You are currently viewing Sardinia: matter of identity

Sardinia: matter of identity

When we talk about “Identity” and decide to explore this term so completely, although not entering the deep and intricate dynamics that derive from this choice, each semantic aspect of the word intersects with the following nearest, which in turn is chained to the next again and so on. The texture of a canvas thus takes shape, as you move away from the detail and turn to the overall picture, here is that history, geography, architecture, cuisine, language, applied art, nature, uses and customs, form altogether a (dis)uniform unicum, which gives life to a very precise identity. An example? Sardinia and the Sardes , in the inner and outer collective imagination that almost outlines a caricature but also animates the most intimate essence of it.

“Identity” represents, as a sole word, a compendium of themes that touch and address daily and profound nuances of our society and of human life in general, just even by focusing on the sociological aspect of the term only and excluding – but not completely alienating – the psychological and philosophical aspects.
It would be easily convenient limiting the analysis to a single level (be it the architectural one, or the identity of a people, or of a more specific nation) and leaving out all the influences and the most complex plots that are generated with references and substrates: for example between the use of language with its constructions and its lexicon¹, its own customs, in art² and craftsmanship³. However it would also be reductive, since – as it is often the case in small communities – daily reality remains only blunted by influences on different levels, generating a slower absorption of novelties, and lengthening the existence of original cultural characteristics that are rooted simultaneously on several aspects, presenting themselves as overall less varied, more homogeneous and more historical.

An explanatory example of this principle can be considered the comparison between a more historically troubled rural village of the Po Valley, in North Italy, and a correspondent one from Sardinia. It is undeniable that both carry their own specific identity, with traditional, architectural, linguistic aspects, and so on; but a deep analysis would lead us to notice substantial differences in terms of origins, stylistic varieties, and in general innovative stimuli.
If the first is the result of fast, continuous, and multiple conquests or administrations, the second is, instead, less varied, more homogeneous, and repetitive; precisely because it is the result of less upheaval, and less innovative will that have introduced new canons.
But what does come from this? Surely, there can be no other than consequences on the identity aspect and on the perception of what is recognized as its own identity itself.
We can, once again, speak of Sardinia as an example of identity that lives, resists, and remains today, with modifications and changes that have been implemented much more mildly than in other contexts. This characteristic, undoubtedly accumulated with other realities of Southern Italy and the most isolated and rural areas of the Alpine mountains, is today emphasized by a great and lively desire for spontaneous self-preservation that, in the case of Sardinia, is also both self-induced and induced from the outside.

The basis of everything that will follow in this short and recapitulatory analysis is certainly bibliographical because this phenomenon of preservative identity has aroused interest from authors and writers. It should be pointed out, in fact, that during the 1980s several entrepreneurial and cultural realities were born with the explicit aim of passing on, telling and making the identity value of Sardinia as more scientific but also more accessible as possible. In fact, it is not possible to talk about Sardinia without consulting the finely curated productions of various publishing houses, cultural associations, and study centres.
In Eighties, the most hectic of contemporary pop culture, after the economic boom of previous decades, a great attention to the narration of Sardinia was placed, starting from the recovery of well-known texts to the discovery of older original productions: it has been a boost in new research and publications.
Following the more limited work done in previous decades, since the Eighties it was possible to spread art, history, linguistics, fiction, and biographies to the general public: originally, they were all texts in limited editions and accessible only to the most stubborn scientific researchers, if not even remained unpublished. It is thanks to publishing houses such as Ilisso, from Nuoro, and Carlo Delfino, from Sassari, and to research and cultural promotion centres such as the “Giuseppe Guiso” Study Centre in Orosei, that this could have been done. An identity, in fact, cannot be based only on a simple oral passing, but needs scripta, and the latter must be as accessible as possible. It will come as a surprise to realise that this concept regarding Sardinia is, uncommonly, very late.

For over a century, scientific attention to Sardinia has been relegated to travellers, from the 18th century onwards – with the arrival of the Piedmontese on the island – who have opened an international channel for a Sardinia with wild flora, covered at 80% of centuries-old woods and fundamentally devoid of advanced technologies.
Suffice it to know that, although in Sardinia there was no lack of the presence of the modern state, local officials still lived with a fundamentally feudal and medieval mentality of society. It was Giuseppe Cossu, for example, the first one – supported by the Savoy government – to deepen his passion for the history of Sardinia and to publish in the second half of the eighteenth century some of the first scientific, geographical, and historical texts about Sardinia⁴. This is a fundamental step because it emphasizes more than ever how Sardinia had been, in the two centuries of Spanish dominion, a very simple colony with little to invest in, if even nothing (exception made for the two large cities at the poles of the island Cagliari and Sassari), including culturally⁵.
Those few who were interested in were moved by a stronger scientific curiosity and personal opportunity more than by a real systematic interest in public accessibility.

It is also essential to consider two milestones to understand what is now considered “Sardinian identity”: first, the gradual discovery of the island and its culture and history thanks to Savoy Royal House and foreign explorers⁶; secondly, the rediscovery of Sardinia in the Republican period, with the need for social and tourist promotion and the arrival of all modern comforts.
Sardinia had been in poverty and low literacy for centuries, always lagging far behind other communities, and what we would consider today a “technological breakthrough” has only happened very late since 1960. It is no coincidence that in 1959 photographer Carlo Bavagnoli and journalist Livio Zanetti published a social reportage on commission of “L’Espresso” magazine and defined Sardinia as the Africa of Italy, in conditions of extreme poverty, poverty and backwardness⁷. This mix of conditions – generated by a strong attachment to religious traditions, lack of great technological and social innovations, an increasingly growing narrative/editorial imagery that presented a stereotypical repetition of the characters observed by outsiders as established realities – has brought Sardinia into an almost completely closed circle that has allowed until more recent times to live an identity of its own, but at the same time induced by external influences, which enhanced its qualities and accentuated its extraordinary interest, which reinforced the preservation of this condition for tourist purposes that, as a result, generated an economic return and so on all over again.
Basically, it is possible to say that colonial poverty and the attention of explorers, have not contributed in any way to the progress of Sardinia, but at the same time they have been milestones of Sardinian identity, firstly almost unaware of existence, then aware of generating attraction and therefore tourism and economic return. It was precisely this last aspect that was fundamental – in all aspects – to the definitive consecration of an identity that led to the self-determination of the Sardinians as a people and as a nation, constitutionally recognized by a special⁸ regional autonomy and a linguistic⁹ minority that contributes greatly to the preservation of this Sardinian common imagination.

Now it is clear that an identity has a thousand facets and breaks down into countless aspects and that no identity theme that will be involved can be fully analysed and satisfied in the specific minimums, analysing the individual cases and the individual exceptions. But this long premise has been necessary to understand how no identity is ever perfectly identified in history, untouched by influences, nor true in its essence per se. Sardinia is certainly no exception: it has absorbed stimuli, customs, and characters, like any people. The most interesting example, just to give an example, is the style and character of the typical costumes, all from Spanish origins, later adapted to local material availability and therefore impoverished. However, seen from the eyes of the 21st century, the Sardinians demonstrate peculiarities, due the few but long-lasting dominations, economic and technological changes, and communicational-political choices such as to expand the times of “evolution”, keeping fixed aspects that in other peninsular locations have been more easily supplanted by new customs and new habits.

It is interesting, in this regard, to start from what, according to some, deeply unites the identity of Sardinians and which, according to them, is what makes it such: the remarkable specificity of the Sardinian language as a primary vehicle of identity recognition¹º. Even in those who do not identify in the minority language (Sardinia) as their mother tongue, inflections and “Sardinianism” (i.e., Sardinian words) in the use of Italian are evident, as the resort to Sardinian idioms to express concepts, verbs, situations – mainly practical or otherwise charged with rhetorical figures and sarcasm – that find, neither by nuance nor by emotional, any rendering or equivalent in Italian. The use of the local language is often necessary to appoint tools and practical actions that do not find a precise correspondent (if not for forced adaptation) in Italian¹¹. Is Sardinian language the true epicentre of being Sardinian at all? Not everyone agrees.
While some authors try to trace the maintenance of Sardinian identity¹² to language and its specificity, others believe, as already said, that a single and exclusive factor that recalls a certain cultural otherness with respect, for example, to Italy, is not enough. This distinction, a sense of diversity from one’s neighbour, is a conflict¹³ on many fronts that do not find collimation or overlap, but – at best – a spirit of coexistence.
The Sardinian language is not a “periphery”, as it is not the only distinguishable element that differentiates Sardinians from other Italian communities. Rather, it is a register of communication at basic level: a glue that constantly recalls the deepest essence of its existence¹⁴. It is precisely to this aspect here, a fundamental part of the Sardinian nationalist feeling (but not necessarily independentist), that we must reconnect all the strands that today, mutually, call each other back, making sure that where there is one, we return the following and then again, the next and so on.

Identità Sardegna - Padiglione Sardo, Torino, 1928

Armando Melis de Villa, Il Padiglione Sardo all’EXPO di Torino nel 1928

Anyone who today, with or without expert eyes, observes – for example – the architecture of Sardinia will find that most urban centres are small and consisting of dense networks of alley. They are fundamentally monotonous, especially in less central areas, in terms of archetypes and formal solutions of buildings¹⁵. If we consciously decide to move away from the centralizing provincial capital cities, we come across villages that take on identical construction typologies, declined in the same spatial, functional, and compositional solutions, although they are not regulated in any way by a common guideline that prescribes or imposes these types of elements¹⁶.
In fact, while recognizing an originality proper of local designers, recurrence of single elements cannot be denied, as they all derive from the typical traditional rural architecture, predominating up to the first half of the twentieth century¹⁷. With the expansion of urban centres and the gradual but continuous separation of autonomous households, the need for new housing has led to the construction of houses that meet the technologies available at the moment and nearby. It therefore happens those entire villages are built mainly in a single material: basalt (Orosei, Galtellì, Dorgali) or grey granite (Orgosolo), pink granite (Siniscola), or even yellow (Gallura)¹⁸.
This predominance of nearest material, even today with a greater accessibility to “distant” products, is reflected in the choices of the finishes of one’s home, or of one’s own shop, or even in urban public furniture. It is no coincidence that for the same reasons of economic opportunity, agricultural and pastoral tools, such as mill grinders, were also made with this criterion. If solid bricks, timber and irregular stone pieces have been the basic material for construction throughout the 19th century , with the 20th century¹⁹ – especially thanks to the timid economic stability achieved during the Fascism decades – it has come to the construction of buildings with stone blocks, always local, but more regular and similar to those that, subsequently, will spread without control: the concrete “blocks” of the 50s.

To these more material-related characteristics, still valid and unknowingly part of the local aesthetic taste, one cannot but add the set of more functional and compositional elements of the houses: large courtyards, whether internal or surrounding the house (adaptation, the latter, of the urban regulations of the last 30 years), verandas, arches, terraces and loggias on the main front, external stairs vaguely or not at all camouflaged, balconies and external objects. These are all contemporary reinterpretations of architectural elements easily found in vintage photos and older poor residential buildings²º still unfallen, where architectural attention was completely cancelled out in favour of extreme functionality.
This is the same imagery that in the Sixties inspired the “Costa Smeralda Style”, made of arcades, earth palette1s and the use of local natural materials. There is, however, the difference between an organic stylistic project, and an uneven set of individual projects, which do not obtain the same qualitative and quantitative response. What matters is to understand the intrinsic inner essence of the architectural element, its origin, and the aprioristic need to have it, “because this is how we must”. It is a mantra the latter that is knowing, albeit timidly, a first disapplication only in recent years, thanks to the strong media and television imagery of contemporary architecture, line cleaning, aesthetic functionality. He is the protagonist of a more refined and quality-conscious mix.
This mixture, thanks to the rediscovery of the historic centres by tourists and the great recovery plans of the historic edifications that the various local administrations are regulating and promoting, is stronger in the renovations of old buildings or more recent ones, where it is possible to relive and savour that typical intimacy that recalls one’s childhood in the grandparent’s house. This step is crucial, because it is the pulsating emotion that animates a third season of rediscovery of Sardinian identity, starting from what surrounds us to stimulate what then happens inside the house.

It is these physical characteristics of the built environment, indeed, that are inextricably linked to habits that remain: staying on the door of the house to chat on the street sheltered by a small loggia; stow the food in the cellar, “as my grandmother did, who learned from her grandmother”, taking advantage of that glass bud wrapped in an olive weave strictly handmade by a wise craftsman of the country, cook a typical dessert “the old way” because in the house we have the wood fired brick oven.
Now, the issue of cooking and the presence of wood-burning oven is not a detail. You look at Carasau bread, at other loaves, or at the typical sweets of some areas, still cooked in the inevitable wall element that cannot miss even in the most modern houses. It is built, in taverns, attics, courtyards, often next to the fireplace prepared for roasts. It is a question of feeling satisfied with knowing that I am right, in the necessary, in “I must have it because that is how the ‘ paneddas’ should be cooked”. And because you have the oven, automatically it feels obliged, or you have the pleasure, to retrace the original passages of the recipe, just as your ancestor had taught you in childhood, with the afternoons spent kneading pasta in the ‘scivedda’(i.e. the glazed terracotta container, in other villages called ‘ su tianu’), and then passed into the machine to ‘cariare’, a passage of the manipulation of pasta that does not find specific translation neither in Italian nor in other languages²¹.
As you can guess, the combination of architecture and home life, the latter and culinary art, culinary art and applied art²², is readable as an endless chain that touches on aspects as small as you go along. Here it is that religion, family culture, celebrations and anniversaries, cultural and culinary experiences, carnival masks, traditional costumes, and much more intertwine several times and on different levels sculpting a lifestyle, with its rhythms, its logics, and its timing.
This process is, however, typical of any identity and Sardinia is certainly not a singular case.

There is, therefore, one last final piece of the mosaic: a particularly important aspect that can be taken into analysis to give meaning to this perdurance of cultural values that makes Sardinian resist the novelties, the externality that tries to seize it, to conquer it – once territorially, today culturally. It is the legacy of that Sardinian resistance constant that has been recognized to the Sardinian people since Nuragic timesi²³.
In more recent times, Sardinia has unwittingly slowed down a definitive globalizing flattening for decades entire due to “internal colonialism”²⁴, that is that exploitation without systematic progress by the Central State that for centuries, from the Kingdom of Italy to the Republic, has not brought improvements in Sardinian society. A late arrival of innovations -public electric light only in the late1930s and early 40s, public fontanelle in the 1960s, running water in the 1970s²⁵- allowed a calmer assimilation of new models, making the use of zero-kilometre food, of savings, of “rurality” continue to be the only solutions to move forward, letting the neighbour’s vegetable garden prove more convenient than grocery.
Then came tourism. While Italy’s urban areas developed with the economic boom, the most authentic Sardinia – far from the provincial capitals that we have already identified as exceptions – has awakened a popular tourist destination as if they were the “Caribbean of Italy”²⁶. Then comes the right opportunity to highlight one’s centuries-old tradition, rediscover one’s “Ego” to present it as a new canon of uniqueness.

Sardinian identity, not without gross stereotyping, revives and animates the hearts of new generations who find a new meaning to traditions, a new spirit to costumes, and a new opportunity for usage of the past. The time of rediscovering its misrecoled authors (from Deledda to Satta), and its forgotten artists – famous abroad but ignored in native land such as Costantino Nivola.
It’s the ‘70s: television for everyone, state jobs, economic well-being. Industrial tools are spreading, local handmade ones are being abandoned. But there is also a new awareness. Here the curiosity of tourists pushes Sardinians to recover the cultural baggage of their parents, of their grandparents.
The first ethnographic exhibitions organized in small centres take place and a mechanism of preservation is triggered: there is hunger for money, but also hunger for culture, for history. People want to know more: they want to understand more, and they want to “be” something more. Folkloristic groups are born, local museums dedicated to pastoralism arrive. Here comes the specialized publishing we already talked about, driven by the decisive interventions of the Autonomous Region of Sardinia, which at the same time promotes feasts, rites and thematic events. It is a new breath of oxygen that feeds a spirit of counter-globalisation.
This spirit will not be extinguished even in the early 2000s, when although fading, it will be the founding basis of today’s Sardinian identity, the one that is divided between attachment to one’s land and “Sardinian life” even for the economic young emigrants, and the need to make one’s past live so that it can be handed down to posterity, under the curious eyes of tourists, now an essential economic boost, new conquerors of the Island. They are the one who have nurtured and ventured, required a Sardinian identity that could meet their expectations of folklore, antiquity, uniqueness, entertainment. And the Sardinians, without remorse, take the opportunity to recover their past, and expertly recover a new tradition forgotten a few decades ago and ready to be re-submitted.

Tourists now are the new one to resist to. They must be shown how strong the Sardinian people are and how they do not allow themselves to be influenced. It is a new resistance that continues to leverage the only thing that has not changed over the centuries, the essential value of Sardinian identity: Sardinia itself.

Translated into English by Gabriele Agus.

Cover: Poster Nivola,1966, credits Lisso.

¹ Edited by Paullis G.,Wagner M. L, La lingua sarda. Storia, forma, spirito., ILISSO Edizioni, Reprinted in 1999. (1° original ed., Bern, 1951).
² Arata G.U., Biasi G., Arte Sarda, Milan, Fratelli Treves, 1935.
³ Mossa V., Artigianato Sardo, Sassari, Carlo Delfino Editore, 1983.
⁴ Edited by Zedda Macciò I., Cossu G., Descrizione Geografica dell’isola di Sardegna, Reprinted in 2000, ILISSO (1° original ed., Saggio della geografia della Sardegna, Cagliari, 1799).
⁵ Ruju S., La graduale scoperta della Sardegna.
⁶ In confirmation of this “geographical and social discovery” one can find numerous travel diaries and geographical treatises by foreign and Italian explorers who attempted to fill the editorial void or conduct unpublished reportages: one could cite Alberto La Marmora with Viaggio in Sardegna and Itinerario dell’isola di Sardegna, L’Isola di Sardegna by J.W.Tyndale, La Sardegna e i Sardi by C. Edwardes, just to name a few, but not the only ones, as M. Cabiddu summarizes in La Sardegna vista dagli inglesi, Ed. Archivio Fotografico Sardo, 1982. To these we must add the interest of American National Geographic, particularly struck by this “wild” island in the middle of Europe with articles in 1923 and 1926, and the famous Mare e Sardegna by D. H. Lawrence, original ed. 1921, reprinted in 2012, Ilisso Edizioni.
⁷ Satta G., Novellu S., Carlo Bavagnoli, Sardegna 1959: l’Africa in Casa, Ilisso, 2010.
⁸ Article 116 of the Italian Constitution, flanked by the Statute of the Autonomous Region of Sardinia.
⁹ Article 6 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic.
¹º Bolognesi R., Le identità linguistiche dei Sardi, Condaghes, 2013.
¹¹ Wagner M.L, La Vita Rustica, Edited by Paulis G., ILISSO Edizioni, Reprinted in 1996 (1° original ed., La vita rustica della Sardegna riflessa nella lingua, Bern 1921).
¹² Bolognesi, 2013, op.cit.
¹³ “Conflict,” according to Carl Schmitt, does not represent a war but a contrast between two subjects who have different interests and values.
¹⁴ Bomboi A., L’indipendentismo sardo. Le ragioni, la storia, i protagonisti, Condaghes, 2014.
¹⁵ Agus G., Contesto urbano e storico in Il Museo Guiso di Gregotti, Politecnico di Milano, 2017.
¹⁶ Agus G., Sardegna: un’isola di Compromessi in AGORÀ magazine n.06, Milan, 2020.
¹⁷ See, in this regard, the texts of Mossa V. : Novecento, stile sardo e così via: problemi di architettura in Sardegna, Sassari, Il Rosello, 1946 e Architettura quotidiana, Sassari, Edizioni di Ichnusa, 1961.
¹⁸ Regione Autonoma della Sardegna, Manuali di recupero dei centri storici della Sardegna: Architettura in pietra delle Barbagie, dell’Ogliastra, del Nuorese e delle Baronie, a cura di Sanna A., Cuboni F., Cagliari 2009.
¹⁹ Regione Autonoma della Sardegna, Manuali di recupero dei centri storici della Sardegna: Manuale tematico della Terra Cruda, Edited by Sanna A., Cuboni F., Cagliari 2009.
²º Mossa V., Architettura Domestica in Sardegna, Edizioni della Zattera, 1957.
²¹ ‘Cariàre’ in the Online Sardinian Dictionary of the Regional Ethnographic Institute of the Region of Sardinia.
²² AA.VV., Arte Sarda. Manufatti della tradizione popolare, Nuoro, Ilisso, 2014.
²³ Edited by Mattone A., Lilliu G., La Costante resistenziale sarda, Ilisso 2002.
²⁴ Bomboi A., 2014, op.cit.
²⁵ A.A.V.V., Mostra etnografica presso Santa Maria del Mare di Orosei, 1° ed. Orosei, 1976.
²⁶ The Neologism is of journalistic origin. Gandini G., Al mare in Sardegna, in Caraibi d’Italia, on, 19 aprile 2016.

  • Articles
Gabriele Agus Author
Born in 1994, he followed his classical studies at Asproni in Nuoro, in 2017 he graduated in Architecture Sciences at the Polytechnic of Milan, and continued with the Specialization in Architecture Built Environment Interior. Since 2016 he has been involved in copywriting and communication for Architecture and Design, thanks to national publications with Corriere Della Sera and Abitare and to a research internship in History of Architecture in the DAStu – Department of Architecture and Urban Studies. He begins to collaborate with various local realities, from advertising to corporate communication and contents creation. In 2019 he founded his own blog “DISAGUS”, joined the collective AGORÀ, and contributed to the Wikipedia pages of Architecture. He has collaborated on the necklaces “Lessons of Architecture and Design” (2016) “Architecture and Urban Interiors” (2017), “The Challenges of Architecture” (2018), and the books of the series “The Great Cities of Architecture” for Solferino Books.
follow me