Like so many other decisive moments in the history of the European Union, the Messina conference was a close run thing. The conference was necessary because the French politics had just buried the European Defence Treaty and European political integration looked like it had come to its end.
Given the obstacles hopes were not high. At the start of the conference an exasperated Max Kohnstamm, the Dutch Secretary to the High Authority, even had to tell his boss Jean Monnet: “Please understand, they are not here to make Europe. They are here to bury you.” The British expected nothing of it and did not even bother to send a representative; they are just the foreign ministers of the Coal and Steel Community, nothing to worry about…
Late at night, at the end of the first day’s negotiations, Paul-Henri Spaak forced his way to the room of his French colleague Antoine Pinay and started talking. Early in the morning Spaak came back to his own room, threw the windows open and sang “O Sole Mio” to the rising sun.
Innovation stood at the beginning of the great project and helped overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. The rest, as they say, is history.
The innovative element of this exhibition is about bringing history alive, on line. With this exhibition the Historical Archives of the Council want to tell the story of the Messina conference in an easily approachable and interactive way. It’s about commemorating an episode of political history, a fundamental moment in the construction of the European Union by approaching it from multiple perspectives: how the cultural and social phenomena influenced that specific political event.
Director General – DG F Communication and Information
General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union
This exhibition marks a defining moment in the history of European construction – the meeting of the Foreign Affairs ministers of the six member countries of the European Coal and Steel Community on 1 and 2 June 1955. This meeting came after the failure of the projects of European Defence and Political Communities and gave a new impetus to the European integration process. It has come to be known as the Messina Conference after the location of the meeting, the choice of which was influenced by the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gaetano Martino, who came from Messina. However the true significance of the choice of Sicily for the Conference is to be found in the Italian government’s wish to focus the debate about the economic integration of Europe on the issue of the Mezzogiorno.
The Messina Conference has therefore not only a symbolic value as a moment of encounter between Sicily and Europe: it can also be contextualized within a web of long-term cultural, social and political connections between Europe and Sicily: the exhibition wants to underline the complexity and depth of these connections, which are historically stratified along the twentieth century, starting from the last heirs of the grand tour tradition, who
“nell’isola che accoglie nel suo grembo memorie che sono sintesi di quanto è accaduto nel Mediterraneo dal tempo dei fenici”
partook the process of
“formazione della classe dirigente europea, […] contributo rilevante alla cultura del cosmopolitismo, in cui è stato fondamentale il ruolo assunto dall’Italia come centro di aggregazione della civiltà nell’Europa moderna ” 1 “on the island that is a repository for memories of all that has happened in the Mediterranean since the time of the Phoenicians […]”, played a part in the “formation of the European establishment […] the major contribution to the culture of cosmopolitism, in which Italy played a central part as the focal point of the modern European civilisation” Cesare de Seta, L’Italia nello specchio del Grand Tour, Rizzoli, Milano, 2014.
Within this cultural milieu at Europe’s southernmost border, Sicily, a symbol of Europe’s cultural origins, is the object of extraordinary artistic, sociological, anthropological and naturalistic interest. The lyricism of settings, the references to classical antiquity, the austere and terrible beauty of the nature, the picturesque costumes and the ancient trades that cannot hide poverty and underdevelopment: those are the elements within which a young François-Xavier Ortoli frames his own experience of Sicily in the 1950s with his selection of photographs by Wilhelm von Gloeden, consciously placing himself in the refined tradition of travel narrative which nonetheless is not oblivious to the unavoidable process of transformation that Sicily is undergoing. Ortoli himself witnesses this transformation, and twenty years after his journey to Sicily, it shapes his policies towards the Mezzogiorno in his role as President of the European Commission. In Ortoli’s vision it is no longer a marginal area of the European Community, but the gateway to the southern and eastern Mediterranean.
The process of transformation is evident in the Sicily of the 1950s and 1960s depicted in the images of Fosco Maraini and Mimmo Pintacuda with their anthropological contrasts. Sicily shows deep traces of archaism and backwardness, intense social and economic problems; it is beset by mass emigration and feeds the industrial and mining districts of northern Europe with its workforce. At the same time, however, it betrays signs of the unstoppable transition to modernity. Guido Piovene persuasively describes this transition in his “Viaggio in Italia“:
“Tutti i contrasti del Mezzogiorno italiano, in questa fase di trapasso, appaiono qui stridenti. Da un lato il sogno dell’industria, l’attivismo tecnico, l’impulso turistico ed archeologico, lo slancio verso il Settentrione e l’Europa; dall’altro le città e i villaggi stipati, dove anche il palazzo del signore è ingoiato dalle casupole, le petraie deserte, la brulicante povertà di alcuni quartieri palermitani, dei paesi gialli di zolfo, del bracciantato di Ragusa”.2 “All the contrasts of the Italian Mezzogiorno, in this phase of transformation, are evident here. On the one hand, a desire for industry and technological progress, the development of tourism and the archaeological heritage, the opening towards the north and towards Europe; on the other hand, overcrowded towns and villages, where even palaces of the nobility are almost swallowed up by the surrounding hovels, the deserted stone fields, the poverty of some of the teeming neighbourhoods of Palermo, of the sulphur-yellow hamlets, of the workers in Ragusa” Guido Piovene, Viaggio in Italia, Mondadori, Milano 1957
The evidence of this slow, gradual modernisation, with its often traumatic and uneven outcome, erasing ancient social practices, is to be found in the images of the numerous photographers where the social and economic focus prevails, highlighting a progressive normalisation of the image of Sicily, no longer a distant land of myth. Until the early 1970s the Italian Mezzogiorno was the only significantly marginal area of Europe, and Sicily was the object, often with mixed results, of the efforts of the European Communities to increase integration and modernisation through policies aimed at infrastructure, industry and employment. However, with the adhesion of Greece, Portugal and Spain, Sicily became more and more part of a broader southern European area with similar characteristics and problems.
The exhibition ends with a reference to the dramas of present times, and to the resurfacing of Sicily’s role as gateway and border as a consequence of the instability of the southern Mediterranean shores. The intention is to elicit a reflection on the centrality of Sicily in the context of Mediterranean Europe.
Curator of the Exhibition
|↑ 1.||“on the island that is a repository for memories of all that has happened in the Mediterranean since the time of the Phoenicians […]”, played a part in the “formation of the European establishment […] the major contribution to the culture of cosmopolitism, in which Italy played a central part as the focal point of the modern European civilisation” Cesare de Seta, L’Italia nello specchio del Grand Tour, Rizzoli, Milano, 2014.|
|↑ 2.||“All the contrasts of the Italian Mezzogiorno, in this phase of transformation, are evident here. On the one hand, a desire for industry and technological progress, the development of tourism and the archaeological heritage, the opening towards the north and towards Europe; on the other hand, overcrowded towns and villages, where even palaces of the nobility are almost swallowed up by the surrounding hovels, the deserted stone fields, the poverty of some of the teeming neighbourhoods of Palermo, of the sulphur-yellow hamlets, of the workers in Ragusa” Guido Piovene, Viaggio in Italia, Mondadori, Milano 1957|