Article – Jenny Ponzo, “The Room of the Saint: Museums and the Management of Nostalgia” (Carte Semiotiche, 2023)

Jenny Ponzo, The Room of the Saint: Museums and the Management of Nostalgia, Carte Semiotiche, Serie Annali 9, 2023.

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Abstract. Greimas (1986) encourages researchers to explore the mechanisms by which the nostalgic subject, “débrayé” from the object of value, presentifies this object thus originating a “doubled” pathemic path characterized by an imaginary isotopy. In Proust, e.g., this mechanism is activated through the madeleine, but its varieties and characteristics are still to be fully explored. This paper intends to shed light on a specific kind of nostalgic mechanism, based on two premises: 1. The unreachable object of value can also be “a person”, and the loss can be due to death. Reflection must therefore be devoted to the relationship between nostalgia and the elaboration of the memory of the deceased (mourning). 2. The mechanism of nostalgia can be not only individual and private, but also collective and institutional. From this perspective, several kinds of museums can be seen as strategic cultural devices for the management of nostalgia connected to people, objects or events belonging to a mythologized past. The case of the museums devoted to saints of the Catholic Church, generally owned by religious orders, provide a good example of this institutional management of the nostalgic memory of an exemplary figure, loved by the faithful. Indeed, saints are recognized as such after their death: their cult is basically “retrospective”, and even though it entails the creation of a spiritual relationship, in Catholic culture there is a strong attachment to all the indexical signs that give the faithful the impression to maintain a bodily connection with the venerated characters. This is true not only for relics, but also for the saints’ room or cell. The importance attributed to the cell can be related to a religious imaginary that creates a parallelism between the interior and spiritual space of the soul and the exterior space of the room in which the spiritual experience takes place (cf. Ponzo 2023; Leone 2013): the material space of the cell is deemed to bear traces of the spiritual quality of the exceptional individuals who inhabited them, thus resulting somehow “sanctified”. This explains why the saints’ houses or cells are often musealized, as part of the process of construction and transmission of their memory. These museums aim at providing a testimony which is both historical and religious, and have to face the potential clash – typical of Catholic culture – between the need for signs of the saints’ bodily life, and the need to deviate the attention from materiality to spirituality (cf. Leone 2014). The analysis of a sample of museums of saints (e.g. Giovanni Bosco, Pio of Pietrelcina) shows therefore the strategies which make the saints’ room available to visitors, and how settings and paratexts improve the visitor’s cultural-historical knowledge, but also create or reinforce a pathemic bond with the saints by presentifying and materializing their absence. The analysis takes inspiration from studies about the construction of places of memory, the spatial language of the museums, and their semio-etnographic observation (cf. Violi 2014, Pezzini 2011, Marsciani 2021). These theories, mainly elaborated with reference to secular museums, are re-thought in relation to the cultural-religious context of the considered case study, as well as to the mechanism of nostalgia, intended as a semiotic strategy used to regulate (both igniting and containing) the sense of loss and desire for the saintly figure. 

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What is NeMoSanctI?


NeMoSanctI is a research project carried out at the University of Turin. It studies how models of sanctity have changed after the Second Vatican Council. To this end, it applies a pioneering methodology based on semiotic theory to a wide corpus of normative, judicial, and narrative texts.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 757314).