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Undoing Time

The Cultural Memory of an Italian Prison

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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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4 The Church

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120 Chapter 4 The church in Le Nuove is now a hybrid structure; on one side is a 1950s baroque-style church with marble columns and an ordinary altar, a space for the choir, and open pews. Behind it, and dif ficult to access, is the last remaining section of the multi-celled chapel, which used to take up the entire space of the church. Entering the old chapel one is faced with an unusual architectural spectacle: a central space where the altar once stood looks onto a white rounded wall full of tiny windows, barred and dark, from which inmates were to look at the priest. The structure of the old church represents a particular embodiment of a series of utopic ideas about prisons, which circulated across Europe and the United States starting in the late eighteenth century and which had very practical applications in prison architecture. The two most inf luential models for prison regimes were known as the Philadelphia model, based on the architecture and the regime established in Philadelphia’s Eastern Penitentiary1 built in 1829 under a plan by architect John Haviland; and the Auburn model based on the New York prison built in 1817 at Auburn developed by its prison director Elam Lynds who also went on to run the famous prison Sing Sing.2 While they dif fered in architectural features (the Philadelphia model had radial structure while the Auburn model was based on a double cross shape) both models insisted on a regime of silence and work...

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