We spoke with author Serenella Iovino about her new book in the Environmental Cultures series, her research in ecocriticism, and Italy's place in the current eco-global debate:
What inspired you to write about Italy’s landscapes from an ecocritical point-of-view?
For better or for worse, Italy is every so often seen through the lens of clichés. But the truth is that Italy’s landscapes and “ecological bodies“ ooze stories that outflow these commonplace representations, and many of these stories deserve to be told. These are stories of ancient calamities and of their intermittent memory—as in the case of the volcanic eruption that erased Pompeii in 79 AD and that is still a subterranean threat today; stories of “maldevelopment“—as in the more recent instances of Venice/Marghera, Naples, or industrial Piedmont; stories in which environmental catastrophes occur within the context of corrupt politics—and here the earthquakes in Irpinia or L’Aquila are perfect examples. But there are also stories of resistance, transformation, and redemption coming from these and many other wounded places. The inspiration for this book came from the attempt to see how literary and artistic imagination could merge with the stories inscribed in Italy’s ecological bodies and landscapes taken as “material texts.” The idea was that this combination of narrative angles could liberate the eco-political “stories of resistance” dispersed on Italy’s body. It was not an easy task, but the methodological flexibility of ecocriticism and of the environmental humanities offered me a useful framework to capture this complexity.
Did anything surprise you as you were doing the research for this book? Did the work make you look at any of these landscapes in a new way?
The most surprising thing to me, while working at Ecocriticism and Italy, was to see the revelatory power of environmental stories. These stories can create coalitions, they can reinforce and recreate identities, helping people to see hidden connections across spaces and temporalities, and to reinforce their claims for justice.
Let me make one example. I live in the Cuneo area, the “most partisan“ province of Italy in the Resistance struggle against Nazi-Fascism. Today this landscape, a huge portion of which was declared a World Heritage site by Unesco in 2014, speaks of labor and beauty. It is the landscape of taste and “eco-gastronomy” in which Slow Food, now globally so popular, has its roots. However, as recently as twenty or twenty-five years ago, this was quite a depressed area, populated by poor peasants and exploited women and children. I believe that the reason of this renaissance is that those once “defeated“ people, who used to see themselves as if they were scattered leaves or pebbles, were solicited to tell their stories, and hence to become aware of themselves, of what they were and possessed. We owe all this mainly to Nuto Revelli (1919-2004), a former partisan chief, who, from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, collected several hundred testimonies and published them in two of his books, Il mondo dei vinti e L’anello forte. This oeuvre—one of Italy’s most significant archives of oral and environmental history—conveys the voices of these people and of these landscapes, and cannot be read if not through a constant reference to Piedmont’s “ecologies of resistance.” Slow Food, as a discourse of liberation, was enabled by this very vision. Writing Ecocriticism and Italy gave me the opportunity to see these connections and to consider these stories as symbolic of wider realities.
The cover of Ecocriticism and Italy is a photo of the Cretto di Gibellina installation by Alberto Burri – can you tell us about that and how it reflects the themes of your book?
Burri’s Cretto is a memorial artwork for the earthquake that destroyed a vast area of North-Western Sicily in 1968. Created by covering with a cast of concrete the ruins of Gibellina, it captures the voice of that hurt landscape, almost turning its silence into a rock-hard cry. This cry is the expression of an open wound, which involves both humans and the land. “Wound” is a recurring word in my book, and I will try to explain what I mean for this. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” The problem with these wounds is that they might escape the eyes of most “ecologically unaware” people: “Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen,” Leopold observed. For an instinctive association of ideas, my mind recalls the title of an enigmatic and striking artwork by Joseph Beuys, Zeige deine Wunde, Show your Wound (1976). Beuys’s artwork was, significantly, conceived when the artist was living in Rome, experiencing there the turmoil and anxieties of Italy’s so-called “Years of Lead.” Even if Beuys’s creations usually have a personal background, there is in this work an outbreak of the impersonal. As he declared: “in this concert of objects, it is not I who speak; the things have their own inner language.” The wound to be exposed here is not that of an individual. It is an eminently political one. Show your wound / in a world of wounds: this synthesis means for me that exposing our pain, making it visible, is a move towards healing, and this is the only way to overcome the feeling of loneliness and frustration invoked by Leopold. The wounds we are talking about are the ones of the impersonal (lands, seas, cities, cells), but also the wounds that are transferred from the body of the world to our bodies, from the mind of living things to our mind, through that cognitive filter that Leopold calls “an ecological education.” Ecocriticism and Italy is both the exposition and the reading of a landscape of wounds. If a wound is the sign of violence or pain, showing it is a way to resist to such violence. Reading this wound and the bodies it affects, and interpreting all this as a complex of signs, is a practice of liberation.
Which is the role of the environmental humanities in the current eco-global debate and which is the contribution that a book on Italy can give to this discourse?
It has often been repeated that the industrial era has eventually ushered in a time called “Anthropocene,” a period in the earth’s history when the human has become a geological force. If the human is a geological force, then the Anthropocene “body politic” is not the same as it was before: it includes the built environment as well as forests, body cells as well as vegetation and fauna, domestic animals and melting glaciers; it entails issues of political freedoms and individual wellbeing, as well as energy democracy and global pollution. In the age of the Anthropocene, “body politic” is a collective of agents and of processes, themselves resulting from collective agencies and dynamics. It is the earth, in its geological, chemicals and biological cycles. The environmental humanities, as a wide and intersectional discourse, are the only approach able to describe and explain these phenomena; they provide the only suitable coordinates to sketching a map of the Anthropocene. Italy’s landscapes are a symbolic segment of the Anthropocene’s map. In their limited scope, they offer interesting access points to read these new post-geological landscapes on a vaster scale. This is why Ecocriticism and Italy is not just a book about Italy, but primarily a book about the environmental humanities in theory and practice taking Italy as a starting point, as a case study. Ultimately, this book is my way to expose the voices and stories emerging from the Anthropocene starting with those closer to my personal experience. This is not an individual statement, but a wish to create alliances.
Serenella Iovino is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Turin, Italy. She is a past president of the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and Environment (EASLCE) and author of Ecocriticism and Italy: Ecology, Resistance, and Liberation, now available from Bloomsbury. Her previous books include Ecologia Letteraria (2006) and, as co-editor, Material Ecocriticism (2014).