Starting with our first works of art we have always been interested in souvenirs as an artistic subject. One of our photographic series, commissioned by Flaminio Gualdoni for the journal FMR Bianca in 2008, is even called Souvenir d’Italie. We tried to imagine the arrangements of these strange objects in people’s houses or in friends’ and relatives’ houses. We recreated Stendhal’s journey, narrowing our research to the memory objects (souvenirs) from Rome, Naples and Florence. We realized this project from Bologna, by looking for souvenirs in local flea markets. During one of those searches we came across an illuminating anthropological essay, Travel Trophies – Anthropology of a Souvenir, written by Duccio Canestrini and edited by Bollati Boringhieri. Over the years me met Duccio Canestrini, chatted over a few cups of coffee, and found out that we have a lot in common. What follows below is the first part of the prologue to the book mentioned above: no answers are given in the book, but many questions are asked.
“The first time I asked myself the question “what is the memento” was a couple of years ago in the Tahiti aquarium. On the way out of a transparent plexiglass tunnel, constructed in a way that permits walking under the sea and doing fish-watching, there was a group of elderly American ladies besieging the souvenir counter. Producing a host of exclamations, at times querulous, at times mellifluous, they were fighting over a souvenir. It was a plastic tray, representing two young women, two Tahiti Venuses from Paul Gauguin’s painting. On the back of the tray there was a tiny writing that said: made in Italy. So, a tray printed in Italy, representing two local women, painted by a French artist, was perceived as a Polynesian souvenir by these American ladies. How come?
And also, why, to this day, does a statue made of polystyrene of a Greek goddess Aphrodite, produced in Hong Kong and sold on the Capri island represent a Souvenir d’Italie for French, Russian and Japanese tourists? Clearly, we find ourselves in the world on the imaginary. A world with no limits, where mythical past recollection is triggered by common objects and common places, which help to spark our memory.
They are hooks, traps that we fall into throwing ourselves into the sea of suggestions.
Sometimes I imagine that the souvenirs that one finds on the counters are in a way similar to the stone idols rotating in the mysterious temples and often used as a setting for the Indiana Jones movies. If one touches them in the right spot, they suddenly pivot on themselves and open a secret world.
We are guided through the world of souvenirs and we assume a behavior of automatic buying. But who and what drives us when we approach the rotating idols? Are we looking for reality or for a dream? Are we looking for the truth or simply for sense?
After putting aside all the forms of romanticism, it becomes pretty clear that Gauguin’s tray doesn’t have less meaning than a paddle carved out of mangrove wood. Nowadays, both of these objects are false (…). Or, if you wish, both of them are authentic. The two objects don’t exclude one another. On the contrary, they coexist, each one as a response to a different need. In any case, they both mean something (…).
Once I came back from that trip, as after any trip I take, I started looking at souvenirs from Italy in a different, more attentive way. I started seeing my home as an exotic place, with thousands of years of history, culture and passions. I tried to imagine myself in the shoes of a tourist. I tried to understand what my expectations would be like, what I would decide to buy as a memory and what is it exactly that we, Italians, sell as souvenirs. It has been a discovery.
Duccio Canestrini, “Travel Trophies”, ©2001 published by Bollati Boringhieri, Torino
Duccio Canestrini, curious traveller and polygraph, observe with interest all the rituals of contemporary. He is professor of Anthropology of tourism at Campus of Lucca (University Pisa). He’s last work is Antropop (Bollati Boringhieri).