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  • Bodily Regimes: Italian Advertising under Fascism by Karen Pinkus
  • Astrid Van den Bossche (bio)
Bodily Regimes: Italian Advertising under Fascism

There seems to be no shortage of iconic Italian advertising. The origins of some strands and styles of these campaigns are, however, steeped in a history rarely acknowledged in the casual exhibition of these highly stylized posters, better known now for their aesthetic qualities than for the products they endorsed, or the society in which they originated. Italian advertising created between the 1920s and WWII was, on the one hand, subject to constraints and censorship imposed by the Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini, and on the other, representational of the Fascist ideology that characterized contemporaneous Italian culture. Not quite propaganda, but not far from it either, these ads allow for sophisticated understandings that lay bare endemic tensions and anxieties. Documenting a subset of these ads, Karen Pinkus demonstrates in Bodily Regimes: Italian Advertising under Fascism (1995) that the treatment of the body implied an Italian subject thoroughly imbued in Fascist ideology—gender, sexuality, health, the worker, and the productive cycle, all can be read as subject to Fascist values.

The first chapter, “The Body and the Market,” wastes no time in setting the tone for the remainder of the book and introduces the author’s understanding of the body’s place in advertising and Fascism. Pinkus explains her conceptual use of iconography, a term borrowed from art history, to uncover the symbolic and implied content of mass media imagery, thus proposing that these images express something akin to “a political unconscious” (p. 5). The way the body is represented in advertising thus expresses more than just a desire to connect with the viewer and elicit identification with the promotional messages. Under Italian Fascism, Pinkus argues, this identification is exercised through a specific visual language that draws from the body cult of Fascist dictator Mussolini, thereby drawing deep connections between politics and advertising. What’s more, that line was drawn to the market itself through the chocolate manufacturers’ Perugina-Buitoni figurine craze, yet another example of the power of the body at the intersection of advertising and ideology: “the chocolate brokers had traded away the humanizing veneer of the little dolls for the reality of capital accumulation” (p.19). This collection of preparatory notes serves as Pinkus’ springboard for the ensuing chapters.

In her second chapter, “Selling the Black Body: Advertising and the African Campaigns,” Pinkus gets straight to the point: Rooted not only in racist but also Fascist discourse, the representation of the black body takes on connotations that today may no longer seem very deep but that would have made specific ideological statements to the contemporary Italian audience.

Paralleling Italy’s colonialist endeavors and its concomitant domestic discourse, the black body as represented across the media reflects on (Fascist, male) whiteness and Italy’s position vis-à-vis Africa and Europe. Marinetti’s 1909 novel, Mafarka le futuriste roman africain, highly criticized in Italy for its sexually explicit nature, offers one of the most notable examples of a racist discourse prefiguring Africa as a licentious, amoral, uncivilized wilderness to be conquered by military/sexual virility. Amplified with racist notions of Jewishness, the paradigm was wholly adopted and relied on in subsequent representations of the black body, abstracted into self-evidence through the highly geometric forms of Italian futurism (see Figure 1 for an example of this style). This characteristic visual style gains significant currency also in advertising imported goods, such as coffee, chocolate, and sugar, as well as in political propaganda and financial services.

Pinkus distinguishes between five key icons and their specific significations: a) the Smiling Negress, a Somali beauty who is both the height of sensuality and the ultimate abject prostitute; b) the Asiatic Worker, the feudal laborer kept in line by Fascist ideology; c) the Silent Arab, a Libyan figure veiled and thus hidden from view; d) the Moretto, the Moor whose sexuality is feminized into innocuousness; and e) the Black Baby, whose need for rescue serves as yet another vehicle of Fascist paternalism.

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Figure 1.

Perugina chocolate women by Seneca

Given that Fascist ideology tends to entrench...