On a recent trip to Italy I managed to spend a day in Turin. I had traveled from Milan by train and was in search of a few specific sites. Just outside the Porta Nuova train station is the Piazza Carlo Felice. The piazza is an oasis in an otherwise crowded part of the city. Park benches are situated among the paved walkways overhung with trees whose hilly shade offers shelter from the heat and the sun. Directly north of the piazza is the Via Roma, a busy street that attracts locals and tourists alike. I was looking for the Piazza Carlo Alberto, the site of Nietzsche’s mental collapse in 1889. I was making my way up the Via Roma when I came upon the Via Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). I came across this street quite unexpectedly and was surprised to find it in the midst of such a touristy shopping district. The serenity offered by the Piazza Carlo Felice was broken in a dozen steps.
I have long been an ardent reader of Antonio Gramsci’s work. Gramsci is the godfather of Italian Marxism, and was one of the most important public intellectuals of the twentieth century in Italy and Europe. A staunch leftist and anti-Fascist, Gramsci was arrested in Rome on November 8, 1926 and placed in solitary confinement at the Regina Coeli Prison in Rome. It was while in prison that Gramsci wrote some of his most important and famous work. Published posthumously as the Quaderni del carcere, or Prison Notebooks as it’s translated into English, in several volumes, this group of writings represents some of the most important commentary on Marxist thought, politics, and culture in the twentieth century. Now, as one walks along the streets surrounding the Via Antonio Gramsci one notices the number of shops and high-end boutiques that line both sides of the street. It is, in essence, a capitalist’s dream, and as such functions like a noose around the ideological neck of Gramsci’s legacy. But perhaps this is not surprising given his almost unknown reputation among the masses. In his introduction to the first volume of the Prison Notebooks (published by Columbia University Press in 1992) series editor Joseph Buttigieg makes the following statement:
Like Giacomo Matteotti, Giovanni Amendola, and Piero Gobetti more than a decade before him and Carlo Rosselli very soon after him, Gramsci became an anti-Fascist martyr; but so did many others whose names remain largely unknown or are rarely remembered. Unlike Matteotti and Rosselli, whose gruesome assassinations drew widespread public attention and revealed fully the ruthlessness of Mussolini’s cohorts, Gramsci expired silently and without commotion in his sickbed after more than a decade of excruciating physical deterioration, devastating loneliness, and profound anguish. He had been almost totally sequestered from the “great and terrible world,” as he sometimes called it, since his arrest on 8 November 1926. (PN, 3)
As I made my way down the crowded street in the late morning sun, I couldn’t help but think how appalled Gramsci would have been by the shops and eateries, temples to capitalism, encircling the Via Antonio Gramsci. Turin has always been (at least in its modern history) a site of manufacturing and commerce. Home to Fiat, it has been called the “Detroit of Italy.” But Turin has a lot more going for it than modern day Detroit. Still, Antonio Gramsci’s legacy seems to have been forgotten or ignored here. The growing divide between the rich and the poor, dyspeptically nurtured by the middle class, is evident when strolling down the Via Antonio Gramsci and its surrounding capitalistic byways. And as one maneuvers down its congested streets, one is constantly reminded of what one can and cannot afford.