Rereading Travellers to the East
From Firenze University Press Book
Beatrice Falcucci, University of L’Aquila
Emanuele Giusti, University of Florence
Davide Trentacoste, University of Teramo
Rereading Travellers to the East. Shaping Identities and Building the Nation in Post-unification Italy stands at the crossroads of different research fields. Its main goal is to offer a new historiographical perspective on travel literature, the question of nation-building in post-unification Italy and the history of orientalism and oriental studies. In this introductory essay, we will discuss the angles from which we have tackled these three large areas and how we propose to join them together. Before we do so, however, it may be useful to make some preliminary remarks on the scope of this volume. Traditionally, travel literature calls for a discussion of its role as a source for the times and spaces in which it was produced, in terms of both its authors and readers and its usually multi-layered content, whether it concerns geography, peoples or ideas. The aim of this volume is to focus on the rereadings to which early modern travel literature, spanning from the late Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, has been subjected by different actors involved in the political, economic, cultural and intellectual life of post-unification Italy.
This specific focus has allowed us to highlight how early modern travel literature has been mobilized, reinterpreted and reused for political and ideological purposes in the context of the formation and reformation of collective identities. While this approach to travel literature implies a careful appreciation of the specific contexts and periods in which these sources originated, the main time frame of our analysis of rereadings includes broadly speaking the first century of existence of Italy as a unitary state: from the period of the political unification of the Italian peninsula — the Risorgimento — to the so-called liberal age of the Kingdom of Italy and from the Fascist regime to the first decades of the republic. Such a long-term perspective, often split into different time frames, spanning very different political and cultural periods, allows us to discuss ruptures and changes as well as continuity and persistence as characterizing features of the patterns of rereadings. Travel inevitably connects different communities and polities. Trite though it may be, this point implies that any study of travel literature, and its rereadings even more so, should consider the relations between the different human spaces touched by the travellers’ experience. This volume focuses on the relations between the polities of the Italian peninsula and those of Asia, or the lands that early modern Europe called the Orient, the Indies or the Levant. As we will discuss in more detail below, this perspective provides new insights into the history of orientalism in Italy: a topic that, if understood in the all-encompassing sense fashioned by Edward Said’s works, has only recently started to draw considerable scholarly attention. However, it is impossible to disentangle this set of relations from the larger context of intra-European contacts and the connections between Europe and Asia. This is especially relevant for post-unification Italy, when intense exchanges and conflicts took place between Italy and other European countries, both within Europe and on the stage of European expansionism in Asia. A case in point, which is worth mentioning even though it is not discussed in this volume, is the construction of the Suez Canal, which was marked by intense international competition (Surdich 1982; 1992). In this sense, on the European side of the problem, this volume can offer an outline of a shared but conflicting history of the political and cultural legacy of travel literature. Before we discuss these issues in detail, however, it is necessary to present a methodological frame of the foundational notion of “rereading”.
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