U.Va. Professor Della Coletta's Book Seeks to Give Italian World's Fairs Their Due

March 11, 2008 — Italy never got its due, Cristina Della Coletta felt. In the grand showcase that is the World's Fair, Italy was never considered as important a host as countries like France and Great Britain, according to Della Coletta. The professor of Italian at the University of Virginia challenged that notion, and her discoveries led to a book, published recently, called "World's Fairs Italian Style: The Great Expositions in Turin and Their Narratives, 1860-1915."

World's Fairs are some of the largest and most important international cultural events in the world. Since their beginnings in the mid-19th century, World's Fairs, typically three- to six-month affairs, have been held in Paris, London, Chicago, Stockholm and New York, to name a few cities. Italy's World's Fairs never attained the recognition and fame that many others have, but they had a profound effect on people's thoughts about the world, Della Coletta said.

World’s Fairs are a unique experience: in a small amount of time and real estate, one can discover cultures and nations from all over the world. Participating countries construct elaborate "pavilions," which are small windows into the culture of the nation. They expose worldwide issues and solutions, and provide a venue for understanding both the present and the future of the world community.

Della Coletta's book consists of two parts. The first is a historical discussion of World's Fairs and the cultural phenomenon they were in Italy. The second "deals with what I call 'exposition narrative' — it includes short stories, novels, poetry [and] travel pieces that have the spirit of universal exhibitions," she said.

The project began with Della Coletta's fascination with Italian author Guido Gozzano. In 1912-13 Gozzano "wrote a journal of his alleged travels to India. … He was actually in India for a very short time, [but] didn't see all of the places he described. I initially wanted to write on him and the notion of the exotic — how Gozzano created this imaginary India according to the precept of the European concept. … I went to Turin and started investigating more, and realized that Gozzano had invented India not by going there, but by going to the expositions going on at the time."

Della Coletta's curiosity piqued, she began a decade-long study of the presence and effects of Italy's World's Fairs between 1860 and 1915. There were numerous international expositions during this time, including "one spectacular World's Fair in Turin in 1911."

Della Coletta's study resulted in "World's Fairs," as well as a continuing project through the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. As an IATH fellow, she works with "an amazing group of technologists and scholars. My project [is] to create a digital project of the World Fairs. In writing my book, I realized that the printed word doesn't do justice to the World Fairs. … I think digital technology [does] that more accurately."

In addition to the World's Fairs projects, Della Coletta is currently working on a book titled "Across Cultural Boundaries: From Fiction to Film." The book studies, according to Della Coletta, "Poe and Fellini, Borges and Bertolucci, Cain and Visconti, Tabucchi and Corneau, among others." A study of the adaptation of fictional writing into films, the book complements her teaching post as professor in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

Della Coletta has recently taught classes including "Italian History Through Film" and "Adaptations of Novels into Films." She relishes her position at U.Va., particularly the freedom given to her and to her students academically. "I've taught quite a variety of classes, but that's one of the beauties of my department, and perhaps U.Va in general. I really have much freedom in selecting the courses I want to teach, so I've always taught courses that were both interesting to me and that I knew were interesting and attractive to my students."

These classes inform her research, she says, and vice versa. "I'm very lucky, because, to me, they've always complemented each other. I see synergies between the two. I don't think I could write the way I write if I didn't teach my classes, and I couldn't teach the way I teach without all the background, all the hours in the library that go into my research. … Most of the ideas that I get for my research actually come from the classroom."

Currently on sabbatical, Della Coletta is spending her time working on her latest project, called "Fascist Spectacles." She looks forward to continuing her project, and changing how students and scholars view Italy. "I have colleagues who work on pop culture, colleagues who work in theater, colleagues who work in art history, language of course, and I work in film. We really hope to see Italian culture in a much broader way."

— By David Pierce