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Excerpt: Austrian “Gypsies” in the Italian archives

Paola Trevisan

In the spirit of Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month in June, we invite you to read the following excerpt from “Austrian ‘Gypsies’ in the Italian archives: Historical ethnography on multiple border crossings at the beginning of the twentieth century” by Paola Trevisan.

This article is featured in Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, a part of the Berghahn Open Anthro collection of open-access journals.

Pictured: Chromolithograph entitled Enfants Tsiganes (Autriche) [Gipsy Children, Austria]; published by Garnier, Paris, printed by Testu & Massin, Paris (Public Domain)

Despite the fact that Sinti and Roma are firmly rooted into the European environment (Asséo 1994Piasere 2004), only recently has a new historiographic approach demonstrated the possibility of documenting both territorial ties and forms of circulation in specific geopolitical contexts (About 2018About and Bordigoni 2018Aresu 2019Asséo and Aresu 2014Sutre 2017). It has, therefore, been possible to go beyond generic reconstructions of the history of “Gypsies,”1 who were assumed to have an internal homogeneity and, at the same time, had an innate “otherness” within European society (Asséo 2019). This changing of the paradigm (About and Bordigoni 2018: 19) proceeded in parallel with an increasing interest of anthropologists in archival sources—interrogated from an ethnographic perspective—which have shown themselves to be indispensable for the historical anthropology of the Romani worlds (Tauber and Trevisan, 2019: 3–12). The current work is part of this methodological and epistemological renewal, putting questions of how to analyze the persistence of Romani families through time in the foreground. Based on this premise, it is necessary to ask ourselves what traces have been left in the archives by people who are identified as “Gypsies” by state institutions and how to interpret them from an ethnographic perspective.

My proposal intends to verify whether and how it is possible to read archival documents regarding “Gypsies” giving substance to a historical anthropology of Sinti2 networks starting from a specific territory, such as the Austrian-Italian border at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is a border space par excellence, located between Italian- and German-speaking areas, crossed—from the end of the sixteenth century—by groups of “Gypsies” who traveled along a north-south axis (Iori 2015). As we learn from the ethnographic research of anthropologist Elisabeth Tauber (2014), the last arrival of Sinti families in South Tyrol dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and their descendants still live in the same region. The current research aims to observe the border between the Kingdom of Italy and the Habsburg Tyrol from the Sinti families’ point of view, connecting a normative condition that calls for critical interrogation with the experiences they had with the state apparatus (such as bureaucracy and police control systems).

My hypothesis is that an historical anthropology of Romani networks must be one that correlates questions arising from field work with archival documentation, as proposed by anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff (1992: 3–48). One aim of this work is to understand how categorization, social practices, and daily interaction have given rise to one of the constructions of otherness that have accompanied the history of Europe until now: that of the “Gypsies.” An ethnographic approach to archival documents regarding Sinti and Roma can show how individuals or groups—in specific local contexts and at particular historical moments—had to deal with the category of “Gypsy” and which dynamic of resistance or adaption emerged. A second aim is to investigate how events at a local level can force institutions to reveal strategies, or bring forth contradictions, that otherwise remain hidden. Recently, more attention has been paid to this aspect of the actions of institutions, through research into migration and the policies of control of the nation-state (Fassin 2011Kalir and Schendel 2017).

Following the methodology proposed by Ann Laura Stoler (2002), archives can become a place of ethnographic investigation into the state, and into the taxonomies of which it makes use. As we will see, the Sinti families who lived between Austria and the Kingdom of Italy often found themselves caught in a paradox, in which both states tried to avoid considering them as part of a nation, stating that, as they were itinerant, it was impossible to prove to what nation they belonged. For this reason, the lives of borderland Sinti networks can be reconstructed only with a comprehensive reading of the relation between “Gypsies” and the nation-state by means of an understanding of their negotiation strategies and mobility. The third aim is, therefore, to propose an ethnographic reading of the archival documentation that is able to leave space for the ways in which Sinti families give a meaning to their daily actions in a borderland.

A part of the Berghahn Open Anthro Collection!

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology
Managing and Lead Editor: Luisa Steur, University of Amsterdam
Editor-at-Large: Don Kalb, University of Bergen

Learn more about Berghahn Open Anthro

Featured Series

In the course of the twenty-first century, Europe has become aware that the Roma are its largest minority, with an estimated population of 11 million people. As a result, Romani Studies has emerged as an interdisciplinary field that offers perspectives derived from the humanities and social sciences in the context of state and transnational institutions. Learn more.

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