Country Profile: Italy

Flavia Dalila D’Amico is a scholar and curator in the field of performing arts, who is currently a research fellow at the Department of Planning, Design and Technology of Architecture at the Sapienza University of Rome. Here she looks at the arts and disability sector in Italy, which despite continued associations with community practice, has had some exciting developments over recent years, particularly in the performing arts.

Two male dancers in tracksuits kneel while one brushes over the other
Virgilio Sieni and Giuseppe Comuniello Danza Cieca (Blind Dance). Photograph: Paolo Porto.

When we talk about art and disability in Italy, the first things that spring to mind are community projects that use theatre as a therapeutic tool for disabled people or as a means of social empowerment. Although this is very fertile ground, which has also generated significant artistic processes and artworks over the years, the macro framework in which it is inserted is that of a welfare system in which art is one of the helpful elements in support of and not created by disabled voices. But why is the Italian collective imagination confined to amateur practices in relation to arts and disability?

Funding and legal landscape

The first reason probably lies in the way the legal and funding framework affects the system of the arts in Italy. Public funding makes up most of the financing to the arts in general and especially those dedicated to disabled artists or designed to improve access for audiences. There are regular public call-outs mainly aimed at the ‘care’ of disabled people, rather than at their professionalisation. The result is a series of (important) community experiences that delimit the action of disabled people in a niche within the broader artistic field.

Nevertheless, from a legislative point of view, the full accessibility of disabled people to the working and social world is guaranteed by Law no. 104 (1992) which also provides for the elimination of impediments of an environmental and relational nature related to work. Furthermore, in 2009, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities became a law of the Italian State, guaranteeing them full participation in social life and prohibiting any form of marginalization. However, the duties of the Government and the rights of disabled people still clash with a “charitable and welfare system”.

In my opinion, this happens firstly because there are still few disabled people in leadership and decision making positions, both within and outside the arts. The main decisions are taken by non-disabled people, who probably do not take into account disabled people’s ambitions to professionalise in the arts and cultural sectors.

Secondly, art establishments, schools, academies and higher professional training courses are not always accessible, both in terms of architecture and teaching methods. This is especially true in relation to the performing arts, which require a necessary confrontation with the qualities of any body. Artists with disabilities may need specific training, but that does not mean they must be trained in specialised organisations. More mainstream institutions should provide programmes accessible for all.

Selected organisations

Oriente Occidente in Rovereto is one of the institutions most committed to the professionalisation of disabled artists in Italy. Founded in 1981, it works actively to strengthen the role of contemporary dance in the country, as one of Europe’s leading dance festivals. In 2016, it took part in the Creative Europe project Moving Beyond Inclusion and is one of the core partners of Europe Beyond Access.

Two white male dancers in grey outfits link arms underneath one of the dancer's legs
Feeling Good by Oriente Occidente and Fondazione Nazionale della Danza Aterballetto. Photograph: Alice Vacondio.

Danzabile is an online network that connects artists, trainers, companies and schools that work in the context of inclusion and diversity in Italy. It was born out of Oriente Occidente’s involvement in Moving Beyond Inclusion.

Lenz Rifrazioni is a theatrical company based on the outskirts of Parma, with its own 1,000-square-feet venue. Maria Federica Maestri and Francesco Pititto are Artistic Directors who also curate the Natura Dèi Teatri festival, dedicated to new artistic research. Through the Lenz Foundation they carry out a complex project of contemporary performative and visual creations and integrated laboratory practices aimed at people with ‘mental, intellectual and sensorial disabilities’.

Laboratorio Teatrale Integrato Piero Gabrielli (Integrated Theatre Laboratory Piero Gabrielli) based in Rome, with a 30-year history, is both a theatrical group and an organisation involved in the leading of integrated workshops (especially its flagship ‘Pilot Laboratory’) for young disabled and non-disabled people. Additionally, it provides training courses for teachers and preparatory courses for actors, directors, musicians and stage technicians. Its ‘Little Company’ draws performers from the laboratories who work as paid actors, featuring in the main programme of Teatro di Roma.

A learning disabled man in old fashioned briefs points through a cloud of smoke
A Peepshow for Cinderella, a Teatro Ribalto and Oriente Occidente co-production. Photograph: Vasco Dell’Oro

Teatro Ribalta – Accademia Arte della Diversità (Academy of the Arts of Diversity) is a theatre company based in Bolzano that works mostly with learning-disabled performers, with Anotnio Viganò as Artistic Director. The organisation employs 15 staff, including 10 full-time performers and has its own rehearsal and performance space (70 seats). Since 2010, they have also curated the annual Corpi Eretici (Heretical Bodies) festival, inviting diverse artists and companies to Bolzano.

Factory Compagnia Transadriatica was founded in 2009 by Tonio De Nitto, Paola Leone, Anna Miccolis and Fabio Tinella. It produces performances, participates in international cooperation projects, and leads the integrated workshop Cross The Gap. Since 2016, the company has embarked on integrated shows including Diary of an Ugly Duckling, a dance-theatre piece whose protagonist Francesca De Pasquale is learning-disabled. The production toured internationally and won several awards.

Festival del Silenzio (Festival of Silence), is a project of the dance company Fattoria Vittadini based in Milan, which has a strong interest in access and inclusion. Rita Mazza, a Deaf performer who is fluent in multiple sign languages, is the Festival’s Artistic Director. The Festival offers theatre, dance, visual art and music with the aim of being accessible to people who use either signed or spoken languages. As such, it often features performances by sign-language users and other forms of visual communication.

Balletto Civile is a ‘nomadic collaborative performance group’ directed by Michela Lucenti. Core members are Emanuele Braga, Maurizio Camilli, Emanuela Serra, who contribute to the conception, research, writing, choreography, documentation, and educational demands of the work. Balletto Civile has undertaken a number of integrated collaborative projects and worked regularly with disabled performers.

Selected artists

Despite broader perceptions in Italy, there are many professional disabled artists who in recent decades have overturned the stereotypes and demand to be considered for their aesthetic qualities.

A white woman of short stature kneels on stage stroking her hair
Chiara Bersani Gentle Unicorn. Photograph: Alice Brazzit

Chiara Bersani is an activist, choreographer and performer interested in the political meaning of a body interacting with society. Her first choreographic work, Family Tree, received several national awards. In 2016 she collaborated with choreographer Marco D’Agostin with whom she created The Olympic Games in 2017, co-produced by K3 and Kampnagel (Hamburg) and the European project BeSpectACTive! As a performer she has worked with Marco D’Agostin, Babilonia Teatri (Babylon Theatres), Alessandro Sciarroni, the Madrid-based company La Tristura, the French choreographer Jérôme Bel and the Argentinian director and playwright Rodrigo Garcia.

Aristide Rontini is a choreographer and performer. He began his artistic career with the integrated theatre group La Kengah in Imola where he came into contact with various contemporary theatrical practices. In 2010 he graduated at the Rotterdam Dance Academy. He has worked as a performer in dance, performance and physical theatre created by the likes of Conny Janssen Danst, Micheal Schumacher, Merkx & De Dansers, Georgh Reischl, Candoco Dance Company, Alessandro Carbon, Teatro Della Tosse, Simona Bertozzi, Balletto Civile, Angelica Liddell, La Fura Dels Baus, Carl Olof Berg / Danskompaniet Spinn, Vahan Badalyan and Diego Tortelli. He participated in the European programmes Moving Beyond Inclusion and Impart.

A man of short stature  wearing a mask and colourful costume stands against a wall
Claudio Gaetani, Pinocchio. Photograph: Tasha Vulgara.

Claudio Gaetani is a photographer, filmmaker, actor, writer and scholar in the field of moving images. Besides his academic work at the University of Macerata, he delivers filmmaking workshops and is regularly involved in artistic and cultural events throughout Italy. He began his acting career in the mid-nineties after studying with Giorgio Felicetti and later with Nobel Prize-winning Dario Fo, playing in theatrical shows, commercials and fiction films. He has written and directed the feature film Homeward Bound – Sulla strada di casa (together with Giorgio Cingolani), which was presented at the Crossing Europe Film Festival in Linz.

Giuseppe Comuniello is a blind dancer and choreographer, who was involved in Moving Beyond Inclusion and Europe Beyond Access. Since 2016, he has worked with the association MUVet holding workshops for disabled and non-disabled dancers. He is also collaborating with Emanuel Rosemberg, on the interdisciplinary research project DisAbility on Stage through Zurich University of the Arts.

Alessandro Schiattarella graduated in 2000 from the Rudra Béjart School, Lausanne. During the next 15 years, he worked with several internationally renowned dance companies. His last creations Altrove, Tell me Where it is, Strano and One at a time focus on the theme of disability from an autobiographical, cultural, social and political perspective. Alessandro has been awarded the Cinema Prize of the Choreographic Captures Competition for the video-choreography Mani-Cure (2015).

Alessandro Garzella is a director, writer and researcher interested in the relationship between theatre and madness. He was previously Artistic Director at Sipario Toscana – La Città del Teatro (The City of Theatre) in Cascina, Pisa. Together with Francesca Mainetti, Chiara Pistoia, Emiliana Quilici, Giulia Benetti, Anna Teotti, and Elena Benevento, he created the theatre company ANIMALI CELESTI (Celestial Animals) / civil art theatre. Celestial Animals is an association made up of artists, educators, psychiatric service users and ordinary citizens interested in the values and forms of diversity.

Looking to the future

Despite many gaps, Italy is lately breathing a wind of change. First of all, people with disabilities have begun to assume powerful positions in the art sector. In addition to Alessandro Garzella’s role at The City of Theatre, Chiara Bersani has recently become the Artistic Director of the Spazio Kor theatre in Piedmont, together with Giulia Traversi.

Another important step is the birth of the association Al. Di. Qua. Artist, a newly formed group born during the lockdown of 2020, who act in advocating for the autonomy and rights of disabled artists in Italy, as well as transforming the way disabled people are framed in the mainstream media and public imagination. In December 2020 the group launched their manifesto, which is available here. Having a representative body for the ethical, aesthetic, linguistic, political and architectural issues relating to disability in the arts is certainly the starting point for greater accessibility – both for the institutions involved in the Italian cultural system, and for the creation of new audiences and professional artists. The group is already carrying out a series of round table discussions with the main institutions in the field of performing arts, bringing together the voices of both established and emerging disabled artists from all across Italy, thanks to the support of Oriente Occidente.

A further exciting development is the establishment of the Italian Network Europe Beyond Access 2021-2023, led by Oriente Occidente. Its aim is to become ‘a network of allies aimed at questioning and discussing issues of accessibility and inclusion in the performing arts in order to generate awareness, disseminate knowledge and experiences of good practices, to encourage greater participation and leadership of artists and cultural operators with disabilities.’ The network currently includes 28 performing arts organisations, many in addition to those mentioned earlier in this article.

Whilst all this is still not enough, these are hopeful signs that soon they will be joined by more people. As the American activist, Alice Wong has written: “I grew up seeing very few images that looked like me in books, film, or television. In that absence, how does one realize that something is even missing?” The more disabled people reach leadership positions in the field of culture and society, the more encouraging new conceptions of disability will be visible, raising awareness both for other disabled people and non-disabled people. In turn, this should correct the historic cultural exclusion of disabled people and foster accessibility for every-body.

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