• Steven Heller

How Italian Fascist Propaganda Went Viral

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Fondazione Cirulli, in collaboration with Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at New York University, has announced the documentary exhibition “Propaganda: The Art of Political Indoctrination.” Curated by Nicola Lucchi (CUNY, Queens College), through the loan of graphic works from the Fondazione Cirulli’s archive, the exhibition investigates the psychology of image-based propaganda through the lens of 20th century Italian politics and illustrates how fascist political propaganda adopted modernist aesthetics, mass communication, marketing techniques and popular culture to manipulate society and build support for its totalitarian regime. As Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò details, “Considered together, the propaganda emerging from fascism, as well as from the particularly tense democratic times surrounding the fascist period, provide an opportunity to deconstruct the rhetoric of political communication in its entirety, and represent a call to engage critically with the multitude of competing political narratives” in play today. I spoke with Lucchi about the exhibit that opens March 4 and remains on view through April 17. (Watch a preview video here.)




What inspired you to curate this exhibition? The visual culture of interwar Italy is an important subject in my teaching and research. I embraced this project as a challenge: Could I assemble a documentary exhibition on the visual and textual mechanisms of political propaganda without glamorizing the bankrupt ideologies it underpinned? Some of the works in the show are well-known examples of modernist graphic design, but I did not want to “sanitize” them through the excuse of their aesthetic value; I sought instead to expose the oppressive politics they enabled, and the stratagems they employed to reach their goal.

What impact did this visual language have on the Italian populace from 1922 to Duce’s downfall? The visual trappings of Fascist propaganda permeated many aspects of daily life: The Duce’s infamous profile was a staple feature on both newspapers and commercial advertisements; the roman fasces, the regime’s most important symbol, appeared everywhere from government stationery to building facades and manhole covers; richly illustrated magazines commissioned fascist-inspired modernist photomontages for their sophisticated readers, while colonial propaganda often insisted on the visual language of “Romanità,” a Roman character that mobilized history and archeology in the service of current imperial narratives and urban planning projects. Fascist visual rhetoric also permeated mass gymnastics and highly choreographed government-sponsored exhibitions. At the time of Mussolini’s death in 1945, a child born in Italy during the mid-1920s would have reached adulthood entirely enveloped in the rhetorical apparatus, public rituals and mass surveillance of the regime.

The Italian fascists developed a very moderne visual propaganda language. Why do you think this approach worked so well in propagating Mussolini’s message? Italian fascism rose to power at a time when mass communication and mechanical reproduction became exponentially available and efficient; fascists appropriated these tools effectively, and realized that masquerading their ideology behind the veneer of a modernist visual language might appeal to intellectuals and to the urban upper-middle class. Fascists also realized that, as long as the propaganda message remained consistent, welcoming a variety of different modernist languages would project the idea that the regime welcomed creativity. It was, if you will, a totalitarian strategy in reverse: Whereas Nazi Germany had one approved aesthetic and everything else was labeled degenerate, Fascist Italy co-opted every artistic current—an entire generation of artists gravitated in the orbit of the regime, which turned them into accomplices through misleading promise of artistic freedom.


What message do you want your exhibit to impress on your audience? Is there a lesson for today’s political world? This is not an exhibition for “selfies,” as I don’t think anyone would want to be associated with the totalitarian politics many of these objects promoted. There is still, however, something to take home. One section of the exhibition features propaganda from the tense times that preceded and followed fascism. Political groups never cease to promote their ideologies: Democratic nations allow for ideas to compete more freely, but the techniques of political persuasion maintain significant connections with the propaganda of totalitarian regimes. In today’s political world, with populism, nationalism and isolationism on the rise throughout the globe, I think it is very important to examine every act of political communication carefully, and this exhibition will hopefully represent an opportunity to learn how to deconstruct the messages of ideologues and political hacks.

Events March 4 6:00 p.m.: Exhibition viewing 6:30 p.m.: Opening panel discussion featuring the curator and artistic advisers 7:30 p.m.: Reception


March 9, 6:30 p.m.: Film screening: Lo squadrone bianco (White Squadron, directed by Augusto Genina, 1936) Introduced by Alberto Zambenedetti, University of Toronto


April 1 6:00 p.m.: Lecture: “The Afterlife of Fascist Monuments” by Carmen Belmonte, fellow, Italian Academy Italian Cultural Institute of New York


April 7 6:30 p.m.: Film Screening: Grandi magazzini (Department Store, directed by Mario Camerini, 1939)


April 14 6:30 p.m.: Serata Futurista, a concert and presentation by composer and musicologist Luciano Chessa

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