How Italians are keeping priceless artefacts out of private hands

As the recession bites, state funding for Italy's museums and galleries has disappeared, and Italians are coming up with inventive forms of common ownership, to challenge power from the bottom up.

To the right of the grand staircase leading up to the circle at the Teatro Valle in Rome is a plaque that says the theatre hosted the premiere in 1921 of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Now regarded as a modernist classic, the play shocked early audiences and was greeted with shouts of “Manicomio!” (“madhouse”) on its opening night. Today, the plaque is complemented by a more recent message, spelled out in pink stencilled lettering in English on the staircase: No Violence, No Homophobia, No Sexism, No Racism – repeated like a mantra as the steps stretch up into the darkness. “That’s from an event we did for Rome Pride,” says Valeria, my guide. “But we liked it so much, we decided to keep it.”

Built in 1727, and located up a narrow street halfway between the ancient Forum and the Pantheon, Teatro Valle is the oldest theatre in Rome. It has long been known for promoting innovative work – but now the building itself is home to a bold social experiment. In June 2011, after Rome’s city council threatened to close the theatre, actors and employees occupied it in protest. This was not an unusual step as such: as the eurozone crisis drags on, Italy’s cultural assets – referred to as petrolio italiano (“Italian crude oil”), because of their economic importance – have become a flashpoint for discontent. Art gallery and museum workers have been particularly restive as state funds have declined – and the Colosseum has become a focus for strikes.

But what began as a symbolic protest at Teatro Valle rapidly grew into something more. The occupation drew endorsements from some of Italy’s leading cultural figures, as well as thousands of messages of support from members of the public. Instead of leaving after three days as they had originally planned, the occupiers decided to stay and to keep the theatre running.

Valeria explains that they have tried to make the venue as welcoming as possible. “Older ladies come and bring us lunch, or newspapers,” she says. “People who would never dream of entering a squat come in. It’s created a centre of community in central Rome where there was none.”

Decisions are taken collectively: once a week, an open assembly is held in the theatre café, a room with tall glass windows that look on to the street, so that members of the public can see what’s happening and join in, if they want to. There, they discuss everything from the cleaning rota to the programming. “The point we are trying to make,” Valeria says, “is that there are things that cannot be managed by the public or the private. Some things cannot be privatised – schools, hospitals. But when the state cannot manage them properly, I the citizen should have the right to run it.”

August in Rome is usually a time of mass exodus, as city-dwellers escape the oppressive heat and head down south to the coast or up into the mountains of central Italy. At the start of the month, roads leading away from Rome are jammed and the emergency services work overtime to deal with traffic accidents. But, as a recent edition of Italian Vanity Fairmournfully reported, those days “no longer exist”.

Italy is mired in its longest postwar recession and has suffered eight consecutive quarters of negative GDP. Fewer people are going on holiday, and those who do go away take shorter stays in cheaper hotels. In the past year, apartment purchases fell by a quarter nationally. Four million fewer phone calls were made, and 3.4 billion fewer litres of petrol were used. Above all, the unemployment rate has soared to more than 12 per cent. Personal savings – or, for younger Italians, 42 per cent of whom are out of work, the option of returning to live in the family home – have provided a cushion of sorts in recent years. But as an Italian friend told me, “This year, for the first time, we’re starting to see the savings run out.”

Public anger has turned towards Italy’s political class, its image already tarnished by the scandals of the Silvio Berlusconi years. At the general election in February, discontent manifested itself in a huge vote for the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo. A few months later, Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, was kicked out of office after five years in power.

To many, Alemanno represented everything that was wrong with Italy’s political culture. Having begun his political career in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, he was minister of agriculture under Berlusconi from 2001-2006. Fascist salutes from a crowd of young Roman skinheads greeted his election as mayor in 2008 and there was a flurry of alarmed international press coverage. But his reign was less dramatic, even though it gave a stimulus to the various far-right fringe groups active in the city.

Guido Caldiron, a prominent political journalist and the author of a recent book on the extreme right, says Alemanno initially won support by exploiting anxieties about immigration and Roma gypsies, but he had no answers to the much more pressing economic problems. “He really did very little – there isn’t a single public initiative he undertook worthy of mention, while there are many shadows that accumulated along the way.”

Caldiron is referring to corruption – one of Alemanno’s close associates was arrested in March on suspicion of taking bribes. And so many former members of right-wing extremist organisations were given official jobs that the press named the influx into the city’s administration “fascistopoli”.

Meanwhile, many public assets were sold off to private developers or otherwise left to decay. When in 2011 the government, under Berlusconi, closed the fund that administered Italy’s most important theatres and handed over control to local councils, there was good reason to fear for the future of Teatro Valle. Already, two historic cinemas had been sold. One is now a shopping mall for the luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton; the other is slated to reopen as a casino.

Rome’s new mayor, the centre-left Ignazio Marino, has made encouraging noises about his commitment to culture in the city, but the immediate prospects do not look good. Nationally, politics has stalled. After the financial crisis forced Berlusconi from office in November 2011, Italy underwent a period of technocratic government, led by the economist Mario Monti, who imposed a programme of spending cuts and tax rises. This year’s elections, in which Grillo’s Five Star Movement came second, ultimately delivered a fragile governing coalition of centre left and centre right. Millions of Italians may have voted for change, but what they’ve got essentially is more of the same. Austerity continues apace and state funds for cultural projects keep on shrinking.

A few miles north of Teatro Valle, in a working-class suburb of Rome, I visited another occupied building. This one - now named Officine Zero, "Workshop Zero" - was a former train repair factory, sold to developers and then occupied by its workers with a little help from a student squat next door. On the afternoon I arrived, you could see how the place straddled the divide between two generations of the Italian left. In one of the workshops – surrounded by the dismembered carcasses of Trenitalia carriages – I saw a set of faded photos of the workers taking part in trade union demonstrations. Pride of place was given to a framed panoramic photograph of a huge rally in Rome in 1984: a sea of red flags, viewed from behind the head of a speaker on the platform.

In a tree-lined courtyard outside, some of those same employees seen in the photographs were sitting on plastic chairs in a circle, chatting quietly. The former train engineers have turned one corner of the factory into a recycling plant, and on the other side, office buildings have been converted into studio space by students, artists and writers. As Camilla, an Italian-language teacher involved in the project, explained to me, the recession has forced increasing numbers of young people into “freelance” employment, and working together like this is a way to overcome their isolation.

Italy has a long history of setting up squats and occupying social centres, but the financial crisis has helped them to flourish anew. In San Lorenzo, Rome’s university quarter, a sprawling network exists, little centres of community life. When I visited, one was hosting a swing dance class; another was providing study space for students shut out of university library buildings that now close early because of budget cuts. Shendi Veli, an activist with the long-running ESC Atelier social centre, explained to me that, “for many people, the only alternative to the crisis has been self-organisation”.

The occupation at Teatro Valle has tried to take this a step further. A few weeks after they first occupied the theatre, the activists invited the distinguished law professor Ugo Mattei to help them draw up documents that would give legal protection to their work – allowing them to continue running the theatre collectively. In 2007, Mattei had been a member of a commission of legal experts and jurists appointed by the government to make adjustments to Italian property law. They recommended a big change: to introduce a third category of property, neither public nor private, but “common”. When I contacted him by email, Mattei explained it was “based on access to and diffusion of power”; a challenge to the idea that the market knows best, .

His proposals, which he describes as “anticapitalist” but transcending conventional left-right divisions, allow groups of ordinary citizens to take over public services and cultural institutions to stop them falling into private hands. In 2010, for instance, Mattei masterminded the successful campaign for a No vote in a referendum on whether Italy should privatise its water supply.

With the help of Teatro Valle, this has become a growing movement. Activists have held meetings in cities around Italy at which participants are invited to discuss local problems that could be fixed with collective action. In Pisa, the people talked about factory closures. In L’Aquila, the mountain city partly destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, residents aired their frustration at the lack of progress in rebuilding – and the laws that ban them from doing it themselves.

After several years of ignoring the commission’s proposals, the Italian Senate has just reopened discussions about whether to adopt formally the principle of “common” property. “We don’t need the state,” Mattei told me. “We need people organised from the bottom up, and that is why power is so scared of us.”

To Valeria, the experiment at Teatro Valle points to a new way of doing politics. “People think that participation means ‘give my opinion’,” she told me. “But we have a strong belief that politics is made with bodies.” We were sitting on the main stage as we talked. Actors had just been rehearsing there, and through the lights I could just make out the rows of empty red velvet seats, overlooked by ornate baroque balconies. Valeria continued: “When people from other towns ask, ‘How can I help Teatro Valle?’, we say, ‘Occupy a theatre in your own town.’”

That's a wrap: Italians are creating forms of common ownership and challenging power from the bottom up. Photograph: Stefano De Luigi/VII.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution