NIRVCNottingham Institute for Research in Visual Culture

Pollution and Propriety


In memory of Mary Douglas

Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease, and Hygiene in Rome from Antiquity to Modernity

Sainsbury Lecture Theatre, The British School at Rome, Via A. Gramsci 61
Thursday 21 and Friday 22 June 2007.

This interdisciplinary conference will examine the significance of pollution and cleanliness in the art, literature, philosophy, and material culture of the city of Rome from antiquity through to the twentieth century. Dirt, disease and pollution and the ways they are represented and policed have long been recognised by historians and anthropologists to occupy a central position in the formulation of cultural identity, and Rome holds a special status in the West as a city intimately associated with issues of purity, decay, ruin and renewal. In recent years, scholarship in a variety of disciplines has begun to scrutinise the less palatable features of the archaeology, history and society of Rome. This research has drawn attention to the city’s distinctive historical interest in the recognition, isolation and treatment of pollution, and the ways in which politicians, architects, writers and artists have exploited this as a vehicle for devising visions of purity and propriety.

As a departure point, then, the organisers propose the theme of ‘Pollution and Propriety’ and the discourses by which these two antagonistic concepts are related. How has pollution in Rome been defined, and by what means is it controlled? How does Rome’s own social and cultural history affect the way states of dirt and cleanliness are formulated? Does purity always accompany political, physical or social change? Does Rome’s reputation as a ‘city of ruins’ determine how it is represented? What makes images of decay in Rome so picturesque? It is hoped that this conference will bring together scholars from a range of disciplines who are interested in dirt, disease and hygiene in Rome in order to examine the historical continuity of these themes and to explore their development and transformation alongside major chapters in the city’s history, such as early Roman urban development, the Roman Empire, early Christianity, decline and fall, the medieval city, the Renaissance, the Unification of Italy, and the advent of Fascism. In addition, papers will explore a wide range of social, political and cultural themes, such as: death and burial; the management and representation of disease and the history of medicine, sexuality and virginity, prostitution, sewers and waste disposal; urban segregation; religions, purity and absolution; public and private morality; bodies and cleansing; decay, decline and fall; ruins and renovation; concepts of pollution.

It is hoped that this conference will be of interest to scholars working in archaeology, cultural history, literature, art history, and the history of medicine. The conference will aim to develop themes in the history of the city of Rome, as well as providing a context for examining general issues of pollution and purity. Papers will be original and not previously published or delivered at a major conference.

Organisers: Dr Mark Bradley (Classics, Nottingham) and Prof Richard Wrigley (Art History, Nottingham)




Elaine Fantham (Classics (Emerita), Princeton): Passive and active pollution in Roman pagan tradition

Ovid’s Fasti offers a useful point-of-entry into Roman concerns with pollution and purification. The main public act of ritual purification, the lustratio, was unrelated to the Calendar; hence the little we know of its forms comes from other sources. But more can be learnt at the level of individual pollution. More..

Certain elements, notably fire and water (cf. Fasti  4.786-90, 6.291f) and natural products—wool, laurel, myrtle, verbenae, even sacrificial ash – served to cleanse men and beasts from the pollution of past offences, and even inadvertent future offences such as trespassing on sacred space. Ovid’s examples of such purification rituals come mostly from priestly practice. What I call passive pollution was assumed after birth and death. We know that the women of a bereaved family underwent a finite quarantine, as did a new mother until her baby’s ‘day of purification’ (dies lustricus).

More everyday are work restrictions against performing agricultural tasks during public holidays, described by Macrobius as polluting both the holiday and the worker: other restrictions excluded the sexually active from preparing or preserving food and drink. At the festivals of the Parilia and the Vestalia there is an element of spring-cleaning in the shepherd’s fumigation of his sheep pen and the people’s use of suffimen, a purifying compound of animal and vegetable ash. Similarly the Vestals discharged the sweepings from Vesta’s temple into the Tiber at the end of their festival. More problematic are the many roles of laurel: branches set in front of the archaic religious centres (Curiae) were replaced at the beginning of each year, and laurel was burned at festivals and in purification rites. Hence the Romans themselves could not agree whether or not the laurel wreath worn by the triumphant general and branches carried by his returning troops were intended to purify them of the bloodshed of Rome’s enemies: Pliny the Elder claimed laurel was itself sacred and would be profaned by secular use. But how did they decide, we might wonder, whether the purifying agent could overcome impurity or would itself be made impure.


Carlin Barton (History, Massachusetts): Compassion and Purity: an Antithetical Pair?

Was it possible for the ancient Romans to feel purity and compassion at the same time? Did compassion (misericordia) inevitably destroy the Romans’ sense of health, simplicity, integrity, their sense of being in right relations with the “Powers that Be” (as some have argued)? Was it inevitable that the ability of the Romans to see themselves, to imagine themselves through the eyes of their enemies or subject peoples (a recurring rhetorical trope) should result in a feeling of pollution and corruption, of conscientia? Was suffering itself the pollution? More..

Evidence suggests that the Romans thought of themselves, like the ancient Jews or the modern Hasidim or Amish, as a sort of spiritual elite. They attributed their conquests to their discipline, their piety, their scrupulous attention to the religiones, their reluctance to transgress the sanctifying boundaries and limitations. Was it inevitable, then, that the Romans, who gained their empire, in their own minds, as a reward for their pietas became, in their own eyes, the great boundary breakers, the great desecrators and polluters? Could the Romans recover their sense of innocence and sanctity through clementia? Was clementia experienced as less polluting than misericordia? Or, were hatred and rage the emotions that most effectively healed and purified the Roman spirit.


Penelope Davies (Art History, Austin): Pollution, propriety and urbanism in Republican Rome

In the Twelve Tables of the fifth century BCE, Republican Romans forbade burial within the city limits. In the centuries that followed, scattered burials grew into grand cities of the dead outside the walls, where the wealthy built vast sepulchers in the hope of defying death by surviving in the minds of the living. More..

Scholars have offered numerous justifications for the prohibition, but most agree that a dominant factor was a fear of pollution. This is one clear instance where a concern for hygiene shaped the city as it grew. This paper addresses the extent to which matters of hygiene, pollution and health informed the city’s physical development, in an age long before antibiotics, when high child mortality and constant military action made it a challenge to maintain – let alone increase – the population.

It was during the Republic that the city of Rome took its essential shape. The elite were conscious of architecture’s propagandistic power, and took pains to ensure that civic and religious commissions were stringently controlled by the state. Maintenance of buildings fell within the aediles’ mandate, while new civic commissions were generally the privilege of consuls and censors. These magistrates learnt to exploit their mandates to promote their political careers. To our eyes, it is clear that an infrastructure that keeps a city clean is vital to its advancement; yet how willing was an individual politician to tie his name and political future to fighting dirt and disease.


John Bodel (Professor of Classics and History, Brown): Pollution at the Periphery: Living with the Dead in the Roman Suburbs

Imperial Rome was hemmed around by her dead. By the end of the first century BCE, the traditional Roman practices of extramural burial and familial commemoration of the dead at gravesites had ringed the urban periphery with a network of cemeteries and tombs. More...

Amidst the web of funerary monuments that fanned out from the city between the spokes of the radial roads, luxury villa estates of the wealthy (euphemistically styled 'gardens', horti) vied for space with actual market gardens (horti) and tomb orchards (cepotaphia) in the increasingly crowded suburban landscape. By the middle of the second century, competition for locations near the city was driving the cemeteries underground, and networks of catacombs and subterranean tombs began at first to supplement and then to replace the surface monuments. Following the conversion of Constantine, the fashion of burial 'near the blessed' (ad sanctos) led to a proliferation during the fourth century of Christian funerary basilicas at martyrs' shrines around the outskirts of the city. Already by that time, and increasingly throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, intramural burial in residential and commercial structures had begun redefining, once again, the delicate relationship between the living and the dead that had traditionally characterized the suburban zone. This paper attempts to trace across the first six centuries CE the evolving Roman response to the challenge of accommodating the living and the dead within the always ambivalently defined territory of the Roman suburbium.


John Hopkins (Art History, Austin): The Sacred Sewer: Tradition and Religion in the Cloaca Maxima

By the first century BC the Cloaca Maxima was the single most polluted object in Rome. If Plautus’ description of it as a ‘dirty pit’ is correct, it had drained the city’s civic waste for over two hundred years and was now so congested that Agrippa had to remove mountains of refuse by ship. More..

Cicero, Livy and Varro characterize it as the ‘bowels’, ‘receptacle of all kinds of expulsions’ and ‘intestines’ of the city, and in the first through third centuries AD, Pliny, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio extend its impurity to include corruption by murdered corpses. Such literary accounts lead some to characterize the Cloaca Maxima as a reviled monument. Yet a focus on literature to the exclusion of material evidence may create an incomplete understanding of the Cloaca’s place in Roman culture.

In this paper I examine new material evidence for the Cloaca Maxima’s place in Roman concepts of contamination and purification. The brand of pollution that the Cloaca represents is easy for a modern person to understand, because in many modern cultures sewers are dejected as polluted spaces; this familiarity may lead some to ally modern cultural sentiments too closely with ancient. Remains of the Cloaca’s monumental mouth on the Tiber, marble drain covers, channels and perhaps a temple and distinctive pavement in the Forum Romanum to mark its sacred location imbue Rome’s great drain with a social and ritual significance that is absent from modern sewers. By examining material, historical and topographical evidence for particular stretches of the Cloaca, this paper aims to consolidate a modern understanding of the role of the sewer in Roman concepts of dirt and dirt control.


Gemma Jansen (Archaeology, Maastricht): Divine help on a Roman toilet

Recent studies have shown that toilets were a standard facility in the Roman house. These studies concentrate principally on the appearance and operation of these facilities, but have little to say about Roman attitudes towards human waste or the process of defecation. More...

My recent investigation into toilet inscriptions and paintings, as well as the painted threats on outer walls – meant to scare off anyone who might want to defecate outside the house – offers a useful window on to those issues. In both cases, divine intervention plays an important role: on the outer walls of the house, it was commonplace to depict snakes and Roman deities (in particular Jupiter, Mars and Hecate), while inside the toilet room the goddess Fortuna is a regular presence. The paintings of Fortuna on toilet walls presents a unique phenomenon: no other culture gives a god a place in the toilet room. In fact, in most cultures this would be considered a blasphemous act. In order to explore the relation between the gods and the expulsion of waste from the body, this lecture will address the following questions: "What are these gods supposed to do?", “What is the target audience of these paintings?”, “What is their precise location” and "What does this tell us about Roman attitudes towards sanitary practices?". The archaeological material presented in this paper will derive mostly from Pompeii, though other appropriate material (some of it from Rome) will be included for comparison.


Celia Schultz (Classics, Yale): The proper disposal of a polluting presence

After considering the disputed relationship between the discovery of unchaste Vestals and the live interment of pairs of Greeks and Gauls, this paper looks at these paired rituals in the context of expiatory practice in Roman religion.  Most significantly, the link between these two live burials suggests a regularization of expiatory practice similar to that identified in the expiation of hermaphrodites by virginal choruses and matronal offerings, and allows for speculation about a Roman approach to the transgression of sexual boundaries.  More..

Furthermore, the discovery of both unchaste Vestals and hermaphrodites not only required expiation by other rites, but also required that, before the expiation could be performed, the polluting presence had to be disposed of properly.  The Romans preferred to remove a polluted/polluting individual from the community through a bloodless form of ritual murder, thus taking much of the responsibility off the community.  These ritual murders are not described in terms of sacrifice, though the interment of the Greek and Gallic victims is.  I argue that the Romans distinguished between ritual murder, which is acceptable, and human sacrifice, with which they were uncomfortable and which they usually identify as other or foreign.


Katy Cubitt (Centre for Medieval Studies, York): The jet-black spiderwebs of heresy: pollution and the language of heresy in seventh- and eighth-century Rome

The Liber pontificalis describes how, when the Roman delegates at the Council of Constantinople forcibly ejected a heretic from the synod, ‘so many jet-black spiderwebs fell among the people that everyone was astonished at the filth of heresies being expelled’ (The Book of the Pontiffs). More..

In this passage, a contemporary Roman commentator endows the theological errors once formally sponsored by the Byzantine emperors with physical form, graphically illustrating the spiritual filth and blindness produced by wrong belief. Dogmatic differences played a major role in disputes between the papacy and the Emperors in Constantinople in the seventh and eighth century and were a determinative factor in the gradual detachment of the popes from imperial authority. This paper will examine the language of heresy in the conciliar documents and correspondence of popes in this period, the use of metaphors of disease, dirt and danger which are used to describe theological doctrines espoused by the emperors and their patriarchs in the monothelete and iconoclast controversies. It will contrast these with the ideas of cleansing and purity ascribed to Rome and to the popes and highlight the way in which Roman purity acts as a corrective to the contamination throughout the Christendom resulting from heretical doctrine. It will analyse the role of the metaphors of contamination and purity in the projection of papal authority at a crucial moment in its development. The second part of the paper will consider the utilisation of visual culture in the city, in, for example, the decorative programme of Sta Maria Antiqua, to project correct doctrine and will argue that these were intended to signal to visitors and pilgrims the vital role of Rome in the fight between purity and pollution.


Robert Arnott (Centre for the History of Medicine, Birmingham): The Antonine Plague: fact and fiction

An epidemic that struck Rome and parts of the Roman Empire in AD 165-180, also known as the “Antonine Plague”, and by some as the “Plague of Galen” is through to have been introduced into the Italian peninsula by troops returning from campaigns in the Near East and claimed the lives of two Emperors Lucius Verus (AD 130-169) and his co-Emperor for a time, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (AD 161-180). More..

According to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, there was a further outbreak nine years later, and some modern commentators have suggested that as many as two thousand people died in the city during the period of its greatest morbidity. Estimates of the total mortality rate have been put at five million, but it is impossible to confirm this with any accuracy. The epidemic is supposed to have had extensive political and social consequences.

This paper examines what is known about the identification, origins, course and effects of the epidemic, using textual, archaeological and pathological evidence. I will attempt to determine what is likely to be fact and what is likely to be fiction and place the knowledge we have firmly within a modern understanding of disease and public health in the period.


David Gentilcore (History, Leicester): Negotiating medical remedies in time of plague: Rome, 1656

At the height of the Roman plague of 1656, a Neapolitan ‘alchemist’, who had healed a handful of plague victims with his own special remedy, asked to be paid 500 scudi a month in order to continue treating the sick. Rome’s hastily-established health magistracy, the Congregazione della Sanità, overseeing the city’s response to the epidemic, proposed instead a counter-offer of a fixed sum for each sufferer he cured. More.

How can we explain the interest on the part of the authorities for this and other medical remedies, and their willingness to bargain over the health of the city’s inhabitants? This paper discusses the nature of the Rome epidemic, as well as those of other Italian cities during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It focuses on the control of plague by the health magistracies and Protomedicato tribunals, in terms of i) the unceasing search for remedies perceived to be effective against it; ii) the attitude of the authorities towards “charlatans and mountebanks” and the strategies employed by these pedlar-practitioners to sell their wares in time of plague; and iii) the reaction of public officials to novel medicines proposed to them at such times, in particular alchemical one.


Conrad Leyser (History, Manchester): ‘Pornocracy’ and Professionalization: The Roman Church in the Tenth Century

Why, in the Western church of the central middle ages, was a campaign waged against the perceived pollution of sexually active priests? Conversely, why did a celibate priesthood emerge as an icon of moral purity? The hypothesis I will test is that, in the tenth century, the condemnation of ‘sexual pollution’ dramatized a concern for the ‘professional promiscuity’ of bishops in relation to their office. The normalisation of episcopal transfer is an unnoticed key to the story of Church Reform. More..

My focus is on the seat of ‘pre-Reform pollution’: Rome. From the pen of Liudprand of Cremona, we have an immortal description of the papacy in this period, luridly associating the throne of St Peter with sex and death. In his account, the bodies of its occupants were variously and repeatedly defiled by the Roman aristocracy, until the reforming intervention of Otto I in the early 960s, to whom Liudprand, a careerist cleric if ever there was one, owed the bishopric of Cremona.


Liudprand used the rumour of sexual scandal in Rome to convey a more institutionally consequential message about the infidelity of bishops who left their churches. In defending the legitimacy of episcopal transfer (in particular in the notorious case of Pope Formosus), Liudprand, perhaps unwittingly, abetted the professionalization of the episcopacy in the Latin West. By the turn of the eleventh century, then, your bishop was not necessarily someone you knew, he might well be a careerist at the beck and call of a great patron,

en route to a better job. How to judge the likely quality of such a bishop? One answer was: his celibacy.


Alessio Assonitis (The Medici Archive Project, Florence): The Miasma of Rome: Fra Girolamo Savonarola on the City of Popes and the Urbs Antiqua

The pollution of the body was a primary metaphor used by Fra Girolamo Savonarola when addressing the corruption of Rome. Even before taking the habit at San Domenico in Bologna, his invectives against the city of popes and jubilees were constructed in the language of medical culture. More..

This specific knowledge derived from his grandfather, the fifteenth-century doctor Michele Savonarola, with whom Girolamo spent his formative years. Fra Girolamo often described Rome’s urban fabric as putrefying and pestilential; its inhabitants, as poisoned and syphilitic; the Church of Rome, as miasmatic and plague-stricken. The censure of the urbs antiqua was even more severe. At a time when humanists and antiquarians were extolling and preserving the ancient city, Savonarola and his followers compared its ruins to bones of a carcass---manifest markers of the of caducity of paganism. Not even the multitude of Christian icons and relics could save the city from its imminent demise. So pestilential was the air that he even discouraged friars from going on pilgrimages to the city.

This paper will discuss how Savonarola somatized Rome in his treatises and sermons, diagnosed the causes of its spiritual and moral malaise, and provided remedies for its purification, salvation, and renovatio. Particular emphasis will be placed on how his use medical language was interconnected with millenarian expectations.


Kenneth Stow (Jewish History, Haifa): Was the Ghetto Cleaner?

Jews in the third and fourth decades of the Roman ghetto, toward the end of the sixteenth century, expressed concern about problems arising about sanitation before their own body of Jewish notaries. Sometimes, these were mundane issues, at other times, questions of avoiding pollution from neighbors. More..

These same Jews also deposed before notaries concerning problems of illness and health. The proposed paper will examine these issues, interesting not only in their own right, but for the language in which contemporaries framed them (for these are notarial texts in which people's speech was relatively well preserved). From there, the question will arise how the health and sanitation problems of Rome's ghettoized Jews were similar--or dissimilar--to those of Rome's others inhabitants, and what this means about the tenor of Roman urban life, both within and without the ghetto walls


Katherine Rinne (Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Virginia): Cleansing Counter Reformation Rome

Scholars of Early Modern Rome have long been aware of the zealous efforts made by Popes Pius IV and Pius V to reform the Roman Curia by implementing the decrees of the Council of Trent and to morally cleanse Rome by controlling prostitution. What is less well known, are their efforts to physically cleanse Rome by restoring and expanding its water infrastructure as part of an overall strategy of renovatio Romae. More..

Pius IV’s goal was to make the Vatican self-sufficient during siege. For him, water management, urban beautification, defensive projects and the development of pilgrimage amenities were seamlessly integrated into a plan to cleanse the Vatican of moral vice and filthy streets, while protecting it from attack. For Pius V, public health was an urgent concern, and he too, saw water infrastructure as part of a larger initiative that linked aqueduct restoration to new efforts to build sewers, drains, and pave streets in the Campo Marzio area. Both popes understood that a healthful physical environment was essential to the restoration of Rome’s Imperial temporal power, its primacy as the center of Christendom, and the moral cleansing of both the city and Church of vice and corruption.


Renato Sansa (Università G. D’Annunzio Chieti Pescara): Playing Dirty: the social impact of legislation on dirt and cleanliness in eighteenth-century Rome

The first attempts of the early modern age to provide a system to keep Rome clean are attested from the first decades of the sixteenth century. Yet it was only by the end of the century that a public service based on a tax levied on trading activities was implemented. More..

During the seventeenth century the public cleansing system developed, with a series of acts that reminded the population of Rome of how to appropriately dispose of waste. This regulation has often been interpreted as evidence of its ineffectiveness. However, it can be argued that the frequently repeated orders are symptomatic of contemporary sensitivity towards the dangers connected with dirtiness. The attention of the rulers was informed by the medical theory of the time which stressed the relationship between dirt and disease. In addition, the concept of "decoro" (the 'aptness' of the place) played an important role in motivating legislation about cleansing.

The population of Rome did not easily accept this innovative public system of removing rubbish, its costs and the strict regulations that governed it. There were continuous attempts to evade payment of the tax, and there were frequent requests addressed to the authorities to be exempted from the due. During the eighteenth century the fear of plague declined, yet the attention paid toward questions of sanitation did not weaken: marble plaques were placed on the wall of some buildings to remind the population that they were forbidden to dump rubbish in the vicinity, and a number of authorised collecting points for waste was approved for every quarter (rioni) of the city.


Furthermore, the attitude of the city's population towards such regulations appears to have shifted from hostility to acceptance. The citizens, especially the more affluent, appealed to the Presidenza delle strade - the institution responsible for the cleaning of the streets - to ask for the issue of orders, in some case marble plaques, to forbid the depositing of rubbish around their buildings. In this way, the early resistance gave way to the assimilation of the cleaning system within neighbourhood schemes, which had previously been characterised (in some extreme cases) by the intentional dumping of rubbish on other people's properties.


Taina Syrjämaa (School of History, University of Turku, Finland): The Clash of picturesque dirtiness and modern cleanliness in late nineteenth-century Rome

In the 1870s, when Rome became the national capital, it had preserved many characteristics of an ancien régime city. It continued to offer aesthetic pleasures to those who were in romantic and nostalgic search for the picturesque. Romantic gazers saw shabby quarters, poverty, dirtiness and destitution as an artistic spectacle. The American sculptor Wilhelm Story crystallised this view by stating that `the cleanliness of Amsterdam would be the destruction of Rome in artists’ eyes’. More..

Contemporaneously, the same conditions appeared to be shameful to the new authorities who wished to transform Rome into a modern metropolis and a dignified capital of the young nation state. In 1874, for example, the ex-mayor of Rome, Luigi Pianciani, declared that the aim was to construct `comfortable and salubrious homes; wide neat, safe and well-illuminated streets [and] adequate sewage systems at the market places’. He and the like-minded were following the ideals of international town planning discussion in which `to better’, `to enlarge’ and `to regularise’ were the key concepts. In this context, the image of a notoriously dirty and forlorn Rome was abhorrence.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, these different views clashed in Rome creating a fierce debate on many aspects of urban space and of `correct’ ways to live in a city. For example, whitewashing of old buildings, construction of new blocks of flats and streets, purification of ruins (especially of the Colosseum) and demolishing parts of the old centre divided opinions. In this paper, I will examine these different perceptions of dirt and cleanliness in Rome contextualising them with wider cultural sets of values and practices. I will approach the city as a lived space in which physical and imagined are tightly intertwined.


Dominic Janes (History of Art, Birkbeck): ' I hope the ladies present will forgive me’: Victorian clergy and the erotics of Christian antiquities in Rome

‘I hope the ladies present will forgive me, I won’t say anything very indelicate, but I was myself shown and I have handled a bottle of milk from her breasts as she suckled the child Jesus… and I did handle with my own hands – I hope the ladies will again forgive me for explaining myself in plain English – what seemed to be a red rag, but which was shown to me as piece of – what shall I call it? – the chemise of the Virgin Mary’ [which was used in former times to re-enact the birth of Jesus] (Seymour (1866), pp. 17-18). More..

These words are taken from a talk given at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, the city of bodily sanitation, in 1866 by Rev. M. Hobart Seymour. He was an Anglican who had spent a considerable time in Rome in the 1850s and who had garnered a strong anti-Catholic reputation on his return through his denunciations of the morally and physically unclean religious practices taking place in the city. This paper will explore the anxieties and fascinations produced by voyeuristic readings of Rome as the site of body-centred worship which was seen as deriving, ultimately from ‘heathen’ antiquity. The paper will explore the way in which the ‘othering’ of Roman practices was used by certain Protestants as a way of attempting to assert that only they had achieved a desirable fusion between antiquity and modernity through recapturing a New Testament simplicity of worship through rigorous moral sanitation. Rome itself, became, in such a cultural reading, a filthy ancient city of thrilling moral danger in which the Protestant hero could demonstrate his triumph over the seductions of the flesh. And, just as was the case with the ‘ladies in the audience’, the Victorian public was enabled safely to enjoy the consumption of Rome and its religion as a quasi pornographic cultural product when it came packaged in the moral purity of the books and tracts of Seymour and his fellow travellers.


Martina Salvante (European University Institute, Fiesole): Delinquency and pederasty: ‘deviant’ youngsters in Rome’s working class suburbs in the late 1920s

Taking as a starting point several cases of prostitution among teenage males living in impoverished Roman suburbs in the second half of the 1920s, this paper aims to explore contemporary concepts of morality and depravity and will focus on the ways homosexuality was criminalized and associated with delinquency. More..

The details of these cases are preserved in the documentary sources of the Criminal Court in Rome’s State Archives, and also through a study of that period by the well-known criminologist Benigno Di Tullio, a pupil of Cesare Lombroso. Rome under the dictatorship of Mussolini was a city in transformation, on the one hand embracing the new values of the regime, and on the other resisting the moral dangers brought by urbanisation in the face of the ideals of Italian ruralism. Therefore, while consolidating its authority, Fascism considered modernity and urbanisation to be forms of corruption, especially for the younger generations. In the 1920s many people were arriving in the capital from the countryside with consequent overcrowding of the expanding suburbs (for example, Garbatella). According to some criminologists, `perverted’ teenagers were the by-product of these recently-built and overcrowded immigrant areas and they devoted themselves to various sexual perversions and male prostitution.

Moreover, between the Twenties and the Thirties the old Zanardelli penal code was replaced with the new Rocco code, which, introduced in 1930, stressed the public nature of certain crimes related to the sexual sphere. Such crimes were more harshly persecuted in an effort to normalise citizen behaviour, and so produce a new generation of Italians (the ‘italiano nuovo’)





Nottingham Institute for Research in Visual Culture

University of Nottingham
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