In forming a new, dictatorial fascist state, then-Prime Minister of Italy Benito Mussolini (who served from 1922 to 1943) used his power to completely overhaul the way in which the Italian government had acted prior to his ascension. This involved, among other tactics, the erosion of individual liberties, the abolition of the right to strike and to form independent unions, and the elimination of opposition newspapers. Mussolini’s fascist government first upended, and later controlled, the fundamental ways in which the economy functioned, politics were conducted, and the way society was organized.
Broadly speaking, these tactics were not necessarily new. Where Mussolini’s government particularly stands out, and what makes interwar Italy a uniquely post-World War I kind of dictatorship, is in the use of mass media, particularly through the image, for the purposes of indoctrination through propaganda. This strategy would soon be modeled by Hiter’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, and laid the groundwork for authoritarian governments well into the future. Two different propaganda campaigns, that of fascism and the family and that of Mussolini as supreme ruler, make for a compelling examination. These are just some of the ideals that helped to form what Marxist political philosopher Antonio Gramsci (imprisoned under Mussolini’s regime) called “cultural hegemony,” a method of ensuring authoritarian domination through the active and willing consent of the ruled.
Fascism and the family
Establishing a strong link between family life and political life was crucial to the formation and maintenance of facist hegemony. The architects of fascist rule in Italy “recognized the family as the bedrock for Italian society,” and “were eager to see that under fascism the family maintained its structure, cohesion, and centrality to Italian society,” (Hametz, 97).
Figure A (below) is a 1922 cover of a women’s magazine, “Almanac of the Italian Woman,” founded after the end of World War I. It bears a close resemblance to the Betsy Ross iconography found in the United States, and seems to communicate similar ideas. Here, a woman is seen sewing a corner piece of the Italian flag, draped over her lap. A blonde child, dressed in all-white, sits by her feet.
It is no large leap to take the flag as a symbol of the Italian state itself, and if one does so, one notices a few things. First, the flag/state is located within the home; there is no separation from the home life and the political life, but rather the two are interwoven. This task of sewing with the child reflects the idealized role of the Italian woman/mother: domesticated, responsible for household tasks and child care, but still responsible for creating the fabric of the flag/state. One also notices the positioning of the flag, draped over the mother and between mother and child. Not only is the flag/state positioned in the home, as mentioned already, but it literally comes between what might otherwise be considered an exclusive familial bond. The woman and the infant do not relate to each other purely by virtue of their relationship as parent and child, but instead in a way mediated by their relationship with the flag/state.
Figure B (below) once again uses sewing/knitting imagery. This illustration comes from the women’s division of the G.U.F., the university arm of the Italian fascist party. The blue thread spells out “Vincere,” the infinitive form of the verb for “victory.” The piece is titled “Lavoriamo per i Nostri Soldati,” or “We work for our soldiers.”
Published in 1942, this illustration gets to the gender roles of Italy during WWII, and stresses the relationship between women at home and the men fighting at the front. Like Figure A, the illustration brings the state into the home by associating a domestic activity with a national cause. Note the red “X”s, presumably the chromosomal identity of the female genome, covered in barbed wire and resembling militant fencing. Once again, this seems to achieve the aim of bringing the front lines of the war into the home for the purpose of unification, but also demonstrates the all-encompassing nature of fascist society (especially during wartime).
Figure C (below) is another poster, celebrating the “VI Day of the Mother and Child.” It bears similarities with Figure A in the tender depiction of mother and child, who here almost seems to be glowing with a blissful radiance. An older but still young child also features, dressed in strapping military gear and weilding a rifle, smiling and facing directly forward.
It seems fair to be skeptical over the happiness of the trio (note the absence of the father, a common occurrence in family-oriented propaganda), even if it is a sweet image. In its emphasis on traditionalism, the fascist regime in Italy built their notions of gender roles on pseudo-scientific ideas that developed in the 19th century, a bit like the kind that served as a backing in earlier campaigns in constructing the notion of the Southern “other.” Posters like these, and women’s publications like the “Almanacco Della Donna Italiana” or “Giornale Della Donna,” all seem to work toward “Fascism’s aim…’to essentially give women the conscience and knowledge of this mission [as a mother] on which the prosperity, the glory, the life, and the future of the nation depend,’” (Hametz 145). The absence of the father figure, even in images not dedicated specifically to celebrating the “day of the mother and child,” doesn’t feel like an accident. In Figure A, the father is replaced by the flag/state. In Figure B, the young soldier takes the place of the father to represent the continuation of the Italian military, and of the fascist government. Taken together, these examples demonstrate the way in which the role of motherhood was co-opted by the fascists, and transformed into something less about the family itself and more about strengthening and preserving the fascist state.
Mussolini as supreme leader
Propaganda in mass media during Mussolini’s reign also aided his transformation from quasi-revolutionary into “Il Duce,” or “The Duke,” cementing his role as rightful leader. Unlike the illustrations common in propaganda related to fascism and the family, there are a striking number of photographs of Mussolini — in fact, “Mussolini was the first European political leader to be extensively photographed…The ubiquity of his image ensured that his face, gestures and physical presence were immediately recognisable, even though only limited number of people ever saw him in person,” (Antola, 178). Thanks to the advancement of photographic and print technology by the interwar period, it was easier for photographs of Mussolini to be circulated in forms of popular media like newspapers, posters and postcards.
In accordance with fascist tenants of strength and industrialization, the publication in which Figure D (below), called “Il Duce Aviatore” (The Duke Aviator), appears is a celebration of Italy’s aviational prowess. All Italian transatlantic flights from 1919 to 1930 are listed within the magazine, commemorating “The Great Air Show” in Turin, and also the tenth anniversary of the installment of Mussolini as prime minister after the 1922 March on Rome.
The photograph of Mussolini associates him with the success of Italy’s aviation industry, a mark of pride and strength. He bears a stern facial expression, which is replicated in many other photographs. Dressed in pilot’s gear (the unmistakable cap and goggles), Mussolini is depicted as a multi-talented figure, equally capable of piloting an aircraft as he is piloting the government. This photo in particular conjoins two phenomena under the Mussolini regime: the progression of aviation technology and the popularization of commercial air travel, with the development of mass communication technologies. It is difficult to say how much responsibility Mussolini can claim for either, but it’s a good example of the circumstances that made his regime so unique.
As technology for taking photographs progressed, so too did technology for manipulating photographs. The differences between Figure E and Figure F (below) demonstrate a striking example of the editing of media for the purposes of advancing propaganda. The scene depicted is Mussolini in Libya in 1937 receiving the “sword of Islam” in a demonstration of Italian imperialism.
Note the differences between the two photos: in the first, a man holds the horse on which Mussolini sits, and the palm trees identifying the area can be made out in the background. In Figure F, the man and the palm trees have been edited out, and the photo has been cropped to place Mussolini more centrally. Figure E is the image as was captured and first published, but it was doctored for subsequent publications. Even the first photo was deliberately framed and staged: Mussolini, the all-powerful ruler, is depicted as a horseback warrior, thrusting the sword in victory that represents Italy’s imperial conquests. The edited photo further emphasizes this, placing Mussolini as the undisputed central figure, with not even the groom holding onto the horse — here, Mussolini alone is in total control.
Figures D, E and F all depict a uniformed Mussolini, but the more casual photographs (even though these are largely staged as well) suggest a different set of themes within the fascist government and patriarchal structure. In the construction of a new fascist identity, interwar Italy also went about constructing ideals for the new fascist man centered around strength as a virtue — both as a patriot and soldier, but also in physical appearance. This coincided with more widespread changes to the ideal male form during the interwar period, which “changed to the physically fit, muscular body, so that dancers and athletes became favourite models,” (Antola 187). It’s important to understand the context behind Figure G, a highly staged portrait of a shirtless Mussolini. It was taken as part of the “Battle for the Grain” campaign, a government effort to boost domestic grain production so as to rely less heavily on imports, and build Italy into a more self-sufficient nation (perhaps not just for economic reasons, but to coincide with fascist ideals).
Here, Mussolini attempts to appeal to the rural population, tossing off a stuffy uniform to show off his bare chest. The image was reproduced as a postcard, but only after the photograph was “retouched to eliminate body-hair” (Antola 188). Mussolini was threshing wheat for this photo opportunity, but perhaps adding to the absurdity of the affair is that in all likelihood, a farmer would not be doing so shirtless; light clothes protect the skin from the sun or farming tools. It’s unlikely, however, that accuracy was the aim of the photograph, but instead a production that enforced Mussolini’s masculine pride and populist appeal.
Mussolini appears to have loved being photographed shirtless, as the examples below are just home of the many that are rather easy to track down.
A different era
Part of the reason for doubting that a regime similar to Mussolini’s Italy could form today is because the specific set of factors from that time cannot be replicated. Indeed, part of what makes interwar Italy such a unique time is due to other contemporaneous developments. The ones examined here are only a small number, but certainly they include the advancement of photographic technology, the trend of certain branches of social science toward traditional gender roles, and the changing aesthetics of the ideal male. These developments were by no means exclusive to Italy, but these images from popular forms of media like magazines, journals, and postcards shed light on the way the construction of a new fascist identity was advanced through mass media.
- Antola, Alessandra. “Photographing Mussolini.” The Cult of the Duce: Mussolini and the Italians, edited by Stephen Gundle et al., Manchester University Press, 2013, pp. 178–192. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt18mvkcv.16. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.
- “Giovinezza!” Inno Trionfale del Partito Nazionale Fascista. Music by Giuseppe Blanc; lyrics by Salvator Gotta. Milan: Carisch Editori, 1939.
- Grande Manifestazione Aerea. Turin, July 1932.
- Ham, Anthony (2007). EDT (ed.). Libia. Turin, Italy.
- Rivista delle Famiglie. Milan, June 1936
- Sezione Femminile del G.U.F. Vincere. Lavoriamo per i Nostri Soldati. Bologna: Anonima Arti Grafiche, 1942.
- “The Family in Question.” In the Name of Italy: Nation, Family, and Patriotism in a Fascist Court, by Maura E. Hametz, Fordham University Press, New York, 2012, pp. 97–117. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0css.9. Accessed 12 Dec. 2020.