+ Fluid Heritage
A House of Repair? On Self-Managed Spaces, Queer Heritage and Experimental Preservation in Palermo’s Casa del Mutilato
by Carlota Mir

Essay overview
Our research, which was originally planned as part of DAAS’ public intervention and collective Dossier for Experimental Preservation of the fascist building Casa del Mutilato for Manifesta ’12 in Palermo, concerns self-managed cultural spaces in Palermo’s 1990s as forms of queer heritage[1]. Alongside curator Rado Istok, I conducted research on Palermo-based LGBTQ+ bookshop Altroquando, placing its history within the context of the city. The essay concludes with a speculative proposal for a new use of the building by Palermo’s queer community which, among other initiatives, could permanently host the Biblioteca Autogestita Salvatore Rizzuto Adelfio (Self-Managed Library Salvatore Rizzuto Adelfio), which was inaugurated in 2016 in Altroquando’s new space. Simultaneously conceived as a memorial space, a cultural archive and a space of open encounter for the community, the “fumetteria” and library currently subsists in precarious conditions which depend on constant negotiation with local authorities to continue occupying the abandoned space of the Fiera Mediterranea on the outskirts of Palermo. The proposal was conceived as part of a pilot “Coalition for the Re-Use of Fascist Architecture”, held at Casa del Mutilato, in Palermo, in the context of Decolonizing Architecture’s collective research and public programme at Manifesta’12.

Problematising Heritage: The Case of Palermo
Heritage is not neutral. Indeed, notions of heritage are entirely political. Looking at Palermo from the perspective of its recent UNESCO nomination, it becomes evident that ‘heritage value’ is used in order to convey a sense of authority through global legitimation and a sense of common identity through the narration of an imagined common past. UNESCO heritage gives legitimacy to a specific identity or ‘lived fiction’ erected around specific cultural, architectural, artistic or anthropological assets, thus consolidating, asserting, and enlarging a city, a community or a nation’s cultural capital.
In the case of Palermo, UNESCO nomination narratives gravitate around notions of Palermo as a multicultural historic city: «Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale bear witness to a particular political and cultural condition characterized by the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard, and French). This interchange generated a conscious and unique combination of elements derived from the architectural and artistic techniques of Byzantine, Islamic, and Western traditions»[2].
But as Jorge Otero-Pailos argues, «the authorized heritage discourse focuses on aesthetically pleasing material objects, sites, places and/or landscapes that current generations ‘must’ care for, protect and revere» (Pailos 2018). This practice excludes inconvenient objects, customs, identities or histories which can contradict the official narrative in anyway or visibilise the production costs of specific political and cultural regimes – which  often amount to technologies of oppression, repression, destruction, extraction, or war. Indeed, we could speculate that Fascist heritage belongs to the latter category.
Thinking of queer heritage is useful for dismantling conventional notions of heritage in Palermo in which gender and sexuality have been completely overlooked. Queering historical heritage, particularly the naturalized and depoliticized Fascist legacy of the city, and questioning the surgical processes behind the making of the 20th century healthy, masculine national body allows us to unpick a series of erasures that have a lot to do with one another. Through speculatively placing current claims for queer heritage in the context of the Modernist, fascist building of Casa del Mutilato, which, like many other Modernist buildings built in Italy under Mussolini, is currently in a state of decay and bankruptcy, this research aims to act as a catalyst for a process of architectural ‘queering’ and historical repair which can make visible the historical oppression and erasure suffered by the queer community under Mussolini. At the same time, we aimed to make a case for the absence of a queer narrative in the city’s heritage, whose value has been publicly recognized through its recent UNESCO nomination. In so doing, our research mobilizes a queer perspective as part of a multi-layered process aimed at unveiling the connections between Modernism, Fascism and colonialism in Europe, whilst speculating on possible projects of architectural de-modernization and radical redefinitions of heritage. Our collective proposal for critical re-use of the Casa del Mutilato – a fascist building designed by Giuseppe Spatrisano and inaugurated by Benito Mussolini in 1936  – took the form of a public programme and an architectural intervention onsite; a prosthesis to the Casa del Mutilato acted as a tool to reorient the future uses of the building and pragmatically start a much needed restoration process. Placed within this lager framework, our speculative research aimed to dig into the untold histories of queer Palermo as legitimate forms of heritage which should be officially recognized, as well as devising possible interventions for the re-use of colonial-fascist architecture by, and for communities that directly or indirectly have been affected by past and present forms of fascism and colonization.

Fig 1. Casa del Mutilato, Palermo, June 2018. Outdoor View, Casa del Mutilato, June 2018.Source: DAAS.
Fig. 2. View, inner courtyard, Casa del Mutilato. Source: DAAS.
Fig. 3. ‘Whoever is with us is with our Fatherland’ Mutilees depicted on tapestry shown in the building’s central patio during its 1939 inaguration. Source: ANMIG.

Undoing Fascist Heritage: Casa del Mutilato as a Prosthesis of Hegemonic Masculinity
Casa del Mutilato [figs 1, 2, 3] was designed as a Modernist temple of martyrdom; a monument to honour the Italian soldiers of World War I. Besides the moral and physical assistance it provided to the mutilated soldiers, the building also worked symbolically as a monument to the notions of victory and sacrifice. Through espousing these notions, fascism encompassed a process of sacralization of politics in space. (DAAS 2018) Full of inscriptions, the building can be experienced as a reading event that narrates the triumphant history of the Italian Empire under Fascism, emphasizing the value of sacrifice alongside the country’s colonial victories in Ethiopia. Indeed, these “mutilee houses” or “Case del Mutilato”, which are common throughout the country, can be understood as a multi-legged architectural technology, a series of architectural protheses of hegemonic masculinity implemented throughout the country with the aim to restore and preserve the colonial, heterosexual symbolic order in Italy.
Currently run by fascist-born ANMIG, the Associazione Nationale fra Mutilati e Invalidi di Guerra, the building is in a state of semi-dereliction and remains closed to the public, except for a fraction of the building which is used as a public court, yet it conserves much of the original furniture in its different rooms [figs 4 and 5]. The square building consists of two main rooms, a large underground space with easy access from outside and another spacious room to host ceremonies, the office of the association and enough space to accommodate assistance departments for the war invalids.

Figs. 4 and 5. Interior of association’s offices, December 2017. Source: DAAS.

The photographs, texts, and various objects contained in the building’s offices display key events and personalities in the building’s history as part of Italy’s Fascist past. In our preliminary visit to the building in December 2017, the association, whom agreed to collaborate with us in the project by allowing for temporary use of the space, had notoriously erased its Fascist alignment from its official discourse, promoting instead a depoliticised aim to “preserve peace” that justified its existence today (interview, 2017). Indeed, the current state of Casa del Mutilato is highly indicative of the situation of many Modernist buildings which were erected under fascism: invested with singular architectural value, yet deprived of funds, new uses, public ownership, or function, they appear as paraletic, almost zombie-like infrastructures in modern-day Italy. In other words, their very presence poses the burning question of how to move forward, and on what terms.
For this aim, using “queering” as a main tool of experimental preservation is extremely useful. As the verb form of queer, queering can refer to the act of taking something and looking at it through a lens that makes it strange or troubles it in some way. As Thelathia “Nikki” Young argues, queering is a way to deconstruct the logics and frameworks operating within old and new theological and ethical concepts, dismantling the dynamics of power and privilege persisting among diverse subjectivities (Young 2012). Seen from a queer lens, one could argue that the very symbolic presence and visual representations of the mutilees’ abject bodies undermine Fascist ideals of masculine cleanliness and imperial civilisation. Instead, and following Julia Kristeva, these abject bodies are «subversive by definition» (Kristeva 1982), their vulnerability and fragility involuntarily queering the nationalist, conservative gender norms that produced the buildings in the very beginning and questioning the ‘cleanliness’ of self-sacrifice as a manly act of endurance and self control.
Queers, dykes, and trans people are a complete failure in the writing of normative gendered scripts – and so are mutilees and disabled bodies. What if, then, following this logic of intersectional abjection, we undertook the experimental preservation of Palermo’s Casa del Mutilato taking into consideration the abject bodies that are placed at the very core of its being as a central point of its meaning? What if we made them speak of the violent absences present in fascist ‘heritage’, of what it means to live under a heterosexist, colonial, binary regime? Can we activate Casa del Mutilato as a building that can host within it local forms of queer heritage-as-resistance, perhaps passing the building on to be used as a public space or the headquarters of a series of grassroots LGBTQ initiatives in the city, but also other minorized collectives, such as migrants, differently abled bodies, or sex workers? Could we have, as Paul B Preciado suggests, an intersectional parliament of abject bodies that works collectively in order to effectively challenge the dominant biopolitical and tanatopolitical, regimes?

On Palermo’s Queer Heritage: Altroquando

We are the product of the systematic erasure
of subaltern modes of knowledge around the body.
Paul B Preciado, The Death of the Clinic?, 2012

LGBTQ+ cultures have little tradition or historiographic support: they have been denied the intellectual instruments for self–reflection, preservation and development of their history and cultural values. Queer modes of knowledge around the body and sexuality have been routinely erased from Art History and History altogether. Throughout our research, we came to see Palermo as a city of many contrasts and tensions, where political and social avant-garde and deep provincialism live next door to each other. In terms of queer history, despite having been a pioneering city in Italy in terms of minority rights and initiatives, the city’s account of its own contemporary history remains completely oblivious to this reality. For example, Palermo is home to Arcigay, the first LGBTQ+ association in Italy, which was founded in 1980 by activists Gino Campanella and his partner Massimo Milano, prominent activists in the city whom we had the pleasure to meet. «Palermo’s biggest shortcoming is that it does not historicise itself, and it refuses its own children» said prominent LGBTQ+ activist Salvatore Rizzuto, founder of queer fumetteria Altroquando, another key space in the city. «Although Palermo’s is an incredibly fertile ground in terms of culture, we tend to forget that the things we do in the city are important, so we just forget them. The city becomes ahistorical and cruel to its children» (Picchi chi è, 2014).
When evoking the “fascist heritage” of Palermo from a queer perspective, the city seems to carry the weight of a myriad violent absences. The strict, utilitarian gender binary which would turn men into warriors and women into birthing machines saw queerness as a complete abomination of all Fascist ideals. Queerness, was, then, particularly troublesome, and a reason for exile and extermination, as the deportation of queer men to the island of San Domino in 1939 shows (Isola Nuda, 2009).

Fig. 6. Portrait of Salvatore Rizzuto in Altroquando, Palermo. Source: Filippo Messina

Figures 7 and 8. stills from original Altroquando on 143 Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, Palermo. Source: Altroquando

However, the mid-20th century in Palermo saw the birth of tireless activists whose work, has contributed to the well-being of the contemporary queer community in Italy and beyond, and whose legacy have left a deep and long-lasting impact in the collective imaginary of Palermo and its inhabitants. One key actor in this tissue is Salvatore Rizzuto [fig 6], founder of cultural space Altroquando. Salvatore Rizzuto Adelfio (1951-2013) was a thinker, activist and LGBTQ referent in Palermo. A loved and dearly missed character in the city’s public and affective life, he was forced to leave Italy in his youth for refusing to do the military service and subsequently became the first conscientious objector in the country on the grounds of being a homosexual. A visible queer belonging to bear culture and a pioneer, in 1991 he founded Altroquando [figs 7 and 8], a “fumetteria” or self-managed comic library and bookshop originally located in Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, one of Palermo’s main arteries, and a complete novelty in 90’s Palermo. Currently transformed into the “Libreria Autogestita Salvatore Rizzuto Adelfio” a library and a cultural centre and relocated to the TMO, a multi-legged countercultural initiative located in the abandoned exhibition complex of the Fiera Mediterranea, the space is one island in a constellation of self-managed cultural production centres located in the old fair, whose remarkable cultural is submerged in a complex legal battle against eviction from the premises.
In the words of his lifelong partner and co-owner of Altroquando Filippo Messina, «Altroquando was not only a library: it became a weird creature, a flagship of a different way of thinking and sharing. For us, opening up every day was a powerful way of doing politics» (Interview, 2017). Messina has been running the space on his own following Salvatore’s death from cancer in 2013. [Fig. 10] Messina welcomed us into Altroquando’s new space in December 2017, and he spoke to us about the space and its significance in Palermo, the powerful memory of his partner Salvatore, their life together, and running Altroquando as a way to preserve his memory, his legacy, and his commitment to the city’s grassroots resistance movements.

Fig. 9. Interior of new Altroquando, Palermo, December 2017. Source: Authorfig. 9]
Fig. 10. Filippo Messina and Salvatore Adelfio in old Altroquando with their erotic gay ‘bear’ zine ‘Woof’. Source: Still from 2014 documentary ‘Picchi chi è?’ by Giuseppe Carleo

Altroquando is an example of the ways in which self-managed cultural spaces, and particularly feminist and queer bookshops and libraries, became fundamental nodes of sexual resistance in post-dictatorial Italy, not only because they were centres of production and distribution of feminist and queer imagery, art, and text, but because they nurtured the relationships and support networks that enabled queer existence and sexual resistance in the city. Accoring to Messina, Altroquando became since the beginning a “centre for LGBTQ listening”, and a “haven”, and following its success, another branch would open up in Rome years later. Browsing through Salvatore’s collection of self-published erotic zines on gay bear culture, a couple of kids casually eavesdropping and hiding behind their comics in the background, he tells us that, since the beginning, people would come to Altroquando and talk about their daily struggles in a way that was impossible in all normative spaces in the city. Indeed, Altroquando functions as an open space of healing and caring, a bubble, and an informal school for the city’s struggling artists, intellectuals, teens, queers, migrants, and anybody wanting to come in.
However, Messina was keen to stress that they not only focused on specifically LGBTQ+ issues, but used a queer perspective to focus on an intersectional progressive agenda of resistance. For example, he recalled a moved, united crowd singing along at a concert by Giacomo Sferlazzo, a young musician from Lampedusa who uses his art to address issues of migration. Through the production of music events, exhibitions, publications and more, Altroquando quickly became a referential space for intersectional political resistance in Palermo. The original Altroquando in Corso Vittorio Emanuele was home to the first lesbian-themed photographic exhibition in the city, and quite possibly, in the country. Similarly, Altroquando’s “bear” themed art exhibitions would gather and exhibit artists from all around the country, becoming a hotspot for sexual dissidence. As Messina remarks, little documentation is left from these events – a recurrent problem when it comes to dealing with queer heritage. However, they are Palermo’s first collective artistic manifestations of queerness on a grassroots level. In this way, Messina’s testimony, as well as his dedication to monumentalising Rizzuto’s legacy through the creation of a self-managed library bearing his name, was key in order to understand the centrality of Altroquando in Palermo’s queer heritage. At the same time, the fragility of this important legacy, made public and sustained today thanks to the sheer dedication of his lifelong partner, is illustrative of the ways in which love, affect, small scale relationships and complete dedication in the face of great adversity, both political and financial, constitute the ways in which queer heritage is preserved and transmitted in Italy today. This model of knowledge production is particularly akin in the post-dictatorial contexts of Southern Europe, in which sexual minorities which share histories of intersectional political affiliation and complete institutional adversity, have long mobilized self-managed structures of knowledge production, transmission and self-preservation (Mir 2020)[3].

In 2016, the Biblioteca Autogestita Salvatore Rizzuto Adelfio, or the “new” Altroquando was inaugurated[4]. Specifically thought of as a living memorial space, the library hosts Salvatore’s entire book collection, from travel and more personal accounts to numerous books, his zine collection, self-published zines, and other publications. The collection keeps growing thanks to the support and donations made spontaneously by members of the LGBTQ+ community in Palermo. In a moving way, Messina described the library as «a piece of the soul of the man who did so much for spontaneous, true, living culture» (Interview, 2017). The library, a welcoming, open space of counterculture and cultural exchange –the cause that Salvatore Rizzuto dedicated his own life to – is a perfect example of resilient queer heritage which needs to be nurtured and supported by public institutions in Palermo, its message amplified to reach a larger part of society.
Altroquando is an incredibly touching and potent living queer heritage site in Palermo: a strong yet vulnerable space which should occupy a key position in the city’s cultural memory, along with the life and work of Salvatore Rizzuto Adelfio. Through supporting and spreading awareness around Filippo’s experimental preservation proposal, I wish to spread Salvatore’s and Filippo’s story, as well as Filippo’s quest to carry on Salvatore’s cultural, political and emotional legacy and service not only to the city, but to the entire LGBTQ+ community.

Casa della Riparazione and the Coalition for the Re-Use of Fascist Architecture: Experimental Preservation Proposals for Casa del Mutilato, Manifesta ’12, 2018
We believe in appropriation through intervention and occupation, both temporary and permanent: undoing fascist heritage through activating the histories and cultural manifestations of sexual and other minorities. Our collective experimental preservation proposal entailed a transformation, radical intervention and eventual occupation and use of the building by minorized collectives, including sexual and racial minorities, as an effective way to repair the damage caused by Fascism in Italy. Could the building in Palermo be an example for the Case del Mutilato that still populate the country to become Case della Reparazione (Houses of Repair)? And could a House of Repair host the Salvatore Rizzuto Adelfio’s Self-Managed Library among a plethora of artistic, activist and minority initiatives?
The strategy to establish a House of Repair could follow up from our initial public programme and intervention at Casa del Mutilato during Manifesta’12 in 2018, in which we performatively mimicked strategies coming from mass tourism, such as the guided tour, to undo the fascist architectural heritage of the building and to make visible the minority heritage which is part of this research. At the same time, our collective public intervention in Palermo included a first plenary meeting of the “Coalition for Re-Use of Colonial Fascist Architecture”, which was open to individuals and associations in the city and which included local and international experts from the field of urban studies, public art, architecture and curating. The coalition was a pilot attempt that aimed to showcase ongoing research and formulate interventions for the re-use of colonial-fascist architecture by, and for communities that directly or indirectly have been affected by past and present forms of fascism and colonization (DAAS 2018).

One suggestion for continuing this dialogue on a public level and focus on the queer perspective would be for the Coalition to meet again and produce a public programme and workshop on queer heritage and history in dialogue with Altroquando, which would make it possible for queer the queer community in Palermo to begin inhabiting, intervening and reappropriating this heritage, in dialogue with other associations and minorized collectives, which have already established strong bonds with Altroquando (such as Palermo’s Moltivolti, focusing on refugee support and intercultural exchange). This strategy would illustrate Paul B Preciado’s idea of a hybrid “parliament of bodies” where those who have been silenced and showcased finally have the power to write their own history.
Ideally, permanent spatial interventions to the architecture of Casa del Mutilato would come out of collectively led workshops with artists, activists and the local community. To name some concrete examples that came up in preliminary conversations in this research, some interventions could entail the substitution of the mutilees’ tapestry in Sala d’Adunanze [fig. 11] with large-scale pictoric interventions around the lives of Salvatore Rizzuto Adelfio and Massimo Milano, thus completely eschewing the Fascist rhetoric around heroic masculinity and mutilation as well as its visual and literary codes. Francesc Ruiz [fig. 12], an established Spanish artist working mainly with comic and pop culture who knew Rizzuto could be commissioned to make a tapestry on the topic of Palermitan queer heritage and its main actors. Francesc Ruiz’s pictoric interventions would substitute the mutilees’ tapestry. Ruiz’s intervention would also reference or display artifacts which are key to queer heritage in the city, such as Salvatore’s ‘bear’ zine collection, which he gave, before his death, to Francesc Ruiz.

Fig. 11. Inside Casa del Mutilato’s ‘Sala d’Adunanze’, our proposed experimental preservation space. Source: author
Fig. 12. Francesc Ruiz, Installation Gasworks Yaoi, 2010. Source: Artist.

Another suggested strategy in this experimental preservation proposal on an urban level is to pay homage to the work and lives of Salvatore Rizzuto and Filippo Messina through initiating a petition to the city council for them to extend honourable mentions for them. Although honourable mentions are symbolic, the main aim behind them would be that of spreading awareness about these cultural initiatives, as well as protecting its archive and the premises where Altroquando currently operates, which are not fully legalised, undergo frequent tensions and still run eviction risks from the local authorities despite the Mayor’s consensus on the value of the cultural contributions of Altroquando to the city. In so doing, one main aim would be to interact with municipal and local authorities and political powers, alongside other progressive forces in the city, to move the debate from the arena of speculation to that of real implementation.
As it became evident in our first plenary meeting during Manifesta ’12 in 2018, the issues around publicly supporting and funding self-managed spaces – potential loss of autonomy, political instrumentalization, etc – are very complex, and curatorial interventions on a public level should support the collectives’ agency, wishes and needs. Whilst preliminary ideas for the building to function as a public supporting matrix for different self-managed initiatives were formulated, the complexities and intricacies of landing such a process are many. At the same time, in order to materialise material proposals for permanent intervention, dialogue with Palermo’s political institutions and grassroots activist communities is essential. Indeed, public intervention – in which this kind of architectural heritage becomes public property – is part of a larger problematic that needs to be rethought through a renewed political will.
Thus, our collective intervention and Coalition took on the more modest ambition of spreading awareness and initiating this process through temporary intervention and spatial speculation, and at the same time, to reclaim speculation, curatorial and artistic intervention as valid tools for activating minority heritage and imagining a different use for the building. I sincerely hope that the dialogue can be continued and that a context for hands-on intervention can eventually emerge.

[1] Original research on Altroquando carried out with Rado Istok as part of the Decolonizing Architecture Advanced Course, led by Prof. Alessandro Petti (Royal Institute of the Arts, Stockholm) in the context of the Dossier for Critical Preservation and Re-use of Casa del Mutilato in Manifesta’12, Palermo, Italy, 2018.
[2] Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale’, UNESCO LINK [accessed 04/06/2018]
[3] Focusing particularly on the Spanish context in relationship to akin Southern histories, this common heritage is the subject of my ongoing PhD work at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, entitled From the Margins to the Museum? A Genealogy of Collective Feminist Practices in the Post-Dictatorial Spanish State (1978-2020).
[4] Inaguration of the Biblioteca Autogestita Salvatore Rizzuto Adelfio. Photos by Filippo Messina in Altroquando Blog [accessed 04/06/2018]

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Carlota Mir works at the intersection between contemporary art, feminisms and social movements, art history and architecture. She does research and curating in a variety of formats that tend to hybridize and become something new. Mir is currently a candidate in the PhD in Philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Her doctoral research focuses on feminist collective practices of artistic and cultural production in post-dictatorial Spain, recovering relationships with akin contexts in Southern Europe which can help redefine feminist curatorial practice today.