- Evicted from Eternity: The Restructuring of Modern Rome, and: Monti Moments: Men's Memories in the Heart of Rome
"Nothing here is perfect, everything, even failure, is magnificent" (p.7), Michael Herzfeld wittingly remarks in the opening chapter of his new book, Evicted from Eternity, an illuminating immersion in the numerous intricacies compounded in the changing urban dynamics of Monti, Rome's oldest district. This is an important lesson the reader should keep in mind while following Herzfeld through his striking, sophisticated and detailed ethnographic account of the daily aporias encountered in the heart of "classic Rome."
We thus enter the Subura—the underground city—a " sunken" district caught between the dizzying shopping sprees of the via Nazionale and the touristy beaten paths leading up to famous ruins such as the Fori Imperiali and the Coliseum. In the last few decades, Monti gradually rose to fame by shedding its " red light" clandestine demeanor and mutating into an elegant trend-setting hotbed. Nowadays, politicians, upper-echelon bureaucrats, intellectuals, journalists and artists converge in close proximity [End Page 859] with new voguish ethnic restaurants and high-end designer boutiques. These changes have had an enormous impact on the real estate market which has become not only one of the hottest commodities around (a new taste for old houses), but also reason for cultural debate as both history and memory are now being molded into important assets in the general quest for profit and cultural capital. By meticulously portraying the complex contrasts and juxtapositions between historical reinterpretations and re-appropriations, the impact of the new global civic consciousness, localized fragmented politics and ambient corruption, Herzfeld proposes an intriguing and novel venture in the processes of globalization and Europeanization at ground level.
Monti is surely the main stage here and while most of the work is based on robust ethnographic accounts of its everyday life and cultural intimacies, Herzfeld never steers very far from global discourses and practices. Neoliberalism, the boldest case in point here, creeps throughout the book and provides a salient coda for the ensemble. By that time, many facets of life in Monti have been carefully described and presented, not least of which is the submission of the traditional Left to neoliberal tenets, the Vatican's convergent interests with real estate speculators, the ambivalent impact of world cultural heritage values and criteria and the laborious local politics in a structurally segmented world of shifting and fragmented social rivalries.
The result is an impressionist mosaic built from the ground up that can be tightly woven by the reader, as the numerous ethnographic threads of quotidian and local experiences gradually interact with the emerging normative conformism—what Herzfeld designated as the "global hierarchy of value" in his previous book (The Body Impolitic, 2007). Here again, the author presents his data by refusing the generalizations of globalization theories and simplistic cultural determinism, favoring instead a much welcomed focus on the complex and uneven distribution of social practices and rhetorical ambiguities that partake in the constant making and re-making of Rome.
While still nostalgically presenting the district as a village in a city, and their dialect "a way of life," Monti's denizens have indeed witnessed massive changes in the last thirty years. The recent arrival of a wealthier, more educated class of residents, and high-end shopkeepers and tourists, coupled with a major housing crisis, have had considerable impact on some of the poorer and longtime dwellers, most notably artisans and small shopkeepers, [End Page 860] who have simply been unable to keep up with the heightening prices of property and rents. As Herzfeld describes in careful detail, Monti traditionally harbored a distinctively individualist "mind-your-own-business" and "do-it-your-own-way" ethos of artisanship, which, although sympathetic to leftist working class ideals, also made it a little impervious to unionization and the conventional leftist politics of industrialized workers. Yet, this...