Coming to terms with national history isn’t always easy. Whether because of civil war, political oppression, or simply a change of values, monuments and other vestiges of the past often remind us that what we held dear in other ages doesn’t necessarily chime with what we cherish today. The bitter controversy – and deadly protests – sparked earlier this year by the proposed removal of a statue of Gen Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, are a ringing reminder of this.
The small northern Italian town of Bolzano may provide the model for a better way of dealing with such thorny issues. For several decades, what are now the town’s financial offices have been housed in a fascist-era building displaying a massive bas-relief of Benito Mussolini on horseback, bearing the slogan “Credere, Obbedire, Combattere” (“Believe, Obey, Combat”) on the side. Although Italy’s fascist past is officially condemned, the monument stood untouched until a 2011 directive from the national government formally required the municipal administration to do something about it.
In the face of calls to both “destroy” and “preserve” the monument, the town opted for what appears in retrospect a far smarter strategy.
A public bid was launched, soliciting ideas over how to “defuse and contextualize” the politically charged frieze. Open to artists, architects, historians, and “anyone involved in the cultural sphere”, the bid explicitly stated that the intention was to “transform the bas-relief into a place of memory … so that it will no longer be visible directly, but accessible thoughtfully, within an appropriately explanatory context”.
Almost 500 proposals were submitted and evaluated by a jury composed of local civil society figures, including a history professor, a museum curator, an architect, an artist and a journalist. This jury recommended five proposals, voted upon by the municipal council. All the proposals and proceedings were documented online and open to public scrutiny.
The winning proposal is as powerful as it is simple. Superimposed upon the bas-relief is now an LED-illuminated inscription of a quote by the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt that reads “Nobody has the right to obey” in the three local languages: Italian, German and Ladin.
As the two artists who originally made the proposal, Arnold Holzknecht and Michele Bernardi, elucidate in their explanatory text, the “minimalism” of the intervention is explicitly meant to contrast the “grandiloquence” of the fascist-era style, whereas the content of the quotation is meant as a “direct answer” to the “invitation to blind obedience” contained in the fascist slogan.
What is most important, however, is that the original monument remains visible through the inscription. This is meant to emphasize that memory – and therefore history – is not a “blank slate” on which we can arbitrarily write whatever happens to be congenial to us in the present. Rather, it is a process of sedimentation, by which the past is never completely effaced, but constantly reinterpreted through the lens of the present.
The transformed monument therefore invites people to reflect on the town’s complex history in a way that is neither simply celebratory nor in denial, but rather contextualized – and for that reason all the more challenging and profound.
A sign of its success is that it almost completely failed to generate controversy, either nationally or locally. Inaugurated with a purposely sober ceremony on 5 November, the installation only managed to stir the predictable recriminations of representatives from the local neo-fascist party, one of whom decried it as a “Taliban act” intended to “efface a portion of the country’s history”. The very fact that these objections so patently failed to grasp the point of the installation has given them little following.
This local experiment with the politics of memory nonetheless deserves greater attention. Virtually all existing countries have to face difficult questions over how to relate to past instances of violence, injustice and oppression – often publicly sanctioned.
Pretending the past never happened is clearly not a promising way of learning from it. But neither is passively accepting the past’s own way of representing itself to the future. Which is why contextualizing monuments from a troubled era, through a creative procedure that is at once inclusive, transparent and educational, may actually be the best solution.
This is, after all, another way of reading the message contained in the quote from Hannah Arendt inscribed over the fascist monument in Bolzano. To say that “nobody has the right to obey” is a reminder that our actions are always the result of a choice – and therefore judgment – in the present.
The quote by Hannah Arendt implies that we cannot in good faith disclaim responsibility for things we have the power to act upon – such as the monuments we inherit from our history. Even letting them stand untouched is a way of affirming something in the present. The question is what we want that message to be.
Apparently, during the deliberations that preceded the decision to remove the statue of Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, a proposal was made to add more “historical context” to the monument. That might have been an opportunity for the city to come to terms more openly and inclusively with its troubled past, but the proposal was ultimately rejected.
In contrast, the town of Bolzano has resolutely taken a stand in favor of freedom and civic courage. It is only to be hoped that other administrations facing similar problems around the world can live up to this model.