John Domini Online

Below, the beginning of an essay on a turning point in Italy's art & culture, which appeared in millennium pop, edited by Tim Riley and Stephanie Zacharek, in early 1995. The full essay appears in The Sea-God's Herb.

"Trouble & Bedazzlement:The Italian Metamorphosis" At The Guggenheim, 1994-95

I work on a darling little computer. The color is industrial gray, the casing construction-site rough, and yet the trackball [note, 2013: why not stick with the terms of mid-'90s technology?] and keyboard invite the touch, smooth and gleaming. The impression is of a subdued, shadowy elegance that contains both the far edges of science and my own lumpen makeup in a single handsome, handy packet. And while the name of this machine is Anglo, ending in the hard k that doesn't exist in Latin countries, I know its forebears were Italian.

To see where the laptop came from, look to Rome. The design models for the computer age remain the materials of a Fellini set circa 8 1/2 — that is, 1963. Consider for instance the Vespa scooter, buglike yet sleek, still the model for any citywise runabout though it was designed by Corradino D'Ascanio in 1946. In the '50s came Marcello Nizzoli's trim Olivetti typewriters, in the '60s snug portable televisions designed by Marco Zanuso, and all have since proved the shape of things to come. Certainly the Japanese knew a good thing when they saw one. Honda and Sony owe an obvious debt to Fiat and Vespa, and to the appliance designs of Zanuso or the Castiglioni brothers. Anyone who needed proof had only to visit New York while the Guggenheim Museum was showing "The Italian Metamorphosis: 1943-1968," an exhibit that included over a thousand objects in just about every medium.

Too much, too quick, and yet full of light and laughter, the event showcased a culture swept up in a transformation as radical as any this century. More than that, it demonstrated that the ways in which Italy handled its "Metamorphosis" — in artists' lofts or on draftsmen's tables — left a notably workable blueprint for how to live at this crowded and changeable turn of the millennium. But if the world has come to fit Italy's boot, that same culture proved a tight squeeze for the Guggenheim. An art museum after all, the Gugg set aside its Rotunda space (its signature mushroom spiral) for the art per se, the sculpture, wallpieces, installations. Climbing the central ramp, one passed two or three isolated pieces every sixty degrees or so, a thinking-friendly pace. But something like the Design section, where the Fiat and Vespa were on display, was shunted whole into one of the side galleries. Indeed, half a gallery: Design shared its space with Photography. The crowding left cinema coverage, in particular, shortchanged. The Film section offered nothing more than screenings of a few shopworn classics, a couple sets of self-congratulatory clips from CinéCitta, and a winding corridor of poster-plastered walls. Yet that splashy narrow corridor was, as well, a clever touch. It was an imitation Roman or Florentine alleyway of the period, a bit of Italian streetlife brought in-house.

Certainly you could carp at the show's limitations. Where was the historical grounding, the samples of '20s Futurism and monument-happy Fascism? Where was the better work by '60s iconoclast Jannis Kounnellis? But such carping would ignore the unique challenges posed by the "Metamorphosis." Curator Germano Celant had to make like Fellini, whirling a whole fractious world into a single prolonged dance. Simply to have pulled off something coherent would have deserved praise. But Celant did more: He got the alleyway into the house. His cramming left room for wit.


Wit was about all Italy had left after 1943. The urge to create is always in part contrary, a renunciation of whatever's too true, and art-infected Italians at the end of the Fascist misadventure found themselves with more than most to react against. The country was bankrupt, its finest minds in exile or dead. The claim that Mussolini made the trains run on time proves, alas, elitist folklore; he poured money into the luxuries enjoyed by his generals, like first-class trains, but left the rank and file to sink into a cultural backwardness unmatched in Western Europe. After that, during the Allied drive up the peninsula, more than one eyewitness reported that the triumph of democracy often reduced local life to near barbarism. Small wonder that most of those in the first wave of talent to have an impact following the War had played some part in the leftist resistance. They reacted not only against the hollow exaggerations of the "blackshirts", however, but also against the mannered swoops and coils of Bruncusi and the Futurists, which seemed hopelessly out of touch. Instead they embraced a harsher credo: Get real. The Neo-realist movement, best known in this country via movies like Rossellini's Open City (1945) and De Sica's The Bicycle Thief ('48), seems at first glance far removed from the suave tech of something like my laptop. The Guggenheim's photography section for instance began with the grim urban scenes of Alberto Lattuada; these suggest, to a present-day visitor, the footage out of devastated Mogadishu. Over in the high arts, meanwhile, the back-to-basics impulse led to the composizioni of Alberto Burri — some of the richest pieces around the Guggenheim Rotunda — cobbled together out of materials like burlap and charred wood. Even the '46 Vespa is nothing if not down to earth: the name means "wasp" and repair requires no more than a jackknife. Then how does one get from such naked postwar homeliness to the fine Italian hand of, say, mid-'60s Ferragamo shoes? The sequence makes sense only to those who can open themselves anew to the dizzying power of its initial step.

The exhibit's film clips, even edited so as to send everyone home happy, couldn't entirely neuter the movement's power. The agitated faces and bodies onscreen shook off even the smarm caked over them by a thousand imitations. What most sets these originals apart from their followers, one saw again, is the women. Even a great disciple like Martin Scorsese must rest his reputation on men's roles, and lesser American attempts at capturing the Italian feminine mystique prove blandly Hefneresque. [note, 2013: At this point I cited the John Mellencamp video for "Dancing Naked;" a more up-to-date example would be the movie Nine. ] But when Ingrid Bergman abandoned Hollywood for Rossellini, in 1950, it wasn't because of any nonsense about Latin lovers. It was because of what he'd done for Anna Magnani and the young Loren. The women of this movement were true screen sirens: encouraged to a raw emotionality actresses had rarely if ever been allowed. Dramas were pursued down to the root: money, shame, family.

At the Guggenheim show the sheer muscle of Neo-realism had its brute way once more, not just in the Film section but also in Design and Photography and elsewhere. It's no small measure of the exhibition's success that, by unearthing this old touchstone, it achieved a startling cross-cultural insight. It demonstrated that postwar Italian realism uncorked the same genie as early rock'n'roll — the magic of the organic and libidinous....

Contact John Domini

John is always glad to hear from readers and thinkers: john at johndomini dot com.

He has won awards in all genres, with fiction in Paris Review and non-fiction in The New York Times. The Times praised his work as "dreamlike... grabs hold of both reader and character," and Alan Cheuse, of NPR's "All Things Considered," described it as "witty and biting."

John's grants include an NEA Fellowship and an Iowa Major Artist Award. He has taught at Harvard, Northwestern, and elsewhere, and makes his home in Des Moines.

Photo credit: Camille Renee.