Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra, guest editors of Italian American Review Special Issue, answer questions on their biggest influences, interesting takeaways, and advice to scholars.
Q: What were the initial steps involved in bringing this special issue to life?
We have been collaborating for several years on various research and publication initiatives that involved several of the themes presented in this work; as a result this special issue on the theme of “Monuments, Memorials, and Italian Migrations” emerged to some degree from that previous work. Those related projects we worked on together involved public commemorations, museum spaces, memory work, and material culture.
While we come from different academic backgrounds—cultural studies and film studies for Laura, and folkloristics and performance studies for Joseph—we are both deeply committed to understanding the culture and politics of Italian migrations, especially to the United States. Our research and writing, as with that of other colleagues working in this area, situates Italian migrations in global, transnational, and diasporic perspectives cognizant of emigration from and immigration to Italy, as well as the movements wrought from Italian colonial and fascist imperial enterprises. This approach informed our two-volume anthology New Italian Migrations to the United States (2017) for University of Illinois Press, in which we brought together scholars from various disciplines (e.g., history, political science, literary studies) who wrote about the little-studied topic of Italian migration to the United States from 1945 to present day.
Our overlapping research on material culture studies at the intersect of Italian migrations set the stage for our current collaboration and deeply informed our approach. About a decade ago we began writing a critical survey examining approaches to material culture studies within an Italian mobility, with a precise focus on the history of Italians in the United States. That article, “Italian American Stuff: A Survey of Material Culture, Migration, and Ethnicity,” was eventually published in Italian in 2021 and is forthcoming in English this year. In that article we looked at five sites of Italian American material culture: the home, architecture, landscapes, monuments, and museums. We followed that work with an article we wrote together focusing on Italian American museums and the ways in which objects and narratives are organized and displayed in amateur and professionally curated spaces (also published both in English and Italian).
Those articles, to some degree, laid the groundwork for looking at monuments from an Italian American perspective, especially given the ongoing anti-colonial and anti-racist activism and scholarship around the figure of Christopher Columbus. We were invited to collaborate on two Process History blog pieces on the Columbus controversy (in 2017 and 2020). We developed that research into our co-authored article “‘Columbus might be dwarfed to obscurity’: Italian Americans’ Engagement with Columbus Monuments in a Time of Decolonization” in a 2020 collection looking at memory, monuments, and transnational migrations edited by the late Sabine Marschall. Our involvement with that publication very directly encouraged us to go deeper, to look beyond Columbus, and ultimately to take on this transnational approach to Italian migrations and monuments.
The heightened interest in these interconnected topics is evident in the overwhelming response we received to our 2020 call for papers. Forty abstracts were submitted proposing topics spanning from Africa, Europe, North America, and South America, with the great majority involving the United States. We requested ten articles, which went through review first by the two of us as guest editors and then by two outside, anonymous peer reviewers. The final four articles chosen involve public statues and commemorative markers made from 1904 to 2007 in Argentina, Egypt, and the United States.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
Historian Donna Gabaccia’s groundbreaking Italy’s Many Diasporas (2000) has been influential for us, and a host of other scholars working on Italian migration, because of its coverage of temporal and geographic points of references. Her work helps consider Italian migrations beyond the focus of a single country, like the United States, and to understand how Italian migration—thirty million people emigrating from 1876 to 2010—is part of a global system of movement concerning intertwined political, economic, and cultural factors and attributes.
Kirk Savage’s Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves (1997/2018) was an important work for us to think critically about how systems of power converge around the aesthetics and politics of commemorative objects.
Sabine Marschall, to whom we dedicate our introductory essay, and her work on public monuments, memorials, and migrations inspired us especially in how we think about the role of memory in relation to public spaces and community identities.
Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s theoretical discussions around decolonizing academic work was central in how we position Italian migration history in relation to broader issues of settler colonialism and racialized discursive practices.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while working on this issue?
The role of Fascism on diasporic Italian communities is one that has long been explored by various scholars but understanding how those relationships were worked out through monuments, memorials, and other commemorative objects and spaces was particularly exciting one to learn about. Two articles in this special issue directly address this history in enlightening and novel ways: Stefano Giannini’s “Places of Memory and Struggles for Identities: Ernesto Verrucci’s 1938 Monument to Khedive Ismail in Alexandria, Egypt,” and Fraser M. Ottannelli’s “‘Mussolini’s Column’: Fascist Memorials and the Politics of Italian American Identity in Chicago.”
Our own research also uncovered complicated histories with respect to Fascism and the continued commemoration of Columbus in the United States vis-a-vis the artist Vittorio di Colbertaldo, one of Mussolini’s former bodyguards who contributed to Fascist-themed art work, and who designed Columbus monuments for Miami and San Francisco. He was commissioned by Americans not before World War II but in the 1950s and funded by community members and political leaders.
Q: What myths do you hope this issue will dispel or what do you hope it will help readers unlearn?
Monuments, memorials, and other commemorative sites from the past have come under increasing scrutiny as being situated in systems of power whereby a select few elites with access to political connections, financial resources, and cultural capital historically distilled and promoted hegemonic ideas as universal, be they notions of colonial settlement, militaristic patriotism, patriarchal inequities, and/or white supremacy. As such with this special issue we attempt to unpack the various factors at play in the creation, maintenance, and interpretation involving transnational and transcultural Italian artistry, craft, and identity. From our perspective, this historical engagement with the artistic rendering of celebrated individuals and allegorical figures is no longer a straightforward story of contributions made by Italian immigrant artisans and the ethnic community at large. We see this problematizing of standard histories come out in the specifics addressed in two article in the volume: Joan Saverino’s “Memorials and the Mine Disaster in Monongah, West Virginia: From Trauma to an Italian Global Memoryscape” where she unpacks the cultural politics of what she refers to as “transnational memory” around the planning, design, installation and commemorative use of various memorials; and in Heather Sottong’s contribution “‘Hero of Two Worlds’: The Equestrian Monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi in Buenos Aires, Argentina,” which considers how one monument came to be used to reinforce and promote a European-grounded identity for Argentina at the expense of Indigenous, Black, or creole experiences.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from this special issue?
We frame the convergence of monuments and Italian migrations around the current praxis of decolonizing comfortable narratives. This critical space with respect to the position of Italian migrations and power centers around three interrelated concepts: global mobilities, settlement, and racialized differentiations. In placing migration at the core, if not the boundaries of the scholarship on monuments, we here consider multiple points of intersection through which one might approach the Italy-migration-monument trifecta, toggling between them in our effort to understand better the cultural and political power expressed by the seeming permanence of bronze and marble.
Q: What is your advice to scholars who want to take on a similar guest editor project?
Such work will always benefit from editors who are patient and well organized—edited collections require a lot of back and forth between contributors and editors. We sent out the Call for Papers for this special issue in February 2020—at the cusp of the lockdown in the United States—and it took two years of writing, editing, and communicating with all the parties involved for the final publication. Editors also need to be open to adjusting their own assumptions about a topic based on what the respective authors bring to the subject. We learned so much from our contributors who entrusted us with their work!
Laura E. Ruberto is a professor of humanities in the Arts and Cultural Studies Department at Berkeley City College. She is the author of Gramsci, Migration, and the Representation of Women’s Work in Italy and the U.S. Joseph Sciorra is Director for Academic and Cultural Programs at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College, CUNY. He is the author of Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City. Together, Ruberto and Sciorra edited the 2017 two-volume anthology New Italian Migrations to the United States: Vol. 1: Politics and History Since 1945 and Vol. 2: Art and Culture Since 1945 for University of Illinois Press.