By Gianna Albaum

Columbus famously mischaracterized the Americas as India, but this was only the most famous of a handful of instances of Columbus mistakenly labeling a territory: upon reaching South America in 1498, he erroneously concluded the he had found the Garden of Eden. Colonial rhetoric tends to be infused with references to the Garden of Eden, and in general, Italian colonial rhetoric is no exception to this rule. There is no dearth of travel literature describing the land of Africa as a lush, fertile paradiso terrestre [“earthly paradise”] and the African as a primitive and innocent buon selvaggio [“noble savage”] .

An illustration of Columbus' arrival in the Americas.
An illustration of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.

However, this is not the case until the turn of the century. Far from singing Africa’s praises, 19th century Italian explorer-cum-colonists typically described the North African territories as infernal, barren spaces. Giuseppe Matarazzo Carveni, who wrote Ricordi d’Africa (1889), is peculiar for his unwillingness to commit to either characterization of the African territories: even as he introduces his depiction of Massaua with a reference to Dante’s inferno, Carveni describes the inhabitants themselves as simple and “adamici” [“Adam-like”], existing in a state of idle indulgence.

Carveni wrote his memoir when Italian colonialism was largely an informal economic expansion on behalf of a handful of mercantile organizations. Carveni was among many Italian explorers who were dispatched to North Africa to map the territories and make an informal anthropological study of the peoples and cultures found therein. The first chapter of Carveni’s text, which describes the city of Massaua at length, is laden with religious allusions and references to the Garden of Eden and Hell. The following few paragraphs constitute an informal mapping of these references.

Carveni opens his description of Massaua with the infamous inscription above Hell’s entrance in Dante’s Inferno:

“Per me si va nella città dolente
Per me si va nell’eterno dolore
Per me si va nella fornace ardente…” (qtd. in Carveni, 11)

[“Through me the way to the suffering city
Through me the everlasting pain
Through me the way that runs among the Lost”]

This citation draws a direct parallel between Hell and the city of Massaua. Comparisons to hell are strikingly common in early Italian accounts of North Africa: Africa is viewed as not only unsophisticated, but characterized by an infernal climate and diabolical peoples. Carveni refers to the African servant boys that so many of the Italian explorers keep as “diavolett[i]” [“little devils”] (20).

The city of Massawa (Massaua in Italian) in context.
The city of Massawa (Massaua in Italian) in context.

Carveni bolsters such descriptions with a citation from a fellow explorer, Luigi Pennazzi, who wrote:

“[Massaua] essa una terra nuda, senza vegetazione, senz’acqua,; una città che di città ha solo il nome, composta di poche case, di cui le viuzze strette, intricate, polverose, luride, fetenti…si aggirano uomini nudi o semi-nudi, donne, ragazzi d’ogni sesso sporchi e cenciosi; dominando tutto un vago, indefinito puzzo, acre, nauseabondo…” (12).

“[Massaua] is a barren land, without vegetation or water; it is a city only in name, composed of few houses with narrow, dusty, lurid, malodorous alleyways…men and women roam about nude or almost nude, women, dirty and ragged children of both genders; a bitter, nauseating stench permeates everything…” (qtd. in Carveni 12)

Carveni divides Massaua into Arab and European neighborhoods: il quartiere arabo is inhabited by the indigenous peoples, while il quartiere europeo is to a greater extent occupied by and influenced by European people and organizations. The major differences between the European and Arab quarters, Carveni writes, is that the European quarters are very clean and have a variety of buildings and other markers of ‘civilization.’

Describing the Arab neighborhood, Carveni writes that as much as he wishes to explore the inhabitants’ dwellings — called tukùl — he is forced to “scappare” [“escape”] each time by the “puzzo insopportabile” [“unbearable stench”] as well as the “caldo soffocante” [“suffocating heat”] (13).The people please him no more than the land or the structures: the Arabs are described as having “l’aspetto del cretino” [“a moronic appearance”] and being “fiacco ed indolente” [“weak and lazy”] (14). Off all the ethnicities Carveni describes, the Abyssinians please him the most: they are described as having “forme invidiabili” [“enviable bodies”] and being “intelligente” [“intelligent”], which Carveni attributes to their lighter skin tone (14).

Carveni describes the Africans as “semplici, selvaggi, [ed] adamici” [“simple, primitive, and Adam-like”] (15), explicitly making a parallel to Adam in the Garden of Eden. They do not work, according to Carveni, preferring instead “una vita indolente” [“an indolent life”] and “passano il tempo fumando e dormendo sdraiati per terra” [“pass their time smoking and sleeping stretched out on the ground”] (15).

The Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch)
The Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch)

In religious terms, this Christian parallel not only contradicts the previous representations of Massaua as hell but the following description of the Abyssinians as strict followers of Islam. Carveni’s descriptions are difficult to understand because they are indeed so internally inconsistent. Just a few pages after Carveni describes the natives as spending most of their time in languid relaxation, he describes them as “attive, laboriose, [ed] instancabile” [“active, hardworking, and untiring”] (19).

The African women, according to Carveni, resemble the inhabitants only of the Garden of Eden to the extent that Eve was sinful: the young wives of the Africans are “condannate all’ozio e abbandonate al vizio” [“condemned to laziness and abandoned to vice”] (20) and of a “depravato e corrotto” [“deprived and corrupt”] nature. Here, the Abyssinians fare worse than the other African ethnicities: Carveni reports that almost all of the prostitutes are Abyssinian women.

After a lengthy tirade about the unbearable “infernale” [“infernal”] (31) heat that characterizes Massaua’s summer, Carveni concludes his narrative’s chapter on Massaua by saying:

“Ecco Massaua vera, nuda, reale, spoglia di tutte le vedute o le fantasie dei poeti; ecco il luogo scelto dall’Italia per piantarvi una colonia; ecco il tarlo roditore del paese nostro, che vi perde tanto denaro e tante nobili vite di bravi soldati!” (31)

[“Here is the real, bare Massaua, stripped of all poetic illusions and fantasies; this is the place chosen by Italy to establish a colony; here is our country’s parasitic worm, which loses us so much money and takes the lives of so many of our good, noble soldiers!”]

Works Cited:

Carveni, Giuseppe Matarazzo. Ricordi d’Africa. Tipografia del progresso, 1889.

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