Italian Fascist Design, Part Two

Design as Theater, Part Two

Designing for Dictators

To design for dictators in the twentieth century was to invent a new art form. The first challenge to designers was that the new modern dictator was not of the blood royal and prided himself on his common origins, his of-the-people birthright. So the fashions worn by the Kings, Czars, Kaisers, and Emperors had to be discarded. But that understanding of the importance of being an ordinary man leading ordinary people led to yet another problem: how to amaze and astonish the masses. A new and impressive outfit had to be designed. The only precursors were the two extremes in uniforms worn by military leaders in the Great War: the modest and self-effacing khaki and the nostalgic outfits worn by officers in Germany and Austria, festooned with (unearned) medals and bobbing white feathers rising from glittering steel helmets. In Berlin, the Kaiser fetishized the military through daily military parades, emphasizing the cavalry, before the Great War. The military units of mounted horsemen were often dominated by the wealthy and well-born, who could afford and purchase and maintain a group of war horses. The upper-class well-bred men rode with a to-the-manor-born air, carrying their inherited authority with ease. The American artist in Berlin, Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) wrote back to his American friends and supporters, Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Stein, about the importance of Germany as a European art center. He also wrote artlessly of the atmosphere of barely concealed homosexuality in Berlin, especially in the privileged military.

The Nineteenth-century Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II

According to one of the Kaiser’s contemporary biographers, John C. G. Röhl in his article”The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the character of the leader was summed up in a series of points including,
“The absence of change or development in his personality; his inability to learn from experience..”And finally his love of uniforms, of jewellery, of dressing up and of childish games played in all-male company.” This 1982 book, Kaiser Wilhelm II New Interpretations: The Corfu Papers, by Röhl has a portrait of the Kaiser on the cover. In the tradition of royal portraits, the Kaiser was placed in front of a small horse to make him look tall and commanding. As Röhl went to pains to show this man was all uniform and no substance. He wore a white rather rumpled uniform weighted down with large epaulets was accented by a black cuirass which provided an opportunity to hang medals and sashes. The Kaiser’s shining riding boots were black and tall, offsetting the orangish embroidery appearing here and there at the edges of the outfit. All the elements of the cavalry charge were present, a rather embarrassed horse, the long sword, and the elaborate glove. His officers wore somewhat more modest uniforms and Marsden Hartley was enraptured by the spectacle of the fashionable horse-borne ensembles. As art historian Wanda Corn wrote in “Marsden Hartey’s Native Amerika,” on one hand, the artist was perceptive enough to recognize the danger of such attire but he also found the sights of Berlin fascinating. As Hartley wrote to fellow artist, Rockwell Kent, “Of course to some this military system is accountable for many things, and to some this military element is objectionable–but it stimulates my child’s love for the public spectacle–and such wonderful specimens of health these men are–thousands all so blond and radiant.” But later in his autobiography, Hartley wrote of Berlin in 1913, “The whole scene was fairly bursting with organized energy and the tension was terrific, and somehow most voluptuous in the feeling of power–a sexual intensity even in it–when passion rises to the full and something must happen to quiet it.”

Marsden Hartley. Warriors (1913)

The reactions to the parade of uniforms on the part of the naïve American was of course laced with desire–he fell in love with a handsome count who died a year later, but more important Hartley was seduced by uniforms, the tight cavalry pants clasping trotting horses between the strong thighs, the tall phallic silver and gold helmets topped with erect decorations. Interestingly enough, Harley did not learn his lesson of the fatal lure of uniforms which convinced the German people that their army was invincible and he was equally drawn by the sights and spectacles of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The uniform was updated and modernized but it still beguiled. The point is, of course, that uniforms are important. Although Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) had a military background as did Adolf Hitler, they both had peacetime careers–of sorts–after the Great War. Both men had aspirations for power, not the power of kings but the modern power of the ordinary man who rises to power through determination and the ability to impress, to call attention to his followers and to impress the spectators. Benito Mussolini had no intention of either supporting or rescuing the doomed adventure of Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), lording it precariously, to be sure, over Fiume. But he certainly cast an envious eye at the stylish uniform designed by one of the best-dressed men in Europe, noted with interest the speeches delivered from a balcony, and the well-dressed if thuggish followers. Adolf Hitler, for his part, recognized the excellent and simple design of the Communist flag, which waved and fluttered above well-dressed marchers. Both dictators in training learned from the modern modes of asserting power and turned away from metals and feathers. That said, both Mussolini and Hitler would retain certain sartorial details from the past to gesture towards prestige.

In her controversial essay on Leni Riefenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag wrote about the connection between fascism and the male body–something Marsden Hartley responded to when he returned to Germany in 1933–and paused in her essay on the filmmaker to consider the significance of “the uniform.” She stated that

Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irrepressible promiscuity of taste will save us..There is a general fantasy about uniforms. They suggest community, order, identity (through ranks, badges and medals, things which declare who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognized.) competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence. But uniforms are not the same thing as photographs of uniforms–which are erotic materials and photographs of SS uniforms are the units of a particularly powerful and widespread sexual fantasy. Why the SS? Because the SS was the ideal incarnation of fascism’s overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards. The SS was designed as an elite military community that would not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful..SS uniforms were stylish, well-cut, with a touch (but not too much) of eccentricity. Compare the rather boring and not so very well cut American army uniform: jacket, shirt, tie, pants, socks, and lace-up shoes–essentially civilian clothes no matter how bedecked with medals and badges. SS uniforms were tight, heavy, stiff and included gloves to confine the hands and boots that made the legs and feet feel heavy, encased, obliging their wearer to stand up straight.

SS Uniforms

As most people know, the Nazi uniforms were designed by a dedicated Nazi, Hugo Boss (1865-1948), but the designer of the uniforms of the Italian fascists is less well known. Paolo Garretto (1903-1989), in his own time, he was a very famous graphic designer, the Italian equivalent to the French Cassandre. Although he fell into obscurity, he was discovered by the design historian and theorist, Stephen Heller, who was able to correspond with the artist before his death. Heller delicately raised the question of his ” flirtation with Fascism.” Aggravated by the sight of a boisterous Communist rally, a very young Garretto joined the Vanguardists, the Fascist youth. His father disapproved of his son’s misguided enthusiasm for fascism but the son, the budding artist was not happy with the uniforms. The 2011 Vanity Fair article quoted Garretto on the matter of fashion: “I did not like the way they were all dressed up: they had only one common garment — the black shirt. As for the rest of their uniform, they wore anything they liked, such as long pants of any color. So I designed for myself a uniform that was all black — shirt, cavalry pants, and boots. My friends who liked the attire copied it. In fact, four of us, Mario and Carlo Ferrando, Aldo Placidi and me became known as the Musketeers.” What Garretto contributed was an all-black uniform, supposedly referencing a machinist uniform, created an aesthetically impressive presence. The color black was both chic and threatening.

What Garretto contributed was an all-black uniform, supposedly referencing a machinist uniform, created an aesthetically impressive presence. The color black was both chic and threatening. At the time of The March on Rome, the squadristi were a band of badly dressed unruly brutal males assaulting Rome itself, demanding that Mussolini should be rewarded the office of the Prime Minister in gratitude to the crushing of the Communist threat. Given that the squadristi or Blackshirts continued their violence even after the stunned Communists capitulated, their presence was useful but possibly destabilizing. The March, seen by many at the time as another example of massed criminality, was retold later as a heroic event that was cemented into party mythology. It is no accident after the disorderly March that the story of the design of the uniforms continued in 1922 when, after the March, Mussolini became the Italian prime minister. His early followers, the Blackshirts, were violent thugs, rather like the precursor group to the SS, the SA. Mussolini knew that part of his credibility rested upon his separating himself from unorganized violence and he controlled the violence the Blackshirts, legitimated it, and named these low-level criminals: Volunteer Militia for National Security (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale, or MVSN).

However, the new uniform for this new group was yet to be designed. According to Garretto,

Mussolini and the other Fascist leaders came down among us. The Musketeers were all lined up at attention, and when Mussolini saw us in our crisp new uniforms he asked Gino Calza-Bini, the founder and leader of the Roman Fascio, ‘Who are these?’ My friend Placidi was prompt to answer: ‘We’re the Musketeers!” To which Mussolini responded, ‘…they shall be my Musketeers!’ and passed on. In the evening we were ordered to the Fascio and told that we would become 33 instead of four..

Garratto quickly realized the danger of his position and allowed his father to rescue him. In 1925, the young artist extricated himself from the bodyguard of Il Duce and went to Paris to find his artistic destiny. In a book on this topic, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy by Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, the author noted that the black shirt became the unofficial symbol of fascism and was adopted and adapted in strange and inventive ways by Italians loyal to Mussolini. The informality of when, where, and why the Blackshirt was worn irritated Mussolini who stated that “The black shirt is not the everyday shirt, and it is not a uniform either. It is a combat outfit and can only be worn by those who harbor a pure soul in their heart.” The fascist uniform itself had a great deal of “paraphernalia” such as the famous sciarpa littorio. “The scarf, with the Roman colors yellow and red had supposedly been worn by Mussolini on the occasion of the March on Rome. The Duce instituted it on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the fasci and ordered that only selected fascists, such as those who had participated in the March could wear it. The sciarpa was a sign of recognition and it showed the hierarchical structure of the regime. Accessories, ornaments, and medals demonstrated a person’s position in the regime’s organization..Uniforms came to epitomize change and differentiated fascist spirit from bourgeois values.”

Colorized photograph of the March on Rome October 28, 1922

Note the veterans of the Great War wearing leftover elements of their old uniforms, the famous black shirts, and Mussolini in a business suit and spats.

But Mussolini used the idea of the fascist uniform as a signifying marker to Thus professionals from all walks of life were assigned days when they had to wear the black shirt. These complex and multitudinous orders forced the civilian and even non-fascist members of Italian society to become, at least for a few days, to become military. As Falasca-Zamponi wrote, “The uniform, along with the other daily rituals the regime imposed, was intended to wipe out bourgeois mentality and habits.” The uniform of the Italian fascists and all of the accouterments created a sense of nationalist unity, the visual look of a country united into one spirit. The uniform also imposed a conformity, not just in body, sheathing it in a kind of concealing armor, but also in the mind. The American military uniform, in contrast, emphasized the fact that the soldiers and their leaders were ordinary citizens in a temporary “citizen army.” But in Italy, the emphasis was on visual spectacle of a conforming mass of loyal followers so necessary to the autocratic dictator. As Perry Wilson remarked in “The Nation in Uniform? Fascist Italy 1919-1943, “..uniforms were an essential component of ‘the theatricality of politics’, the highly choreographed and stage-managed rituals and pageantry that aimed to instill a mystical belief in the nation, around which the previously divided Italian people could unite..” Perhaps because it came first, the black uniforms, based on the Blackshirts–black, as opposed to red–fascists as opposed to Communists–became the inspiration for future fascist uniforms.

Benito Mussolini making a speech in 1935


wrote in the 2016 book, The Rise of Fascism: History, Documents, and Key Questions: History, Documents, and Key Questions, “As Mussolini’s Fascist movement was the first in Europe to come to prominence and then to political power, the Italian example often was used by other fascist organizations. The use of a violent paramilitary force, in uniform (like Mussolini’s Blackshirts), became one of the most commonly used trappings of fascist movements. These included the creation of the “Brownshirts in Germany, the “Blueshirts” in Spain and in Ireland, and the “Greyshirts” in South Africa. In England, Sir Oswald Mosley launched his British Union of Fascists (BUF) in late 1932. In an imitation of Mussolini’s techniques, Mosley would create his own paramilitary army and dress them in black-shirted uniform.”

Mussolini in Blackshirt and Riding pants with Tuxedo stripe and High Boots

In the formation and design of the modern military uniform for twentieth-century dictators, it is interesting how causally the model or template for such attire was put together. A teenager introduced the idea of an overall color. The Blackshirts emerged organically. The final design of the Italian Fascist uniform in interesting in what it retained of nineteenth-century details. The cavalry pants are retained and even begin to billow aggressively. The pouf of the Nazi pants is larger than those of the Italians as if there is an assertion that the middle and lower class fascists have risen to the rank of the aristocracy of the previous century. The sash and cuirass have been replaced by leather belts at the waist and a diagonal leather strap across the chest. The officer still carries gloves. The boots are still high and black. The epaulets are still in place on the broad shoulders but they are flattened into tabs. The actual jacket is very utilitarian, reminding the viewer of the working man commonality of Il Duce. Buttoned to the top of the chest with two large and seemingly useful pockets on either side, top and bottom, the jacket is long with a useful utilitarian appearance. Of course, the illusion of working-class solidarity is offset by the presence of riding pants marked by tuxedo stripes along the sides and the nipped in waist. Although the Blackshirt uniform was the first famous “look” for the Italian Fascist party, the conventional uniform was grey-green. The neutral color allowed for mix and match: grey pants and black shirt and straight pants instead of riding pants, sans stripe. A recent example of a more neutral, less flamboyant, uniform that once belonged to Mussolini at the time of his execution, was auctioned in 2011 for over $6,000. Mussolini actual rode and there is a remarkable picture of His Fashionableness wearing a helmet topped with a bursting white feather. Gabriele D’Annunzio would have been proud.

Mussolini Riding his Horse


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Italian Fascist Design, Part One

Design as Theater, Part One

Designing for Dictators

The history of Italian fascism is one of a movement begun in misadventure, characterized by misjudgments and mistakes, ending in farce. If it is defined by any one term, however, that word would be “theatricality.” In his instinctive understanding that the “crowd” loves nothing more than theater and its costumes, Il Duce, Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) provided Italy with an extreme example of how politics becomes aestheticized through the drama of fashion. His erstwhile follower, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) took note of his strutting but well-dressed role model and re-fashioned his own motley crew of fanatical admirers into a goosestepping nightmare of intimidation. Their mutual point of inspiration was a well-dressed middle-aged Italian poet whose claim to fame was an extreme addiction to sex and fashion. It is not often that one thinks of fascist leaders such as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as leading indicators of modern fashion, but fashion design played an important role in what Susan Sontag called the fascination of fascism. Part of the fascination, or to deploy a better word “aesthetics” of fascism, as Sontag pointed out, was the uniform; and the idea that a uniform might be riveting and awe-inspiring was the brainchild of Italy’s famous poet and dandy, Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938). Five foot three inches tall, D’Annunzio was famous fin-de-siècle dandy whose sartorial appetites were as extensive and as adventurous as his many lovers. As much as he loved women, the poet loved clothes so much so that his exquisite wardrobe was featured in a 2010 exhibition at New York University. In the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò gallery, the exhibition, Gabriele d’Annunzio: Living Life as a Work of Art, showed a wide range of outfits suitable for all occasions, worn by a man considered to be one of the best dressed ever. Six years later, there was another exhibition in Florence, also devoted to his wardrobe and an extensive catalog, Il Guadaroba di Gabriele d’Annunzio, showed an astonishing array of outfits.

Gabriele D’Annunzio

According to his biographer, John Woodhouse, the poet or the “warrior bard,” as the Italians referred to him, sunbathed and swam in the nude but when the occasion arose no one was better prepared. As Woodhouse noted, for a simple visit, “D’Annunzio had brought with him a dinner-jacket, six white suits, thirty or forty shirts, and eight pairs of shoes.” It should be noted that he traveled with his own sheets. Colin McDowell noted that the diminutive writer probably used his wardrobe as an instrument of seduction. As the writer noted, his ploy was successful: “Excited by violence and total abandonment, in and out of the bedroom, meant that wherever he was he always had a stream of besotted women at the door waiting to be seduced.” Writing for The New Republic, Jonathan Galassi stated, “Short and physically unprepossessing, some said ugly, he nevertheless possessed an androgynous intensity that was irresistible to many, and had constant affairs, often several at once, throughout his life. D’Annunzio seems to have been an almost involuntary seducer. Today he might be called a sex addict; indeed, there is an aura of needy exhibitionism to much of his behavior.”

Romaine Brooks. Gabriele D’Annunzio The Poet As Exile (1912)

After serving a single term in the Italian parliament as the “candidate for Beauty,” D’Annunzio was forced to flee to Paris to avoid debt collectors–clothes are very expensive and the poet was a compulsive spender of money, not to mention that his compulsion to acquire made him determined to conquer any woman in his path. As Galassi noted, few could resist him, even a woman who did not like men: “According to the American whiskey heiress and saloniste Natalie Barney: “He was the rage. A woman who had not slept with him made herself ridiculed.” Among his many conquests was the American lesbian artist Romaine Brooks, who painted his portrait.” Clothes, as they say, make the man. When he reached middle age, D’Annunzio was many things–poet, dandy, lover of women, and then the Great War offered him new opportunities. The poet was prescient enough to foresee the military significance of the airplane and he shared with the Futurists a love of war. Yearning for this glory and longing to be a knight of the air like Louis Blériot, D’Annunzio became a fifty-year-old daring pilot who dropped leaflets. The Italians joined the allies two years into the War and perhaps that is why their wishes to “redeem” certain territories in Easter Europe were ignored by those writing the Treaty of Versailles. The background of the desire of Italy to redeem its lost territories must be attributed to the fact that boot-shaped Italy was stuffed with independent republics and independent cities, a legacy from the Medieval and Renaissance period. The Napoléonic Wars had resulted in the further dismemberment of Italian territories, which were given to Austria and France. Even after Italy had become a fully formed nation in the late nineteenth century, bits and pieces where Italian speakers lived were still under the control of hostile nations, including Trentino, Trieste, South Tyrol, parts of Istria, Gorizia, and Dalmatia. Being on the winning side of the Great War would seem to be the ideal time to reunite all the Italian territories into the still young nation. However, from an Italian point of view, justice was not done and the authors of the Treaty summarily turned the port city of Fiume to the new nation, Yugoslavia. The righteous indignation of all those who believed in Italia Irredenta flared up.

In his 1920 book, The Solution of the Fiume Question, D. Dárday wrote of the unhappiness of the “Fiume Italians” struggling under Hungarian rule before the War. Having been pushed to the bottom economically, these unhappy Italians became part of the “Fiume Question” which involved not the Italians or the former Hungarians but the interests of the British Empire. Dárday, writing during the time of the Treaty of Versailles expressed concern that this important coastal port city which was the “key to the Adriatic” should come under the control of “any Mediterranean power.” The author was concerned about the British controlling the “international trade route to the East Indies.” There were two “exits” from the Mediterranean, Gibraltar and the Suez Canal and the power that controlled the city could disrupt British trade. Dárday wrote, “We must therefore regard it as out of the question that Fiume and its sea-board should ever become the possession of that Italy which has a considerable naval power at her disposal; and we regard it as equally out of the question that the Treaty of Peace should afford Yougoslavia (sic) an opportunity, through the possession of Fiume and its sea-board, of developing into an important Slav naval power in the Mediterranean.” As can be seen by this short pamphlet, Fiume was too important to fall into the wrong hands, and yet the territory of Istria once belonged to the Republic of Venice and it seemed that surely the time had come to return the large city to Italy. However, the Italians were not the dominant population group, that would be the Slavs, nor there they the most powerful. The pressing problem was not how to reward Italy but how to give self-determination to the ethnicities of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. A new nation was formed out of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and the territory of Istria. As would often happen after the fall of Empires, artificially conjoined peoples would be uncomfortable with their new neighbors. While the unhappiness of the Italians of Fiume is somewhat in doubt, there was no doubt of the anger of the unrewarded Italians.

Enter Gabriele d”Annunzio. The poet had enjoyed a very satisfactory war, joining the Italian air force (such as it was), imagining himself a knight of the sky, all the while living in luxury in a palace in Venice. He did pay a price for his bravado, losing an eye in an air raid. The War ended with Italy managing to lose important and humiliating battles while emerging on the winning side and coming away empty-handed. D’Annunzio realized that it was up to him to redeem Italy by reclaiming the long-list territories. His target was Fiume. The new state of Yugoslavia was still too young to fend off even the attack of one-eyed poet and in 1919, D’Annunzio struck. Looking back one hundred years later at what seems a quixotic endeavor, we can see that he serves as a warning to history: never underestimate the power of a celebrity and the ability of people to engage in magical thinking. This magical thinking or the radical imagining of a modern Italy was Janus-faced. On one hand, there was desire, particularly on the part of the Futurists, to shake off the burden of the Italy of the Renaissance, and then, on the other hand, there was a demand to reconnect with the primal energy that formed the Roman Empire. The result was a “myth of national regeneration.” Roger Griffin lists these powerful desires in his book, Modernism and Fascism, including dreams of combining the old and new Italies into “two Italies,” or more simply, the “new Italy,” or the “true Italy,” or the “Great Italy,” or the “Third Italy,” or the “new State,” which would create a “new civilization” for the “new man.” In other words, even before the War exacerbated the grievances of Italy, a strong nationalism emerged. But this nationalism was critical of the old Italy which had proved to be unable to cope with the forces of industrialism and modernism. D’Annunzio had been part of the early twentieth-century discourse on refashioning Italy in terms of modernity, and his literary writings were part of the same impulses that drove the Futurists, led by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944).

The Arditi in action

Thus from the very beginning, there was a curious union between the avant-garde, literary and artistic, and politics and, in this fevered post-war climate, a poet was the perfect improbable leader. Despite his vaunted status as a poet, D’Annunzio marched off to Fiume in strange company. As in Germany, the streets of Italy were populated by discontented and disillusioned former soldiers, angered by defeat and humiliation, still longing for the good fight they had been promised. Writing in Cabinet in 2015, Renaldo Laddaga described “the assault troops known as the arditi. During the war, the arditi had refused all weapons that would weigh them down: they preferred grenades carried in pockets and daggers held between teeth as they raced toward the enemy trenches, which they rarely reached. They liked to be called “alligators,” were partial to cocaine, and, among them, homosexuality was commonplace. No leader had been able to take for granted the loyalty of these highly volatile men. And now that the war was over, like the German Freikorps, they found no place for themselves in a society where the exhausted majority expected to return to a peaceful civilian life.” The celebrity poet considered which world he would conquer. He thought of marching on Rome itself but decided upon Fiume as being symbolic of all Italy had lost and all that Italy should fight to regain. Gathering his forces, including Marinetti, who was finding Mussolini too conservative for his post-war activist ambitions, D’Annunzio began the Impresa di Fiume or the Endeavor of Fiume on September 12, 1919. There is a sense of opera bouffe–two poets and a couple of thousand ex-soldiers who bit on knives while attacking–but the occupation of Fiume was the opening gun of something that would develop into Fascism. Despite the comic nature of the invasion, the new Soviet Union recognized the Italian Regency of Carnaro.

The Arditi at rest

The citizens of Fiume were excited by such a colorful and energetic occupation and happily accepted the charismatic ruler. Even the Slav population initially enjoyed the experience. The Italian government looked askance upon the inconvenient action of D’Annunzio and refused to accept the “gift” of this city. The allies were not happy with the strange invasion by a notorious poet and the Italian government promised to settle the domestic contretemps and laid siege to the city, waiting for the public euphoria to die down. D’Annunzio had no intention of actually ruling Fiume but found himself in charge, along with a group of avant-gardists who were also unsuited to the practicalities of running a government. For the poet, being in charge meant being on stage. In A History of Fascism, 1914–1945 Stanley G. Payne explained the lasting importance of D’Annunzio’s presence in Fiume. He was, in a very real sense, the personification of the Italian imaginary of the New Italy, which, from the poet’s point of view, had to be manifested through style rather than substance. Perhaps he was driven by his undying obsession with fashion or perhaps he was seized with a new vision of how a new modernist politics could be conducted. One of the most important new books that greatly influenced the political thinking of fin-de-siècle Europe, In 1896 Gustav le Bon wrote The Crowd. A Study of the Popular Mind, in which he noted the breakdown of history and the vacuum that had been left behind. He began his book by saying, While all our ancient beliefs are tottering and disappearing, while the old pillars of society are giving way one by one, the power of the crowd is the only force that nothing menaces, and of which the prestige is continually on the increase. The age we are about to enter will in truth be the Era of Crowds.” Le Bon wrote with foresight on the subject of the “psychology of crowds:” “The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation. There are certain ideas and feelings which do not come into being, or do not transform themselves into acts except in the case of individuals forming a crowd. The psychological crowd is a provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements, which for a moment are combined, exactly as the cells which constitute a living body form by their reunion a new being which displays characteristics very different from those possessed by each of the cells singly.”

If Gustav Le Bon can be thought of as the predictor of twenty-first-century politics, not to mention, the theorist of the phenomenon that would sweep both Mussolini and Hitler into power, then D’Annunzio could be termed the stylist of political aesthetics. During a time when the last monarchs had just been deposed, he was aware that politics was a form of theater where the common people were involved. It was now impossible to simply decree or dictate; one had to woo, more importantly, one had to excite, one had to sway, one had to enthrall. The crowd would now call the future into being. Of course, there was no one more suited to wooing than Gabriele D’Annunzio, a bald-headed five foot three libertine who had conquered the actors, Eleanor Druze, Sarah Bernhardt and the lesbian Romaine Brooks, not to mention countless other women, including a wife and three children stashed somewhere. As he did when he was courting, D’Annunzio dressed for the occasion, and the occasion was governing an important and strategic port city. As Stanley G. Payne wrote, “..D’Annunzio succeeded in creating a new style of political liturgy made up of elaborate uniforms, special ceremonies, and chants, with speeches from the balcony of city hall to massed audiences in the form of a dialogue with the leader. In other key contributions to what soon became ‘Fascist style,’ D’Annunzio and his followers adopted the artiti’s black shirts as uniform, employed the Roman salute of raising the right arm, developed the mass rallies, brought out the hymn Giovinezza (Youth), organized their armed militia precisely into units, and developed a series of special chants and symbols..” His fashionable troops, clad in black and silver uniforms, were called “The Centurions of Death,” although the black fez was a softening note.

A 1921 postcard from Fiume featuring D’Annunzio in his Uniform

In order to understand the importance of the proto-fascist fashion statement in modern uniforms, it is important to remember the fate of the military uniform during the Great War. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire marched off to war in costumes glittering with absurd epaulets on the shoulders, chests festooned with an array of medals and shiny helmets topped with bobbing plumes. The officer corps, the aristocrats, were installed in the Calvery and rode magnificent horses, and, when not riding, the soldiers advertised their status through the billowing thighs of their trousers. The riding pants narrowed at the knees to allow them to be tucked comfortably in tall glossy leather boots. The counter point to the anachronistic uniforms of the European Empires was the dust-colored khakis of the British military. The British army wore small vestiges of a more colorful past: leather belts and tall boots and a swagger stick, but the uniforms were practical and could be worn in the field without attracting the attention of snipers who could hone in on the glint of a Calvery helmet. D’Annunzio gathered together bits and pieces of past and present and future in the uniform he wore in Fiume. There is a practicality to the basic suit with its long belted jacket with deep and large pockets. The belt holds a long white-handled dagger pointing down to the puffy Clavery pants and the tall riding boots. In a photograph taken in Fiume, D’Annunzio appears in his uniform and we can see that the epaulets are flattened and buttoned down and the chest adornments are played down with black tabs on the collar and details of rank on the lapels and uniform sleeves. The deep cuffs carry the party insignia and the strangely informal hat, a Tyrolean cap, the hat worn by the Alpine Corps, was tilted jauntily on his head. The insignia on the front was accented by a feather slated backward, pinned to the side. Of course, for a man of fashion, this modern uniform was a combination of the past, a bit of nostalgia, a nod to tradition, and the practical present. However, its strong details are definitive and striking.

The uniform was an obvious fashion statement, designed to mark the fascists as both political and military forces, stating that ruling would be done with force. The spectators, those who would be controlled, would be impressed by the visuals of the knife and the tall shining boots, hinting of a nearby horse. The crowd had to be evoked and stirred up but the crowd also had to be managed and controlled. As D’Annunzio spoke from his balcony, haranguing the crowd, he trained the masses to be like attentive animals, cocking their heads attentively, waiting for the key words, the familiar phrases, and the rousing chants in order to be stirred as they had been trained to do. As Jonathan Bowden wrote in Counter-Currents Publishing, “..Fiume represented a direct incursion of fantasy into political life because there is a degree to which D’Annunzio combined elements of performance art in his political vocabulary. There’s no doubt that he thought of politics as a form of theater, particularly for the masses, and this is because he was an elitist, because as an elitist he partly despised the masses except as the voluntarist agents of national consciousness. He theatricalized politics in order to give them entertainment without allowing them any particular say in what should be done. This idea of politics as performance art with the masses onstage but as an audience, an audience that responded and yet was not in charge, because there’s nothing democratic about D’Annunzio from his individualistic egotism as an artist all the way through to his sort of quasi-dictatorship of Fiume. He represented a particularly pure synthesis and the violence that was used and so on was largely rhetorical, largely staged, largely a performance, partly a sort of theater piece.”

D’Annunzio in Fiume in 1920

Mussolini would copy this new and strident uniform as soon as D’Annunzio was forced from power, retiring to resume his decadent life of poetry and women. Mussolini would also copy the new title that the poet had given to himself, Il Duce, he would appropriate the artifice of speaking from a balcony, and he would learn from a libertine that politics was entertainment, theater, an exercise in spectacle, an enterprise steeped in aesthetics.

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Roland Barthes: Writing Degree Zero

ROLAND BARTHES (1914 – 1980)


Writing Degree Zero (1953)

One of the most interesting facts of the life of Roland Barthes was that he was struck by a laundry van and, after lingering for a month, died of his injuries. “The Painter of Modern Life,” Constantin Guys had also been struck down in a similar fashion: almost a century earlier, he was run over by a cab and his legs were crushed. Guys died more slowly and succumbed ten years later. If being run down by a laundry truck when walking home from lunch with the future President of France, seems an odd way to die, Barthes had always walked an uneven path. He was unfortunate enough to come of age at a time where homosexuality was not a public matter and he spent his life in the closet, living with his only parent, his mother, his entire life. As he got older and became less attractive to the young men he desired, he declined to impose himself upon them. Barthes, who preferred a quiet life in the home he shared with his mother, was so fond of his colleague and intellectual confident, Julia Kristeva, he wished he was a heterosexual.

Although to outsiders, especially dazzled Americans, he seemed to be the chain smoking quintessential French intellectual, he was something of an autodidact whose education was never completed. Barthes had taught himself the prevailing French ideas floating through the post-war decades, but remained mostly an essay writer until his new tendencies were publicly criticized by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard. As one of his biographers Jonathan Culler related, from 1965 on Barthes became the intellectual representative of criticism after Existentialism. However, exalted his public persona, Barthes was both in the center and in the margins and, indeed, Michel Foucault was somewhat disdainful of the self-education of Barthes. Barthes finally achieved a place in the scholarly community he at once chided and aspired to when he was elected to a chair in Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France.

Post-war Paris was in a state of intellectual flux. The scholarly community had been united by two elements during the Occupation: hatred for the Nazis and adherence to Marxism. When the war ended, Existentialism emerged as the prevailing philosophy, but Marxism as a philosophy seemed to be discredited by the brutal Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It was the events of 1968 that finally ended the faith in a practical Marxist theory of class revolution and, in the ruins of the “days of May,” Existentialism seemed too focused on the individualistic “act” of a single person, Marxism seemed too political and too tainted with failure, leaving Structuralism as the comfortably apolitical philosophy of the day.


Paris “Days of May” 1968

Based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism was established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which was followed up by Structuralist Anthropology in 1958. The work of Lévi-Strauss moved away from linguistic signs to social signs, from behavior and costumes, rituals and customs. The work of the Structuralist was to reveal the underlying structure of cultural signifiers which were arranged along binaries. Reflecting the structure of the human mind, paired opposites such as the raw and the cooked should be read as part of a larger sign system and gains meaning within a network of other signs. The raw and the cooked, the inedible and the editable, for example, are part of a larger concept of nature and culture.

It is important to understand that by the time Structuralism was introduced to America, it was already “over” in Paris, challenged by newer versions of Structuralism from those who also repudiated Structuralism, such as Foucault and those who undermined it, such as Jacques Derrida. From the late sixties to the mid eighties, works by French and German writers arrived, via translations, in an unsystematic manner and with alien labels, such as “Post-Structuralism.” In the blank space following the exhaustion of New Criticism and the aging of the Anglo-American tradition, French theory fell on fertile ground and was consumed by eager Americans, few of whom were familiar with the very real differences among the scholars in the very competitive universities and colleges of Paris. Instead, the “French” was all lumped together and were not understood as having distinctive intellectual lineages and very distinctive bodies of work. Compared to the scientific work of Lévi-Strauss, to the historical scope and extended projects of Foucault, to the twisted syntax and ever-evolving re-writings by Lacan, to the dense and circular layered writing of Derrida, the books and essays by Roland Barthes are brief, concise, eclectic and, in the case of Camera Lucida, an extended mourning for his mother, very personal. Not a trained philosopher, as were many of his colleagues, Barthes is best understood as a literary critic who used Structuralism as an analytic tool to better foreground “writing” over “literature” and to understand the system of social signs of ordinary life.

However, Barthes came to Structuralism late in his career. The first twenty years of his development was essentially a learning curve, including numerous essays that led to significant books, one of them being his first extended foray into literary criticism in 1953 when he published Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Early in his career, like all young intellectuals, Barthes digested Existentialism and was very inspired by What is Literature? (1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” Sartre wrote and the reader of the works of Barthes immediately recognizes a famous phrase that would later become the title of a book by Barthes. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language..he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs.” In both accepting this book by Sartre and in slipping away from Existentialism, Writing Degree Zero is very much a transitional book. A reaction against Existentialism, it combines Marxism in its critique of bourgeois literature and moves beyond a class critique to a critique of what Barthes called “Literature,” seeking a new non ideological way of writing. The roots of the short book go back to the late 1940s and is one of the most obvious of his excursions into semiotics.

In her introduction to Writing Degree Zero, when it was translated into English in 1967, Susan Sontag noted that American writers would have difficulty in understanding the book. Part of what disturbed her in the late sixties–the unfamiliarity with French literary criticism–has since passed and the book does not seem difficult at all, but the entire foundation of the book, an analysis of a tradition of literature that is specifically French, remains alien to many Americans. As Sontag pointed out, not only do American have an Anglo-Ameircan literary heritage but the canonical authors are quite different. When Barthes wrote of “Literature,” without explanation, he was referring to the French tradition of classical and official literature that dated back to the 17th century. Because Literature was designed to provide knowledge, information, and received wisdom, it was considered, not a mode of writing but a “natural” and inevitable form of communication. Due to its effectiveness, Literature remained supreme, even after the French Revolution. Early 19th century writers adopted the official language of power and what had once belonged to the ancien regime was appropriated by the “triumphant” middle class.

As an example of the authority of this form of language, Barthes made note of a form of grammar that does not exist in the English language: the “preterite,” or a verb that “implicitly belongs with a causal chain..set of related and oriented actions.” “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was a famous phrase used by Paul Valéry as a convention used for novels and Barthes notes that the same conventions are used for the recitations of history. Barthes stated that “Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter..the preterite is the expression of an order.” For the contemporary writer, the preterite is a phasing of authority and can be thought of as director’s establishing shot or the screenwriter’s ellipse–a way of moving the narrative from here to there. The order could hold as long as the class system remained intact and the bases of power seemed secure but after the Revolution of 1848, the social organization broke down due to historical forces, from industrialization and the urbanization of society. With the fracturing of the old society, the language of old France, Literature, lost its authority and writers had to find a new way of writing.

According to Barthes, “Literature” is a modern creation, part of a larger system of ownership and property resulting from capitalism and as such, this cultural concept constituted a new or modern form of writing that was “owned” by the “author” and “owned” by the publisher. By the 19th century, in its new version,“literature” was bought and sold and was no longer communal property as were the epic poems of an oral tradition named “Homer.” Bourgeois literature was an art form in the Kantian sense, in that it had no “useful” purpose. Therefore that which was bourgeois writing was distinguished from forms of writing that were considered versions of the “truth,” such as religion. Marxist theorist György Lukács (1885-1971) asserted that Realist writing of the 19th century was based upon seeing, meaning that the writer was merely describing what was seen or witnessed, no matter how painful. The mediation or the apparently neutral description was in fact a political act in that Realism made the power of the middle class seem to be inevitable. Notice that the supposedly distanced and omnipotent position of the narrator mimics the conventions of Literature. It is no accident that the Realist or Naturalistic novels of George Sand and Honoré Balzac and Gustave Flaubert emerged during a period of rising capitalism, the steady of empowerment of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the proletariat.

In Le Degrè zéro l’écriture, 1953, Barthes understood language to be a historical phenomenon and style as an individual feature. Barthes noted that descriptive or naturalistic writing was not innocent and was bound up in its own historical period. The avant-garde, situated in the Generation of 1848, broke with the horizontally and continuity of realism and liberated words from other words. From the 1850s on, the writer is “without Literature” which is in a “tragic predicament,” and the question becomes what is the mark of “good writing” now that Literature had lost its place? Barthes recounted that the late 19th century writers foregrounded “labor” as a value and stressed their bourgeois origins as workers. The new elevation of the “craft” of writing to an independent aesthetic began with Flaubert and modern authors strove to generate “good writing,” or the ability to use words well. The problem for writing became one of extracting oneself from the precincts of power and to find a way for writing to function as writing within a system of language.

Barthes was suspicious of “realism” in theory and in texts and considered realism not a form of seeing or describing that what existed, but as being based upon a set of practices and signification. The texts of the Realists were founded on a set of conventions that limited the text and, in naturalizing society, became a mediator between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Barthes, the key moment in his analysis of the history of French literature, was the disjuncture between bourgeois realism and avant-garde realism. For the world of visual art, Literature, which was so transparent it appeared to have no style, would have its counterpart in academic art of the mid to late 19th century. Paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme or Ernst Meissionier were the bourgeois form of Realism as Literature. In contrast, examples of the avant-garde Realism would be the labored working class craft exhibited so proudly by Gustave Courbet or the visible marks of production kept on view by Édouard Manet in their paintings. Understanding the French Classical tradition of Literature which was supposedly invisible to itself but was actually a evidence of power and order allows the art historian to comprehend the cultural anger that met the avant-garde artists who called attention to the “un-naturalism” of “naturalism.”

It would be an exaggeration to see Barthes as a Structuralist in 1953 but he was certainly aware of Saussure and Marx, both of who had built binary models. For Saussure there was langue and parole, or the system of language and the way in which language is used in everyday life. Seeing a conflict with Saussure’s binary system–between the will and the system–Barthes sought a middle term: écriture. Écriture is not translatable into English and is now left in the original French, but in Writing Degree Zero the term is translated as “writing,” a rather colorless term. For Barthes, there is language, the system and style, which is both historical and personal or as he put it “biological.” If the language is social then the style is personal. But in between language and style is writing. As Barthes wrote,

A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing (écriture) is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing (écriture) is a function; it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History.

For Barthes écriture had a specific relationship of form to content, embodied in the conventions of writing and operating within ethical and political values as a social fact. Always concerned with writing (écriture) as a moral act as a social fact, Barthes set up a ternary schema–a tripod model that would become his trademark–langue, style, écriture, which intimates or gestures at something beyond–a critique. “Writing,” Barthes asserted, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti communication, it is intimidating.” Writing Degree Zero breaks down into three major sections with his discussion of the transition from Literature to avant-garde writing in the middle, as the meat in the sandwich, as it were. Having established écriture as a third element, wedged between language and style, Barthes then ended his slim volume of meditation on the French tradition of writing with another middle term: zero degree writing.

Concerned with getting literature out of trap of bourgeois realism, Barthes had little patience with the “craft of writing (which) does not disturb any order.” He includes in those non-disturbers writers, who think they are disrupting the system or can “exorcise this sacred writing by dislocating it,” the still ascendent Surrealists, such as André Breton. Even the attempts of Stéphane Mallarmé to renounce language were equivocal. The solution Barthes put forward was “a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordined state of language.” His new breaking of the binaries centered upon placing “a neutral term or zero element.” The zero element is an aspect of grammar, a term in the middle of the singular-plural binary. As Barthes explained, “..writing at the zero degree is basically in the indicative mode, or if you like, a modal..a journalist’s writing.”

Barthes was interested in the neutral or what Sartre called, the “white writing” of Albert Camus, purged of the characteristic mark of “literature” (mannerism or style), “achieves a style of absence, which is almost an idea absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form..neutral writing in fact rediscovers the primary condition of classical art: instrumentality. But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, a way of certain silence has of existing; it deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing..” Unlike Marxist literature which is a language of “value-judgments” or “professional language signifying ‘presence,” writing should be linked to the project of revolution by renegotiating its relationship to history.

Barthes comes from the exhausted traditions of Marxism and Existentialism and extends their shared values of a moral writing by an engaged intellectual and looks for an ethical dimension in literature. “White writing” negates the false transparency of the algebraic system of the cause-and-effect writing of Literature, in which one element “naturally” follows another in a “logical” fashion. For Barthes the critic’s job is to construct intelligibility for his/her own time and to develop conceptual frameworks for analysis. In this critical and analytical fashion, the critic exposed the habitual ways of making the world intelligible and worked to modify these meanings that seem “natural.” For Barthes, all writing contains social signs, indicating a social mode of writing. No prose is transparent; the author’s language is inherited, while his/her own style is personal, but writing can be “white” or “zero degree.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Podcast Episode 20: Romanticism and Goya



Spain had been left out of the Enlightenment and there were those who were hopeful when a man of the people, Napoléon, became the leader of France. However, when Napoléon crowned himself Emperor all hopes of a new democratic age were dashed. Napoléon’s imperial ambitions began to ravage Europe and the trauma of a decade of war was an impetus for Romanticism. Indeed, Romanticism in Spain is the creation of Napoléon, who invaded the country of the court painter, Francisco Goya. Goya was a court painter and careful portraitist to the Royal Family until he was an unwilling witness to the invasion of Spain by French troops. Goya’s Romanticism is a mindset of outrage as he recorded the invasion and occupation of the French forces. The result is an art of the extremes: a Romanticism lived on the edge of fear and madness. More than any other modern artist, Goya captured the randomness of modern death and modern war and the lingering traumas that follow.


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