Times of Migration. Riace and the Temporalities of People on the Move

Christine Unrau

In 1998, a boat of Kurdish refugees landed in Riace, a small town at the Ionian coast of Calabria in Southern Italy. Together with a group of volunteers and activists, including the future mayor Domenico Lucano, they refurbished the half-abandoned historical centre of the town. As more and more people arrived, government funds were secured, workshops, stores and an oil mill were opened and the closure of the primary school was prevented. In 2010, film maker Wim Wenders presented his half fictional, half documentary film Il Volo which told the story of Riace and circulated widely. After a period of flourishing, the Riace model suffered serious setbacks. In October 2018, Lucano was arrested on charges of facilitating illegal immigration, as well as a series of offences regarding the management of grants by the Italian Ministry of Interior. These strikes hit the project at a moment when it was already in decline. The 2019 elections brought a crushing defeat for Lucano’s list. However, some refugees are again living in Riace and, together with volunteers, have begun to revive some of the activities of the ‘Riace model’, including the oil mill (Pellegrini De Luca / Russo 2022). Wim Wenders’ Il Volo continues to kindle the hope that another politics of migration is possible (Unrau 2022).

The story of Riace is far from over and 1998 is only one of its multiple beginnings. Some of its protagonists even locate its roots in the mythological journey of Ulysses. Among the many things that could be learned from it, I would like to highlight the importance of different temporal perspectives on migration, for both practices and reflexions. Zooming out of the immediate present of migration can be a complementary and fruitful move for those committed to (more) open borders.

As I would like to illustrate with a view to the case of Riace, widening the temporal horizon is not only a way of realizing our ‘own entanglements in the creation and perpetuation of vulnerabilities and injustice’ (Head 2020: 346). It also allows for a prefigurative politics of migration and re-imaginations of the past (Freistein et al. 2021) that go beyond stories of closed and homogeneous communities. This is all the more important given the growing appeal of far right narratives of closure and reactionary versions of retropia (Baumann 2019).

Prefiguration: Another Riace is Possible

The ‘Riace model’ was especially powerful because it showed that felicitous conviviality between those who had spent their life in Riace and those who arrived as refugees was possible in the here-and-now. This experience was also rendered palpable to a wider audience by the film Il Volo, especially with its choice of the 3D technique, which, according to the director opened ‘a door to fantasy and a door to reality’ (cited in Xilostudios 2010). Wenders explicitly used the term ‘utopia’ in order to characterize what happened in Riace, calling it more truly utopian than the fall of the Berlin wall (cf. Von Mittelstaedt 2010). This interpretation was by no means imposed on Riace from the outside but also used by its protagonists in a way that was reminiscent of  Erik Olin Wright’s idea of ‘real utopias’, which ‘embraces [the] tension between dreams and practice’ (Wright 2010: 6).

The protagonists of the Riace model were eager to show that ‘another Riace is possible’ (as expressed in the name of the list headed by Lucano in preparation for his first candidacy as mayor). Thus, they were engaged in prefigurative politics, a practice of implementing certain political goals on a small scale in order to attest to their feasibility and to pave the way for their realization (Raekstad / Saio Gradin 2019). It is based on the conviction that by anticipating the desired results on a small scale, the respective actors show that what they are aspiring for is actually possible. Practices of prefigurative politics often start from spaces which are regarded as completely different from the outside world, as with certain anarchist experiments, occupied spaces, or (temporary) gatherings such as the World Social Forum. Increasingly, however, we also observe the emergence of what has been termed ‘municipal prefiguration’ (Sörensen 2018), i.e. the phenomenon that municipal administrations decide to use their political power to implement transformative and resistant policies, sometimes in open conflict with national governments and often with a view to transnational cooperation.

Typically, such prefigurative practices are accompanied by works of art, such as film, murals, theater and performance. Thus, experiments with prefigurative politics are often associated with creative and imaginative actions in the narrow sense, which document, promote, and reflect on the respective practices (cf. Graeber 2002: 73). Their importance goes far beyond serving as artistic decoration of prefigurative political projects. Rather, they can be understood as a crucial part of the process: While they make the respective projects known to the wider world, thereby amplifying their impact, they also offer a medium for (self-) interrogation and reflection, as was the case with Wim Wenders’s Il Volo.

Re-imagining the past: Another Riace was always there

Prefiguring future projects in the here-and-now was not the only way in which Riace opened the temporal horizon. Instead, the protagonists of the Riace model embedded their project in a tightly woven story about the past focussing on notions of origin and identity. So in the attempt to establish a new imaginary of felicitous conviviality, a lot of effort was concentrated on the creation of a prehistory which relativizes its novelty.

First of all, Lucano and the members of the Città Futura association insisted on the hypothesis according to which the Ionian coast was precisely where Ulysses went ashore and was welcomed by the Phaeacians (cf. Zavaglia 2018: 26). The fact that Riace once belonged to the Magna Grecia was attested to by a spectacular find: In 1972, two Greek bronzes of naked bearded warriors, cast around the middle of the fifth century B.C. were found in the Mediterranean Sea, right in front of Riace Marina. In the collective process of meaning making the Riace bronzes were fused with two other famous characters associated with the town, namely the ‘Medical Saints’ Cosma and Damian. According to the Christian legends, they were persecuted under Diocletian, and on their flight to the West, brought crucial medical knowledge (cf. Driel/Verkuyten 2019: 7). Since 1669, when the relics of St. Damian were brought to a sanctuary in Riace, the town was associated with the two saints and developed an elaborate cult in their honour.

According to Lucano, the Greek bronzes were found in the seventies is the same spot where the reliquary of the Saints Cosmas and Damian is ritually taken and immersed during the annual processions, and – to come full circle – the same spot again where the first ship of Kurdish refugees arrived in 1998 (cited in Zavaglia 2018 24).

Another, much more recent aspect of the past that is emphasized by those involved in the Riace model regards the story of Calabrians who had to emigrate and newly arrived refugees who also had to leave their homes in order to survive or find better lives. As reiterated by Lucano in an interview that is part of Il Volo, Riace and Calabria in general have a history of immigration and emigration, a fact that is all too visible from the depopulation of many of the historic towns. Many locals agree that a welcoming attitude to the newly arrived is part of the identity of Riace, some even stated in interviews that hospitality was ‘in our DNA’ (cf. Driel/Verkuyten 2019: 6).

The references to Ulysses, the Bronzes, and the Medical Saints form part of an exercise of re-imagining the past (Freistein et al. 2021), i.e. a process by which the past is retroactively imbued with meaning, not least in order to legitimise certain political claims and projects. As the story of the Riace model shows, re-imagining need not be the monopoly of the far right.

Happy beginning, happy end?

I have argued that rooting a different politics of migration in the past and prefiguring future felicitous politics can be strategically helpful and normatively justified. However, this does not mean that any kind of re-narrating the past will do: Some forms may not do justice to the cause of more open borders and some may not do a service to it. One problem that may arise regards the emergence of new essentialisms: For example, in the case of Riace, activists recurred to the myth of Ulysses to state that a welcome culture was ‘flowing through our veins’ and even part of the ‘essence of our people’ (cited in Zavaglia 2018: 103).

Here, the re-narration of the past creates a category of ‘Riacians’, opposed to others, who may not possess this ‘essential hospitality’. Beyond the fact that the historical continuity between Greek antiquity and its mythical prehistory and the present villages of the Ionian coast is somewhat dubious, the new, historically corroborated essentialism also creates political traps: When the project of Riace failed in the midst of allegations of corruption and a general hostility catalysed by a right-wing populist government, the recourse to an alleged ‘essence’ of Riace evaporated: It became clear that people can change their minds and turn their backs against a project of hospitality and conviviality, which also dealt a blow to the prefigurative potential of the project. At the same time, in spite of its problems and shortcomings, the fascination with the Riace model lives on, not least thanks to the film Il Volo, in such a way that it can be not only admired but also emulated elsewhere.

However, this does not mean that Riace is now on its way to a happy end, rooted in a happy beginning in a mythical past. In order to counter progressive parochialism and complement prefigurations of the future, yet another mode of recurring to the past may be necessary, namely memory of those who already died at sea. In fact, the first screening of Il Volo which I attended was organized by Libertà era restarean association based in Monte Sole which is dedicated to connecting ‘memoria e accoglienza’ (Memory and Welcome) [1]: Originally dedicated to the commemoration of the atrocities committed by Nazi troops in Marzabotto and Monte Sole, they started to connect their work on the massacres in Marzabotto and Monte Sole with today’s militarized EU borders. Without equating the two, they affirmed that paying tribute to the massacres of the past should also make us sensitive to today’s sites of dying, used as a deterrent to immigration. Thus, widening the temporal horizon and – carefully connecting the present, past, and future of migration in various ways is not to relativize the urgency of the present moment and the increasing violence of militarized border regimes (Heins in this issue) but to complement it.


[1]  http://www.libertaerarestare.org/


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Driel, Ester / Verkuyten, Maykel (2019): 'Local Identity and the Reception of Refugees: The Example of Riace', in: Identities. Global Studies in Culture and Power, April 2019: 1–19.

Freistein, Katja, Frank Gadinger and Christine Unrau (2021). ‘Struggles for the Past: The Symbolic Politics of Re-Imagination.’ Paper presented at the conference ‘Re-imagining the Past’, June 24th – 25th, 2021, cf. https://www.gcr21.org/research/research-projects/projects-complete/re-imagining-the-past?type=rss.

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About the Author

Christine Unrau is a Research Group Leader at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen. Her research focuses on the nexus of emotions, narratives and politics, especially in the context of migration, humanitarianism and right-wing populism, as well as alter- and anti-globalization movements. Her work has appeared in journals inclucing Sustainable Development, Journal of International Political Theory, Zeitschrift für Politische Theorie and International Political Sociology. 

Contact:  unrau@gcr21.org