The Italian Almanac
Italian News - August 3
The unveiling of a statue is not the kind of occasion you expect to produce a controversy. But Italy's deputy prime minister, Francesco Rutelli, succeeded in putting the cat among the pigeons last week with remarks he made at just such an event. He was speaking at Enrico Del Debbio's Stadio dei Marmi in the north of Rome. The ceremony marked the return to the stadium of a copy of one of the giant marble figures that gives the stadium its name. The Javelin Thrower, dating from 1932, was struck from his pedestal by lightning at the end of the 1960s. He is typical of the heroic, classical subjects favoured by sculptors in the days when Italy was a fascist dictatorship.
Lauding the decision to fund a replacement, Mr Rutelli said: "The 60 wonderful statues here are something for Rome to be proud of. The Italian people's - and history's - condemnation of the fascist era ought not to detract at all from the works of art of that period, which should be preserved and cared for." This must strike non-Italians as odd. It is many years since connoisseurs and critics elsewhere acknowledged the greatness of what was produced in the Italy of the 1920s and 1930s.
Yet, the very fact that Rutelli felt the need to make his remark shows the extent to which the art and architecture of the fascist era remains - though not perhaps among specialists - under suspicion in Italy itself. In at least one respect, all this is paradoxical. The Germans, who have done far more soul-searching over their role in the second world war than the Italians, have nevertheless found it much easier to pardon artists tainted by nazism. Leni Riefenstahl is an outstanding case in point.
Perhaps one reason why Italians remain so chary of fascist-era art and architecture is that the relationship was quite different from the one that evolved under Hitler. Neo-classical javelin throwers and the like were unquestionably a cultural reflection of Mussolini's grandiose visions of a new Roman empire. But the futurist movement was founded a full 10 year before the fascist party and, initially at least, the fascist party was seen by many futurist artists as the political expression for which they had been yearning.
It all soon went wrong, as relations between politicians and artists often do, but the fact remains that Futurism glorified many of the nastiest things that fascism articulated: war, violence and totalitarian nationalism. Ultimately, the cultural output of the Mussolini era has left behind a simple and disquieting reality: that very bad ideas can inspire very good art.