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Italians and the Invention of Race: The Poetics and Politics of Difference in the Struggle over Libya, 1890-1913


This essay is part of a book in progress about Italy and Africa in the modern and modernist Italian literary imagination and cultural identity, from Gabriele d’Annunzio to Ennio Flaiano’s Tempo di uccidere (1947). It argues that racism, colonialism, and imperialism are not an incidental, minor (and thus, understandably largely forgotten) component of Italian identity and Italian history, but that in the final years of “Liberal Italy,” they became increasingly a defining trait of the imaginary Italian national identity. As in the Risorgimento, literature and the literary imagination played a crucial role in this unifying process. In a nation whose wealth and growth after unification were effectively based on the exploitation of voiceless women and peasants and where parliamentary politics was soon reduced to cynical maneuvers, bargains, and intrigues, intellectuals, writers, and idealists had sought in vain a principle around which a strong sense of national identity and community could, however belatedly, take form. An imaginary construction of racial difference and the fashioning of an imaginary “Italian” ethnic national identity, contributed more than any other element to unify Italians and give them the sense of being “one nation.” The word and concept razza in this period, are not used just as another way of saying patria, but rather to forge the sense of an imaginary yet essential identity. This imaginary sense of identity could entice and include even those who, like women, Catholics, Jews, peasants, and Southerners, were (or felt) excluded or alienated from the humanist discourse and the paternalistic yet secular rhetoric of Italian Risorgimental patriotism. This new imaginary identity was constructed and reinforced increasingly by applying the debasing colonial logic of otherness outside rather than inside the nation’s borders. The creation of an imaginary racially different and inferior “other” on the other side of the Mediterranean finally allowed for an Italian identity to come together as never before. The Libyan war was construed largely as a literary fantasy and a utopian wish-fulfillment. It represents the culmination of a racial process of self-definition by Italians, through which the profoundly disintegrating internal differences of race, gender, class, and religious belief that threatened the very notion of a united Italy were at once repressed, forgotten, and surpassed. Through the racialization of literary discourse, poets and prose writers took, for the first time in the history of united Italy, an active political role that in some ways was even more influential than that of professional politicians.

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