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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Fascist Design--in Miami Beach

RST is pleased to once again have Paul Baxa, an outstanding scholar and interpreter of the Fascist experience, as a guest blogger.  Here, Baxa takes us through the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, currently (through May 18) hosting 3 exhibits on the Fascist era.  A smaller, fourth exhibit on Italo Balbo's air exploits, closes April 29.  Baxa is Associate Professor of History at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida and the author of  (University of Toronto Press, Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (20l0).  

Mural study, Antonio Santagata
Ferruccio Ferrazzi's Il Mito di Roma, 1940
For those interested in the intersection of Modernist design and twentieth-century politics, a visit to current exhibitions at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach cannot be missed.  This museum, run by Florida International University, was established by Mitchell Wolfson Jr. who collected documents and artifacts of modernism and was especially interested in materials that connected modernist design with totalitarian regimes.  As a result, there is a wealth of material from Fascist Italy.  I’ve had the good fortune of spending many hours in the Wolfsonian reading room this past fall and also to visit their three special exhibits pertaining to Italy:  The Birth of Rome; Rendering War: The Murals of A.G. Santagata; and Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design.  All opened in the fall of 2013 and will close May 18, 2014. 

The Birth of Rome exhibit displays materials related to Mussolini’s attempts to revive ancient Rome in a Fascist mode.  On display are renderings of the E42 (EUR) as it might have been—including sketches of the never-to-be-built arch.*  Next to these are posters, sketches, and photographs of the Foro Mussolini and its sports complex.  Included are maquettes of statues from the Foro Mussolini designed by Eugenio Baroni.  The centerpiece of the exhibit is a massive detail for Ferruccio Ferrazzi’s tempera on paper drawing, Il Mito di Roma, designed in 1940. Spanning two floors of the Wolfsonian's atrium, the detail is an allegory of the Tiber River holding the twins with the she-wolf at its feet.  To be sure, Baroni and Ferrazzi were not star names of the interwar generation of artists but they figured prominently in the attempts to make a Fascist aesthetic.

Antonio Santagata.  Fascism looks back at the
Great War 

Off to the right of the Birth of Rome exhibit are several rooms filled with large-scale mural studies by Antonio G. Santagata.  These superb studies were designed for the walls of Marcello Piacentini’s Casa dei Mutilati in Rome (on the Tevere, sandwiched between the Palace of Justice and Hadrian's Castle).  The subjects of the murals all deal with the First World War and provide a glimpse of the myth of the Grande Guerra under Fascism. 

Up a floor, one finds the Echoes and Origins exhibit.  This is a perfect complement to the propaganda of the previous exhibits as it demonstrates another side of Fascist Italy—that of consumerism and style.  Here one finds vases and furniture by Giò Ponti, as well as exquisite cupboards by Gustavo Pulitzer Finali.  There is some wonderful kitsch here as well including a 
Fascist-inspired wall lamp
wall lamp designed as lictors rods.
  A magnificent La Cimbali espresso machine is one corner next to artifacts from the famous ocean liner Rex.  Posters advertising FIAT, chocolates and cruises are plastered on the wall.  This was another face of Fascist Italy—no less propagandistic than the Imperial Roman bluster but revealing a desire to create a modern, consumerist culture. 

The magic of the Wolfsonian exhibit is found not just in the materials on display but also in the mounting of the exhibits.  The curators create spaces that enhance the impact of the displays.  For example, the Birth of Rome exhibit is displayed in an all-white, minimalist space which emphasizes the Novecento (20th-century) style of the drawings.  In the Echoes and Origins space the visitor is greeted by a massive, amber-glass bowl and pedestal from the Fontana Arte group next to a pillar containing the famous, Futurist-style bust of Mussolini by Renato Bertelli. 

The effect of the exhibits is to immerse the visitor into the visions of the Fascist regime as interpreted by less famous artists and sculptors.  None of these artists had the fame of the likes of Piacentini, Terragni, Sironi et al, but they all in their own way contributed to the Fascist program of reviving Rome in a way that harmonized modernism with classicism.

Paul Baxa 

*  The arch for E42 was intended to span the multiple lanes of the via Cristoforo Colombo, a task that proved beyond the skills of Italian engineers at the time.  Many designs were offered, among them a poster rendering by architect Ludovico Quaroni (left), which closely resembled Eero Saarinen's winning entry in a 1948 competition to honor Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase--the design that in 1966 became the St. Louis Arch.  The site of the E42 arch is on Walk 2, "EUR: Mid-Century Spectacle," in RST's new guidebook, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler  (2014).  On the Quaroni/Saarinen controversy, see William Graebner, "Gateway to Empire: An Interpretation of Eero Saarinen's 1948 Design for the St. Louis Arch," Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, vol, 18 (1993).  Ed.

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