When the Fascist party seized power in Italy following the First World War, the regime set out to establish a unified political identity—one looking to the future while maintaining reverence for the past. Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design explores how Italy’s designers, artisans, manufacturers, and corporations helped cultivate a style that embodied the regime’s concept of Italianità (Italianness), glorifying both the Roman Empire and the spirit of modernity.
On entering the recently opened exhibition, among the first objects one sees are two sculptures of Mussolini. “The juxtaposition of modernity and tradition is evident in these two sculptures. One [Benito Mussolini by Jo Davidson, 1927] looks like an ancient Roman emperor. The other [Profilo continuo del Duce (Continuous Profile of the Duce) by Renato Bertelli, 1933] is Futurist, a tribute to the machine age,” explains exhibition curator Silvia Barisione, who notes that when Mussolini conquered Rome in 1922, he was supported by Futurist artists.
Echoes and Origins is the first in the Rebirth of Rome series of exhibitions to open; it remains on view through April 20, 2014. The exhibition showcases over one hundred items—furniture, ceramics, glass, product design, industrial objects, posters, advertisements, drawings, and more, all drawn from The Wolfsonian’s collection or promised gifts from museum founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. The exhibition design, inspired by work from the period, was informed by research and site visits conducted by designer Richard Miltner during a residence last year at the American Academy in Rome.
“The diversity of these works produced during the Fascist period may come as a surprise. One doesn’t necessarily expect such pluralism from material produced under totalitarian rule. This regime was especially adept at appropriating, or at least accepting, varied stylistic tendencies as best suited its needs at any given time,” says Matthew Abess, assistant curator.
The show is organized in several sections:
“Renewal of the Italian Decorative Arts, Part I” centers on the Biennale internazionale delle arti decorative (International Biennial of the Decorative Arts), established in Monza in 1923 in an attempt to revitalize Italy’s applied arts. These recurring expositions highlighted the work of artisans who reinterpreted local traditions in modern ways, informing the public of contemporary trends in Italian decorative art, design, and architecture.
“Renewal of the Italian Decorative Arts, Part II” focuses on works created when the exposition changed to a triennial in 1930, moved to Milan in 1933, and became Italy’s primary means of communicating new ideas in applied arts, architecture, and interior design.
“New Materials” shows a selection of items created from non-traditional materials—aluminum, linoleum, and buxus—popularized after the League of Nations imposed economic sanctions on Italy following its unprovoked invasion of Ethiopia. The Italian government responded by adopting a new model of economic self-sufficiency that called for greater exploitation of natural resources, an increase in national production, and consumer support of Italian-made merchandise.
“Commercial Advertising” is a full gallery that showcases posters, design drawings, objects, and ephemera used to promote Italian industry, products, travel, and leisure. The materials in this section include a wide selection of posters and items representing promotional campaigns for various forms of transportation, from automobiles to ocean liners.
The works on view are a window into a significant period in Italian history—one in which the ideological core of the country’s national identity was being re-shaped.
Rebirth of Rome is made possible by the Italian Consulate General Miami, the Italian Cultural Institute New York, the United States Consular Agency Genoa, and the Wolfsoniana–Fondazione Regionale per la Cultura e lo Spettacola in Genoa. Additional support was provided by Gucci, Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A., the Poltrona Frau Group Miami, the Funding Arts Network, the Leon Levy Foundation, Aprile SpA, and Ansaldo Energy Inc. The Wolfsonian also thanks Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., Marcello Cambi in Genoa, and the Wolfsoniana–FRSC for their generous loans to the project.
Trophy, Fiat, c. 1935
Stefano Borelli (Italian, 1894–1962), designer
Fiat, Turin, producer
17 1/2 x 5 7/8 x 14 7/8 in
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 83.6.8
Bottom (click to enlarge):
Poster, Martini Elixir China, 1935
Giuseppe Riccobaldi Del Bava (Italian, 1887–1976), designer
Barabino & Graeve, Genoa, printer
79 1/2 x 56 5/8 in
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 87.567.4.1
Vase, c. 1927
Federico Melis (Italian, 1891–1969), designer
S.C.I.C. (Società Ceramica Industriale di Cagliari), Cagliari, maker
14 x 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 in
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 84.7.17
Writing desk, 1935
Clemente Busiri Vici (Italian, 1887–1965), designer
Ditta Alfredo Papalini, Rome, maker
Aluminum, plate glass, fiberglass mat, wood, steel
32 3/4 x 59 1/4 x 30 1/4 in
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 188.8.131.52
Coffee service, c. 1935
Arrigo Finzi (Italian, 1890–1973), designer
Argenterie Finzi, Milan, maker
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 184.108.40.206,3,4