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Reportage. Discovering the rural places of Sardinia, where Antonio Gramsci was born and raised before venturing out to Turin to enroll at the university. The occasion is the five-day “International School of Gramscian Studies,” which takes place through Saturday.

In the footsteps of Gramsci

When the local train starts its quick trip from Cagliari to Sassari, Alessandra Marchi begins to tell me about her studies, the many trips to Egypt, and her research on Italian political press between Cairo and Alexandria. She describes the precarious life of a young scholar forced to deal with the difficulty of making ends meet. She has intense eyes and long brown hair. She proudly explains the work done in recent years at the House-Museum Antonio Gramsci in Ghilarza, where she is taking me.

I have never been to these places, but I keep in mind the images of Mario Dondero, the colorful murals depicting the founder of Unità in an inner Sardinia, that beautiful place with the old glasses preserved in a worn, hard leather case, the same with which the imprisoned Antonio could read and write The Prison Notebooks while being transferred from prison to prison.

Alessandra is traveling there to participate in the Ghilarza Summer School (from Sept. 5-10), the International School of Gramscian studies with the participation of scholars from around the world. Yes, because the thought of the third-most studied Italian intellectual abroad, after Dante and Machiavelli (what she calls a “complicated inheritance”), is more alive than ever.

“Researchers from Japan and Korea come here, but the country with most academic courses on his philosophy is Brazil, through one of the most important experts, Carlos Nelson Coutinho, and there are many departments and courses in Latin American universities,” Alessandra says. “Just think, in Egypt, an analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood was conducted in Gramscian theory.”

There are feature films in the works, documentary films like Gramsci 44 (directed by Emiliano Barbucci) that reconstructs the prison days in Ustica, even a temporary monument in the Bronx created by the American artist Thomas Hirschhorn. The Gramsci monument is the fourth after homages to Spinoza, Bataille and Deleuze.

I got off at the small, uninhabited and seedy Abbasanta Station. Outside, Gianluigi Deiana, the vice president of the Association House Museum Antonio Gramsci, is waiting for us. He is a retired high school history and philosophy professor with a bushy white beard and an old activist’s look. He is wearing a black T-shirt that says: “Water to the people, wine to those who struggle,” and he is a nice grouch.

The town is small, 4,000 people, the most important location among those on the Barigadu plateau, between Macomer and Sassari, by the Tirso river, the artificial lake, and it presents a charming landscape of rock and Mediterranean scrub that I could admire standing next to him at Ardauli, where he lives. Gramsci also loved this landscape. “When I was a boy,” he wrote, “I loved the Tirso valley below San Serafino! I spent hours and hours sitting there, admiring that sort of lake the river formed right below the church, the nesserzu constructed farther down the valley, watching the chickens that came from the cane fields all the way around to swim towards the center, and the jumps of fish on the hunt for mosquitoes.”

We entered the threshold of the house on Corso Umberto, built with basalt stone as all those townhouses in the center of Ghilarza. This street goes down to the square that bears his name. Back at the time it was named after him, there was a controversy fueled by notable Christian Democrats; they clashed with the image of Gramsci fixed in the imagination of many generations of political activists. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the black and white portrait now covering almost an entire wall. It’s dark, and it shows a young man with high, thick and black hair, wearing pince-nez oval glasses, thick eyebrows, with a wide face and darkened lips.

It reminded me of a sad 1973 ballad by song master, Claudio Lolli, Quello lì (compagno Gramsci), which captures him as the worker newly arrived in Turin in the fall of 1911: “The day he got to town fresh from Sardinia, to study at the university / he already had a teacher face, he had already / his strange big head and the air of one who is cold / down to the bones. / I knew that guy, I felt that he would not be / moved up much further.” Lolli presents the tragic fate that will mark the whole life of the Italian revolutionary, who personified a scholar of posture and the role of the intellectual in society, an extinct figure that prescribed during the Belle Epoque.

At the same time, in Italy, his thinking was forgotten by a left that abdicated its historical role or, at best, became just a witness. Gianluigi explains to me that there is a risk that the house, recently categorized as a National Monument, may become “monumentalized,” which would neutralize the radical figure of the communist thinker. The Berlinguer Foundation, owner of the house, wants to revive the museum through a foundation, though it is unclear how. “But beyond the choices that will be made, the Association will continue its activities,” he says, “starting with the idea of structuring a People’s University together with other Gramscian associations.”

This is just a house of memory. Nino moved here in 1898, when he was 6 years old. He was a sick kid, hurt by Pott’s disease that tortured his back, but also intelligent and lively. Here a liberated and educated mother, “dressed European style,” Peppina found her place in town as a postal officer. She took care of her seven children after her husband, Antonio, the son of an Albanian colonel in the Bourbon gendarmerie, and who worked as a clerk at registry office, was tried for misappropriation of funds. Nino read a lot. At school he always got top marks, but because of his family’s situation, he was forced to work in the office of Land Registry.

With the “instinct of rebellion, even as a child I was against the rich, because I could not go and study, I who had gotten 10 [the top grade] in all subjects in primary schools, while the son of the butcher, the son of the pharmacist, the son of the shopkeeper went,” he wrote about those years.

After passing the entrance, on the right there is the study of the household head, where a period desk is located in the center of the room. In front of the desk, one of the poignant letters written by Antonio to his mother from prison is reproduced in a Plexiglas panel. On the other wall, there is the red background portrait by painter George de Canino. The letter is dated May 10, 1928: “Life is so very hard and sometimes children have to cause sorrows to their mothers if they want to preserve their honor and their dignity as men.” It reveals both the historical and political purpose of his testimony as well as his great humanity. Outside of this room, there is the kitchen and a way out to the small courtyard.

Upstairs, there are containers with objects, photographs, newspaper clippings, small tools used in prison, tobacco and wax matches, pictures of events led by European intellectuals to seek his release and, of course, his glasses and other valuable objects for visitors like me (more than 3,000 every year) who come here on a secular pilgrimage. There’s the safe of the New Order and the cast of the death mask, presenting a 45-year-old man prematurely aged, overwhelmed by imprisonment, hypertension and gout. In the back, a bedroom, furnished with period furniture.

As Giuseppe Fiori reconstructs in his book Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, his political passion started in the Sardinian years and in this house of formation, even before opening up to the “great and terrible world,” his second life in the Northern industrial capital of Turin, before finishing his days in the claustrophobic confinement of prison; in a Sardinia agitated by Carloforte boatmen led by Cavallera and the Sulcis rebel miners, in the land of socialist culture where a large labor movement was growing in southern Italy, but also born out of his love of history.

As he wrote to his son Delio in one of the last letters: “I think you like history, as I also liked it when I was your age, because it is about living people and everything about men, as many men as possible, as all the people of the world get together in society and work and fight and improve themselves, you will like it more than anything else.”

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