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Why Are We Not Reading More Histories on Italian Imperialism and Museum Collections?

Published: 9 March 2023 - Fleur Martin

Back in September 2020, I was nervously anticipating my next few years as a History PhD researcher, delving into the archives and shadowy histories of semi-forgotten imperialist museum collections around Europe. Two and a half years later, although I can tell you about the death marches and emotional affairs of Hungarian traveller Count Teleki, not to mention exactly how many pigeons were shot on 31 October 1887 in Sudan by English hunter Frank James, I am barely closer to understanding what happened when Captain Vittorio Bottego travelled through Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia on behalf of the Italian state during the 1890s.

Collectors and Italian Imperialism

Vittorio Bottego (1860–97) sits ‘amongst the giants of Italian exploration epics’.[1] Italy invaded and was then defeated by Ethiopia in 1887,[2] and the national humiliation inspired Bottego to join the Special Africa Corps. In Massawa, Eritrea he commanded a battery of askari, and began collecting for Parma’s Museo di Storia Naturale.[3] In 1890 he joined the expeditionary force to avenge Italy’s defeat at Dogali,[4] then led an expedition of askari through Danakil country.[5] In 1892 his ambitions grew as he undertook a strategically important expedition of 124 askari[6] to the source of the Juba River. For his sexual gratification, Bottego brought along a young Somalian woman named Cadígia.[7] Like other ‘exploration’ journeys it exacted a heavy death toll both on locals and workers; in one encounter alone the caravan fired 3,500 rounds on local Oromo, and at least 15 caravan members died.[8] The Oromo had not only been undergoing continual attacks from Bottego, but also from Prince Ruspoli’s caravan.[9]

Statue in Parma

Figure 1. Statue of Vittorio Bottego, Piazza Dalla Chiesa, Parma, Italy. Wikimedia.

In Ugo Ferrandi’s company, Bottego set out in 1895 to discover whether Ethiopia’s River Omo joined Lake Turkana or the Nile[10] (an important political and economic issue for Italy). They took 250 men, ‘a large quantity of ammunition,’[11] and for Bottego, an enslaved young Oromo woman named Batula, who also provided translations.[12] Following months of fighting, collecting and ivory trading, in March 1897 the Ethiopian highlands Emperor Menelik’s forces caught up with Bottego, killing him and taking most of the remaining 88 men prisoner.[13] Bottego’s death under fire contributed to his valorisation as a tragic, masculine, patriotic and Christian hero.[14] He was commemorated through processions, stamps and statues, even becoming a children’s comic book hero.[15] From his Juba expedition Rome’s Museo Etnografico received 189 objects.[16] Museo delle Civiltà meanwhile record they received 156 objects from Bottego in 1894, with 57 arriving later through the Italian Geographical Society, though what these objects are remains inaccessible.[17] Museo delle Civiltà did not exist until 2016, when it took over collections from the Museo Coloniale di Roma, (inaugurated by Mussolini in 1923) which in turn had taken over collections from Museo Etnografico. There are also a handful of ‘ethnographic’ objects collected by Bottego in Parma’s Museo di Storia Naturale. Ferrandi's 1901 photographs of the collection from Bottego’s final journey reveal he collected intimate and domestic objects beyond the war spoils Parma houses.[18] Confusion and disparities over even how many objects he collected, let alone what and where they are, have contributed to the lack of studies on Bottego as a collector. A historical investigation and critique of his violence, particularly sexual violence towards women, likewise remains unwritten.

Silences and Disappearances

There are a few possible explanations for this, and why my attempts are also failing. It could be an indication of the increasingly woeful underfunding of humanities research in the UK, or that there is not only a palpable lack of appetite to discuss Italy’s imperial past resulting from lack of knowledge, but a politically fuelled and deliberately imposed bureaucratic wall which serves to obscure Italy’s history in eastern Africa, enabling the continued myth of Italians as either barely colonists at all, or as the ‘good colonists.’ The first option is definitely valid, but it didn’t stop me visiting Hungary and Austria to study the collections of similarly egregious imperialists in summer 2022. Victor Oban’s far-right government has not yet shut down research into the less savoury aspects of Hungary’s global past, although I suspect this is more a result of Austro-Hungarian imperialism in eastern Africa being relatively unknown. Having never gained an African colony, it is easy to pretend there was no eastern European involvement in the scramble for Africa, let alone a brutally violent one. Researchers can study Austro-Hungarian imperial violence because of ignorance, not liberality.

So that leaves the second option. Researching Italian imperialism requires funds and access. To provide the necessary money, funding bodies need to understand the urgency of studying this history, its magnitude and brutality. Facilitating one project every decade or so barely even pays lip service. If they are apparently unaware of the untapped scale of this history, why? Back in 2007, Mia Fuller observed that Italian historiography has long been ‘mired in justifications of Italy’s conquests.’[19] Angelo Delbocco, Giorgio Rochat, Nicola Labanca, Silvana Palma, Ruths Ben-Ghiat, Patrizia Palumbo and Ruth Iyob, as well as recent attempts to remove the statue Monatelli (a paedophile, enslaver and imperial apologist)[20] have all greatly increased the critical profile of Italian imperial violence both at home and abroad, but this does not mean the climate or appetite for such research is established. Much of this research began in the 1970s with Rochat and Delbocco, followed by a few English language texts in the 2000s,[21] but little has been translated into English, and critical appraisals of eastern African museum collections in Italy remain far between.[22] By 1960, Italy had been intermittently purchasing, invading and colonising land in Libya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and China for 91 years. Although it barely approaches the scale of the British Empire, it is still nearly a century in which countless people were exploited, murdered, raped, brutalised, and denied agency on behalf of the Italian state. They were also robbed of material cultural heritage. From Naples to Venice, how collectors fuelled Italy’s contribution to the European museum boom is manifest in today’s heaving storerooms and display cases.

This is the logical fallacy: because there is scant writing about this subject it remains little understood or known, attracting little funding. But because it attracts so little funding, it remains obscure. This is compounded by the access problem. Researching Italy’s colonial and imperial past is not as simple as ordering materials to a British Library reading room. The Italian colonial police archives open only on the last Thursday of the month, making researching them more of a perennial lifestyle choice than a subject for concentrated research. Meanwhile the Italian Royal Geographical archives, where Bottego’s archives are housed, won’t give researcher’s access for more than one day a week, two at most if you ask very nicely. I had planned to persuade my way into gaining further access once in situ, but with my pitiful spoken Italian this was always going to be a tall order. A free Italian state programme for British children who could ‘prove’ their Italian heritage meant I had acquired some of the language as a child, which on my PhD I have attempted to revive mostly through self-study after receiving lessons for six months. The UK’s woeful secondary education in languages, and the lack of PhD support and time allocated for further language training are essential reasons for the lack of UK studies on Italian imperialism. Global history projects invariably require language skills, which are costly to acquire without already having the chance of heritage or an expensive schooling. Material conditions of time, access and money are also essential for conducting historical research on a global scale. This is particularly true for those researching objects, which cannot be copied and transcribed (and still require language skills for understanding accompanying documentation). If ‘global history’ is rightly open to critique as exclusionary to all those outside of the global north’s universities with generous pockets, the same criticism can be levelled at material culture studies.

‘Decolonising’ Italian Collections?

2021 was supposed to see the opening of the Museo Italiano Ilaria Alpi, a new museum housing colonial collections in Mussolini’s EUR complex, originally built to display the ‘wonders’ of fascism. The museum was billed as a ‘rilettura critica’[23] (critical reinterpretation) though many voiced concerns at the misguided attempt to ‘decolonise’ within such a context.[24] However this project seems to have been quietly altered since, with the old collections from Museo Coloniale now being moved into the Museo delle Civiltà, which is already in the EUR complex, rather than a new museum.[25] Continuing to shroud these collections in confusion and obscurity is hardly conducive to access. Coinciding with this change, Georgia Meloni of the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) became Italy’s new prime minister in October 2022. Meloni and the party already have form in threatening to intervene in Italy’s museum sector for any ‘ideological and anti-Italian’ activity.[26] What do these developments mean for the future of research into Italy’s imperial past? In particular research into the tens if not hundreds of thousands of objects taken under conditions of imperial duress?

In the Italian context, fascism was always entwined with imperialism. So far museum ‘decolonising’ and restitution debates have focused on northern Europe, but southern and eastern European museum collections also require critique. Bottego was not unique: his collection is indicative of a common historical trend throughout Italy. The material and ideological challenges hindering current research not only show no signs of abating but are exacerbating. Economic decline, far right governments, culture wars and the UK’s exit from the European Research Council don’t exactly spell good news for humanities funding, let alone into imperial pasts. Considering the rate at which objects and archives vanish through negligence or greed from accessible collections, opportunities to understand these histories and progress the conversations around them are disappearing as well. It’s a truism, but there is no guarantee the future will be more equitable or knowledgeable than the present, unless the realities of these disappearing histories are addressed.

Fleur Martin is a PhD student working in the Department of History at the University of Warwick. Her thesis, "Looting, Trade & The Gift: Imperial Collecting in Eastern Africa 1860-1914", examines the history of why and how imperial travellers collected in Eastern Africa between 1860-1914.


Anon. ‘Ex Museo Coloniale’, Museo delle Civiltà <> [accessed 28 February 2023].

Anon. ‘Il Museo Italo Africano “Ilaria Alpi”’, Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali e per il Turismo, 2020 <>

Anon. ‘Cos’è questa storia del Museo Egizio e Giorgia Meloni’, Il Post, 2018 <> [accessed 28 February 2023]

Ben-Ghiat, Ruth, and Mia Fuller, eds., Italian Colonialism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Bianchedi, Luca, Un Destino Africano. L'Avventura di Vittorio Bottego. (Rome: Pagine, 2010).

Bonati, Manlio, Vittorio Bottego: Un Ambizioso Eroe in Africa. (Parma: Silva Editore, 1997).

Bonati, Manlio, ‘Bottego a Fumetti, L’Esporatore Ucciso Come Custer’, Giornale Pop, 2018 <>

Bottego, Vittorio, Il Giuba Esplorato. (Rome: Ermanno Loescher & Co., 1895).

Brown, Monty, Where Giants Trod. The Saga of Kenya’s Desert Lake. (London: Quiller Press, 1989).

Caulk, Richard Alan, ‘Between the Jaws of Hyenas’: A Diplomatic History of Ethiopia (1876-1896). (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2002).

Collini, G.A. ‘Appendice’ in Il Giuba Esplorato by Vittorio Bottego (Rome: Ermanno Loescher & Co., 1895).

Cormack, Zoe, ‘Violence, Globalization and the Trade in “Ethnographic” Artefacts in Nineteenth-Century Sudan’, Journal for Art Market Studies, 4.1 (2020).

Ferrandi, Ugo, ‘Braccialetti Tisba’, Società Geografica Italiana, 1901 <>

Fuller, Mia, ‘Nicola Labanca, L’Oltremare: Storia Dell’espansione Coloniale Italiana’, The Journal of Modern History, 79.2 (2007), 449–50.

Ghiglione, Giorgio, ‘Italy Still Won’t Confront Its Colonial Past’, Foreign Policy, 2020 <>

Imam, James, ‘Racist or Responsive? Italy to Exhume Mussolini’s Colonial Museum Collection in “critical” New Display’, The Art Newspaper, 2020 <>

Imperato, Quest for the Jade Sea: Colonial Competition Around an East African Lake. (Oxford: Westview Press, 1998).

Meens, Floris, 'The Horror of Adwa and the Glory of Adua. Monuments of the Young Italian Nation-State in the Scramble for Africa', in: Marjet Derks, Martijn Eickhoff, Remco Ensel and Floris Meens (eds.), What's Left Behind. The Lieux de Mémoire of Europe beyond Europe (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2015), 40-48.

Palumbo, Patrizia, ed., A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture from Post-Unification to the Present (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003).

Polezzi, Loredana, 'Description, Appropriation, Transformation: Fascist Rhetoric and Colonial Nature', Modern Italy, special issue on ‘Fascism and Nature’, 19.3 (2014), 287-303.

Ravenstein, E.G., ‘Italian Explorations in the Upper Basin of the Jub’, Geographical Journal 3 (1894): 134-138.

Torelli, Giorgio ‘Se non fossero scomparsi giovani quale sorte li avrebbe attesi?’, Elzeviri, 2014 <>

[1] Brown, Where Giants Trod, 180.
[2] Meens, 'The Horror of Adwa and the Glory of Adua’, 42.
[3] Brown, Where Giants Trod, 167.
[4] Caulk, ‘Between the Jaws of Hyenas’, 583.
[5] Imperato, Quest for the Jade Sea’, 146.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Bottego, Il Giuba Esplorato, 70.
[8] Imperato, Quest for the Jade Sea’, 146.
[9] Ravenstein, ‘Italian Explorations in the Upper Basin of the Jub’, 134.
[10] Brown, M. Where Giants Trod, 169.
[11] Imperato, Quest for the Jade Sea, 149.
[12] Brown, Where Giants Trod, 173 & 174.
[13] Imperato, Quest for the Jade Sea, 154.
[14] See Bonati (1997), Bianchedi (2010), Torelli (2014).
[15] Polezzi, 'Description, Appropriation, Transformation’, 12.
[16] Collini, ‘Appendice’, 537.
[17] Personal communication.
[18] See Ferrandi, ‘Braccialetti Tisba’.
[19] Fuller, ‘Nicola Labanca, L’Oltremare’, 449–50.
[20] Ghiglione, ‘Italy Still Won’t Confront Its Colonial Past’.
[21] See Patrizia (2003) and Ben-Ghiat and Fuller (2005).
[22] See Cormack (2020).
[23] Anon. ‘Il Museo Italo Africano “Ilaria Alpi”’.
[24] Imam, ‘Racist or Responsive?’.
[25] Anon. ‘Ex Museo Coloniale’.
[26] Anon. ‘Cos’è questa storia del Museo Egizio e Giorgia Meloni’.