The Middle Ages and Fascist Italy : Beyond “Romanità”

The Middle Ages and Fascist Italy : Beyond “Romanità”

Romedio Schmitz-Esser, Ruprecht Karls University, Heidelberg; Martin Baumeister, German Historical Institute (DHI) Rom; Markus Wurzer, Max Planck Institute, Halle/Saale
digital (Rom)
Vom - Bis
07.06.2021 - 08.06.2021
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Marina Bernardi, Centre de Recherche en Histoire Européenne Comparée, Université Paris-Est Créteil

The international conference was structured in four round tables with short introduction statements to discuss the role, imagery and ideology of Middle Ages in Fascist Italy and its impact on the representations of the Ventennio.

The conference began with an intervention by STEFANO CAVAZZA (Bologna) who discussed the rediscovery and revival of popular festivals in 19th-century Europe understood as folkloric celebrations. The fascist Regime in Italy incorporated these practices into its post-labor policy together with attention to the local and regional dimension as bridges to the Nation as local resources were used to promote tourism based on the attractiveness of the places’ “typical” nature.

DAVIDE IACONO (Roma) focused on the legacy of the condottieri to substantiate Mussolini's warrior image: The memory of the condottieri lent itself particularly well to a teleological vision of history, centered on the concept of Romanism. These figures were intended by the military historians of the time as heirs of a seamless martial tradition that began with Rome and passed directly to the Renaissance to find its apex with Mussolini, often compared to Federico da Montelfeltro, Sigismondo Malatesta or Niccolo Picinnino by his biographers.

ANDREAS REHBERG (Roma) discussed the heraldry in fascist Rome, focusing on the little-known versions of fascist signs incorporated into coats of arms associated with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: from the various traces of the littorio on heraldic shields preserved on the monuments and public buildings to the coats of arms for the Italian colonies.

To conclude on the medieval representations during the Ventennio, GUIDO ZUCCONI (Venezia) highlighted the role of architecture in the nation-building process in Italy, in particular in the aftermath of the national unification process. Above all the epic of the free municipalities (Liberi Comuni) provided both ideal motivations and architectural styles to the Neo-medievalist vein. Not surprisingly, one of the recurring themes concerned the reconstruction of the Palazzi civici and their surrounding squares.

In the second session, the speakers discussed the place of Medieval studies during the fascist era, beginning with an intervention by MARINO ZABBIA (Torino) who talked about his case-studies of Friuli, Trieste and Istria. In these border parts of Italy the promotion of Medieval studies was deeply related with identity issues: from irredentism before the First World War – as a barrier both to the German threat and to the infiltration of Slavic elements – to claiming the Italian character of these lands against the annexation purposes of Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War.

TOMMASO ZERBI (Edinburgh) focused on the neo-medievalism in Italy during the fifty years that elapsed between the definitive decline of the neo-medieval Boitian experience in the 1910s and the rise of a revivalist literature in the the 1960s. These years saw the definition of Italian neo-medievalism influenced by the specters of classicism, of modernism, and of architectural restoration theories.

CESARE CROVA (Roma) chose to focus on the figure of Pietro Fedele. From the writing of his thesis on the duchy of Gaeta to the promotion of the alphabetization of young people from disadvantaged categories, Fedele became central in the intellectual landscape of the regime, as showes his presidency of the Italian Historical Institute which he made "for the Middle Ages".

Continuing exploring the medieval scholar’s perception of the feeling of crisis, MARGHERITA ANGELINI (Padova) insisted on the ambivalence of the university chairs of Medieval studies which also cover that of modern history. The ambivalence between scholars’ interests in contemporary history and the persistence of their interest in the hstory of the long Middle Ages (up to 1500) is a useful tool to the comprehension of the intellectual panorama of the Ventennio.

Then MARTIN BAUMEISTER (Rome) oriented the debate on the urban planning of Rome as a great politic and symbolic landscape. The propaganda device influenced the studies and created a new public sphere, inventing the image of Mussolini as the architect of the new Rome. The Duce maintained the ambiguity of the concept of Romanism which implemented truly different ideas and achievements. The idea of a Romanità rooted in antiquity is strengthened by modern dynamics as futurism, anti-past or anti-historicism.

The session ended with a keynote lecture by TOMMASO DI CARPEGNA FALCONIERI (Urbino) who discussed medievalism as "the Middle Ages after the Middle Ages”, a concept that ties a bond with historical and political realities and that does not have ontological relations with the truly lived past. Medievalism, which initially appeared as equivalent to romanticism, is today a cultural category and an active field of study in many scientific disciplines. It invites us to question its relation with many other concepts, such as nationalism, fascism, colonialism and so on in a perspective of histoire croisée, in every territory and culture.

The third round table focused on fascism, medievalism and the Catholic Church, through peculiar medieval iconic figures. JAN NELIS (Bruxelles) began with a contribution on two characters belonging to very distinct contexts: Cola di Rienzo and Benito Mussolini. “Political religion” is the key to his investigation, as the reception of Roman antiquity, a significant aspect on the political agenda of both fascism and the medieval tribune, and which could therefore lead to analyses of a comparative nature.

RICCARDO FACCHINI (Roma) discussed the continuity between fascist medievalism and neo-fascist medievalism in the years 1960-70, as neo-fascist and catholic medievalism do not see a particular public use of certain historical figures, but are more attached to the great thematic categories, three mainly: the ideas of tradition, of chivalry and of the crusade.

ROBERTO RUSCONI (Roma) highlighted the role of the image of Saint Francis through the counting of the Istituto Luce newsreels, a tool of regime propaganda. These movies contributed to build the figure of Francis as "the most Italian of saints and the holiest of Italians", making him central to nationalist rhetorics from d'Annunzio to Mussolini.

PAOLA S.SALVATORI (Pisa) closed the session with an intervention about Dante's nostalgia as a consequence of using the image of the poet to build a model of the archetypal Italian. Dante seemed to be the point of reference and the point of arrival of the Italian man that arose from the Renaissance and Risorgimento process. Salvatori showed how this nostalgia is a long-lasting process that overlaps with the unification of Italian State, from the Mazzinian era to the writings of young Benito Mussolini in the magazine “La Voce”.

The fourth and last round table gave space to a reflection on the images of Middle Ages on extra-Italian contexts, such as Spain, North America or Germany. MARIA ANGELES MARTIN ROMERA (Madrid) talked about the Francisco Franco period that favored the Golden Age and the colonial expansion as references. Ferdinand and Isabella were central figures for the propaganda that used their emblems, the arrows and the Yoke in the Falanges’ iconography.

AARON VANIDES (Heidelberg) focused on North America where Middle Ages seem to not have happened: cathedrals, heraldic shields, trade routes… everything medieval appears far away and highly esoteric. Syncretism is an important criterion of American medievalim as its link with the entertainment industry (“Assassin’s Creed”, “The Birth of a Nation”, etc.) or its association with violence, from “Deus Vult” imagery to fraternity boys clubs or even the Horn man of the Capitol’s riot.

HANNES OBERMAIR (Bolzano) returned on a border context with the question of South Tyrol: Besides archaeology, the Middle Ages became a battleground of Italian and Austrian (or Tyrolean) intellectuals. This conflict led to a bizarre flowering of regional studies, whose respective ethnocentric readings are still revealing today. Written from an apparently objectified perspective, the self-fulling prophecies of both the Italian and German fascisms become clearly visible in the conflicting medievalisms of Tyrolean past.

MAIKE STAINKAMP (Berlin) concluded the talks with an intervention about the important role of the medieval period in the construction of German history during the national socialist period, with frequent recalling to Charlemagne, Ottonians, or the Empire. The Third Reich placed itself in the direct tradition of the Holy Roman Empire. The Middle Ages were connected to the art of the present: from imperial insigna, to the _Bamberger Reiter_The exhibition “German Greatness” in Munich (1940) was mostly a comprehensive attempt to legitimize the German war policy, based on maps of the expansion of the Holy Roman Empire. The presentation of the imperial insigna in Nuremberg’s church was also part of this propaganda: the mayor of Nuremberg presented the Aachen copy of the ceremony sword to Adolf Hitler directly.

The focus on the Middle Ages as a source of references during the fascist era is an interesting way to discuss the predominance of Ancient Rome in the studies of the Ventennio. If medieval imagery is not the privileged medium of Mussolini’s propaganda, it is not relevant to consider Middle Ages as an ostracized period. Indeed the activity of medieval history scholars and the attention paid to the figures and monuments of medieval Christianity shows a certain conjunction of interests, in a way linked to some of the fascist political realizations as the Lateran agreements. The complexity of the definition of medievalism in Italy is increased by the very nature of the peninsula in the Middle Ages, fragmented in very different political, architectural and economic realities.

Conference overview:

Sessione I: Rappresentazioni del periodo medievale nell’Italia fascista

Moderatore: Romedio Schmitz Esser (Heidelberg)

Stefano Cavazza (Bologna): Feste popolari e regionalismi

Davide Iacono (Roma): Medievalismo e condottierismo in Italia tra risorgimento e regime fascista

Andreas Rehberg (Roma): L’araldica nella Roma fascista

Guido Zucconi (Venezia): Medievalismi nell’architettura del primo Novecento

Sessione II: Gli studi medievali e il loro posto durante il fascismo

Moderatore: Kordula Wolf (Roma)

Marino Zabbia (Torino): Il posto del Medioevo nella storiografia della regione Friuli Venezia Giulia durante il Ventennio

Tommaso Zerbi (Edimburgo): I quattro spettri del neomedievalismo

Cesare Crova (Roma): Pietro Fedele e l’Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medioevo

Margherita Angelini (Padova): Storiografia e fascismo

Martin Baumeister (Roma): I piani urbanistici di Mussolini e la fine della Roma medievale

Keynote Lecture

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri (Urbino): Il Medioevo nel secolo degli –ismi. Il medievalismo tra fascismo, modernismo, socialismo

Sessione III: Fascismo, medievalismo e Chiesa cattolica

Moderatore: Lutz Klinkhammer (Roma)

Jan Nelis (Bruxelles): Fascismo e tardo Medioevo: il caso di Cola di Rienzo

Riccardo Facchini (Roma): Un Medioevo per due tradizioni. L’Età di Mezzo tra neofascismo e cattolicesimo tradizionalista

Roberto Rusconi (Roma): San Francesco e nazionalismo italiano

Paola S. Salvatori (Pisa): Nostalgia di Dante. Poesia, politica e architettura nel Danteum di Terragni e Lingeri

Sessione IV: International Perspectives

Moderatore: Markus Wurzer (Halle/Saale)

María Ángeles Martín Romera (Madrid): Francisco Franco and the Middle Ages

Aaron Vanides (Heidelberg): The Medieval in North American Fascism

Hannes Obermair (Bolzano): The Middle Ages as a battle ground. Fascism’s and National Socialism’s reach for (South) Tyrol

Maike Stainkamp (Berlin): Medievalism in National Socialist Germany