The Renaissance Perfected
Miri Rubin reviews a book on the Renaissance.
The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle and Tourism in Fascist Italy
D. Medina Lasansky
Penn State University 380pp £62.50 ISBN 0 271 02366 X
The Renaissance Perfected is an excellent example of the impact which cultural history is having on the understanding of the state, and politics more generally. Social and cultural history began with the desire to explore and appreciate the lives of the many, to capture popular and vernacular worlds. Yet institutions and ideologies shape those worlds, so cultural historians have found themselves at the forefront with innovative studies of aspects of politics usually ignored by a conventional political history: ritual and representation, mobilization of the imagination. Such cultural history requires of its practitioner multiple areas of skill and insight and true interdisciplinary range. The results can often be fresh and unexpected.
D. Medina Lasansky’s The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle and Tourism in Fascist Italy displays the rich possibilities of cultural history. For it brings to the well-studied terrain of Fascist Italy fresh approaches and makes important connections between fields usually studied apart: architecture, urban history, political history, and popular culture. The subject matter is the vast enterprise of Fascist state patronage, which celebrated Italy’s medieval and Renaissance past through many – and some vast – building, restoration and design projects. While Mussolini chose his party’s name from the lexicon of republican Rome, he favoured as the background for civic life a combination of late medieval and Renaissance aesthetics. This was the style of most Italian towns, with their piazzas, churches in distinctive Italian Romanesque or Gothic, fountains and city halls. The Fascist Ministry of Leisure Affairs turned this civic heritage into a tourist’s wonderland: it restored houses to ‘original’ style, filled country villas with period collections of furniture and objects, all perfected and adorned, so as to create experiences of total immersion in a glorious late medieval past. Dante’s sexcentenary celebration in 1921 raised themes which the Fascist Party would develop soon after. On their holidays and weekends Italians could marvel at the achievements of their forefathers, the perfectly proportioned buildings and the figures of beautiful people who had inhabited them. The Renaissance spaces – indoors and out – were animated by the pageantry of festivals: some renewed like the Palio in Siena, some invented like the ‘medieval’ living game of chess at Marostica. The achievements were proudly displayed during Hitler’s state visit in 1938, which took him to the heart of Tuscany.
Professor Lasansky begins with discussion of the impact of the term ‘Renaissance’ on Italian culture from the nineteenth century; she next discusses the recreation of the Tuscan Renaissance; the urban architectural programmes which aimed to recreate the medieval/Renaissance, with a close study of the case of Arezzo. Next she discusses civic pageantry, which found keen audiences in the newly created Italian mass-tourism market. The penultimate chapter explores a northern case of renewal, that of Marostica, and the conflicts which emerged between central plans and local traditions. The book ends with a sophisticated discussion of the bureaucracy and political networks which delivered the perfected new Renaissance. It is chastening to note how many scholars – in history, philology, art history – played their part.
The Renaissance Perfected interestingly analyses the juxtaposition between tradition and modernity, charisma and bureaucracy in fascist political culture. Florence was a gem of the Renaissance, but crowds of tourists reached it thanks to the construction of the gleaming new railway station of Santa Maria Novella in 1936. While travel magazines extolled the beauty of Florence, they also advertised the latest American cars. Italians were made to feel that they were heirs to sophistication and beauty, and were guided to thank their leaders for the fruitful combination of old and new. This state of mind also sought also to suggest that the adventure in Ethiopia was the playing out of Italian imperial destiny. Like all good history books The Renaissance Perfected bears a contemporary message for its readers. Tuscany which we so delight in visiting, and which so many educated English people treat like a natural rural retreat, is in significant measure the creation of Fascism. The historic tourist trails, the restored buildings, the festivals and the style of display of merchandise – once created as distractions for the citizens of the Fascist republic – still delight tourists, and benefit from the support of state institutions founded in the 1920s and 1930s. This beautifully produced and readable book is full of insight and interest. But the reader of The Renaissance Perfected should be warned: Tuscany will never seem the same.
Miri Rubin is author of The Hollow Crown (Penguin, 2005)
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