- Facts and Fantasies: Photography and Camouflage in 1930s Italian Illustrated Media
With Fascism in power, it was difficult, in fact, impossible, for free individuals like us to say what we thought. We joked in between the lines, and we camouflaged the truth with the fake mustaches and the beards of invention and fantasy. . . . We spent memorable years that were characterized not by open battles, but rather, by continuously challenging the tight grip, control, and shrewdness of censors and party officials.—Giovanni Mosca (1968)1
The headline on the front page of the May 31, 1930 edition of the Italian illustrated periodical Il Secolo Illustrato, “Fatti e Fantasie,” has to be tongue-in-cheek (fig. 1). Three photographs of Benito Mussolini’s recent visit to the city of Milan are spread over four columns of text whose words are completely at odds with the message of this sequence. Surprisingly, the pompous representation of Il Duce performing the Fascist salute, speaking to a massive crowd, and parading with his troops, is undermined by three short stories that are neither descriptive nor commemorative but drift into a strange literary dimension, evoking sleepy and remote villages, eerie ghosts, and the surrounding menace of brigands. The textual narrative twists the manifest meaning of the visuals, and the reader is treated to a bizarre mélange of reality and fairytales, of fact and fantasy.
The nonsense of this narrative asks us to rethink the inner workings of photography in the popular media during the Fascist regime. Scholars of the period have mostly treated photography [End Page 563] as a vehicle for the shaping of consensus aligned to the progressive “Fascistization” and its tight grip on the press.2 They focus on the official production and circulation of images bound to the regime-controlled Istituto Luce (founded in 1925), and emphasize how the medium was instrumental in channeling a message that was meant to be intelligible and didactic. For the most part they peruse printed media representing the party, such as La Rivista Illustrata del Popolo d’Italia, and devote their attention to photomontages blown up into large-scale installations such as the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista, in 1932, an exhibition that epitomized the use of modernist aesthetics for the purpose of propaganda.3
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I argue that this reading of mass media during Fascism is insufficiently nuanced and that photography activates a different response when experienced in general interest magazines dedicated to chronicle and leisure, and consumed in a private space. Viewed in the context of a weekly illustrated press that promised distraction and entertainment, photography became part of a more textured communication—of “a system,” as Guido Bonsaver has observed, “fraught with potential complications” (Censorship, 26). This is evident when the focus shifts from the monolithic agency of the regime, with Rome as the center, to the private industrial sector of the publishing capital, Milan.
My argument here is sustained by a body of literature that argues against a consolidated notion of Fascist hegemony. In particular, I build on the work of David Forgacs and other scholars who problematize the experience of popular culture during Italy’s interwar years. As Forgacs notes, it is possible to “get beyond the ‘consent’ model and to begin to enquire into the complexity, the ‘thickness’ of social attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, of which cultural activities and consumption are a part.”4 Photography is intertwined in my study with a vein of sardonic humor that defies its image as an “infallible discourse of truth.”5 This is a subject that has rarely been tackled by historians of Fascist Italy, partly because of the lack of material that reflects an overt resistance. Stephen Gundle makes the point that irony and satire could only exist within the realm of “permitted humor,” which coexisted with, and did not even attempt to make a crack into the certainties of, Mussolini’s propaganda. He notes that “humor in Fascist Italy was feared and severely punished”; when satirical weeklies showed signs of resistance...