John Champagne argues in Aesthetic Modernism and Masculinity in Fascist Italy that contradictory representations of masculinity rooted in capitalism impeded the consummation of the fascist “new man” and complicate our sense of the art of that era. The triumphalist objectification of the athletic male body in anti-liberal State capitalism did not merely yield the macho kitsch of Mussolini’s megalomaniacal self-representations and the monumental nude statuary of the [End Page 860] Foro Mussolini (now Foro Italico, Stadio dei Marmi in Rome); it also altered the male from producer to consumer, a spectacle of mass consumption.
In the modern period, ideals of manhood and manliness, previously grounded in physiology, become performed as masculinity; the male is now equally the object as well as the subject of desire. The male body in fascism is especially prone to this polarity: a hypervirile, disciplined, industrious subject and a coyly specular, feminized object. “As a gendered performance, masculinity threatens to reveal itself as such—a performance, a show, a voyeuristic spectacle,” Champagne states (93). Stressing the official policy of non-interference in the arts, he sees in some of the painting, music, and literature of the era a contestation of the peculiarly insecure, and indeed often homoerotic, fascist valorization of masculinity.
Extending the scope of Barbara Spackman’s Fascist Virilities into representations of masculinity in the arts of fascist Italy, Champagne shows how homosocial bonding furthered patriotism, military service, and idolatry of il Duce, thus ensuring the masses’ collusion in their own domination. Rigid gender binaries, he notes, offered “enough homosociality to encourage Mussolini’s male followers to identify with, even love him, and enough homophobia to ensure that this love remains sublimated as hero worship” (136).
Champagne counters the reprehensible equation of homosexuality with totalitarianism. Theodor Adorno in Minima Moralia and Alberto Moravia in The Conformist, for instance, insinuate that a masochistic, repressed, homoerotic narcissism converts self-hatred into fascistic sadism. The cinematic acme of this stereotype is the viciously effeminate Nazi Kommandant in Roberto Rossellini’s Roma città aperta, wherein the Christ-like Italian partisan gets tortured to death. (Rossellini had previously been a prominent director in the fascist film industry.)
Fascist discourses of masculinity manifested the contradictions of an ideology receptive to elements of modernism while remaining deeply hostile to its politically subversive cosmopolitanism. Even the Futurists received few State commissions, and members, including Filippo Marinetti himself, were often placed on the defensive and compelled to compromise. Champagne dedicates a chapter to the theater of Luigi Pirandello, wherein he finds a resolute modernist refusal of fascist ideology. Champagne argues that, however ambivalent the author’s publicly stated politics may have been, plays like Six Characters in Search of an Author offer no endorsement of fascism, regardless of their contempt (shared with Mussolini) for the bourgeois family and for liberal moral agency. The bellicose collective had no place in Pirandello’s moral code, Champagne shows. Having first called Pirandello “a deconstructionist avant la lettre,” he views Henry IV as not so much anticipating Derrida as being curiously “indebted to deconstruction” (64, 69). (It would be more plausible to simply cite Pirandello as an influence on deconstruction.) His theater, Champagne convincingly asserts, “leaves masculine subjectivity in ruins, and thus by implication constituted an open challenge to fascist discourses of the new man” (70).
In a challenge to Adorno’s version of the repugnant myth of homofascism, Champagne exonerates several of the State-funded Scuola Romana artists of charges of collaboration. He detects dissent in the work of several homosexual painters, however much they may have enjoyed official patronage. He follows Marla Stone’s argument in The Patron State that, in contrast to the coercive aesthetic uniformity imposed by the Nazis, the Italian regime did not decree an exclusive fascist aesthetic, as it attempted instead to mobilize artists’ consent through reform of existing institutions (e.g. La Scala and the Uffizi Gallery) and the establishment of new ones, as well as through syndicates. Not only was no orthodoxy of style officially promulgated, but censorship and coercion of the arts remained...