In this feature article, we dive into the captivating world of "Boggiano Heirs," a thought-provoking book that sheds light on the often-overlooked history of Italy's pro-slavery past and its connection to the Caribbean.
The author, a visual artist, shares how his passion for merging images and text led to a profound exploration of lesser-known historical events. Following the intriguing life of Antonio Boggiano and his impact on the descendants of his slaves, the book sheds light on exploitation, cultural blending, and the complex legacies of the 1800s.
With meticulous research, the author crafts authentic narratives while honoring the lives of those affected by slavery. The book challenges conventional notions of history, inviting readers to reflect on the enduring impact of the past on contemporary society. In this exclusive interview, Cristiano Berti shares personal insights into his perspective on Italy's pro-slavery past and the Caribbean's complex history. Additionally, he hints at future projects that explore similar themes, showcasing his continued fascination with the Caribbean's rich and enigmatic stories.
Join us on this captivating journey, unearthing forgotten stories that enrich our understanding of the Caribbean's remarkable past.
Can you tell us about your background as a visual artist and how it influenced your decision to write "Boggiano Heirs"?
For many years now, I have been interested in the relationship between images and the textual information that is currently available to us. Much of my work has included texts, generally short - sometimes very short - containing information capable of profoundly influencing the interpretation of the images they accompany, even overturning their apparent meaning. In the cycle of works to which “Boggiano Heirs” belongs, the text assumes greater autonomy, but remains part of a broader discourse: it is the third leg of a visual art project that includes a video and a wall installation. As with the previous work in this cycle, I went in search of little-known or completely forgotten facts that occurred in a historical period that is sufficiently remote and alien to us, and at the same time permeated by a modern sensitivity.
What inspired you to delve into the story of Antonio Boggiano and his legacy on the descendants of his slaves for this book?
The best way to explain is to share what actually happened. In a previous work, I dealt with two places very distant from each other, both in terms of geography as well as characteristics. Despite the differences, the two places are united by an Italian sculptor of the early nineteenth century, Giuseppe Gaggini: a marble quarry in the Piedmontese Alps, completely abandoned for over a century, and a monumental fountain in a square in Havana. While researching the art commission, I came across the names of two commercial intermediaries, and one of them was Antonio Boggiano. Having found some letters in an Italian archive that spoke of a man of the same name who lived in Trinidad, Cuba, I decided to go to that city too, on the assumption that he could be the same person. Having discovered there was a landlord with the same surname, I arranged to stay with him, believing he was a descendant of this ancient Italian emigrant. Thus I met Francisco Boggiano, a man of apparent African ancestry, and began the journey to discover this forgotten story. The entire visual art project, as well as writing the book as part of it, was really about following up on the surprise and the pleasure of discovering a story that went from unimaginable to real.
"Boggiano Heirs" explores Italy's pro-slavery past. How did you approach this topic, and what challenges did you encounter during your research?
At a time when European powers occupied distant lands, Italy itself was a land colonised by other states. However, there is still a difficult history of Italian colonialism in Africa, which began relatively late in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. During the historical period covered by the book, Italians were involved in the exploitation of slavery only as individuals, rather than at a national level. When you take a closer look, you find that this involvement of individuals in slavery was widespread. For example, all of Antonio Boggiano’s Italian friends who immigrated to Cuba not only enslaved people but, in many cases, were active in human trafficking. One of his closest friends was a captain of ships that took slaves from Africa to the Americas. Another owned these types of ships. Doing this research was a bit like lifting a stone to find a hole teeming with worms.
Due to the negligible presence of Italians in Cuba at the time, records of their involvement in slavery and trafficking of Africans is scarce. It is also largely confined to academic publications, and this was the key challenge of my book: to use scientific research to unearth a story that seemed irretrievably buried and then deliver a text capable of moving beyond the realm of academia to engage wider public interest.
Could you share some insights into the historical context of the Caribbean during the 1800s and how it relates to the story of Antonio Boggiano and his ventures in Cuba?
Boggiano had a long life and saw great historical changes. He arrived in Cuba when Spain still fully possessed its Latin American empire, and he saw it crumble in its entirety during his lifetime, except for Cuba and Puerto Rico. Boggiano's business reflects historical facts. During the Napoleonic wars, he mainly devoted himself to short-sea commerce between Cuba, the United States, Mexico, Central America, and Colombia - he made himself appear to be Spanish to be allowed to do this. When peace returned to Europe, he moved back to Savona, a part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. He was active in the transatlantic trade and began to use Italian ships, as Spain was experiencing a profound crisis that stripped its control over this type of trade. His activity in the slave trade also changed over time: as long as the trade was legal, he operated plainly as a consignee. After 1820, he seemed to stop and only sold some people he had previously taken over.
We understand the book uses an array of sources. What were some of the most intriguing or surprising discoveries you made while researching for "Boggiano Heirs"?
I had long thought that the Cuban Boggiano's were descendants of Antonio Boggiano's slaves. Also, it seemed clear to me, as I proceeded with my research, that the first Boggiano's born in Cuba, called “criollos” at the time, bore this surname because they were born as legitimate children of slave couples who had been united in marriage (how free were the choices to form these unions is not known). What I only later realised was that the Cuban citizens who bear this surname are the descendants of a much smaller group than the hundreds of people owned by Boggiano.
Contrary to what happened in the United States, where the purchase of freedom was a very rare occurrence, enslaved people in Spanish colonies were allowed to negotiate their own freedom through existing legal frameworks. We can say as a matter of fact that Cuban Boggianos all descend from those who were able to buy their own freedom. All those who made up the workforce of the coffee plantation changed surname when it was sold, and became Sánchez. I love to say that the story of the Boggianos is much more a story about freedom than of slavery. In order to sell any material property, it was necessary to carry out a public deed. For this reason, the books of the “escribanos” (notaries) preserve the deeds of the Boggianos' purchases of freedom. Finding this type of document was undoubtedly among one of the best moments of my research.
In your writing, you interweave the stories of Boggiano and the people he owned as slaves. How did you ensure their narratives were presented authentically and respectfully?
Writing history from the point of view of enslaved people is impossible. Take the story of María de Jesús Boggiano, a young woman from the Gulf of Guinea. Almost immediately, I found the deed of 1822 by which she bought her own freedom. A sentence from the deed is written in the first person: «And being present I, the said María de Jesús, freed, accept this deed for my benefit and with it my cherished freedom, and give the due thanks to my master for the favour he makes to me». Reading it, I thought I was able to hear for the first time the voice of that young African woman. But it was an illusion, and my impression was the result of inexperience as I later found other documents of the same type, which established other freedoms, and made use of the same formula. In short, that was the voice of the “escribano” and not of María de Jesús.
Archive documents are like that. They tend to condition and, in some way, distort our perception of the past. When slavery is involved, the distortion becomes even greater, because we soon realise that practically all the documents we have were produced by a system of administrative and economic powers that oppressed and exploited slaves. There are just a few exceptions to this rule, e.g. books written by former slaves containing their own personal memories, but I have found nothing of the kind directly related to the Boggianos.
So, what to do? If these narratives did not exist, constructing them would have been not only inappropriate for a historical essay but also highly manipulative. I have therefore chosen a more subtle approach, taking care of the limited stories I have come across and recomposing them into a larger picture that gives them greater meaning — always basing it on written sources.
For example, the list of 121 names of slaves who were sold with the coffee plantation in 1857. You find them sorted by gender, and there is no other information. Comparing the data with the data I had found in ecclesiastical books, I began to understand that these two categories were ordered by age. Then I realised that I could reconstruct households, from the absence and presence of individuals in the list. This is covered in the ninth chapter of the book. The prose of the chapter is cold, analytical, and almost bureaucratic, but despite its form, it seemed to me that making this recomposing of reality was an act of respect. The list of slaves sold with the “cafetal” - coffee plantation - is inhuman, reducing them to a mere list of names; my work has gone in the opposite direction.
The white marble altar commissioned by Antonio Boggiano holds significance in the book. Can you elaborate on its importance and its connection to Trinidad's most important church?
The marble altar of the Santísima Trinidad’s Church is the only tangible relic of Antonio Boggiano's many businesses and properties, and it’s not particularly beautiful. On the contrary, the immaterial legacy constituted by the transmission of his surname represents a true and proper living monument.
Among Cuban Boggianos, there are numerous university professors, lawyers, an architect, and a famous scientist. This transmission to posterity occurred in a form that was not only unconscious to Boggiano but, one assumes, unwanted. This constitutes an interesting paradox.
"Boggiano Heirs" touches on themes of exploitation, enslavement, and cultural intermixing. How do you approach these sensitive subjects to maintain historical accuracy while acknowledging their impact on today's readers?
When one looks at the events of the past, it is necessary to frame them in the socio-cultural context in which they occurred. At the same time, if these facts did not relate to the present in some way, they would lose all interest. I extracted as much information from the available sources and presented it to the reader in a way that expressed what I, as the interpreter of these sources, and the author, had assumed.
And what was my presumption? That Boggiano, having lived for a long time on both sides of the ocean, that is in two very different socio-cultural and political contexts, retained a sort of duplicity: a slaveholder in Cuba, a wealthy man who owned land in America while he was in Italy. There in Savona, the way he had made and continued to make money must have been mysterious to most. This is why I dedicated several initial chapters of the book to the story of an emigrant, to his origins and family lineages, to his successes and failures, without mentioning slavery. I left this side of the story hidden, like the hidden face of a moon. In the chapters on the Boggianos born in Africa and born in Cuba, and on some of their descendants I disclosed difficult things about Boggiano, but he is no longer the protagonist. I didn't want the second part of the book to become an exploration of the hidden face of Antonio Boggiano's moon. The baton had to pass to his "Heirs". Otherwise, it would have been a book about a slaveholder, with his slaves relegated to the role of supporting actors. This was not what I wanted.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading "Boggiano Heirs," and how do you envision it contributing to discussions about the legacies of slavery and colonialism?
I am an artist: by sharing with the public the experiences that amaze me most, I offer food for thought, and initiate discourses. It is up to the public to decide what to do with it. However, the starting point is enshrined in the title of the book, which not by chance emphasises the figures of the “Heirs” instead of the malicious patriarchal figure of Antonio Boggiano. I included a hidden clue in the book’s epigraph, which is a quote from the funerary monument of the architect Christopher Wren. It says (translated from Latin): «If you are looking for a monument, look around you». Those who placed it in memory of Wren were referring to his architectural masterpieces, primarily Saint Paul's Cathedral, where the monument is located. I have used it in my book to say what matters most. What mostly remains of the existence of Antonio Boggiano, industrious and full of successes as well as material goods, are the couple of hundreds of Cuban citizens who bear this bizarre surname.
How has writing "Boggiano Heirs" changed your perspective on Italy's pro-slavery past and the Caribbean's history, and do you have any future projects in mind that continue exploring similar themes?
Like many others, before starting the research for this book, I had a very vague idea of the involvement of Italians in the slave trade. I now clearly have a deeper understanding of this topic and have come across another story that might be worth telling.
In general, as I also say in the conversation with Seph Rodney that closes the book, I find the Caribbean a place where particularly interesting things happen. Certainly, very interesting to me as an artist, as I am drawn to ambiguities and ambivalences, and I see the Caribbean as a place of real uncertainty. More clearly than elsewhere, everything changes according to the point of view one assumes. Even the case of the Cuban Boggianos is no exception because, if it is true that the common factor given by the surname links them all to certain ancestors captured in Africa, going back up the branches of their family trees, we will find that each of them is also the heir to much more. This complexity of roots marks humanity’s past, as well as, and without a shadow of a doubt, will mark its future.