Semmens on Lasansky, 'The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle, and Tourism in Fascist Italy'

D. Medina Lasansky. The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle, and Tourism in Fascist Italy. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. xliii + 379 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-271-02507-0.

Reviewed by Kristin Semmens (Department of History, University of Victoria, Canada)
Published on H-Travel (October, 2006)

Reinventing the Past in Fascist Italy

When visitors to Tuscany admire the towers, town hall, and piazzas in Arezzo, or watch the elaborate palio and calcio storico festivals in Siena and Florence, they might feel as if they had stepped back into the Italian past. Few, if any, would question the authenticity of these structures and events, for they resemble the kind of medieval and Renaissance attractions visitors expect to see there. Yet, all is not as it seems. Many of Arezzo's buildings were thoroughly "medievalized" under Benito Mussolini and the festivals were only (re)introduced in the Fascist period. Throughout Tuscany, the Fascist regime instrumentalized Italy's medieval and Renaissance past, which it termed the "Medievo," just as it appropriated the legacy of ancient Rome in the capital. Whether through the restoration of existing buildings, the design of new ones, or the creation and promotion of public spectacles, between 1922 and 1945, the Medievo served political ends: strengthening Italian national identity, celebrating the Fascist regime, and honoring the achievements of Il Duce himself. By highlighting the region's medieval/Renaissance past, the regime also encouraged tourism to the area. In a fascinating, lavishly illustrated, and scrupulously researched book, The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle, and Tourism in Fascist Italy, D. Medina Lasansky probes the histories of some of Italy's most beloved and economically successful tourist attractions, and comes to some disturbing conclusions.

Lasansky's first chapter looks at the historical precedents for the regime's exploitation of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, finding them in the nineteenth century, when English and American expatriates in Tuscany played a critical role in inventing and spreading a "romanticized discourse" about the region's past (p. 37). Long before Mussolini's March on Rome, a nascent tourism industry was simultaneously codifying what attractions visitors "must see," through guidebooks, photographs and postcards. Thus, the image of medieval and Renaissance Tuscany that the regime inherited was one that had itself already been reshaped and reinterpreted. But the Fascists' own deployment of that past would be unique.

The second chapter addresses the democratization of the Medievo under Fascism--how the regime made that past more accessible to Italians, not just to the foreigners who hitherto had been its self-appointed guardians. Lasansky opens with the 1921 Dante celebrations in Florence, marking the 600th anniversary of the author's death. Her choice is a rather a perplexing one, given that these celebrations predated the Fascists' assumption of power in 1922. In fact, by suggesting that the Dante gala established a "new paradigm" for the restaging of the Renaissance, Lasansky dilutes her earlier arguments about the uniqueness of the Fascist regime's use of the past (p. 58). Choosing a post-1922 event, rather than a "dress rehearsal," might thus have been a better option (p. 58). Nonetheless, her discussion of the restoration projects and cultural events that accompanied the sexcentenary festivities is insightful.

Lasansky next turns to the regime's redesign of medieval festivals, in particular, the Florentine calcio, a type of soccer game, and the Siennese palio, a horse race. She exposes the degree of Fascist invention in both these spectacles, and shows that their introduction had both economic and ideological motives: to increase tourism and, in the words of the minister of press and propaganda, to celebrate the "spiritual rebirth of a new era" (p. 65). Lasansky moves adeptly from festivals to exhibitions to popular films, revealing how the regime, and its supporters, marketed and popularized a Fascisticized interpretation of the medieval and Renaissance past.

A large section of chapter 2 is devoted to Adolf Hitler's one-day visit to Florence in 1938. In honor of his visit, intended to reassure Germany of Italy's military strength and to solidify the German-Italian partnership, Renaissance-era buildings were restored, and the entire city was scrubbed and decorated. Like exhibitions and films, the German dictator's sightseeing tour made the city's heritage more accessible to all Italians. As he and Mussolini gazed upon the architectural and artistic glories of Florence, newspaper articles, photographs, and films transmitted those same views to a larger public. Lasansky asserts that "the highlight of [Hitler's] official weeklong visit to Italy would have been the day he spent in Florence" (p. 84). Frustratingly, though, she provides little evidence to back up these claims. She notes that the German Foreign Minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, described the trip as "unforgettable," and reveals that film clips show two men "clearly enthralled and seduced by the wonders of Florence" (pp. 97, 96). One wonders what Hitler, the "ultimate tourist" (p. 85), had to say about his Italian visit, but in keeping with a tendency more conspicuous in later chapters, tourists' own experiences of "medieval" and "Renaissance" Tuscany in the Fascist period get very short shrift in this book.

The third chapter focuses on the physical transformation of the Tuscan town of Arezzo, through a process Lasansky eloquently terms urban editing (p. 115). Decrying the lack of visitors to the town, a volunteer monument brigade waged a battle to increase tourism. Ultimately, this meant redesigning the town's skyline through architectural additions and omissions that recalled its medieval past. In sum, eight churches, two palaces, Petrarch's birth house, the Piazza Vasari, and more were all medievalized. But Lasansky does not substantiate her claim that this restoration work was "wildly successful" in the touristic context (p. 111). Did more visitors come to Arezzo? Did they stay longer? What did they think of its sights? Were they less disappointed with their stay than were the travelers she mentions in the nineteenth century? Did later editions of Baedeker guides give more recommendations about what to see than did the 1928 version she cites? Vague references to "droves" of visitors are unhelpful here (p. 145). Lasansky's top-down approach to her topic is certainly valid, but concrete visitor numbers, along with actual tourist accounts from the 1920s and 1930s, would have complemented her focus on the regime's intentions and actions.

Staying in Arezzo, in chapter 4, Lasansky examines the reintroduction of a medieval festival there, the Joust of the Saracen, in 1931. The Joust involved a mock battle between crusading knights and the "infidel," who, after Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, was increasingly identified with the racially inferior Ethiopian. The festival also became an expression of the regime's obsession with masculinity, virility and sports. Chapter 5 looks at the Fascists' creation of a canon of touristic sites that still endures today. Specifically, Lasansky shows how a variety of popular media (advertisements, postcards, pamphlets, films) encouraged visits to heritage sites by Italians, as did organizations like Ente Nazionale Italiano di Turismo and Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro. The chapter also gives a sense of how Fascism functioned with regard to urban planning. The preservation and restoration of buildings connected to Italy's medieval and Renaissance past was clearly on the "party agenda," but only rarely did the central government initiate an urban renewal project; rather, it was the local Fascist leader, the podesta, the local tourist organization, or the monument brigade, who led the way (p. 186).

The sixth chapter looks at the manipulation of the Italian past after the end of the Fascist era. In 1954, the local elite in the town of Marostica invented what it promoted as a "medieval" festival. Partita a scacchi, a game of chess using human beings as the pieces, continues to draw tourists to this day. This more recent deployment of the past indicates that while the Fascists' appropriation of the Medievo clearly has both its historical precedents and echoes, under Mussolini, politicized urban planning was marked by an unparalleled degree of centralization and the past was made available to a wider audience than ever before. Lasansky's conclusion reiterates her arguments about the uniqueness of the Fascist project in this regard.

The Renaissance Perfected is a supremely well-researched book, drawing upon a wide variety of primary sources and incorporating an extensive and relevant secondary literature. It thus makes a contribution to a number of different academic fields, from architectural history to modern tourism. But for anyone who has marveled at the "untouched" splendor of a Tuscan medieval tower or a Renaissance piazza, this book is also deeply unsettling: what we have seen, photographed, and read about in guidebooks is in part a "politicized construct consciously fabricated and promoted" under a Fascist dictator, a fact which makes us reevaluate those tourist experiences (p. xlii).

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Citation: Kristin Semmens. Review of Lasansky, D. Medina, The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle, and Tourism in Fascist Italy. H-Travel, H-Net Reviews. October, 2006.

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