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Italy’s Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the Making of Modern Archaeology

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

Italy’s Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the Making of Modern Archaeology

By Giovanna Ceserani (Greeks Overseas). Pp. xiii + 331, figs. 17, map 1. Oxford University Press, New York 2012. $74. ISBN 978-0-1-974427-5 (cloth).

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Magna Graecia, the Hellenic lands of South Italy, has long been, and to a certain degree remains, the lost stepchild of Hellenic studies. Greek archaeology remains focused on the mainland. However, East Greece and Sicily have long held fascinations, especially for archaeologists. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Greek Black Sea has received increasing attention. Yet the region of Pythagorean Croton, extravagant Sybaris, and opulent Tarentum remain marginal to students of the Greek world. Representative are the contrasting stories of the sacks of Syracuse and Tarentum in the Second Punic War. Well known is the taking of Syracuse, which produced much sculpture and a very dead Archimedes. Largely forgotten is the sack of Tarentum, which also produced much sculpture and a very live Livius Andronicus, who helped lay the foundations of Latin literature.

Ceserani sets out to explore this enigma in modern classical and archaeological scholarship. It is an intellectual journey that takes the reader from the 18th century down to the decades after World War II. She starts with the 18th-century Neapolitan Enlightenment, when local savants and antiquarians debated archaeology with the erudits of the Grand Tour. Much useful discussion is devoted to 19th-century regional exploration and to explorers such as Francois Lenormont. Ceserani provides a full analysis of the connection between Hellenic South Italy and the emerging world of scholarly archaeology centered on Eduard Gerhard and the Instituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica. The narrative is taken into the later 19th and the 20th centuries. Among the best parts are her discussions of such scholars as Ettore Pais and Umberto Zanotti Bianchi, whose research considered Magna Graecia from very different intellectual and ideological backgrounds and agendas.

She has brought to the project a sophisticated theoretical perspective and superb mastery of the Italian background and the Italian scholarship. That is generally an advantage but at times is a liability. For instance, she assumes an understanding of the complex intellectual culture of 18th-century Italy and the contribution of figures such as Giambattista Vico, which may prove a challenge to non-Italian archaeological readers.

The major problem with the book is that the heart of Magna Graecia never becomes the center of her discourse. To use a favorite phrase of postcolonial studies, “the subaltern never speaks.” Most of the archaeological scholarship that she discusses was conducted by scholars investigating the region from the outside or, as was the case of the Neapolitan savants, from the margins of the ancient Hellenic colonial area. Naples figures much more in the index than Taranto, the metropolis of Magna Graecia.

The sense of Magna Graecia as a desolate world extends from the narratives of scholars and explorers to Cesarini’s own reconstructions. There are passing references to local collectors and savants but little detail about their activities or limitations. Were there or were there not the local museums and societies found in much of the rest of Europe? If not, what does that tell us about culture and society in modern South Italy? For one who quotes approvingly Momigliano on the worth of the antiquaries, she says little about that world.

A sociointellectually based archaeological history should consider the larger socioeconomic ambience in which intellectuals operated. That is especially important for an area such as Magna Graecia, whose distinctive, limiting history is one of the major themes of the study. Ceserani tells the reader little about the distinctive early modern–modern history of South Italy, a configuration that partly explains the failures to appreciate or at least articulate the former greatness of Magna Graecia. Almost nothing is said about the “Southern Question,” the roots of underdevelopment in southern Italy, which has shaped consideration of the region from the era of the Risorgimento to the present.

Certain major centers should have received fuller consideration, for they provide striking illustrations of the limitations of archaeology in the area. Taranto benefits from much less consideration than Naples, yet it is more central to Magna Graecia. The convoluted, often sad history of the Tarentum museum deserved a detailed narrative, for it highlights much that is problematic in the area. The Taranto conferences, which have done much to stimulate interest in Magna Graecia, are mentioned only in passing. Little is said about the other major center, Reggio Calabria.

Ceserani’s discussion largely ends with the Fascist era. Yet seven decades have passed from the end of World War II to the present, the same time span that separated the Unification of Italy from the fall of Mussolini. It has seen many continuities, including the heated debates on the “backwardness of the South,” but also important changes, from the interventions of the Cassa del Mezza­giorno to the arrival of the first foreign archaeologists since unification. Arguably the most important postwar archaeological research project in Magna Graecia has been the University of Texas expedition at Metaponto. Much more is said about the absurd, failed American 19th-century operation at Crotone than the most successful American research, that at Metaponto.

The author in the end has attempted to blend two overlapping but distinctive research projects. The first, focused on the archaeology of Magna Graecia, becomes a partly explored case study in the context of the second, a wider investigation of the history of archaeology in 18th–20th-century Italy, with special emphasis on the very real contribution of key German and Italian scholars.

The author has read widely and used the scholarship with care and imagination. A few errors have crept in. Wolfgang Helbig was deeply frustrated in his pursuit of the position of director/first secretary at the German Archaeological Institute in Rome. Cesarani, by referring to him as director, has granted him that honor. The long-time director of the key Metaponto research project, Joseph Carter, is given the wrong first name.

The author has provided an important study of the history of archaeology in South Italy. It needs to be followed by further research that more fully explores the social and cultural history of archaeology of Magna Graecia on its own terms.

Stephen L. Dyson
Department of Classics
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, New York 14261

Book Review of Italys Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the Making of Modern Archaeology, by Giovanna Ceserani

Reviewed by Stephen L. Dyson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Dyson


Well done Dr. Dyson. One minor point though: Given the current habit of publishers to curtail the length of such books, it is hardly surprising if non-Italian archaeological readers find themselves challenged by the author's assumption of "an understanding of the complex intellectual culture of 18th-century Italy and the contribution of [its leading] figures." To such readers Ms. Ceserani might well be tempted to reply, "Look into it."

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