Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Cabiria’s Masters and Slaves: Race, Libidinal Investment and the New Roman Empire
Shelleen Greene

Last modified: 2010-05-28


Cabiria (1914), along with numerous Italian silent epics based upon ancient Roman history, propagated romanità, or the mythologized connection between the newly established Italian nation and the ancient Roman empire through the circulation of images and symbols of the ancient period, as a means to legitimate Liberal Italy’s imperial ambitions. Cabiria in particular was produced to celebrate the Libyan War victory (1911-12) and the hopes for the new Roman Empire. However, my paper argues that Cabiria reveals the paradoxes of the nation-building project, which at once advocated a unified Italy (including Sicily), but at the same time, manifested the difficulties of incorporating the “irresolvable” racial difference of its southern populations. I argue this ambivalence is revealed in the relations among three principal characters in the film: Fulvius Axilla, Maciste and Cabiria.


As an allegory for the imperial ambitions of the new nation-state, the film’s concluding romantic union between Fulvius and Cabiria represents the unification of peninsular Italy and Sicily by means of the successful colonial endeavor. However, this union is destabilized by the mediating function of the Maciste character, a figure of racial ambivalence, who is arguably the other focal point of Fulvius’ libidinal investment. Through an investigation of the racial theories developed by Cesare Lombroso and Giuseppe Sergi, I argue Cabiria’s representation of the racialized colonial subject is central to understanding the film’s signification of Liberal Italy’s imperial ambitions and national unification goals. The Fulvius-Maciste-Cabiria relationship figures the goals of Italian colonialism and the future of the Italian nation-state through the libidinal investment and eventual containment of the black body. I argue through a discussion of Bartolomeo Pagano’s blackface performance, race becomes an arbitrary marker of difference, serving as a temporary and insufficient mechanism to maintain sexual difference as well as the colonizer/colonized relationship. Finally, I suggest Cabiria’s ambivalent approach to sexual desire and racial difference destabilizes its ability to signify Liberal Italy’s imperial and national unification goals.

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