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By Claudia Quesito

Who are the most famous Italians of the twentieth century? Music, politics, fashion, cinema, literature, science: there are many fields that include world-renowned Italians. Let’s talk about some off-the-beaten-path ones.

First off, proceeding in chronological order, is the milite ignoto (unknown soldier). While the milite ignoto is not any specific Italian, it symbolizes the millions of soldiers who lost their lives in WWI. There is a memorial to the unknown soldier’s in Roma, as well as in many other European cities. Italy also gives a special mention to the so-called Ragazzi del ’99, those young men who, in 1917, were called to serve—in some cases even before actually turning 18.

Moving forward, another symbol of yet another dark moment of the last century: Primo Levi, a Jewish chemist and Holocaust survivor whose literary production—in particular his well-known memoir, Se questo è un uomo—gives us a human, bitter, and poignant recounting of time in Auschwitz.

Two other prominent figures in Italy’s very recent history are Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both Sicilian magistrates fighting the mafia, both assassinated in a bombing organized by the mafia in the same year, 1992, just a few months apart. The two were also close friends, and their lives, careers, integrity, and strength came to symbolize a way to resist the mafia and, in general, corruption and dishonest politics.

To end on a lighter note, let’s open and close the century with two celebrated and often controversial artists: Umberto Boccioni and Maurizio Cattelan. Boccioni was a painter, sculptor, and was among the founders of Futurismo, a revolutionary movement that glorified speed, movement, technology, and modernity—that same modernity that was challenged by the two world wars.

Cattelan is a contemporary artist with no formal art training whose installations and sculptures have often made the news. One of his most provocative works is an 18-karat solid gold toilet which, while installed in a British museum (as a loan from the Guggenheim Museum of New York City), was stolen. Curiously enough, Cattelan was happy to read the news, as he felt like he was finally part of one of his beloved heist movies.

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