By Gianna Albaum

In browsing early 20th century Italian poetry for references to Africa, I came across this collection of poems by a very famous Italian author called “Africa orrenda” or “Horrible Africa.” You will not be surprised to find that no one ever felt the need to translate this particular work, and so it’s an effectively ‘forgotten’ part of Mario Rapisardi’s oeuvre.

The first poem “Per l’eccidio di Dògali” (“For the Massacre at Dògali”) is about the crushing defeat suffered by the Italians in the city of Dògali at the hands of the Ethiopians in 1887. The Italians had a pretty serious case of national butt-hurt over this for approximately half a century. In fact, if you ever go to the major train station in Rome you’ll see the ‘Piazza dei Cinquecento’ (‘Plaza of the 500’) next door, which is a monument to the 500 soldiers killed in that battle.

I’ve attempted to translate this poem for what I believe is the first time — mostly because I’m using it to write my thesis, but also because I believe that the Italians shouldn’t get away with sweeping their colonial past under the proverbial rug. Here’s the first stanza:

Dai ghermiti scanni,

Razza maligna, inetta,

Che fra venali inganni

Pompeggiandoti abjetta,

Raccogli infami frutti

Dal disonor di tutti!

[“From their stolen seats,

The maligned, incompetent race

Through corrupt trickery

And despicable ostentation

Secured their shameful gains

By disgracing us all!”]

When I first read this, I was initially confused. Their ‘stolen seats’? ‘Secured their shameful gains’? Rapisardi here is addressing the Ethiopians…but shouldn’t the Ethiopians be saying that about the Italians? I mean, the Italians did kind of  invade their country, steal their resources, and put them in concentration camps and all that.

Believe it or not, this is actually a fascinating part of Italian colonial rhetoric: they refer to the Africans as ‘thieves’ constantly because they believe that, as the descendants of the Roman Empire, the Italians are the rightful owners of north-east Africa and the Ethiopians are treacherous usurpers.

The map above is a depiction of the Roman Empire in the year in 395 BCE. Obviously that includes the coastal areas of most of North Africa. And Italy didn’t control the areas inland — past the coastal areas — in any of their colonies until the Fascists took over the enterprise, anyway.

So in the colonial rhetoric, Libya has belonged to the Italians for 2000+ years, and now that they’ve officially unified and become a country — remember, ‘Italy’ didn’t exist as we know it until 1861 — they’re going to kick out the squatters. The Fascists even attempted to back this rhetoric up by uncovering a handful of Roman ruins, like this theatre in Libya.

So let’s back up here: why does this matter again? So a (renowned) Italian poet wrote a poem in 1896 in which he characterizes the Africans as usurping the land that rightfully belongs to Italians. We’re over it, right?

Well, no — we’re not. Postcolonial scholars often use the phrase ‘imagined geographies’ to talk about erroneous representations of ethnicities and/or nations. That is, there is an ‘imaginary‘ — that is, fictitious — understanding of a certain ‘race’/ethnicity or territory. Seems like the characterization of Libya as ‘stolen’ from the Italians probably constitutes an ‘imagined geography.’

The significance of ‘imagined geographies’ becomes clear when we think about the number of things in this world that we think we have information about but have never personally experienced. Have you ever been to Iraq? Have you ever seen a polar bear? Have you ever gone hunting? Have you ever been to the Wild West in the mid-1800’s? No? But I am confident that each of those questions evoked images and values and connotations in your head — and further, if you’re an American, I’m confident that the images and values and connotations in your head were pretty much the same as the ones in my head. Because to belong to a culture is to share a certain amount of cultural knowledge — we have the same imagined geographies in our heads. We all associate dry, desert sands and Islamic fundamentalists with Iraq, Antarctica and global warming with polar bears, camouflage and the Midwest and rednecks with hunting, and cowboys and saloons and outlaws with the Wild West.

Linguistically speaking, these are called ‘frames.’ Words are connected to other words in our brains. The words ‘rocking chair’ and ‘grandma’ are more closely connected than ‘rocking chair’ and ‘death penalty,’ right? — but try ‘electric chair’ and we’ve got a whole different story.

Now, some of these associations are relatively accurate. And thank goodness — most of our information about the world around us relies on our understanding of things we’ve never directly experienced not being misleading. (i.e. the law — I’ve never read the legal code; have you? But we know what’s illegal and what’s not, for the most part.) It’s when our understandings are incorrect that things start to get interesting. Would we have invaded the Iraq War if we hadn’t, as a country, had an incorrect ‘imagined geography’ planted in our head? The notion that the country is chock full of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists who hate America is a great example of an ‘imagined geography.’

This is the power of rhetoric: evoking frames to influence public opinion and ultimately policy decisions. Discourse matters. People often ask me, as the resident expert on Italy, how the Italians could have gone along with Mussolini and the Fascist regime. The answer isn’t that the Italians were dumb or under duress — in part, the answer is that Fascist discourse was really successful at creating and manipulating ‘imagined geographies.’

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