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Italy and the Epistemes of Contagion: Touch, Contact, Distance

Issue cover
Cover Caption:Aghades (2020) by Ramzi Harrabi. 100cm x 70cm. Acrilico su tela.

Cristiana Giordano and Rhiannon Noel Welch, Editors

Leslie Elwell, Managing Editor

Touch, Contact, Distance

"Moribondo Cristo le rispose:/non mi toccare!" Touch, Isolation, and the Agonizing Flesh in Amelia Rosselli’s Variazioni belliche

The theoretical responses that constellate the recent debates around the pandemic often neglect the contradictory, painful tensions that arise in the aftermath of historical lacerations. What would it mean to approach the lyric, instead, when thinking about the diseased body, the dangers and potentialities of isolation, and the everyday fear of contagion? How could we turn to an understanding of poetry that might proudly elude a practical answer, escape the assumed (but not always achieved) lucidity of a comforting solution, and help us grasp the ineffability of the current crisis? Some of Amelia Rosselli’s Variazioni belliche (1964) could lead us into thinking beyond the mediatic hygiene that bombards us with graphs and projected figures, thus disclosing an eidetic and experiential horizon able to illuminate the present (in a way, to infect it). One of Rosselli’s lyrics, in particular, comments upon (and dislodges) the prohibition of touching contained in the Noli me tangere story, echoing the long-lived fascination that Western critical theory has felt towards Judeo-Christian tales as sites of “critical inquiry”. Delving into Rosselli’s lyrics will offer a glimpse of a new language of loss and seclusion able to question the well-worn constructs through which we are accustomed to reading the pandemic: beyond the abstraction of the biopolitical subject, and the numeric reports circulated by the media, the poet conflates civic participation and solitude, invoking the materiality of death and of the sacred within the vertigo of a personal and epochal shift.

Women Bridled and Unbridled: Contagions of Shame and Maladies of Governance in the Decameron

This article revisits a subject that has been treated plenty: misogynist discourses in Boccaccio's Decameron. Nevertheless, I submit that such medieval normative discourses are both spread and contained by the brigata ladies themselves as they seek shelter and safety away from a plagued Florence. In their determination to preserve their lives, however, the ladies are reluctant to risk their honor, which is intertwined with Dante’s definition of nobility (i.e., "una vera salute") and of women's shame as recorded in the Convivio . With shame and nobility shaping both womanhood and women's governance in the Decameron, I examine the dynamics of female shame-honor in the text and its silencing and reining effects in gender politics. My study focuses on the speeches of two queens—Filomena and Emilia—and how these are challenged by the stories they tell themselves. Day 9, under Emilia's rule, provides us with analogies between human and non-human animals (e.g., horses and mules) which in turn threaten Filomena's preventative measures in keeping women’s safety and honor as observed in the frame tale and Day 2. It is these contradictions and many other stories (2.9, 7.2, 8.1, 9.9 and 9.10 analyzed to a greater extent herein) that expose women's situated vulnerability as much as their complicity. Last but not least, my article ends with a coda that evinces yet another layer of shame with a very different function and effect, namely the authorial shame-modesty staged in the vernacular masterpieces of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. With each poet exhibiting a distinct source of their vergogna, this article points to the tre corone shame variants as symptomatic of their vulnerable poetic status as they dare to produce and innovate Italian vernacular literature.

Alessandro Manzoni’s Historical Works: Passionate Immunity and the Limits of the Dialectic

The free movement of viral matter—whether biological or ideological—threatens the free movement and total control of the liberal, humanist, white-propertied-male individual. I highlight this tension as exhibited in Alessandro Manzoni’s the Promessi sposi and the Storia della Colonna Infame, and set it alongside ongoing legacies of misogyny and racism, which facilitate  economic determinism under global capitalism by dissolving social bonds. I complicate Fredric Jameson’s assertions of Manzoni’s latent agitation for change, which he discovers in the latter’s recourse to a Manichean worldview in the Promessi sposi, by pointing to the exclusionary patterns in Manzoni’s organizing schemes. In particular, I examine how in both the Promessi sposi and the Storia della Colonna Infame, the category of “woman” is inserted, sacrificially, to close the gap of uncertainty pried open by the historical inquiry. I address how Manzoni’s advocacy for liberal, possessive individualism mismatches his notions around the necessarily “passionate” transmission of ideas from an author to a reader; and how his purported interest in reanimating history is curbed by a manifest fear of la folla—of bodies in public, in proximity, that are therefore vulnerable to contagion and the violation of “individuality.” I relocate the problem of sameness that Manzoni warns about, to the limits of the dialectic: its exclusionary structure that always regathers itself into a single, ascendant line, incapable of accommodating difference. Reading between different lines than Jameson, then, I suggest that Lucia’s starkly other role to Renzo’s “self” in the Promessi sposi conveys a glimmer of a radically feminist political subjectivity.

In Defense of Moral Contagion: Annie Vivanti's Naja Tripudians and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

In Annie Vivanti’s Naja Tripudians (1920), London has been struck by a moral contamination that, spreading out from the center, has reached the sleepy rural village of Wild-Forest, where it will infect and eventually consume Leslie and Myosotis Harding. Though their father is a contagious disease specialist, he proves entirely incapable of protecting them from this contagion—and not only because it is home-grown. Perhaps more significantly his failure has to do his reliance on strategies of isolation and confinement, which not only prove ineffective in shielding his daughters from danger but also render them paradoxically more susceptible to the contagion. Although the novel was written during the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, critics have given little attention to the figures of immunity and contagion that structure the novel. By attending to these discourses, I argue that this novel can be read as anticipating in important respects Esposito's reflections on immunity. Though many have seen Naja Tripudians as a morality tale, I argue that the novel is better understood as a kind of 'anti-morality' tale, warning against the immoral things that result from resisting immoral things. The immunitary logic of the novel seems to suggest, in the end, that the preservation of moral virtue requires that we expose ourselves to the source of contamination, perhaps that we even behave a little badly ourselves.

Of Nakedness and Clothing: Primo Levi’s Affective Compromise

By bringing together literary studies and affect theory, this article shows how Primo Levi understands the Holocaust as an assault on human pudore, constantly negotiating his testimony (as well as his writing at large) in a productive tension between exposure and modesty. At the level of content, his testimonial works present “la natura insanabile dell’offesa, che dilaga come un contagio” with specific reference to the Nazi attack on both external and internal layers of defense, involving a spoliazione in the sense of a literal stripping naked as well as a moral plundering. As a reaction to such a negative process, Levi configures his writing by means of a stylistic practice informed by pudore – as evident from his constant appeal to avoidance language, understatement, and irony – that he himself describes as rivestire people and facts with words. Through the analysis of tropes of nakedness and clothing in Levi's works, this paper shows how the Turinese writer responds to the “contagio del male” of Auschwitz by appealing to an affective compromise – both partially waiving his own sense of pudore when putting into words what he endured and witnessed in the camp, and, at the same time, managing to partially restore the modesty and human decency so brutally denied in the concentration camp precisely through the mode of testimonial representation.

Boccaccio's Pisan Allegory of "Death" in Petrarch's Triumphus Mortis

From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, viral contagions, such as the Black Death of 1348, disrupted many social, political, and economic parts of life, situating the idea and the reality of Death in mass numbers at the forefront of late medieval and early Renaissance minds. Responding to the anxieties experienced by the thousands, literary and visual texts from this period emphasized the personification of Death as an imposing figure and common threat. This paper traces the visual evolution of the figure of Death which, I argue, developed according to intertextual and intervisual dialogues among Francesco Petrarca’s Triumphus Mortis, Giovanni Boccaccio’s L’Amorosa visione, and the fresco known as the Triumph of Death by Buonamico Buffalmacco in the Pisa Camposanto. While early visual portrayals of Petrarch’s Triumphus Mortis attest to the renewed interest in the “Triumph of Death” in the decades immediately following the 1358 plague, most artists depict a chariot atop which Death rides during a “triumphal” procession, painted elements that are not explicitly recounted in Petrarch’s text.  I investigate the reasons for this cross-contamination between word and image around the “Triumph of Death,” demonstrating further how Boccaccio’s engagement with funerary rituals informed his Amorosa visione, as well as his viewing of the Pisa Camposanto. The fusion of live-action pageantry with the visual “Triumph of Death” provided Petrarch with an intermedial model for his Triumphus Mortis, to which later artists turned for inspiration in depicting figures within and beyond the poet’s Trionfi. Such intermedial dialogues across art and poetry resonated with audiences striving to overcome the indiscriminate nature of Death and the fear of disease during a most unsettling historical moment.

“If You Dance Alone, You Cannot Be Healed”: Relational Ontologies and "Epistemes of Contagion" in Salento (Italy)

In this article I focus on neo-animist, relational ontologies that are active within and beyond contemporary Pagan communities in the Salento area of Italy. By addressing case-studies such as "spiritual neotarantismo," the querelle around the Xylella Fastidiosa epidemics that has been affecting olive trees, and NoTAP activism, I argue that many Salentinians today pursue health and well-being by embracing neo-animist attitudes that consider human and non-human persons alike as kin. By analyzing these neo-animist stances in conversation with the work of the philosopher Roberto Esposito, I will offer examples of ways of being in which "contact, relationality, and being in common" are not "liquidated" (Esposito, Welch, and Lemm 2021a), but fostered and put at the center of personal and collective practices of well-being and of political activism.

A Genius from the Insane Asylum: Political Pathologies of a Nineteenth-Century Lunatic

This article examines the relationship between physician Enrico Morselli and his patient, Giovan Virgilio Antonelli, who he diagnosed as suffering from political insanity. The article examines medical-political etiologies, the understanding of symptoms for a moral disease, as well as fears of contagion and the unique dangers posed by the politically insane in post-Risorgimento Italy.