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Imperial reproductions: the circulation of colonial images across popular genres and media in the 1920s and 1930s

  • Loredana Polezzi (a1)


The Fascist phase of the Italian colonial experience was characterized by the diffusion of colonial discourses and imagery across Italian culture. Significantly, it was frequent for the same people to produce texts belonging to diverse genres, often cutting across different media and irrespective of distinctions between elite and popular audiences. Concentrating on representations of the East African territories which were eventually to constitute the Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI), the article analyses the way in which a selected number of images of the colonies spread across different genres and media, arguing in favour of an interdisciplinary approach to colonial processes of representation. Textual and visual mappings of Africa inscribed its territories with European symbols, value systems and signifiers. Geographers and travel writers, in particular, had a fundamental role in creating not only the physical but also the mental space for colonization. They enacted the transformation of East Africa from the dangerous and unmapped setting of the heroic acts of individual explorers to the stage for a collective colonial effort. In their footsteps there followed the discourse of tourism and the tourist industry, which was meant to integrate the image of the colonies with that of the peninsula.

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1. In Italy, Nicola Labanca has noted that ‘the history of the colonial experience is too relevant a phenomenon to be either ignored by scholars or left entirely in the hands of colonial historians’, and he has stressed the need for a complex approach, stating that ‘the colonial experience of the Italian people was so multi-faceted and complex that relying on just one or a few pieces of the mosaic would risk reducing to a simplified and rigid image what was instead a markedly diversified and varied picture’. See Labanca, Nicola, ‘Una tessera e un mosaico di storia sociale: italiani ed italiane in colonia’, in Labanca, Nicola and Marchi, Annalisa (ed.), Memorie d'oltremare , Giunti, Florence, 2000, pp. 8794 (pp. 90 and 89, respectively). Clara Gallini has gone even further, asking for ‘a method capable of reasoning on images in their respective contexts’, allowing us to search for ‘an interpretative key for the logic on which this whole series of symbolic practices and discourses is constructed, so that we may interrogate ourselves about the nature of similarities and differences’. This kind of work, according to Gallini, requires ‘the convergence of two gazes: that of the anthropologist and that of the expert in communication’, as well as ‘a comparative approach encompassing literature and figurative arts, aiming to identify differences and affinities in the symbolic forms of representation of both “ourselves” and “others”’; Gallini, Clara, Giochi pericolosi. Frammenti di un immaginario alquanto razzista, Manifestolibri, Rome, 1996, pp. 17 and 66. See also Triulzi, Alessandro, ‘L'Africa come icona. Rappresentazioni dell'alterità nell'immaginario coloniale italiano di fine Ottocento’, in Del Boca, Angelo (ed.), Adua. Le ragioni di una sconfitta, Laterza, Rome–Bari, 1997, pp. 255–281. All translations in this and following notes are my own.

2. The word ‘text’ is used here to encompass both written documents and other forms of representation, including those involving visual media, from graphics to cinema.

3. Few people have drawn attention to travel writing as a source of valuable information on Italian colonialism. Pioneering work has been carried out by Francesco Surdich; see for instance Surdich, Francesco, Esplorazioni geografiche e sviluppo del colonialismo nell'età della rivoluzione industriale , La Nuova Italia, Florence, 1980, and Surdich, Francesco (ed.), L'esplorazione italiana dell'Africa, Il Saggiatore, Milan, 1982; relevant articles can also be found in the journal Miscellanea di storia delle esplorazioni, edited by Surdich. For recent interventions in this field see also Burdett, Charles, ‘Journeys to Italian East Africa 1936–1941: Narratives of Settlement’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 5, 2, Summer 2000, pp. 207–226; and Labanca, , ‘Una tessera e un mosaico di storia sociale’, p. 87.

4. On this subject see Burdett, , ‘Journeys to Italian East Africa’.

5. Kowalewski, Michael, ‘Introduction’, in Kowalewski, Michael (ed.), Temperamental Journeys: Essays on the Modern Literature of Travel , University of Georgia Press, Athens and London, 1992, pp. 116, p. 7.

6. On this subject see Polezzi, Loredana, Translating Travel: Contemporary Italian Travel Writing in English Translation , Ashgate, Aldershot and Burlington (VT), 2001, pp. 753.

7. See Said, Edward, ‘Orientalism Reconsidered’, Race & Class , 27, 2, 1985, pp. 115; Youngs, Tim, Travellers in Africa: British Travelogues, 1850–1900, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1994.

8. On this subject see for instance Youngs, Travellers in Africa.

9. See for instance, De Agostini, Enrico, La Reale Società Geografica Italiana e la sua opera dalla fondazione ad oggi , Reale Società Geografica Italiana, Rome, 1937; Carazzi, Maria, La Società Geografica Italiana e l'esplorazione coloniale in Africa, La Nuova Italia, Florence, 1972; Puccini, Sandra, Andare lontano: Viaggi ed etnografia nel secondo Ottocento, Carocci, Rome, 1999; and Marazzi, Ugo (ed.), La conoscenza dell'Asia e dell'Africa in Italia nei secoli XVIII e XIX, Istituto Universitario Orientale, Naples, 1984 (especially, Salvatore Diglio, ‘Il contributo del Bollettino della Società Africana d'Italia alla conoscenza geografica dell'Africa in Italia negli ultimi diciotto anni del XIX secolo’, vol. 1, tome 1, pp. 155–168).

10. A perfect example is Gli italiani in Africa by Savelli, Maffio, first published in eighty-four instalments (selling for 10c each) and then collected in volume format (Perino, Rome, 1886), complete with elaborate (and often gory) illustrations.

11. See De Agostini, , La Reale Società Geografica Italiana ; Carazzi, , La Società Geografica Italiana e l'esplorazione coloniale in Africa ; and Diglio, , ‘Il contributo del Bollettino della Società Africana d'Italia alla conoscenza geografica dell'Africa’.

12. Ardito Desio died on 12 December 2001, at the age of 104. His obituary in The Times, for instance, gives plenty of space to his mountaineering career, as well as an extensive account of his life; the piece, however, is strikingly reticent when it comes to Desio's colonial experiences, the only indirect reference to these being a mention of the fact that he ‘led many scientific expeditions in Africa, the Middle and Near East and Antarctica’; ‘Ardito Desio’, The Times, Saturday 15 December 2001, p. 27. See also Goodwin, S., ‘Ardito Desio’, The Independent , 20 December 2001, ‘Thursday Review’, p. 6.

13. Full details of Desio's publications between 1914 and 1977 can be found in ‘Pubblicazioni di Ardito Desio’, Università di Milano, Istituto di Geologia, Milan, 1977.

14. See Desio, Ardito, ‘Lo stato attuale delle conoscenze geologiche e minerarie della Libia’, Orientamenti e note ad uso dei giornalisti, Viaggio del Duce in Libia per l'inaugurazione della Litoranea, Anno XV , [n.p.], 1936.

15. See Desio, Ardito, ‘Underground Waters and Peopling of Arid and Semiarid Regions’, Symposium UNESCO, Ankara, 1957; Paris, 1958; Desio, Ardito, ‘Il petrolio libico’, Centro Economico Italia-Africa (CEIA), Quaderno 17, CEIA, Milan, 1965; and Desio, Ardito, ‘History of Geologic Exploration in Cyrenaica’, in Barr, F. T. (ed.), Geology and Archaeology of Northern Cyrenaica, Libya, Petroleum Exploration Society of Libya, Amsterdam, 1968, pp. 79–113.

16. See Desio, Ardito, Le vie della sete , Hoepli, Milan, 1950, pp. viiviii.

17. Dainelli, Giotto, In Africa: Lettere dall'Eritrea , 2 vols, Istituto Italiano d'Arti Grafiche, Bergamo, 1908–10.

18. Dainelli, Giotto, Marinelli, Olinto and Mori, Attilio, ‘Bibliografia geografica della Colonia Eritrea, 1891–1906’, estr. Rivista Geografica Italiana , Firenze, 1907; Marinelli, and Mori, were at the time joint editors of the Rivista Geografica Italiana.

19. See for instance ‘The Agricultural Possibilities of Italian Somalia’, in the American journal The Geographical Review , 21, 1, 1931, pp. 5669.

20. On Dainelli, see Riccardi, Riccardo, ‘Giotto Dainelli e la sua opera scientifica’, L'Universo , 34, 5, September–October 1954, pp. 687692; and Sestini, Aldo, ‘L'opera geografica di Giotto Dainelli’, Rivista Geografica Italiana, 76, 2, June 1969, pp. 201–206.

21. Dainelli, Giotto, Passeggiate geografiche: Letture per i giovani , La Voce, Florence, 1921.

22. The two titles translate as ‘Territories which are geographically Italian but politically assigned to other states’, and ‘The old overseas Italian territories’; see Dainelli, Giotto, Paesi e genti: Corso di geografia per la scuola media e secondaria , 4 vols, Zanichelli, Bologna, 1953, vol. II: L'Italia , pp. 249264 and pp. 265–287 respectively.

23. See Dainelli, Giotto, Passeggiate geografiche , p. 300; and Dainelli, Giotto, Paesi e genti, vol. II, pp. 280–281.

24. On this topic see Campbell, Mary B., The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400–1600 , Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1988; Pratt, Mary-Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Routledge, London and New York, 1992; and Bottiglieri, Nicola, Nel verde mare delle tenebre, Edizioni Associate, Rome, 1994.

25. See for instance Desio, Ardito, ‘Resti di antiche superfici di degradazione nell'Etiopia centrale. (Appunti di volo)’, Rivista Geografica Italiana , 47, 1940, pp. 1725.

26. On futurism and its impact on colonial representations see Tomasello, Giovanna, La letteratura coloniale italiana dalle avanguardie al fascismo , Sellerio, Palermo, 1984 (especially Chs 3 and 4). On futurism and Fascist aesthetics see Pinkus, Karen, Bodily Regimes: Italian Advertising under Fascism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 1995; and Falasca-Zamponi, Simonetta, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini's Italy, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

27. Sandri, Carlo Fettarappa, Il periplo dell'Africa dopo la vittoria, Ceschina , Milan, 1937. Similar images can also be found in paintings of the period; see for instance works by Di Bosso, Renato, Thayaht, Ernesto and others included in Barisione, Silvia, Fochessati, Matteo and Franzone, Gianni (eds), Under Mussolini: Decorative and Propaganda Arts of the Twenties and Thirties from the Wolfson Collection in Genoa, Mazzotta, Milan, 2002, pp. 96–103.

28. On Boeri, see Brilli, Attilio and Chieli, Francesca (eds), Immagini e retorica di regime , Motta, Milan, 2001.

29. Stefanini was the author of travelogues, geographic treatises and, with Desio, Ardito, of the already mentioned 1928 volume Le colonie, Rodi e le isole italiane dell'Egeo.

30. Guida d'Italia: Possedimenti e colonie , Touring Club Italiano, Milan, 1929.

31. See n. 9 above.

32. Piccioli, Angelo, La Porta magica del Sahara , Minerva, Tripoli, 1931; Apollon, [n.p.], 1934.

33. On Zammarano's film see Brunetta, Gian Piero and Gili, Jean A., L'ora d'Africa nel cinema italiano: 1911–1989 , La grafica—Mori, Trento, 1990.

34. For the complete list of contributors see Guida d'Italia: Possedimenti e colonie , pp. 57.

35. The immediate association is with the maps of the empire, from Roman times onwards, installed in Rome along the Via dei Fori Imperiali.

36. It is interesting to note that nearly a decade later, the 1938 guide of the AOI published by the Consociazione Turistica Italiana (half a million copies of which were distributed free of charge to members) included a virtually identical map, except for much clearer boundaries and confines. See Guida d'Italia della Consociazione Turistica Italiana: Africa Orientale Italiana , Consociazione Turistica Italiana, Milan, 1938.

37. See Guida d'Italia: Possedimenti e colonie ; the maps are between pp. 760 and 761 and pp. 792 and 793, respectively; pp. 790–794 are devoted to SAIS.

38. Giordano, Mario, (ed.), L'Impero coloniale fascista , Istituto Geografico De Agostini, Novara, 1936. For examples of the use of this kind of imagery in film see for instance the opening sequence of Stanley and Linvingstone (1939, dir. Otto Bower and Henry King), or, for a comic version, Astérix chez les Bretons (1986, dir. Pino Van Lamsweerde).

39. The word amba refers to the typical flat-topped, conic hill of the East African landscape; the Amba Aradam was one of the toponyms marking the battles of the Ethiopian campaign; see Del Boca, Angelo, L'Africa nella coscienza degli italiani. Miti, memorie, errori, sconfitte , Laterza, Rome–Bari, 1992, p. 75.

40. On the alterity of the black body see Pinkus, Karen, Bodily Regimes. On the origins and history of this type of representation see also Surdich, Francesco, Momenti e problemi di storia delle esplorazioni , Bozzi, Genoa, 1978, pp. 168171; and Surdich, , ‘Introduzione’, in Cavalli, Camillo, Più neri di prima: Colonizzazione e schiavitù in Congo nel diario di viaggio di un italiano agli inizi del Novecento, Diabasis, Reggio Emilia, 1995, pp. 13–42.

41. The Florentine anthropologist Lidio Cipriani travelled extensively in Africa during the 1930s. He was the author of a number of ‘scientific’ texts focusing on racist theory, as well as travelogues. Many of his photographs were published in his In Africa dal Capo al Cairo, Bemporad, Florence, 1932. On Cipriani, other Italian anthropologists of the colonial period and their use of photography see Baldi, Alberto, ‘L'impiego della fotografia nell'indagine di carattere etno-antropologico all'interno del periodo coloniale italiano’, in Rivista di storia e critica della fotografia , 4, 5, 1983, pp. 2353. On the racist character of Cipriani's work see Chiozzi, Paolo, ‘Autoritratto del razzismo: le fotografie antropologiche di Lidio Cipriani’, in Jesi, Centro Furio (ed.), La menzogna della razza: Documenti e immagini del razzismo e dell'antisemitismo fascista, Grafis, Bologna, 1994, pp. 91–94. On Italian colonial photography see also Goglia, Luigi, (ed.), Colonialismo e fotografia. Il caso italiano, Sicania, Messina, 1989.

42. Colonna, Gustavo Brigante, I grandi viaggiatori: Avventure di terra e di mare, illustrated by Golia, La scala d'oro, Biblioteca graduata per i ragazzi, UTET, Turin, 1935; 3rd edn 1944; new edn 1958. As already mentioned, many of the travel writers of the Fascist period also produced children's books; links between comics and travel, though less obvious, are also worth examining: the exhibition Immagini & Colonie, held between 20 September and 20 October 2000 at the Museo Nazionale delle Arti e Tradizioni Popolari in Rome, included for instance a reference to Orio Vergani (journalist, novelist, and prolific travel writer) as the author of texts for comics of this period.

43. On the contiguity between the African and the Italian body and its implications see in particular Pinkus, Karen, Bodily Regimes , and Triulzi, Alessandro, ‘Napoli e l'immagine dell'Africa nella collezione fotografica della Società Africana D'Italia (ca. 1880–1940)’, in Casti, Emanuela e Turco, Angelo (ed.), Culture dell'alterità. Il territorio africano e le sue rappresentazioni , Unicopli, Milan, 1998, pp. 185205.

44. ‘The protective embrace of a “figlio della lupa” is not enough to defend the territory of the empire’; Tofanelli, Arturo and Patellani, Federico (eds), 50 anni di vita italiana: 1900–1950. Documentario di Tempo , 1950, p. 137. The figli della lupa were one of the youth organizations set up by the Fascist regime.

45. See Gallini, Clara, Giochi pericolosi.

46. See Dini, Rossella e Savi, Franco, Viaggi, popoli e paesi nella libreria di Ferdinando Martini , Giunta Regionale Toscana/Editrice Bibliografica, Milan, 1993.

I am grateful to the British Academy for support which made it possible to carry out research for this article, and to the anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions. I should also like to thank the Istituzione Biblioteca e Museo, Sansepolcro, for permission to reproduce four of the original Boeri sketches in their collection, in Figures 1–4.

Imperial reproductions: the circulation of colonial images across popular genres and media in the 1920s and 1930s

  • Loredana Polezzi (a1)


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