Book Review: Ruling Culture

By Tania Aparicio Morales, PhD

Full-Time Lecturer, Program in Arts Administration

Teachers College

Columbia University

How did Italy become a global cultural power? In Ruling Culture, Fiona Greenland argues that Italian state patrimony became an influential culture powerhouse because of unique dynamics of internal disputes and intimidation among tomb robbers, artifacts, policies, policing, and soil. Her book is the result of many transformations: the natural processes that happen over centuries, on and all-around Etruscan artifacts as they mature into antiquities interred on Italian soil; the political shifts that shape discourses linking cultural patrimony to the sovereignty of the nation state; the ways in which family stories morph from illicit to morally righteous when they are told in the most intimate spheres; and Greenland’s academic path as an archeologist turned sociologist who questions how the objects that she excavated are connected to larger systems of state control and to the idiosyncrasies of everyday life. That last aspect strengthens the book’s interpretative lens at the crux of theory and data. The book shows how powerful actors, soil, and artifacts connect through complex systems of signification at the macro, meso, and micro levels—which overflow onto each other—and how such a cross-contamination is never stable, but ever changing.

Indeed, archeological soil and artifacts are at the center of Greenland’s analysis, as she explains in Chapter 1. There, she presents the concepts she applied and developed to make sense of the practices of tomb robbers, everyday citizens, law enforcement, and cultural professionals, as well as the meanings attached to each of those actors. In particular, she examines two aspects of the ecosystem that have been signified and re-signified for the benefit of Italy’s project of cultural domination (i.e. Italian Model): artifacts and tomb robbers or tombaroli. In this chapter, she interprets the ways in which antiquities, extracted from Italian soil, do multiple forms of work to support and represent Italian sovereignty. She calls the multifaceted role of antiquities a form of distributed sovereignty (borrowing from Alfred Gell’s (1998) theory of distributed personhood) because archeological artifacts channel Italian authority and can act as a representation of the state wherever they are found, taken, or exhibited. Greenland supports this argument by interpreting how these objects are perceived in their national context where they are seen as products of Italy’s soil or matrix, which—through a patriotic lens and held up by nationalistic discourses—is an equivalent to the motherland’s womb. Given that antiquities represent the Italian state, tomb robbers are framed as a threat to the patrimony and state sovereignty.

In the following chapters, Greenland uses archival and ethnographic data to move between the macro and the micro. She introduces key actors who created a market for Italian antiquities, in particular, those who catered to patrons from the Gilded Age and developed international circuits with prices dictated by wealthy American elites. Then, the author guides the reader through a series of policy shifts, from 1909 up to the first decades of the twenty-first century, that sought control of the market to preserve cultural patrimony and keep it on Italian land. One of those initiatives yielded, in 1969, Italy’s famous Art Squad, a unit that specializes in the art and antiquities crimes, such as tomb robbing and repatriation campaigns. Using archival data from those periods, Greenland does a close reading of the ways in which politics become entangled with culture, as for instance in the ways in which Mussolini drew from an archeological sense of national identity to portray his power as he “excavated” the ruins in which he found the country and how he used antiquities to leverage political power with Nazi Germany; or how Italy became the UNESCO World Heritage Sites archetype.

In Chapter 4, the author investigates the many faces that tomb robbing has in the experience of ‘ordinary’ citizens who place tombaroli in a spectrum that goes from expert connoisseurs to reckless thieves. In that sense, Greenland manages to move through all the places in which artifacts’ distributed sovereignty is present and to inquire into what are the meanings that such sovereignty has in the intimate existence of Italian citizens. To that end, she enters the daily lives of people who display antiquities that their grandfather took from a tomb in their living room, or who use them as kitchen or garden containers. In that sense, the book demonstrates how distributed sovereignty is shaped by state actors, such as politicians, but also how it is built from the bottom-up by Italian citizens who extract artifacts from the soil to directly connect to their culture. Greenland delves into the complicated relationships that tombaroli have with art, their pasts, their ancestors, and the state; as well as the contentious signification and re-signification processes that state actors subjugated tomb robbers to in the name of cultural dominance. Furthermore, Greenland shows how in their everyday lives, people bring light to the state’s moral contradictions that allow foreigners to take Italian artifacts while Italians are persecuted for wanting their own history in their hands.

Greenland’s triangulated research methods and interdisciplinary perspective make this book layered and complex. It is, perhaps, only a sociologist with her hands in the dirt who can begin to ask the questions that will yield the data needed to theorize the ways in which land is signified and resignified by the state to assert its cultural dominance through artifacts and tomb robbers. Over a span of four years, she conducted a mix of participant observation in two digging sites, unstructured interviews, and archival methods. In the methodological appendix, she explains how she approached the multiple categories and positions of her research participants, which is not an easy feat. She used a variety of data collection methods, as well as thorough anonymization tactics to protect the participants who, under some or other legal framework, could be accused of illicit excavations or possession of antiquities. Her work provides some guidelines on how to navigate the ethics of ethnography in gray areas and among unsettled legal categories, as well as how to interpret cultural power from the top-down and bottom-up.

This book is a pleasure to read more than once because of the richness of the text. Though there are some parts that I cannot fully grapple with, such as why the discussion of Mussolini as Homo autotelus andHomo faber was a crucial piece of the argument. Nevertheless, Greenland’s use of her empirical data to develop a novel way to understand sovereignty and cultural power is remarkable. It is not a surprise that this book received The Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in the Sociology of Culture 2022.

I imagine that scholars working on issues of sovereignty and arts repatriation will find Greenland’s examination of the Italian model useful. For instance, some of the exciting ways in which I hope to see this book influence our field are: In which ways could the Ruling Culture framework help us understand Indigenous People and Native Nations relations to antiquities outside of Europe? How might ethno-racial categories enter the equation of sovereignty from the bottom? How is distributed sovereignty activated through artifacts in contexts in which colonization is unresolved?