Learning from Fascism

Mario Sironi’s mural Italy Among Arts and Sciences (detail), 1950 restoration of the 1935 original, with Fascist elements reinstated, approx. 1,500 square feet. Courtesy Sapienza University of Rome. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New


ONE HUNDRED years ago, on the early morning of March 23, 1919, a small crowd gathered in the Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan, a few blocks west of the Duomo. Many had arrived from other cities the night before, drawn to hear a charismatic young journalist, former socialist, and recent war veteran, who—with a vigor that would mark his discourses for two decades to come—duly trumpeted the ambitions of a new political movement. As a self-declared “anti-party,” Benito Mussolini’s Fasci Italiani di combattimento (Italian Combat Fasci or, simply, Fascists)1 aimed to yoke growing social unrest to an unabashed nationalism, freshly stoked by the country’s victory in World War I alongside the Entente powers (Britain, France, and Russia). Dubbed the Sansepolcristi for their presence at this fateful first meeting, the so-called Fascists of the first hour counted among their number syndicalists and ex-soldiers, even a few women and Italian Jews, as well as artists and writers such as the painters Achille Funi and Primo Conti and the Futurist poet-impresario, F.T. Marinetti.

For the preceding ten years, Marinetti’s Futurists had upended Italian culture in every imaginable domain, from painting and poetry to clothing, music, architecture, photography, and theater. A political phenomenon as much as an aesthetic crusade, Futurism lent Fascism much of its early ideological impetus: anti-Communist and anti-clerical, interventionist and irredentist, hostile to academic pedantry and cultural patrimony alike. For its part, Fascism, as another self-styled revolution, evinced little patience for any cultural program, at least in its initial phase. While its adherents drew on the exploits of poet-soldiers like Marinetti and Gabriele D’Annunzio, this was in emulation of action over representation, of virile embodiment over studied reflection. In short, of deeds over ideas. (D’Annunzio, for example, was a fighter pilot who led several daring raids and lost the sight in one eye in combat; his reputation for living dangerously only enhanced his status as a poet, playwright, and ladies’ man.) Anti-fascists seized upon Mussolini’s anti-intellectual posturing as proof of an unreconstructed philistinism—a role the Duce obliged with relish. “Our artistic past is admirable,” he remarked following the infamous March on Rome that made him prime minister in 1922. “But as for me, I couldn’t have been inside a museum more than twice.”2

Of course, Italy was itself an open-air museum—a store of archaeological and historical marvels in whose image the regime would gradually remake itself. For his part, Mussolini was hardly the unschooled boor he pretended to be. He had taught himself French and German, devoured the writings of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and regularly answered to the honorific Professor Mussolini in his youth. After the Fascist Party’s rise to power, and particularly following Mussolini’s assumption of dictatorship in 1925, the regime actively used culture to shore up its legitimacy both at home and abroad. Innovations in photomontage, exhibition design, cinema, architecture, painting, and sculpture all proved vital weapons in the Fascist arsenal, whether as explicit forms of propaganda or, conversely, as evidence of a permissive cultural policy which promoted—at least in theory—a progressive range of aesthetic styles. “The regime,” writes historian Marla Stone, “offered cultural producers a Faustian bargain at seductively low interest: in exchange for state sanction, financial support, and a chance for stylistic experimentation, artists and architects accepted Fascism’s role as a patron, administrator, and arbiter.”3 A 1925 “Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals” sought to publicize this broad-minded sponsorship, while even the firebrand Marinetti accepted induction into the newly founded Accademia d’Italia in 1929.

Along with the proverbial carrot of Fascist patronage came the less forgiving stick. While authors, artists, and architects enjoyed a relatively broad choice of aesthetic modes—from the academic to the avant-garde—subject matter could never openly flout the imperatives of Party or patria. Those who did dissent faced censorship, imprisonment, exile, or worse. An air of tolerance and pluralism, in other words, masked a more insidious system of surveillance and coercion. In tune with Italy’s imperialist ambitions in Libya and the Horn of Africa after 1935, Fascist culture made increasing appeals to the Roman past, particularly its Mediterranean empire—a ready-made identity with all manner of attendant symbols, rituals, and myths of colonialist destiny. With the establishment of Italy’s racial laws in 1938—a vile prelude to Mussolini and Hitler’s Pact of Steel the following year—the cultural climate turned increasingly tense (and for many of the country’s citizens of Jewish descent, fatal). Even Mussolini’s former lover and early biographer, the art critic Margherita Sarfatti—hailing from a prominent Venetian Jewish family—was forced to flee Italy for Argentina and Uruguay. Notable for his relatively enlightened approach to aesthetics, Minister of Education Giuseppe Bottai was at the same time a rabid anti-Semite, whose journal, Primato, promoted both Aryan superiority and the war effort. The nationalism that had long subtended Fascist cultural production turned aggressive and bellicose by the mid-1930s. Umberto Eco once recalled being required—as part of a youth competition when he was ten years old—to write a composition on the (rhetorical) question “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?”4

Yet even from within the strictures of Fascist nationalism—and often against its repressive grain—individuals produced a striking range of texts, images, objects, and buildings. While some artists churned out portraits of the Duce in a turgidly conservative style, others, like Alfredo Ambrosi and Thayaht (Ernesto Michahelles), created nearly as many effigies in a Futurist vein; alongside structures built in a bombastic neoclassical mode arose Giuseppe Terragni’s rationalist town hall, a secular temple of Fascism’s alleged transparency; in the same state-sponsored salons as conventional landscapes hung works by Fascist abstractionists such as Mario Radice, Manlio Rho, and Osvaldo Licini. At once revolutionary and reactionary, avant-garde and return-to-order, Fascism thrived on cultural paradox—a fact that scholars have helped bring to light over the last several decades in compelling detail.5 It would be a mistake to reduce to a single, simple impression the vagaries of the ventennio fascista (or “black twenty years,” named for Mussolini’s black-clad militias); for Fascism underwent various phases and about-faces, whether in tune with world politics or in brash defiance of them. A hundred years after its founding, however, the movement is still dogged by a lingering misprision: namely, that it was fundamentally inimical to modern culture except in the most baldly propagandistic sense. In truth, the regime’s courting of avant-garde artists, architects, poets, and photographers extended its ideological reach—not in spite of modernism, but often in its very cast.


VARIOUS MODERNIST groups vied with each other for the regime’s favor and patronage. Despite his unlikely identity as an academician, Marinetti continued to lead the Futurist movement into the 1930s and early ’40s, promoting the so-called aeropainting practiced by his wife, Benedetta, and other artists throughout the peninsula. Emulating the aerial perspectives afforded by flight, this iteration of Futurism continued to emphasize the technological advances fostered by the regime. Even monuments as musty as the Arch of Titus appear, in the aero-photographs of Filippo Masoero, made over into sites of Futurist dynamism, testament to the movement’s ongoing pursuit of modern genres and modernist experimentation. By contrast, Sarfatti’s group Novecento Italiano (Twentieth-Century Italian or New Century Italian) sought to reinvigorate modernist painting by drawing on the country’s Roman and Renaissance past. Artists like Ubaldo Oppi, Felice Casorati, and Funi (a proud “Fascist of the first hour”) lent contemporary subject matter the gravitas of antiquity. Depicting solid, enigmatically still bodies and objects in evacuated spaces—a technique influenced by the Metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico—these Novecento painters mirrored the regime’s blend of temporal elements (the hyper-contemporary and the duly eternal) as well as its ineffable mix of practicality and irrationalism.

The career of the leading artist on Sarfatti’s roster, Mario Sironi, reflected Fascism’s development in nuce; beginning as a Futurist, Sironi assimilated classical elements into his modernism, eventually producing mural-size works that feature monumental forms and figures, in concert with Fascism’s increasingly grandiloquent affectations. For all their commissions and commendations, however, the Futurists, Novecentisti, abstractionists, and rationalist architects—like their more traditionalist foils—never secured status as the regime’s official artists. If Sironi came the closest to a kind of court painter for Mussolini, the Duce brilliantly fostered an environment of competition precisely by refusing to endorse a single style or movement. The ongoing quandary of just what constituted Fascist aesthetics, in fact, proved fruitful.

Already in 1926, a survey of Italian intellectuals on the subject of “Fascism and Culture” prompted some fittingly conflicted replies. “Surely you jest?” responded the journalist and novelist Curzio Malaparte, a veteran of the March on Rome: “A Fascist art? Just what might that mean, a Fascist art?”6 To Malaparte’s query—still essentially unanswered—we might add several of our own. As what several scholars have called an “imperfect totalitarianism,”7 can Mussolini’s regime offer insight into the larger matter of authoritarianism and its relationship to culture? Should we speak of Fascist art, or rather of art under Fascism? What—in cultural terms—separates the Italian case from related developments in Germany and elsewhere, or, more broadly, from a generic definition of fascism? Can we identify an unequivocal divide between an aesthetics propitious to Fascism and that of anti-Fascist resistance?

Certainly culture, in all its varied, even conflicting forms, helped drive Fascist politics. Rites and rituals—from military displays, to parades of Fascist women, to student competitions and other participatory ceremonies—offered subjects not merely a mass modern politics but a crypto-religious sense of belonging. Mussolini’s rise to power, after all, was by no means assured. His paramilitary thugs had clashed openly with Socialists in the aftermath of World War I, just as they would with the Italian Communist Party after its founding in 1921.

Known as the Red Biennium for a spate of workers’ strikes and factory occupations—and for bloody assaults by Fascist squads—the years 1919–21 saw Italy teeter on the brink of civil war. As Mussolini took Fascism from a mass movement to an official party, he strained to reconcile the violent activism of the Blackshirts with the propriety required of the thirty-six Fascist deputies newly elected to parliament in 1921.8 So, too, did his regime gradually disavow its founding progressive principles (universal suffrage, an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage) in favor of the interests of industry and the Papacy. Presenting itself as a “third way” between capitalism and communism, the corporative Fascist state vaunted a “diversified” economy alongside a no less varied culture, turning its abiding incongruities into the engine of consent.9 Cultural production—or more precisely, an over-production of images, symbols, and spectacles—helped to smooth over the contradictions of Fascism’s “third way” into a more fruitful paradox.10

The terms of this paradox coexisted side by side. Increasingly, however, artists and architects strove to integrate divergent elements into single forms—a strategy already evinced in the spare classicism of de Chirico’s cityscapes, which seamlessly reconcile Mediterranean antiquity with urban modernity. Perhaps most conspicuous in this regard is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (constructed 1938–43), known colloquially as the Square Colosseum for its travertine amalgamation of Roman and modernist design. This melding of contemporaneity and romanità had come to distinguish the New Towns erected in the former Pontine Marshes south of Rome—an urbanism at once instantaneous and seemingly timeless, soon exported to other provinces throughout Italy and its growing colonies. With Italianate piazzas and porticoes stripped of ornamentation, these towns appeared suspended between a glorious past and the exigencies of the present: consummate metaphors for Fascism’s conciliation of epochs.

The same fusion takes more compact form in Renato Bertelli’s Continuous Profile of Mussolini (1933)—one of innumerable likenesses produced for the cult of the Duce. The leader’s visage appears doubled, facing in opposite directions, from nearly any angle. Throbbing yet utterly still, the sculpture conjures up at once the gyration of some mechanical contrivance and—equally apparent to an Italian public—ancient depictions of Janus (the Roman god of beginnings, transitions, and time itself). Explaining Mussolini’s prominence as the ideal aesthetic subject, one art historian at the time noted his effortless negotiation between past glories and prospective challenges: “his greatness consists in the superlatively modern universality of his mind, which extends from historical exegesis to the most arduous problems of the future.”11 Round-topped and rigid, Bertelli’s Continuous Profile—which he patented and mass-produced in materials from terra-cotta to aluminum to marble—also evokes its subject’s supposed preternatural virility. Mino Rosso’s elongated semi-abstract sculptures take this phallic allusion to the extreme, underscoring the difference between a “flaccid parliamentary system” and the manly decisiveness of dictatorship.12

Twenty years after the rally at San Sepolcro, the ever-faithful Marinetti composed a eulogy to Mussolini’s Fascist debut: “The Duce up close the Duce radiating power from a solid elastic body ready to be detonated weightless and spontaneous a continuous thinking willing deciding . . . ”13 Marinetti’s breathless prose poem evokes a body at once rock-solid and supple, weightless and commanding, suggestive of Futurist agitation and archaic sobriety alike. Displayed in town halls and meeting rooms across Fascist Italy, Bertelli’s sculpture disseminated (pun intended) a similar image.

The mass-produced Continuous Profile became a collector’s item as much as a historical object, with examples owned by individuals ranging from Mussolini’s son-in-law to Robert Mapplethorpe. The press release for a 2012 Bertelli exhibition in Italy described the famous piece as today existing “free of its historical legacy.”14 That the exhibition took place in the city of Predappio—Mussolini’s birthplace—and in the Duce’s childhood home (remodeled into a museum) underscores the troubling irony of such a claim. More disconcerting still, such an assertion echoes other efforts to cast Bertelli’s sculpture as “wholly redeemed from the political legacy of its time.”15 This reasoning echoes, in turn, growing calls to view the art of the 1930s in Italy “beyond Fascism”—as if the works in question could be retrospectively excised from the ideological and historical matrices out of which they emerged.16 Works of art and architecture produced in Italy under Fascism—and often proudly in its name—continue to spark debate, in part due to their sheer number and prevalence.

While Austrian authorities have slated the house where Hitler was born for demolition, Mussolini’s has been converted into a museum (and potential pilgrimage site), in a town where at least one souvenir shop sells all manner of Fascist memorabilia and neo-fascist paraphernalia. Contemporary approaches to the Fascist past thus frequently appear pinned between the rock of unwanted memorialization and the hard place of historical amnesia. Faced today with the question of Fascism’s enduring legacy in the built environment—and its potential appeal to a resurgent nationalist movement—many Italians have lashed out at calls to reconsider and perhaps recontextualize this legacy. To American historians advocating a more nuanced and critical engagement with the Fascist past, for example, both pundits and the public have retorted by citing the continued presence of Confederate monuments in the United States.17

Clearly, America’s “culture wars” of recent years have a long and much ignored genealogy. Their lineage can be traced back not simply to the politics of the postwar United States, but to an interwar Europe in which the newborn mass media conditioned how cultural forms were sanctioned, circulated, and contested. So, too, contemporary American populism finds some of its origins in the heady ideological cocktail of early Fascism. As the historian Adrian Lyttelton has written about its widespread appeal on the cusp of worldwide depression and in the wake of WWI-fueled patriotism: “Against the pseudo-religious rhetoric of ‘communion’ and ‘sacrifice,’ reason had no defense. The politics of poetry defeated the politics of prose.”18

Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini, and Poland’s Law and Justice Party are hardly poetic in their prejudice. Yet it remains to be seen if the latest strains of twenty-first-century populism—which continue to roil countries from Hungary to Poland to Brazil to England to the United States—are merely a momentary nostalgic surge or the groundswell of a new world order. A hundred years after Fascism’s founding, however, its avowed politics of anti-politics has found renewed currency, and echoes in chillingly familiar terms:

An impatience for the rigid structure and dogma of political parties, and, conversely, a predilection for slogans, for direct action, for non-technical technocracy: all those tropes which the Great War had exacerbated found drastic and peremptory form in the figure of Mussolini, who at the same time revealed a complete absence of concrete political alternatives.19

A commonplace reproach of Fascism at the time was that it amounted to mere bluster. And if Fascism lacked real ideological substance—so the argument went—then surely it bore no coherent culture.

Yet the inconsistencies of aesthetic expression under Fascism proved a source of strength—something democratic forces ignored at their peril. To make even the economically dispossessed feel—contrary to all evidence—that they formed a new aristocracy, under the sign not of class consciousness but chauvinism: such was Mussolini’s feat for two decades. And the means through which single citizens could experience being part of a superior whole, however racist or hateful, proved dangerously compelling. Certainly the average Italian could take heart in the heroic allegorical figurations which swelled all manner of murals and sculpture. The commercial cinema (which Mussolini at one point deemed Fascism’s “strongest weapon”) offered everything from melodrama to colonialist fantasies into which viewers could project their narrative of national self-awakening. Even in the collective euphoria of mass rallies, or the cartooned vignettes of a child’s school textbook, or group calisthenics under the exhortations of the Duce, Fascist subjects saw themselves reflected in a unified body politic—an everyday performance of high-flown ideology. Describing the persistence of Fascism’s basic impetus into the present, Umberto Eco remarks that it “grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.”20

Of course, that fear of difference relies in turn on a specious perception of sameness, something Fascism cultivated through the modern myth of nationalist supremacy. But even the nationalism that is deeply felt by many common citizens is often little more than a convenient ruse for the neoliberal plutocracy. In recoil from actual working-class populism, this year’s Davos World Economic Forum made overtures to the global far right. (For example, Brazil’s new authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro, declared that his country is again “open for business.”) So it is worth recalling that Mussolini’s San Sepolcro rally was hosted by Milan’s Circolo dell’Alleanza Industriale e Commerciale.21 That pattern of support was subsequently repeated in the rise of Hitler in Germany, Franco in Spain, and countless other dictators in Africa and South America. For the entire past century, the super-rich have favored the cover that nationalist fervor lends to capitalist exploitation.

Lately, comparisons between Mussolini and Donald Trump have cropped up with increasing frequency in both journalistic and scholarly contexts, though the leaders’ respective cults of personality stem from quite different political origins and affective inspirations. Responding to these parallels and divergences, the artist williamCromar recently adapted Bertelli’s Continuous Profile for his Continuous Profile (Head of Drumpf), 2016, alluding to its subject’s original German family name. Perhaps with a nod to King Midas’s unlucky touch—and also to Trump’s gold-plated properties—williamCromar’s 3D-printed sculpture deploys orange-tinted gold leaf to subtly caricatural effect. The silhouette appears relatively tame compared to many willfully lowbrow and homespun evocations of the presidential profile online, made of everything from an ear of corn to a plumed orange to a ham sandwich.

No longer do we find the radiation of power concretized in a self-contained, semidivine likeness, as Mussolini’s effigy was widely presented. Gone are the attendant historical and art historical allusions—gone, that is, not from williamCromar’s sculpture but from the context of its reception, as well as from the contemporary practice of propaganda. A would-be dictator no longer needs to exploit cultural representations in a traditional sense; indeed, to do so might invite charges of elitism and exclusivity, laying bare the charade of false populism. If Head of Drumpf trades the notorious comb-over for a more subtle bulb of burnished hair, the sculpture’s gaping mouth lends it an aural—even hectoring—lifelikeness. For all its loudmouthed cant, modern demagoguery turns in williamCromar’s piece upon a more crude, though no less dangerous, axis. Instead of alluding to the complex and insidious origins of Fascist philosophy, the artist portrays mere spin incarnate, strident and tottering in its solipsism.