Materialities in circulation
: Italy and its colonies across time and space

  • Emilio Distretti

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


In the context of Italian colonialism, relations between the colonisers and the colonised have often been constructed and conducted through materialities (objects, things and artefacts) as means for the transmission, exchange and exercise of power. Practices of architecture, infrastructure and spoliation have then created and intensified systems of circulation connecting the metropole to the periphery. Along this axis the movement of materialities justified the colonial order within a capitalist system of production, trade, migration, communication and conquest.
This dissertation interrogates the relationship between ‘materiality’ and ‘circulation’ as central categories of analysis that allow the evaluation of Italian colonialism as a historical event and the deciphering of the complexities of Italy’s post-colonial present. It offers an in-depth analysis of specific materialities that from the earlier phases of Italian colonisation in the Horn of Africa and Libya up to the post-colonial present have circulated between Italy and its colonies, tying the centre to the periphery. This thesis reveals that as a parallel to the movement of humans between the metropole and the colonies, between the Global North and the Global South, an ensemble of materialities – road infrastructure, an obelisk, anthropometric artefacts and skeletal remains - seem to be epistemologically crucial in describing power relations between the colonisers and the colonised in both the colonial and post-colonial epochs. Formerly instrumental for civilisational claims of Italian superiority in relation to native populations, since decolonisation these materialities have turned into objects of dispute, emblems of postcolonial identities and bargaining chips for posthumous justice for colonial violence and pillage. Within such a context, the discourse on memory and the elaboration of the colonial past together with the definition of new power relations and techniques of government over ‘others’ – migration policies, development and humanitarianism – constantly develop while revolving around those same materialities that, in the first place, served the purposes of the colonial mission.
Date of AwardJun 2014
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorJenny Walden (Supervisor) & Marius Kwint (Supervisor)

Cite this