- Mussolini's Decennale: Aura and Mythmaking in Fascist Italy by Antonio Morena
In October 1932, Italy's Fascist regime celebrated the tenth anniversary (Decennale) of its "revolution." In 1922, Benito Mussolini's Blackshirts had marched on Rome, "purging" the capital of the corruption and feebleness of liberal democracy. In truth, there was very little that was revolutionary about the March. Mussolini had already been appointed Prime Minister through constitutional means; he arrived in Rome by train, wearing a morning suit. The Fascist legions encountered no resistance from the Italian state and were mainly interested in terrorizing leftists, independent journalists, and working-class neighbourhoods. Indeed, it would not be until 1925 that Mussolini finally exerted dictatorial control over the country.
If October 1922 had been framed as a March on Rome, then, as Antonio Morena elegantly frames it, October 1932 presented an imperative for a march from Rome. After ten years in power, Fascism had not succeeded in remaking the nation in its own image; furthermore, the original generation [End Page 210] of Blackshirts had lost its revolutionary élan, and no cohort of "New Men" had emerged to lead the movement into the future. The Decennale therefore provided the opportunity both to narrate Fascism's history retrospectively and to mobilize the masses and "evangelize" a new generation. The centrepiece of these efforts was the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista (MRF, or Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution), an elaborate political exhibition that the author variously describes as an "aesthetic operation meant to anaesthetize the masses," a temple for a "fascist secular religion," and a "modernist experiment that intended to mechanically replicate and exhibit the aura of the revolution." In chapter one, Morena reconstructs the MRF's itinerary, in which visitors were led through an elaborately designed reconstruction of Fascism's birth and rise to power, culminating in the dramatic Martyrs' Shrine, meant to commemorate the Christ-like "fallen" in the struggle for national redemption. Morena frames this display as a call to action, an "avant-garde aesthetic [that] united cinematic technique and modernist design to shock the new generation into a new chapter of the fascist revolution's narrative."
The MRF is well-trodden territory for scholars of Fascism, and one of the chief merits of this book is a willingness to look at other dimensions of the regime's self-representation in 1932. In the second chapter, Morena extends his discussion of didacticism to textbooks used in elementary schools, which again are interpreted in terms of ritual, performance, and language used for mobilizing the masses. The anniversary also prompted other cultural expressions, and chapter three examines artifacts like the Enciclopedia Italiana (a Fascist riposte to Diderot's Enlightenment project), film, and literary works. The final chapter shifts the focus to critically dissenting voices, which were revitalized by the Decennale's appeal for renewal. Morena focuses especially on the literary review Solaria, which provided a platform for young intellectuals to issue their own calls for change and regeneration.
Throughout this work, Morena dissects various texts – written, cinematic, spatial – thoughtfully and thoroughly. Ultimately, though, the book's larger interpretative contribution remains somewhat unclear. Morena approvingly cites well-established interpretations from the likes of Emilio Gentile (Fascism as secular religion), Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi (Fascism as aestheticized politics, with a debt to Walter Benjamin), and Roger Griffin (Fascism as "palingenetic ultra-nationalism"), but it is not evident how he is extending or building upon these analyses. Such interpretations – grounded in "reading" Fascist culture on its own terms – have yielded valuable new insights into the regime's totalitarian project, its vision of a New Man and a New Italy, and its use of aesthetics and ritual in the cultivation of consent. However, as Morena himself acknowledges, this scholarship has also been criticized for taking Fascism's self-representation at face value, and for neglecting the ways in which Italians variously internalized, appropriated, and/or resisted the regime's overtures. Morena [End Page 211] insists that Fascism was "an authentically revolutionary movement" and Mussolini a "modernizing revolutionary ideologue," but does not critically assess the nature...