Fighting art with art in Bolzano

In Oxford we argue over the future of the Rhodes statue, but in Italy they have found a new solution

Hannah Arendt installation, Source: Wikimedia Commons

“No one has the right to obey”, declare Hannah Arendt’s luminous words. Hanging in a mostly deserted square in the small northern Italian town of Bolzano, they partially obscure the façade behind. Seemingly paradoxical, the German political thinker’s words, taken from a radio interview in 1964, are written here in all three official languages of the region – Italian, German and Ladin (one of Europe’s rarest languages).

They force the passing observer to reflect on the 36-meter-long Fascist carving before which they hang. A mounted Mussolini is partially obscured and the words on the original carving, a Fascist motto, “believe, obey, fight” pale into the ageing sandy façade. No one has the right, Arendt seems to say, to use obeying orders as an excuse for atrocity.

The original bas-relief, which covers the length of the former fascist headquarters in Piazza Tribunale, is one of the standing reminders of totalitarian control in this area. Once a part of Austria, the region was taken over at the end of the First World War and ‘italianised’ with the purposeful immigration of Italian speakers and active prejudices against the German-speaking population.

Nowadays, following years of violence and upset, day-to-day tensions seem minimal and the two communities live amicably side by side, rubbing shoulders with little friction. However, monuments to the past remain and, understandably, cause distress. This carving, which depicts a history of Italian fascist reign, is one such example. As the world considers how to deal with pieces of art or architecture which act as reminders of a bleak or shameful past, Bolzano has begun to fight art with art and history with history.

Trying to decide how best to represent and appease the people to whom this city is home, in 2011, the council held a competition, asking local artists to suggest ways to alter the façade in order to condemn its message but to keep intact what some consider to be an important piece of historical artwork. Finally, this year, the new piece was revealed, a monument perhaps to unity or maybe to compromise.

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Standing in the square, it is striking just how imposing this new installation is on the passing pedestrian, mostly businessmen on their lunch break. The square features a great deal of interesting architecture and other pieces of art, but Arendt’s words quite literally shine out amongst them. The square also holds written information about the contents of the original façade and the new piece of artwork. These informative bollards are placed so awkwardly in the middle of the square that you almost trip over them walking backwards to take a better look. They really don’t want you to miss this.

In a global social climate where debate about what to do with controversial historical statues is rife, Bolzano seems to be placing themselves firmly and defiantly in the middle. Recently, students at Liverpool University struck up debate over the use of Gladstone’s name in the university which they say, in perpetuating his legacy, turns a blind eye to his links with slavery.

Last year, our own University’s long-standing feud over the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes ended in a kind of inaction which spoke volumes. Across the pond, confederate statues have become the epicentre of violent clashes. Globally, it seems, people are facing up to history and its effect on the present. Here in Bolzano, there is no doubting their intentions. Those who say that such pieces need to remain as a monument to the past, rather than taken down in an attempt to hide it, are appeased while at least some stance against the atrocities of the past is still taken.

Of course there are objections to this approach. Some locals consider the act a cowardly sidestep away from decisive action. The regional representative of Forza Italia went even further and is quoted in a newspaper as calling this one of the “constant, small steps […] towards the erasure of history and Italian identity” in the region. However, there is certainly something to say for the province’s work. Not only have they taken action here in Piazza Tribunale, they also built a museum directly below the Victory Monument which had been constructed as a reminder of Italian control of the region, which many felt was a direct insult to the German-speaking population. Now, one is forced to consume, not only its impressive grandeur, but also its divisive history.

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Standing before the bas-relief, as when you stand under the Victory Arch, you face what was once a lifeless façade, a kind of ingrained propaganda. Now, it exudes educative history, a glowing monument to history’s instructional value.