Against historiographical myths. Interview with Michele Dantini on the book Art History and Civil History.

Michele Dantini's new book, "Art History and Civil History. The Twentieth Century in Italy," contains a number of essays on important figures in 20th-century Italian culture and art to investigate the theme of the survival of Italian culture in the postwar period.

Art History and Civil History. The Twentieth Century in Italy (Bologna, Il Mulino 2022) is the latest book by Michele Dantini, professor of contemporary art history at the University for Foreigners in Perugia and visiting professor at the Scuola IMT Alti Studi in Lucca. The volume contains a series of essays dedicated to some of the leading figures in Italian culture and art of the first and second half of the 20th century (among others, Bernard Berenson, Piero Gobetti, Carlo Levi, Ernesto De Martino, Carla Lonzi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alberto Burri), whom theauthor presents to us from a novel, soliciting, highly original perspective, adopting an interdisciplinary approach that allows him to make a clean slate of commonplaces and historiographical "myths." The author discusses this in this interview with Elisa Bassetto.

Copertina di Storia dell'arte e storia civile
Cover of Art History and Civil History
Michele Dantini
Michele Dantini

EB. In spite of its miscellaneous articulation, the volume, which interweaves art history and literature, political and religious thought, aesthetics and the history of criticism, is characterized by a great unity. The theme of identity, in particular, constitutes one of the leading motifs of the entire narrative, as well as its “militant” undercurrent. As you state as early as the introduction, the book’s protagonists are in fact united by the claim of belonging to a very specific cultural tradition, which is then theEuropean-continentalone, and by the rejection of liberal-liberal societies of the (mainly) Anglo-American type. Can you give us some examples of this?

MD. Art History and Civic History was born on the back of an individual urgency and “ascertainments” that came to align over time. First, the relationship with contemporary art, which has changed. In me, in others. How many voices of insiders, in recent years, have been raised calling for a new beginning: all over the world. I made a brief list of them in the opening of the book. The rhetorics of “complicity” whatever, or “militancy” whatever, have had their day, I think. As has a certain “presentist” euphoria. There is no primacy of the present time, of “actuality” for its own sake, in art today. I say this with a paradox, keeping in dialogue with theorists such as Byung-Chul Han or Hito Steyerl, in part even Agamben: the art that is not there might turn out to be even more interesting than the art that is there. Nor are there undisputed “capitals”: artistic geography appears increasingly polycentric. That is why there is a need to find other paths, to carry out anamnesis. It seemed to me that certain voices outside the choir, faithful by necessity to a classical-Christian artistic tradition, reached the heart of the problem sooner and more persuasively than others. Hence the choice of Gobetti and Berenson, Morra and Carlo Levi, de Martino and Pasolini, Lonzi and the “resistant” artists summoned in my last essay, such as Burri and Fontana. Art is measured here by ritual, liturgy, piety, memory(mnemosyne!); and again by the elements of the unexpected and the marvelous. Mere actuality, “actuality” understood in a merely factual and “positive” sense, is not its measure. I must say that, yes, questions of “identity” somehow stir at the bottom of this research of mine, but the more correct term is perhaps “legacy,” if not “testimony.” There is no reference to narrow national boundaries. The issue in the background, artistic, historical and theological together, is the relationship between us and Christ, between us and Christianity. Often, in investigating the question of “identity,” with reference to twentieth-century Italy, we feel compelled to refer to fascist nationalism and its collapse and to draw implications for us today. But this of fascism is a defective or improper lens because it is too close. This is basically why I felt the need to write Art History and Civic History: To procure for myself and others a nonreductively twentieth-century point of view, and to show that there are quite other agencies of identity, if you will, spread out over millennia; and that the question of “identity,” or rather of inheritance, is posed more properly in terms of the long term, implies the reconstruction of the relationship between Ancien Régime and post-unification Italy, cognitions of Church history and ecclesiological tout court, and more generally a point of view that is clearly detached from a history of the unified state, all gathered in a short span of time - just one hundred and sixty years. It is within this horizon that we must seek the foundation of a theory of art and image that does not turn out to be already worn out. It is a question here of challenging a certain historiographical assumption, widespread until a few decades ago, concerning the Protestant genesis of the modern world. It is a view legitimately rejected today by historians of different denominational affiliations, Catholic and non-Catholic - Paolo Prodi and Adriano Prosperi, for example. It is also a matter of rejecting the imperativeness of the relationship, which today seems unquestionable, between art and “mobilization,” or art and activism. But go figure. The contributors to Plastic Values, Gobetti, Berenson, Levi, de Martino precisely, Lonzi, and the poverists closest to her stand against the subjugation of images to political and social news. Levi and de Martino are closest in the book to the cultural policies of the PCI, but they actually place themselves in an orbit of dissidence by proposing to recover to art dimensions that have nothing to do with journalistic “chatter.” Dimensions that I would call sacramental.

A relevant issue that reading your book raises is that of the so-called “loss of aura,” according to Walter Benjamin’s famous definition, a kind of thread that ends up running through the history of art of the entire twentieth century. In this regard, is it correct to say that one of the underlying goals of your analysis is to disavow the modernism-secularization equation, reaffirming the existing nexus between contemporary art and sacredness?

I agree with Hans Belting in circumscribing the validity of Benjamin’s analysis of the “loss of aura.” Benjamin does not distinguish between “cult value” and “aesthetic value”-only the latter is reduced by reproduction; the former can even increase-; he sticks to a notion of “aura” that goes back to German Romanticism, is thus not supra-historical; and he does not account for his own assumptions. Furthermore: the choice of hooking aesthetics and sociology of culture, art theory and processes of “secularization,” is entirely the result of a historicist, expressionist, linear-evolutionary point of view, which has long appeared to us to be neither unique nor necessary. In Italy, this point of view became hegemonic at the time of the literary neo-avant-garde and the Gruppo ’63: it might have seemed useful to counter Croce’s idealistic aesthetics, we did not wonder too much-as long as we flew off to Chiasso-about the amnesia or removals it entailed. I consider significant today, in terms of paradigm shifting, the fortunes of a theologian, mathematician and art theorist like Florensky; or a historian like Warburg, for whom the aura does not decay, rather it swarms, migrates, transforms. More generally: there are infinitely subtle traditions that describe images in varied and powerful ways, neither historical nor sociological: think of all that follows the Nicene dogma of image veneration, and branches off later into the two theologies of the image of the Eastern and Western Church. We inhabit worlds that accommodate within them multiple temporalities or “historical series,” and there are no obligatory convergences with what we call “actuality”-this is in fact nothing more than a model, a construction.

In the chapters devoted to Berenson you highlight how his reputation as an excellent connoisseur has overshadowed the more strictly political implications of his thought, the subject in the post-World War II period of a veritable removal. What you present here, then, is a Berenson engagé, in the guise of a public intellectual, an attentive spectator of the Italian political scene. To what extent does his antipicassism, which matures coincidentally with the Spanish painter’s abstract-primitivist turn, exemplify the paradigm shift you propose here?

There is no doubt that Berenson’s reputation as a connoisseur, to whose demolition moreover Berenson himself devotes himself from the years of World War II onward, has obscured the breadth of Berenson’s interests and expertise considered both as a historian of European civilization and as a “public intellectual.” A prejudice of the positivist tradition also still pushes, in Italy, to approach Berenson as a mere collector of data, the author of the famous “lists,” ultimately on a par with an archivist and documentarian. All this does injustice to the breadth and depth of his reflection, which is nourished by theological-religious, philosophical, ethical, aesthetic-literary, etc. nourishment. The image “embodies” the divine, for Berenson. It repeats its birth from the human womb. In so doing it helps “save” the finite, leads it back to the beauty of origin or Prototype. What we call “art” is not for Berenson simply the prerogative of the artist; instead, art is called to collaborate with the economy of creation, or rather of Grace. The close correlation between art and religion manifests itself in the post-World War II Berensonian polemic against American collecting, accused of “newness”-in reality of crass materialism and inculturation. And of course in the polemic against Picasso, or rather against Picassism. It is not an unreflective or trivial polemic. Berenson’s arguments are calibrated, still useful today, I find, not only as historiographical reagents; the distinctions insightful. The defense of “humanistic art” is so urgent for him that it prompted him to collaborate with the Corriere della sera; and it has the greatest relevance at the time, if we consider how precisely Berenson’s anti-Picassian polemic is not without consequences, directly or indirectly, for Levi and Praz, Moravia, Pasolini or de Martino, in part even Zolla. The unconditional admiration of “creativity” and “genius,” for Berenson, induces one to tolerate amateurism, presumption, futility, arbitrariness. But this is unacceptable because art is a philanthropic and civic institution. Hence, between the wars, the “conservative” choice. Great works of art, for Berenson, have a nature no less divine than human; they are true sacramental “signs” that belong to the heritage of the entire community.

One of the merits of the volume is also to have brought to the attention of scholars a series of connections and “influences” that are far from obvious. What about, for example, the relationship between Spengler and the Plastic Values movement?

The circulation of German “classics” in early twentieth-century Italian culture is substantial, and yet this remains, after 1945, a difficult topic to address. Not only Spengler: Th. Mann, Sombart, Moeller van den Bruck, Däubler, Schmitt, Heidegger, Ernst Jünger and others. TheSpengler-Plastic Values case is illuminating as to the amnesias of contemporary art historiography. The publication in Plastic Values of the Spenglerian paragraph on colors, from the Sunset of the West, obviously has great relevance in the context of the journal. It clarifies better than many confused reconstructions the relationship between the ideological-visual proposals of Plastic Values and what we now call the “conservative revolution” in Germany. Not only that. It proves the ambitions of Broglio, Savinio, Carrà, de Chirico, Tavolato etc. to insert themselves into a debate on the “nation” and its ethical-political-legal institutions; to address in principle the entire Italian political-cultural elite, without limiting themselves to the small audience of “contemporary art.” Spengler was already known in Italy by the reporting of Croce, who detested him. When Broglio (or whoever) decided to publish him, he showed that he was advocating an anti-Crocian “morphological” point of view that few, at the time, eschewed in the circle of the journal and the publishing house that then descended from it ( Piero della Francesca’s Longhi, who appears precisely for the types of Valori plastici, less than others). At stake, for Broglio and his collaborators, is not an alleged “new” but the “latent tradition”: rediscovery, regeneration. The abjuration of Marinetti’s futurism, which in the immediate post-World War I period already experienced profound irrelevance both on the Right(Plastic Values) and on the Left(The Liberal Revolution, Il Baretti), could not be more evident.

The subject ofhistoriographical reflection for some time, the book focuses on the link between Ernesto de Martino and Carlo Levi, who became a sort of mentor for the author of The Magic World, from whom, however, beginning in 1954, the latter began to distance himself. What is the significance of this convergence and, subsequently, of what appears to be a repositioning strategy on de Martino’s part?

Bringing de Martino closer to Carlo Levi is, in my opinion, the project of an “anti-bourgeois” ideology that is both libertarian and popular (thus anti-Soviet) and rests on the powers of myth and religion. Myth and religion are conceived here as historical-cosmogonic forces, not as detached archetypal dimensions. It goes without saying that the attempt, by no means instrumental, to recruit such “powers” for political purposes has nothing to do with the Marxist agenda. De Martino endeavors to adapt his thinking to communist orthodoxy in the early 1950s, with relatively disappointing results (in fact, it is at this date that he distances himself from Levi, who is not aligned). But in the ranks of the PCI he is wary of its “irrationalism.” Which is instead precisely what interests us today (“irrationalism,” however, is an inadequate term). To understand the anxieties and motivations of the Neapolitan ethnographer and philosopher, as reticent and changeable as few, it is necessary to reconstruct his 1930s genealogy; and to approach his “mystical” training without hypocritical caution or censure of any kind. I try to suggest new directions for research by reconstructing the relations between de Martino and Hans Sedlmayr (and, indirectly, the relations between de Martino and Ernst Jünger: perhaps not everyone knows that the author of The Worker is at the origin of the theses expressed by Sedlmayr both in The Loss of the Center, his most famous book, and in The Revolution of Modern Art). The Demartinian view of the figurative arts, as known to us from the annotations drafted in view of The End of the World, illuminates long-term anxieties and motivations. And it is a confirmation of heterodoxy.

One of the densest and most thought-provoking chapters, in my opinion, is precisely the one devoted to the figure of Carlo Levi. How do anti-Americanism and anti-modernism mix in the figurative “ideology” of the painter from Turin?

I would not speak of anti-modernism regarding Levi, but of anti-avant-gardism. It is a relevant difference that I try to introduce, in the book, with successive fine-tuning. I alluded to this question when writing about Gobetti the art critic and the Gobettians: it is a matter, for all of them, of rejecting futurist “genius” in order to affirm the civil “dignity” of art and literature. This has always been looked upon as a demonstration of artistic moderatism, a kind of “lateness of taste.” But this is true only if we make Marinetti’s point of view our own. If, on the other hand, we change the order of the day, that is, if we are concerned not only with art, but with art in relation to the ethical-religious and civil fabric in which it comes to fit and which it contextually helps to determine, here is where the contempt for variété futurist no longer seems to reflect a “moderate” ideology - on the contrary, it seems dictated by radical instances. Polemical target is still the artist-historian, as already in Diderot and Nietzsche; art understood as stupefying. Futurism-no matter whether “first” or “second”: no distinction is made at the time-may well have seemed, to the Turinese, a kind of costume- or screeching-Wagnerism. Certainly it seemed such to Persico - who, to say, was not passing that way by accident. Let us turn to the post-World War II period. It is clear that, from Levi’s point of view, and I am referring here to the Jellian and shareholder Levi, not the pro-Soviet Levi of the second and for him last parliamentary term, the United States is everything that needs to be fought: the star system, citizenship decayed to consumerism, the rhetoric of “genius,” the rejection of history and shared experience, businessism, etc.

A fundamental problem you touch on in the chapter devoted to Carla Lonzi is that of the “continuity-discontinuity” between Fascism and the Republic, calling into question the work of historian Nicolò Zapponi, a pupil of Renzo De Felice, particularly his I miti e le ideologie. History of Italian Culture (1870-1960) (Naples, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane 1981). The invitation, underlying your analysis, is for a critical use of the categories of “internationalization” and “secularization” to explain the transition between the first and second twentieth centuries. How is the problem of the loss of status of the artist, no longer the “founder of Worlds and inventor of myths,” but orphaned of the role of “vate and legislator,” situated in this scenario ?

Zapponi is a brilliant and in more ways “unfaithful” pupil of De Felice. We owe him a fine book on the history of 20th-century Italian culture capable of doing justice to the importance of figurative documents. We also, or above all, owe him an indication of method: precisely the invitation to seek cultural continuity where we find at first only political and institutional discontinuities. His historiographical perspective, however, reflects a widespread belief in the 1960s and 1970s that theentre-deux-guerres was a time of “autarky” and inculturation - a belief, I might add, singularly anti-Defelian. Hence Zapponi’s broad favoring of the second twentieth century, which would finally “internationalize” and “secularize” Italian culture. Unfortunately, this thesis, so simple and straightforward on the surface, presupposes indemonstrable equivalences (“internationalization” and “secularization,” for example; or “secularization” and “progress”) and is belied by the facts. At the turn of the twenties and thirties, Italian culture was not as isolated and “provincial” as it was later portrayed to be; although many literati and artists chose to engage in localist narratives. It happens all over Europe. As for the category of “secularization,” I have tried to show what ambiguities it carries in the 1960s. Zapponi resorts to this category in a prescriptive, not descriptive sense. Today, however, we want to make sure that historiography does not fall into propaganda.

Of Lonzi, finally, you offer an alternative reading, one that tends to supplement, if not deconstruct, current narratives around her figure, calling into question her relationship with sacred art and her interest in Theresa of Lisieux, who was supposed to be featured on the cover ofSelf-Portrait.

Two “progressive” versions of Lonzi circulate today: the first, laudatory, according to which Lonzi still gravitates to the ideological universe of the institutional Left; and the second, disappointed, according to which Lonzi has somehow “betrayed” her “mandate” by withdrawing from the tasks of mobilization to develop her own peculiar, “mystical” and detached sense of feminism and “conflict.” I try to show that the two versions both remove what is most proper to Lonzi, deny her listening. The “political” dimension does not interest Lonzi except for a season that turns out to be very brief, as brief is the season of art criticism. Lonzi seeks herself in her every moment, and she does so without ever caring about “labels” or definitions. In fact, if we wish to understand her innermost motivations, we should refer to experiences that do not find an easy place either in the political sphere or in the cultural industry or university teaching. Experiences that Lonzi herself claims several times in a text such as Self-Portrait or elsewhere, and then measures herself against women’s religious memoirs of the seventeenth century. Hence the quotation of Aldo Moro in the exergue of my essay. I believe that the literary and religious culture of late Florentine Hermeticism-say, even the Catholic surrealism of Frontispiece-played a role neglected today in Lonzi’s formation. Can we speak, in his regard, of a search for “holiness” that takes place without first presumptuously claiming to define itself as “secular” rather than “religious,” or vice versa; and ends up relegating the antithesis to irrelevance? The choice of Teresa of Lisieux’s image as the cover of Self-Portrait is not simply bizarre nor does it constitute an isolated fact in Lonzi’s biography. It remains to grasp its provocative trait and sense that is anything but anecdotal.

The volume, in its generality, contains a reflection on post-unification Italy and its relationship with the Ancien Règimeart-historical tradition . According to this perspective, to what extent is the recovery of the Ancien Règime in the 1920s and 1960s to be read from a historical-political perspective?

Let us distinguish the two junctures. In the 1920s there is an attempt to restore a “morphological” continuity between the Ancien Régime and the present time-to remove backwards, so to speak, the Napoleonic caesura. What legal, political, economic models are most congenial to the “nation”? This is asked, from viewpoints that are mostly theological-political. Maurras, Barrès, Treitschke etc. adapted to the Italian historical-political context. The prevailing answer is that such models cannot be derived from the experience of parliamentary regimes. Comparisons, if anything, can be made with prewar Germany. In the 1960s both the domestic and international contexts change radically. We no longer have a nation that emerged victorious from World War I. Instead, a condition of full political-economic-military subalternity is experienced; to which, at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, the new artistic-cultural status of the United States is also added. There is a problem of survival of cultural heritage that has never before been posed with such drama. It is no coincidence that figurative artists feel it more and earlier than others (although Pasolini’s case, moreover, not isolated, is fully part of the story being reconstructed): religious history and art history, as Contini observes, have proceeded together for millennia in Italy. But unlike in the 1920s, the emphasis falls now, in the midst of the economic boom, on artistic, religious and social issues, all of which are provided with a cosmopolitan projection. The political horizon of “nation,” which had been of great importance in the decades between the Risorgimento and Fascism, now loses all relevance. Not everyone, at the time, has a sense of what is at stake: even only in the restricted sphere of contemporary art. Should we understand images as luxury artifacts reserved for wealthy private consumption, nothing more than fashion items; or otherwise? This is what Berenson, Levi, Moravia, Pasolini, de Martino, etc. ask themselves. Between the 1950s and 1960s, between the 1958 Biennial and the other, “American” Biennial of 1964, we have in Italy “apocalyptics,” “integrated” and “integrated” who do not recognize that they are, indeed profess to be “apocalyptic.” Decades later we can establish differences and better assess which, at the time, are the most appropriate points of view. Here we return to Carla Lonzi and her biographical and ideological singularity: a circumstance that, far from diminishing her, elevates her to the role of reliable witness. She never speaks for mercenary opportunities nor because she cultivates stubborn designs of political-academic self-positioning. This makes her persuasive.