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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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1 The Cell


2 Chapter 1 When Renato Curcio, one of the ‘historic leaders’ of the Brigate Rosse, was getting ready to leave his prison cell in Rebibbia1 to begin a period of semilibertà2 before being finally released from prison, he wrote a series of ref lections, which he published as a book entitled La soglia-the threshold. In this book he twice returned to an episode he had read about a certain inmate, Marcant, who on the 16 August 1889, just before being executed, took a pencil and wrote: ‘I leave to my friend Le Baigneur all that will remain in my cell after my execution’–Marcant had absolutely nothing in his cell.3 For Curcio this will contained an essential truth, ‘precisely because the cell was empty. Marcant left himself to his friend, his unique singularity, cut short by capital punishment, his cell full of memories, his will to live interrupted and left suspended. The emptiness with no object of the cell would have spoken of him, at least to the ears of his friend who mourned him and would have liked to have seen him again’.4 Walking in the cells today, as outsiders, we are faced with the emptiness left by the departure of thousands of inmates who for some time left ‘themselves’ in the space between those walls and we may imagine the lost hours and days still haunting those spaces. This chapter will examine the memories of prisoners speaking about their cells, which for some time served as their...

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