Engaging with tragedy: the Italian reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic

Engaging with tragedy: Melpomene, the collective memory and the Italian reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic

In this paper, I will analyse how the Italian reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic is connected to the cultural memory and Melpomene, Muse of tragedy and music.

In particular, the importance of music and sharing, the role of traditions as “pharmakon” (Butler, 2011, 2016) and the comparison with the Spanish flu and with elements of literature show how much culture has been – and still is – fundamental for Italians in overcoming this historical period.

Cultural memory is one of the most powerful tools that people possess to define their own identity, sometimes extracted from the «revitalization of its own history» (Nora, 1989: 15).

Cultural memory studies are interdisciplinary research on human nature, which is why Erll defines it as an “umbrella” area (Erll & Nunning, 2008) that connects various perspectives of study on humans. “Cultural memory” is primarily a collective, social memory belonging to a specific category of persons or an entire people.

Since it is preserved by individuals, it also becomes individual memory and as such can be reworked, but at the same time it is shaped by the cultural context in which one finds oneself, so it is not appropriate to clearly separate the two types of memory (Erll & Nunning, 2008).

Now more than ever, memory has become transnational, thanks to the immediate global spread and the free circulation of information almost everywhere. At this historical moment, which memory is more transnational than that linked to the pandemic?

I now turn to the specific example of the Italian reaction to the pandemic and how it is linked to cultural memory and the figure of Melpomene.


Melpomene is one of the nine muses of Greek mythology, daughters of Zeus, god of power, and Mnemosine, goddess of memory (Guastella, 2018); Melpomene is the Muse of tragedy, trauma and music and for this reason, she can help us interpret the Italian reaction to the contemporary historical situation dominated by the Coronavirus.

Italians, in fact, enlivened the first lockdown period by singing and playing from the balconies traditional or famous Italian songs and even anti-fascist partisan choirs.

This helped remember the union and strength of the Italian people and to share a moment of joy with the neighbours;  the remote musical appointments were set at 6 pm, the time expected daily to look out on the balcony, participate or listen in silence and then applaud.

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The Italian singing from the balconies has created «synchronicity in times of radical spatial separation» (Erll, 2020: 863); the quarantine dictated «new social rhythms» and a need to mark one’s day through daily appointments to make sense of the «repetitive cyclical patterns of temporal experience» (Erll, 2020: 862).

It is no coincidence that during the lockdown Italians often referred to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a well-known work of the country’s literary heritage in which ten young people daily entertained each other during the quarantine due to the plague of the fourteenth century, to mark the days and pass the time.

Here is Melpomene back on the scene: in the Covid-19 pandemic, tragedy meets singing, pain is comforted by music. The collective heritage served as «pharmakon» (Butler, 2011, 2016), as «medicine, cure, remedy and healing» (Butler, 2011: 356).

Instead of going towards a «cultural lethargy» (Fanon, 1963) due to the trauma of the invasion (by Covid-19), Italians remembered the collective heritage, revitalised Italian values ​​such as hospitality and availability and tried to relive a “neighbourhood life” as it once was, made of socialisation and sharing.

All this alleviated discouragement and fear, having a psychologically healing role and being critical in overcoming this «moment of danger» (Levi & Rothberg, 2018). A striking example is the sharing of food, typical of Italian culture, which has led to rather unusual lunches.


The current pandemic has aroused the constant reference to the Spanish flu (1918/1919) as if the present were a «recycled, up-dated past» (Nora, 1989: 16). However, the coronavirus pandemic has the distinction of having been entirely and continuously «recorded on digital media, distributed and shared via social networks» (Erll, 2020: 867).

The photographs of the Covid-19 pandemic were accompanied by those relating to the Spanish flu, referring back to the already known fear of contagion and the need to take precautions, experienced by humanity a hundred years ago.


During the coronavirus pandemic, we saw military tanks carrying coffins, deserted cities, and empty supermarkets as if we were at war. We were forced to change our habits in the face of tragedy, as when in Northern Italy the speed of deaths did not allow funerals to be carried out, upsetting the usual way of dealing with death (Erll, 2020: 868).

Every great historical revision has sought to enlarge the basis for collective memory (Nora, 1989: 9).

For this reason, passing on events through stories and testimonies is fundamental and goes well with cinema and theatre: showing the drama, trauma, resilience of a people and the help given by collective memory and traditions is the way best not to forget.

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In light of this, we can recast the Muse within these contemporary issues. Melpomene, in line with its name which means «celebrate with dance and songs» (Guastella, 2018), today could manage a rehabilitation art centre, in which the theatrical art of acting helps individuals cope with trauma, actively reliving it through acting and exploiting the healing and transformative power of art and narratives.

In this historical moment in which suffering is high and necessary to recover psychological well-being, Melpomene, as a specialist in trauma and artistic forms, would help individuals externalise personal trauma and share it productively with their peers in a co-suffering and co-healing.

From a psychoanalytic and «talking cure» point of view (Freud & Breuer, 1895), in fact, the exposure of the trauma brings the traumatic event into a conscious narrative framework instead of repressing it and in this way it allows us to begin to regain the lost well-being.



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