On building memories and personal legacies vol. II: the story, the people

Expanding on my previous post, a few more localized thoughts on memory (this story fascinates me).

Il Monumento alla Resistenza is a work by artist Nino Caruso in memory of the local Resistance movement of World war II. It was erected in 1964 in my hometown, on the 20th of September, for the 20th commemoration of the end of the war in the area, and I never saw it its original context. The monument, an iron casted semicircle with spikes, had been crafted pro bono by the local shipyards workers and was once in a key position – attached to the city center on the border of the old (and I mean XV century old) city walls, close to the train-station and inside a green area.

The aerial picture on the artists’ webpage displays something I never saw in that form because of my age. in fact, a gigantic, disproportioned bridge that goes over the train rails was built in the seventies, deviating the traffic flow and transforming that monument area into a neglected space amidst traffic and right below the new bridge. I myself have been there about 10 times in my entire life. It is loud, it is unpleasant and the monument itself is not a welcoming sight, as the fight it is commemorating was not.

The monument is still visited on the 25th of April, Italy Liberation Day, when official celebrations take place there, but it seems (I do not live there anymore) that lately it had become a dangerous (!) area were migrants would gather – and, my guess, talk? Drink? Eat?

A couple of weeks ago the city mayor (Italian PD National Wunderkind Matteo Ricci) proposed a plan not included in any previous strategic document (as far as I am aware) to improve the security of the area, deteriorated in particular by this collective. It foresaw the removal of the monument, its displacement to an unspecified area of the city to give it more value, and the creation of a parking lot where the monument was.

Feeling a mixed sense of outrage and distress, a group of citizens managed to organize within a few days a sponteanous meeting (that they call congress) in which historians, architects, urbanists. historians of art, members of different collectives spoke against this action and collected 1) over 1000 signatures 2) several alternative proposals for the requalification of the area through urbanistic measure (tunnels connecting that space with a nearby park garden around the above mentioned XV fortified walls, different traffic flows..etc.).

Faced with a mobilization the city had not seen in years, without even the intervention of the authority in charge of heritage monuments (Sovritendenza ai Beni Culturali, that had not been consulted in regard to the possibility at all of moving the monument), the mayor retired the proposal and claimed these people had not understood the potential of his ideas through a Facebook comment.

After the mayor’s communication -reported by many local newspapers obvs- many asked how it was possible that nobody had really cared before for this monument and all of a sudden this had become a major topic on which part of the citizenship had felt the need for protesting. All in all, what the mayor had proposed was to move it somewhere else in order to preserve it.

There were (are?) several factors opposing the collective to the rest of the citizens: the age of the people involved; the personal background; the idea of what heritage is; the idea of what memory is; the idea of civic duty… All these aspects affect the emotional and personal attachment to the monument.

I personally have no attachment to the monument, zero. Despite my lack of attachment, I found it miserable that it was proposed to put a parking lot in there because I do not like cars and I would expect a mayor to consider alternatives to private cars in 2018; additionally, I find despicable for a left wing mayor to exploit and resort to “security” reasons and basically istigating racism against a city collective.

From a scientific point of view I found it immensely interesting.

The same collective that has promoted the initiative for collecting signature is now trying to stick together and plans more actions aimed to tackle certain issues affecting local cultural institutions (or buildings) in different ways. The debates happen on facebook in part: they have constitued private groups for working groups so I can only report on the public ones, which are partially confusing because people are discussing issues that are too different and that would involve many different local institutions entities (Region, City hall, regional health administration etc.). Nonetheless there are several aspects I could identify from far away: the collective is mostly constituted by men, over 60s, convinced that the local policy has decayed over the last 15 years focussing on short term projects that would earn the city hall short term popularity and earnings. Above all they are guided by the deeply rooted principle that the RES PUBLICA is a duty of every citizen and needs to be performed. There is even a noble man owner of an art gallery-hotel that offer to host possible future meetings in the hotel facilities, if needed. The anagraphic distance between them and many other citizens is striking to me, but I haven’t lived there for almost 12 years now so I cannot say much about it.

The whole story is on the edge between pure philantropy and self-made strategic urban planning: the citizenship has declared itself prompt and ready to presents proposals when it disagreed with the local authority but still wanted to cooperate with it.

Discontent ignited initiatives and what was a complaining passive community is shifting into a super active action-oriented collective.

I would like to expand on the different ideas of heritage as they are displayed within this context in another post.

Picture: The former psychiatric hospital of Pesaro right in the city center, August 2018 by me – a huge complex almost entirely abandoned . From time to time at least in my childhood a few cultural events took place there. It is one of the monuments the collective wants public institutions to intervene on.

On building memories and personal legacies vol. I: the context

A few days ago I was in Barcelona attending Triàlegs, in El Born Centre de Cultura i Memòria. Ciutat i Memòria (city and memory, in Catalan) was the ambitious title of the almost three days congress. Here the program, which took me about 15 minutes to find, since it is not linked on the page of the institution which promoted it nor on the one that hosted it. Miracles of the XXI century.

The leitmotiv of all sessions was that the duty to remember exists and must be performed, and among historians, urbanists, philosophers and artists, only a few person were challenging the idea of memory as we generally have inherited it, an intagible entity that must be preserved.

To me it was surreal at moments, because the echo these words created was clashing against the environment. Memory as a univoque, monolithic thing is a very tangible element within El Born, an archeological area cointaining the rests of a urban area of XVIII century Barcelona that got destroyed in the War of Spanish Succession. The area itself generated a debate on how (and if) to preserve it that lasted for years and still is unresolved.. Yet, the conflict that this area caused was suppressed by all the speeches. Nobody addressed where we were although there we were. And the act of building memory, a performative retroactive action, was also only tangentially addressed. I was hoping for much more debate or constrasting experiences but none I got.

While listening to the speech of a representant of the local government in charge of Memory, I realized once again how often politics lacks humilty and tends to oversee details. Memory was described as a civic right towards which local politics is oriented, and it was with pride that it was said that in open public and for the joy of the citizens certain statues or monuments were tore apart or dismanteled. For me it was disturbing to hear it. The apology of Damnatio memoriae, or the elegy of power.

The need for building such discourses scares me. This manichean opposition between Memory and left (and Republic, and even Independence) against Oblivion and right is simple and dissatisfying. And dangerous.

It made seem obvious that it was possible to own memory and the right to impose it as such. The old link between memory and power was there openly displayed.

Who has the right to remove what? How do we build consensus?

In an interesting interview to a few of the speakers of the congress by a local broadcaster, professor Patrizia Dogliani said something in regard to this: collective (=public, as always in this context) memory is not easily achieved: it requires compromise, it must be democratic and must exclude antidemocratic elements / facts. She also adds something extremely relevant: monuments, due to their nature, one that makes them stand as embodiment of everlasting values, should not be relevant and should /can be removed. The conversation on facts, collective memory should take place in museums, lectures, arenas of debate.

This antithetical description of Monuments as static elements that unable the discussion and Museums as dynamics places in which the discussion takes place, is very relevant, as I believe this not to be at all evident to people / citizens / visitors.

Over those same days, a very animated debate on a special monument was taking place in my hometown. Pesaro was the eastern limit of the Gothic line, the defensive line the Germans built in the last months of World war II. As in many Italian and european cities the dreadful memory of those years was remembered visually with street names, plaques and monuments. While I was in Barcelona, some citizens (the vast majority above 60) were organizing themselves as local / civic movement to prevent the mayor to remove the big monument remembering the local resistance.

This event was extremely useful in adding another layer of complexity to the already very tangled relation between heritage and memory, one that I tend to consider less: that of age. And since that place has not really played an important role in the city life lately, the whole story was for me also very important in showing the strategic importance of grief in this specific frame alignment.

I will go further into this Italian story into my next post.

p.s.: The best interventions in my opinion have been those of Ana María Rabe, who brought Latin America right in to the room and shut us iup in 5 minutes describing the invention of heritage and memory in Medellín, and the dialogue between Xavier Ribas and Carles Guerra, because it was pure poetry, an empathic conversation. Check Ribas’ Invisible structure 1 & 2!

Pic: the roof of El Born, summer 2017, by me