Poets have seldom had political influence. There were few exceptions to this in the twentieth century. In England, none, except Rudyard Kipling. In America, none at all. In Russia, one might mention Vladimir Mayakowsky. But the outstanding figure in this regard was Italian: a bizarre, hyperactive, and fantastically egotistical writer named Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938), a man hell-bent on turning himself into a living legend, and one who succeeded, though most writers who try it fail.
He had been born in Pescara, on the Adriatic coast, and raised in the Abruzzi, then a brutishly backward part of Italy, with a tiny educated elite and an illiterate, superstitious majority of peasants. This seemed to be the eternal order, and contempt for the masses was to be the mainspring of D’Annunzian politics. His father, Francesco Paolo, was an intelligent, loathsome bully, whose contempt for the underdog was fully inherited by his son. The world, he wrote, was divided into masters and slaves, with nothing in between:
To the superior race, which shall have risen by the pure energy of its will, all shall be permitted; to the lower, nothing or very little. The greatest sum of well-being shall go to the privileged, whose personal nobility will make them worthy of all privileges. The plebeians remain slaves, condemned to suffer.…
All his life, D’Annunzio would be pursued by the specter of his own provincial origins and by that of his piggish father’s sexual opportunism: sex wasn’t real sex unless it was also rape. He married young, but almost as soon as he got to Rome, in 1881, to seek his literary fortune, he dumped his Abruzzese wife in favor of a string of socialites, whores, principesse, and actresses, culminating in his prolonged affairs with the two most famous tragediennes of the day, Sarah Bernhardt and her Italian rival, Eleonora Duse. (The wife would presently commit suicide by jumping from a window.) His bed-hopping was ruthless. There was nothing modest about the transfiguration D’Annunzio expected of his sex life: “The work of the flesh is in me the work of the spirit, and both harmonize to achieve one sole, unique beauty. The most fertile creatrix of beauty in the world is sensuality enlightened by apotheosis.”
D’Annunzio practiced most kinds of writing, with increasing public success. He started publishing his juvenilia—verses and short stories—when he was sixteen; to get publicity for his first book of verses, he sent the newspapers a fake report of his own death in a fall from a horse. He wrote a series of novels, beginning in 1889 with Il piacere (The Child of Pleasure), followed in 1891 by L’innocente (literally “the innocent one,” but appearing in English translation as either The Victim or The Intruder!), Giovanni Episcopo(1892), Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death, 1894), La vergine delle rocce (The Virgin of the Rocks, 1896), and Il fuoco (The Flame of Life, 1900). Most of these were best-sellers in Italy, and some in France, where D’Annunzio had also developed an avid following. He was constantly in trouble with the Italian clergy, building a hypnotic reputation as a decadent and a sex maniac, which did his sales no harm at all. Il fuoco was a roman à clef based on D’Annunzio’s scandalous and hugely publicized love affair with Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt had also prompted him to turn to the theater, with noisy if variable success. His two great dramatic hits, La città morta (The Dead City, 1898) and Francesca da Rimini (1901), were written for her as their tragic heroine.
In addition to the plays, the novels, and several collections of lushly decadent and hortatory verse published around the turn of the century, D’Annunzio collaborated with the composer Claude Debussy on a musical play, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, and even wrote a screenplay for a silent movie based on Salammbo, Gustave Flaubert’s lurid novel about the fall of Carthage. He also has the distinction of being the only poet in history after whom an airport is named—the Gabriele D’Annunzio Airport, in Brescia.
His poems had their moments, but most were of an old-fashioned sort, echoing English writers like Swinburne, Rossetti, and Keats, and tailor-made for the fin-de-siècle fascination with erotic necrophilia:
As from corrupted flesh the over-bold
Young vines in dense luxuriance rankly grow,
And strange weird plants their horrid buds unfold
O’er the foul rotting of a corpse below…
You would hardly guess that such sticky period pieces were written by a contemporary of Pound and Eliot. A little of this stuff went a long way, even in the 1890s, and most of it is so overdone in its theatric “decadence” as to be barely tolerable, even in Italian, a century later. D’Annunzio was addicted to aesthetic posturing; the aesthete-hero of his novels was invariably a projection of himself into the domain of fiction, with all its room for exaggeration. Andrea Sperelli, the protagonist of Il piacere, the novel D’Annunzio published at the age of twenty-six, is the young embodiment of Art for Art’s Sake. “Art! Art!” he sensitively rants to himself.
This was the faithful Lover, ever young, immortal. This was the Fount of pure joy, forbidden to the multitude, conceded to the elect; this was the precious sustenance that made man like a god. Having set his lips to that cup, how could he have drunk at any other?
What moved D’Annunzio into the full Italian limelight was not his writing alone, with its relentless emphasis on self-gratification at any cost to others, but his singular aggression and personal bravery. This included a real understanding of mass media and what they could do for a career. D’Annunzio wrote, and was written about, everywhere: he was the only Italian writer, other than the Futurist Filippo Marinetti, who could make headlines in London and New York as well as Rome or Milan.
Whatever one might say about the qualities of his verse—and some of it, allowing for the conventions of the time, was passably good, although the prose strikes a modern eye as unreadably florid and self-regarding—there is no doubting his ardor and toughness as a man. As soon as World War I broke out, D’Annunzio quit Paris—where he had gone partly in pursuit of Sarah Bernhardt, and partly to escape his growing legion of creditors—and returned to Italy, where he agitated ceaselessly in articles, verses, and speeches for Italy’s entry on the side of the Allies. He believed that war would rehabilitate his country in foreign eyes: that Italian aggression would cancel his homeland’s annoying image as the mother of waiters, tenors, and ice cream vendors. He learned to fly, lost an eye in a landing accident, and reached the climax of his aeronautical career in August 1918, when, with considerable bravery—one should remember that the thing was done in a biplane with an open cockpit and no parachute—he led a squadron of nine fighters from the Eighty-seventh Squadron on a seven-hundred-mile round-trip flight from an airfield near Venice to drop propaganda leaflets on the city of Vienna. The Austrian capital had no anti-aircraft guns, but the volo su Vienna was still a spectacular achievement that cemented the poet’s reputation in Italy as a daredevil, one of the heroes of the early age of Italian aviation.
By the war’s end, D’Annunzio was seen by his own countrymen (and swooning countrywomen) as a modern condottiere, with wings and a Fiat aero-engine instead of a horse. This matched his own opinion of himself: totally without modesty, he was a relentless tuft-hunter, a chaser of awards, citations, and medals for bravery, which he sought (and got) not only from Italy but from other Allied countries as well. He briefly heightened this reputation by actually capturing some territory; D’Annunzio’s nationalist feelings, like those of many Italians, were offended when at the Paris Peace Conference it was proposed that the ethnically Italian northern city of Fiume be handed over to a newly formed political entity, Yugoslavia. He therefore recruited two thousand hard-core nationalist irregulars, Italian citizens of Fiume, and forced the withdrawal of the British and French occupying forces that were in control of the city.
The Italian government, however, refused to accept Fiume and demanded that D’Annunzio and his men surrender. This the poet refused to do. Instead, he declared that Fiume was now an independent state, a sort of Monaco-on-the-Adriatic, ruled and led by himself. He ran it as a military dictatorship, and during this time he invented and put to use a number of devices that were later adopted by Mussolini and the Italian Fascists, ranging from black shirts to forcing dissidents to drink castor oil as a humiliating punishment. Eventually, the Italian government, vacillating, weary of D’Annunzio’s strutting but uncertain what to do about a national poet-hero, set up a naval blockade. Matters grew tenser by the month. At one point, D’Annunzio had Fiume declare war on Italy, one of the more splendid examples of a mouse that roared in modern European history. Fiume even issued postage stamps with his head on them and the motto Hic manebimus—“Here we shall stay.” Finally, at the end of 1920, the Italian government had no choice but to accept the declaration and commence a naval bombardment of Fiume, taking care to inflict as little death and damage as possible.
It was all diplomatically resolved in the end. Fiume, no longer a city-state, remained Yugoslavian and then was absorbed into Croatia (it is now known as Rijeka). D’Annunzio went back to his home on Lake Garda and resumed his literary and erotic careers. He never again went into formal politics, though he campaigned vigorously from the sidelines and behind the scenes. But this activity was somewhat curtailed by injuries after he fell, or was pushed, from a window in 1922. The legacy he left was one of political theater, but it was powerful and became more so when it was taken up by Benito Mussolini. It was D’Annunzio who first made popular the Roman salutes, the black shirts, the speeches from the balcony, the marches and “oceanic” demonstrations that we associate primarily with Il Duce—a title, not incidentally, that the poet wanted to reserve for himself. He was the first writer, one might say, to grasp the relations between crowds and power. This would make him a valuable role model for the young Mussolini after the war. D’Annunzio’s main theater was Rome, where he showed an unfailing gift for stirring up street riots and demonstrations against Italy’s prime minister, the cautiously neutralist Giovanni Giolitti, with inflamed and inflaming speeches about how the time for words had gone, the time for action arrived. This, too, would be noted and copied by Mussolini. Did more cautious souls object to these hot harangues? “Me ne frego,” was D’Annunzio’s response: “I don’t give a toss.” It became one of the nationally popular catch phrases of Fascism.
D’Annunzio was himself not a Fascist. He was close to leading anti-Fascists and, in 1922, was better known to many Italians than Mussolini himself. He had the dirt—which never became fully public, but always threatened to—on the 1924 assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, who had attempted to annul the elections won by Fascism because of their voting irregularities. D’Annunzio was greatly admired by the Fascists for his choreography of demonstrations and crowd scenes. Mussolini begged him to help Fascism, but all he got in reply was a letter reproving him for stealing D’Annunzian ideas.
It was hardly a surprise, therefore, that Mussolini, after he came to power, treated this national icon with kid gloves. If you have a rotten tooth, the Duce explained, you either pull it out or fill it with gold; D’Annunzio had to have the second treatment, for otherwise he might become too dangerous. Mussolini got the king to give D’Annunzio the title of “Principe di Montenevoso,” the Prince of Snowy Mountain, which of course the poet lost no opportunity to flaunt. Mussolini publicly financed a magnificent edition of D’Annunzio’s writings, promoted by the government, on which the poet was paid a 30 percent royalty, earning a million lire a year from 1924 to 1938—a time when a lira was still a lira. And he gave D’Annunzio a villa on Lake Garda, Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, which became a memory palace of D’Annunzian achievement, narcissism, and, above all, kitsch. It can still be visited, and, for its spooky, vulgar intensity, it deserves to be. From the ceiling of a music room is suspended the fragile biplane in which D’Annunzio made his celebrated flight over Vienna, dropping leaflets in the summer of 1918. Its other exhibits include the Puglia, a torpedo cruiser on which D’Annunzio had once patrolled the Dalmatian coast, which was moved intact to dry land, to the cypress gardens overlooking the lake. From time to time, her bow guns used to be fired, in salute to the poet’s genius. They no longer are, because after nearly a century they (like his verses) have run out of ammunition.
In the gloomy and pretentious spaces of the Vittoriale, D’Annunzio conducted the last, rather sordid and perfunctory affairs of his long amatory career. Women were still falling over one another to reach his bed. It never occurred to D’Annunzio that men should not live off women. Bernard Berenson, who knew D’Annunzio somewhat, liked to tell the story of a silver-haired, highly respectable, and immensely rich American woman of advancing years who, seized with the desire to add D’Annunzio to her conquests, let the poet know (through a go-between) that she would pay most generously for a night with him. The poet’s response was to ask, “Is she white all over?”
The D’Annunzian style strongly affected both Futurism and Fascism. Futurism was a culture-bound movement with pretensions to affect everyday life. Its leader was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti—“the caffeine of Europe,” as he liked to style himself. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1876. His father, Enrico, was a successful corporate lawyer who lived with, but never married, his mother, Amalia Grolli. Unlike most of the poets, musicians, and artists in his circle, he was never short of money. For him, private income meant freedom, as it does for most people lucky enough to have one: he never had to swerve from the self-appointed mission of changing the world merely in order to earn a crust, and his attacks on middle-class complacency were made all the bolder by his ownclass security. As the ringmaster of cultural novelty in Europe, he needed to be everywhere—not only Rome, where he and his family kept a large apartment, but Paris, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, Zürich, Berlin, London, and especially Milan, his chosen home. Such mobility cost money, and Marinetti was one of the few modernists—certainly the only Italian one—who had plenty of it.
He had been schooled by Jesuits, which may well have contributed to his sense of confident exception. This was confirmed when his Jesuit teachers expelled him for cultural rowdiness: he had been passing around copies of Zola’s realist novels.
Another factor which seems to have put him at an angle (as one may mildly call it) to middle-class assumptions was his affiliation with Africa, through his Egyptian childhood. Marinetti deeply wanted to be seen as an exotic, and he played it up. “Vulgare Greciae dictum,” Pliny the Elder had written in his Natural History, “Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre”: “It is commonly said by Greeks that something new is always coming out of Africa.” This could well have been Marinetti’s motto, and it explains the frequent references to the prowess of “Negroes” (as he called Africans, in the usage of the day) in his writings. Africans were imagined as tough, energetic, fearless, and never at a loss when it came to surprising and disconcerting Europeans. They were, in that sense, natural avant-gardists, which was how Marinetti saw himself. Unlike Picasso, Matisse, or Derain, he was never influenced by the “primitive” art of Africa. He was a writer and performer, not a painter. It is quite possible, though, that there was a link between the languages and chants of the Dark Continent, as imagined by Marinetti and other intellectuals, and the nonsense onomatopoeia of “words-in-freedom” that was to become an important part of Marinetti’s poetic strategies. Like some other Europeans who wanted to display their difference from the common herd, he liked the bone-in-the-nose, ooga-wooga picture of African savagery.
His father sent him to Paris to study for his baccalauréat, which he got in 1893. Then he came back to Italy and enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Genoa, from which he graduated in 1899. But he was never to practice law. Instead, he lived the life of a young literary flâneur, writing poems, essays, plays, and, with increasing regularity and skill, practicing journalism in Italian and French. More and more, he gravitated toward literary and artistic circles in Rome, Turin, and Milan.
The movement called Futurism was launched with an essay written in French by Marinetti and published, as befitted its international intent, in Paris in 1909. From then on, the production of manifestos was going to be Marinetti’s chief art form: nobody in the European cultural world, except for D’Annunzio, had a stronger instinctive talent for publicity or could excel him at hectoring.
Certain images recur in his work, and in that of his fellow Futurists. They are almost all mechanical, and polemically modern. “The world’s magnificence,” he wrote,
has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
For many people, this is now true. At the very least, it is not difficult, more than a century after this manifesto was written, to find both the sculpture and the machine beautiful, though not in the same way. But in 1909, such sentiments seemed, to cultivated Europeans who read them, blasphemous and almost diabolical—they amounted to a contradiction of the “proper” order of aesthetic experience, because the car was not beautiful at all, whereas the sculpture was nothing but beautiful.
The car, object of what one writer called “autolatry,” was the prime Futurist icon, the emblem, the spectacular object of desire. The only thing that compared to it was the airplane, then (in 1910) in its very early, pioneering stage of development, the Wright brothers having achieved heavier-than-air flight under power in 1903. The airplane of early Futurist dreams was merely a Blériot monoplane, of the kind that had recently made it across the English Channel. Trains and fast motorboats also figured, but they never approached the automobile, whose rapid progress under personal control (or lack of it) seemed to Marinetti and other Futurists to confirm the belief of Henri Bergson (1859–1941), one of their favorite philosophical writers, that reality was in constant flux: car travel presented the driver and passengers with one level of experience rapidly overlapping another, so that the total impression had more to do with collage than with a static view. Consequently, Futurist writing and painting, when it turned to cars, was always highly personal—the “I” is in the driver’s seat—and invariably centered on exhilarated feelings of directional energy and rapid change. Needless to say, this arose at a point in history, around the first decade of the century, when the roads were clear of other cars and that emblem of automotive culture, the traffic jam, did not yet exist. What can it have been like to drive a fast car around an Italian city, at night, in those days before the invention of the traffic light? Marinetti’s first Futurist manifesto tells us his version, in a stream of Mr. Toad–like rantings.
It is 1908. He has been up late into the night with two friends, automaniacs like himself, bloviating about life and culture, when they hear “the famished roar of automobiles.” “ ‘Let’s go!’ I said. ‘Friends, away! Let’s go!…We’re about to see the Centaur’s birth and, soon after, the first flight of Angels!…We must shake the gates of life, test the bolts and hinges.’ ” This kind of rodomontade would rank high on anyone’s list of Invocations That Were Probably Never Invoked (though, with Marinetti, it is hard to be sure): in any case, they are soon down at their cars, the “three snorting beasts, to lay amorous hands on their torrid breasts.” Off they go, vroom-vroom, in a sort of mechano-sexual delirium. “Like young lions we ran after Death.… There was nothing to make us wish for death, unless the wish to be free at last from the weight of our courage!” But, alas, some cyclists appear, blocking the road; and Marinetti and his leonine friends have to avoid them. His car plunges upside down into a ditch, baptizing Marinetti in sacramental filth. “O maternal ditch … Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black breast of my Sudanese nurse.… When I came up … from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!”
There is more, much more, in this vein; no one could accuse Marinetti of terseness. One can have a certain sympathy with the annoyed Italian writer who, when asked if he didn’t agree that Marinetti was a genius, retorted, “No, he’s a phosphorescent cretin,” but in fact he was less than the first but a good deal more than the second. Sometimes he could be perfectly idiotic, as in his call to glorify war, “the world’s only hygiene,” along with militarism, and patriotism; or in his ludicrous exhortations to fill the canals of Venice with the rubble of its demolished palaces. “Let’s Kill the Moonlight” was the title of one of his more famous anti-romantic manifestos. And he positively loathed John Ruskin’s views on art, nature, and (inevitably) Venice. He asked his English audience in a speech at the Lyceum Club in London in 1910:
When, when will you disembarrass yourselves of the lymphatic ideology of that deplorable Ruskin.… With his morbid dream of … rustic life, with his nostalgia for Homeric cheeses and legendary wool-spinners, with his hatred for the machine, steam power, and electricity, that maniac of antique simplicity … still wants to sleep in his cradle and feed himself at the breast of his decrepit old nurse in order to recover his thoughtless infancy.
This must be one of the stupidest diatribes ever launched against Ruskin, but perhaps its defects are ascribable to the limitations of Marinetti’s English. Though he was certainly no feminist, he said he stood for “the semi-equality of man and woman and a lessening of the disproportion in their social rights,” which put him ahead (or semi-ahead) of most Italians. He had an acrid realism, sometimes, which contained some hard nuggets of truth: he wanted to see
Disdain for amore (sentimentality or lechery) produced by the greater freedom and erotic ease of women and by the universal exaggeration of female luxury … Today’s woman loves luxury more than love. A visit to a great dressmaker’s establishment, escorted by a paunchy, gouty banker friend who pays the bills, is a perfect substitute for the most amorous rendezvous with an adored young man. The woman finds all the mystery of love in the selection of an amazing ensemble … which her friends still do not have. Men do not love women who lack luxury. The lover has lost all his prestige.
Sad, perhaps, but indisputable. Marinetti was an enthusiastic womanizer; if you believe his account of adventures among the beauties of Moscow and Saint Petersburg on a Russian lecture tour, he was an irresistible sex god. The preferred attitude of Futurism toward women in general was to see them as primordial forces rather than rational beings. “Let every woman rediscover her own cruelty and violence that makes them turn on the defeated,” exhorted a Futurist manifesto in 1912. “Women, become once more as sublimely unjust as every force of nature!” There were, of course, no woman artists in the band of brothers who enlisted their talents around Marinetti’s peculiar charisma.
As he aged, Marinetti drew closer to the big movement that was developing in Italy: Fascism. Of course, he would not have seen it that way: rather, his view was that the Fascist leaders, including Mussolini himself, drew closer to him, needing the inspiration that only he personally and Futurism in general could provide. In 1918, the political party Marinetti founded, the Partito Politico Futurista, merged with Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento. Mussolini himself did not have strongly partisan views on visual arts other than architecture, but he was certainly not going to echo the psychotic hatred of modernism as a Jewish plot that animated Hitler and his cultural lieutenants. He never showed any interest in importing Nazism’s exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) to Italy, or encouraging his own people to construct and curate an Italian equivalent. The reason was simple: Mussolini, at first, was not anti-Semitic, and in any case (as he put it in 19231), with regard to art, “the State has only one duty: not to undermine art, to provide humane conditions for artists”—in short, to get out of the way. Hitler might loathe Futurism, but how could Mussolini do so? Marinetti succeeded in persuading Mussolini not to import the “Entartete Kunst” show to Italy. He also protested, successfully at first, against the copying of Nazi cultural anti-Semitism by Italian Fascists. As the twenties moved on, Marinetti became more tolerant still: he accepted election to the Italian Academy, tried (but failed) to have Futurism declared the official state art of Italy, took a hand in promoting religious art, and declared that Jesus Christ had been a Futurist—which, given Jesus’ more excited and apocalyptic predictions about the transformation of human life in the world to come, may not have been so far off the mark. And no one could say Marinetti himself did not want to practice what he preached: the man who praised war as the world’s necessary hygiene volunteered (but was not accepted) for active service in World War II, when he was past sixty.
Of the artists associated with the Futurist group and promoted by Marinetti, the most talented were three men: the painters Gino Severini (1883–1966) and Giacomo Balla (1871–1958), and the sculptor-painter Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916).
Along with these, one should probably include a fourth, a musician whose work can no longer be assessed because the special instruments for playing it have long disappeared: Luigi Russolo (1885–1947), who was the spiritual ancestor of such eccentric modernists as the English composer Cornelius Cardew. Russolo’s belief was that nonmusical sounds, as from industry, machines, or traffic, could have as much aesthetic value as traditional sounds made by stringed or wind orchestral instruments; his specialty was constructing what he called intonarumori, “noise machines.” At this first concert, at the Gran Teatro del Verme in Milan in 1914, eighteen of these devices were divided into howlers, cracklers, gurglers, thunderers, hissers, exploders, buzzers, and crumplers. Under a hail of vegetables from the indignant audience, they played three of Russolo’s compositions, including his Convention of Automobiles and Airplanes. Other recitals, evoking an equally gratifying anger, were given in London and Paris. Russolo pronounced himself “satiated” by Beethoven and Wagner; now, he said, “we find far more enjoyment in mentally combining the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages, and bawling crowds than in rehearing, for example, the Eroica or the Pastoral.” Unfortunately, none of Russolo’s noise machines have survived, and we have only the sketchiest idea of what sounds they may have produced.
Gino Severini was the creator of one of the major Futurist icons, the congested, jazzy, frenzied panorama of nocturnal pleasure, Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin (1912). Giacomo Balla, who taught painting to both Severini and Umberto Boccioni, was quite widely recognized as an artist by the time he joined the Futurists, and he gave the movement its most popular image, the disarmingly humorous Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912). This must rank high among the few core-modernist paintings that are good for a laugh and which almost everyone can recognize—the charming vision of a dachshund, tail a-wag and little legs going frenetically, trotting along the pavement at the feet of its owner. The paintings Balla laid most store by, however, were those of a speeding car. Some were very big—Abstract Speed (1913) is fully eight feet wide—and they are suffused with the bellowing romanticism of Marinetti’s first manifesto, full of force lines and violent, dynamic curves.
Such work was greatly indebted to photography. The main inspiration was the work of Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), the French scientist who has the strongest claim to be the father of modern cinema. Eadweard Muybridge, to study the movement of humans and animals, had set up a battery of cameras side by side in order to capture isolated phases of movement as single images. Marey, on the other hand, used film strips so as to capture on one negative the successive movements of a subject seen from a single point of view by one lens which followed its trajectory. This, not Muybridge’s sequences, was the true ancestry of the movie camera.
Boccioni’s is an instructive case, because his best-known (and best) surviving work, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), is a striding sculpture based upon the very one Marinetti thought inferior to a racing car—the ancient Greek Victory of Samothrace.Its flanges and scooped-out hollows obey Boccioni’s conviction that “Sculpture must make objects live by rendering their extensions in space sensible, systematic, and plastic, for no one can imagine that one object ends where another begins.… The pavement can rise up onto our table … while between your house and the other your lamp spins its web of plaster rays.” But it also illustrates the fact that it is very difficult, and for most talents impossible, to create a work of art that is 100 percent new in the way the Futurists prated about novelty. Everything has precedents, and their presence does not reduce the intensity of a work of art. Boccioni made at least a dozen sculptures in the same vein which suggest this kind of interpenetration of object and surrounding space. Old photos suggest they are among his most beautiful and complex works, but nearly all of them were destroyed by rain when they were carelessly left outside after his posthumous retrospective of 1916–17. They instinctively accept what contemporary physicists such as Einstein had come to perceive as the truth, however esoteric it might seem at first: that matter is, ultimately, energy. Part of the sculptor’s task was to find solid form in which this could be symbolized.
Boccioni despised most contemporary sculpture as derivative, dull, and coarse—“a spectacle of barbarism and lumpishness.” But he made exceptions, chiefly for the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858–1928), “who tried,” he argued, “to enlarge the horizon of sculpture by rendering into plastic form the influences of a given environment and the invisible atmospheric links which attach it to the subject.” Unlike more highly regarded sculptors of the time, with passéist influences—Constantin Meunier (Greek), Antoine Bourdelle (Gothic), and Auguste Rodin (Italian Renaissance and especially Michelangelo)—Rosso was “revolutionary, very modern, more profound, and of necessity restricted.” Unfortunately, his attachment to light Impressionist modeling “deprives his art of any mark of universality,” but he is much more than a start toward what Boccioni calls “a sculpture of environment.”
Boccioni was a painter (not “too”), and he struggled to create images of “universal vibration” which took Impressionist light beyond its normal descriptive aims. He learned much about this from the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Signac was especially congenial to the Futurists, because he was an anarchist, a foe of all established orders, hence an ally of Marinetti’s ideas of overthrow and radical change. Some of Boccioni’s paintings, conceived in terms of “divisionism” (as the dot painting that derived from Seurat and Signac was called in Italy), appear to be deliberate illustrations of passages from Marinetti’s Futurist manifestos. “We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals.… ” And there was Boccioni’s Riot at the Galleria (1910), with its jagged confusion of figures struggling under the blinding glare of a café’s glass doors. Boccioni’s masterpiece in this divisionist vein was a canvas of industrial work, The City Rises (1910–11), originally titled Work, inspired by the sight of heavy industrial construction on the outskirts of Milan. The painting is dominated by an enormous red horse, seemingly half dissolved into flakes and smears of light. The blue hitching horn of its harness rises up aggressively to center the composition. The draft horse strains forward against its hauling cables, as do the human workers that it dwarfs, with the kind of exaggerated effort that will become a commonplace in strip cartoons; its point of departure in “fine art” is probably Tintoretto’s Raising of Lazarus in Venice.
Futurist architecture had been imagined, but the only Futurist architect who mattered built nothing. His work survives solely on paper: in the small, beautifully rendered drawings he made for architectural projects that existed in his head but had no commissioning client. Antonio Sant’Elia was born in 1888 and, having bravely volunteered to fight in the war which Marinetti and his friends had exalted as “the world’s only hygiene,” was killed in an Austrian attack at Monfalcone, in northern Italy, in the summer of 1916; he was twenty-eight years old, and his death may be numbered among the culturally unhealable losses of that conflict, along with those of Franz Marc, Umberto Boccioni, August Macke, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilfred Owen, and a host of others whose names can never be known because they died too soon for their talent to have a chance to make a mark.
Even the efforts to commemorate Sant’Elia failed. He was buried in a cemetery which he had designed for his unit, the Arezzo Brigade; it no longer exists, and his grave is lost. The Futurist painter Enrico Prampolini and the chief architect of Fascist high modernism, Giuseppe Terragni, joined to design a monument to him, and to the dead of World War I, in the cemetery at Como. (Terragni’s canonical building, the Casa del Fascio, is also in Como, though after World War II it was shorn of the portrait of Mussolini which adorned its façade.) The monument is based on Sant’Elia’s own designs for larger structures (powerhouses, apartment blocks, and factories), but done at a puny scale, far too small to achieve much impact. For those who have studied Sant’Elia’s original drawings, many of which are only a few inches square, it does not matter; since those structures never existed, these drawings are his monument, and a most effective one.
A lot of ingenuity has been expended, mostly by Italian critics, to dissociate Sant’Elia’s ideas from those of Marinetti, and one can easily understand why: Marinetti’s tolerance for Il Duce, which sometimes approached the level of an intellectual love affair (though a doomed one, in the end), besmirched his postwar reputation and tended to hurt that of his associates. But Sant’Elia was killed before Mussolini’s ideas were even born, and long before Marinetti’s semi-conversion to them took place in the 1930s. Nothing suggests that Sant’Elia harbored the totalitarian ideas of Fascism, or expressed them in his architecture—though the designs were certainly meant for mass use and occupation. If anything, he was a young socialist. (It is still common for some critics, residually enthralled by the promises of radical socialism, to prefer its ideology to that of Fascism—even though the left, when it achieved power, could be and was as brutal to aspirations of freedom as the right.)
What Sant’Elia and Marinetti had in common was an ecstatic sense of the possibilities of the modern city—a mighty switchboard of information, manufacture, and perception, a social turbine hall, humming away, almost without human interference. To look at the multilevel cities Sant’Elia imagined, with their vast stepped skyscrapers, aerial terraces, bridges, and overpasses, is to see the excitement of a supposed future applied to architecture:
We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail; and the Futurist house must be like a gigantic machine.2 The lifts must no longer be hidden away like tapeworms in the niches of stairwells; the stairwells themselves, rendered useless, must be abolished, and the lifts must scale the lengths of the façades like serpents of steel and glass. The house of concrete, glass and steel, stripped of paintings and sculpture, rich only in the innate beauty of its lines and relief, extraordinarily “ugly” in its mechanical simplicity … must soar up on the brink of a tumultuous abyss: the street will no longer lie like a doormat at ground level, but will plunge many stories down into the earth,…linked up for necessary interconnections by metal gangways and swift-moving pavements. The decorative must be abolished.
It is unlikely that even Sant’Elia himself could have said what went on in those buildings, space by space, function by function. They are like the cinematic dreams of Fritz Lang—Metropolis raised to a high level of aesthetic sophistication. But they pack a romantic wallop, as visionary architectural designs can—and there had been nothing as potent, in Italian architecture, since the (equally unbuilt) fantasies of Piranesi. Perhaps, if they had been built, they might not have lasted well. On the other hand, their erosion and decay might not have displeased the Futurists, who liked the idea of temporary architecture anyway, because it accorded with their love of speed and impermanence. They distrusted “massive, voluminous, durable, antiquated and costly materials.” They hoped to see architecture as a “rigid, light and mobile art,” in Umberto Boccioni’s words—although the buildings in Sant’Elia’s drawings often look as solid as Egyptian mastabas. In 1914, Sant’Elia declared in a manifesto3 that “the decorative value of Futurist architecture depends solely on the use and original arrangement of raw or bare or violently colored materials”—and such materials, as one knows from Le Corbusier and his “Brutalist” offspring, get very grotty very quickly. But since they existed only on the utopian space of paper, this could not be put to the test. Their extrusion into the world of built architecture was not foreseen by Sant’Elia, who had long been dead when it happened, and it would undoubtedly have repelled him. The ideas—at least, his ideas for the single building—were taken over and given a glitzy, theatrical form by two American architects in the 1970s and 1980s—Helmut Jahn with his skyscrapers in Chicago, and John Portman, the architect-developer of huge hotels with see-through glass-pod elevators zipping up and down, making a drama (which quite soon gets tedious, even for the tourists in the lobby) of vertical circulation.
Painting, sculpture, poetry, theater, and architecture were not the only arts that attracted Futurist attention. Because Futurism was meant to be all-embracing, a template for the life to come, it should also—Marinetti insisted—embrace food. Food was not “subsidiary.” The Futurist, not to coin a phrase, was what he or she ate. To start with, this required a new use of language, one which was fully Italian and not “corrupted” by linguistic borrowings from elsewhere. What most Italians called a sandwich, for example, became in Futurist-speak a traidue (between-the-two). There would be no more bars; they would be replaced by quisibeves (here-one-drinks), and staffed not by barmen, only mescitori (mixers); what they mixed were not cocktails but polibibite(multiple drinks). If the Futurist wished to hop in his roaring, rampaging, bellowing, farting, prophetic six-cylinder Fiat and take his girl for a spin in the countryside, they would eat not a picnic but a pranzoalsole (meal-in-the-sun).
But Marinetti and (probably to a lesser extent) his brothers in Futurism were not content with mere shifts of vocabulary, which, in any case, never took hold in Italy or anywhere else (much the way not many people are heard ordering “freedom fries” today). They wanted to change the Italian diet by eliminating pastasciutta from it—all forms of macaroni must go and never come back. A more doomed and futile enterprise could scarcely be imagined. Pasta is a sacred food throughout Italy. In Rome there is even a museum of pasta, dedicated to the hundreds of varieties of it, from angel-hair strands to big sheets for timballi of the kind so lovingly described by Giuseppe di Lampedusa in The Leopard, from pinhead-sized semolina pasta to floppy pouches designed to contain ricotta, spinach, or purées of chicken in balsamella. It is the universal democratic food par excellence, as pizza and hamburgers are in America.
The very idea of launching an attack on a substance so bound up with Italy’s self-image must have seemed like a kind of cultural suicide. But Marinetti hated pasta. He thought it made Italians gross, lazy, complacent, stupid, and, worst of all, unfit for combat. The mayor of Naples could and did go on record as saying that the very angels in Heaven ate vermicelli al pomodoro, but that cut no ice with Marinetti. “Since everything in modern civilization tends toward elimination of weight, and increased speed, the cooking of the future must conform to the ends of evolution. The first step will be the elimination of pasta from the diet of Italians.”
His hatred of pasta came from his army service on the Austrian front. “The Futurists who fought at Selo, on the Vertoibizza … are ready to testify that they always ate the most awful pasta, delayed and transformed into a cold, congealed mass by the artillery barrages of the enemy, which separated the orderlies and the cooks from the warriors. Who could have hoped for hot pasta al dente?” Wounded at the Case di Zagora in the May 1917 offensive, he was brought down on a stretcher to Plava, where a soldier cook gave him “a miraculous chicken broth…[although] terrible Austrian shells were crashing down on the battalion kitchen and smashing his stoves. Marinetti had his first doubts then on the suitability of pasta as a food for war.” He had observed that the bombardiers, who were firing their mountain howitzers against the Austrians, never touched the ignoble stuff. Their usual sustenance was “a lump of chocolate smeared with mud and sometimes a horse meat steak, cooked in a frying pan that had been washed out with eau de cologne.” Chocolate, eau de cologne, horse meat: already the elements of Futurist recipes, which depended so heavily on discord, on the flight from traditional harmonies, were assembling as substances of “heroism” in Marinetti’s mind.
In an interview he gave sometime later to an Italian journalist, Marinetti railed against pasta. “Ugh! What piggish stuff, macaroni!”
To get the message across, paintings, prints, photographs, and everything that happens to depict it must vanish from our houses; and publishers must recall their books from the shops to subject them to rigorous censorship, deleting without pity.… In a few months just hearing its name spoken—macaroni, ugh!—people will throw up. The task is colossal. To destroy something only one hand is needed to light the fuse, but to rebuild it [as a cuisine adapted to our times] thousands and thousands of hands are necessary.
Another journalist, writing in the French newspaper Comoedia in the early 1930s, echoed Marinetti by blaming pastasciutta for the “languid sentimentalism” with which “eternal Rome, from Horace to Panzini, has defied the passing of time”:
Today we need to remake the Italian man, for what point is there in having him raise his arm in the Roman salute if he can rest it without effort on his bulging stomach? Modern man must have a flat stomach.… Look at the Negro, look at the Arab. Marinetti’s gastronomic paradox aims at education.
So what would Italians of the future actually eat? “This Futurist cooking of ours,” trumpeted Marinetti, “tuned to high speeds like the motor of a hydroplane, will seem to some trembling traditionalists both mad and dangerous; but its ultimate aim is to create a harmony between man’s palate and his life.… Until now men have fed themselves like ants, rats, cats, or oxen. Now, with the Futurists, the first human way of eating is born.”
Thus the “Aeropainter” Fillia (the pseudonym of the Torinese artist Luigi Colombo) proposed what he termed “Aerofood.” The diner is served from the right with black olives, fennel hearts, and kumquats; to his left, a waiter places a rectangle made of sandpaper, silk, and velvet, which he strokes as he eats, enjoying the contrasts of taste and texture. As he eats, waiters spray the back of his neck with a conprofumo of carnations while, from an unseen source in the kitchen, the violent roar of an aircraft motor (conrumore) and some musical accompaniment by Bach (dismusica) are heard. Thus all the diner’s senses will be mobilized, to ecstasy. Another invention of Fillia’s was a dish called “the Excited Pig”: a crazed phallic pun consisting of a whole salami, skinned, standing erect in a dish containing very hot black espresso mixed with “a good deal of eau de cologne.” A third was titled “Hunting in Heaven.” Slow-poach a hare in spumante mixed with cocoa powder. When the liquid is absorbed, dunk the creature in lemon juice, and serve it in a “copious” salsa verde based on spinach and juniper, decorated with silver pellets suggestive of huntsmen’s shot. The artist Enrico Prampolini, also an Aeropainter, came up with an elaborate proposal for a dish he called “Equator + North Pole.” Poach an “equatorial sea” of golden egg yolks, from which will rise a cone of stiffly whipped egg white; bombard the peak of the cone with slices of black truffle “shaped to look like black airplanes.” This sounds, at least, conventionally edible, unlike the sexual-metaphor dish proposed by the very minor Futurist art critic P. A. Saladin, “ManandWomanatmidnight.” Make a large pool of red zabaglione. Arrange on it a “nice big onion ring,” transfixed by a stalk of candied angelica, and two candied chestnuts, presumably symbolizing the midnight lover’s coglioni.
These dishes, and quite a few others of equal weirdness, appear to have been served at Futurist soirées, in Rome and elsewhere, organized by Marinetti. It is not known how well they were liked, and one may presume that not a few passéists among the invited guests may have sighed for a nice bowl of spaghetti alla Bolognese. Nevertheless, the Futurists briefly had their own restaurant, though it was in Turin: the Santo Palato, or Holy Palate, at 2 Via Vanchiglia. It did not last long, but it served such post-industrial delicacies as “Chickenfiat”—a large fowl, first boiled, then stuffed with steel ball bearings, sewn up and roasted “until the flesh has fully absorbed the flavor of the mild steel balls.” It was served garnished with whipped cream, and preferably handed around by “the woman of the future,” who would be bald and wearing spectacles. Though the Holy Palate was not a commercial success, Marinetti kept it going for a while to make a point. Its supreme dish—which was also served at Futurist dinners in Rome—was called “sculpted meat,” la carne scolpita. This was a large cylindrical rissole of minced roast veal, stuffed with eleven kinds of cooked green vegetables. Something must have stuck it together to prevent slumping (perhaps a very stiff béchamel?), but we are not told what. It stood upright on a plate, supported by a ring of sausages which rested, in turn, on three golden spheres of chicken meat, and was crowned with a layer of honey. It claimed to be “a symbolic representation of the varied landscapes of Italy.”
Just as Futurist efforts to reform the language of food had resulted in substituting lengthy polysyllables for short words, so the food itself had become absurdly elaborate, far beyond the reach of any domestic kitchen, and none too edible in any case. And yet, if one reads its descriptions, it does seem to have something in common with the crazier fantasies of extreme New Cuisine, as practiced by such celebrity cooks as the Catalan Ferran Adrià. Gustatory fantasists like Fillia represented an absurdist revolt against the vernacular food-philosophy of the great normalizers of Italian cuisine, such as Pellegrino Artusi, whose book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well had gone through numberless editions by then and was regarded as the bible of authentic cooking.
One may well ask, what part did the city of Rome play in the development of Italy’s one and only important modern-art movement? In fact, a very important one. To Futurists, it represented the Enemy—historical consciousness, and all that was summed up in the term “passéism,” worship of the past. The Futurists hated the place for its immense authority, its age and continuity, and of course for its beauty, which they were most reluctant to recognize. Of course, to rail against the long achievements of thought, feeling, and technique that were summed up in the monuments of Rome was inevitably to look like a beetle whining about a pyramid: it was going to stay in the way, so get used to it. But they could indulge their fantasies. One Futurist publication ran a drawing of what Piazza di Spagna might look like without such passéist encumbrances as Bernini’s Barcaccia Fountain—in the background, the familiar shapes of Santissima Trinità dei Monti and the obelisk above the familiar three-stage rise of the Spanish Steps; in the foreground, an ugly blank piazza full of electric streetcars and overhead wires. This was supposed to be Progress.
Of all places on earth, Rome was the one where operatically phrased invective against the past sounded tinniest. The Manifesto of Futurist Architecture said its authors (mainly Sant’Elia, with input from Marinetti and probably Boccioni) would “combat and despise” all classical architecture, along with “the embalming, reconstruction, and reproduction of ancient monuments,” all perpendicular and horizontal lines, all cubical and pyramidal forms. That more or less took care of everything from the Etruscans to the Vittorio Emanuele monument—2,500 years out the window. No wonder Marinetti and his allies preferred the industrial cities of the north, Milan and Turin.
If Cola di Rienzo, in the fourteenth century, was the first proletarian to rise to great political power in Rome, then Benito Mussolini in the twentieth century was the last.
The parallels between the two men are irresistible: the humble working-class origins, the force of character and oratorical power, the belief in oneself as the chosen figure of destiny. Cola was obsessed with the belief that the ancient glories of the Roman Empire could be reincarnated in him and revived under his rule. So was Mussolini, on an even more grandiose scale. Both men had strong charisma and called forth surging, weeping extremes of fanatical loyalty from their massed followers.
Both regarded themselves, and were for a time seen by their fellow Italians, as inspired tribunes of the people, although Mussolini (astutely, for his own political purposes) refused to promote the kind of class hostility to the rich and titled that marked Cola’s politics, because that idea reeked of communism and he needed the support of the rich and powerful.
Each had his intellectual allies and supporters: Cola had the (episodic) backing of the greatest of Italy’s humanist writers after Dante himself, Petrarch; and whereas no Italian writer of that stature was at work in the 1920s and ’30s, Mussolini had a mentor and literary figurehead in Gabriele D’Annunzio. Both came to sticky ends: Cola lynched by a mob under the shadow of the Ara Coeli in Rome, Mussolini shot by communist partisans and strung by the heels from the awning of a gas station in Milan. And although there is little doubt that Cola (in his less spiritually exalted moments) was a nicer guy than the ruthless and staggeringly narcissistic Mussolini, the two men incarnated a style of operatic, self-dramatizing populist leadership that still seems peculiarly Italian and, truth to tell, still makes many Italians feel nostalgic.
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was born under the sign of Leo on July 29, 1883, in Dovia di Predappio, a small village in Emilia-Romagna. His father, Alessandro Mussolini, was a blacksmith and a committed anti-clerical socialist. His mother, Rosa Maltoni, was a schoolteacher. He was the eldest of three children. His names bore a heavy load as political emblems: “Benito” after the Mexican radical Benito Juárez, “Amilcare” from an Italian socialist, Amilcare Cipriani, and “Andrea” from another Italian socialist,Andrea Costa. Predappio only figures in Italian popular culture because Mussolini was born there, and various canzoni on the later left stemmed from that:
Se Rosa, illuminata de alma luce,
La notte in cui fu concepito Il Duce,
Avrebbe, in lo fabbro predappiano,
Invece della fica, presentato l’ano,
L’avrebbe preso in culo quella sera
Rosa soltanto, ma non l’Italia intera.
“If Rosa, lit up by divine light/The night The Leader was conceived/There, in the forge at Predappio/Had presented her anus instead of her twat/The one who got it up the ass would be/Just Rosa—not the whole of Italy.”
Young Benito helped his father in the forge; just as there had been nothing false about Adolf Hitler’s claims to have served devotedly and bravely at Ypres, so Mussolini’s frequent accounts of being a son of the working class were quite true. Just as his father was a passionate socialist, so the son was stubbornly rebellious and a sometimes violent delinquent at his priest-run boarding school. One gesture that made him particularly unpopular with the local citizens was to station himself in plain view outside the village church in Predappio and pelt its worshippers with stones as they filed out after morning Mass. He was bright, his grades were good, but because of his surly and easily inflamed temper, he had difficulty finding and keeping work as a schoolteacher when he graduated. In 1902, he moved to Switzerland, with no better luck. His adherence to socialism and his general rowdiness caused him to land briefly in jail, and finally to be deported as an unemployed alien. Back in Italy, he at last fetched up in journalism in 1908, editing the Trento Socialist Party’s newspaper, L’avvenire del lavoratore (The Worker’s Future). Trento was under the control of Austria-Hungary, which did not take an indulgent view of either Mussolini’s anti-clericalism or his choleric attacks on Austrian royalty. Eventually, Mussolini was deported from Trento, back to Italy proper, where he got a writing and editing job with the socialist newspaper Il popolo, followed by another with the more leftist organ Avanti! But, despite his opposition to the war with Austria, Mussolini was called up by the draft in mid-1915. In all he served about nine months under fire in the trenches, until he was severely wounded by an accidental mortar-bomb explosion and, in 1917, invalided out of active service.
It took the Great War to disabuse young Mussolini of his father’s dreams of socialism. This catastrophically divisive conflict, this huge international machine for the production of corpses, had put paid to the ideals of voluntary class cooperation across national boundaries that had suffused the socialism of a previous generation. There would be no peaceful internationale in the bright future. Instead, there would be struggle, unremitting and pitiless, whose result would be the abolition of the idea that class war could or should define society’s shape. “Socialism as a doctrine was already dead,” Mussolini later wrote. “It continued to exist only as a grudge.” What could Italy raise in place of this unrealizable dream? An authoritarian system that would unify the country as ancient Rome had once unified it.
Some of the raw material for such a system already existed in Italy, and in fact had been created by the war. It consisted of the squadristi, or returned soldiers, the army veterans who could be expected to respect Benito Mussolini as a former comrade-in-arms. They had fought on the winning side, that of the Allies against the Germans, but this could not wipe out the sufferings they had undergone, their dislike of those who had opposed the war (which included most socialists), their contempt for noncombatants—still less the feeling that they had been short-changed in the peace. The solidarity of men-at-arms, in an army drawn from all classes of life, far outweighed the socialist rhetoric of class solidarity.
Mussolini started assembling such an elite. For the workers, he promised a minimum wage, more power for industrial labor unions—which was quick to disappear once Mussolini was firmly in the saddle—and more rights for women. For bosses and bankers, who feared the communists and socialists more than any other groups, he offered protection from the Red Menace. This was a shrewd and essential move, since it ensured that he could appeal to them for financial support, just as Hitler could in Germany. The emblem of the party was the ancient Roman fasces, the bundle of rods bound together around an ax that had been carried as a sign of strength and unanimity by the Roman lictors—hence the term fascismo. The strong arm of the party was organized by Dino Grandi, an army veteran whose groups of squadristi, identifiable by their quasi-military camicie nere, black shirts, made them increasingly feared and obeyed throughout the Italian cities and even, by the late 1920s, in country villages. The Fascists refused all alliances with existing parties of the left, and of the right as well. Wisely, they always declared their own uniqueness and independence. They were the terza via, the “third way,” toward national self-sufficiency. Not surprisingly, this group, small at first, swelled into a full-fledged party, the National Fascist Party, within a couple of years, and in 1921 its leader, now known to more and more of his adherents simply as Il Duce, won official standing by being elected to the Chamber of Deputies. In this and the Fascist rule that followed, Mussolini was greatly helped by the man who would become, in effect, his minister of propaganda and chief image-counselor, Giovanni Starace, appointed in December 1931.
Starace was to the Duce what Goebbels was to Hitler, and just as active in terms of inventing a ruling style. It was he who conceived and organized the “oceanic” demonstrations of tens of thousands of Romans in Piazza Venezia, beneath the Duce’s speaking balcony with its hidden podium; he who instituted the “salute to the Duce” at all Fascist meetings, large or small, whether Mussolini was present or not; he who abolished the “insanitary” handshake in favor of the “hygenic,” snap-to rigidity of the arm-out, Roman-based Fascist salute. He even stood at rigid attention, heels clicked together, when speaking to his leader on the phone.
And he made sure that the orchestrated cheers of the crowd were directed only to Mussolini: “One man and one man alone must be allowed to dominate the news every day, and others must take pride in serving him in silence.” Under Starace, uniforms multiplied into a veritable cult; some leading Fascists were required to have ten or even twenty, without a thread of gold braid missing. (This afforded great contrast to British modes of diplomatic dress, which featured the chalkstripe double-breasted suit and the much-ridiculed rolled umbrella à la Chamberlain.) In launching the movement which became known, in 1921, as the National Fascist Party, the Duce hinted privately to socialists that he would support them if they were ready to back his brand of populist dictatorship—a lie, but a welcome one to them. Meanwhile, Mussolini and his men hugely inflated the numbers involved in the 1922 March (or Train Ride) on Rome to 300,000 armed Fascists, of whom, they claimed, three thousand paid for their fervor with their lives. The king was deceptively told that the army was outnumbered by Fascist militiamen and could not possibly defend Rome.
From this point on, there was no stopping either the Duce or Fascism. They took over and reaped all the credit. The 1930s seemed to millions of people, and not just to Fascists, miracle years for the image of Italy in general and Rome in particular. Catalyzed by the sensations of Futurism, Fascism seemed really to have taken off, in all areas. Faster, higher, farther! Italy had the world’s fastest seaplane, the supremely elegant Macchi MC 72. Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic, but the gifted pilot Italo Balbo, a brute in some respects though indisputably a brave and gifted pilot, leading a squadron of nine twin-engine seaplanes, flew it twice, in 1931 and 1933, between the lagoons of Orbetello, north of Rome, and Lake Erie in Illinois. In 1931, Italy launched the world’s fastest transatlantic passenger steamer, the Rex. The prestige of Italian cinema seemed likely (at least to the Italians) to be overtaking that of Hollywood, and in 1932 the first Venice Film Festival was held. In 1934, Italy won the world soccer championship, and the playwright Pirandello, an undoubted Fascist in his idiosyncratic way, was awarded the Nobel Prize. The enormous Italian boxer Primo Carnera, the King Kong of the ring, won the world heavyweight championship by beating the American Jack Sharkey in 1933. (Boxing, one should remember, was then widely rated by Italians even higher than soccer; Mussolini called it an “exquisitely Fascist means of expression.”) Guglielmo Marconi’s inventions in radio and wireless telegraphy were eclipsing those of Thomas Edison. The new models of Italian machinery—both office and domestic—coming off the drawing boards of Necchi and Olivetti were having their impact on a growing world market.
Perhaps none of these events was quite as epochal as the ever-growing Fascist propaganda machine made them out to be, but together they contributed to a sort of collective exaltation, close to national hysteria. Once, there had been England. Then there was America. And now the technological genius of Italy apparently ruled. It was no longer the land of old canvases, moldy domes, and chipped statuary. It was the country of the Future, presided over by a man who was, in Italian eyes, hardly less than a demigod, a modern successor to the ancient Roman god-king Augustus. The most extreme fantasies of Marinetti and the Futurists, thanks to Il Duce, seemed to be coming true in Fascism. It even had a leader who could vaunt his athletic prowess. The newspapers and magazines of Italy were enlivened by photographs of Mussolini and the officers of his Bersaglieri actually jogging, a sight which would not be repeated for another half-century, and in America—though a big difference was that Il Duce jogged in full uniform, wearing riding boots and an officer’s cap, accompanied by brother officers carrying swords and wearing medals gained in the war against the Ethiopians. The Fascists understood media and propaganda, too. Any country that threatened sanctions against Italy for its bellicose policies against Ethiopia, and later Republican Spain, might be ridiculed with such images as a poster of a small naked boy pissing on the word “sanctions.” “Better one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep,” ran a much-cited slogan, but the lion’s day was expected to last forever. “If you eat too much, you’re robbing your country,” proclaimed a poster that showed a slim, determined cop tapping a greedy diner on his shoulder.
A tough, slender, muscular Italy was part and parcel of the new national image promoted by the Abyssinian (also known as the Second Italo-Ethiopian) War. Behind the uniforms, the slogans, and the taste for violence, what did Fascism actually stand for? Was it only another name for social delinquency, as softies and lefties claimed? Mussolini, with some help from his co-author Giovanni Gentile, addressed the question in an entry for the Italian Encyclopedia in 1932. First and foremost, it had to be understood that Fascism was not a pacifist movement, seeking an end to aggression. Quite the opposite. “Fascism … believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace.… War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes.” That was what Marinetti had been writing a quarter-century before: war as race hygiene.
Fascism conceives of the state as absolute, the individual as relative. And so it can have no traffic with the “Liberal State,” which feebly exalts “all useless and possibly harmful freedom.” The meaning and utility of freedom can only be decided by the state, never by the individual citizen. Fascism consecrates the idea of empire. Its growth is “an essential manifestation of vitality, and its opposite a sign of decadence. Peoples which are rising, or rising again after a period of decadence, are always imperialist; and renunciation is a sign of decay and of death.” So it was with Italy, which was rising once more “after many centuries of abasement and foreign servitude.”
If this rhetoric might seem cloudy, one could always try the aging Marinetti’s descants on “Fascist poetry,” written by way of an introduction to a 1937 anthology assembled by a Sicilian bard, Il Duce and Fascism in the Dialect Songs of Italy:
Just as religious poetry, martial poetry, etc., are not resolved in an assiduous exaltation of war or the Church, Fascist poetry is not to be explained as poetry in praise of Fascism. On the contrary … Fascist poetry is that which frames itself in the historical climate created by the Revolution and which means, prefigures, or explains the unifying political, moral, and economic ideas of the Fascist Corporate State, always constructing (or demolishing to construct), never turning back.… Fascist poetry is thus construction, construction of the Fascist spirit, which is realized in the fervor of fecund work, in human acts of salvation, material or spiritual, always altruistic and, whenever possible, universal. It is a poetry which turns against the orgiastic, the dionysiac, the pessimistic, against everything depressing, mortifying, and harmful to the individual as to the collective. It expresses the special state of grace indispensable to the politico-social intuition of the historical moment we are passing through.…
All was now as limpid as the bed of the Tiber.
Fascism’s way forward was the way backward—to an idealized, purified version of ancient Rome, and, equally, because it stood for the Future, it had to have the young, who were the bearers of the Future, on its side. Because it needed to enlist the young, it demanded martyrs and heroes. Fascism was a youth movement, above all else—a fact of which it was not considered proper to remind the young public, in the heady 1960s, with their insane admonitions to trust no one over thirty.
The totalitarian regimes of the last century had young men martyred for their virtuous loyalty to the Cause, like the child saints of earlier Christianity. The Nazis had Horst Wessel, a young Nazi activist supposedly killed by communists and the author of a hugely popular song, that of the Sturmabteilung or Brownshirts, which became Germany’s national anthem: “Die Fahne hoch, die Reihen fest geschlossen,” “Hold high the Flag, tightly close the ranks!” A Nazi-fomented legend had it that Wessel wrote both music and words, but in fact the tune came from a German naval song of World War I. The Stalinists had a repellent teenage ideologue who rose to cult status by denouncing his own father to the secret police for the crimes of disloyalty and deviationism, whereupon the outraged father killed the son; there used to be a bronze statue of this unsavory young martyr in Moscow, but it was torn down after perestroika.
Italian Fascism, which counted so much on its appeal to youth, had its own historical boy hero, too, although not much is known about him. Indeed, there is some doubt whether he actually existed, at least in the form Fascist propaganda gave him. His name was, or was said to be, Giovan Battista Balilla: the last name meant “Little Boy” and was allegedly the nickname of a pre-teen youth named Perasso. Supposedly a Genoese, he met his martyrdom during a revolt against the Habsburg forces that occupied Genoa during the Austrian occupation of 1746—a rising he allegedly started by throwing a rock at some Austrian artillerymen who were struggling to move a cannon stuck in a muddy street.
Many hymns were written by Fascist poetasters to the memory of this semi-legendary child, who came to symbolize Italian victories in World War I, so precious to Fascist hearts, and the future of Fascism itself, so dear to their hopes. He figured in illustrations, on posters, in murals (though of course nobody knew what he looked like, which hardly mattered, since nobody knows what Jesus looked like, either). He was the model for masculine Fascist youth. A typical effusion, which won a bronze medal at the Italian Song Festival of San Giovanni in Rome, in Anno XII, was included in Li Gioielli d’Italia, a collection of verse by the Roman dialect poet Pietro Mastini:
Bocce di rose
E pe la fede
Che sempre brilla
L’avrai da vede
“Mouths of roses/Italian flowers/Spouses of the future/Tomorrow’s mothers/And for the faith/That always shines/You will see before you/So many Balillas!”
This child martyr was rewarded with a special distinction: lots of machinery bore his name. A popular line of low-cost autos—Italian equivalents to the German Volkswagen, though hardly as well engineered—was named after him, and so were several submarines. Mussolini appointed a former ardito, Renato Ricci, to create an Opera Nazionale Balilla, intended to train Italian youth “from a moral and physical point of view,” and Ricci went to England to seek out the founder of the English scouting movement,Robert Baden-Powell, whose ideas were a more peaceable model for this militaristic movement of teenagers. Their essential beliefs were summed up in the “ten commandments” of the Fascist militia:
1. Remember that those fallen for the Revolution and for the Empire go before your columns of march.
2. A comrade is a brother to you: he lives and thinks with you, and you will have him at your side in battle.
3. Italy must be served everywhere, always, with all your means; with work and with blood.
4. The enemy of Fascism is your enemy: give him no quarter.
5. Discipline is the sun of armies; it prepares and illuminates the victory.
6. If you go to attack decisively, victory is already in your grasp.
7. Total and mutual obedience is the legionary’s strength.
8. There are no great or small matters; there is only duty.
9. The Fascist revolution has counted and still counts on the bayonets of its legionaries.
10. Mussolini is always right.
This last phrase, “Il Duce ha sempre ragione,” pervaded all Italy and her African colonies. Painted on walls, chiseled in stone, chalked on blackboards, even laid out in pebbles in school playgrounds by Ethiopian peasants, it was the unvarying leitmotif of Fascism, and the vestiges of it were still to be seen in parts of rural Italy up until the late 1960s.
Because a militarized state must have soldiers, Fascism placed great emphasis on the Italian birthrate. In this, if not in everything else, it found common ground with the Catholic Church, which was stonily opposed to any form of contraception. Each year, one of the many ceremonies under the Duce’s balcony in Piazza Venezia (which had replaced the Capitol as the emblematic center of Italian politics, and where huge “oceanic” demonstrations of loyalty to Mussolini were convened by his minister of propaganda, Starace) was held to honor the country’s ninety-five most prolific mothers, assembled with their squalling offspring. Naturally, this spectacle gave rise to a good deal of chaffing (though actual satire on fecundity was banned): a cartoon in 1930 showed three flustered but resolute fathers racing toward the finish line of a track, each pushing a baby carriage jammed with dozens of infants, all egged on by their wives with cries of “Forza, Napoli!” “Spingi, Milano!” and “Presto, Roma!” Mussolini’s own view was that Italian families should expand to eight, a dozen, or even twenty children: brave cannon fodder for the Empire to come. Each heroically fertile mother was awarded five thousand lire and a medal. Other inducements to enlarging the Italian family were devised and tried, as part of the general Fascist application of military techniques of control to civilian life. Thus, in 1926, the Duce introduced what amounted to a concealed tax on bachelors, by assessing them at a higher tax level than married men with children. Top posts in education and the civil service were also reserved for such married people. Women, on the other hand, were dismissed from state jobs unless they were war widows. Information on birth-control techniques, other than the ever-unreliable coitus interruptus, was banned, though condoms remained on sale, since these reduced the spread of venereal disease. “There are 400 million Germans,” Mussolini declared in a speech on Ascension Day, May 26, 1927, “two hundred million Slavs, and the target for Italians by 1950 is 60 million, over the present 40 million. If we become fewer, gentlemen, we shall not build an empire, we shall become a colony.”
Though he had been born in the provinces, Mussolini when he came to power wished only to imagine himself as a Roman. That had not always been so. Though he never made much of a song and dance about his Predappian origins, unless rhetorical purposes required that he pre-sent himself aggressively as a man of the people, when he was a young socialist Mussolini deplored Rome as “a parasitic city of landladies, shoeshine boys, prostitutes, and bureaucrats.” But quite soon, as the ideas of what was to be Fascism took form in his imagination, so did the necessity of Rome’s rebirth. Previous Roman emperors had been born and raised in distant places like Spain and North Africa, and there was no possible reason for a young man from Predappio not to consider himself as fully Roman as any of his ancient forerunners. Discoursing on architecture to a German journalist named Emil Ludwig in 1932, the Duce observed, “Architecture is the greatest of the arts, for it is the epitome of all the others.” “It is extremely Roman,” Ludwig agreed. “I, likewise,” the Duce exclaimed, “am Roman above all.” The issue of romanità, Romanness, was at the very core of the ideology and self-definition of the Fascist state. Fascism viewed Rome as the center of the world. It had been before; now, in its present and future-bound incarnation, it must be again. “Rome is our point of departure and reference,” Mussolini declared:
It is our symbol and, if you wish, our myth. We dream of a Roman Italy: that is to say, wise, strong, disciplined, and imperial. Much of what was once the immortal spirit of Rome rises again in Fascism: the fasces are Roman; our organization of combat is Roman; our pride and courage are Roman; civis Romanus sum. It is necessary now that tomorrow’s history, the history we fervently wish to create, should not be … a parody of the history of yesterday. The Romans were not only warriors but formidable builders who could challenge their time.
Mussolini thought of himself as a builder, too, mainly and always. The poet Ezra Pound paid tribute to this in 1935: “I don’t believe any estimate of Mussolini will be valid unless it starts from his passion for construction. Treat him as artifex and all the details fall into place. Take him as anything save the artist and you will get muddled with the contradictions.” Il Duce was repelled by the idea of treating Rome just as a museum. It had to show its capacity, not just for commemorating the past, but for continuous life in the present and expansion into the future. Anything less would amount to a silent admission that, in Shakespeare’s words in Julius Caesar, Romans now
Have thews and limbs like to their ancestors;
But woe the while! our fathers’ minds are dead,
And we are governed with our mothers’ spirits.…
Not the least achievement of Fascism, in the face of the hitherto overwhelming power of the Papacy, was its agreement or “concordat” with the Vatican. Benedict XV had already lost an enormous slice of Italy by surrendering the Papal States. Now, after much bargaining with Mussolini, his successor, Pius XI, found his dependencies reduced to an area one-eighth that of Central Park in New York—a mere 108.7 acres, the size of Vatican City. There were, of course, concessions along with that, such as control over Castel Gandolfo and the Lateran, recognition of canon law as binding alongside of the law of the state, an independent post office and radio station, church control of all Catholic marriage, the teaching of Catholic doctrines in state schools, the placing of crucifixes in all classrooms, and financial compensation to the Papacy of 1.75 billion lire. Better still, Mussolini did God’s work (as the Church saw it) in suppressing both Freemasons and communists, sworn enemies of the Church. Pius XI therefore spoke openly (against the advice of his more moderate lieutenant, Cardinal Gasparri) of the Duce as “a man sent by Providence,” and unambiguously told the lower clergy of Italy to encourage their congregations to vote Fascist, which they duly did. This seemed so threatening to the priest-leader of the moderate Catholic Partito Popolare, Don Luigi Sturzo, that he fled to London and remained there.
The most far-reaching of Pius XI’s utterances, however, was not on his relations with Mussolini, though these became thornier as time went by. Nor was it even on the “concordat” or Treaty of 1933, which he signed with Adolf Hitler—an ultimately fruitless deal brokered by Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII. It was his encyclical Casti Connubii (1930), forbidding artificial contraception by married couples on pain of mortal sin. Naturally, this was very much to Mussolini’s taste, but its long-term effect was to drive the hitherto faithful away from the Church.
The reglorification of imperial Rome, and its new linkage to Fascism, required two strategies: excavation and preservation of the ancient past, and the vigorous building of new Fascist structures. Mussolini did not much care about what lay between the ancient and the recent. He was not a friend of medieval, Renaissance, or Baroque building, particularly since, despite his diplomatic overtures, he disliked the Catholic Church.4 Consequently, large amounts of this “intermediary” city would be demolished if there was a likelihood of laying bare some traces of authentic Roman antiquity below them. This happened with his first large site-clearing, that of the Largo Argentina,5 originally part of the southern Campus Martius. A sixteenth-century church, that of San Nicola de’ Cesarini, stood there—but underneath its foundations, archaeologists perceived the ruins of four ancient temples, which dated, they believed, from republican times. Excavation, and the demolition of the church, did indeed disclose these much-battered remains, and in the absence of other evidence about them it was supposed that all four were on the line of the start of most Roman triumphal processions and had been paid for by victorious generals—which ones, it is not known. Nor is it known which gods the temples might have honored. But this association with Roman triumphs, however unclear, naturally would have had great appeal to Il Duce. “I would feel myself dishonored,” he declared, “if I allowed a new structure to rise even one meter here.”
What he particularly despised, for symbolic rather than aesthetic reasons, was the Rome of the Risorgimento, the architecture of the half-century between 1870 and his own accession to power in 1922—except for the Vittorio Emanuele monument, which he saw as politically untouchable, since much depended on amicable relations between Il Duce and the king, Vittorio Emanuele’s son.
Mussolini regarded the nineteenth-century unification of Italy as incomplete at best, and at worst a sham. How could Italy be called “unified” when it was managed by so many local governments, still so hobbled by campanilismo, without the central authority provided by Fascism? He would change all that. Throughout the 1920s and the ’30s, Mussolini drew all the main functions of government together in his personal grasp.
In October 1922, Mussolini and his growing force of National Fascist Party followers staged a coup d’état. They assembled at the Florence railroad station, boarded a train, and got off in Rome, where they headed for the Parliament. This train ride was designated the “March on Rome,” though nobody went on foot. To walk all that way would have been too tiring, sweaty, and protracted. The idea of such a march did not come from Mussolini, either; it was initiated, but never organized, by D’Annunzio, who wanted to start it in Trieste with his own men. Supported by the business class and the military, Mussolini was recognized by King Vittorio Emanuele III, and the weak but elected prime minister, Luigi Facta, was ousted.
Italy now had as its prime minister a bellicose man of the people who nevertheless rejected the idea of class war and had nearly all Italian businessmen, and the aristocracy as well, strongly behind him. A minority of socialists and liberals boycotted Parliament, without effect: the king was afraid of political violence from the squadristi.
Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento became part of Italy’s armed forces, the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (MVSN). They were now untouchable. In 1923, his Acerbo Law turned Italy into a single national constituency; the result was that, in a 1924 election, the Fascists took some 64 percent of the vote. It was after this probably rigged election that socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti tried to have the results thrown out and was murdered by a squadrista named Amerigo Dumini, who did several years’ jail time but ended up being supported for the rest of his life by Mussolini and the Fascist Party. Matteotti’s demise caused some weak protest, but nothing came of it; this spelled the end of opposition to Mussolini, and the beginning of his absolute control over Italy. Throughout the rest of the 1920s, Mussolini devoted himself to creating a police state, with himself in charge of foreign affairs, colonies, defense, corporations, and internal order.
Naturally, he took personal charge of cultural censorship, vetting up to 1,500 plays a year (or so his staff claimed, though it seems hardly credible given the rest of his agenda); among the banned dramas were Machiavelli’s Mandragola, Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, and Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Nobody but the king could remove him. In 1928, further parliamentary elections were abolished, and all parties other than the Fascists outlawed.
Meanwhile, the Duce began his expansion of Italian power in mare nostrum, “our sea,” the Mediterranean. And, even as he brandished his Roman gladius at Corfu, Albania, the Greek islands, and Libya, Mussolini made enormous and unceasing efforts with Fascist propaganda within Italy.
The great propaganda event of the early thirties was the MRF, or Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista, which took place in Rome on the tenth anniversary of Mussolini’s accession to power, 1932. Its venue was the old 1883 Palazzo delle Esposizioni, which was given a new façade featuring four thirty-meter-high aluminum columns in the form of the fasces, designed by the architects Adalberto Libera and Mario de Renzi. Its theme was how Fascism had united, not divided, the Italian people; how it had prevented class war.
The traditional liberal view is that Fascism was irrevocably opposed to whatever was new or progressive in Italian culture. This became iron doctrine after Italy lost World War II, because most Italians by then wanted only to forget about Il Duce and the miseries of his and Italy’s defeat. “Where there was culture it was not fascist,” wrote the Italian intellectual Norberto Bobbio, “and where there was fascism it was not culture. There never was a fascist culture.” Such a virtuously anti-Fascist view was as perniciously foolish as the cultural doctrines of Fascism itself. Fascism gave hope to millions of people, among whom were a number of artists and architects, who fancied (in the words of the architect Terragni) that it was “the hallmark of the new age.… The harmony which made the Greece of Pericles and the Florence of the Medici great must illuminate the age of Fascism with equal intensity.” Not only was there a Fascist culture; many of the most gifted Italian painters, sculptors, and architects believed wholeheartedly in it and worked devotedly to realize it. Even Giorgio Morandi, the best painter Italy had in the 1930s—and, some would say, the best in the whole twentieth century—sincerely thanked Mussolini for the interest he had taken in his work, of which Il Duce had bought several examples. “It gives me great pleasure to recall His Excellency Benito Mussolini.… The great faith I have had in Fascism from the outset has remained intact even in the darkest and stormiest of days.” This should hardly be taken as a general endorsement of all the Duce’s political actions from the recluse of Bologna, who was indifferent to public life and knew little about politics. True, Morandi never did any official artworks of the kind that Fascism commissioned from the likes of Corrado Cagli, Achille Funi, or Mario Sironi—tablescapes of dusty bottles, however beautiful in themselves, were unlikely to raise consciousness about Italy’s heritage or future. Also among the Italian artists who worked, directly or indirectly, for Il Duce were the sculptors Marino Marini and Lucio Fontana, the painters Giorgio de Chirico, Carlo Carrà, Enrico Prampolini, and Emilio Vedova. The MRF made quite lavish use of some of the best of these. Nobody could say that de Chirico’s classical groups of dream struggle were among his best work—pittura metafisica belonged to the teens of the century and was well in the past—but other artists honored Fascism with convinced and eloquent installations. The architect Terragni, for instance, did the room dedicated to the so-called March on Rome.
But Giorgio de Chirico was the artist most representative of the turmoil of nostalgia kicked up by the modern invocation of imperial Rome, which showed itself most vividly in architecture. He was greatly admired by many Fascists, even did occasional commissions for the Fascist Party, but always indignantly denied that his work had any connection to Fascist ideology. He was also one of the last genuinely influential painters Italy produced in the twentieth century. Though his influence, at least in his later years, fell mainly on other Italians, at the outset it was international, since his work had once been a major factor—some would say a determining one—in the development of Surrealism in Paris.
Giorgio de Chirico was not, by origin, Italian at all, as the French “de” in his name (rather than “di”) indicates. He got quite offended if called “di” Chirico. He was born in 1888, and raised in the town of Volos, Greece, where his father was a railroad planner and engineer. Nevertheless, the most crucial encounters of his early development took place in Paris, and most of his working life was passed in and identified with Rome, where he had a magnificent studio high on the side of the Spanish Steps with an encompassing view of the piazza and its Berninian ship fountain, La Barcaccia, below. (Of all the urban studios that have been inhabited by modern artists, de Chirico’s was perhaps the most enviably sited.) He was truculent about his attachment to Rome. He wanted, he said in his absurdly egotistical memoirs (1962), “to remain and work in Italy and even in Rome. Yes; it is here that I want to stay and work, to work harder than ever, to work better than ever, to work for my glory and your damnation.”
The note of anger was unforced. De Chirico loathed the art world, which he believed had deliberately misunderstood and traduced him for its own gain and self-gratification. He had a bad temper and an inexhaustible supply of grudges. That art world, in his eyes, was synonymous with Paris and its artists, “that group of degenerates, hooligans, childish layabouts, onanists and spineless people who had pompously styled themselves surrealists and also talked about the ‘surrealist revolution.’ ” The Surrealist painters, of course, were the modernists who derived most from de Chirico, who most admired his early work, but, because of their contempt for his later, pseudo-classical work, had become his ferociously rejected and disowned children. Chief among de Chirico’s villains was the Surrealist leader André Breton, “the classic type of pretentious ass and impotent arriviste,” closely followed in vileness and treachery by the poet Paul Éluard, “a colorless and commonplace young man with a crooked nose and a face somewhere between that of an onanist and a mystical cretin.” (If de Chirico disliked you, he never forgave or forgot, and you would know it soon enough.) This pair and their associates in Surrealism (Yves Tanguy, René Magritte, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalì, the Catalan for whom de Chirico cherished an especial contempt and hatred) had all been inspired by the early “metaphysical” paintings he made, up to 1918 or thereabouts, which turned the image of the city (chiefly Ferrara, where he lived from 1915 to 1918, and Turin, whose towers regularly appear in his paintings) into one of the emblematic sites of the modernist imagination. Its elements click into place as de Chirican property as soon as they are named: the piazza, the hard dark shadows, the statue, the train, the mannequin, and of course the arcades.
Many of them are drawn from memories of real places where de Chirico had lived; they are not inventions, and this only adds to their imaginative power. The town of Volos, for instance, was cut through by a railway; hence the recurrent train and its puffs of smoke. But since de Chirico’s father was also a railroad engineer, the train is also a deeply paternal image, and this lends extra meaning to a railway-station painting like The Melancholy of Departure (1914): melancholy because the father-train is leaving, abandoning the young, insecure son to his fears. De Chirico found the epitome of strangeness in classical architecture. It was summed up in the arcade—that receding array of dark arches, that shallow screen. “There is nothing like the enigma of the Arcade, which the Romans invented,” he wrote:
A street, an arch—the sun looks different when it bathes a Roman wall in light. And there is something about it more mysteriously plaintive than in French architecture, and less ferocious, too. The Roman arcade is a fatality. Its voice speaks in riddles filled with a strangely Roman poetry.
De Chirico cited three words “which I would like to be the seal of every work I have produced: namely, Pictor classicus sum”—“I am a classical painter.” The thought was anathema to the Surrealists, who took unrestrained pleasure in attacking de Chirico for his later work, in which he celebrated the classical world and completely shied away from those elements in his style that were called proto-Surrealist. There were no boundaries to Surrealist hostility, and none to the anger with which de Chirico responded to it. Modern art, de Chirico insisted, was now in a state of utter decadence. It had fallen for two reasons. First, it had surrendered to Parisian-style modernism instead of keeping to the real track, which in de Chirico’s belief ran from the Old Masters through the artists who had nourished de Chirico himself, the Northern painters like Arnold Böcklin. “If some day someone institutes a Nobel Prize for provincialism, silliness, xenophobia and masochistic lust for La France Immortelle,” de Chirico wrote, “I am convinced that this prize would be awarded to the Italy of today.”
Second, painting had forgotten its own basic techniques. Other artists might look back to past painters: Picasso to Ingres, Léger to Poussin, and any number of Italian painters to Masaccio, Piero della Francesco, or Lorenzo Lotto. But what de Chirico proposed was not a mere “looking back,” it was a restructuring of art in terms of ancient, now ignored techniques that must somehow be reinvigorated and recovered. And this was not fated to happen, especially not in the terms of gladiator battles and classical façades that came, more and more, to define the subject matter of de Chirico’s later painting.
And there was a further complication. De Chirico refused to believe what was an article of faith among the Surrealists and most other foreign admirers of his work: namely, that he had been a better painter in his youth, and that the so-called pittura metafisicathat he produced up to about 1918 was the real, essential de Chirico, whereas the later work was either cynical self-copying sold as “original,” or obvious pastiches of older forms of art de Chirico admired—Raphael, Titian, and so forth. To make things worse, de Chirico had no inhibitions about selling his later pictures as pre-1918 originals, backdated. Italian art dealers used to say the Maestro’s bed was six feet off the bedroom floor, to hold all the “early work” he kept “discovering” below it. There are, for instance, at least eighteen copies of The Disquieting Muses (1917), all painted by de Chirico between 1945 and 1962.
Large marketing efforts have been made to set late de Chirico on an equal footing with the early work, but so far they have been unsuccessful, as indeed they deserve to be. By far the best painter directly associated with Fascism was Mario Sironi, who after the fall of Mussolini would pay dearly for his favored role in the movement. A leading member of the Novecento group, which had assembled around Mussolini’s art-curating mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, Sironi had rebelled against liberalism, declaring the fine arts to be “a perfect instrument of spiritual government,” and wholeheartedly placing his work at the service of the Fascist revolution. It ought to be “intentionally anti-bourgeois.” Early in his career, just after World War I, Sironi painted dark, harsh landscapes of industrial Milan, which (consciously or not) reflected Mussolini’s early socialist ideas. After Fascism took hold in Italy, Sironi kept stressing that he wanted to be seen as “a militant artist, that is to say, an artist who serves a moral ideal and subordinates his own individuality to the collective cause.” He wished to leave aside the easel picture and devote himself to large-scale murals and installations. A truly Fascist art, he insisted, was a matter of style in which “the autonomous qualities of line, form, and color” manipulated reality into “the medium of political efficacy.… Through style, art will succeed in making a new mark on popular consciousness.” Distinctions between high and low culture must go. Sironi hoped that his style, with its archaic monumentalism of rough-hewn forms and its occasional references to ancient Roman bas-reliefs, would play a part in shaping “the collective will through myth and image,” and this equation of formal order with political order became part of the official ideology of Fascism. This idea of “militant idealism,” strongly espoused by Mussolini’s first minister of education, Giovanni Gentile, became official ideology during Fascism’s first decade, the 1920s and early 1930s.
For the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista, Sironi designed four powerful galleries around Fascist themes. Perhaps the most moving display was the “sacrario dei caduti,” the “holy room of the fallen,” where, in a dim religious light, the names of the Fascist dead were unrolled while a voice murmured, “Presente, presente, presente,” and the party’s anthem, “Giovinezza,” softly played on hidden, ambient speakers.
For the Fascist faithful, this was a guaranteed emotion-jerker. All visitors were taken to it, especially the VIPs: the records of the MRF contain the names of, among others, Franz von Papen, Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring from Germany, Ramsay MacDonald, Austen Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, and Oswald Mosley from England, and the king of Siam. Eden noted in his journal, “I did not find the place congenial and I did not want to be uncivil to my hosts, so I was glad when the embarrassing ordeal was over.” Nevertheless, he felt it was “less dragooning and pervasive than Nazi rule in Germany.” Though it may not have been congenial to foreigners like Eden, it was a smashing popular success with the Italians themselves, particularly since the Fascist authorities organized mass visits to it from all over Italy. These enabled citizens who had never been able to leave outlying hometowns like Grosseto or Acquapendente to get to Rome for the first time. Eventually, some four million visitors came by train and bus to the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista, and its run was extended by two full years.
A central idea about art and its purposes was enshrined by the MRF, and its main promulgator then and afterward was Mario Sironi. Late in 1933, Sironi joined with three other Italian painters, Massimo Campigli, Achille Funi, and Carlo Carrà, to produce a manifesto about the future of art in Italy. “Fascism is a way of life: it is the very life of Italians.” Art must serve the interests of Fascism—but how? Sironi had nothing but contempt for the vacuous propaganda paintings of German National Socialism. He wanted to see a bony, structural art which would nevertheless have the possibility of wide popular appeal. It would do this by reviving Renaissance ambitions: in the tradition of Italian mural painting of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; some revival might take place beyond what was offered by the format of the easel painting. He longed for a collective, community-based art that would unfold on great public walls, under the aegis of the Fascist Party. This would be done in terms of the sober, dark, uningratiating style that Sironi had made so much his own. Its hallmark would be a purposive seriousness, for Sironi had joined with other Fascist-inspired Italian painters, such as Carrà and Funi, in denouncing all that was less than serious and public. Art must speak directly to the Italian people. “We are confident that in Mussolini we have the Man who knows how to value correctly the strength of our world-dominating Art.”
It did not dominate the world—there was little chance of that—but it was certainly not as negligible as anti-Fascist feelings made it seem later. Sironi’s allegiance to Fascism counted badly against him after Italy lost the war and Mussolini’s day ended. Perhaps this was inevitable, but it was certainly not a fair aesthetic judgment. The political beliefs of an artist are no secure basis for judging his, or her, art. What does anyone care, today, about the political convictions of the artists who carved the bulls of Babylon or painted the Madonnas of Siena? It was all very well to deprecate Sironi after the fall of Mussolini for lending his indisputable talents to the promotion of Fascism, but what is one to say of Russian Constructivist artists, like Vladimir Tatlin or El Lissitzky, who wanted to see their work take its role in a national chorus of propaganda-by-monument, whose chief—indeed, only—patron was the new communist state? There was something very unseemly about the pleasure which the party hacks and communist sympathizers of the Italian art world took in Sironi’s fall, and in the zeal with which they trampled on his postwar reputation. Marxism-Leninism, followed by Stalinism, murdered, imprisoned, and exiled millions of Russians, smashed the fragile Russian traditions of free speech, and brought illimitable misery to their country and, later, its satellites. If the political allegiances of an artist like Sironi were to be held against him, what could be said against those of one like Tatlin, who labored to serve the Revolution? The answer, as it emerged after World War II, was: nothing. Radical Russian artists who proclaimed their adherence to the deadly fantasies of the Revolution were unanimously forgiven for having been on the “right” side, the side whose adherents helped destroy Fascism. Indeed, given the dreadful censorship that descended on their work from Stalin, they were exalted by liberal opinion on this side of the Iron Curtain: too much so, given the interests they aspired to serve.
In 1931, Mussolini’s government set forth a master plan for the remaking of Rome. It followed the main lines of a speech Il Duce had made six years before. Its purpose, he announced, was to reveal Rome as a “marvelous” city, “vast, ordered, powerful, as it was in the first Augustan Empire”:
You must continue to liberate the trunk of the great oak from everything that still smothers it. Open up spaces around the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Theater of Marcellus, the Campidoglio, the Pantheon. Everything which has grown up in the centuries of decadence must be swept away. In five years, from Piazza Colonna, across a great area, should be visible the mass of the Pantheon.
The key to Mussolini’s intentions—clarifying the “true” urban meanings of Rome—was to recover what Mussolini took to be the city’s true urban purity: that of the Age of Augustus. By exposing and glorifying what was left of the architecture of the glorious principate, he would present himself as the new Augustus Caesar and show Fascism to be the revival of empire. To emphasize this message, a triumphal avenue, to be called the Via dell’Impero, would link Piazza Venezia—where Mussolini’s state offices and apartments were now installed—to Ostia and the sea. This specially leveled avenue, seven hundred meters long and thirty wide, would be Rome’s parade ground. It was somewhat contradictory, since its creation entailed covering up large tracts of recently excavated imperial Roman fora. But, as the Duce put it, “Rome now has at its center a street truly designed for its great military parades, which until now have been confined to the periphery or the countryside.”
The “revival” of the Roman Empire was celebrated in popular song:
Tornan colonne ed archi
I ruderi gloriosi, come un giorno.…
Dal Campidoglio, fiera, libera l’ale
L’aquila augusta e bronzea
Della Roma imperiale!
Fremon le vecchie mura
Un osanna levano di ardore:
Risorgi, o Roma eternal,
Torna il littore.
“Columns and arches come back / To the glorious ruins, just as before.… / From the Capitol, the august bronze eagle / Of imperial Rome, proudly spreads her wings.… / They shake, the ancient walls / Of the Colosseum.… / They utter a Hosanna of ardor: / Rise up again, eternal Rome, / The Lictor returns.”
In the north of the city, a giant development of housing, sports arenas, and new roads would grow, to create a gateway to the modern city; it became known as the Foro Mussolini. The southern road to Rome along the Via del Mare would support what was, in essence, a second city, a mass of architectural display, to be known as the EUR, or Esposizione Universale di Roma, which the Duce wanted to open in 1942 with what he called an “Olympics of Civili-zation.” This immense reshaping of the Eternal City would far exceed, in scale, the efforts of any earlier emperors or popes since Augustus’ time. Through it, Rome would “reclaim its Empire,” as a patriotic hymn put it:
Roma revendica l’Impero
L’ora dell’Aquil sono,
Squilli di trombe salutano il vol
Dal Campidoglio al Quirinal,
Terra ti vogliamo dominar!
“Rome reclaims its Empire/The hour of the Eagle has struck/Trumpet blasts salute the flight/From Capitol to Quirinal/Earth, we want to dominate you!”
Many of the new buildings of Fascism were, in essence, quite modernist. They had little to do with the stripped-down Doric, neoclassical manner favored by Hitler through his court architect, Albert Speer. They used curtain walls, floating cantilevers, and other attributes of the so-called International Style, which had gathered momentum in Germany and the United States. Some of them, such as the Casa del Fascio (1932–36) by Giuseppe Terragni in Como, were quite Miesian in spirit.
The most vivid and memorable of the new buildings of Fascism was the so-called Square Colosseum, the severely arcaded multistory building which formed the central motif of EUR. If any building can be called the logo of Fascist architecture, it is this one, in all its polemical purity—the “Palace of Italian Civilization.” It was much hated in the aftermath of the 1939–45 war, but now there are signs that it is enjoying renewed favor as a landmark and period piece, a situation helped by the fact that it carries no bellicose or excessively nationalist inscriptions—the frieze of letters around the flat roofline praised the peaceful achievements of Italian civilization-makers, explorers, artists, scientists, saints, poets, sailors, but not soldiers. Its main architect was Ernesto La Padula (1902–68), who survived the war but never got a chance to design another official building. His collaborators were Giovanni Guerrini and Mario Romano.
The sculptor Aroldo Bellini was charged, in 1934, with the task of making a gigantic portrait sculpture of Il Duce, a hundred meters tall (as high as the lantern of Saint Peter’s), which would completely dominate the city from the skyline. This monster was never finished, though its head was completed. The largest of all Fascist sculptures, it was even expected to house a permanent museum of Fascism.
The grandest Fascist monument, like the grandest monument of ancient Rome, was a road—or, rather, two roads. One was the Via del Mare; the other the Via dell’Impero, linking the Colosseum to the Vittorio Emanuele monument, which became the chief parade-ground for Mussolini and his squadristi. The obvious comparisons that all Mussolini’s town-replanning projects would have to sustain was with Albert Speer’s efforts for Hitler, and nobody would be more conscious of this than the Führer himself, who had met up with the Duce in Venice in 1934 and was scheduled to make a mighty state visit to Rome in the spring of 1938. It was essential for the Duce to cut a bella figura when Hitler arrived, and in February 1938 the dictator made a circuit through Rome to inspect his public works. He started at sites near his political center, Piazza Venezia: Capitoline Hill, the Palatine, the Circus Maximus. He thought with glee of how impressed Hitler would be. He looked with pride at the great expanses swept clear, “formerly suffocated by … hovels and alleys.” At his orders, the previously congested site of the Circus Maximus had been cleared of all its shacks and later buildings: nothing was showing except pure ancient Rome. At the far end of the Circus Maximus stood his new Africa building (now the United Nations’ FAO offices, whose Fascist architectural origins few remember) and the ancient Obelisk of Axum, brought from Ethiopia after his victories there the year before. As he was driven along the new Via dell’Impero, linking central Rome to the sea, he watched the ancient buildings, now cleaned up, roll by: the Theater of Marcellus, the Arch of Janus Quadrifrons, the temples of Vesta and Fortuna Virilis. He thought about how the partly finished Via dell’Impero would soon link Rome’s center with the sea, and with the site of the planned EUR complex, whose opening was scheduled for 1942, the twentieth anniversary of the March on Rome. And already, he reflected, his great capital was filling with Fascist buildings: stadia, schools, post offices, and apartments of every kind. It was enough to warm the cockles of any dictator’s heart, and in fact many of these structures are still in use, though under other names. One of the few masterpieces of rationalist Fascist design, in what was then known as the Foro Mussolini, the 1934 Casa delle Armi or Fencing Academy by Luigi Moretti (1907–73), became a carabinieri barracks and had a short afterlife as the site of the heavily secured maxi-trials of the Red Brigades. The new Fascist Via del Mare was reborn, after the war, as the Via del Teatro di Marcello—despite the obvious wish of Italy to erase Mussolini from collective memory, this name remains on the commemorative obelisk of the Foro Mussolini, now the Foro Italico. The Piazzale dell’Impero is filled with skateboarders today—a use Fascism had never contemplated. It is full of mosaics showing Fascist imagery and slogans: “Many enemies, much honor,” “Duce, we dedicate our youth to you,” and, inevitably, “Better one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.” Mosaics still show the founding of Fascism after 1919, the March on Rome, the Lateran Accords with the Church, and the conquest of Ethiopia. Quite rightly, the postwar authorities of a more democratic Rome have not tried to efface these; instead, others were added after Mussolini’s death to celebrate the fall of Fascism in 1943, the national referendum to abolish monarchy in 1946, and the inauguration of the new Italian Republic in 1948. Some Fascist monuments had already disappeared; several giant heads of the Duce remain in subterranean storage in Rome, and only the head of a colossal bronze statue of Fascism, 150 feet tall, survived long enough to be melted down for scrap; on the other hand, sport being theoretically apolitical, about sixty giant stone athletes in the Stadio dei Marmi at EUR are still standing on their original bases. Via Adolfo Hitler, which still ends at the Ostiense Station, was tactfully renamed the Via delle Cave Ardeatine, in memory of the massacre of anti-Fascists which took place in revenge for the blowing up of a squad of marching Nazis. After the war, the Tiber’s Ponte Littorio was renamed, in honor of the murdered socialist deputy, the Ponte Matteotti.
There was a certain community of language between Nazi and Fascist works of visual art, but in ideology aspects of Fascism differed crucially from Nazism: it is a common mistake to suppose that they were essentially the same because of later political alliances between the two. The main issue was that of race. Hitler, one need not stress, was completely obsessed by his desire to “free” the world of Jews. He saw Jewry as the chief evil in German and world society. Even as the battle for a defeated Berlin was entering its last phase and the Russian shells were thundering down on the Chancellery, Hitler’s thoughts continued to be of the Final Solution.
Mussolini, on the other hand, was no racialist, and anti-Semitism did not enter his politics either in theory or in practice. “Race! It is a feeling, not a reality,” he declared in 1933. “Ninety-five per cent, at least, is a feeling. Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today.… National pride has no need of the delirium of race.” He pointed out that Jews had lived in Italy since the time Rome was founded, which was true but would have been an inconceivable remark for Hitler to make about Germany. The National Fascist Party contained Jews—one of them, Ettore Ovazza, ran a Fascist newspaper, La nostra bandiera, specifically edited to maintain that Italian Jews were patriotic Italians and could continue to be under Fascism. Certainly, Mussolini had political prisons, some of intolerable severity. But they were never designed, as the German concentration camps were, to annihilate whole social groups, whether Jews, or Gypsies, or homosexuals. His squadristi, or Blackshirts, could be and often were brutal to “outsiders” and anti-Fascists, but their violence was not designedly anti-Semitic—although it would be naïve to imagine that there was no anti-Semitism in Italy, or that it did not come out in blows and shouted insults when some wretched opponent of the regime was being forced to drink castor oil mixed with gasoline (a favorite Fascist torture) or to chew up and swallow a living toad.6 A lot of this would change later, as Hitler’s influence over Mussolini increased in the late thirties. In A Manifesto of Race, issued in 1938, Mussolini copied Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, stripping Italian Jews of their citizenship and their access to the professions. But at the beginning, at least, the new Caesar was no more prejudiced against Jews than the old ones had been. Good Fascists could be compared to the Jews, and vice versa, without loss of dignity.
Poets, writing about the March on Rome, frequently and unblushingly compared Mussolini to Moses leading the chosen people into the Promised Land.
Hitler, of course, had other ideas. The comparisons of Mussolini to Moses dropped off sharply after May 1938, when a train containing the Führer and his staff pulled into the Ostiense Station in Rome, bringing Hitler on his state visit. Mussolini’s funzionari had gone to much trouble over Hitler’s arrival. They even saw to it that the last few miles of railroad track into the station were lined, both sides, with a Potemkin village of stage sets facing inward to the train, filled with enthusiastically cheering Romans. This was greeted with a pasquinato which ran:
Roma di travertino
Rifatta di cartone
La sua prossima padrone.
“Rome of travertine/Remade in cardboard/Salutes the housepainter/Its next master.”
The mass media of Italy, which were tightly controlled—one needed a state-issued license to practice as a journalist of any kind, even a fashion reporter, under Mussolini, and he personally appointed all editors—greeted the arrival of the Führer with an automatic ecstasy. A good, though minor, example was a cartoon in whose first panel we see a Nazi officer (no mustache, so he cannot be Hitler himself) throwing a Nazi salute at the Capitoline she-wolf and her two foundling babies, Romulus and Remus. In the second panel, the she-wolf, overcome with doggy joy, has come down from her pedestal and is fawning all over the Nazi, while the temporarily abandoned but delighted infants are returning the salute and calling “Heil Hitler!”
It is impossible to say what effect Hitler’s architectural opinions may have had on Mussolini’s changes to Rome. In some respects, especially at the end of the 1930s, the two men thought so much alike that there is no disentangling their ideas. However, one project in particular which Mussolini inflicted on his capital stands out for its Hitlerian character of axial straightness and dumb clarity. This was the approach avenue to the Piazza San Pietro, Bernini’s overwhelmingly rich symbolic site in front of the basilica. Before Mussolini, the visitor coming from the Tiber approached Saint Peter’s along the Spina dei Borghi, or Spine of the Borgo, a pair of more or less parallel roads that ran into the piazza but did not open up the view of the basilica in a suitably spectacular way. But in 1937, the year before Hitler’s first visit to Rome, Mussolini decided to convert this comparatively gradual revelation into pure, one-point-perspective melodrama. Whether he planned to impress Hitler with this is hard to say; on balance, it seems likely. The result was a giant avenue in the manner of Albert Speer, driving straight for the Vatican Obelisk, Maderno’s façade, and the dome. Surprise, once so vital a part of the approach to the great basilica, was now eliminated. The name of the avenue, the Via della Conciliazione, commemorates the 1929 agreement under the Lateran Treaty, whereby the Vatican—hitherto opposed to Fascism because of Il Duce’s anti-clerical bias—recognized the Fascist government of Italy while Fascism granted the Vatican complete territorial independence. This would permanently shape relations between Italy’s church and state, whose “conciliation” the new avenue symbolized.
In the process of the reconciliation of art and state, every dialect bard from Lake Como to Capo Palinuro, it seemed, was busy telling Italian children to emulate their savior:
Va a scola, studia tantu e ’mpara,
E vera fede au nostru Duce giura.
“Pure soul, go to school, study hard, learn, and pledge true faith to our Duce.”
The Duce’s appearance evoked paeans of awed praise from dialect poets all over Italy. Here is a Nando Bennati, writing in Ferrarese dialect, around 1937, addressing his leader simply as “Lu!” or “You!”:
La testa, un toc ‘d nugara dur massiz,
Taia con al falzzon, cla met i sguiz
La front spaziosa larga, ch’fa da ca
A un gran zzarvel, cal pesa purassa;
Il zzid come d’arc ruman antig,
Che, se il sa sbassa, a trema i so amig;
Du’ oc’ chi fora come du’ guciun
E i lez tut i pensier, cattiv o bun;
Al nas come un bec d’aquila, ch’al s’mov
Par sentr’ in tl’aria s’ag fus quell ad nov;
La vos la tocca come ‘na frusta
L’ariva in tl’anima come’na stilta—
“The head, a hard and massive nut / Hewn with a pruning hook, which makes one shudder / The high wide forehead, which is the home / Of a large and weighty brain / The eyebrows, like two ancient Roman arches / Which, if lowered, make even his friends tremble / Two eyes which project like two spikes / And read all thoughts, good and bad / The nose like an eagle’s beak, which moves / To sniff the air, and see if anything new has come— / The voice that strikes like a whip / And pierces the soul like a dagger-stab.”
And so on, for several verses, until the moral is spelled out: “Bisogna obbidirgli e dir ad si!”—“We must obey him and say yes!”
Not only was Mussolini returning the state to its primal dignity, but he was seen as the man to save Italy from shortages, the one who gave back to Italian food its primordial and sacramental character. Such was the content of la battaglia del grano, the Battle for Grain, launched by Mussolini in the thirties. The Battle for Grain, which depended on farming the land exposed by the draining of the Pontine Marshes—one of Mussolini’s most widely hailed projects—was only a partial success and did not live up to its propaganda. Nevertheless, it was constantly saluted by now forgotten Roman Fascist bards like Augusto Jandolo in such poems as “Er Pane,” “Bread,” published in 1936:
Ricordete ch’er pane va magnato
Come si consumassi un sacramento
Co l’occhi bassi e cor pensiero a Dio.
Er Duce ha scritto: “Er pane
A core de la casa,
Orgoio der lavoro
E premio santo alle fatiche umane.”
Bacelo sempre, fiio, perche in fonno
Baci la terra tua che lo produce,
C’è sempre intorn or ar pane tanta luce
Da illuminacce er monno!
“Remember that bread is to be eaten/As one takes a sacrament/With lowered eyes and a heart thinking of God./The Duce has written: Bread/Is the heart of the house/The pride of work/And the sacred reward of man’s labor. Always kiss it, my son, because in fact/You kiss your land that produces it—/Such light always surrounds bread/As can light the world!”
Even D’Annunzio was moved to write an ode in praise of parrozzo, the coarse farmers’ bread of the Abruzzi, and dedicate it to his own baker, Luigi d’Amico. However, the bread that resulted from the battaglia del grano was often very poor, if one is to believe a famed pasquinade that appeared during the campaign. Some nameless wit hung a rocklike Roman austerity loaf on a string around the neck of a statue of Caesar in the Via dell’Impero, with a message attached:
Tu che ci hai lo stommico di ferro,
Mangete sto pane di l’Impero!
You who have an iron gut,
Eat this bread of the Empire!
Rebuilding this empire was a dream of Mussolini’s, but an impossible one. The main stage for his imperial ambitions was Africa; but too many of the Great Powers already had colonial stakes there. Even Italy had its little bits of Africa—since 1882, Eritrea; and Italian Somalia since 1889. However, they were divided by the independent state of Ethiopia, otherwise known as Abyssinia, with whose ruler, Haile Selassie, the Duce had signed a nonaggression pact. But with Mussolini, some pacts were made to be broken, and this was one of them. Italy, it transpired, had been stockpiling ordnance in an obscure oasis named Walwal, which was clearly on Ethiopian territory. A skirmish developed between Ethiopian forces at Walwal and some Somalis attached to the Italian army there; about 150 Ethiopians, it was alleged, were killed by the tanks and aircraft of the Italian-Somali allies. From there the situation worsened, amid Italian claims and counter-claims, until soldiers from Italian Eritrea were on full war footing with the unfortunate Abyssinians. They did not declare war; that formal declaration was left to the Abyssinians, who made it in October 1935. The contest was hopelessly unequal: machine guns, bombers, and mustard gas against half-naked tribesmen armed with bolt-action rifles. Mussolini sent in 100,000 Italian troops commanded by General Emilio De Bono. De Bono was soon replaced by a more ruthless commander, Marshal Pietro Badoglio. They overran Abyssinia, and even emphasized their complete victory with such propaganda gestures as building, with army labor, a colossal stone-concrete-and-earth portrait of mighty Mussolini as a sphinx, rising from the sand, which today survives only in official newsreels.
In May 1936, the Italian forces entered the capital, Addis Ababa; Emperor Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah, fled into exile. The Ethiopians claimed that they lost half a million men in the war; this was probably an exaggeration, but they were dreadfully mauled. Neither side was innocent; both had resorted to torture of prisoners and other war crimes. But there was no doubt which the aggressor was. Italy emerged from this colonial adventure with no credit, and Abyssinia—whose emperor was eventually replaced on his throne by British forces during World War II, which broke out shortly after—with very little. To underscore their victory, the Italians sent to Abyssinia a cast of the Capitoline she-wolf, complete with Romulus and Remus. It was installed outside the train station in Addis Ababa, replacing a figure of the Lion of Judah with Solomon’s crown on its head, given by a French railroad company to the negus of Abyssinia, which went to Rome as a souvenir of victory. But after the Allies entered Rome in 1944, the displaced figure of the Lion of Judah, which had been standing in a city park, had mysteriously vanished. Someone had shipped it back to Haile Selassie.
Now Mussolini, realizing that his Ethiopian adventure was not going to earn him credit from England or France, who had their own colonial stakes in Africa, threw his weight behind Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. In July 1936, he sent a squadron of Italian planes to Spain to fight for Franco. Naturally, this endeared him, to some extent, to Hitler. He accepted Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 and his seizure of Czechoslovakia the following year. It did not mean that Italy became a smoothly working or passive ally of Nazi Germany. It did, however, prepare the way for the Patto d’Acciaio or Pact of Steel, an alliance of “friendship” between Germany and Italy. There was not much, however, that Mussolini could offer Hitler in the way of practical support—his arms supply was too thin. So, when the German invasion of Poland brought a declaration of war from England and France, thus opening World War II, Mussolini—at the strong insistence of Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel—stayed nonbelligerent. This was short-lived. Mussolini soon became convinced that Hitler would win quickly, and sent his Tenth Army under the command of General Rodolfo Graziani to attack the British forces in Egypt. This proved a costly fiasco and ended with the British defeat of Italian forces at El Alamein. Now the Germans sent the Afrika Korps to North Africa, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and dragged Italy with it, and Italy committed the grave but probably unavoidable error of declaring war on the United States. Now the descent began in earnest. Allied bombing was pulverizing the cities, factories, and food supplies of northern Italy. Coal and oil started to run out. Even pasta became a black-market rarity.
At the end of April 1945, Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were captured by Italian communist partisans as they were fleeing north to Switzerland, hoping to fly from there to Spain. They were taken before they left Italy, at the village of Dongo, on Lake Como. They and their fifteen-man entourage were said to have been carrying huge amounts of cash with them. Nobody knows for sure what happened to this money, but the suspicion has always been that it went straight into the Communist Party’s coffers; for this reason, the CP headquarters in Rome has, ever since, been known as “Palazzo Dongo.”
April 28, the day after their capture, the Duce and his party were driven to the nearby village of Giulino di Mezzegra and shot to death. In a moving van, their corpses were taken south to Milan and dumped in Piazzale Loreto, where partisans strung them upside down on meat hooks from the awning of a gas station—in the past, Fascists had done the same, in the same place, to partisans—to be ritually execrated with stones, vegetables, spittle, and curses. After a long game of hide-and-seek with the Duce’s corpse, it was at last interred in the cemetery of his birthplace, Predappio, where it continues to be visited by respectful pilgrims to this day.
In the end, what is one to make of Mussolini? He was a narcissistic tyrant; that goes without saying. But he was certainly not a figure of unmitigated evil, like Adolf Hitler. One cannot imagine a new Hitler arising in Germany, but a new Mussolini in Italy is neither a contradiction in terms nor even unimaginable. As Martin Clark put it, “Mussolini’s legacy is a real challenge to contemporary Italian society because his values, though politically incorrect, are so widely shared.” It has to be granted that there was nothing phony about his beliefs and convictions. His character was, of course, histrionic; but of how many popular leaders can this not be said? Perhaps histrionic talents are essential for political success. Colorless and clerkly figures do not rise to supreme office, though they make the life of spectacular ones easier. To a great extent, what you saw with Mussolini was what you got. The Italians admired his courage, which was not in doubt. He was clearly not in politics for personal gain; he cared nothing for money or domestic comfort. They liked his forthrightness and his willing, indeed eager, acceptance of risk. He had no middle-class background; he was wholeheartedly patriotic and genuinely male—there was nothing forced or mendacious about all those photos of Il Duce striking attitudes on top of tanks or showing his belligerent profile to the lens. The English might mock them; the Italians did not. Hollywood, in the genius of Charlie Chaplin, might set Jack Oakie to play him as “Benzino Napaloni” in The Great Dictator—but it was not a caricature that has ever played well in Italy.
He believed he had a medium’s relationship to his country, instinctive and infallible—and much of the time, at least, he was right. “I did not create Fascism. I drew it from the Italians’ unconscious minds. If that had not been so, they would not all have followed me for twenty years—I repeat, all of them.” This enabled Mussolini’s charismatic mix of presidential omniscience and theatrical posturing to work. To dismiss him as a buffoon, a swollen bullfrog on horseback, as Anglo-American propaganda constantly tried to, is seriously to underrate him. He understood the uses of the media, and grasped them extremely well, at least as well as Winston Churchill; he was particularly well aware of the potential of film as propaganda. In this respect, he was ahead of his time, and his career pointed ahead to such image managers as John Kennedy and George W. Bush—but most of all as the immensely rich and sexually flamboyant mediacrat who, through his control of national television, is still the dominant figure in Italian politics, Silvio Berlusconi.
1 While opening an exhibition of the Novecento (twentieth-century) Italian Group, organized by his mistress, the freelance curator and art dealer Margherita Sarfatti.
2 Compare Le Corbusier’s famous somewhat later characterization of a house as une machine à habiter.
3 Though there is some debate about the exact extent of his authorship and the names of his collaborators, if any, the content of the 1914 Manifesto of Futurist Architecture could not have existed without Sant’Elia.
4 Mussolini’s father had never allowed him to be baptized. Later, for the sake of good relations with the Church and his pious voters, he was; but he was never a believer.
5 No reference to the South American country. The name came from the Latin name of the diocese, Argentoratum. Fascist work on the site began in 1926.
6 I shall never forget how, forty years ago, I told a young Australian actress of my acquaintance about this Fascist practice. “Oh, darling,” she exclaimed, “the poor toad!”