Othello and the Ambivalences of Italian Blackface
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Blackface is a cultural practice that appears ubiquitously in Italian history cutting across the political spectrum; it also lends itself to suprising anti-racist actions. This essay examines the use of blackface from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century by looking at its appearance in popular culture and, contextually and dialectically, at its adoption in selected performances of Othello, a play that holds special meaning in Italy because of its famous operatic adaptations. Africa and blackness were often represented in Italian visual arts in the early modern period, but the early colonial ventures of the new independent Italy create a new exotic imaginary that is particularly manifest in popular culture. Othello is influenced by new African discourses but it allso exists in a parallel dimension that somehow resists facile political interpretations. The colonial ventures of post-unification and Fascist Italy do not reverberate in any predictable manner in the growing popularity of the play. After World War II new forms of exoticism emerge that will be subverted only by a new postcolonial scenario that also coincides with a re-emergence of racism. Against the respective historical backdrops, we examine the idiosyncratic versions of blackface by Tommaso Salvini, Pietro Sharoff, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carmelo Bene, and Elio De Capitani to suggest continuities and discontinuities in Italian interpretations of Othello.