Arrivals and departures (II): on changing course and approaching the coastline.
Andrea Benincasa,  Atlante di carte marine. Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 81, f. d-5v-6r
Le rotte che abbiamo navigato
non erano certo le più brevi
nè le più sicure
ma viaggiavamo senza un portolano.
Pure così siamo arrivati in porto:
uno qualsiasi, non quello
che ci eravamo immaginati.
The routes we have navigated
were certainly not the shortest
nor the safest
but we travelled without a portolan
Yet we still made it to port:
a haphazard one, not the one
we had imagined.
One time, around midway on my usual path leading down from Via Ludovisi, where the Swiss Institute in Rome is located, to the Casa Internazionale delle Donne in Trastevere, I got slightly sidetracked and the walk took on a seemingly spiritual turn. Travelling through Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, I first crossed the Largo dei Chiavari then Via del Paradiso: calvary and paradise, a small city block apart. Better yet, between the two streets was the store Stravaganze Romane. How fortunate to get lost in this city. It had delivered, almost ready-made, the plot for a new text: what separated the quintessence of suffering from the arrival in paradise was indulging in Rome’s many extravagances.
Turns out my translation of chiavari had been off; the subsequent correction proceeded to shipwreck my pretense of a script. “Calvary” in plural form should have given it away. Though the term is permitted as a metaphor for the prolonged and painful ordeals we all experience, there is only one Calvàrio and it refers to the place of the crucifixion. The same logic holds for the Botteghe Oscure; a toponym that, despite its plural form, referred to the address of an organization of which there could only be one: the Partito Comunista Italiano.
As former activist Letizia Paolozzi wrote recently on the occasion of the party’s centenary, that name was the bearer of “a project of transformation [along with] thousands of fragments of life.” With the name-change in 1992 – to the vague, if not dubious moniker of Partito Democratico della Sinistra [Democratic Party of the Left] –, the transformation project was thrown overboard. Crucially, writes Paolozzi, the “identity of millions of people” that had been a part of it was also “denied” in the process, their “feelings, ideas, discussions” having been trampled upon (See, Una Femminista e il Pci: un raconto [A feminist and the PCI: a chronicle] at https://www.donnealtri.it).
As for my text idea, it had some life in it yet. According to the Treccani, a chiavaro (the regional form for chiavàio) was someone entrusted with the keys to a shop, a warehouse, or the treasury. So it was not the calvary that opened up the doors to paradise; holding the keys to the treasury did. Romans could dispense with my irony, it seemed.
An archive and library I consulted frequently in the months I was in Rome is Archivia, one of the most extensive documentation centers for the women’s movement in Italy. It was established in 2003 together with the Casa Internationale delle Donne at Via della Lungara, 19 – named for its considerable Tiber-flanking length (770m). The actual entrance to the documentation center is, however, on a side street, i.e., at Via della Penitenza.
According to the Enciclopedia Cattolica (1948, v. 9, p. 1106), penitenza (penitence) is “a sacrament instituted by Christ” whose observation – “in connection to an ecclesiastical judgement” – has the power to “remit sins.” The term has its roots in the Ancient Greek notion of “metanoia” (μετάνοια), meaning a change of judgment or view. Crucially, Greeks and Christians saw the extent of self-transformation in very different terms. In Christian doctrine, it is a process of reconciliation with God that implies the sinner’s “total conversion,” that is, the “complete transformation… of the way of thinking, acting and living” (p. 1105).
In Greek antiquity, on the other hand, the “change of opinion or decision, the alteration in mood or feeling… may be for the bad as well as the good.” Moreover, “the reference is always to an individual instance of change of judgment or remorse.” Hence, for the Greeks, “μετάνοια never suggests an alteration in the total moral attitude, a profound change in life’s direction, a conversion which affects the whole of conduct.” (See: μετανοέω/μετάνοια, Theological dictionary of the New Testament, 1964–, p. 5)
The link between changing viewpoint and adopting a new attitude towards life, between self-transformation and transformation of the world, was a central problem for Italian feminism throughout the 1970s. It was an issue that the preceding explosion of rebellion, the 1968 moment, had fundamentally failed to address. Reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of those events (see Uguaglianza/differenza, la rottura politica del femminismo  at https://www.centroriformastato.it), Maria Luisa Boccia stressed that while the young female protagonists of the student uprising would make up “the numerically most relevant component of feminism in the early 1970s”, it does not follow that ’68 was “the political and cultural origin of feminism.” The relationship between the two phenomena is marked, in fact, by a dynamic of both overlap and repulsion. “In the decisive early phase of the university occupation,” Boccia recounts, “there was an intertwining between life and politics that swept away the pre-existing forms, instruments, and meanings associated with both terms.” For women, in particular, this “active, not sudden, removal of difference was obviously crucial.”
However, Boccia argues, this collective gesture of “clearing the terrain” swept away difference to such an extent that it ultimately “mystified equality.” The shift to “more traditional concepts and practices of politics” that followed ended up “leaving existential politics in the background.” Young female participants in the movement started to realize that the “power logic” – and accompanying notion of a necessary “frontal attack to the system” – that post-1968 organizations converged to “overwhelmed the invention of another kind of politics, another way to think and practice it.” For these actors, then, if 1968 was a question, feminism was their attempt at a response. A response that, in turn, was itself formulated as a lingering doubt: “who am I as woman?”.
Even if she belonged to a different generation than the protagonists of the student rebellion, with her seminal Sputiamo su Hegel [Let’s spit on Hegel – 1970], Carla Lonzi (1931-1982) was intervening in a social arena that the events of 1968 had helped to shape. Lonzi argued that men “have always searched for life’s meaning beyond and against life itself,” whereas for women, “life and the meaning of life constantly overlap.” Hence her conclusion that “women are immanence, men transcendence” and that “men have had to negate her”— i.e., femininity as immanence — “to kickstart the course of history.” Yet, as Lonzi stresses, contrary to what “the male, the genius, the visionary” believe, “the fate of the world is not to always move forward”:
The unexpected fate of the world lies in restarting the pathway to trail it with the woman as subject. Let us recognize in ourselves the capacity to make out of this instant a total transformation of life. […] We deny the myth of the new man as an absurdity. The concept of power is the element of continuity in male thought and, hence, of every final solution. The concept of women’s subordination follows it like a shadow. Every prophecy based on these premises is false. […] The goal does not exist; the present does. We are the dark past of the world; we realize the present (Sputiamo su Hegel/La Donna Clitoridea e la Donna Vaginale e Altri Scritti, Milano: Rivolta Femminile, 1974, pp. 60-61).
Lonzi’s ‘total transformation of life’ did not aim to reconcile the individual with a higher order of things they had been out of tune with, as in the Christian practice of penitence, but equated the act of fundamentally changing one’s life to a radical form of being in (and re-fashioning) the present. During my subsequent research in Italy, I was surprised to find an echo of this formulation in an article by Adriana Seroni (1922-1984), a figure that, with the exception of their shared birthplace in Florence, had little in common with Carla Lonzi. Seroni was a PCI ‘lifer’, who had joined the party in 1944 — alongside many partisan women—steadily rising through its ranks until she took charge of its women’s section in 1968. A decade later, having played a key mediating role between her party and the challenge directed to it by feminist collectives, Seroni gave a definition of feminism that highlighted the overarching nature of the phenomenon and its impact beyond the movement sphere:
Either feminism identifies itself tout court with the groups that self-define as feminist … or it refers itself to an infinitely more vast and diversified reality; to a revolt of consciousness that encompasses large masses of women and which, even if departing from different take-off points and searching for different possibilities of solutions, aims to call into question women’s entire manner of being and leading their lives (hence, of men as well). (in La questione femminile in Italia: 1970-1977, Ed. Riuniti, 1977, p. 274).
For an activist that would never expressly call herself a feminist, Seroni displays a surprising grasp of the movement’s significance and goals. She had seen many women comrades incorporate feminist ideas and adhere to feminist collectives. The practice of double militancy– i.e., simultaneous activism in the party and the collective – became if not widely accepted, at least tolerated in the PCI under her watch.
Nevertheless, her last remark – anche, quindi dell’uomo – remains the most surprising in this plural and, perhaps, still valid attempt at a definition of feminism. It took me back to the event that put my life on a different course a few years ago — my divorce — and to the first feminist reading that followed it, recommended by a friend who had known me and my ex-partner; the first thing I should do, Edna said, was read bell hooks’ The will to change:
It is true that masses of men have not even begun to look at the ways that patriarchy keeps them from knowing themselves, from being in touch with their feelings, from loving. To know love, men must be able to choose life over death. They must be willing to change.
That shift in life was quick to impact my research, which gained a new orientation. While working on an important strand of the communist movement in the 1970s, so-called ‘Eurocommunism,’ and how its roots and many of its most enthusiastic followers were actually in Latin America, I learned there was more than a chronological coincidence between that phenomenon and the global feminist upsurge of the same decade. In the case of Italy, at least, the communist and feminist movements had in many ways ‘intertwined’ during the 1970s. I would later learn that had been the case elsewhere, too (Spain and Brazil, to name just the two other cases I’ve engaged with). Shifting the focus of my research to the relationship of communists and feminists led me to realize, however, that relatively little had been written on communist women, whether by (the mostly male) historians of communism, or even by historians of the women’s movement. Because communist women are often considered as “not really” feminists (or at most as suspect ones) they have been mostly left out of the movement’s story. I had, in other terms, found a (mostly) overlooked constellation of 1970s political and social struggle whose protagonists were only eager to reflect on nowadays.
With it also came a renewed set of written sources and their archives, eventually leading me to Rome’s Via della Penitenza. It also brought a certain apprehension. Ever since this shift in research focus, I had been expecting some form of confrontation from female colleagues, archivists or oral history sources as to what business I had with this subject. But it never came; neither in interviews and talks with former PCI and left-feminist militants, nor in exchanges with the small (and very generous) community of researchers dedicated to the topic. I have been met, at most, with curiosity as to what had brought me to this research subject. This text is, in fact, the first attempt to openly articulate its place in my own trajectory.
The single vague allusion to my gender in the context of this research was instead a humorous – though consequential – one. I was working at Archivia when Giovanna Olivieri, the main archivist, noticed I had taken off my shoes while examining some sources and remarked I “must be really feeling right at home.” I was indeed. The archives of the women’s movement I have worked in are incredibly welcoming spaces. Olivieri added that I would not get away with it in other Italian libraries. For some reason, my lax manners took her back to her experiences as a student in a particularly strict Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze in the 1980s, where she had assisted a more senior researcher on a survey of the origin of Corsican toponyms. Her main sources had been portolans (portolani), a term that was new to me. Giovanna gave me an overview of what they consisted of, i.e., navigational aids widely used in the medieval Mediterranean. Digging deeper, I learned the portolan provided a fertile vantage point on my research.
According to Evelyn Edson’s The World Map, 1300-1492 (Baltimore, 2007), portolans were, in essence, “sailing directions, ancestors of the pilot books still used today” (p. 37). They appeared “some time before 1300” and built “on a substantial experience of sea travel”(42). Indeed, as a product of accumulated practice, they had considerable accuracy, even by current standards. As primarily written works that stood alone or accompanied the first medieval sea charts, they were structured differently than modern maps. Portolans provided, namely, not only the “distance between different points on the coast and directions to follow from one place to another,” but also included “navigational information such as prevailing winds, freshwater supplies, hazards, and landmarks” (37).
A typical portolan included descriptions of “landmarks visible from the sea, such as towers, churches, and mountains,” but also “warnings of shoals and reefs, descriptions of sea currents, and landing conditions” (39). In other words, they charted reference points and hazards that were readily identifiable when coming ashore and others that were not.
Over the last two years, I have surveyed how representatives of two major twentieth-century movements, communism and feminism, attempted to approach each other’s shores and landmasses. If there were conflicts (and even shipwrecks), joint struggles and successful alliances also occurred. Some actors even began inhabiting and transiting both spaces. In attempting to write a history encompassing these various instances, I realized that while the lexicon of divergence in contemporary discourse has become rich and variegated over the last few decades—a welcome development— our vocabulary of convergence has evolved little since the 1970s and 1980s. (What terms can we mobilize, besides “intersectionality” and going “beyond the fragments”?) The goals of my research, then, closely mirror those of a portolan: without erasing difference, how can we chart paths towards common struggle again? What can we learn from those actors that, in the different circumstances of seas past, changed course and found a way to safely approach the coastline of islands not their own, arriving where perhaps they did not expect?
Started in the second half of 2021, finished in São Paulo in March 2022.