pp 92-95 of Bellissima: Feminine beauty and the Idea of Italy (Stephen Gundle)
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...
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'.
The racial emphasis that was given to all debates about population, demography and health in the late 1930s and 1940s led to much boasting about past and present accomplishments. At the centre of this current was Umberto Notari, a polemicist who had already made his name as a journalist, writer and publicist. According to Marinetti, Notari had 'a religious passion for Italy that [tended] to become worship of every one of its qualities and every one of its defects'. Among the Italian qualities especially appreciated by Notari, who had earlier been an admirer of Cavalieri, was female beauty.
Notari's books ostensibly conformed to the official policy of criticising foreign fashion and beauty influences, metropolitan types of feminity, and the relative disinterest of the modern woman in procreation. However, they won attention also because of their attractive visual presentation of modern women and the slogans and catchphrases Notari coined to designate them. His commentaties on the modern female condition were informed by a grasp of contemporary dilemmas and anxieties. Signora '900' (Mrs 20th Century), La donna 'tipo tre' (Women of the 'third type'), Basìa ovvero le ragazza allarmanti (Scary girls) were among the first titles. The 'voluntary infecundity' of well-off or economically independent women was repeatedly denounced in these works. In particular, Notari identified and commented on the impact of what he called the 'third type' of woman. This was the woman who worked and who enjoyed a measure of autonomy, as opposed to the first type - the mother, wife or daughter, who was subject to male authority, and the second type - the woman of pleasure who existed solely to satisfy male needs. The exterior behaviour and appearance of this woman of the 'third type', who travelled unaccompanied by tram or car, who wore short hair and skirts of a length that facilitated movement, followed from a transformation of attitude. According to Notari, maternity required a 'superhuman act of abnegation' from the woman of the third type. To stop her influence spreading among women of the first type, he suggested radical measures, such as banning women from officces and factories.
Notari's essayes always ended on an optimistic note. He did not only criticise Italian women; he also flattered them and highlighted their qualities. He returned on numerous occasions to their beauty. In a 1933 volume entitled Dichiarazioni alle più belle donne del mondo (Declarations to the most beautiful women in the world), he claimed not only that 'Italian women are the most beautiful women in the world' but that 'feminine beauty is increasing markedly, both in "quality" and in "quantity"'. In contrast to the French, whose beauty was distorted by fashion, and the Americans, whose beauty appeared to be 'manufactured in series' and impersonal (to the extent that 'the most beautiful American women are beautiful roses without perfume'), the Italians conserved a spontaneous beauty: 'The sensitivity of the Italians to feminine beauty is visible even on public streets, where many unknown beautiful women can be seen promenading', Notari observed. Italy may have been a poor country but it had two great natural resources in its artistic sensibility and its abundance of beautiful women.
Notari called for the formation of a 'revolutionary committee for the aesthetic independence of Italian women' to combat foreign influences. In true Fascist style, he urged action squads to undertake punitive missions to reduce the use of foreign beauty products. He claimed that Italian women should not wear jewellery since no precious stones were found naturally in Italy. Neither Dante's Beatrice nor Petrarch's Laura had worn jewels and 'no halo of jewels can add nobility, seduction or allure to the quality of feminine beauty; neither can it add intensity to an expression, sweetness to a smile, grace to a silhouette, or smoothness to skin'...
Due to Notari's energy and his eye for a publishing opportunity, the campaign against the modern distortion of beauty reached a mass audience composed largely of women. Between 1929 and 1939, he authored a large number of popular essays, all published by his own publishing house. They appealed widely to average readers and sold in hundreds of thousands through news kiosks, at stations and in bookshops. Notari argued that beautiful women should lead the revolt against foreign tastes, ways, customs and products and take a position 'against the pollution of exoticism, snobbery and zenolatry, that modify the fundamental characteristics of Italian womanhood and reduce the women of Italy to more or less ridiculous slaves of France and other countries'. Patriotism should extend to consumption, he argued, and the 'zenolatry' of the rich and some sections of the press should be combatted.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Notari seized the chance offered by the racial laws to publish in 1939 a Panegirico della Razza italiana (In praise of the Italian race) that was a hymn of praise to his fellow countrymen and women. Thanks to Fascist policies, he remarked, there had been a marked improvement in the health and vigour of the population:
« Women, especially the youngsters, are much more beautiful, more aware, more unrestrained. In the cities of Emilia, in particular Bologna, Ferrara and Parma, the percentage of beautiful young women is amazing. Glances, smiles, physical shapes, hairstyles, everything is a marvel of lively, audacious youth ready for adventure and conquest. In Piazza San Marco in Venice, against the orange sky and violet sea, the swarms of girls of the people are triumphs of seduction. And so it is in the Sunday parades in the Villa Borghese, as in Florence at the Cascine, in Turin at the Valentino, in Naples along the seafront, in Perugia, in Siena and in Padova. »
For Notari, this connected with the Renaissance pictorial tradition. Indeed, he argued that the great beauties depicted by the old masters seemed to have returned to life in great numbers, judging by the young women who could be seen out strolling on feast days in every region of the country.
« It does not matter if the clothes are different, simpler or more worn. The physical nature is the same. Complexions have the same smooth whiteness, the eyes the same softness, the mouths the same sparkle, the neck, the shoulders and the bust the same design. If the women were to be dressed in the fashions of the fourteenth, fifteenth century or seventeenth centuries, it would seem as if, by some diabolical witchcraft, the museums and galleries had been emptied and the human figures had stepped down from the picture-frames in order to walk around the streets and sit at the café tables. »
In Notari's view, there could be no doubt that, among the women of white race, the Mediterraneans were superior and that, among the Mediterraneans, Italians were the best. The classical woman and the true woman were Italian. This was because Italians were less distorted by modernity than women elsewhere. 'Neither the employment of women in offices, in factories, in universities, nor the excessive emphasis on sport, nor poor quality reading matter and films have "masculinized" Italian women in the same way as elsewhere', he claimed...
In the early 1940s, the role of prima donna of Italian cinema was taken by Alida Valli. A former student of the Experimental Film School from Pola (Istria) whose real name was Lidia von Altenburger, Valli won her pre-eminent position as a result of her performances in lightweight comedies (such as Mille lire al mese - One thousand lire per month and Ore 9 lezione di chimica - Nine o'clock chemistry lesson), costume films (Piccolo mondo antico - Little old world) and the dramatic Noi vivi-Addio Kira (We the living - Goodbye Kira). Valli's appearance fell within the broad frame of beauty defined by the Italian cinema of the period. Oval-faced and green-eyed, with 'the eyebrows of a surprised cat' (as an American journalist would later describe her), she was exotic with respect to Italian norms. She was a classic, refined, European type, and of obviously bourgeois origin. Her dark hair and natural looks completed an appearance that was at once austere and good-natured. Valli was photographed in a more realistic way than other actresses, the use of light and shade adding character and removing some of the aura of idealisation and perfection with which some other actresses were always surrounded. Thus she reflected in her face a more complex inner life than most of her colleagues.
Valli was the highest point of originality that Italian cinema reached in the Fascist period. Yet no one ever described her as a typical beauty, or even as a representative of the Italian tradition of feminine beauty. Although American stars were remote, and indeed were absent from Italian screens after 1938, they introduced a set of codes, rituals and genetic traces that determined what people understood by stardom. Hollywood cinema did not merely offer an extraordinary range of female types and assert itself as the primary producer of influential ideals of beauty, it also provided indications of how its models could be imitated and applied by ordinary young women. In her prime, Valli was an adaptation of this model, albeit an original one.
Fascism ultimately failed to give rise to any model of Italian beauty that was widely appreciated either inside or outside the country. The battle to reassert the Italian tradition and connect it to everyday life with reference to a restricted idea of femininity encountered serious, and ultimately insurmountable, obstacles. Although the regime employed may tools and methods of persuasion to orient women towards what were seen as their natural domestic and reproductive duties, it could do little about the fundamental trends of industrialisation and urbanisation that had led to the decline of the birthrate. Commercial culture proved a vital pole of attraction to younger women who found in it opportunities, suggestions and models that in many respects ran counter to the aims of the regime. The idea of a type of modern Italian feminine beauty would take shape more readily in the more open conditions of the post-war years. Although the male domination of the public discourse on beauty would continue, the abandonment of the autarky mentality, the removal of legal restrictions on women and the democratic atmosphere allowed for tradition and modernity to combine in more spontaneous ways and with more input from women themselves.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as hackneyed as it sounds. "One man's garbage is another's technicolor". So sorry, it is hardly "fact"; until "beauty" can be quantified in standardized S.I. units proves the contrary.
Wasn't you who said Monica Belluci is one of the most beautiful celebrities? What's up with the recent venom in your posts? Someone pissed in your corn flakes?
I'm guessing it's the "Neolithic" elements that uglify the Italian women to you.
I have no idea why, simply they either have asymmetrical faces, or inharmonious features. They are very well groomed though.
I used inductive reasoning.
You mentioned the Dutch and the "Eastern Europeans" for comparison. The one thing that these two populations commonly lack which the Italians do not are genetic lineages from the Neolithic. (Of course, this dichtomy is much less sharp if we include Balkan Europeans into the "Eastern European" label).
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