Art Misappropriated: Fascism Then and Now
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Guidebooks, art historians, social media, UNESCO designations, Trip Advisor, and Rick Steves all tout the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and St. Peter’s Basilica as top Roman sites. Must-see Tuscan experiences include Il Palio horse race in Siena and the Medieval towns of San Gimignano and Arezzo. And with good reason. They are historic and scenic. These sites are described as authentic and pristinely preserved yet they have been shaped by centuries of hype, idealized romantic concepts, well meaning “restoration,” and, surprisingly, Fascism.
Fascists cherry picked iconic images as the perfect foil for disseminating concepts of cultural purity and superiority. The role of Fascism in shaping art and architecture is a dirty little secret in tourism, not acknowledged by many travel writers, and mostly ignored by Italians. We must be aware of how art has been and is being manipulated today.
Have we been sold a false bill of tourist goods? How much of San Gimignano is really Medieval? Is the Palio a Fascist horse race or are tourists reliving an authentic Medieval experience? My research for this article shattered some of my closely held beliefs about my favorite Italian monuments and towns. But first some context.
The Rise of Il Duce
Fascism arose out of a desire to make Italy great again following the chaos of World War I, a poor economy, and weak parliament. Benito Mussolini, known as Il Duce, quickly became the notorious and bombastic leader of the National Fascist Party which ruled Italy from 1922-45. He transformed government into a totalitarian state. A master of manipulation, Mussolini controlled the press, film, radio, and print media. His use of urban space, with dramatically staged rallies to convey his message of Italian unity, racial purity, and cultural superiority, was skillful and effective.
Portrait of Mussolini on the cover of the Italian newspaper La Domenica del Corriere, November 1, 1936, by Achille Beltrame. The subtitle reads “Il Fondatore del Impero,” The Founder of the Empire. In the background, the shadow of a Roman Emperor has Mussolini’s features. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.
The working class found hope in the Fascist message and bought wholesale into the belief that Italy was a weak, liberal state that needed toughing up and a show of power. Mussolini forged a strong national identity through art, architecture, urban space and strategic propaganda. He leveraged the cult of his personality to control the country, serving as a role model for Fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Spain’s Francisco Franco.
As a country, Italy was officially unified in 1861. But not culturally. Italians primarily identified with their town, then their region, then their country – which still happens today. Widespread illiteracy and poverty created an atmosphere ripe for slick media campaigns transforming images of Italians from lazy and apathetic to proud, virile, and modern. Mussolini’s personality cult, while fostered by the regime, was nurtured by the populous and local officials. This was the age of the moving picture and Mussolini’s theatrics fit perfectly. His poses with hands on hips, jutting jaw, and puffed out chest with decisive gestures were perfect for photography and film. Between 1923-43 Mussolini landed on the front cover of Time magazine eight times; Hitler once.
Let’s face it, Italy has never been known as an example of political stability. It is shocking to think the Fascist regime was Italy’s longest stable government since unification. Italy has had over sixty-four governments since the end of WWII, with many prime ministers serving one or two years. In comparison, the US has elected thirteen presidents since 1945.
Art and politics are not strange bedfellows and Mussolini was by no means the first to leverage art and urban planning as political message. Above all, Fascists had love affairs with the Roman empire and the Medieval period; anything else was tainted with undesirable foreign elements.
I’ll explore three examples of how Fascists used art for politics: 1) leveraged art and urban planning by making structural changes to Roman streets including destruction of Baroque or Rococo architecture, 2) exploited Roman art for Mussolini’s personality cult, and 3) implemented “authentic” Medieval/Renaissance festivals in reconstructed perfect Medieval towns.
Glories of the Past
There was no better role model for Mussolini than the Roman Emperor Augustus. Known as Dux for leader in Latin (later appropriated into Duce), Augustus expanded the Roman empire in his autocratic regime while balancing complex administration of his new territories and establishing essentially a monarchy for generations. He was also master of propaganda, using art and architecture to create and maintain durable power.
Emperor Augustus, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This official marble portrait (AD 14-37) was one of many distributed throughout the empire to project an image of controlled regal self-confidence. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Mussolini imagined himself as a continuation of this great era. Fascists went all out for the Augustus 2,000 year birth celebration in 1937. Over 21,000 art objects – all reproductions – were displayed as well as 1,330,000 posters made to advertise the quasi sacred event. University professors were on board with this celebration and ensuing restorations, excavations, and promotions, especially since they had to sign a Fascist oath of allegiance in 1931. The celebrations presented a unified connection from the past to present and future. Augustan celebration of society, law, politics and empire building were supplemented with Fascist slogans: “Let the glories of the past be surpassed by the glories of the future.”
Augustus built the Ara Pacis, a large altar dedicated to peace, a mausoleum, and brought back an Egyptian obelisk, all which were buried or in disrepair to due to centuries of materials looting and subsequent buildings. Mussolini liberated these monuments by destroying any non-Roman structures that obscured or had grown over Augustan antiquities. Situated across the Tiber River from the Vatican, these structures spoke to the honor and power of the Augustan reign. The Ara Pacis became a saint-like relic to be worshipped.
Mussolini built the .8 mile Via dei Fori (now Via dell’Impero) directly from the Colosseum to his headquarters at Palazzo Venezia, a staging place for rallies, demonstrations, as well as visually and geographically linking his political offices with Roman monuments. Buildings that interfered with the plan were demolished regardless of their importance. This Via connected Mussolini to the past and placed him as the new emperor for the nation.
Via della Conciliazione, Rome, public domain, Pixabay. Mussolini bulldozed a wide, straight street from St. Peter's to the Tiber River.
In 1929 the Fascist government signed the Lateran Treaty, an uneasy peace with the Vatican, recognizing the Vatican as an independent state. To mark the treaty, Mussolini revisited an old idea to create a large boulevard connecting St. Peter’s Square to the Tiber River. Controversial and disparaged by historians today, the Via della Conciliazione forever changed Gianlorenzo Bernini’s original and dramatic Baroque concept of how visitors would experience entering St. Peter’s colonnade.
Bernini would not be pleased with the long wide access to St. Peters, as he intended visitors to wind through the tightly crowded streets surrounding the Vatican to discover the most important Catholic church. The vast expanse of the colonnade opens into an ellipse meant to surprise and welcome. Mussolini had no problem disregarding the original artistic intentions nor displacing residents, locating them in settlements. Palaces, churches and apartments were destroyed to make this boulevard.
Anglo-Americans were closely associated with the renovation and protection of prized Renaissance art pre-Fascism. Western European elites and middle-class tourists and ex-pats had a long standing idealized romantic relationship with Italian art, more so than Italian citizens. Mussolini changed that. Foreigners were no longer welcome to be the primary caretakers or researchers of Italian art; now only Italians were in charge.
He carefully crafted Italian historical and cultural experiences for citizens in order to support superiority and to bond prideful citizens. Italians were strongly encouraged to become tourists in their own country, and they did. To distinguish themselves from foreigners and elites, Fascists referred to Medieval and Renaissance art simply as Medieval, to evoke a perfect time of powerful independent Italian city states. Art from later periods, especially the Baroque, were disparaged. Fascists were fixated on everything Medieval. Medieval referred less to a style than it did a concept of authenticity in Italian art, architecture, crafts, and spectacles. Except the authentic part was genuinely Fascist, not necessarily authentically Medieval.
There are about seventy Medieval or Renaissance marketed festivals, jousts, or races celebrated today in Tuscany, most which were re-shaped by Fascist ideals. Siena’s famous Il Palio, the horse race completed twice a year in the Campo with frenzied spectators and horses with bareback riders, was once one of many horse races in Tuscan towns.
Siena, Il Palio, public domain, Pixabay
Siena’s Mayor sought special designation as the most authentic race through the Fascist government, which was granted. This brought great pride, attention, and tourist money to Siena. The race was modified to its present day circular format with contestants from each of Siena’s 17 contrade neighborhoods and advertised as utmost in Medieval horse races, although it originally would have been run on a straight course. Fascists heavily promoted the race as a pure Italian Medieval festival and a symbol of virile athletic males. Their promotion worked very well and is enduring today. There is scant reference to any Fascist overhaul of Il Palio in guidebooks or the official www.ilpalio.org web site and it is celebrated today with the same air of authenticity as in the 1930s. In fact, the Palio is an authentic 1928 festival.
When Rick Steves and other guide sources call the quaint, heavily touristed San Gimignano “amazingly preserved,” they reference the Medieval when they should be giving credit to Fascist elements. The Fascist reconstruction is so well disguised it flows into the fabric of the real Medieval architecture. How many tourists, including myself, have marveled at the towers, piazzas, and walls, posing for pictures without a clue that some of it is…fake.
From 1922-1939 the famous entry gate to Tuscany’s San Gimignano was liberated from a seventeenth century church, facades along the Via San Giovanni, Via San Matteo, and those surrounding Piazza Cisterna were re-worked to form a consistent Medieval look. The Baroque altar in the Collegiata church was no longer needed because it wasn’t Medieval. A large addition was made to the Piazza del Duomo including crenellations to the upper stories, adding one floor to the Ardinghelli family tower, and most strikingly, opening up a ground floor loggia directly to the Piazza. Changes were made without research, concern for original intentions or destruction of non-Medieval elements. Fascist mass media packaged and sold the newly revitalized San Gimignano as authentic Medieval.
San Gimignano: Porta San Giovanni, Piazza outside the Collegiata, street scene.
A Disney land of Fascist Medieval architecture was created and promoted to Italians, and continues to be promoted today to tourists, with great success. Another delightful small Tuscan town of San Giovanni Valdarno was also reconstructed to look more Medieval by altering the loggia of Palazzo Communale. Not one mention of this is to be found in the printed material on site or by staff when I visited. The town of Arezzo also underwent significant Medieval "restoration" and promotion as an authentic Medieval town complete with a Joust of the Saracen festival to demonstrate dominance over invaded territories.
One benefit to the reconstructions was that Italians became tourists in their own country. They replaced the Brits and Americans that used to linger for days, weeks, months, especially in Tuscany where the Medieval was, and still is, a marketing strategy.
Art holds multiple purposes, as a commodity, the aesthetic and the political. Art is rarely neutral. The past is constantly re-defined. Our understandings are shaped by social media, guidebooks, education, personal experience and through others. In the 1920s and 1930s promoting Fascist ideals took precedence over the aesthetic. Tuscany still enjoys special Medieval/Renaissance memory status, like an endangered species protection, which ensures tourism and the continued monetization of art and architecture. Not that this is bad, but it should be recognized.
Which brings us to today and the mis-appropriation of some Medieval/Renaissance art for nefarious political agendas. As Professor Karen Overby from Tufts University wrote in the Material Collective www.thematerialcollective.org anti-immigrant white nationalists distribute “Let’s Become Great Again” flyers on college campuses emblazoned with Michelangelo’s David to promote their agenda of white cultural superiority. David, being a Middle Eastern Jew, doesn’t seem paradoxical for the white nationalists.
Medieval Europe is re-imagined as a pure white ideal culture for these groups, which is far from historical reality. The Crusades, Celtic and Norse imagery, Holy Roman Empire and even the Hobbit have been appropriated for white nationalist agendas, but the Medieval seems to once again hold special fascination for white nationalists. The notion that Europe was a superior, pure white culture denies the complexities of cross-cultural trade and economies. Academics rightly so insist on including these misappropriations in history and art history curriculums to call-out and disrupt white nationalist notions of cultural purity.
1920s – Mussolini takes control of schools, press, media, many businesses. By 1927 Italy is essentially a police state.
1934 – restrictions on foreign press and availability of foreign newspapers
1935 – Mussolini invades Ethiopia
1938 – Adolf Hitler visits Italy and tours major art centers
1938 – Italian government begins to classify citizens according to their Italian purity, institutes race and anti-Jewish laws
1939 – Mussolini aligns with Hitler in WWII in the Pact of Steel
1939 – Mussolini invades Albania
1940 – Mussolini invades Greece
1943 – Mussolini is deposed as Fascist leader
1945 – Mussolini is captured and shot by Italian partisans
Agnew, John. “‘Ghosts of Rome’: The Haunting of Fascist Efforts at Remaking Rome as Italy's Capital City.” Annali D'Italianistica, vol. 28, 2010, pp. 179–198.
Gundle, Stephen, Christopher Duggan and Giuliana Pieri, eds. The Cult of the Duce: Mussolini and the Italians. Manchester University Press, 2013.
Lasansky, D. Medina. The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle and Tourism in Fascist Italy. The Pennsylvania State University, 2004.
Lazzaro, Claudia and Roger J. Crum, eds. Donatello Among the Blackshirts: History and Modernity in the Visual Culture of Fascist Italy. Cornell University Press, 2005.
Overbey, Karen. “Towards the Ethical Practice of Art History.” Material Collective, www.thematerialcollective.org, August 31, 2018.
Perry, David M. “What to do when Nazis are Obsessed with your Field.” Pacific Standard, www.psmag.com, September 6, 2017.