Porta Palazzo: The Anthropology of an Italian Market. Rachel Black. Foreword by Carlo Petrini. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014
Renata Christen (University of Amsterdam)
In her book, Rachel Black explores social interplay on the stage of Porta Palazzo in Turin, one of Italy’s preeminent open air markets. Approachable for all audiences, this is a descriptive ethnographic account of political, social and gendered relationships: the market is a hotbed of cultural diversity. As Black convincingly argues, it’s the most visible entry point for social admission. Through several case studies, she highlights the market as an edge habitat between pre-established (Italian) and pre-eminent (immigrant) cultures.
By no means an exclusive focus, Black’s Introduction states how “This book will investigate the loss of social life in provisioning and how this situation occurred, as well as the repercussions” (5). She outlines the various philosophical and anthropological questions surrounding an attempt at studying food markets, namely, the universality of shopping at markets, being “complex spaces of commerce and sociability that often contradict modern use of public spaces; they are remnants of the past lodged in the hearts of modern cities.” (8) The introduction also successfully lays a foundation for understanding our current existential crisis of provisioning, and how markets like Porta Palazzo offer a viable platform for unstructured socialization and mingling.
At times, a number of trite observations and redundancies distracted me from full engagement with the storyline; certain phrasing and clichés made it difficult to flow with this text. Take the following excerpt, for example, which is subsequently reconstituted in various forms throughout the book:
Farmers’ markets are local food at its most immediate: they are points of contact between city dwellers and farm folk and one of the last connections between consumption and production. The meaning of local food is shaped and negotiated by the market itself but also through interactions between farmers and consumers. (11)
While Chapter 1 claims to provide “a general discussion of markets as a field of study” (9) its slim pages read more as an overview of Black’s personal feelings towards the market and her approach to entering the field than a robust character study of markets throughout history. To her credit, Black notes that the market “evaded a straightforward ethnographic description” through its complexity, offering vignettes and “snapshots” of the environment in its stead. Only later did this approach seem integrated and whole in its telling of Porta Palazzo – initially I was frustrated as a reader, because it felt like the meat of what makes a bustling market come alive lacked its pulse in Black’s ethnographic and historical framing of the context. Ever a reminder that patience can be a virtue.
Chapter 2 delivers on the historical shift from open air shopping to the predominance of supermarkets that trailed after Turin’s emergence as a center of industry post-WWII: “these new types of stores were important settings for conspicuous consumption and social mobility, mainly for the growing middle class” (27). It’s interesting how Black mentions that Porta Palazzo was historically located on the periphery and associated with “transient people and undesirable trades” (31), a place that has always eluded conformity. The market’s boundary status transitions in the late 19th century as a result of sanitation regulations to covered structures, reflecting the values of commerce in the age of modernity, “orderly, efficient, and hygienic” (39) began bringing some elements to order, but not all.
Chapter 3 is a foray into the physical environment of the resellers market, where vendors buy in produce or other goods and resell them at a cost. Black describes the “sensory perceptions of space” lacking in supermarkets but rampant in open-air markets (stronger and more striking smells, visuals, audio). In Chapter 4, we see how she navigates Porta Palazzo through the complex lens of gender, and the continued role of women in provisioning; the playful banter and sexualized ‘discourses of exchange’ that characterize many interactions between vendors and customers (where sexuality is ‘played up’ in order to emphasize the appealing nature of produce or other wares); and the way vendors connect over food and alcohol as social lubricants. Anxieties about body image and food insecurity are more readily on display, surrounded by jostling exchanges, on-going negotiations, and the overt choices one makes by participating in the market community.
Black offers vignettes of different migrant vendors that provide a vivid and effective ethnographic account of the market in Chapter 5, and the way these individuals have navigated their experience with integration (or not) into Italian society. Live animals sold at the market highlight the contrast between how Liberian women view processing chickens “wholly intact” means being a good “homemaker” and how sanitation officials conceive of propriety. Solidarity among ethnic groups is noted in correlation to Arjun Appadurai’s concept of the role imagination plays in new forms of globalization, whereby the Moroccan vendor, Mustafa, views his life in Italy as a form of “exile”—a means to an end of eventually (and more successfully) returning home, provisioned with more resources to support on-going nostalgia for his homeland and dreams of a better life.
Chapter 6 is devoted to Chef Kumal (whose real name is Vittorio Castellani) a character who sells ‘foreign cuisine learning’ packages i.e. ethnogastronomic tourism, and whose presence raises many questions about outsider attempts to influence and bridge Italian provisioning and immigrant culture artificially. In spite of the potential pitfalls, which Black examines thoroughly and successfully, Kumal is analyzed overall as a mediator; someone who exists to bridge the divide and garner inclusion of the exotic “other” into the everyday, so that it becomes accepted rather than dismissed in the way market-goers provision. Food is a common bond, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Kumal’s itineraries; they exist to support the more intrepid Italians who wish to experience migrant communities without necessarily needing to connect in-depth. As Black notes, “Are we really eating at the same table together, to use Castellani’s words, or do we want takeaway culture that can be consumed in the privacy of our own homes or the controlled environment of a restaurant without giving it further thought?” (136)
The final chapter ends strong, tying together all the other chapters with dizzying efficiency. It would have been superb to initially set the tone with the sweeping insights offered here, but we as readers are saved the best for last; poetic descriptions of merendina (“a little snack”) improvisational picnics shared among certain vendors, and theoretical analysis of the centrality of time in the market reflecting the heart of Slow Food principles, are only a few of the riches offered. Overall, Black’s book lends many fascinating insights, and offers a worthwhile reflection on the meaning of locality in our globalized world.