From Italy to the Americas: Library Exhibition on Seaplane Squadrons

At a time when air travel was still new and captured the world’s imagination, Italian Minister of Aviation Italo Balbo (1896–1940) was effectively Mussolini’s international goodwill ambassador as well as his heir apparent. “Balbo was Italy’s second-most-famous Fascist leader. He conceived and organized incredible feats of air travel, first in Europe and then to the Americas,” says Francis X. Luca, The Wolfsonian’s chief librarian. From Italy to the Americas: Italo Balbo’s 1930 and 1933 Seaplane Squadrons, the new library exhibition, showcases a range of printed ephemera related to Atlantic crossings by squadrons of Savoia-Marchetti seaplanes organized and led by Balbo. The exhibition extends the museum’s Rebirth of Rome series of exhibitions while thematically linking to the library’s most recent exhibition, also on air travel—Giants Lighter than Air explored Zeppelins.

Balbo’s trans-Atlantic crossings occurred after he successfully organized two Mediterranean flights, the first with an armada of sixty-one seaplanes in 1928 and then, a year later, with thirty-five seaplanes. After those flights, Balbo raised the stakes, planning and leading a squadron of about a dozen Savoia-Marchetti seaplanes from Rome to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1930. He topped that in 1933 with a squadron of twenty-four seaplanes that flew from Rome to the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress exposition and back. To put these accomplishments in context, these were among the first mass Atlantic crossings.

Balbo’s flights were widely celebrated. “He was incredibly popular, and not only in Italy. When he flew to Brazil and then to the United States, there were parades, media coverage, and Balbo was treated like an important diplomat. When he flew to Chicago, the mayor gave him a key to the city and in his honor Seventh Street was named Balbo Drive. At the Chicago World’s Fair, he was adopted by a delegation of Sioux Indians as ‘Chief Flying Eagle.’ In Washington, President Roosevelt presented him with the Distinguished Flying Cross. In New York, the mayor gave him a medal and Balbo spoke to a large crowd at Madison Square Garden. Back in Italy, he was viewed as a hero,” says Luca.

The exhibition showcases a wide selection of printed promotional and commemorative materials, such as posters, postcards, pamphlets, stickers, books, stamps, and even cigarette cartons and candy bar wrappers, all produced in conjunction with the Atlantic crossings. Mussolini capitalized on these flights “to generate excitement for Italy’s technological achievements, promote good will for the regime in the Americas, and demonstrate the power and reach of his Fascist government,” according to the exhibition’s text.

While Balbo certainly achieved Mussolini’s aims, he wound up doing his job all too well. “Mussolini was jealous of Balbo’s extreme popularity. After the trip to Chicago, he effectively sent him into exile,” says Luca. Just three months after the 1933 trip, Mussolini appointed Balbo governor of the desert colony of Libya. Balbo remained stationed in Libya until his death in 1940. He was killed early in the Second World War in a friendly fire incident—the plane he was flying was shot down mistakenly by Italian anti-aircraft guns. 



Model, Savoia–Marchetti hydroplane, c. 1933
Painted wood, metal, string
9 x 32 x 22 in (22.9 x 81.3 x 55.9 cm)
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 84.10.5a,b

Bottom (click to enlarge):

Postcard, Crociera aerea del decennale [Tenth Anniversary Aerial Crossing], c. 1933
Luigi Martinati (Italian, 1893–1934), illustrator
Grafice I. G. A. P., Rome and Milan, printer
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 83.19.14

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From Italy to the Americas: Library Exhibition on Seaplane Squadrons