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Unit information: The politics of sacrifice: remembering Italy's modern martyrs in 2018/19

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Unit name The politics of sacrifice: remembering Italy's modern martyrs
Unit code ITAL30060
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. King
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Italian
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Revolutions and political struggles have characterised modern Italian history, and secular martyrs have been produced along the way. This unit will introduce students to the concept of martyrdom in a secular context by examining the memory of key figures from Italian history that are remembered as such. We will begin with the Risorgimento, and examine how the notion of dying for the nation came into existence. We will then examine commemoration of soldiers in World War I, and the importance of the rituals linked to the Unknown Soldier in the construction of national identity. Fascism’s exaltation of its martyrs will form the third part of the unit, which will address the construction of monuments to Fascist martyrs, the shift out of religious space and into the civic arena, and the commemoration of these martyrs by neofascist groups today. We will also examine the memory of the antifascist martyr Giacomo Matteotti, and the memory of Resistance partisans, both of which combined to become an important foundation of the new postwar Republic. Next, we will examine the memory of Aldo Moro as the national martyr of the Years of Lead, and Giorgiana Masi who emerged as a martyr for women’s rights during a tumultuous and violent period. Finally, we will consider the memory of Falcone and Borsellino, and examine the role of their memory in the ongoing fight against the Mafia.

The unit has several key questions:

- Why are some figures remembered as martyrs? - What role does martyrdom play in the construction of Italian identity? - How is martyr memory used for political motives?

We will approach these questions through a series of case studies linked to various turning points in contemporary Italian history. We will look at rituals of commemoration, sites of memory, media coverage, speeches, film and art as a lens to examine how martyrdom is constructed after death, and how that memory is used. Finally, we will develop a strong understanding of core Memory Studies theories relating to collective memory, civil religion, and national identity.

Sources include visual artefacts (monuments and memorials, photographs, films), coverage of commemorative events (print and online), speeches, and written sources (pamphlets, posters etc), which will be read from a Memory Studies perspective.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, students will be able to:

  1. Analyse and evaluate, to a standard appropriate to level H, the role of martyr memory in the construction of collective identity
  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of a wide range of methodologies and the limitations of each
  3. Demonstrate knowledge and understanding, as appropriate to level H, of several key periods in modern Italian history, society and culture
  4. Articulate an advanced understanding of key theories relating to civil religion, sites of memory, rituals and commemoration and develop skills of cultural inquiry and analysis accordingly
  5. Present independent judgements in written and oral form, in an appropriate style and level of complexity
  6. Demonstrate advanced skill in the analysis of a significant body of sources in a foreign language

Teaching details

2 seminar hours per week, taught as a single 2-hour block

Assessment Details

1 x 15 minute presentation (25%) ILOs 1-6

1 x 1500 word commentary (25%) ILOs 1, 4, 5,

1 x 3000 word essay (50%) ILOs 1-6

Reading and References

Robert N. Bellah, ‘Civil Religion in America’, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 96.1, Religion in America (1967), 1–21.

Connerton, Paul, How Societies Remember, Themes in the Social Sciences (Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

DeSoucey, M., J.-E. Pozner, C. Fields, K. Dobransky, and G. A. Fine, ‘Memory and Sacrifice: An Embodied Theory of Martyrdom’, Cultural Sociology, 2 (2008), 99–121 <> Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

Mitchell, Jolyon P., Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions, 338, 1st ed (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Scolari, Baldassare, ‘State Martyrs: Aesthetics and Performativity of a Contemporary Political Discourse’, Journal of Religion in Europe, 10 (2017), 71–106 <>

Winter, Jay. 2017. “Memory and the Sacred: Martyrdom in the Twentieth Century and Beyond,” in War beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 121–42 <>