Sabbioneta, an Italian utopia

Few places are as daunted by their past as Sabbioneta, the ideal city envisaged by Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna in the 16th century. The Duke Vespasiano was a minor member of the famous clan of the Gonzaga, who ruled the near-by city-state of Mantova. Between 1554 and his death in 1591, he dedicated his energies to transforming his little duchy, the forgotten and insignificant village of Sabbinetta, into a humanist’s utopia.

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Sabbionetta was supposed to host all the institutions and buildings that a secular cultured humanist could want and need: a frescoed palace with a public art gallery, a large library for scholars to browse his book collection, a municipal palace of government, a theater, a large piazza for public rallies, a church (to satisfy the local clergy) and a synagogue (to attract wealthy Jewish financiers), beautiful parks dedicated to leisurely activities, all surrounded by fortified defensive walls. Inspired by renaissance utopias, Vespasiano built an ideal city to match his political and moral vision as a scholar and art-loving enlightened ruler.

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Last winter I visited the city, located less than an hour from Mantova, and found a material example for the power of utopian projects and their inherent limitations. I arrived in Sabbioneta on a cold, rainy, winter day. The bus dropped me off at the gate of the walled city, now surrounded by green fields. I walked into the majestic city square, turned right and entered Vespasiano’s palace. The red-brick monumental building was cold and empty. The humanist duke, an ardent art collector, constructed his palace as a consequence of frescoed rooms that led to the ‘gallery of the antiques’, a large windowed corridor meant to host artefacts from the duke’s collection. Today, the rundown palace hosts temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit, an exhibition of photography by Andy Warhol enhanced the surreal atmosphere at the empty palace, an ironic suggestion that Vespasiano’s 15 minutes of glory had long passed.

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After a stroll in the abandoned synagogue (the Jewish community has long left for Mantova or Milan) and a visit in the local church that hosts Vespasiano’s mausoleum, I sought refuge from the chill of this ghost city in a local café. Between the renaissance monuments, the locals have constructed the necessary spaces for the survival of a small, unassuming Italian village: a couple of cafés and restaurants, a newspaper stand, a post-office and a hardware shop. At the café, the barista told me that even in summer, Sabbioneta lives only through the dreams of its founder. Very few people inhabit the old city, because its fame has raised the rents beyond the locals’ budget, while lack of commercial or industrial initiatives had increased employment.

The insistence on preserving the utopian vision of Vespasiano untouched and unspoilt has alienated many of the young local entrepreneurs. Without an active citizenry, Sabbioneta cannot rise above its mundane existence as a provincial village trapped in an ossified museum city. It lives in the eternal shade of the dead architectural realisation of one man’s political and cultural vision. Vespasiano may have been the perfect ruler, a philosopher-king who envisaged a perfect public life for his subjects. But his vision lived and died with him. He was unable to rally the support of the local population to ensure the continuity of his civil utopia. Without a demos, Sabbioneta has no life. Today, all that is left an empty buildings and a utopian dream, whose ambitious scale any local attempt to revive the city.

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Waiting for the bus back to Mantova, I thought that the etymology of Utopia, a non-place, suggested that the realisation of the ‘ideal city’ was a doomed project. Maybe the failure of Sabbioneta provides an opportunity for inward inspection, a soul-searching exercise for planners of contemporary utopias. 500 years after the publication of Thomas More’s celebrated book, a visit to Sabbioneta is a melancholic reminder of the difficulty of constructing a real place according to ideal plans.

 

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Review of A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci

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The final version of this review will be published in Political Studies Review, Volume 14 of the Journal, Issue 4, November 2016.

A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci (ed. and trans. by Derek Boothman). London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 2014.

This volume is a collection of the early letters of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Marxist political thinker and leader of the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci’s prison diaries, written during his long incarceration under the Fascist regime in Italy, appeared in English translation in 1994 and have since then become a reference point for theorists and historians alike. However, his earlier correspondence, dating from 1908-1926, have not yet been translated. The new collection offers therefore a much-needed addition to the English bookshelf of Gramsci’s works. During the two decades covered in this volume, Gramsci left his native rural Sardinia, discovered Marxism as a student at the University of Turin, and emerged on the national and international political scene as one of the key political leaders in Italy. As this volume reminds us, it is not sufficient to read the prison diaries to understand Gramsci’s thought. His social and political ideas were shaped while engaging actively in politics in Sardinia, as a student in Turin, as a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and its representative in Moscow, and finally in Rome. The collection includes two thirds of the known correspondence of Antonio Gramsci from his high school days up to his arrest, revealing his complex relations with his family, with his wife Julija Schucht, with other revolutionary activists like Palmiro Togliatti, Amedeo Bordiga, and with members of the Comintern in Moscow including Leon Trotsky.

As the editor and translator Derek Boothman suggests in his insightful introduction, the selection of letters sheds light on the evolution and continuities in Gramsci’s thought, tracing the early emergence through dialogue of key Gramscian themes like the nature of the superstructures of society, centralism and party politics, popular culture, passive revolution, hegemony and social alliances (49-50). Boothman’s introduction helps situate the letters in historical context, provides biographical details about Gramsci and his main interlocutors, and explains the conceptual meaning of the letters in the wider framework of his thought. The wide-ranging thematic scope of the letters – personal meditations, political commentary, policy plans for the Communist Party and theoretical reflections – offers a wealth of insights for scholars acquainted with Gramsci’s later writings as well as for first time readers of his work. The English translation from the original Italian is accurately and meticulously executed, paying attention to the different linguistic registers deployed by Gramsci in different periods in his life. Thus, this selection of letters represents a welcome addition to the English language sources by Gramsci and about his work.