Poking a nose into Italy's past

Stephen Gundle on the tales a beloved wooden puppet has to tell about his creator's country

May 8, 2008

Carlo Collodi's creation Pinocchio is the best-known Italian literary character of the 19th and 20th centuries. First published in 1881, The Adventures of Pinocchio quickly became a classic of children's literature in Italy and beyond. Carved from a piece of wood by the carpenter Geppetto, Pinocchio is a puppet who dreams of being a real boy. The adventures he undergoes are all learning processes on the journey to his achievement of his aspiration. Although the story has become a universal one, in part due to the 1940 Disney animated film, there are strong Italian aspects to both the creation and reception of Pinocchio. Catholics and left-wingers advanced their own interpretations of Collodi's work, while critics continue to read into it the trials and tribulations of post-Unification Italy.

In this book, Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, an associate professor of Italian and comparative literature at Brown University, inserts herself in the latter current. What she calls "the Pinocchio Effect" is the attempt made in the decades following the creation of the Italian nation-state to forge a national "subject"; that is, to create, out of unpromising materials, fully fledged citizens who would be both modern and Italian. Taking as her point of departure Pinocchio's anomalous identity as a puppet with no strings who is keen to assert his independence, she examines the interplay of choice and obligation in the establishment of an autonomous Italian identity. Her aim is to show that the unattached Pinocchio is in fact attached in numerous ways to the cultural and ideological debates that blossomed between the 1860s and the early years of the 20th century. His anxieties, in this interpretation, are the anxieties that many Italian intellectuals felt about the lack of strong coordinates to place and orient the citizens of the new nation.

Stewart-Steinberg is not concerned with the history of what might be called the national idea. Rather she is preoccupied on the one hand with ideology and on the other with the form of bio-politics that found its most developed manifestation in positivism. Her approach is to interrogate textual materials, allowing text, context and theory to "inform each other (and) remain in dialogue and tension with each other". The topics selected for close analysis are eclectic. They include selected writings of three popular authors (Collodi, Matilde Serao and Edmondo de Amicis), the work of two pioneer criminologists (Scipio Sighele and Cesare Lombroso), the various writings and activities of leading educationist Maria Montessori, and the many contributions to a late 19th-century debate about infanticide.

The strongest chapters are those in which the Pinocchio metaphor is least mobilised. Stewart-Steinberg's analyses of some of the lesser-known writings of the highly prolific Lombroso on spiritualism and graphology, and her extended analysis of Montessori's various compromises with the religious and political establishments of her day (including Fascism) while she ostensibly remained independent of both, are fascinating. Through her discussion of Montessori and the infanticide debate, we see how images of motherhood were constructed and how and with what effects pregnancy and childcare were brought within the public realm. In other chapters, context suffers at the expense of text and theory.

A book such as this makes no real pretension at completeness since it is neither a social nor a cultural history of the period in question. It offers selected perspectives on aspects of the national identity question that together illuminate conflicts around matters of gender, the body and community. Even so, there are some curious omissions. Despite the fact that he wrote extensively on many of the issues treated in The Pinocchio Effect, the highly influential anthropologist, parliamentarian and popular author Paolo Mantegazza receives only one brief mention.

A certain unevenness of treatment aside, the book has the merit of highlighting new and complex issues in the formation of Italian national identity.

The Pinocchio Effect: On Making Italians, 1860-1920

By Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg

University of Chicago Press 400pp, £23.50

ISBN 9780226774480

Published 5 February 2008

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