Italian Industrial Literature and Film

Perspectives on the Representation of Postwar Labor

by Carlo Baghetti (Volume editor) Jim Carter (Volume editor) Lorenzo Marmo (Volume editor)
Edited Collection XIV, 554 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 40


This book explores the representation of industrial labor in Italian literature and film from the 1950s through the 1970s. The first article of the postwar Italian Constitution states that the Republic is founded on labor. Forces across the political spectrum, from Catholic to communist, invested labor with the power to build a new national community after Fascism and war. The 1950s-1970s saw dramatic transformations, in economic, social and cultural terms, as labor moved from agriculture to industry and a whole generation of Italian writers and filmmakers used literature and cinema to interpret – and influence – these changes and to capture the new experiences of industrial labor. The essays in this book offer a comprehensive panorama of this generation’s work, examining key questions and texts, set against the context of history and theory, gender and class, geography and the environment, as well as their precursors and present-day successors.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Italian Industrial Literature and Film: A Brief Introduction (Carlo Baghetti, Jim Carter and Lorenzo Marmo)
  • Part I – History, Method, Legacy
  • 1 Industrial Labor in Italian Literature and Film before Neorealism (Claudio Panella)
  • 2 Spaces and Bodies of Industrial Labor in Italian Cinema, 1945–1975 (Lorenzo Marmo)
  • 3 A Short History of Sponsored Film in Italy (Paola Bonifazio)
  • 4 For a New Humanism: Literary and Cultural Debate in Il Menabò di letteratura (Jim Carter)
  • 5 The Factory as Cultural Center (Emanuele Zinato)
  • 6 Alienation and Class Struggle in Italian Literature (Sergio Ferrarese)
  • 7 Care or Control? Psychology and Psychoanalysis in Italian Factories (Alessandra Diazzi)
  • 8 Class Struggle and Its Metamorphoses: A Path through Postwar Italian Political Thought (Andrea Sartori)
  • 9 Women and/in the Factory (Ambra Zorat)
  • 10 Ecocritical Approaches to Factory Life (Piergiorgio Mori)
  • 11 The City, the Countryside and the ‘Great Transformation’ in Italian Industrial Literature (Paolo Chirumbolo)
  • 12 Against Working-Class Idols: Thieves, Vitelloni , Hunks and the Dolce Vita in 1950s Italian Cinema (Francesca Cantore and Andrea Minuz)
  • 13 Contemporary Returns to Questions of Industry and Labor (Carlo Baghetti)
  • 14 Italian Cinema in the Twenty-First Century: Representing the Precarious Subject (Malvina Giordana)
  • Part II – Italian Industrial Literature
  • 15 Luigi Davì: The Caliber of a Working-Class Writer (Ugo Fracassa)
  • 16 Mechanization and Exploitation in Ottiero Ottieri: Tempi stretti (1957) and Donnarumma all’assalto (1959) (Fabrizio di Maio)
  • 17 Giovanni Arpino’s Industrial Novels: Gli anni del giudizio (1958) and Una nuvola d’ira (1962) (Tiziano Toracca)
  • 18 Industrial Absurdities and Utopia in Giancarlo Buzzi’s Il senatore (1958) and L’amore mio italiano (1963) (Silvia Cavalli)
  • 19 Failure and Solitude in the Boom Years: The Vigevano Stories of Lucio Mastronardi (Giovanni Capecchi)
  • 20 Luciano Bianciardi and the New Frenetic Era of Labor (Mark Pietralunga)
  • 21 Writing the Factory: Paolo Volponi’s Industrial Novels (Daniele Fioretti)
  • 22 Reversing the Coming-of-Age Story in Industrial Society: Il padrone (1965) by Goffredo Parise (Ricciarda Ricorda)
  • 23 When Nothing Meets the Needs of Everything: Nanni Balestrini’s Vogliamo tutto (1971) (Pasquale Verdicchio)
  • 24 La chiave a stella (1978): Labor sub specie Faussone (Pierpaolo Antonello)
  • 25 Tommaso Di Ciaula’s Tuta blu (1978): The Voice and Body of the Working Class (Erica Bellia)
  • Part III – Italian Industrial Film
  • 26 “Casa e lavoro”: Southern Labor and the Housing Problem in Eduardo De Filippo’s Napoletani a Milano (1953) (Paola D’Amora)
  • 27 Giovanna (1955) and the Others: Factory Women in Reconstruction Italy (Anna Masecchia)
  • 28 Love Is Not a Many Splendored Thing: Pietro Germi’s L’uomo di paglia (1958) (Federico Vitella)
  • 29 Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960): Patterns of Labor, Space and Integration (Valerio Coladonato and Dalila Missero)
  • 30 Il posto (1961) and the Gender of Italian Modernity (Veronica Pravadelli)
  • 31 Earth and Water: The Market of Bodies in La ragazza in vetrina (1961) (Lucia Cardone)
  • 32 The Working Class in Post-Neorealist Italian Cinema: Times and Politics of Mario Monicelli’s I compagni (1963) (Andrea Mariani)
  • 33 The Factory as a Work of Art and an Alienating Force in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Deserto rosso (1964) (Eleonora Lima)
  • 34 Italiani nel mondo (1965): The Glorification of Italian Labor Abroad (Luca Peretti)
  • 35 A Spanner in the Works: Elio Petri from Il maestro di Vigevano (1963) to La classe operaia va in paradiso (1971) (Louis Bayman)
  • 36 The Seduction of a Worker in Lina Wertmüller’s Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore (1972) (Ilaria A. De Pascalis)
  • 37 Migration, Industry and Class Struggle in Trevico-Torino: Viaggio nel Fiat-Nam (1973) (Mattia Lento)
  • Appendix: Italian Industrial Literature and Film – A Tentative Canon
  • Bibliography
  • Author Affiliations
  • Index
  • Series index

←x | xi→ Figures

Figure 1Maciste disperses the strikers and saves the honest industrialist Thompson in Maciste innamorato (Maciste in Love, Romano Luigi Borgnetto, 1919).

Figure 2The Terni steelworks in Walter Ruttmann’s Acciaio (Steel, 1933).

Figure 3The industrial worker as a gearwheel in the mysterious mechanisms of international crime and capital. Alberto Sordi (the small figure in white at the center of the frame) in Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, 1962).

Figure 4The negative impact of industrial labor on women’s bodies: Stefania Sandrelli in Luigi Comencini’s Delitto d’amore (Somewhere Beyond Love, 1974).

Figure 5Alberto Sordi’s ‘Italian salute’ to a group of highway laborers in Federico Fellini’s I vitelloni (1953).

Figure 6Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, Carlo Pisacane, Vittorio Gassman and Totò (left to right) in I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, Mario Monicelli, 1958).

Figure 7Poster for the theatrical release of Paolo Virzì’s Tutta la vita davanti (Your Whole Life Ahead of You, 2008). The pose of the mass of characters clearly replicates and parodies the famous early-1900s painting Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate) by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, representing a workers’ strike. ←xi | xii→

Figure 8Marta (Isabella Ragonese) works as a telephone operator in the hyper-transparent workspace of precarity in Tutta la vita davanti (Your Whole Life Ahead of You, Paolo Virzì, 2008).

Figure 9Eduardo De Filippo as Don Salvatore, the unofficial mayor of the borgata in Napoletani a Milano (Neapolitans in Milan, Eduardo De Filippo, 1953).

Figure 10Don Salvatore (Eduardo De Filippo) mediates between the sub-proletarian mass and the ILAR management team in Napoletani a Milano (Neapolitans in Milan, Eduardo De Filippo, 1953).

Figure 11Ciro (Max Cartier) in his professional context, at the Alfa Romeo assembly line in Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, Luchino Visconti, 1960).

Figure 12Nadia (Annie Girardot) at the Parondi family home in Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, Luchino Visconti, 1960).

Figures 13–14Domenico and Antonietta (Sandro Panseri and Loredana Detto) look through the window shop, look at the city and look at themselves, and the look becomes the active agent fueling desire in Il posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961).

Figure 15Vincenzo (Bernard Fresson) is plunged in the dark, narrow, infernal dimension of the mine in La ragazza in vetrina (Girl in the Window, Luciano Emmer, 1961).

Figure 16Vincenzo (Bernard Fresson) and Else (Marina Vlady) on the beach in La ragazza in vetrina (Girl in the Window, Luciano Emmer, 1961). ←xii | xiii→

Figure 17Prodromes of the strike in the factory in I compagni (The organizers, Mario Monicelli, 1963)

Figure 18Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni, far right), leader and inspirer of the strike’s organization, makes room for a plural protagonist in I compagni (The organizers, Mario Monicelli, 1963).

Figure 19Giuliana (Monica Vitti) and her son walk by the factory’s chimneys, and in the background a row of steaming smokestacks paint yellow stripes against the gray sky in Deserto rosso (Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964).

Figure 20Giuliana’s son (Valerio Bartoleschi) sleeps as his toy robot watches over him in Deserto rosso (Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964).

Figure 21Antonio Mombelli (Alberto Sordi) in his classroom in Il maestro di Vigevano (The Teacher from Vigevano, Elio Petri, 1963).

Figure 22Lulù Massa (Gian Maria Volonté) in the factory, as the white cleansing liquid from the mechanism forms ejaculatory droplets on his face in La classe operaia va in paradiso (The Working Class Goes to Heaven, Elio Petri, 1971).

Figure 23In Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore (The Seduction of Mimì, Lina Wertmüller, 1972), the refinery is a metal Moloch, a dark entanglement of tubes and knobs towering against the pale sky.

Figure 24The Fiat factory appears almost as a mirage in Trevico-Torino: Viaggio nel Fiat-Nam (Trevico-Turin: Voyage in Fiatnam, Ettore Scola, 1973). ←xiii | xiv→

Figure 25In some scenes of Trevico-Torino: Viaggio nel Fiat-Nam (Trevico-Turin: Voyage in Fiatnam, Ettore Scola, 1973), Ettore Scola’s style is close to social documentary or cinéma vérité, thanks to the synchronous sound of voices, uncontrolled camera movements and the proximity of the camera to the subjects represented.

carlo baghetti, jim carter and lorenzo marmo

←xiv | 1→ Italian Industrial Literature and Film: A Brief Introduction

Among the “invisible cities” described by Italo Calvino in his eponymous 1972 novel is the city of Valdrada. Valdrada is a perfectly picturesque place, the type of hilltop hamlet that is often associated, in the international imagination, with the Amalfi Coast or the Ligurian seaside above Sanremo, where the author grew up. “Gli antichi costruirono Valdrada” (The ancients built Valdrada), Calvino writes, “sulle rive d’un lago con case tutte verande una sopra l’altra e vie alte che affacciano sull’acqua i parapetti a balaustra” (on the shores of a lake, with houses all verandas one above the other, and high streets whose railed parapets look out over the water).1 But because it sits “on the shores of a lake,” there are arguably not one, but two Valdradas. As if poised atop a giant mirror, Valdrada sees its own image reflected and inverted in the waters below: “ad ogni viso e gesto rispondono dallo specchio un viso o gesto inverso punto per punto” (every face and gesture is answered, from the mirror, by a face and gesture inverted, point by point).2

Is the relationship between these two Valdradas one of sameness or difference? At first glance, they are perfectly reciprocal: all events on top cause – even coincide with – their match below. But at second glance, they could not be more dissimilar: a smile requires a frown, height needs ←1 | 2→ depth, language demands illegibility – Valdrada is a paradox of mimesis and alterity.

Valdrada could stand in for the Italy of the ‘economic boom’ – that period of rapid industrial expansion which began in the late 1950s – which usually appears to us, by force of habit, only in its constructed half. We overlook that ‘other’ economic boom, where all phenomena are plunged into their opposites: the Rome of the paparazzi, with its public fountains, trendy nightlife, Vespa rides and dolce far niente philosophy becomes a metropolis of industrial factories, with its migrant workers, labor unions, mass strikes and workplace injuries. Regardless of one’s position in the accelerating cycle of production and consumption, the Italy of the economic boom was a world in transition that required negotiating new practices related to urban living and new values related to self and society.

This essay collection intends to show how the dolce vita (sweet life) portrayed by Federico Fellini coexisted with the vita agra (hard life) evoked by Luciano Bianciardi (and adapted from literature to film by Carlo Lizzani). It seeks to address the full complexity of economic boom Italy by exploring how industrialization was narrated, celebrated, challenged and even influenced by literary and cinematic texts. Those readers with access to Italian-language scholarship will already be aware that industrial literature and industrial film constituted, if not genres, certainly movements that were as visionary as they were popular, especially between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. This was the period of Italy’s ‘late’ and short modernity, and it left an indelible mark on the cultural imaginary of the first post-Second World War generation.

But if for the Italian reader ‘letteratura industriale’ and ‘cinema industriale’ conjure up a definite tradition of creative production (even a vague canon of well-known texts), for the Anglophone reader ‘Italian industrial literature and film’ does not. This is due in part to the proximity of these texts to the intricacies of contemporary Italian cultural politics: it is difficult to narrate such a specific historical conjuncture without recourse to excessive footnotes or explanatory titles, and indeed very few Italian industrial short stories, novels and films were ever released in English (for a list of literature in translation, see the Appendix to this collection). ←2 | 3→

Moreover, industrial literature is chronologically hedged between two strong movements, neorealism and the neo-avantgarde, and English-language survey histories have tended to jump from strength to strength while scarcely remarking on the spaces in between. For example, Peter Brand and Lino Pertile’s monumental Cambridge History of Italian Literature (1996) masterfully synthesizes more than eight centuries of writing in Italian, but it reserves only two pages for a section by Michael Caesar titled “Industrial Novels.” Citing some acclaimed authors like Ottiero Ottieri and Paolo Volponi, Caesar rightly emphasizes how, starting in the late 1950s, literature engaged “the economic boom and the vast social transformations taking place in its wake,” before listing fourteen texts, including only eight of the twenty-one short stories and novels covered in this collection.3 Nevertheless, more recent scholarship, like Norma Bouchard and Valerio Ferme’s special issue of Annali d’Italianistica titled “From Otium and Occupatio to Work and Labor in Italian Culture” (2014), has started to drive English-language interest in Italian industrial literature, and many of the essays collected here are in active dialogue with their issue.

Industrial film has been difficult to see for methodological reasons. The influence of the French critic André Bazin’s auteurist approach to studying Italian cinema from an international perspective has meant that texts like Il posto (1961) and Deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964) were initially seen not as products of the economic boom, but rather inventions of directors like Ermanno Olmi and Michelangelo Antonioni. With the publication of P. Adams Sitney’s Vital Crises in Italian Cinema (1995), postwar labor was treated as a comprehensive concern of the Italian cinema industry as such: a major theme through which a national visual culture anxiously negotiated its new, post-Fascist identity. But it was not until Jeremy Parzen translated Gian Piero Brunetta’s book The History of Italian Cinema (2009) that English-language Italian Film Studies took a decisive turn toward social history. One of Italy’s foremost film historians, Brunetta, stresses that filmmaking and film spectatorship during the economic boom were ←3 | 4→ crucial practices through which a particularly anti-modern national culture confronted and attempted to make sense of the changing world of industrialization. But he discusses only six of the thirteen films covered in this collection, while acknowledging that “this now historic window on the world of the workers has yet to be fully analyzed.”4 While this is particularly true of feature films, in the meantime, entirely new fields of inquiry have begun to appear. The most recent scholarship, namely Paola Bonifazio’s book Schooling in Modernity (2014) and Luca Peretti’s PhD dissertation Neocapitalist Realism (2018), has opened the question of Italian industrial film to the history of sponsored productions by government agencies and private companies – a tremendously fruitful direction that some essays collected here follow.

In the process of composing this essay collection, which began in 2017 and involved fruitful exchanges with a vast international community of professional researchers, we have always tried to keep three different audiences in mind. First, we have thought about scholars of Italian industrial literature and film, and we have thus attempted to offer new and global perspectives on an articulated and plural artistic movement. Second, we have considered scholars of twentieth-century Italy who have not studied the particular tradition of cultural production covered here, which is often considered marginal or minor but which, upon close inspection, involved some of the most famous Italian writers and directors, who sought to analyze the industrial motor of the economic boom: the factory. And third, we have endeavored to furnish a set of historical and critical tools for scholars of other disciplines, students and general readers who are interested in understanding the story of Italian industrial development and its cultural representation. Our challenge was to compose a collection that speaks to multiple simultaneous audiences, and in a way that is not too complex for some and not too generic for others. ←4 | 5→

An Italian Industrial Revolution?

The industrialization of Italy, which began slowly during the second half of the nineteenth century and picked up between 1890 and 1914, was at the center of the Fascist regime’s rhetoric of corporativism and modernization starting in the mid-1920s. In particular, the policy of autarchy, which was adopted in response to the League of Nation’s sanctions against the 1935 Fascist invasion of Ethiopia, was a real turning point in the history of Italy’s image as an industrial nation. The Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party, PNF)-sponsored Istituto Luce (Educational Film Unit) cranked out propaganda documentaries about the mechanization of agricultural and factory production. The state holding company Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (Institute for Industrial Reconstruction, IRI) absorbed countless private firms, thus extending the influence of the state in economic affairs. Synthetic dyes, pharmaceuticals and fertilizers all boomed; the railways were electrified; telephone and radio service developed quickly; and machine manufacturing flourished, with important technical advances in clothing, leather and wood products.5 Yet this was mainly confined to the North West, leaving most of the peninsula and islands overwhelmingly rural. As one popular textbook puts it, “Fascist Italy remained a relatively poor and backward country where the image of strength and action was more important than reality.”6

The years immediately following the Second World War were filled with economic and social distress, as powerfully rendered in neorealist literature and film. But by 1965, about half of all Italian families owned a television and more than half of all homes had a refrigerator.7 The words ‘Italian design’ had become international shorthand for sleek, colorful and even technologically advanced products. Olivetti typewriters, Necchi sewing machines, Zanussi washing machines and Vespa motor scooters were ←5 | 6→ being touted in global cities like Milan, Paris, London, New York and Tokyo. What historians call the Italian ‘economic boom’ or ‘economic miracle’ was a series of upward-sloping graphs: between 1951 and 1963, GDP doubled, per capita income grew an average of more than 5% per year and about half of the total workforce became employed in industrial production.8

How did a country of farmers making grain, olive oil and wine, whose storied landscape lay in shambles after the West’s most violent war, become an industrial powerhouse capable of competing with the major European nations – and all in the space of scarcely twenty years? The ‘miracle’ has many explanations, only some of which can truly be considered ‘miraculous.’ One obvious catalyst was foreign aid: between 1943 and 1948, Italy received more than $2 billion in food, fuel and loans, then another $1.5 billion under the American government’s Marshall Plan. At the same time, the national economy came out of isolation, rejoining the world market and creating new opportunities for global trade. People put their money in banks, which funneled savings into loans for industry. The mix of public holding companies and private firms set up under Fascism remained largely intact, and IRI doubled down on steel production with new facilities at Cornigliano (Liguria), Piombino (Tuscany) and Bagnoli (Campania). The demand for urban labor (especially in the North) was met by a supply of rural migration (especially from the South). Between 1955 and 1961, more than 800,000 southerners arrived in northern cities, often with no industrial skills, no place to sleep and little understanding of the Italian language.9 Thus, one major driver of the economic ‘miracle’ – one that historians often overlook – was low wages (while middle-class salaries improved, factory workers were often unable to afford the products they themselves made). Most importantly, Italy discovered new sources of energy. As early as 1944, the state-sponsored oil company Agip found deposits of natural gas in the Po Valley. Then in 1953, the newly formed conglomerate ENI found oil in southern Sicily. From the foothills of the Alps to the tip of the island, ←6 | 7→ Italy suddenly had a reserve of domestic power – the cheapest in Western Europe – which was complemented by imports from the Soviet Union.

Thus, the economic ‘miracle’ was the result of foreign aid, liberalization, investment, exploitation and discovery. It produced a consumer society organized around the café television, the family automobile and the carefully ordered modern home. Religion trended down as building prices trended up until much of the rural landscape had been covered with hastily constructed apartment blocks. Industrial workers rushed into factories, which quickly reached an unspoken consensus that Italian identity could add value to exportable products via an aesthetic of sleek forms, bright colors and dynamic tactility. Italian design quickly spread to institutions like Manchester’s City Art Gallery and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. These showcased objects like La Pavoni espresso machines, Cassina chairs, Flos area lamps and Solari alarm clocks made by superstar architects like Gio Ponti, Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Achille Castiglioni and Gino Valle. By 1965, Italy had fashioned for itself a brand-new image, which was also a self-image because it began to influence how Italians pictured themselves in the world.

Historians usually reserve the language of ‘industrial revolution’ for late eighteenth-century Britain or its close neighbors in nineteenth-century Europe, describing a process of socioeconomic transformation that had very little impact in Italy. But if by definition ‘revolutions’ must occur quickly, then in a very real sense, what happened in postwar Italy was the epitome of – and not the exception to – industrial revolution. Changes took place in every sphere of social life, from the household, where new objects improved the living conditions of middle-class families, to the more public contexts of work and politics. Many Italians, especially those from the South, abandoned the countryside and moved to the northern cities, where they learned to wear blue overalls, work in factories and measure their labor, but also to understand their dissatisfactions, resentments, desires for transformation, for stability and for the wealth and welfare they saw circulating in the clothes of bourgeois individuals, stores and advertisements.

One important feature of this historical period was the gradual development of working-class consciousness. In this regard, the labor unions and the Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party, PCI) were ←7 | 8→ fundamental, but also the dialectic between these more ‘institutionalized’ forms of dissent and the wave of profound contestation represented by extra-parliamentary groups. From the protests of 1967–1968 to the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, the demands of workers and students posed a formidable challenge to the Italian sociopolitical system and achieved a remarkable result with the Statuto dei Lavoratori (Workers’ Charter) in 1970. This momentum rolled to a halt for both political and economic reasons (the rise of terrorist groups and the energy crisis of the mid-1970s), the complexities of which we cannot hope to exhaust here.

Nevertheless, such cultural and political movements are important reference points for the essays in this collection, which reflect on the ways in which literature and cinema recounted, mediated and engaged these transformations. Economic and social progress, for all its contradictions and violence, was always accompanied by intellectual reflection that attempted to offer cultural representations, to articulate direct or indirect perspectives on the changes underway. As the essays of this collection show, the aesthetic and narrative strategies employed were quite diverse, but they shared a desire to restore the complexity of reality, which was often simplified in schematic or triumphalist visions of development. The authors of these essays have each provided an original and in-depth analysis of this historical and cultural juncture, a perspective on peculiar theoretical questions or an exploration of the work of a certain writer or filmmaker. It was our task as editors to arrange the material in a coherent way, to give the reader an opportunity to see intersections, exchanges, reciprocal influences and the circulation of ideas and poetics.

Genealogies of Italian Industrial Literature and Film

Some scholars have argued that industrial labor has always been a part of Italian literature. They point to Dante Alighieri who, in Canto XXI of the Inferno, wrote about this most important aspect of everyday life, which he defined “divin’arte” (God’s art).10 In their 2007 Dizionario di ←8 | 9→ temi letterari (Dictionary of Literary Themes), Remo Ceserani, Mario Domenichelli and Pino Fasano gloss Dante’s passage as follows:

Dante Alighieri fa riferimento ai gesti frenetici dei lavoratori delle fabbriche dell’arsenale di Venezia. L’ampia similitudine dell’“Arzanà de’ Veneziani” esprime una realtà vista e osservata nei suoi particolari tecnici. In particolare, la “pece” o “pegola” spessa e vischiosa e ardente è immagine tratta dalle grandi caldaie di pece che bollivano giorno e notte nell’arsenale.

(Dante Alighieri refers to the workers’ frenetic gestures at the factory of Venice’s arsenal. The broad verisimilitude of the “Venetians’ arsenal” expresses a reality seen and observed in its technical details. In particular, the thick and viscous and burning “pitch” or “resin” is an image of the big furnaces of pitch that boiled night and day at the arsenal.)11

Dante’s condensed and effective description of industrial labor is, of course, not the only example from the Italian literary tradition. One particularity of the theme is that it lends itself to description, reflection and digression across genres, even when it does not occupy the narrative focus. In Medieval literature, representations of labor were somewhat rare, even if laborers – characters whose identities were tied to their profession – were sometimes present (for example, Cristi the baker or Chichibio the cook, both from Giovanni Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century Decameron). During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, labor became an important topic of intellectual treatises in both Latin and the vernacular, some of which drew connections between human activity and military preparation, agriculture or horseback riding.12 Labor animated the pages of Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia (1504),13 passing to seventeenth-century melodrama and the reflections of Alessandro Verri. But it was not until the nineteenth century that the topic of industrial labor made its way into the center of Italian literature. ←9 | 10→ This was not restricted to what Carlo Ossola and Adriana Chemello have called “letteratura per operai” (literature for workers) – that expanding genre with which a part of the political class attempted to give workers models of good behavior and ethical conduct – but rather included even the most canonical Italian texts.14 Alessandro Manzoni, Giovanni Verga, Cesare Cantù and Edmondo De Amicis all offered, in different ways, representations of labor that influenced literary models for years to come. Since the turn of the twentieth century, the topic of labor has remained a fixed presence in Italian literature: in 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote in the Manifesto del Futurismo (Manifesto of Futurism) that the Futurists were intent on praising “le grandi folle agitate dal lavoro, dal piacere o dalla sommossa” (the great crowds excited by work, by pleasure and by riot) and “il vibrante fervore notturno degli arsenali e dei cantieri incendiati da violente lune elettriche” (the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons).15 In the same years, just before Fascism imposed its heavy hand of censorship, labor occupied a primary space in the writings of Carlo Bernari, Luigi Pirandello, Romano Bilenchi, Massimo Bontempelli and many others. This brief introduction to the theme of industrial labor in Italian literature before the 1950s is intended as a backdrop for the short stories and novels discussed in this collection, all of which are in conversation with this history.

Industrial film too has some claim to the origin story of motion pictures: the first public projection, which took place in Paris in 1895, opened with Louis Lumière’s Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, a short documentary that depicts the industrial world. As a technology of mechanical reproduction, film itself was a product of industrial processes, which spliced together modern advances in chemistry, mechanics and optics. But as the title of Lumière’s film anticipates, early filmmakers were more concerned ←10 | 11→ with providing entertainment after work than they were with showcasing production at work. In Fascist Italy, images of industry became practically a monopoly of the Istituto Luce, and postwar neorealism was remarkably lacking in terms of the representation of industry. It was not until the mid-1950s that a more expansive Italian ‘visual culture of labor’16 began to take center stage in the public arena. Italian industrial film, in particular, was diversified across modes and genres: sponsored films promoted the reputations of companies, documentaries registered the gains and losses of the economic boom and narrative features – both highbrow projects by respected directors such as Antonioni and Elio Petri and more genre-oriented fare like melodramas and comedies – added social commentary to a world turned upside down.17 Such representations of labor also intersected with the formal aspects of mise-en-scène. For example, a filmic fascination with ironworks emerges across several decades: Walter Ruttmann’s Fascist-era Acciaio (1933), Eduardo De Filippo’s postwar social comedy Napoletani a Milano (Neapolitans in Milan, 1953), Giuseppe Fina’s unjustly forgotten Pelle viva (Scorched Skin, 1962) and Francesco Rosi’s political film Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair, 1972) all belong to this tradition. While these films are all very different, they all employ high key cinematography to give spectators a sense of the processes taking place inside factories and the astounding atmosphere created by the elemental forces involved. The spectacular force of iron, whose light emerges from the darkness and invades the frame, produces a remarkable form of the technological sublime, and seems to represent the cinematic concretization of Marinetti’s aforementioned electric moons. The continuity and constant hybridization between ←11 | 12→ different facets of the cinematic reflection on labor gave rise to an intertextual conversation that was crucial for negotiating a national identity well into the 1960s and 1970s.

Organization and Contents

This essay collection is organized in three parts. Part I, “History, Method, Legacy,” introduces a variety of critical approaches to the study of Italian industrial literature and film, and each essay addresses itself to multiple literary and/or cinematic texts. Some of these essays trace the genealogy of industrial culture before the economic boom, some evaluate the usefulness in this context of scholarly traditions like Marxism, feminism and ecocriticism, and others consider the enduring relevance of labor stories today. Part II, “Italian Industrial Literature,” presents what are considered the most canonical literary texts. Each essay focuses on one author, treating one or more work from a diversity of perspectives. Part III, “Italian Industrial Film,” mirrors Part II, but it takes up cinematic texts. Here too, each essay focuses on one canonical filmmaker, providing distinct critical analysis of one or more works.

The collection opens with some historical background. Claudio Panella’s “Industrial Labor in Italian Literature and Film before Neorealism” identifies in late nineteenth-century literature a tradition of representing factory laborers as ‘good workers’ that, as Panella argues, served the purpose of discouraging revolt. Moving through the advent of cinema to Fascism, Panella evidences a link between the growth of the working class and the production of films about revolt that in some cases required censorship.

Lorenzo Marmo’s “Spaces and Bodies of Industrial Labor in Italian Cinema, 1945–1975” picks up chronologically where Panella leaves off, concentrating on ‘the body of the worker’ as a cinematic site of tension between Italy’s old agricultural and new industrial identity. Marmo follows the body’s slow materialization during the years of migration to its extreme visibility during the hot autumn, where, in a wide variety of texts ←12 | 13→ and genres, it became not only a reflection of social struggles, but also a medium for performing social crisis.

Paola Bonifazio’s “A Short History of Sponsored Film in Italy” provides a foundational overview of documentaries financed by government agencies, public corporations and private companies, which became very popular after the Second World War. Bonifazio highlights the educational intentions of these films, which appealed to widespread desires for prosperity and happiness in order to promote democratic, capitalistic and modern ways of life.

Jim Carter’s “For a New Humanism: Literary and Cultural Debate in Il Menabò di letteratura” glosses Elio Vittorini’s 1961 charge that writers are incapable of dealing with industrial society as a call to rescue literary language from the realm of consolation and to point it toward emancipation. Carter reviews the contributions of poets and novelists to Il Menabò’s special issue on industrial culture, mapping a discursive space that became a point of reference for a generation of literary and cinematic production.

Emanuele Zinato’s “The Factory as Cultural Center” explores the merging, during the economic boom, of humanistic and social scientific cultures. This process was visible in glossy magazines financed by companies like Pirelli and IRI, where many intellectuals who were trained in the humanities went to work in sociology roles. But as Zinato notes, when employers began to demand that culture directly serve profit, these intellectuals started to critique the new sciences as tools of exploitation.

Sergio Ferrarese’s “Alienation and Class Struggle in Italian Literature” asks how Marx’s two concepts were addressed in industrial literature during the economic boom. While alienation is constantly present, Ferrarese finds that class struggle is not, a disparity that can be partially explained by the reformist positions of the PCI and Partito Socialista Italiano (Italian Socialist Party) during this period.

Alessandra Diazzi’s “Care or Control? Psychology and Psychoanalysis in Italian Factories” narrates the history of industrial psychology, which became an important social lubricant for production in the 1950s. Diazzi considers both the positive and negative aspects of applying psychological methods to human resource management, namely that it helped workers adapt to difficult jobs but also medicalized discontent. She then assesses ←13 | 14→ what impact this had on literature and film, where the factory space was frequently represented as a sort of asylum.

Andrea Sartori’s “Class Struggle and Its Metamorphoses: A Path through Postwar Italian Political Thought” illuminates the political-theoretical backdrop against which industrial writers and filmmakers created their stories. Sartori introduces and comments on contributions from multiple generations of political theorists while charting what he sees as the broad migration of the notion of struggle from its origin in class politics to various destinations within and beyond neoliberal capitalism.

Ambra Zorat’s “Women and/in the Factory” poses a direct challenge to scholarship on Italian industrial culture, this essay collection included. Zorat points out that scholars have almost entirely overlooked the contributions of female industrial writers, including Teresa Noce, Anna Maria Ortese, Elsa Morante, Dacia Maraini and Nella Nobili. This is especially unfortunate, because not only do their stories offer different perspectives on the industrial world, they also directly contest the male-dominated canon, for example, by exposing the disconnect between masculinist intellectual culture and working-class life. We might respond by noting that this collection, which is organized around the canon, also reflects its deficiencies: one priority for future research in English (and Italian) should be to re-inscribe these and other female writers in the historical record.

Piergiorgio Mori’s “Ecocritical Approaches to Factory Life” mines the literary tradition for a specifically Italian way of thinking about the landscape in relation to humanity. Mori finds that the idea of nature as an uncorrupted sphere, set off from the degradation of urban civilization, is omnipresent in the works of poets and novelists since the Renaissance, but also that it is variously treated by twentieth-century industrial writers, some of whom even expose ‘mother nature’ as an unprotective fantasy of shelter.

Paolo Chirumbolo’s “The City, the Countryside and the ‘Great Transformation’ in Italian Industrial Literature” takes a similar spatial approach to the question of humanity in nature, but it also meditates on the ties, internal to literary form, between space itself and time. Recalling Mikhail Bakhtin’s chronotope of the ‘idyllic novel,’ which is founded on a double correspondence between, on the one hand, humanity and nature and, on the other hand, space and time, Chirumbolo demonstrates how ←14 | 15→ industrial writers registered the breakdown of such a harmonious model in the age of mass production.

Francesca Cantore and Andrea Minuz’s “Against Working-Class Idols: Thieves, Vitelloni, Hunks and the Dolce vita in 1950s Italian Cinema” reviews a set of films that gave the lie to leftist culture’s celebration of the selfless Italian worker. Cantore and Minuz look beyond the well-known Marxist discourses of Stakanovite sacrifice to see the ways in which many directors, leftists included, constructed alternative characters defined by supposed national vices like laziness, laxity and incompetence.

Carlo Baghetti’s “Contemporary Returns to Questions of Industry and Labor” calls attention to a new generation of writers in the age of neoliberalism. Pausing to consider both their continuities and discontinuities with respect to economic boom literature, Baghetti concludes that these contemporary returns must be read together with their historical antecedents, a practice that reveals, above all, today’s dwindling faith in labor as a motor for social progress.


XIV, 554
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Industrial film Labor representations Italian Industrial Literature and Film Carlo Baghetti Jim Carter Industrial literature Lorenzo Marmo
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XIV, 554 pp., 4 fig. col., 21 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Carlo Baghetti (Volume editor) Jim Carter (Volume editor) Lorenzo Marmo (Volume editor)

Carlo Baghetti is a postdoctoral fellow at the Casa Velázquez in Madrid (École des Hautes Études Hispaniques et Ibériques). He holds a PhD in Italian Studies from Aix-Marseille Université and l’Università degli Studi «La Sapienza» di Roma. He is the editor of Il lavoro raccontato. Studi su letteratura e cinema italiani dal postmodernismo all’ipermodernismo (2020) and a special issue of Costellazioni (2020) dedicated to representations of work in Europe. Jim Carter is Lecturer of Italian at Boston University. His articles on Italian industrial culture, especially at the Olivetti company, have appeared in journals like Modern Italy and Italian Culture. In 2018–2019, he won a Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. Lorenzo Marmo is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Universitas Mercatorum and also teaches at the Università degli Studi di Napoli «L’Orientale.» In 2017, he was Lauro de Bosis Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University. He is the author of Roma e il cinema del dopoguerra. Neorealismo melodramma noir (2018).


Title: Italian Industrial Literature and Film