The Great Beauty: Reflections on Berlusconi’s Rome?

UnknownI went to see La Grande Bellezza a couple of weeks ago, and meant to put up the review much sooner than this. Seeing that the film has just been chosen by Italy as the national candidate for Best Language Film at the 2014 Oscars, I figured it was still sort of timely.

After I’d seen the film, I remember leaving the cinema thinking that I liked it, even though I wasn’t entirely sure why. The film is a loud, sprawling epic about Rome, and Italy, with barely any plot; in a device that echoed Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it follows Gep, an ageing writer who no longer writes, as he wanders around his city. read more

Advertisements

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. read more

The importance of being curious…

Pulsar within the remnants of a supernova

Pulsar within the remnants of a supernova

Last Saturday I went to Curious Stories, an event hosted by Dara O’Briain at the Smock Alley Theatre as part of the Dublin Festival of Curiosity. The panel of five speakers, all either researchers in different fields of science or science writers/ communicators, opened the event by telling their own ‘curious story’ about science before taking part in a general discussion about science, scientific research and curiosity in general. Stories both gruesome and fascinating about headless chickens, the discovery of LSD and human guinea pigs in early research on the digestive system thus blended into a wide-ranging discussion of how science research works, the human dimensions of innovation and the need to maintain simple curiosity about the world. read more

‘This is how I dress’: Fashion before the age of mass production

advertisement for Necchi sewing machine, 1960s

advertisement for Necchi sewing machine, 1960s

Ever since I began a research project on dress and fashion in 1950s and 1960s Italy almost four years, I’ve wanted to learn how to sew properly. Reading through magazines filled with patterns, hand-drawn illustrations and advice about sewing new outfits and adapting old clothes, as well as interviewing people about their memories of fashion and dressmaking, gave me a much deeper interest and respect for these crafts. I did a short beginner’s course while I lived in Milan – and realised that the most challenging part is learning how to thread the sewing machine! – and now that I’ve moved back to Dublin, I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a sewing machine and teach myself how to use it properly, this autumn.

While I’ve been away though, it seems like everyone else has been catching on to the sewing trend too; there are sewing classes cropping up all around Dublin and new books on sewing and DIY fashion are on display everywhere. Knitting of course has been popular for quite a few years now, something that Australians didn’t quite seem to realise given the recent controversy over Knitted Kangaroo-Gate. Why is it that the idea of making, wearing and displaying hand-crafted clothes and home furnishings is becoming so popular again, at a time when mass-produced fashion is still readily available and affordable? Is it that several years of recession are changing our attitudes to dress, making us better attuned to the quality of a garment and how it is made and less appreciative of disposable fashion? It doesn’t really cost less to sew clothes rather than buy them, but it could be seen as the less wasteful, ethical choice. Most people presumably are also sewing as a hobby, and never intend to dress themselves entirely by hand.

In my research on dress in post-war Italy, people’s experiences of dressmaking were of course entirely different. read more

Does historical fiction make better history?

images

Recently I finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, a book I’d been meaning to read for ages and finally got around to. I’d expected it to be good, but it was even better than I’d heard. I loved the writing, really clear and straightforward but which drew you into the story completely. But more than that, I finished it thinking that this was the one of the best books I’d read about twentieth century European history, despite never claiming to be a history book. Free from the imperative to appear detached and analytical, the book drew me completely into the worlds it was describing, from belle époque Paris to inter-war Vienna and finally post-war Japan. Since the author is an artist, his concentration on the material is crucial; the Japanese netsuke from which the ceramic figure of the hare is drawn are central to the narrative, but it extends beyond these. His focus on how the places and spaces and objects he describes are lived in and experienced gives the cities and homes he describes a materiality they might otherwise lack. Vienna in particular, was a place and a history I didn’t know in too much detail, but de Waal’s attention to the way that the streets outside the Ephrussi family’s palatial residence sounded and looked like – from the rowdy crowds of students singing bellicose songs after the outbreak of war in 1914 to the pomp of the emperor Franz Joseph I’s funeral cortege passing by in 1916 – gave a sense of what it was actually like to live through these times. I felt I understood the history of twentieth century Vienna and of European Jewish culture much better than I had before. read more

Carlo Ginzburg and the ‘euphoria of ignorance’: Thinking about how to do history

cover

‘What do you imagine God to be?… God is    nothing but a breath’. The sixteenth century Italian miller Menocchio’s words seem astonishing to the twenty-first century reader in their strength, coherence and imagination in conceptualising an idea of the world radically different to that of the strict Counter-Reformation Catholicism of his small Italian village. Menocchio came before the Inquisition because someone had finally reported him after long years of preaching his dangerous ideas to anyone in the village who would listen. He believed that God was in nature and the world rather than a sentient celestial being, rejected the immortality of the soul and thought the Church was deeply corrupt. It is his description of the creation of the universe using a metaphor drawn from everyday life – cheese-making and maggots – that gives the book its title and illustrates the deep thought and peasant-like earthiness that his words combined: ‘I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels’.

The long transcript of his initial interrogations and trial as a heretic means that the workings of his astonishing mind have been preserved thanks – ironically – to the meticulous record-keeping of the Inquisition. However it is of course Carlo Ginzburg who uncovered his story, recognised its power and painstakingly reconstructed Menocchio’s mental and social universe, revealing the currents of thought and writing he encountered in his life in an effort to understand might have prompted him to form such radical opinions.

Books like Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘The Cheese and the Worms’ make me wish I was an early modern historian. Sometimes contemporary history feels just that bit too familiar and I am envious of the potential in a story like Menocchio’s to illuminate the social, cultural and intellectual workings of a world as distant as that of sixteenth-century rural Italy. It is of course to Ginzburg’s credit that he managed to do this with such skill and imagination, creating a new type of history writing – the micro-history – in the process. When Carlo Ginzburg spoke in conversation with Filippo De Vivo at the Italian Cultural Institute, London last week, he spoke at length about his long career as a historian from his research on witchcraft in the 1960s to his more recent time at UCLA. Hearing him talk about his own approach to research as well as the future potential of micro-history, I also began to think about the ways that I approach research and history writing in my own work. read more

Love and Courtship in the time of Franco: Growing up in Catholic Spain

Unknown   Continuing my exploration of the themes of love        courtship and growing up in post-war Europe, on my reading list in the British Library this week was Carmen Martín Gaite’s book, Courtship customs in postwar Spain. Best known for her novels about post-war and contemporary Spain, through which she manages to explore both the experiences of living in and remembering life in Franco’s Spain, this is a different, even an odd sort of book. It is both a non fiction account of coming of age in 1940s and 1950s Spain, and an attempt to write a history of the collective experiences of one’s own generation. First published in Spanish in 1987, it’s unusual too in that Gaite focuses her attentions completely on the private sphere, on love, courtship and especially on the lives of girls and young women, in her portrait of the first generation to grow up and come of age under Francoism. It’s only more recently that, as far as I have found anyway, historians have begun to pay serious attention to themes like this when looking at the history of twentieth century Europe, and life in fascist societies. Even though themes of gender and women’s lives have been a concern for much longer, the spheres of private life, intimacy and expectations about love are only recently getting the attention they deserve. read more

Coming of age in Catholic Ireland: Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl

43Edna_OBrien_294633kI finished reading Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl on the plane back to Milan last week. Considering      how much      the memoir is bound up with place, spiralling out from rural Clare to Dublin, London and further afield and coming back again (sort of) to Ireland, it seemed fitting to be reading it while on my own travels. Having read a couple of the original Country Girls novels a few years ago, I was really curious to read the book for the insights it might offer into living in 1950s Ireland. Edna O’Brien was also born in 1930, her life spanning the same years as my ‘post-war generation’ of Italians coming of age in the 1950s, although Ireland was quite a different place to Italy, with its experience of economic boom and rapid social change in the late 1950s and 1960s. read more

Confessions of a wannabe early modernist…

Watching television at the bar in 1950s Italy

Watching television at the bar in 1950s Italy

I’ve been thinking lately about why certain historical periods seem to get all the attention. For the topics I’m most interested in – emotions, fashion, the city and gendered spaces, consumption – much of the recent scholarly attention focuses on the early modern period. Some of the most exciting work – the studies that try to reconceptualise history and look for new ways of examining how people’s minds, lives, living spaces and communities worked – seems to be happening there. While I love reading great books and articles that are outside my period – the more different and apparently random the better sometimes – I do wonder, as a contemporary historian, why so much of the innovation seems to be happening in much earlier centuries. read more