Sardinia

Sardinia has a long history of being subject to impressions. The Greeks called it Ichnusa, or footprint—when Zeus created the earth, he gathered the leftover pieces, threw them into the sea, and stepped down hard: voilà, Sardinia. Intruders have been leaving their footprints ever since: Phoenicians, Romans, Pisans, Catalans, billionaire yachtsmen, crabby and indolent writers. And yet somehow it has retained its thorny, intransigent particularity—‘lost between Europe and Africa, and belonging to nowhere,’ as Lawrence put it. "It’s that very betweenness, at once central and marginal to history, that drew him. It drew us, too.”—‘Tracing D. H. Lawrence’s Ink Trail in Sardinia’ by Robert Cohen, from the International New York Times, 12 July 2014.

Yes, belonging to nowhere, it is correct. There is something strange, in fact, about an ancient people able to carve houses into the granite and build so many thousands of unique stone structures, the nuraghi, like nowhere else in the world. And the Neolithic dolmens, giants’ tombs, sacred pits, etc., all of them prehistoric masterpieces of a silent past. All without any writing, any text, any clear sign of affiliation. A population deep-rooted in an old and large island that stands out thanks to its invisibility, its ability to disappear down into the Mediterranean Sea like the last submarine in a game of Battleship, and absent in the chronicles. No other populace in the remote past built so much, architecturally innovative and perfect, and spread out across such a large region. And no other civilization is as invisible as the Sardinians. History books speak about the Mesopotamian civilization, and then the Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, Roman civilizations, etc. Maybe you can find words about Lebanon, Crete or Cyprus, the great story of Carthage, but surely you will not find anything—at least in the unspecialized books—about the Sardinians. Everybody in the world knows about the megalithic monument of Stonehenge, circa 3000 BC, set in another part of the ancient world, in Wiltshire. Nobody knows of the sixty menhirs of Pranu Mutteddu, for example, circa 2500 BC, which lined a path towards the mystery of the death, a tomb dug into a unique monolith transported who knows how from elsewhere. Or the large Domus De Janas (‘the house of the small fairies’) of St. Andrea Priu with corridors and underground temples, 4300-3000 BC. Or the Holy Pit of Santa Caterina, of which the precision and the technical solutions used in its construction would be extraordinary even today.

Sardinia seems to transcend the usual laws of history, and scholars are still confused and unable to retrace and precisely situate its historical events. This uncertainty about origins, dates and names, adds a sort of constant invisibility, marks Sardinia like a trade name, an historical curse, who knows, and induces a definite estrangement not only to scholars but to sensitive visitors and researchers too. 

This sentiment, like an awareness of something abstruse and recondite, accompanies the best modern Sardinian artists, not only writers like Grazia Deledda and Salvatore Satta, but also sculptors like Francesco Ciusa and painters like Giovanni Ciusa Romagna, Antonio Ballero, Giuseppe Biasi, Stanis Dessy and Carmelo Floris. It is a transversal feeling too that conquers foreign artists who decided to stay in Sardinia, like the Spanish painter Antonio Ortis Echague or the German photographer Marianne Sin-Pfältzer, as if Sardinia were only a metaphysical and not a real place. A state of the soul; a soul of estrangement.

There is another lecture you can use when approaching the modern Sardinian artists, starting with Grazia Deledda. She was born in 1871 in the town of Nuoro, in Barbagia (a landlocked region, mountainous and impervious, hidden and rough), Sardinia, Italy; won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, and died in 1936. Grazia Deledda’s work is about Sardinia’s remnant identity, both the best and the worst of what Sardinians could save after 200 years of greedy and merciless colonialism by the Piedmontese; if we want to understand her greatness we have to retrace Sardinian history, scientifically erased by the colonialists; without that, our comprehension of our Nobel Prize winner’s world would be limited.

The awareness of the presence and effects of colonialism collided with the general exaltation over the unity of Italy. This process followed the usual iconography and an incontrovertible, yet false scenario (a movement of people, strong even though underground, wanted and dreamed of by the population of Italy). So at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Grazia Deledda wrote her masterpieces, there wasn’t room for such a post-colonialist analysis—and it is not by chance that only foreign scholars understood her messages. Then, the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century erased local traditions and cultures, which simply could not exist on the altar of a superior system of ideals.

So it is not surprising that even now, more than one hundred years after the publishing of her Canne al Vento—wrongly translated as Reeds in the Wind—when reading recent reviews, one can say that Grazia Deledda’s work was never anchored to Sardinian or, especially, to Barbagia’s history. The syllogism is perfect: if Sardinian history doesn’t exist, colonialism doesn’t exist either, and we can jump easily from the remote past to the second half of the 19th century and the unity of Italy in 1861, forgetting relevant centuries that are the background of our present identity.

The truth is that Sardinia had its own origins and its own historical path, different from other parts of Italy. And ‘Italy’ never existed in history—be careful: it is only a geographical concept foisted on us to justify wars that led to annexes.

Constraints and conditions exert great force now as well as before, and a kind of mist, of unexpressed examination still exists around Grazia Deledda’s and the modern Sardinian artists’ works, as if their pieces were politically incorrect or the critics’ guilty conscience was a sort of tremendous barrier.

Paola Roych wrote in her presentation The Silent Island and the Drunken Boat: "A search of the on-line material in the English language about Sardinian writers and artists shows a series of difficulties (especially, for some authors, the unavailability of translated material), which seems to confirm, at first glance, the cliché of a marginalized island with its peculiarity of geographical insularity and historical remoteness, that is so strongly ingrained."

However, after the decision of Drunken Boat, one of the oldest and most famous online journals of literature and arts, to publish a monographic folio about Sardinia, an effort had to be made to go beyond the victimistic idea that Sardinian people have regarding their condition.

Drunken Boat's mission is to valorise and promote underrepresented and marginalized artists, criticizing the bias of the unneutral mainstream aesthetics based on the concept of literary merit. Probably, the philosophy of Drunken Boat may not fit the Sardinian writers individually, but, allowing a stretch, we can think of Sardinian artists as a whole, the “sardità,”  and these “drunken sailors” landing on our island will open the possibility of proposing new metaphors.

To build this new vision, it is important to analyze the difficulties faced during the effort to provide the editors of the journal with a repertoire of the Sardinian cultural landscape that is as complete and exhaustive as possible.

We can give some examples describing a parabola regarding the literary field.

On one side, Grazie Deledda provides the most conspicuous part of the translated material available online: her high narrative quality and her importance as a Nobel Prize winner justify the large number of publications still valid in the contemporary international academic field (even if, in some cases, understanding the limits of the present translations of her work may open new points of view in the studies of Deledda).

Instead, the serious lack of material regarding one of the masterpieces of the contemporary European literature, The Day of Judgment by Salvatore Satta, is astounding. It is still debased by the Italian academic critics to an anthropological family romance, even though, luckily, it was reviewed in 1987 by George Steiner in the New Yorker. Anyway George Steiner himself underlined the limits of Patrick Creagh translation, though defining it as meritorious.

Among the new writers, those of the Sardinian Literary Spring, we can draw an analogy by speaking about Michela Murgia, an active actress of her promotion in all the media, and Alberto Capitta, who still prefers an analogical and artisanal approach.

Poetry: a paradox. Poetry in Sardinia has a strong cultural weight, but online we can find just some feeble ethno-anthropological references to the “oral poetry” (what about thinking of the work of Pedru Mura translated from Sardinian to English, as beyond all the schemes of identification instead?).

Speaking of the visual arts and music, where the written word is not a restraint, some artists have succeeded in efficaciously expressing themselves in relation to Sardinian culture, above all Maria Lai who, even after her death, keeps weaving a line between spaces and time or Paolo Angeli, who, starting from the musical tradition, creates a universally understandable language.

Surfing the sea of the Internet we can find thousands of shipwrecked victims suffering from information overload, and we don't know if it is a fault to have tried to find new paths tearing away from our mother island. Drunken Boat lies at anchor, it will meet the castaways and us.

Ciriaco Offeddu
Sardinia Editor
April 2016

Ciriaco Offeddu

Ciriaco Offeddu. Author of many publications of fiction and non-fiction, essays, poems and articles. Engineer, business consultant and advisor, erstwhile president and CEO of several companies worldwide. In 2013, graduated from the City University of Hong Kong with a Master in Creative Writing. Founder of the international cultural platform Beyond Thirty-Nine (beyondthirtynine.com). His latest novels are: Aunt Suelita and the Devil’s Project and Thirty-Four Forms of Madness, Lascar Publishing, Hong Hong.