wrote:Female beauty in the Fascist era
In pursuing their campaign, the Fascists sought to elaborate an alternative model of women. For the new Fascist woman physical health and exercise were the best basis for beauty. In Calzini's opinion,
« the modern Venus, although she resembles the ancient one, is more lively, more aware and more dynamic. In this way female aesthetics today fuels the cult of the physical, not in terms of brute force but in the exquisite rhythm of nerves and muscles, in the submission of all movements to the measure and control of the intelligence, in the triumph of resistance, of the agility and energy of the spirit. . . . Thus lipstick, face powder, mascara, hairdyes, corsets, bustiers and elastic stockings will soon no longer exist in Italy except as a ridiculous exception. »
'Motherhood does not diminish female beauty', Mussolini declared in a celebrated phrase and various articles in the press sought to persuade women that beauty and maternity were perfectly compatible. If women sought to prolong their beauty by having only one child, 'in order to please and be as attractive at forty as at twenty, at fifty as at thirty' then they reduced themselves to being purely objects of male pleasure, wrote one commentator in Illustrazione italiana. Instead it should be recognized that, once the fresh beauty of a woman's twenty years has faded, 'another spiritual beauty can take its place: the aura of motherhood'.
Perhaps the single biggest problem with the elaboration of this model was in making it visually appealing. The very basic, and even faceless, graphic images of mothers that featured in the Fascist press and propaganda illustrated perfectly, if unwittingly, the difficulty of simultaneously honouring and rendering appealing a figure who was the product of repressive policies. Even the Catholics, in their magazines, offered an image of 'maternity composed more of mystical abstractions than of concrete reality'. Nonetheless, in support of its campaign, the regime drew on two resources. The first of these was rural woman. The fecundity of the earth and prolific peasant families were held up as two features of the battle against corrupt and sterile foreign and metropolitan influences. Fascism saw rural Italy as the repository of true national virtues, and throughout the regime there was an emphasis on the honesty and simplicity of country people. Mussolini posed as 'the first peasant of Italy' and the Battle of Wheat, which began as early as 1926, was an important part of the struggle for autarky. It also served to remind city dwellers of the importance of the rural economy to national prosperity. Demonstrations of threshing took place in the piazzas of major cities, while officially-approved trucks took fertiliser and seed to country districts. Italian bread was used as a symbol of the country's independence from foreign products, and images of young peasant women were used to bolster the idea of a people whose beauty resided in their spirit and energy.
The image of the florid peasant woman was widely deployed in the periodical press and in popular song. In contrast to the fashionable and often film-related images of women that continued throughout the 1930s to appear on the covers of best-selling popular women's magazines like Eva and Gioia, Gente Nostra, the weekly of the Fascist After-Work Organisation, consistently featured peasant girls from the regions of Italy. So, too, did all the publications geared to peasant readers or related in some way to the regime's campaigns concerning agriculture. The unnamed girls were often identified as being typical of their regions, a fact that was underlined by their traditional costumes. Some of them were clearly unfamiliar with the camera, and are unlikely to have been aware of their role as Fascist cover girls. Pictures of the rural world had been a staple of the bourgeois weekly Illustrazione italiana since the nineteenth century, and the images of the 1930s were no less likely to have found their main audience in the cities. Articles, cover pictures and songs all underlined the attractions of the Italian regions. The most popular song of this type was 'Reginella campagnola' (Country queen), which sang the praises of a peasant beauty of the Abruzzo region. Composed in Milan by Eldo Di Lazzaro, who was originally from Molise, and made into a hit by Carlo Buti, it was enjoyed by urban dwellers who listened to, or owned, radio sets or record players. 'O, beautiful country girl, you are the little queen/ In your eyes there is the sun, there is the colour of the violets of the valleys in blossom' went the words, but the country girl of the title was not immune to the appeal of the city. In a later verse, she rides to town on an ass and returns in the evening: 'She is so happy to tell/ what she has seen in the city'.
In her study of the Massaie Rurali (Rural housewives) organisation, Perry Willson points out that peasant women were often called upon to perform an ornamental function at Fascist events. With their traditional costumes - some of which were in fact not traditional at all, but invented from nothing - they added a welcome touch of folklore and visual variety to rallies and assemblies. Groups of them were engaged to promote produce and add an aura of genuineness to foodstuffs. However, the organisation brought little benefit to its three million members. It was 'demagogic, populist' and 'designed by an urban elite for the peasant masses'. Far from improving the conditions of women and families, it 'patronizingly romanticised the harsh lives of the rural poor'. Yet the effect of its activities was not always the desired one. The events the organisation arranged, including visits to fairs, training courses, photographic sessions and so on had an unsettling effect. They gave rural women glimpses of the attractions of the urban life style and brought them into a new relationship with the state and nation.
The simple peasant beauty bolstered a conviction that Italy and its people were at the forefront of a new civilisation in the making. Such was the confidence in this model, or at least the conviction that it could be mobilised for propaganda purposes, that it was even held yp as a positive contrast to the artifice of the stars at the Venice film festival of 1934. According to Raffaele Calzini, 'The blonde and brown-haired Venetian girls from the vegetable and fish markets, devoid of make-up, nail varnish and bleached hair, healthy and florid like the Venetian women of the time of Titian, Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto did not pale by comparison with the global stars gathered there'. International sanctions imposed after Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 provided a further reason for patriotic pride in unadorned beauty. However, attitudes sometimes appeared to be more contingent than permanent. 'A parsimonious, hard-working family-based sense of virtue resists intact and postpones to the year 2000 silk stockings, radiators, radios, holidays, and cosmetics in order to build up bit by bit hard-earned savings' boasted a Gente Nostra contributor:
« There has been some infiltration of exotic weirdnesses even among us, but compared to the few thousand wretches who go crazy for the dresses of Patou and Lanvin, for the perfumes of Coty, for the textiles of London, for the cars with foreign names, there are twenty million of our women who adorn and satisfy themselves with next to nothing, certain as they are in the conviction that Italian beauty and grace has no need of laces and fancies to bring out the fullness of their allure. »
However, Gente Nostra could not ignore the fact that many of its readers were urban dwellers who were familiar with cinema and consumer lifestyles. Indeed, it regularly printed photographs of film stars and advertisements (for example, for Palmolive soap - in which blonde models assured readers that 'beauty is not only that of the face. The body too must be attractive'). 'It must be recognised that the type of womanly beauty that is in vogue in the whole world today belongs to the category, continually renewed and ever-fresh, of American film stars of at any rate of stars launched in Hollywood', noted one writer in the magazine...
wrote:Calzini's aim was to oppose Hollywood and 'the international female type' and seek out 'the noble titles and the special patents of our race, that is the best and immortal in this field too'. The volume 'sincerely hopes that, by taking inspiration from the past, the living examples of feminine beauty that the next generation, freed from zenophilia, will once again offer to the world, will become mothers to the strongest athletes and the best soldiers'.
One problem with the deployment of the Renaissance pictorial tradition was that most of the paintings that comprised it depicted women or models with fair skin and blonde hair. By reaching into the ideals of beauty, the regime privileged a popular ideal that saw darkness as an essential quality. For Calzini, this pictorial blondeness was the painterly equivalent of a photogenic quality that did not fundamentally affect the substance of the discourse on beauty. With respect to the past, some refinements were added to this. For example, the existence of several varieties of Italian beauty was highlighted: 'the types are at least three and they are, roughly speaking, those of northern Italy, central Italy and southern Italy. Although the art of the three great centuries accords pride of place to those of Tuscany, Venice and Umbria, the regional richness of Italy, in this field, is such that any number of schools can present a type and every region of Italy could boast a living masterpiece'. This was still valid even if the spread of modernity made it difficult to identify the original typologies in large cities like Milan or Turin. However, even if immigration had not been without effects, 'even in these large cities we are far from seeing the monotonous and grey quality of women without sex or beauty that crowd the underground passage-ways of Paris, London and New York'. 'In Italy', he argued, 'even if the variety of regions that are different in terms of their history, diet, climate and water, creates diverse examples of female beauty and marks them indelibly directly from birth, they are still united by an ideal bond and by a blood relationship that clearly exists. Thus the language of art that describes them and the pictorial medium that depicts them identify and exalt their intimate unity'.