The so-called "human zoos" represented an incredibly widespread and extremely popular phenomenon in 19th-early 20th century Europe, at the age of the great national, international and universal exhibitions, of which they were a recurrent and a nearly constant element. The "human zoos" were brutish forms of public exhibitions of specimens of "savage" (mostly African) humans purposely imported as exotic animals from overseas by specialised merchants and entrepreneurs and hosted in "indigenous villages" very carefully and minutely reproduced within the exhibition areas. Such public displays - true ethno-anthropological shows in which the exotic actors were supposed to "play" their native daily habits, craftsmanship, arts, dances, songs and religious rites - contributed in an important albeit appalling way to Western Europe self-perception as an advanced, modern and "civilsed" society and culture, to be efficaciously contrasted with primitive or just diverse forms of human ways of living. The expanding, aggressively militarist, imperialist and colonising West could proudly look at itself in the mirror offered by the spectacle of a human alterity exhibited in its most demaning forms; and in that contrast it could find a clear confirmation of the importance of its civilising mission in the world. Several recent books have explored this phenomenon in the social and cultural history of many West-European and American countries: Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark, the United States. This book for the first time investigates the great variety of living human public exhibitions in 19th-20th century Italy, between the liberal era and Fascism. It connects these examples of public exhibitions to an ancient tradition of triumphs and freak shows and underlines the close relationships with colonial politics and ideology, with the development of anthropology and the medical sciences as academic disciplines in Italy and with catholic missionary activities in Africa, the Near East and South America. In so doing this book suggests the need to enlarge the very notion of "human zoos", which aptly defines a particularly brutal, even if very common form of living human exhibition, but which cannot be applied to other, themselves very widespread aspects of human shows, such as ethnic theatre, missionary exhibitions and colonial-imperial exhibitions based not so much on the public show of a degraded savagery, but on the apology of the civilising capacity of colonial and imperial institutions. In so doing, this book offers an original insight into Italian public opinion and sensibilities in matters of human varieties, race, civilization, globalization, modernity and the non-European world; and it tries to assess, in comparison with other European cases, the specifities of Italian attitudes toward human ethnic diversities and colonialism. The book is enriched by a very large section of "Illustrations" reproducing original and often previously unpublished images and archive documents; and it is closed by a wide, 50 pages bibliography.
I cosiddetti “zoo umani” rappresentarono un fenomeno di vastissima diffusione e popolarità nell’Europa delle grandi esposizioni nazionali, internazionali e universali a partire dalla metà dell’800. Forme spesso brutali di pubblica esibizione di esemplari di umanità selvaggia, gli “zoo umani”, completi di “villaggi” ricostruiti nel dettaglio e popolati di “indigeni” importati come animali da esposizione, costituirono un ingrediente importante – per quanto raccapricciante – della mentalità e dell’auto-rappresentazione dell’Occidente “progredito”, imperialista e colonizzatore. Grazie a questo libro, dopo che numerosi studi hanno indagato il fenomeno in larga parte del mondo occidentale (Germania, Francia, Inghilterra, Stati Uniti, Spagna, Svizzera, Russia, Danimarca) disponiamo ora della prima ricerca sistematica sulle “esposizioni umane” nell’Italia liberale e fascista, viste non solo nella loro funzione politico-ideologica, ma anche in rapporto ai loro antecedenti storici più antichi e nella varietà di declinazioni che, ben oltre la nozione restrittiva di “zoo umani”, esse assunsero nel mondo dello spettacolo, in quello delle attività missionarie oltremare e negli ambienti della ricerca medica e antropologica.