by Rosalyn D`MelloDec 10, 2021
I hadn't been sufficiently warned about the first sight one encounters upon exiting the train station at Parma, Italy; one that was certainly not on our itinerary. At first glance the triptych of statues is somewhat camouflaged by surrounding foliage. Despite occupying sizeable space in the piazza just outside the station, the monument wore an abandoned look, whether deliberately or incidentally was hard to say. Italy, like the rest of Europe, is littered with all kinds of questionable memorials, which, justifiably, either came under closer scrutiny or were even defaced when movements such as Black Lives Matter entered mainstream consciousness. I was tempted to disregard this one. I was in Parma to appease my appetite, not necessarily to even play tourist, and certainly not as an art critic. Located in the Emilia-Romagna region, Parma was a four-hour train ride from Bolzano (South Tyrol), where I live, with a layover in Bologna. It was small enough to be explored over a weekend and didn’t boast too many overwhelming sights, making it ideal as a weekend getaway for people like us traveling with a six-month-old child.
At first glance three black metal-cast figures loom into view, all variously positioned upon what appears to be a rocky hill. The one occupying the summit is invested with authority, leading me to infer that he must certainly be a white male. He is rendered as if striking a casual pose, his face obscured by the helmet atop his head, signifying his potential status as a soldier, while his body rests upon what seems like a sword. The other two figures lie to his left and right, in postures of clear submission. Though they bear arms, it is clear they have been conquered and have surrendered to the person at the summit. The assemblage of figures is encircled around an area that is meant to hold water but is bone dry, either the consequence of neglect or the recent heat wave. The two submissive figures are barely clothed, and don tribal-seeming headgear. My partner soon recognised the visual idiom—Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.
The figure being memorialised was Vittorio Bottego, a native of Parma with many claims to fame, chief among them being his ‘pioneering’ explorations in the Horn of Africa. The two bodies that lay conquered below his feet were representations of the rivers Oma and Juba, which he had successfully navigated. A sign offered more explanation, but only in Italian, which my partner translated for me. Posted by an institution called ‘Musei Urbani’, it pinned the monument as the fifth stop on a route called ‘La Città in Colonia’, subtitled, ‘Colonialism and its Monuments’. I thus learned that the monument had been completed in 1907 by Ettore Ximenes. Bottego had led expeditions in 1891 between the Bay of Assab and the city of Massawa. The next year he made his second expedition to explore the Juba River and arrive at its source. His third expedition, fuelled by the motive of creating new access routes from the south to Ethiopia, was curtailed by his death at the hands of revolting Ethiopian soldiers at Daga Roba.
As we advanced further into Parma, walking along the river, crossing other questionable memorials, we continued to process what it meant for such a monument to continue to exist in the postcolonial present. The Musei Urbani intervention, at the very least, acknowledged the monument’s rootedness within Italy’s colonial past, but the absence of a critical nerve underriding their text made of it a token gesture. Intriguingly, the Musei Urbani website has a slightly more postcolonial edge, but it still glosses over vast chunks of the monument’s history. The only indication we had at the time of our visit of any local protest towards the monument’s construction was in the form of another sign by Musei Urbani at the site of the Fascist monument to Filippo Corridoni on the other side of the Parma river, the Oltretorrente. By the end of the 19th century, we were told, the Parma stream separated the city into two unequal quarters. The east side was where the bourgeois lived and was the economic and political centre, while the western side, the Oltretorrente, was the proletarian part, the site of an anti-colonial movement. The mix of poorer inhabitants and university students allowed for unrest and demonstrations. In March 1896, when Italy was defeated at Adua in Ethiopia, which was when Bottego was killed, there were two days of clashes and riots, with the socialist students and inhabitants confronting the authorities. This section of society contested Italy’s expansionist policies in Ethiopia and later in Libya. On September 26, 1907, at the time of the inauguration of the monument, there were, therefore, dissidents. It was in the archival photograph reprinted on the poster that we realised that Bottego’s statue originally faced east, to symbolise his regard towards the unknown. It was in 2014, when it was re-installed after almost four years of renovation work carried out in the piazza that its orientation was changed towards the north. What could have been an opportunity to erase the statue completely from the city’s landscape instead became a moment for restoring it.
Upon returning home I began to unpack the implications of the monument’s existence and read more about its chequered history. It was clearly not a relic of the past, considering efforts at preserving it were made as recently as 2014. I found an extensively researched paper co-written by two scholars, Latino Taddei and Domenico Vitale that rather thoroughly scrutinised the monument’s history. Learning that public funding for its construction was not forthcoming was a source of some succour. One of the significant reasons it got built was because the artist, Ettore Ximenes, offered his services for free, a testimony to how much awe he held towards Bottego. The committee that had been formed to honour Bottego’s memory had an inkling about the problematic nature of their endeavour. It was clearly forces like the Freemasons, of whom Bottego was a member, the geographical society, who had funded some of his missions, and the army that facilitated the melting of the metal for next to nothing that contributed to the sculpture’s erection. It was Ximenes who conceived the triangulation of the three figures, hoisting Bottego as the heroic explorer who conquered the Horn of Africa as part of his ‘civilising mission’. The paper outlines the socialists’ attempts to critique the monument’s construction, including the accusations levelled against Bottego that suggested that his alleged heroism was not for Italy’s greater glory so much as to collect ivory. I learned later (from the Musei Urbani website), that Bottego had also managed to amass a zoological collection between 1889 and 1891 consisting of animals he hunted in Africa, which he shipped off to Parma. This possibly served the basis for his mission being imbued with a scientific touch. In 1907, in conjunction with the monument’s unveiling 10 years after his death, the Eritrean Museum, named after Bottego, was also inaugurated. It consists of Eritrean fauna of different species as well as objects belonging to African people, and ethnographic material such as weapons, masks, and daily objects that were collected by the Parmesan officer, Emilio Piola in Congo during the Belgian colonisation. The Bottego Museum continues to be housed within the Natural History Museum of the University of Parma.
Taddei and Vitale’s paper not only offers a more engaging and significant account of the controversies that surrounded the monument’s construction, but also draws attention to how the myth of Bottego’s heroism was cemented by the Fascists whose propaganda involved elevating his status as an Italian who conquered Africa. The Fascist regime drew on this history to stage their invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, which was successful at the time. They then proceeded to build a monument to Bottego at the site of his alleged ‘martyrdom’ at Daga Roba, which was eventually demolished by Ethiopians when they took back their lands from the Italians. The paper also refers to a 2020 article by the author of Somali descent living in Italy, Igiaba Scego, that lists this monument as controversial and mentions that the monument had been part of the guided tour Africa in the City in 2017, while in 2020, it was the subject of the online meeting, The Explorer lost in Oblivion.
What deflated and punctured the visual supremacy of the monument was the subversive sight of so many coloured bodies at Parma’s most public area, the historic Pilotta complex. Its browning almost eclipsed another monstrous sculpture by Ximenes dedicated to the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, a celebrated Parma legend. Ximenes clearly curried favour with the powers that be. Offering his labour for free earned him more contracts, it would seem, in addition to being offered citizenship and honour. The Verdi memorial was much larger and what remains is what was not bombed during the Second World War. It is an ugly male fantasy; Verdi surrounded by nude female bodies meant to represent muses. The figuration feels clumsy, even kitschy. But it totally faded into the background, given that the whole area was simply abuzz with black and brown bodies. It being a Saturday, all the locals were dressed in colourful attire and were having informal picnics and gatherings. There was singing, laughter, and everyone was busy living. I thought perhaps it was finally time to read Afropean: Notes from Black Europe (2019), the book by Johnny Pitts that a friend of African descent had recommended to me last year that had been making waves since its release. It has an on-point description of what constitutes structural racism, ‘racism that is inherent in a society, even if not consciously in individuals, because of the way it is organised to place white people in positions as bearers and inheritors of privilege accrued through exploitation.’ As we made our way to the restaurant where we hoped to lunch, we came upon Maurizio Nannucci’s 190-metre neon inscription upon the façade of the Pilotta complex, which certainly rang like an obvious truth—time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.