My grandparents’ now semi-abandoned house, where my mother and her two sisters grew up, is a place that in its own little way contains many narratives that have to do with a violent past. This is a difficult heritage shared by many people—particularly women—not only of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but also in the present day.
Finding oneself in a house full of objects, having to discuss who can or should do what and who is or is not entitled to something else, is a simple everyday metaphor. It is an episode of common and shared experience that can make us reflect—whether we want to or not—on how difficult and painful a legacy is to manage, not necessarily because of mourning but because of the dynamics that are triggered. When the family tree splits, branches multiply from one root and the private becomes collective. There are so many variables that pop up to make problematic a simple pile of objects, or a house falling apart.
I am thinking of memories, both private and collective, which are identified and materialized in objects and in so doing take on a certain value. In old family albums, as in monuments that inhabit public spaces, we see a past with which we may or may not identify, but which is sewn onto us by our ancestors, in institutions or in families.
My grandfather was a fascist. My grandmother, whom he married as a promise to a fellow soldier who was with him in Ethiopia and died there, gave him three daughters. A disgrace, according to him. These are just a couple of facts that could open like Chinese boxes; episodes of domestic bullying which had repercussions on the lives of those who were close to him. My grandfather was an ordinary man, whose arrogance was for many years justified by the classic excuse that after all, he was still the father, the husband, and he had to be respected.
If we consider this attitude, going beyond the intimate, we can see how beneath the phrase ‘Italians are good people’, there is a minefield of underground violence. Sometimes it is not even recognized, discussed or thought about, because hidden by fixed roles that cannot be questioned; roles that permeate a society that claims to be one of the great free and fair democracies of our time. Looking at it today, the question is not very different from back then. It is exactly in the ordinary man that the dynamics of power, suffered or exercised in the structures that make up everyday life, are hidden. It is precisely in the normalization of certain relational and power dynamics that colonial, gender, identity and class violence is rooted and passed on, transferred and amplified without question to subsequent generations.
My grandparents’ house is a house like many others. Material goods have infinite potential for collectivization and discussion of a past that has not yet been analyzed, because they carry memories and situations. It is the discussion about inheritance itself that would be the healing process to cultivate, whereas a material inheritance often leads to endless disputes. The conversation of who gets what highlights a lack of ability to share, and is linked to an economic value or right of use rather than the immaterial information and narratives inherited objects contain. Inheritance is a treasure, or a problem, depending on how we see it. The past can teach us, or block us, depending on how we perceive it.
A memory can be a pleasure or a trauma, depending on how we have experienced, internalized and processed it. Understanding ourselves and our things as a microcosm, the basic unit of society, that implies and corresponds to a whole series of issues related to property, struggle, individualism and dynamics of power, we could ask: How might we share and unhinge dominant relationships with materiality, in order to create common rituals of production, care and community rather than territories to be conquered and maintained?