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The Lions of Rome

Carlo Levi’s L’Orologio, Survival, and the Copresence of Times


12 October 2013

ICI Berlin
Christinenstraße 18-19, Haus 8
D-10119 Berlin

In the July Revolution an incident occurred […]. On the first evening of fighting, it so happened that the dials on clocktowers were being fired at simultaneously and independently from several locations in Paris. An eyewitness, who may have owed his insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows:
Qui le croirait ! on dit, qu’irrités contre l’heure,
De nouveaux Josués, au pied de chaque tour,
Tiraient sur les cadrans pour arrêter le jour.
[Who would believe it! It is said that, incensed at the hour,
Latter-day Joshuas, at the foot of every clocktower,
Were firing on clock faces to make the day stand still.]

Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, XV (transl. H. Eiland & M. W. Jennings)

Florence Baptistry – On the portal, Hope by Andrea Pisano. She sits there, helplessly stretching out her arms for a piece of fruit beyond her reach. Yet she has wings. Nothing is more true.

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street (transl. J.A. Underwood)

A watch appears round whenever one reads the time (utensility) […] But the phenomenon is the watch as an infinite series of ellipses, or the façade as an infinite series of trapezoids: a world made up of remarkable singularities.

Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical (transl. D. H. Smith and M. A. Greco)

Carlo Levi (1902-1975) wrote the novel L’Orologio (The Watch) in the late 1940s and published it in 1950, thereby, in a sense, portraying in real time a fluid and unstable moment in Italian history, between the crisis and later resignation of Ferruccio Parri’s post-Resistance government in December 1946. Emblematically, the novel takes place in the recently liberated Rome, displaying a perception of the city that doubtlessly presents several features in common with those concurrent literary and cinematographic experiences that can be abstractly labelled as ‘Neorealist’: such as, first and foremost, the choice of emphasizing those marginal and peripheral aspects that had been repressed by the Regime’s ‘imperial’ and ‘eternal’ image of Rome. At the same time, however, the ‘Neorealist’ nature of Levi’s novel can be drastically reassessed when considering how, alongside the horizontal and disjointed portrayal of the cityscape (Deleuze), L’Orologio enacts from its very title a strong focus on temporality, depicting an image of Rome in which the roaring lions that belong to an undetermined sphere of ‘origin’ (and tellingly evoked both in the beginning and at the end of the text, so as to suggest a circular movement) conjure another kind of eternity, which can be rather described as the survival of a mythical, unconscious, pre-historical and pre-rational dimension.

The term survival, coming from E.B. Tylor’s anthropological writings, was translated by the German art historian Aby Warburg as Nachleben, and thus employed by him – as well as by his later reader Walter Benjamin – as a device allowing an understanding of modernity in which antiquity survives in small, fleeting, and subtly uncanny details. In the same way as Warburg’s and Benjamin’s intellectual experiences had eroded the Idealistic perception of history as a teleological continuum condemning the past to only return in the guise of a revival, Levi’s L’Orologio challenges Fascist Rome’s revivalist cityscape by depicting a urban network in which multiple spheres of time concurrently survive, and in which the sphere of ‘origin’ (Ur-) becomes obliquely manifest.

As Giulio Ferroni has shown, L’Orologio actually displays what Calvino would later term la compresenza dei tempi (the copresence of times), in which different regimens of historicity (Hartog) coexist in the same urban space, as facets of the same multi-layered and multistable dialectic image (Benjamin). In particular, Levi’s Rome of 1946 witnesses the copresence of what we may term a revolutionary temporality – in which, as Benjamin shows, the wish ‘to make the day stand still’ may lead to brutalizing clocks and watches – and that of the unmoveable stillness of the Italian state apparatus, thereby delineating two possibilities, for Italy to come, in which the Italian recurrent trauma of the ‘failed revolution’ (from the Napoleonic Wars to Tangentopoli) is re-staged, again and again, in a symptom-like modality. At the same time, the coexistence of these two modes of temporality diffracts and reverberates into a broader dichotomy between an ‘irrational’, chthonic, mythical, oneiric, and maternal sphere – in which the watch’s time is subverted – and the ‘rational’, fixed, logic, diurnal, and paternal temporality beaten by the watch. The watch breaking at the beginning of the novel allegorically determines the resurfacing of a different modality of perceiving time, in which the subject-flâneur rambles in the city and perceives Rome as a living atlas of survivals. In Levi’s novel, watches are somehow magical, and not by chance; as Benjamin wrote about Baudelaire’s poem, L’Horloge, the watch-clock (a terminological difference that does not exist in Italian, determining a surplus in terms of vagueness) may sometimes work as an allegory – which, for Baudelaire just as for Baroque poets or in the Middle Ages, always implies a survival of ancient gods. The breaking of the watch allows one to perceive history in a revolutionary and messianic way, thereby brushing it ‘against the grain’ (Benjamin), seeing it as a history of survivals (Warburg), and conceiving it as an interpretation of dreams (Freud).

The workshop, The Lions of Rome, conceived as a part of the AHRC-funded network Roman Modernities (University of Warwick-UCL) and organized in collaboration with the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, invites scholars to reflect on Levi’s L’Orologio (as well as on Levi’s writings on Rome, collected under the telling title Roma fuggitiva) from a plurality of angles, through a quintessentially interdisciplinary perspective.


9:30 – 10:00 Registration

10:00 – 10:30 Welcome & Introduction

10:30 – 11:30 Regimens of Historicity
Fabio Camilletti (Warwick), Tempo del calendario, tempo del flâneur: Leopardi, Benjamin, Levi
Martina Piperno (Warwick), Con Vico ne L’Orologio

11:30 – 12:00 Coffee Break

12:00 – 13:00 Forms of Time
Stefania Lucamante (Washington), ‘A Crisis of Presence’: Levi’s Way in L’Orologio
Paola Cori (Birmingham), Roba d’‘altro tempo’ (nomi, rottami, elementi). Lo spazio-tempo e la storia ne L’Orologio di Carlo Levi

13:00 – 14:30 Lunch

14:30 – 15:30 Chair: Fabio Camilletti
Lecture: Biancamaria Frabotta (Rome), Poesia e testimonianza: Carlo Levi e L'Orologio

16:00 – 17:00 Image/Time
Filippo Trentin (Berlin), Fragmented Spatialities and Anachronistic Temporalities: Postwar Rome in L'Orologio
Riccardo Gasperina Geroni (Bologna), Pittura e tempo ciclico ne L’Orologio di Carlo Levi

17:00 – 17:30 Coffee Break

17:30 – 19:00 Opening the Book
Loredana Polezzi (Warwick), Soglie, scalini, conchiglie: Rome on the Threshold of Time
Luca Beltrami (Genoa), Alcune carte inedite sull’edizione americana de L’Orologio (1951)
Thomas Langley (Newcastle), ‘Realismo Contadino’: Towards a Postcolonial Form

19:30 – 20:30 Chair: Lesley Caldwell
Lecture: David Ward (Wellesley), Carlo Levi & the ‘Meaninglessness’ of History

20:30 Reception