Murals and Public Art in 1930s Rome


We expect to find paintings in art galleries, museums, and homes, but paintings also appear on the walls of municipal buildings, post offices, hospitals, and palaces; and they are often monumental in scale. These paintings are called murals. Murals, or artworks painted on plaster walls, ceilings, or other permanent surfaces, are among the oldest forms of public art. In the city of Rome murals have a particularly strong association with architecture—they appear in ancient Roman villas, as well as in medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque churches and palaces. Murals also have a more recent Roman history, when they were harnessed to the political agenda of 1930s Fascism, a one-party state led by an authoritarian ruler.

Benito Mussolini reviewing a military parade beside a statue of a Roman emperor, 1943, newsreel still

Benito Mussolini reviewing military parade beside a statue of the emperor Nerva, Via dei Fori Imperiali, Rome, 1943 (newsreel still)

Propaganda

The dictator Benito Mussolini ruled Italy from 1922–1943. He understood the value of art for propaganda, to influence his audiences, and to spread his political message. Mussolini espoused an extreme nationalism. He promoted the interests of the state above all else, and held an abiding and cultish connection to the greatness of ancient Imperial Rome, which he strove to emulate as he conquered Ethiopia.

Mussolini even envisioned the formation of a “Third Rome”—his Rome—following in the footsteps of the ancient emperors and the Catholic Church. He promoted a militaristic culture that celebrated physical robustness, labor and agriculture, and the family for the purpose of perpetuating the Italian nation. Mussolini understood that large, public murals painted onto the walls of Fascist-era buildings, with easily understandable iconography (symbolism) could transform architectural spaces and proclaim the state’s political message to the public.

Saluting banner with bust of Mussolini between fasci, Mekelle, Italian East Africa (Ethiopia), 1935 (Archiwa Panstwowe, Poland)

Men saluting banner with bust of Mussolini between fasci, Mekelle, Italian East Africa (Ethiopia), 1935 (Archiwa Panstwowe, Poland)

The manifesto of muralism

Many Italian artists and architects of different movements and styles worked under Mussolini’s Fascist regime, promoting it with their painting and sculpture. However only some, not all, actually supported Fascist beliefs. Mario Sironi, a prolific draughtsman, painter, and mosaicist was one of Mussolini’s most ardent loyalists. He was also a strong proponent of mural painting, having rejected painting on canvas because he considered it an exclusive art for the elite. In 1933, Sironi (with fellow artists Massimo Campigli, Carlo Carrà, and Achille Funi) presented and signed  a hugely influential declaration called Il Manifesto della Pittura Murale (The Manifesto of Muralism). It stated,

Mural painting is social painting, par excellence. It works upon the popular imagination more directly than any other form of painting, . . . [and is tied to] the practical nature of sites for murals (public buildings, places endowed with civic functions) . . . [and their] intimate relation to the art of architecture. . . . A “Fascist style” will arise out of mural painting: a style in which our new civilization will recognize its likeness. [1]

This document, which advanced the artist as a proud craftsman and worker in society, aligned with other current writings by, for example, Mexican muralists—though the two were politically opposed, with the themes of the Italian painters being autocratic and attuned to the “grand myths and gigantic revolutions” of the Fascist regime. [2]

Sapienza Università di Roma (photo: Corrado Bonora, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sapienza Università di Roma (photo: Corrado Bonora, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Città Universitaria (Sapienza University)

In 1935, Mario Sironi painted the fresco, Italy Among the Arts and Sciences  (Italia tra le arti e le scienze), for the main auditorium of Rome’s new Città Universitaria, also called Sapienza University. This was one of fascism’s most significant architectural projects, consisting of sixteen buildings designed by eleven architects. [3]

Mario Sironi, Italia tra le arti e le scienze (Italy Among the Arts and Sciences), 1935, 140 square meters (Sapienza University, Rome, photo: Sapienza Università di Roma, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mario Sironi, Italia tra le arti e le scienze (Italy Among the Arts and Sciences), 1935, 140 square meters (Sapienza University, Rome, photo: Sapienza Università di Roma, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The mural is among Sironi’s most celebrated monumental works and although it measures an enormous 140 square meters, it was completed in only two months, in time for the university’s grand inauguration. In his archaizing style, Sironi presented an allegory of Italy and its quasi-mythical origins.

Figures are rendered with simplified masses and dressed in classical togas. They symbolize academic subjects such as astronomy, botany, geography, architecture, literature, and history. Placed amidst a backdrop of craggy rocks and an ancient triumphal arch, the figures are harmoniously placed within their surroundings. A victory figure flies overhead wearing a military-style helmet and wings in the shape of fasci (bundled rods with an ax carried by ancient Roman soldiers that became a symbol of the Fascist regime). An image of Mussolini on horseback appears at the arch’s center and the date of the mural is indicated by the Roman numeral XIV, indicating the fourteenth year of the regime. In this mural, ancient Roman splendor is joined to the imagined grandeur of the modern present under Fascist rule.

Enrico Del Debbio and Luigi Moretti, Foro Italico, formerly Foro Mussolini, Rome (photo: Fred Romero, CC BY 2.0)

Enrico Del Debbio and Luigi Moretti, Foro Italico, formerly Foro Mussolini, Rome (photo: Fred Romero, CC BY 2.0)

Foro Italico, formerly Foro Mussolini

Rome’s Foro Mussolini, a vast sports complex initially constructed in the spirit of ancient open-air fora and named for the dictator but now called Foro Italico, represents an unrivaled integration of architecture and art in the service of fascism. Set outside amidst a pool house, fencing center, and other gymnasium buildings, classically inspired mosaics depict athletes and sport, Roman antiquity, imperial conquest, and fascist slogans. Also present are sculptures of heroically male nudes and an obelisk inscribed with Mussolini’s name.

Luigi Montamarini, Apotheosis of Fascism (detail), 1942 (Foro Italico, Rome)

Luigi Montamarini, Apotheosis of Fascism (detail), 1942, fresco (conference room, Foro Italico, Rome)

In the foro’s largest conference room within the main building, Luigi Montamarini created the monumental mural Apotheosis of Fascism. In shades of green, red, and white (the colors of the Italian flag), the artist painted a crowded scene of supporters saluting and paying homage to Mussolini. Standing atop a red banner displaying the Roman eagle draped on a marble altar, the dictator appears, like the title suggests, as one elevated to divine status. Communism, depicted as a warrior with serpent hair in the lower left foreground, lies dead at the feet of a heroically nude soldier carrying a fascist flag. In the politically chaotic aftermath of World War I, far-right Fascists engaged in violence against far-left Communists as both sides sought to gain power. Italian warplanes fill the sky above warships as a winged Victory (common in ancient Roman art) signals the Roman Empire’s return. In this mural, fascist power and its Roman ancestry prevail. [4]

Casa Madre Dell'Associazione Nazionale dei Mutilati e Invalidi di Guerra, Rome (photo: Alberti1492, CC0 1.0 Universal)

Marcello Piacentini, Home for Wounded War Veterans (Casa Madre Dell’Associazione Nazionale dei Mutilati e Invalidi di Guerra), Rome (photo: Alberti1492, CC0 1.0 Universal)

Home for Wounded War Veterans, Rome

Rome’s Home for Wounded War Veterans (Casa Madre dei Mutilati ed Invalidi) serves as the national headquarters of AMNIG, the National Association of Disabled and Invalid War Veterans, founded in 1917 during the First World War. [5] Later, the Fascist Regime embraced AMNIG and sought to link the triumphs of World War I with its imperialist campaigns and nationalist ideals. [6] “Fortress-like” in design [7] and located next to Castel Sant’Angelo (emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum), the Casa Madre dei Mutilati was conceived as a “place for battle and prayer.” [8]

Antonio Giuseppe Santagata, The Offer of the Casa Madre to Victory, 1932, fresco (Assembly Hall, Casa Madre Dell'Associazione Nazionale dei Mutilati e Invalidi di Guerra)

Antonio Giuseppe Santagata, The Offer of the Casa Madre to Victory, 1932, fresco (apse, assembly hall, Home for Wounded War Veterans, Rome, photo ©ANMIG)

The sacred character of the assembly hall (built between 1926–1932), mimics the Greek cross plan of many early churches, and is accentuated with frescoes by the painter Antonio Giuseppe Santagata. Santagata drew on established Medieval ecclesiastical narrative traditions and war-related themes, to create four frescoes that represent distinct phases of war: Partenza (Departure), Assalto (Assault), Ritorno (Return), and Vittoria (Victory). [9]

ntonio Giuseppe Santagata, <em>The Offer of the Casa Madre to Victory</em>, 1932, fresco (apse, assembly hall, Casa Madre Dell'Associazione Nazionale dei Mutilati e Invalidi di Guerra, photo ©ANMIG)

Carlo Delcroix presenting the Casa Madre (highlighted) to Victory. Antonio Giuseppe Santagata, The Offer of the Casa Madre to Victory, 1932, fresco (apse, assembly hall, Home for Wounded War Veterans, Rome, photo ©ANMIG)

Enrico Scrovegni Presenting Chapel to the Three Marys (detail), Giotto, Last Judgment, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, 1305-06, fresco, Padua

The patron, Enrico Scrovegni presenting the Arena Chapel to the Three Marys (detail), Giotto, Last Judgment, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, 1305-06, fresco, Padua (photo: Steven Zucker: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the apse, or semicircular recess, The Offer of the Casa Madre to Victory (L’Offerta della Casa Madre alla Vittoria) fresco recalls medieval apse decorative schemes with Christ surrounded by saints to whom the Church is dedicated. Santagata replaced Mary with a triumphant and wingless figure representing Victory, and he replaced saints with sentries. The charismatic wounded veteran Carlo Delcroix, who became the AMNIG president, is depicted presenting a model of the Casa Madre to Victory (not unlike the medieval patron Enrico Scrovegni, who offered the Arena chapel he commissioned to the Virgin Mary).

Additional fresco cycles in the Courtyard of Victory portray theaters of war and battle maps (including Ethiopia). In a less public below-ground-shrine, Mario Sironi (the artist responsible for the Sapienza mural), painted highly charged frescoes of King Vittorio Emanuele III and Dictator Mussolini as warriors on horseback. [10] Painted to celebrate Fascism’s newly-founded “empire” after Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Sironi’s murals stridently reflect the propaganda of a belligerent nation. [11]

Antonio Giuseppe Santagata, detail of fresco cycle, Courtyard of Victory, Home for Wounded War Veterans, Rome, 1936-38

Fascist propaganda after the fall of Mussolini

What does a country do with propaganda art after a dictatorship falls? In the case of Italy, the propaganda was so blatant that, after Mussolini was overthrown and Fascism fell, some murals and public art were covered up (though not destroyed, as they were in Nazi Germany). Only since the 1980s have public artworks produced under Fascism been uncovered and in some cases restored to their original condition.

Mario Sironi, Rex Imperator (Vittorio Emanuele III) and Mussolini, 1936 – 37, affresco a tempera grassa, 4.95x4.88 m each, Sacrario, Casa Madre dei Mutilati di guerra, Roma,

Mario Sironi, Rex Imperator (Vittorio Emanuele III) and Mussolini, 1936–39, affresco a tempera grassa, 4.95 x 4.88 m each, Sacrario, Home for Wounded War Veterans (Casa Madre dei Mutilati di guerra, Rome)

Immediately after World War II, for example, Mario Sironi’s giant mural Italy Among the Arts and Sciences (Italia tra le arti e le scienze) was hidden under thick paper glued onto the painting’s surface. Five years later, in 1950, the mural was uncovered and “restored,” although with the removal of all fascist references. Not until 2017 did the famous mural undergo complete conservation revealing the original fascist symbols, including Mussolini on horseback and an enormous Roman Fasces (fascio littorio).

Likewise, Luigi Montamarini’s Apotheosis of Fascism, which could not be read as anything but a “fascist mural,” was hidden behind a green curtain after World War II. In 1996 the Superintendent for Environmental and Architectural Heritage in Rome ordered the fresco uncovered for purposes of restoration and display in the Foro Italico’s original conference room. [12] Though technically a public building like Sapienza University and Foro Italico, the Home for Wounded War Veterans never had a wide public audience. For this reason, Santagata’s and others murals have remained mostly in their original state. [13]

Only those frescoes by Sironi, Rex Imperator and Dux, because of their provocative warlike theme, were covered in 1946. [14]

Historical distance and an emphasis on cultural heritage preservation have made it acceptable to appreciate art and architecture with explicitly Fascist meaning and observe its artistic quality and value. However, the majority of these restorations fail to include a critical explanation of the works’ original meaning and purpose, even though they represent the material remains of an ideology that caused great harm. These works cannot be erased and need to be protected as a reminder of political violence of the 20th century. [15]

 

Notes:

[1] “Appendix: Mario Sironi, ‘The Manifesto of Muralism,” translated by J. Schnapp, in Donatello Among the Blackshirts: History and Modernity in the Visual Culture of Fascist Italy, edited by C. Lazzaro and R. Crum (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 238–240.

[2] Schnapp, “Manifesto,” p. 238.

[3] Braun, Mario Sironi and Italian Modernism, pp. 178–179.

[4] Nick Carter and Simon Martin, “The Management and Memory of Fascist Monumental Art in Postwar and Contemporary Italy: The Case of Luigi Montanarini’s Apotheosis of Fascism.” Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 22: 3 (2017), p. 339.

[5] Silvia Barisione, “The Construction of the Case del Mutilato,” in Antonio G. Santagata, Rappresentare La Guerra Rendering War (Genova: Sagep Editori, 2014), pp. 57–65.

[6] Barisione, “Case del Mutilato,” pp. 57, 64–65.

[7] Barisione, “Case del Mutilato,” p. 62; Marcello Piacentini, Mussolini’s lead architect, led the design of Casa Madre dei Mutilati ed Invalidi and La Citta’ Universitaria di Roma.

[8] Dobler in Marcello, “Between Censure and Celebration.”

[9] Matteo Fochessati, “Santagata and Mural Painting,” In Antonio G. Santagata, Rappresentare La Guerra Rendering War (Genova: Sagep Editori, 2014), p. 40.

[10] Flavia Marcello, “Between Censure and Celebration: The Decorative Plan of the Casa Madre dei Mutilati in Rome (1926-1939),” Modern Italy, vol. 24, no. 2 (2019), pp. 191-194.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Carter and Martin, “Management and Memory of Fascist Monumental Art.”

[13] Battle scene frescoes in the Cortile della Vittoria, painted by Antonio Santagata and Cipriani Efisio Oppo underwent conservation in 2018, due to exposure and neglect.

[14] Carter and Martin, “Management and Memory of Fascist Monumental Art.”

[15] Marcello,”Between Censure and Celebration;” Carter and Martin, “Management and Memory of Fascist Monumental Art.”


Additional resources

Emily Braun, Mario Sironi and Italian Modernism: Art and Politics Under Fascism (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Nick Carter and Simon Martin, “The Management and Memory of Fascist Monumental Art in Postwar and Contemporary Italy: The Case of Luigi Montanarini’s Apotheosis of Fascism.” Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 22: 3 (2017), pp. 338–364.

Flavia Marcello, “Between Censure and Celebration: The Decorative Plan of the Casa Madre dei Mutilati in Rome (1926-1939),” Modern Italy, vol. 24, no. 2 (2019), pp. 179–198.

Mario Sironi, “The Manifesto of Muralism,” translation by Jeffrey Schnapp, in Donatello Among the Blackshirts. History and Modernity in the Visual Culture of Fascist Italy (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 238–240.

Cite this page as: Dr. Laurie Kalb Cosmo, "Murals and Public Art in 1930s Rome," in Smarthistory, March 11, 2021, accessed July 29, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/murals-1930s-fascist-rome/.