Text by Barbara Goretti and Silvia Dal Prà for the work Flag, T. Tasso High School , Rome, 2011
Manifesting a bond, since the early morning
Art and science are free, and free is the teaching of them.
Art 33. of the Italian Constitution
School education is open to everybody.
Art. 34 of the Italian Constitution
Frequently perceived as a dusty and threadbare object, rather than as emblem of national identity, the significance of the flag runs much deeper than the idea of a celebratory fetish, starting with the very word of its designation (bandiera, in Italian). To Germanic peoples, the word band (and the Italian word derives from the related Provençal ban(d)iera indicated a piece of coloured cloth around which people belonging to the same group, the same band, gathered.
Matter and colour conjoined into an element of single vision, to mark and define a space, to invoke and seal a sense of belonging. To recover the essence of a symbol which is, before every other thing, an image, a vision, means looking at the Italian tricolour anew, stripping it of the celebratory rhetoric surrounding it, and offering – to eyes and minds which are usually diverted and anesthetized – the vibrant character of the history infused within it.
The installation by Alfredo Pirri re-appropriates to the original attractive force of the flag its extension to physical space (the façade), to virtual space (the website Pirri designed for this same Liceo), to a space of the mind and thinking (the School, which by constitutional mandate forms citizens), and testifies once again how the artist and the creative act should become bearers of civil responsibility.
Bandiera per il Tasso (A Flag for Tasso) is a work which confirms Pirri’s research for a synthesis between the abstract element and the sculptural concreteness of matter, between the force of expanding colour and the shape which defines its borders. A complex weave of individual and different cords, sewn together and exhibited to the city, prompt memories of the ambiguous etymology of the word bandiera, in which two evocative stems are seen to belong, albeit with some philological uncertainty: Bhan and Bha – to bind and to show.
The form and its manifestation of this bond materialise as a long multicoloured plait which harks back to the explosive polychromy of works such as La Città/Arlecchino, 2008 (The City/Harlequin, 2008), or the fluorescent radiance of the fans of Pirri’s most recent production. A strong feminine element reinstates on one hand the Nineteenth-century association between womanhood and Nation– the opulent femininity of the allegory of Liberty by Delacroix, the composed and industrious femininity of Borrani’s Risorgimento seamstresses – and on the other hand the transgressive energy embedded in coiffures: architectonic in Füssli’s dames, sensual in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, rebellious (and typically masculine) for the Scapigliatura, a movement which elected hairstyle as symbol in the very decade of Italian unification. The flag, like flowing hair, weaves identities together, reunites masculine and feminine, has its grounding in its belonging to everybody – just like the work of art, and School education. It is not a coincidence that the first Tricolour should have been born of the initiative of two students. They displayed it for the first time in 1794; perhaps it was in the early morning.
Italy saved by children
As the days for the celebration of National Unification were drawing near, I personally felt unsure as to what I would be celebrating: the past half century? – no; our politics? – very funny; the socio-economic conditions in which my country trapped us in? – God help; Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, my granny who joined the partisans, the Constituent assembly? – an easy cop-out.
When at a loss for words, I turn to books for inspiration – though the tactic isn’t infallible. And, because I am a teacher and had recently published a study on school education, the first book that came to hand was De Amicis’ Libro Cuore, that massive summa of post-Unification pedagogical precepts – three-hundred pages and over heartily written to imbibe pupils with a sentiment for what Italy is, what an Italian ought to be.
But as I read, I realised that no – that was not a good start. There’s no avail, Cuore I just cannot stomach, even though the edition I hold is touchingly scrawled by the infant hands of my sister and I, and inscribed in my mother’s hand. The long gone men that populate its pages and I are too far apart to have anything in common. Patently, De Amicis, Schoolmaster Perboni, and Signor Bottini, and all those other grown-ups would not understand my feeling at a loss: to them, the word ‘Italia’ was an immediate call to stand to attention, and ‘patria’, the fatherland, resounded with equal meaningfulness and profundity. They knew what the words meant: a caress on the cheek bestowed by the king, as permanent as a tattoo; an ethics of self-sacrifice to impress on the minds of the youth; armies and deaths and battles, war cripples, down to those “fields laden with corpses and flooded with blood” – a scene which, to the mind of Signor Bottini (father of the novel’s child narrator Enrico), should have us shout out evviva l’Italia! with even greater heart.
Mercy me! I was back to square one. It had taken a whole book just to realise their deal of Italy had nothing to do with me (for indeed, as Umberto Eco notes, it had driven the country head-on into twenty years of Mussolini). Yet that was a Nation to which values came easy: firm, iron-cast, rhetorically laden, solid as marble; whereas to me, brought up in the midst of post-Modern relativism, habituated to only hearing neo-Fascists speak of fatherland, and ‘Italy’ named only when the country’s problems were the issue… to me no starting point sounded right. The Constitution: indeed… Public education: very well, seeing as they’re both under attack. Trouble is, though, when I think about them my mind immediately turns from the gratitude toward the generations that strove to create them, to rabid feelings against the present advocates of their dissolution. And it didn’t seem right my celebration should be tainted by grief. In the end, I decided I’d ask my own students what they thought was worth celebrating in Italy: and amidst a predictable profusion of “pizza!”, “Rome football club!”, “the Colosseum!”, and, coming from the girls, an endless string of boys’ names in fancy lettering encircled with hearts… in the midst of all that, Pinochio cropped up. We had read it together in class, for an hour each week: it turned out to be our only moment of actual euphoria, a time to forget about the encumbrances of outside reality. It wasn’t just the grimness of the estate’s blocks of flats: picture a class of eleven-year-olds, first year in Middle school, two-thirds foreign, some with fluent Italian, some weak, some who could manage no more than “can I go to the toilet, Miss?” Chaos all round, a National curriculum that clearly was never designed with us in mind, the support teacher commuting each day from Naples into Rome (since no work was on offer for her near home, and, with two children of her own, moving was out of the question); my own position overturned by school reform: back to supply teaching, impossible situations, class registers flowing with admonitions to students and calls for extraordinary staff meetings… and then came Pinochio, who’d have the Bengalis, Chinese, Filipinos and Italians applauding alike. The situation in class was difficult, we were struggling to get through the syllabus: we were just the kind of class that, at the year’s close, brings down National scores of student performance; the kind that makes parents say, “I’m not sending my children to a State school”. By Libro Cuore standards, we had more of the Franti character in us, than Enrico; we were the ones who, at a school of discipline and manners, would have got sent home right out. And yet, in spite of the problems, there was in the air something extremely civil. An army of teenage interpreters going about the school, making up for the absence of professional mediators, for instance; or the constant acts of solidarity towards the class mates who fell behind; there was the copybook with sentences in Chinese, Rumanian, Arabic, Filipino we’d all learn off by heart; there were the Italian kids courting the prettiest girl in class, clad in a chador; there were parents who were happy about the situation, and would say so – it never crossed their minds to set up the kinds of racist and rancorous protest we hear about on television; and there was a teacher (me, that is), who in many months never heard one single racist remark, not one cinical, sleazy, vulgar comment.
Perhaps we would have been expelled from the school of Libro Cuore, true, but not from the school of Pinochio, which is so different in its approach to the question of “shaping the Italians”: my idea of education is not to teach each person to know their place, but help people find their own course, not propagandize moralising platitudes and catch-phrases, but encourage a reflection upon experience, upon the reality that the curriculum just does not grasp – and we, in that first-year Middle school of a run down suburb, had more reality at hand than a library could hold.
From that perspective, looking up through the eyes of those eleven-year-olds, Italy no longer was the country I had grown to be ashamed of, but an oddly civil place. So having sought vainly in the past, this is the image I bore with me for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Italian Unification at Liceo Tasso: not the war casualties and the wounded of Libro Cuore; not the desolating image of the Country as it is today; nor, on the other hand, the clichéd blazoning and the abstract wordiness which never succeed to engage with the world of adolescents; none of that. It is Pinochio, instead, and the twenty-five eleven-year-olds who impressed on my mind that this Country’s riches are not all in its past.
Silvia Dai Pra’