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Undoing Time

The Cultural Memory of an Italian Prison


Eleanor Chiari

The walls of Le Nuove prison in Turin are scarred by graffiti, bullets and blood. Opened in 1870, Le Nuove was one of Italy’s first panoptical prisons. During the Second World War it was occupied by the Nazis, who executed and deported anti-Fascist and Jewish prisoners held there. In the 1970s it housed left-wing ‘terrorists’, who spearheaded violent riots that spread to prisons across Italy. The prison staff became targets and four were shot dead. When Le Nuove finally closed down in October 2003, the memories of the tragic events that occurred there became obstacles to its demolition.
Combining oral history, anthropology and micro-history, this book examines the cultural memory of Le Nuove via interviews, archives and the material traces left within the building itself. The volume examines issues such as the relationship between memory and place, forgetting, and the problems of a global cultural heritage increasingly focused on places of suffering. By following the architecture of the prison in her narrative, the author actively engages with the many layers of time competing to give meaning to the prison today, as well as addressing the hidden stories, myths and silences that condition any study of cultural memory.


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xx Introduction The current state of the present consists of a palimpsest of all durations of the past that have become recorded in matter. — Olivier, 2001 From 1870 the Casa Circondariale di Torino detta ‘Le Nuove’ 1 served as Turin’s main prison until most of its inmates were moved to a new prison on the outskirts of the city in 1986–1988. Le Nuove was finally decommis- sioned in 2003. Still under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, the large nineteenth-century structure would have been entirely converted into of fice space had it not been for the work of a vocal volunteer organization, the Comitato Nessun uomo è un’isola,2 which was bent on establishing a permanent museum on the prison premises. At stake was the preservation of the empty prison space as a vehicle for memories in a battle between a perceived indif ference towards the past and a memory described as civic duty. For the volunteer group, Le Nuove prison bore witness to a tragic past that contemporary visitors had a responsibility to know about and share as their own. The empty building thus ‘spoke’ or was made to speak through a guided tour in which ex-partisans or their descendants shared their personal experiences of the place and thus re-inscribed it with memo- ries and meanings. The organization Nessun uomo è un’isola was not the first to see the prison building as an agent capable of action. Already in 1891 the criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso had contested the idea...

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