The Interviewees

Interview with Francesco Pongiluppi, January 2018

1- You are a graduate of the Sapienza University of Rome. What was the topic of your graduation paper?

I completed my PhD in History of Europe at the department of political science at the Sapienza University of Rome in 2017. My dissertation was about the history of the Italian-Levantine community in Turkey from the Ottoman period until the end of the 1920s.

In fact, my research has been conducted on the role played by this community in the Italian-Ottoman-Turkish relationships through an analysis of several original archival documents, mainly located in Italy, Turkey and United States. My main interest was the evolution of this community in relation to five key political events, such as the institution of a Sardinian diplomatic mission in Ottoman Turkey, the creation of the Italian State, the end of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of the Republic of Turkey and the beginning of Fascism in Italy. All these historical transformations and political changes affected the social life of the community, their sense of belonging and their religious, economic and cultural freedom.

2- You have for the past few years concentrated your research on the Italian community of Ottoman Turkey and Italian –Turkey relations. Do you think before the unification of Italy we can talk about a homogenous Italian community, that is was language definition above that of regionalism going back to the Middle Ages?

During my PhD project I focused my research on those communities that moved from the Italian peninsula to Turkey. It is a very interesting migration phenomenon that enhanced since the Middle Age and interested not only the geographical area of modern Turkey but also the entire Levant region. Along the centuries, these migrants founded settlements, neighbourhoods, emporiums, sacred places and self-ruled institutions, in short, all needs for a permanent presence in the region. Furthermore, Venetians, Genoese, Tuscans and other peoples from Italy maintained important relations with the different Italian States and preserved the use of Italian dialects. Although it is vague to affirm that before the foundation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 there was a proper Italian community in terms of nation, however, there is a line that links the older migrations to the ones occurred after 1861. It is no coincidence that the Italian literature and the political narrative during the Fascism have mythologised this diaspora as the one successor of the Maritime Republics.

3- In your 2016 presentation to the Levantine Heritage Foundation Beyoğlu conference of 2016 you listed various journals published by the Italian community of Pera before 1861 that is before the unification of Italy. So clearly these journals had no Italian state support. Were these like conventional newspapers or did they have specialities to cater for different segments of that community, such as merchant news, society gossip, political angles? Were these publications subject to censorship like the ‘normal’ press or were they exempt?

With the exception of the magazine L’Album Bisantino, most of the journals published in Italian language in Pera and Galata before 1861 were not conventional newspaper but weeklies specialized in merchant news with some articles dedicated to the society gossip such as the journals Il Progresso Bisantino, L’Indicatore Bisantino and others. These pre-1861 mentioned journals were domestic publications that were all short-lived. Considering that more formal and restrictive press regulations had been issues by the Ottoman government at the end of 1850s and only in 1857 an Administration of Press Affairs (Matbuat Müdürlüğü) was established, it can be deduced that these publications were more subjected to a self-censorship than a censorship by the authorities.

4- How does the Italian journals / newspapers evolve past 1861 and do they have their own reporters, or is it a case of mostly translating material from mainstream European press? To what extent was international news featuring in any of these? Did some of these papers also publish in French or other languages to cater for the diverse Levantine community of Istanbul? Just how lively and diverse was the cultural life of Italians in the latter parts of the Ottoman period in Pera?

After 1861 new Italian journals appeared in the Ottoman capital such as Il Corriere, Il Semaforo di Costantinopoli or L’Eco d’Italia. It was common to publish some pages within the paper in French as well, in order to reach all the Levantine community, including those Italians who were not able to speak Italian any longer! At the end of the 1860s, the Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso made a few timid steps toward the institution of a community newspaper, but the lack of funds made it impossible to achieve such an undertaking. Even though these journals translated foreign news from the mainstream European press, the news concerning the Ottoman Empire and Italy were often written by its own reporters (perhaps, a better word would be volunteers) frequently employed in other sectors.

All the articles related to the cultural life in Pera are very interesting, especially the ones on the artistic scene, such as the ones on the Naum Theatre’s events. In any case, it was only in 1896 with the foundation of La Rassegna Italiana-Organo degl’Interessi Italiani in Oriente a community journal that started to operate in Constantinople, that these articles appeared. For the first twenty years, this journal, offered to the readers a rich chronicle not only on the Italian-Ottoman commercial relations, but also on all aspects of the community life of the Italians of the Levant. All that was possible thanks to an amazing network of reporters composed by teachers and consulate staff located in the major cities of the Ottoman Empire. Let me recall an example of how diverse was the cultural life on Italian in the Eastern Mediterranean region: in 1911, across the Empire a total amount of 78 Italian schools were operating!

5- You published in Turkey a book in Italian on the La Rassegna Italiana, the Italian community journal of Ottoman Constantinople. Who were the owners / financiers of this venture and was it a commercial or community support type of venture? Is the language in the articles solely in Italian or were some in additional languages pointing to the gradual cosmopolitanism of the community? Do any of the articles point to community fears of a ‘precarious legal status’, or did the journal deal mostly with light material such as the latest show at Naum Theatre etc.?

In 1896, the Dante Alighieri Society and the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Constantinople founded La Rassegna Italiana. The Dante Alighieri Society however abandoned the editorial project only a year later. The magazine became the Italian Chamber’s gazette; this publication, at least during its first thirty years of activity represented the major shop window for the Italian interests in the region. The articles were occasionally published in French, Armenian, Greek and Ottoman as well. Eventually, during the 1930s a column dedicated to tourism was published in Turkish. La Rassegna, playing the role of the “guard of the national interests in the East” chose to avoid showing any kind of politically-related concern, despite all the difficulties that the Italian community in the 20th century was experiencing.

6- How does the Italian-Turkish war over Libya in 1911-2 affect the Italian communities of Turkey? What are the different tactics the Italian Levantines use to avoid expulsion or confiscation of their assets? Is there a later return by some of the evictees and court cases to try to obtain restitution of real estate etc.?

The 1911-12 war affected immensely the Italian communities in the Ottoman Empire. For the first time, they had to face the idea of “nation” and a war in which they were perceived as internal enemies. With a sad sense of isolation, firstly they experienced the Ottoman press-sponsored xenophobia, then the boycott of their business activities and eventually the expulsions from the land they had been living in.

According to the data I consulted in the Historical Archive of the Italian Foreign Ministry and in the Archive of the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Istanbul, the main destinations chosen by those who were expelled were Italy and Greece. While in Greece, thanks to a more familiar environment, they could integrate easily, in Italy they experienced a socio-cultural trauma. In fact, in the supposed “homeland”, they were hosted in refugee camps on the outskirts of the cities and they found a very different environment compared to the ones they came from. Their life, in those days, was marked by problems related to communication, because of their poor knowledge of the Italian language, to a different and poorer diet and a general sense of confusion. Even though the hospitality and the solidarity presented by the Italian authorities and the local society was very impressive, the refugees were seen by the local people as foreigners, almost Turkish, basically levantini (Levantines), a term used in Italy until he 1920s in a very derogative way against the hybridization of the Italian residents in the Levant region.

Conversely, a tactic used by those Italian Levantines that decided to avoid expulsion was the change of their nationality. Since intercultural marriages within the Roman Catholic community resident in the Empire were a habit back then, many Italian citizens left their nationality to embrace the one of their relatives, mainly French and Austrian. Another route taken by the Italian Levantines to avoid expulsion was to embrace the Ottoman citizenship, a decision taken mainly by the members of the Italian Jewish community from Edirne to Damascus.

Yet, it is interesting to realise how the majority of those who left the Empire eventually returned to their Ottoman cities at the end of the war. Moreover, the Peace Treaty of Ouchy (signed by the belligerents in October 18th 1912) allowed those who had previously changed the nationality to return to their former legal status.

In fact, the Treaty stated through the Article 5 that the respective subjects (Italians and Ottomans) “shall be placed toward one another in the identical situation in which they were before the outbreak of hostilities”. Then, with Article 9 “the Ottoman Government, wishing to show its satisfaction for the good and loyal service which it received from the Italian subjects employed in the administrations and whom it found itself compelled to dismiss at the time of the hostilities, declares itself ready to reinstate them in the positions which they had left. An allowance shall be paid to them for the months during which they were not employed […]”.

However, not all those who were expelled, or who voluntarily left the country during the war, saw they right fully recognized once they returned in the Empire. Problems of this sort were lived by any kind of people. The Italian Embassy gave a great support to certain eminent subjects such as the architect Giulio Mongeri or the painter Salvatori Valeri in getting back their allowances, but unfortunately this same support was never provided to the working class, who found itself seriously damaged, totally lost and without an occupation anymore.

7- What are the main sources of information regarding the Italian community of Istanbul in both Ottoman and republican times?

A part of the study are personal diaries, the search for family archives and the above mentioned press - that has to be in part still researched – potentially this topic has a vast amount of resources, mainly original and unpublished. Only in relation to 19th and 20th centuries, I personally worked in more than ten different archives between Rome, Turin, Milan, Livorno, Istanbul and Washington. Original documents related to this subject can be found in many archives all over Europe, if we consider the transnational Levantine environment and the mobility of this community. Archives related to national associations, companies, chambers of commerce, commercial and military attachés, consuls, ambassadors and religious orders are potentially rich sources of information regarding the Italian Levantine community of Turkey. The upcoming opening of new archival documentation in the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Historical Archive on the Adnan Menderes decade can provide, in the future, important information on this crucial period for the non-Muslim communities of Istanbul. Similarly, the documentation stored in the Turkish Republican Archive in Ankara, once completely accessible, will contribute to a better understanding of the Italian-Turkish relationship during the interwar period.

8- Italians were part of the occupation army of Istanbul post WWI. Did this gesture you think cause future harm for the still remaining Italian Levantine community in the city in the republican times? Did the Italian government ever seek advice or intelligence from the Italian community before or after this period?

The Italian troops and gendarmes (Carabinieri) arrived in the Ottoman capital on February 1919. No doubt this military presence raised a lot of passion among the Italian Levantine community. For instance, during the occupation, the journal La Rassegna Italiana-Organo degl’Interessi Italiani in Oriente published several articles exalting the role and the behaviour of the Italian militaries. Although the Italian soldiers were part of the occupation, their involvement in the city was only related to policing tasks. I believe that the future harm for the Italian Levantine community was more linked to other factors such as the Italian rule on the Dodecanese islands, perceived as a real danger and menace for the new Republic of Turkey because of its closeness to the Anatolian coast. For sure, the Italian government sought advice and intelligence from some selected Italian elements from time to time, as argued by several studies. It is a well known fact, though, that merchants, teachers, clergy and journalists have often been used for intelligence purpose by any government in any country at any time.

9- Mussolini made himself dictator of Italy in 1925. How quickly did some members of the Italian community in Istanbul align themselves with the Fascist cause and what tactics did they use to spread to institutions of that nation that were around for generations? Were there some who cautioned against this movement and did the fascists stay with the cause till the very end of Mussolini? Did the Turkish Government of the time view the community with suspicion because of this at least partial community alliance?

The first fascist “club” in Turkey was founded in the Ottoman Constantinople on September 28, 1922 by thirteen Italians in a city still occupied by the Allied Forces, one month before the first Mussolini government began and more than one year before the Republic of Turkey was founded. Once in 1925, the Kingdom of Italy started its way to a one-party regime, the Italian Fascist National Party (PNF) in Turkey was already well structured among the Italian communities from Thrace to the Black Sea region till Southern Anatolia.

In a very short time - we are talking about few years only - this political-oriented and state-sponsored organization was able to control the majority of the Italian-Levantine institutions and the socio-cultural life of the community: journals, schools, religious and secular associations, sports centres, chambers of commerce and charities. The boards of the PNF in Turkey were influential people within the urban Turkish society: clergy, former Freemasons, businesspersons, members of the Levantine upper middle class, teachers of the royal schools, commercial and press attaché of the Italian Embassy. With such a heterogeneous composition, each of these personalities was able to influence all socio-economic class of the Italian Levantine community. This has definitely been the major strategy for its success. Certainly, not all the members of the community were active on the Fascist side. For instance, La Camera Sindacale del Lavoro (The Labor Union Chamber) a semi-official organization established by some Italians in Istanbul in 1920, acted until the end of the 1920s as a socialist workers’ union linked to the Third International.

Even though the Turkish government did not legally recognize the Italian Fascist organizations in Turkey and saw them with a high degree of suspicion, for almost the entire inter-war period, Rome was able to freely control and influence the social life of the Italian community. Only with the deterioration of the bilateral relations following the Abyssinian war, did the decline of the fascist activities in Turkey started; the Turkey-based PNF, however, continued to be well structured and active until 1943.

10- Your 2016 LHF Conference in London presentation was under the title of ‘The Italian Trade Network in Turkey in the Years 1923-1939’. Were the Levantine of Istanbul able to function to the same extent in Ottoman times, even without capitulation privileges? Were these years a ‘golden period’ when many other minorities of Istanbul were departing, leaving the field open to the local Italian entrepreneur, or is this a misleading picture?

Let me give you a brief introduction about the Italian Levantine prospects in 1919, just some years before the end of the capitulation privileges, in order to highlight how fluid the geo-economics in the Mediterranean were at the time. Under the Allied occupation of Constantinople in 1919, despite the concerns of the Ottoman Christian minorities for what happened and was going on in Anatolia, there was a great enthusiasm and hope amongst the members of the Italian community on the labour market prospects. The city of Trieste, the Austrian-Hungarian empire’s port, became part of Italy as a result of the WWI. This meant that the well-known companies based in Trieste, operatives in the Levant, were by then part of the Italian commercial network, one amongst all: the largest Austro-Hungarian shipping company was called until 1919 Österreichischer Lloyd and then was renamed Lloyd Triestino di Navigazione. This news was taken by the Italian Levantines, at the time plagued by a high unemployment, as a sing of hope for new job opportunities. Then, even though several problems emerged after the end of the capitulations and the foundation of the republic, the Italian shipping and the maritime trade developed progressively, especially because of a terrible decrease of Greek shipping in Turkish ports. After the signature of the first Italian-Turkish agreement in 1928 a fruitful period started in the bilateral economic relationship. New institutions began to operate, fairs were opened in order to stimulate the Italian-Turkish cooperation and the transportation system between the two countries hugely developed. Undoubtedly, despite the difficult situation in the region, Italy was able to build there a dynamic trade thanks to a well integrated diaspora who were expert in the needs, services and goods of the Turkish society.

Yet, the Act No. 2007 of 11 June 1932 on trades and services reserved for Turkish citizens, left many Italians together with other non-Turkish citizens with no alternative but leaving the country and their professions. It was a serious blow against the Italian Levantine community, especially for the working and lower middle class. Again, although the Italian commercial presence in Turkey and the trade between the two countries was recovering quite well, there was no hope for the weaker ones but to leave Turkey for an unknown country such as Italy for many of them. All that being said, yes, it was indeed some kind of golden age if we look at the prosperous commercial growth carried out in Turkey by the Italian based companies, but we cannot say the same about the community, strangled between two regimes.

11- You have also visited Asmara in Eritrea recently that was an Italian colony. Did you see similarities in architecture and other legacies with former Levantine quarters of Istanbul? Could you thus claim Pera and other areas where Levantines dominated operated in a semi-colonial manner where the central Ottoman state was a minor player in making decisions and trade networks?

While in the capital Asmara we can only catch some similarities in architecture with few buildings constructed before the 1920s, on the contrary, the historical centre of the coastal town of Massawa evoke the architecture of the Levantine quarters because of its Ottoman past. In terms of legacies, Eritrea gives a new impetus to our studies, because of the Levantine and Ottoman networks running there before and during the Italian colonial time.

While I was working in some archives in Asmara, I had the opportunity to discover very interesting documents on the connections made by the Levantines and other Ottoman non-Muslim minorities, such as Armenians, Greeks and Jews with the Italians during the first years of the colonial period. Most of all, it has been truly extraordinary for me to meet some people whose Italian relatives came to Eritrea from Constantinople at the end of the 19th century.

Instead, answering to your last question, even though the capitulation system set the Europeans in a semi-colonial manner in terms of jurisdiction and other privileges, I personally believe that the central Ottoman state played an imperative role “to whom and how” had the opportunity of developing a foreign trade network, last but not least, by providing or rejecting legal permissions to operate in the local market to private companies and subjects.

12- How fluid was the Italian community of the Ottoman Empire? Did families often have cousins etc. moving back and forth from to Italy, Egypt, Greece etc. for reasons of securing and developing trade connections?

There are several stories related to families whose distant relatives were all across the Levant. This was one of the main advantages for the establishment of a trade network. If we have a look at the companies established during the late Ottoman period by Italian Levantines, even the smallest ones, we will notice that these were often operating in Thessaloniki, Istanbul and Izmir thanks to close representative they had, often members of the same family.

For instance, after the Italian occupation of the Dodecanese Islands in 1912, a significant moving back and forth from and to Italy, Anatolia and Greece in the following two decades has been recorded.

13- Have you compared the development and culture of Italian communities in other ports of the Mediterranean such as Beirut, Alexandria etc. where conditions must have been similar but trade competition from other players such as the British and French communities etc. must have been of a different level?

Until now I only compared some aspects of the Italian community’s life in Beirut and Thessaloniki during the late Ottoman period. I would like to start a study on the Italian presence in Lebanon and Egypt in the inter-war years comparing it to the one I’m undertaking on Turkey. In fact, the British protectorate in Egypt and then the establishment of French and British Mandates in the post-Ottoman Levant, are crucial matters to be taken into consideration in order to analyse the development of the Mussolini foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean region. No doubt, the new geopolitical map of the Levant in the aftermath of WWI, has negatively affected the Italian interests in the Levant by impacting the freedom of their national communities there.

14- It seems the Italian State and their foreign office today have little interest in the Italian legacy and oversees communities that still live in Turkey and elsewhere. Do you think the various files and records concerning the Italian community of Istanbul could be centralised and thus better protected? What areas you think would deserve further research and highlighting?

I couldn’t agree more: in fact, it seems that today Italian politics have no interest at all on the Italian legacy in the Eastern Mediterranean countries and on the development of a cultural action in the region. Think of Alexandria, for instance, a city inhabited for decades by thousands of Italians, that nowadays does not even host an Italian Cultural Institute. Also in the last few years, the Italian Cultural Institutes located in Ankara and Thessaloniki have been closed for economical reasons. It sounds odd, for a country such as Italy that is still the world’s ninth biggest economy and the third largest in the Eurozone! Considering the historical legacy and the heritage of the Italian language and culture in all of the Levant region, I find this disengagement not only inconsiderate but also short-sighted. Even though the last years’ political instability has negatively influenced the country’s economy, that does not justify this disengagement on the country’s soft power. And now, the legacy of the Italian emigration has had another heavy blow with the closure of the National Museum of Italian Emigration (M.E.I.) in Rome, which occurred in 2016 after only seven years from its opening.

Concerning the records of the Istanbul’s Italian community, I think that a centralisation and a digitalisation will protect these precious archival sources for future researches on the Levantine heritage in this extraordinary urban area. And secondly, at the very least with regards to the Italian consulate records, a centralisation and protection will inform the public about their status and conditions. Unfortunately, during the past four years it has not been possible for me to research within the consulate documentation related to late Ottoman period and the first Turkish republican years: my access there was, in fact, denied, officially because of “privacy” policies. An odd reason, since the Italian legislative decree No 42 of 22 January 2014 on the “Code of the Cultural and Landscape Heritage”, in its Chapter III on “Consultation of Archive Documents and Safeguarding of Confidentiality” clearly states at the Article 122 that the documents kept in any public body and institution may be freely consulted with the exception of those document containing sensitive information, whose maximum term is seventy years - info.

One would rather wonder what is behind this prohibition of consulting the consulate records: it is necessary, therefore, to find out how the records are kept and safeguarded, since I personally found on sale some consulate documents in some junk shops of Çukurcuma neighbourhood of the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul.

So, to reply to your last question, I believe that it is time to develop further researches on the Italian Levantine presence in other regions such as the Black Sea region or Southern Anatolia, since the literature does not seem to refer to this area thoroughly.

15- Is there a sense of ‘Levantine identity’ in descendants of the Italian community of Turkey now living in Italy? Do you think there is a role for LHF in connecting Italian academia and descendants in Italy and perhaps revealing new material and surprises?

More today than in the past, there is a proud sense of “Levantine identity” among the descendants of the Italian communities of the Eastern Mediterranean region. This is mainly for two reasons: first, because the term “Levantine” is much more fascinating now than in the past, when the term was used in Italy in a very negative way; second, because the demography of Italy has profoundly changed in the last twenty years, turning it from an emigration to an immigration country. Therefore, being raised in a Levantine-like family today, can provide people with a special understanding of the new Italian society, that is growingly multicultural and yet has to face a deep-rooted unfamiliarity with the other faiths and cultures of the Mediterranean region.

I definitely think that LHF, thanks to its network and platform, can stimulate the Levantine studies in the Italian academia and encourage a growing interest on the Italian legacy in the Levant. It is now time to introduce within the Italian diaspora studies the Levantine heritage, so far neglected despite a vast literature and historiography on the Italian emigration to North and South America and and North-Western Europe. But more action is needed in order to spread our area of studies into the main Studies Centres located overseas, since Italy’s inadequate investment on research in humanities, together with a non-competitive academic system which cannot guarantee the necessary attentions and resources that, in my opinion, this topic deserves.

Interview conducted by Craig Encer

Francesco will next be presenting on 3 February 2018 in a round-table workshop in Paris, France under: ‘Exil et Circulation des Pratiques Politiques au 19ème Siècle’ co-organized by AsilEuropeXIX and the Research Centre of European History, the University Paris-Est Créteil.

Italian national gendarmerie (Carabinieri) in Constantinople, 1919. Source: Archivio Ufficio Storico dell’Arma dei Carabinieri, Rome.

Italian national gendarmerie (Carabinieri) in Constantinople, 1919. Source: Archivio Ufficio Storico dell’Arma dei Carabinieri, Rome.

Il Semaforo di Costantinopoli, October 26, 1878, Constantinople. Source: Civite Raccolte Storiche, Fondo Gnecchi, Milan.

Il Corriere Giornale Settimanale - Teatro, Letteratura, Varietà. October 12, 1876. Source: Civite Raccolte Storiche, Fondo Gnecchi, Milan.

La Rassegna Italiana-Organo degl’Interessi Italiani in Oriente - Giornale Ufficiale della Camera di Commercio di Costantinopoli, 1902. Source: Historical Archive of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, Istanbul

The Italian primary school of Istanbul and students photographed 1926, managed by the Sisters of Ivrea in Istanbul

‘Unione Sportiva’, the local Italian Fascist sports organization performing a walk-past ceremony in Taksim square, Istanbul in the 1930s period with fascist salutes. This gesture needs to be taken in context of the period when the hard nationalism it espoused was not tainted by the excesses of the later WW2, and probably should be viewed in terms of patriotic fervour of a community with still strong emotional bonds to its home country.

The Italian parish school of Smyrna / Izmir: saluting to the flag - clearly from Fascist times 1920s-40s.

Francesco’s academia page