CHS 2019 Fall Fellows | Manuela Pellegrino

The Legacy of Ancient Greek Ideals at Times of Environmental Crisis: Heritage, Democracy and Art in Southern Italy and Greece

The Southern Italian region of Apulia has been affected by several environmental crises. Since 2013, ancient Apulian olive trees have been victims of what could be defined a ‘plague’ – usually referred to as the Xylella emergency – which is causing them to dry out progressively; EU and national authorities sanctioned the eradication of infected trees. That same year, Italy signed an intergovernmental agreement on the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe through Salento (Apulia), despite the region’s assessments that it would likely have a negative impact on the landscape, ecology, and tourism. Yet the EU and Italian government designated the project as being of “strategic importance.”

Both environmental ‘crises’ have stirred up controversies; protest movements, such as “People of the Olive Trees” and “No TAP” have developed in the defence of the environment, of threatened olives trees, and coast which locals consider to be their cultural heritage. The pipeline is intended to surface on the beach of San Foca (Melendugno), endangering the distinctive marine ecosystem, and it requires the ‘displacement’ of numerous olive trees. This phenomenon has led locals to resort to temporalizing practices linking the present with collective memories of the past (cf Knight and Stewart 2016); indeed metanarratives of resistance have been introduced and fears of exploitation and colonization are evoked (cf. Pipyrou 2014, Argenti and Knight 2015).

Before reaching Southern Italy, the pipeline cuts through Turkey, Greece and Albania – the so-called “Southern Gas Corridor.”  Interestingly, in July 2018, activists from Salento traveled to the region of Kavala in Greece to show their support to protesters. In Greece the TAP operation equally intersects highly fertile and cultivated lands and its operation is dangerously close to the archaeological site of Philippi. This event prompted me to apply for the CHS fellowship in order to investigate how responses to environmental issues may reinforce cultural ties between contemporary Italy and Greece, and thus connect communities across national borders.

As part of my CHS fellowship, I will conduct fieldwork in Greece as of next February (2020) to investigate locals’ understandings and reactions to such environmental transformations; once in the field, I will also explore any potential artistic dimension of activism; this aspect has indeed emerged during my research in Italy where locals increasingly use art to express their dissent. These varied responses include paintings, songs, performances, as well as murals, poems, and fairytales for children. Building on Morphy’s definition of art as a “way of acting in the world” (2009), I call this art-ivism, and with it, I refer to the artistic practices in which locals engage as a way to re-act to the changing environment and endorse democracy.

The pursuit of knowledge, the arts, and civic responsibility are among the ideals associated with ancient Greek democracy; equally central are the symbolism of olive trees and the sea, and the materiality of archaeological sites and fertile lands. During my residency at the CHS this fall I have been exploring contributions from ancient Greek studies and philosophy on the use of art to pursue democracy and on the links between environmental sustainability and social/legal justice. This new project expands upon my previous research which investigated diachronically the cultural heritage of Hellenism through the lens of language (Griko) and its socio-cultural manifestations.

Manuela Pellegrino

Manuela Pellegrino holds a master’s degree and PhD in anthropology from University College of London. Since 2006, her research among Griko-speakers and activists in Grecìa Salentina (Apulia, Southern Italy) and ‘aficionados of Griko’ in Greece has formed the basis of her PhD thesis and resultant publications. Her work highlights the transformative effects on the ground of the interplay of language ideologies and policies promoted by the EU, Italy, and Greece to protect Griko, a language of Greek origins; this process has enhanced locally a general ‘revival’ mobilizing cultural heritage more broadly as a resource for the future. More recently she was awarded a fellowship at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH), Smithsonian Institution (Jan 2018-June 2019). Her fellowship with the CHS will allow her to focus on her new project on the protest movements against the environmental crisis affecting Salento and Greece; this moves beyond language revival but she continues to study cultural heritage as a resource from the past, for the future. In particular, she is interested in assessing the relevance of ancient Greek thought to the management of the current environmental crisis and in investigating the role that the cultural heritage of Hellenism plays in shaping contemporary relationships between Greece and Italy. Her research reflects a longstanding interest, as she originally comes from Zollino, a village belonging to Grecìa Salentina. Her research interests include: language ideologies, cultural heritage, identity politics, Hellenism, historicity and temporality, environmental issues and conflicts, Italy, Greece.