Historical photo of Colonia Novarese, 1940. (Edited to be a video by the authors)
Today, while I was passing by the seaside of Rimini by car, I encountered an abandoned vessel-shaped building I have been wanting to speak to you about for a long time.
While I was growing up in my hometown, I would often encounter the Colonia Novarese on my way to Riccione, while crossing a small district between the two cities known as Miramare. At the time, I didn’t know the building’s idiosyncratic story or that it held a specific symbolism, all my curiosity was brought up by its unexplorable state of abandonment and the ghostly atmosphere that surrounds it. The building faces the coast, leading everyone who passes by to gaze through the car’s windows in order to get a closer look at its grotesque features.
More than a real building, all that remains from its original construction in 1934 is the concrete skeleton of six round-shaped floors, a monumental staircase on the front entrance and the stripped-down tower on the facade, reminiscent of what once used to be a giant vessel architecture crystallising fascist hegemonic power.
A video from the time showcases Mussolini proudly visiting the Colonia Novarese in August 1934, on the day of its inauguration. The crowd that surrounds him energetically agitates their tissues while the duce performs the fascist salute standing on the staircase. Today, the building is hardly recognizable from that of the video. The terrain on which the Colonia Novarese stands hasn’t been cultivated for decades, all sorts of wild plants have taken over the building, and when it rains, the ground turns into a swamp, eliciting an even more haunted aura. The Colonia Novarese is like a specter, a sudden vision that appears to the people who drive through that road. As one’s gaze turns, there it is, in complete desolation, a colossal skeleton standing visible, impossible to be missed, yet deemed to not exist.
Historical video of Mussolini’s visit to the Colonia Novarese, August 1934. Credit: Istituto Luce Cinecittà
As a child, I recall passing by that street many times, asking my parents why that building looked so striking, and what was the reason for such an immense structure to be left abandoned. My parents would patiently explain, each and every time we would pass by that road, that the building was a colonia marina, a structure built to temporarily host children from working class families during the summer time. Thus, ever since the late 1800s, children were sent to the colonie in order to cure breathing pathologies, as it was believed that seawater and sunny weather could have had beneficial effects over such illnesses. It was only during fascism that the colonie marine were turned into summer camps to give the nation’s young people, in particular those from deprived parts of the cities and the countryside, a character-forming experience under fascist ideologies.
While I was growing up, my parents introduced me to the history of the Colonia Novarese with contradictory opinions. I recall my mother pointing out the artistry value of its architecture, the elegance of the minimal and symmetrical design, pointing out the waste for such a structure to be left to perish. My father, on the other hand, would mention how the building crystallised the ideology of the regime, “rigid and authoritarian”, used to unify Italian people under the nationalist principles. My mother was a firm believer of the Colonia’s positive purpose: the structure was meant to host children whose families could not afford any type of holiday or vacation, guaranteeing them a carefree time during the summer. My father, conversely, asserted that the Colonie hosted children with the sole purpose of raising them as Fascist people, future soldiers for Fascist wars.
Despite being extremely confused by such a politically divided environment and opinions and my personal relations to them, as the years passed by, the Colonia Novarese never stopped intriguing me. When I moved to London in 2016, I began to get a more detached perspective on my hometown and my family’s controversial memories. Around that period, when we had just started out university together, I remember that you and I, Alice, had our first conversation about the colonie marine in my hometown. For the first time, I began to sense a feeling that vibrated with possibilities of re-inhabiting the site. What do you think would happen, Alice, if we were to re-enter the Colonia Novarese today? What challenges would we be faced with, as young researchers, by trying to re-signify such a contentious site?
Our generation was educated about Fascism and its remnants through so many dissonant and distorted narrations: in the form of family stories, history lessons at school, different textbooks, ideologies transmitted by the media. We were raised being imposed of all sorts of socially constituted norms, narratives, and relations.
We inherited Italy’s incapacities of facing its own past, and all repressed memories on fascist history were transferred upon us without the possibility of their critical evaluation or correction. (Lewicka, 2008). Were you ever asked about your feelings and sensations about Fascism during your time at school or in your family, Alice?
I remember I was striked when I saw for the first time Artur Zmijewski’s video performance 80064, where the polish artist persuades former camp prisoner Józef Tarnawa to ‘renew’ his Auschwitz prisoner number tattoo. Throughout the performance Tarnawa is seen hesitant to pursue the act, while Zmijewski insists on going ahead with the performance: “(The tattoo) will remain the same.. we won’t corrupt it. The number won’t turn inauthentic” (Zmijewski, 2005). When Zmijewski released a later interview, he claimed that the central scope of the work lies precisely in the exposure of the inherently violence within the act, and whether the price of such action was worth it, for a possible working out of the trauma (Zmijewski, 2005).
The film is essentially about a confrontation, not only between a survivor of the holocaust and an artist whose actions seems implacable, but of two Polish people from different generations. The younger man has set up an experimental situation in order to question the older one about his conflicted role in World War II and the Holocaust. Do you think that re-inhabiting the Colonia Novarese today would expose a similar tension?
Historical video of children in a marine colony. Credit: Istituto Luce Cinecittà
Just yesterday, I asked my father what was his earliest memory of fascism from when he was younger, and which one was the most tangible. He recalled his grandmother used to sleep with Hitler’s Mein Kampf over her bedside table, then, he pursued to show me my grandfather’s Balilla card from when he was one of the fascist nation’s youth people. On the back, the card recites the emblematic Balilla vow: “In the name of God and Italy I swear to follow the Duce’s orders and to serve with all of my powers, and if necessary, my blood, the cause of Fascist revolution”.
Artur Zmijewski, with his provocative work, aims at suspending the imposed morality that surrounds the Holocaust to provoke a personal reaction in the viewers: “The murdered people are victims – but we, the living, are also victims.” (Zmijewski, 2012). Hearing my father’s testimony, I can’t help but thinking that we, younger generations, are responsible for the way we cope with fascist remnants: not only its physical testimonies, such as architectural buildings that are still haunting the Italian landscapes and ex-colonised countries, but also those dogmas that have managed to linger upon us ever since the fall of the regime, the stories that we have been told from our families that we aim to detach from.
This, perhaps, could be the point of departure for a potential re-narration of the Colonia Novarese: transform it to a site for unpacking fascist’s afterlives, alter its original connotation to a space to explore younger generation’s attempts to cope with the fascist trauma.
Think, for example, the way our generation in Italy has been struggling to free themselves from notions of identity far from the traditional family roles that we so much promoted during the Ventennio. It was only a year ago that the Italian Senate voted the proposed law against homophobia – the DDL Zan – which sought to punish acts of discrimination and incitement to violence against gay, lesbian, transgender and disabled people. The DDL Zan law failed only a few years after the passing of a bill allowing gay civil unions in May 2016. And still, a year later in 2017, Italy was ranked by ILGA Europe as one of the worst countries in Western Europe for gay and trans rights. Just these past days I started to read the book Playdux – history of the eros during fascism. It’s striking to think the relevance of those ideas today, how the institutions of heteronormative family and love are still so influenced by fascist legacies. The phallogocentrism, the fetishization of physical strength, the toxic ideas of masculinity, are still far from being deconstructed in the Italian collective imaginary and institutions.
This is perhaps the chance to demystify such dogmas: by performing an act of resistance within the Colonia Novarese, by attempting to resignificate the doctrine that fascist architecture was so vigorously trying to promote.
How do you think such a gesture could take place at the Colonia Novarese? How could we perform an act that is meaningful to unpack the trauma precisely by performing within the Colonia Novarese?
Your email is resonating so much with my research questions and life encounters! It is crazy how, even though I’ve never been in those places, I can relate to the ghosts of the unspoken legacies of fascism in our lives. It feels as if those abandoned buildings by the sea encapsulate Italy’s guilty unaccountability of facing fascist and colonial past, more recently Berlusconism, and somehow dealing with the present. Simultaneously the colonie become tangible metaphors of our disciplined bodies and sexuality. I wonder if re-occupying those spaces, trying to open up a conversation about sex and fascism through collective debates and movement practices can create a basis for different futures — hopefully raising awareness on the reuse of forgotten architecture especially at times when so many people don’t have a place to live a liveable life.
… Your words immediately brought to my mind ideas of ‘erotic power’ and how adrienne maree brow re-read Audre Lorde in the contemporary times calling for a ‘politics of feeling good’ and ‘pleasure activism’ in order to dismantle oppression. I think these visions of pleasure as a source of knowledge and power able to orientate our life in a constant search for other ways of becoming are quite central for our project.
If we were to re-inhabit the colonia, it’d be interesting to emphasise all those personal experiences, gossip and sentimentality systematically dismissed in analytic arguments and academic research as a programmatic and ideological statement. By trying to establish a connection between politics of loving and fascism, connecting discourses that otherwise would not intertwine, personal insights, activism and artistic creation, we could attempt to voice possible counter-narratives. So that talking about feelings and love becomes a political act, an attempt to raise consciousness on systemic and intersubjective phenomena. For example, think about the fascist motto ‘sanə robustə fecondə’ literally ‘healthy, strong and fertile’ that saw womxn as mere procreator of progeny and excluded any other form of sexuality and bodies that didn’t give birth to soldiers for the nation. Our project could try to deconstruct these ideals becoming a site for collective negotiation of our shared realities. A temporary autonomous zone, an interruption of the status quo to reflect together on the everyday impacts of the unspoken traumas of recent past and fascist reiterations that are happening today worldwide.
As woman we are used to grow up suppressing our deepest and non-rational desires, learning from a young age to internalise our oppression by relegating eroticism exclusively to sex. Whereas, as Audre Lorde beautifully argues, the erotic gives a sense of joy we are capable of feeling enriching our lives in all its vital aspects: from dancing to writing a poem or making love with loved ones. Similarly, performing and dancing have been healing and empowering in my personal discovery. Performing roles detached from myself gave me the distance necessary to demystify external expectations and gaze I internalised as mine. Dancing is not only something I had to quit as a child because it made me feel fat or inadequate, but it is also a liberating occasion for allowing myself to be. The oceanic feeling of queer nights helped me to reconnect to my body, my sexuality and to others in a deeper way. Not having myself a traditional dance background, I think is fundamental to hold the space to move for everyone, trying to forget the aesthetic connotation of dance, but focusing on the introspective, revolutionary effects of movement on subjectivity. By empowering individuals and eventually enabling them to reconfigure their own condition, dance becomes a way to articulate resistance, making and unmaking of identity, while testing possible alliances. Thus, can dancing bodies contribute to re-signify fascist architecture and reconfigure our political and social landscape? and eventually resist neoliberal hegemony as activation of intersectional practices and thoughts?
I’m interested in the sensible knowledge that comes from dancing bodies and moments of togetherness. I deeply believe, echoing the ‘undercommons’, among many others, that the collective joy of thinking, dancing and creating with others represent an invaluable strategy to unhinge the univocal vision of the world patriarchy wants to reinforce. Moving bodies bring other forms of knowledge into being, sensible and sensuous knowledge that are even more powerful if juxtaposed to the top-down, dogmatic education and disciplinary function the colonie used to have.
I wonder how we can think about these days as a process, a temporary community; simultaneously refuge from patriarchal violence we are exposed to on a daily basis and celebration of our bodies, lives and loves. ‘We’ is a difficult word to use, I know, without risking being totalitarian, but in this context I refer to those who fight for deconstructing gender binarism and patriarchal ethos of late-capitalist society and those who live accordingly to it. Of course we cannot overlook the reference of those buildings to colonialism: ‘colonie marine’ literally ‘seaside colonies’, feels almost like a subtle endeavour to neutralise the violence of colonial invasions as holiday destinations by the sea. It cannot be our voice articulating these thoughts, but it is important to receive and allow a space for these discourses to unfold respecting the urgency of the group… I wonder how we can relate with the idiosyncrasy of the Colonia Novarese and its people? How can our intervention engage international audiences beyond Italian specificity without prevaricating the needs of local communities? How do we position ourselves as agitators yet informed by our studies abroad? Where is the limit between reporting our research and experiences in the context we were raised in and propaganda? How to inhabit our position of privilege? How can we make the colonia more accessible to all?
If we become what we envisage and if the deepest unconscious identity of a country is composed by the groups defined as marginal, not the ones publicly accepted, then it is necessary to expand the field of possibilities with unprecedented perspectives on Italy. Pluralising the voices heard while reclaiming our bodies and collective agency is a powerful praxis to counterattack the hostile environment that constantly undermines our sensitivity, intelligence and lovability as individuals and fight for a country where different kinds of identities and love are equally possible and collectively negotiated. I would like to believe that the insurrections of all those dissident bodies and marginalised experiences are performing resistance in the public sphere — gaining more and more recognition over the last few decades — eventually will contribute to unfold queer futures and a redistribution of love.
I wonder how to give space to each other without generalising our experiences or silencing dissonances and conflicts by oversimplifying those topics that would need endless research. And yet, I think that the value of a project like that, of our mission doomed to fail, lies precisely in taking action over those ever-present unspoken past, an attempt to live the values we study on books and debate in squats or academic seminars, to hold space for vulnerability and hopefully, if only partially, collectively heal. Obviously deconstructing fascist imaginary of love and sex is a lifelong quest that won’t end with the project in itself, but develops in fractal directions we cannot foresee now. We won’t find those answers and we cannot do it alone, but already the fact to hold such space hopefully has value. So opening up this project to others, as you did with me, represents a necessary prerogative to expand the debate on fascist legacies beyond Italy, while emphasising the collective experience of learning and forming lasting alliances. Can art contribute to resist the ineluctability of the status quo, un-perform capitalism in order to rediscover a deeper sense of self, desires, and forms of sociality?
Eventually, the action of re-use those architecture, de-construct and re-signify is exhausting so it is important also to give space for collective joy, creating moments for partying against psychopolitics and simultaneously reclaim agency over public space and official narrations. Seeing art not as practice separated from our lives, but part of it. Living a feminist life, echoing Sara Ahmed.
Always fighting for new ways of becoming, quoting K. Angel (quoting M. Foucault) hopefully tomorrow sex will be good again!
This fictional yet really happened conversation tries to convey the tensions and the preparatory research questions at the foundation of De-Colonia: Sanə, Robustə, Fecondə, a project that will take place on the 25th, 26th and 27th of August 2022 at the Colonia Novarese in Rimini.
As a response to the current state of abandonment of these structures, De-Colonia is an alliance of bodies that investigates the possibility of re-signification of fascist architecture through the temporary occupation of the site with site-specific interventions, performances and workshops.
By deconstructing the slogan ‘healthy, strong and fertile’ which saw the womxn as a mere generator of progeny for the nation and utterly submissive to their husbands, our program tries to destabilise each of these connotations by questioning them through body practices and debates. From a site of social control, where children were educated to become soldiers to fight for fascist wars, the material and symbolic occupation of the Colonia Novarese creates a refuge for all the marginalised bodies whilst fostering new ideals of community. De-Colonia is an attempt to bring a temporary community of international artists and local communities together and reflect on the physical and symbolic legacies of fascism in contemporary imaginaries of womanhood and love and articulating possible counter-narratives.
In particular, De-Colonia takes into account the experience of younger generations, whose memory of Fascism did not occur directly, but was internalised through the narratives of previous generations. The project is a response to the necessity of reclaiming agency over these ghostly traumas and unspoken remnants of fascism in our lives and from the desire to re-discover a different sense of sensuality. Far from the dogmas imposed by fascism such as phallogocentrism, physical power and toxic masculinity, De-Colonia tries to deconstruct the ideals of ‘fascist love’, gender binarism and heteronormativity of nuclear family as form of social control, from an intersectional not ableist perspective. Thus, how do fascist legacies still frame our lives as gendered beings? To what extent do they impact the politics of loving in contemporary Italy today? How to embody ‘erotic power’ as a source of knowledge of ourselves as claimed by Audre Lorde?
In this context, art becomes a territory, a common language to investigate burning issues from multiple perspectives, reconnect with one’s own body and others’ in the attempt to open up alternatives to the status quo.
Ahmed S., Living a Feminist Life, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
Angel K., Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent, Verso Books, London, 2021.
Bey H., T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, Autonomedia, New York, London, 2003.
Brown A.M., Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, AK Press, California; Edinburgh, Scotland, 2019.
Harney S., Moten F., The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Minor Compositions, Wivenhoe, UK, 2013.
Lewicka M., Place Attachment, place identity, and place memory: Restoring the forgotten city past, in «Journal of Environmental Psychology» 2008.
Lorde A., Sisters Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, Berkeley, California, 1984.
Artur Zmijewski interview (2013), Artur Żmijewski Artyści w sieci, Agnieszka Rozmawia, VIDEO
Colonia Marina a Rimini, Archivio Storico Luce, Istituto Luce Cinecittà VIDEO
UW Oshkosh Symphony Orchestra – Memory. VIDEO
Visita di Mussolini alla colonia marina per i fanciulli della provincia di Novara a Miramare, Archivio Storico Luce, Istituto Luce Cinecittà VIDEO
Alice Minervini (Firenze, 1997) is an artist and writer based between Italy and the UK. Her practice unfolds as a series of collaborations that explore the intersections between fiction, movement, new technologies and erotism as ways of envisioning queer futures. She is currently working on “Comizi d’Emigrazione”, an autobiographical project born from the urgency of investigating and simultaneously intervening on the interrelation of the politics of loving, migration and queer Italy. She recently graduated with honours from the Visual Cultures Department at Goldsmiths (MA in Contemporary Art Theory) with a dissertation on ‘Dancing with Glitch: Beyond the Body-as-Machine’.
Sveva Crisafulli (Rimini, 1997) is a researcher and curator based in Italy. Her practice and research is rooted in notions of postcolonial theory, Fascist remnants, transcultural memory, watery anthropocene and creative non-fiction. She obtained a BA in Fine Art and History of Art and an MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation on “Performing Archaeologies”. In 2021 she took part in Campo21, the course of curatorial practices at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.