Damiano Garofalo’s Political Audiences. A reception history of early Italian television is a history of TV consumption in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s. Its primary sources are audience’s responses to television programmes published in the Communist magazine (Vie Nuove, published under the auspices of the Communist Party of Italy, PCI) and in its Christian-Democrat counterpart (Famiglia Cristiana, linked to the Christian-Democrat Party, DC). Published by Mimesis International, an Italian publishing house that has been expanding to an international readership in English and French, it is the second book of the series “Italian Frame”, overseen by Andrea Minuz and Christian Uva. The book is divided into three chapters: Challenging Modernity, Pioneer Audiences, Awake Audiences, plus an introduction, a conclusion, and a preface by Stephen Gundle (a professor at Warwick University), one of the main experts on Italian culture of the time.

The book starts with a short theoretical introduction and a longer historical and historiographical one, absolutely necessary for an English-speaking readership not familiar with the complex history of post-war Italy: as Garofalo (a historian by education who teaches at La Sapienza in Rome and at the University of Padua 1) has nicely summarised, these years were “a decisive turning point for the political and cultural reconstruction of republican Italy […] it is also possible to trace a deep transformation in the economic and social life of the country.” (p. 25) Television had a huge role at the time: the author goes as far as saying that it “seemed to mediate the passage from tradition to modernity which was implicit in these ‘boom’ times.” (p. 37) Italian television at the time was strongly influenced by American shows, and its first big star, Mike Bongiorno, was Italian-American. As Garofalo signals, however, there were “two fundamentally un-American internal principles at RAI [the national television network]: monopoly and Catholic management.” (p. 40) All the main managerial roles were in fact strongly in the hands of Christian-Democrat figures, while monopoly ended only as late as at the end of the 1970s.

Italian television

Italian farmers watching television in 1954

Most of Garofalo’s book is dedicated to the analysis of letters and comments published in the two weekly publications. It is an enormous work; the author consulted thousands of pages and countless issues of the magazines, and the English-language readership will benefit from Garofalo’s analysis. Why are these specific sources so important? Echoing Stuart Hall, David Morley and Raymond Williams, Garofalo states that “publics negotiated meaning according to their own social, cultural, economic and geographic position.” (p. 17)2. In this light, it becomes clear that these sources are quite appropriate. Conversely, they have certain limits, which the author recognises: first and foremost, that these letters “passed through the filter of the editors of those magazines” (p. 141), rendering therefore only a specific kind of imaginary which the apparatuses of the two parties wanted to convey. I would add another limit, which is that by focusing only on what the magazines of the “two churches” (as the historian Guido Crainz refers to Catholics and Communists in the Italy of the 1950s and 1960s) other schools of thoughts and political tendencies are excluded.

What is it, then, that does emerge from this study? In both publications the issue of Americanisation and the influence of the American way of life in Italian society was very important, but in Famiglia Cristiana it “took second place to the much more decisive fight waged against atheism and communism.” (p. 65) Ethical codes, morality and respect of Christian values remained huge issues, both in early and late viewers’ responses in Famiglia Cristiana, while the Communist readers often criticised the open or tacit pro-Catholic and anti-Communist propaganda found in RAI. But if in content the readers’/viewers’ responses in the two weekly publications were different, in style they were fairly similar (p. 78). We can ask ourselves why, if RAI was solidly in the hands of Christian-Democrats (which was the case until 1975), Catholic audiences had so much to complain about. Garofalo explain this very well, arguing that the managers of state television were trying to propose a mediation between apparently irreconcilable extremes: instruct and educate on the one hand, and entertain on the other hand (p. 125). And naturally, entertainment involved dancers, occasionally showing part of the body and being “too sexy”, and other issues that scandalised some Catholics. Catholic and Communist perspectives agree on another fairly important point: namely, “the social mission of culture and the educative role of television.” (p. 131)

Italian television

Italian film legend Toto on the cover of Communist Party magazine Vie nuove

Quite correctly, the author decides to include comments from intellectuals, critics, and party leaders which were published in Famiglia Cristiana and Vie Nuove. A specific chapter (“Intellectual engagements”) is dedicated to the opinions on television expressed by famous public intellectuals of the time: Cesare Zavattini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ernesto De Martino, and the Pope Pius XII. It may be argued, however, that by isolating these opinions they are treated as something else, instead of being integrated and discussed together with spectators’ responses. Nonetheless, one of the main aims of the book is precisely to highlight how there seems to be a gap between the intellectuals and the spectators. For example, Garofalo states: “The intellectual left occupied itself mainly with maintaining its solid position of power and elite-ness, which was already in clear decline. They followed a political culture with an explicit anti-American prejudice, spurred by the erroneous conviction that anything to do with mass consumption and modernity belonged to the ‘enemy’.” (p. 60) Many pages are dedicated to this issue, which obviously evolved through time, as Paolo Spriano, a PCI historian, noted in 1964 – a period when Communist intellectuals no longer considered TV a barbarity, even though they were the “least prone to becoming consumers of television.” (p. 115) Garofalo himself mentions different voices, like that of Mario Alicata (a PCI leader) who in 1956 pushes party intellectuals to better understand the social and cultural changes of modernity (p. 51). Garofalo sides unequivocally with the spectators, for example when he writes: “in the span of little more than six years, the readers had developed both the consciousness of spectators who could judge the quality of TV broadcasts, and the capacity to evaluate the opinions of the critics themselves, putting them into question. […] Readers began to call attention to the exaggerated distance between the intellectualism of the critics and the tastes of the public, affirming that there was nothing shameful” about watching TV (p. 100). It seems, however, that Garofalo is too hard on PCI intellectuals and leaders. He notes for example that “economic development and the diffusion of mass communication instruments highlighted the failure of the communist philosophy to construct a parallel socialist universe” (p. 49), but it is hard to deny that a socialist universe was indeed created in these years, one which involved daily activities (including watching TV, as the author himself discusses), summer camps, political actions of various kinds, the Case del Popolo (People’s Houses), and a wide range of social and leisure activities. The issue becomes rather why this alternative imaginary, this social universe, did not become hegemonic: was it primarily because of the advent of television and the inability of the Communist leaders to understand this medium (as Garofalo implies) or was it due to a variety of causes, one of these being the advent of television in Italy? Neither mass communication nor capitalism were in fact something natural and inevitable in Italy at the time (or, for that matter, at any time), but they emerged due to specific historical conjunctures.

The intellectuals of the PCI surely failed to understand that the media environment was changing, that people were interested in television and that this new medium should not have been demonised; the Christian-Democrats, on the contrary, were quicker to find out how television could be used and how a meaningful debate could arose around it. Two further reflections could be developed from this point: did the lack of access to power play a role in how the PCI confronted the new media? Garofalo notes only in passing that “the majority of new broadcasters at the time were openly partisan in favour of the Christian-Democrats” (p. 57) and that this could have increased the suspicions of Communists towards television. This does not seem a minor issue in the cultural landscape of cold war Italy, instead it is one of the most important issues, one that is linked to access to centres of power and hegemonic structures in general. Secondly, what were the Catholics’ and Communists’ reactions to other new media in the past century or so? It is clear how, at different time in history, the Italian Catholics were quick to understand the power of new media. This is the case for cinema: Pope Leo XII was filmed as early as in the 1890s, while Garofalo notes that Pius XII was called the “Pope of television” (pp. 32-33), and we can see that today’s pope, Francis I, is extremely active in social networks and makes ample and smart use of mass communication in general.

Italian television

Pope Paul VI watches the moon landing

The relationship between cinema and television is a theme that runs through the entire book, yet it is not one of the main topics of the book, and nor is cinema used as a foil. This is a point of strength: instead of writing yet another volume counterposing the two media, Garofalo focuses on the spectators, i.e. people who were actually involved in the viewing practices of cinema and television. It is important, in fact, to insert TV audiences within the wider evolution of media consumption during this period, a time of decisive evolution in media practices. In this context, Garofalo’s book will prove to be a cornerstone, much like the important research on Italian cinema audiences in the 1950s lead by Daniela Treveri Gennari, Danielle Hipkins, and Catherine O’Rawe.3 Alongside Garofalo’s book, their research can be seen as part of a renewed interest in audiences and in film and television consumption in Italy. In fact, in his introduction, Stephen Gundle notes that it was not too long ago that “the only studies of Italian television were works which explored the history of broadcasting.” (p. 7) Garofalo’s book is a sign that these themes are finally starting to be accepted in the field. But I would extend this to Italian media in general: only recently audiences and a variety of other hitherto ignored or little studies subjects – from popular cinema to ephemeral films, from silent cinema to exhibitions and distribution – have finally been considered. It is in this sense that Garofalo’s book is a fundamental contribution, and one that will be of great interest for people working on audiences in general and not just on Italian film and culture.

Damiano Garofalo, Political audiences: A reception history of early Italian television, Mimesis International, 2016.


  1. Full disclosure: the author of this review and the author of the book under review know each other and have occasionally collaborated on different projects.
  2. More explicitly: “The production of televised discourse almost never assumes a neutral or objective position with regards to the consumers. On the contrary, the interpretation of the message cannot be considered an individual affair” (19). Other important references in Garofalo’s pantheon include Pierre Bourdieu (especially his text Distinction) and Maria Grazia Fanchi, the main Italian expert on audiences.
  3. See http://italiancinemaaudiences.org.