A visit to the exhibition “United Europe and its protagonists”

From Antonio Carbone, German Historical Institute Rome

What do the 1957 Treaties of Rome and the seventh session of the States General for Europe in 1964, two events that certainly have a different grade of relevance for the history of the European integration, have in common? They share the same urban setting. Both took place in Rome and had central moments at the Capitoline Hill. The small exhibition “L’Europa unita e i suoi protagonisti” (United Europe and its protagonists), prepared on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome, presents a series of restored photos from the Riccardi Archives showing some of the protagonists of the signing of the Treaties, as well as some of the most important moments in the history of European integration. Considering the title of the exhibition one might suppose that the idea is to retrace in images what has often been called – partly ironically – the hagiographic history of the European Union. According to this narrative, European integration is a construction that sprang from the minds of a small group of great politicians. These men, mainly Christian Democrats, shared the traumatic experience of the Second World War and therefore the desire to leave behind the immense violence that European nationalisms had repeatedly unleashed in the previous centuries. According to this narrative – which I perhaps oversimplify here – it is from the desire of these powerful men that the European institutions were born, thanks to which an increasing degree of supranational integration (and therefore peace) in Europe has been possible.

Spatial context of the Exhibition ©Antonio Carbone

However, despite the title’s clear allusion to the “protagonists” of European integration, the exhibition moves partly beyond this kind of “hagiographic” narrative. The exhibition follows instead a site-specific approach by taking the Capitol as a lens to look at various moments and themes in the history of European institutions. The history of the Capitol, where today the offices of the Mayor of Rome are located, goes well beyond the last 65 years and was in ancient times the most important religious center of the city, where the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus was located. During the Middle Ages the hill above the Roman forum became the center of the civic power. In the city of the popes, the civic power was sometimes in friendly relationship with the Pope, more often it was subjugated to him and in some cases Roman civic authorities were instead fiercely opposed to the power of the Papacy. The powerful allusions to the various aspects of this long history are among the reasons why the Capitoline Hill was chosen for the signing of the treaties establishing the European Economic Community. The photos of the signing of the Treaties of Rome in 1957 presented by the exhibition show the Capitol as the classic setting of modern European diplomacy: the rooms of the Renaissance palace are the scenery for a group of men dressed in dark suits signing a series of documents. The exhibition continues to show other images taken on the Capitol, this time in 1964 and more precisely of the evening rally of the VII session of the States General for Europe. The photos illustrate the link between the institutions of the Community, the local administration, and representatives of civil society. The probable objective of the rally, underlined by the photos exhibited, was to demonstrate that “Europe of the peoples”, as the motto of the States General of that year recited, was an already existing reality. More recent photographs, also taken on the Capitol and presented in the exhibition, show Romano Prodi, together with a minister of his government, posing with a flag of the European Union at the party organized in 2002, when Euros began to circulate.

While the perspective of the “protagonists” has some problematic elements that historiography has repeatedly pointed out, the site-specific approach can be a useful way to deconstruct the teleological hagiography of “United Europe”. Using the Capitol as an observation point, it is possible to look at different elements and aspects of the history of European integration and its change over time. For example, looking at the Capitol illuminates the attempt by the “protagonists” not to characterize the new EU institutions as a rupture, but rather to place them within a long tradition that at least the European diplomatic elites shared. On the other hand, looking at 1964 through the Capitol, we see how the place is used as a reference to a long civic tradition and as a counterpoint to the political establishment. Indeed, the Capitol also represents a place of the people, as in the many attempts of the civic power of the city of Rome to counter the hegemony of the Papacy. This also illuminates how already during the first half of the 1960s, community institutions were posing the problem of their anchorage and legitimacy beyond the inner circle of diplomacy and international politics. The evening rally organized in 1964 at the Capitoline Hill was intended to emphasize the link between the European Community and the “Europe of the peoples.”

Looking at several moments in the history of integration through a specific place, it is possible to see how European integration reorients and reconstitutes itself following various themes and needs rather than following a linear and teleological path that proceeds linearly from the Treaties of Rome. Using a specific space as a lens to look at the history of European integration seems a possibly fruitful way to critically and constructively confront the problems posed by teleological and processual narratives. 

Cite this blog post
Editorial Board (2022, April 25). A visit to the exhibition “United Europe and its protagonists”. (De)Constructing Europe. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/oloi

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