Gobetti’s grave was starkly plain in contrast; there was no religious symbolism for this ‘revolutionary’ intellectual and the original plaque with his name and dates was not in very good repair. The more recent plaque bore a simple inscription detailing Gobetti’s struggle against fascism and exile in Paris. Some flowers and a small plastic notice from the Paris branch of the Italian National Partisan Association (ANPI) indicated that the grave was not completely forgotten though.

Visiting Gobetti was a slightly strange, but intriguing interlude to our holiday in France. While writing my thesis, I was always conscious that I was writing an intellectual profile of Gobetti, in addition to charting his social and cultural milieu. My task was very different to that of a biographer and I also wanted to distance myself from the many other hagiographic or mythologizing accounts of the young intellectual which emphasises his tragic personal story. By the time I finished my thesis, I had also had enough of the seemingly endless debates and splits among Italian intellectuals of the Left and was ready to move on to a completely different project. Now that I am finished that chapter of my academic career, I find myself more curious about this enigmatic figure whom I both did and yet didn’t get to know during my postgraduate research. After having spent more than four years researching Gobetti, it is probably not surprising that I am still drawn to his story.

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5 thoughts on “Visiting the ghosts of research past

  1. It is interesting to see how easily perceptions can be changed with a plaque and that there are still interested parties guarding the histories 😉 I just found your book in the library. I might actually get to read it this year if I can wrest it off the person who has it! (It will keep me occupied until you write that novel I’ve been waiting for….)

  2. Really enjoyed this post. As someone doing a Ph.D. on Plath, the personality and the death of my chosen subject is ubiquitous to my work! However I try to stop myself thinking about Plath biographically in order to try and seek new ideas about her work. I look forward to a time that, like you, I can revisit my subject in a more relaxing manner!

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