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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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3 The Roof


82 Chapter 3 From the roof of Le Nuove the entire structure of the prison looks easier to decipher than from the inside. The arms of the prison spread out in opposite directions forming a double cross, covered by square tiles cut from Piedmontese mountain stones that sparkle in the sun like the beds of mountain streams. The chapel pokes out in the middle, with its iron cross, and its red brick steeple that used to host an iron bell, which now sits qui- etly in the chapel museum downstairs. The turrets and outer wall are just steps away and the wind that moves the trees on the streets below f lies up freely to brush against anyone standing on the roof. Up on the roof there is no trace of the strong prison smell that still permeates the walls of Le Nuove and standing up there we have an unobstructed view of the streets around and, on a clear day, of the ring of mountains surrounding Turin. Perhaps because I know the story, I cannot help but connect the land- scape up on the roof to the dramatic events that took place there during the 1970s. The steeple in particular stands out as the backdrop for an image, which was reproduced on the front pages of several newspapers and was on the cover of a magazine sympathetic to prisoners’ rights called Carcere (prison) produced by the Radical Party:1 the image shows three police- men in full riot gear...

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