Italy: Mother of all invention

The country loves to laud its inventors, veracity aside. History, after all, isn’t the past, it’s what we say the past was.

Engraving depicting Leonardo da Vinci's Archimedean screw helicopter. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian polymath, artist and inventor. Dated 15th Century.
Engraving depicting Leonardo da Vinci's Archimedean screw helicopter. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian polymath, artist and inventor. Dated 15th Century. Credit: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One evening last summer, I bumped into a friend, il Deno. We were in a rickety part of Parma known as ‘the other side of the river.’ Because of Covid, all the bars and shops had created little stalls outside in the square, so it was a good, carefree atmosphere. It’s always been my favourite neighbourhood and I asked il Deno if he lived nearby.

He smiled broadly. ‘I live on a side-street just over there.’ A fashion salesman, he knows a good story. ‘And when I moved in, I obviously wondered why the street was called Flavio Gioia…’

He tells me that Gioia was a thirteenth-century sailor and navigator from Amalfi who is supposed to have invented the compass. There’s even a large statue to Gioia, erected in 1900, in his home town. But a quick search, says Deno, and everything about him fell apart: he was actually called Giovanni. He was from Positano not Amalfi. And according to the historian Chiara Frugoni, the attribution of the invention of the compass is a mistranslation from Latin. Even if Flavio or Giovanni Gioia existed, the compass was invented centuries before his birth.

It reminded me that Italy prizes invention above all else. The country’s favourite footballers are fantasisti (like Roberto Baggio or Maradona), diminutive underdogs who perform tricks that outwit the flat-footed. Giuseppe Garibaldi’s patriotism was founded on admiration for his fellow citizens’ creativity: ‘Italy’, he once said, ‘will never cease to have offspring that will astound the world.’

One could easily write a planetary history solely through the objects that Italians actually have invented: the harpsichord, the lottery, the cheque, the machine gun, the piano, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, the jacuzzi, the microchip, the electric battery, polypropylene, the seismograph, bicycle gears, the hydrofoil, the vespa, helicopters, carbon paper, nuclear reactors, radar, nitro-glycerine, jeans and, of course, dozens of elegant coffee machines.

The trouble with invention is that it is often collaborative. The true inventors of some of those objects (the engine and the telephone especially) are hotly disputed, and many Italians feel their fellow citizens’ contributions have been unfairly written out of history. So the country often bigs up its neglected inventors, celebrating their genius as part of the national narrative. History, after all, isn’t the past, it’s what we say the past was. 

And telling stories is another form of invention at which the country excels. Table-football is called ‘Calcio Balilla’ in Italy. But if you look into the origins of that word, Balilla, it’s Genoan dialect for ‘little boy.’ It was the nickname of Giovanni Battista Perasso, a lad whose stone-throwing (again, a diminutive underdog) initiated a revolt against Austrian troops in 1746. But there are other claimants to his nickname and his famous phrase ‘che l’inse?’, a hooligan-style ‘shall I kick it off?’ As with Flavio Gioia, Balilla’s dates, identity and achievements are all hotly debated. And yet there’s a statue to him in the centre of Genoa and his nickname has been exploited for centuries. The Mussolini-youth movement was called Operazione Nazionale Balilla: ‘the stone whistles’ went their anthem. ‘Balilla’ has been used as a name for Italian cars and submarines. It even appears in the national anthem, Fratelli d’Italia.

Sometimes these stories obviously serve nationalist agendas, like the legend (mostly true, but endlessly embellished) of Pietro Micca, the miner who blew himself up defending Turin’s citadel during the French siege in 1706. The repetitiveness of street names here (via Cavour, via Mazzini, via Garibaldi) bear witness to the need to create cohesion through naming nineteenth-century heroes of the Risorgimento.

But often the mechanisms behind celebration are subtler than imposing ideology. Statues give provincial settings grandeur, and if urban designers and city councillors decide to gild the lily a little, nobody really minds. It’s a good story. It brings in tourists, like the odd Juliet statue in Verona, with her right breast rubbed to a sheen by star-crossed tourists.

The result is that Italy offers an unusual vantage from which to observe the global debate about how statues and street-names entrench or challenge historical narratives. Being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus (he has multiple statues in the country), Italy feels called to account in discussions about explorers and pioneers. But because of the century-long tension between Fascists and Anti-fascists, the country is already used to robust examination of iconography: every few months a debate explodes, most recently about the rights or wrongs of a 2019 statue to the proto-Fascist and cliché-machine, Gabriele D’Annunzio, or of a 2017 park dedicated to the Fascist war hero/criminal, Rodolfo Graziani.

What’s interesting about the statue debate in Italy is that it has not centred only on imperialists, but on gender inequality. In 2019 and 2020, the statue to the writer Indro Montanelli was splashed with red and pink paint because of his paedophilia (he had bought a twelve-year-old, temporary bride in Abyssinia in the 1930s). But the demand for more statues has outstripped demand for their removal: until last month, Milan had 120 statues. All were male. In Italy’s twenty-one regional capitals, only 6.6 per cent of streets are named after women, and if you remove the Madonnas and martyrs, that percentage falls to 4 per cent.

Some well-meaning administrations have tried to make amends with often absurd consequences –  the Spigolatrice di Sapri (the ‘Gleaner from Sapri’) was unveiled last month on the Sapri waterfront, south of Salerno, to widespread outrage that the male sculptor’s work drew fetishistic attention to her backside.

One group of activists against male violence, Non Una di Meno, has begun guerrilla street-naming. They plaster up alternative street-names to raise awareness not only of gender imbalance, but of the lives of specific and inspiring women. So streets have, briefly, two names: the official stone sign and the activists’ one. But we’re used to that here. Many streets here have two names, the new one and the old one, signified by a ‘già’ telling the traveller what this street was once called. It makes the psychogeography feel layered and nuanced.

What I notice most, especially after bumping into il Deno, is that narration is rarely reliable. In Rome’s Villa Borghese, there were until recently 228 statues. Then, a few weeks ago, paint was thrown on a bust of the inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, in protest at his alleged membership of the Fascist party. But nothing was true: the bust had been placed there by a prankster called Mangiafesta (‘party-eater’) to see how gullible the public was. The bust, the accusation, the outrage – all were false. It was a deliberate morality tale about the power of lies and indignation.

Italy has a long tradition of this sort of situationist art. In 1984, an exhibition was organised in Livorno to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the great painter and sculptor, Amedeo Modigliani. Short of sculptures, the curators of the exhibition decided to dredge the waterways of the city because an urban legend (another invention) suggested that Modigliani had thrown his work there when he was dissatisfied with it. Amidst much excitement, three stone heads, in the artist’s unmistakeable style, were found. Only months later did some students come forward to say that they had carved one with a Black+Decker drill. The other two heads probably came from another counterfeiter.

That is what makes the statue debate different here. There’s little gullibility in Italy, less willingness, I sense, to gulp down official and glorifying narratives. There are so many illusionists at work you never know what’s real and what’s not. And, as with Flavio Gioia, it’s best not to take anything at face value.


Tobias Jones