Photography, Power, and Humiliation in the Second World War

14.11.1939 Do not publish photographs of soldiers seen from behind, during parades or demonstrations, even if LUCE has distributed these photographs.

06.08.1940 Order reconfirmed to not publish photographs of soldiers kneeling during Mass.

09.12.1941 Do not publish photographs where people are seen shaking hands.


It was the first time that photography was introduced to the cultural language. . . . Those were times when . . . the various forms of photographic storytelling had not yet become a reality, at least in Italy.


A paradoxical combination of photographic practices that took place between 1940 and 1945 has gone unremarked in histories of Italian photography, where a tendency to a-chronological analysis avoids the confrontation of Fascist and antifascist photography. An analysis of the different forms of photography in existence during this heightened period of war (propaganda, vernacular, Allied, Resistance, and reconstructed photography) brings to light an important moment in Italian photographic history that has yet to be fully charted. Photographic censorship grew increasingly stringent with the advent of war (see first epigraph).3 Often, the laws were indirectly associated to a military ideal of masculinity, a warring ego. For example, seeing someone from behind is also a way of having visual power over them and therefore of dominating them physically; kneeling is a sign of devotion or humility before a greater power; shaking hands meant human contact with others and submission to bourgeois etiquette. Fascist concepts of virility established particular rules in photographic censorship that Resistance photography subverted, with reference to Christianity and a sense of pathos and victimhood. Inspired by the controversial work of Klaus Theweleit on sexuality and Fascism, Male Fantasies (1989), as well as the work of Saul Friedlander on the psychology of Nazism and the cult of death in Reflections of Nazism (1993), I argue that the concern of the Fascist regime with the representation of a peculiar, commodified masculinity can elucidate antifascist photographic tropes.4

One of the aims of this chapter is to trace the Partisan movement in pictures and integrate it into a history of photography, relating it to the production of humanist photography as a form of visual resistance and atonement. This research complements existing work on Partisan photography.5 Historical aspects of the chapter were informed by, among others, Umberto Massola’s I scioperi del ‘43 (1973), Claudio Pavone’s Una guerra civile (1991), and Tom Behan’s The Italian Resistance (2009).6 Research on Partisan photography and photographs of Partisans conducted at the National Institute for the History of the Liberation Movement in Italy (Istituto Nazionale per la Storia del Movimento di Liberazione in Italia) in Milan and at the Imperial War Museum in London revealed the way in which Allied photography dictated a vision of the Italian foe and friend that simultaneously diminished and built up the Italian Resistance.

In the world of photojournalism, a hiatus appears to have existed between September 1943 and July 1945: periodicals such as Tempo (1939–43) and Primato (1940–43) were seemingly suspended for financial reasons, while Mussolini had already suppressed politically dissident periodicals like Omnibus, Corrente, and Oggi in 1939, 1940, and 1941, respectively. Italian dailies continued to be published and new titles emerged, including L’Unità in 1942, that remained clandestine until the Liberation.7 A Communist faction, the Movimento Comunista d’Italia (MCd’I), which counted 2,000 members as opposed to the 1,800 in the PCI, closed down its own news organ, Bandiera Rossa, in order to focus on military action.8 The photographs of the Resistance taken during the war, as well as war photographs by Fascists, Nazis, and Allies, were not always meant for publication and, in many ways, belong to a form of vernacular photography shot by individual soldiers and Partisans.

In order to understand the way in which Partisan photographic memory was built, I highlight the development of the image of the war victim.9 It was first implemented by war correspondents working for Fascist or philo-Fascist publications. While the figure of the Fascist New Man (Uomo nuovo) was powerful, erotic, and chaste, founded on a Christian ideal of purity, foreigners were represented as weak and inept.10 The “reversed” masculinity in foreign correspondents’ photography of humiliated men abroad was, in certain antifascist publications, turned into observing humility at home. This growing counterculture would come on display in July 1945 at the Exhibition of the Liberation in Milan, where photography served as a witness to the suffering of war and as an expiation for the sins of Fascism.

In this climate of suppression of information, photography appears to have undergone a paradigm shift, from refraining to represent the destruction of war, to embracing it as a method of liberation and emancipation during the civil war. King Vittorio Emmanuele II, who had appointed Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio in Mussolini’s stead (the King had had Mussolini arrested and imprisoned on July 25, 1943, in the Abruzzi mountains), fled Rome on September 8, 1943, leaving a message on the radio that proclaimed the Italians had switched alliances, after secretly signing an armistice with the Allies on September 3, 1943. This move plunged the country into chaos. Italian territories were divided in two between the Allied occupation in the monarchist South and the Third Reich, where the Nazis continued to rule. The South, under Allied occupation, was the seat for political decisions and Naples was the city where some of the first PCI-funded periodicals, including the feminist weekly Noi Donne, were launched in spring 1944 after the Allied ban of Italian news organs was lifted.11

The Resistance developed most powerfully in the north of Italy, splintering into multiple political identifications (six main antifascist brigades) that belonged to the overarching National Liberation Committee, or Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (CLN). These were the Brigate d’Assalto Garibaldi (PCI), Brigate autonome (led by soldiers), Brigate Giustizia e Libertà (Partito d’Azione), Brigate Matteotti (Partito Socialista Italiano di Unità Proletaria), Brigate Mazzini (Partito Repubblicano Italiano), and the Brigate del popolo (Partito Popolare—Christian Democrats). The photographic memory of the Italian Resistance movement was complicated by the many participants in the war (Nazis, Fascists, Allies, and Partisans) and by the fact that photographs taken before 1945 and reconstruction photographs of Resistance activities taken after 1945, participated in different emotional narratives and identity-building discourses.

The erotics of the Uomo Nuovo

In Eros e Priapo, known as a “book of furies,” written in 1944–45, Carlo Emilio Gadda biblically blames Fascism on Italian women’s hunger for Eros over the reasoned Logos: “For him, kuce, the omnipresent instrument to conquer supremacy. And the woman, when hysterical and stupid, undergoes the Portrait like nothing else: she cries on the Portrait, she revels in the Portrait, she delights in the Portrait: she was born from the Portrait, she conceives and gives birth after uniting with the Portrait.”12 Gadda saw women reaching sexual gratification and (virgin) pregnancy from beholding the portrait of the Nazi-sounding kuce (Duce), or God. Written in sixteenth-century Tuscan dialect, the essay is an outburst against the conjunction between lust and faith under Fascism. For him, the reunion of Fascism, religion, and sex constituted the core psychological strength of the regime. This corresponds in some ways with how Saul Friedlander analyzed the psychology of Nazism as torn between an “implicit religious tradition [and] a cult of primitive and archaic values.”13

After September 12, 1943, when the Nazis had freed Mussolini from the Abruzzi mountains, Mussolini, along with Republichini, his faithful followers, had retreated to Salò, setting up what came to be known as the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI). They lamented the way in which Fascism had lost its sex appeal with women, singing: “The women no longer love us because we wear our black shirts. . . . Love with Fascists is no longer convenient. Better a coward with no flag, one who has no blood in his veins, one who would keep his skin.”14 Partisans, Fascists suggested, were unmanly cowards who hid in the woods. Masculine ideals under Fascism were, like those of ruralism and imperialism, sought out in the legacy of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance. Ideals of masculinity, which Mussolini tried to embody, had been modeled on the Nietzschean superman and aristocratic novelist-warrior Gabriele D’Annunzio. One of the goals of Fascism was the moral and spiritual regeneration of liberal-era Italians, who were considered to represent “the refractory selfish, individualistic and aimless human material it inherited from the liberal era.”15 The Duce kept a tight control over his image as a symbol of virility and power. A magazine illustration from 1938 represents an idealized vision of Mussolini wheat threshing in Lazio, while a photograph of him performing the same action in August 1936 was censored (Figures 2.1 and 2.2).

FIGURE 2.1 Mussolini threshes wheat (Mussolini trebbia il grano), cover of La Domenica del Corriere, July 17, 1938.

Source: Biblioteca di storia moderna e contemporanea, Rome.

FIGURE 2.2 Mussolini visits farms in the Agro Pontino during the threshing period. Pontinia (Mussolini visita le aziende agricole dell’Agro Pontino nei giorni della trebbiatura. Pontinia), August 1936 © Istituto LUCE, Rome.

The illustration emblematized the powerful virile associations the regime maintained with ruralism, while the photograph pictures two women conniving and smiling ironically behind the Duce, who possibly because of the hay he is holding, appears to have developed a paunch. Mussolini aimed to recuperate a sense of “style,” which was explained in a speech he gave shortly before the march in Milan on October 4, 1922: “Democracy has deprived people’s lives of ‘style’: that is, a line of conduct, the colour, the strength, the picturesque, the unexpected, the mystical: in sum, all that counts in the soul of the multitudes.”16 The combination of “style” and “the mystical” was part of Mussolini’s attempt to establish Fascism as a religion (“Violence is the voice of God”) from 1925. A virile identity was achieved by exasperating it: superman-type physical fitness and a fighting instinct were cultivated in order to promote masculinity as style and mystique. The concept of the New Man evolved within nineteenth-century Russian literature, and developed with the Nietzschean philosophy of Machtgelüst, or will to power, which had scientific origins. The concept was a product of “biological technology” and was part of the “dream of fabricating the cells of a ‘pure’ or regenerated man.”17 Fascist associations of the uomo nuovo (new man) tended to be nonscientific and connected to patriotic notions of land and blood as well as Christianity; the concept was also linked to forms of anti-Semitism. The architect Enrico Del Debbio’s photographs of Hellenic-style sculptures from the Marble Stadium (Stadio dei Marmi) in Rome gave new centrality to the Fascist male nude, while Elio Luxardo photographed the male nude as a hymn to classical beauty and power, packaged in lustrous tones. Oiled muscles and cut-off heads indicated the body as an object of fetish, dehumanizing the subject. The Fascist model, quasi-pornographic, held more weight than his capacity for expression. This kind of photography corresponded to the Nazi-style celebration of the body for its own sake, as illustrated in Hans Surén’s famous book of nudes Mensch und Sonne (1936).

Comparing portraits of soldiers from an Italian cover of Tempo with a portrait from Life magazine reveals how, under Fascism, the representation of virility emphasized godliness. On the cover of Life magazine from October 28, 1940, a sailor stands to attention, a rifle resting on his shoulder. He is photographed from below, like the Fascist, increasing his power and shoulder width. Two rifles in the background indicate he is part of a troop. He is clothed, wearing a white sailor’s uniform, with a loosely tied scarf and a cap. He appears dutiful, his gaze firm, his jaw set and expressionless. On the cover of Tempo, May 7, 1942, a soldier also holds a rifle at ease, but he is unclothed (Figure 2.3). The Fascist’s bare chest and arms emphasize a primitive modernity: he is vulnerable with no armor, yet he is powerful because he does not need it. His bare skin is exposed to the sun and the wind, and he stands alone before a natural backdrop of trees in the distance, an expression of raw energy. As part of the GIL, the soldier was a premilitary youth. His poise, far-off gaze, and windswept hair—long by military standards—give him a romantic style. The assimilated Italian soldier was not just a soldier ready to die for his country, he was also part of a game of seduction.

FIGURE 2.3 Cover of Tempo, May 7, 1942.

Source: Biblioteca di storia moderna e contemporanea, Rome.

In a related way, Mussolini was often portrayed as father and mother, bringing in a dual sense of gender whereby Fascism was represented as comforting and attractive as well as violent. Sexual purity (fidelity in marriage), the renunciation of worldly goods, and love of death were among the virtues a Fascist man needed to cultivate. His youth, beauty, and virility were subsumed by Christian notions of martyrdom and self-sacrifice—Mussolini had misappropriated the notion of “soldier of Christ,” allowing for the militarization and masculinization of an ancient religious concept.18 Looking like a young god, the Italian soldier addressed different social and moral norms than those of the self-contained American, glorifying war through sexual fascination and a return to a primitive state of nature. The focus on beauty was reflected in the production of vernacular photography too, where a bourgeois idyll overpowered any sense of the nation’s gradual impoverishment.

The absent war in vernacular photography

One of the most referenced books on photography from this period is Ermanno Scopinich’s Fotografia (1943).19 It was published by Domus and included texts by Scopinich and Alfredo Ornan and, most famously, Federico Patellani’s “The New Formula Journalist” (Il giornalista nuova formula), which advocated the modern photographer’s need for speed and an eye for beauty.20 Albe Steiner’s graphics reflect the designer’s absorption of Bauhaus typeface used for the title, spread diagonally across the front cover.21 Colorful advertisements for photographic equipment, expensive liqueurs, and fashion accessories appealed to a wealthy readership. A Borsalino advert playfully associates a hat and Michelangelo’s David as “masterpieces,” fitting in with the Fascist autarchic narrative (Figure 2.4). The book was an overview of Italian vernacular talent, spanning a variety of styles, including pictorialist photography, formalist and abstract experimentations, color photography, portraiture, still life, sports, animals, science, and only very few photographs that could be classified as humanist or street photography. Elegance, classicism, the Renaissance, fashion, and self-referential Italianità are a reminder of the book’s audience: the world of vernacular photographers was intellectual and bourgeois, as Pierre Bourdieu observes in Un art moyen, his sociological analysis of photographers who belong to camera clubs.22

FIGURE 2.4 Advertisement for Borsalino hats, in Fotografia (Domus) 1943.

Source: Fotografia (Domus: Milan, 1943). Courtesy of Andrea Jemolo.

Fotografia has a conspicuous absence of photomontages: due to its associations with the left it was considered politically dangerous.23 The book was bilingual, the text being in both German and Italian, thus a strong reminder of the Nazi-Fascist alliance. It was published just before the height of Italian social unrest and the major strikes. Just as these factors were not represented in the book, the war was barely visible, with only four photographs representing military action. Attributed to the LUCE, they are in black and white and portray indistinct chaotic scenes in which soldiers appear confident and active or at ease eating a meal on a tank. The absence of war in photography books was not singular to the Domus publication. Otto fotografi italiani d’oggi (1942), Il Progresso Fotografico’s Fotoannuario 1942, and Alex Franchini-Stappo and Giuseppe Vannnucci-Zauli’s Introduzione per un’estetica fotografica featured a similar selection of luxurious-oblivious photographs.24 With very few exceptions, portraits in Fotografia show healthy, happy, and well-dressed rather than hungry, desperate, and poor people. At least 30 of the 190 photographs are in color, indicating the prosperous provenance of the photographers and their avant-garde knowledge in terms of technological advances in photography: the use of new 35mm cameras only began spreading in the later 1930s and early 1940s, and color only since 1936, with Kodachrome. Printing photographs in color would also have suggested that Domus, as a successful Italian publishing house, could afford to show the world Italian wealth and economic sustainability. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s criticism of the French prewar refusal to look at “violence in the face” relates to the Italian situation, when he observed “we had secretly resolved to know nothing of violence and unhappiness as elements of history because we were living in a country too happy and too weak to envisage them.”25

In reality, by February 1943, Italy had suffered multiple military defeats, very few compensatory victories, and lacked in fundamental economic resources and raw materials to win the war.26 This was reflected in the art world: the Venice Biennale, whose international remit faded fast between 1940 and 1942, was suspended in 1944, and the Universal Exposition in Rome (E42) was cancelled. The country’s “war potential” had diminished rapidly from 1940 to 1943, resulting in extreme food shortages and low morale. By the second half of 1942, bread rations for industrial workers across the country were 150 grams a day, meat was 100 grams a week, and sugar 125 grams a week, less than half of the rations for workers in Belgium and Germany. Estimated food rations in 1942 were 894.6 calories per worker per day.27 Ration distribution also began suffering delays, increasing discontent nationwide. Data on hunger, protests, food shortages, and strikes were suppressed in the news and documentation was scarce due to the censorship regulations and only uncovered in Fascist police files after the war.28 An examination of early censorship rules established during the Ethiopian War (1935–36) helps to understand the way in which photojournalism developed to play a significant role in the Fascist war effort.

Censorship and the Ethiopian War

The Fascist press distinguished itself, according to the Allies’ Psychological Warfare Branch (PWB) Italian Basic Handbook published in May 1943, for “its dull uniformity and persistent monotony.”29 Photographic censorship rules were developed in earnest in 1935 with the foundation of the Ministry of Press and Propaganda (Ministero per la stampa e la propaganda) headed by Galeazzo Ciano, which featured a subsection called the Press Office for the Ethiopian War to control photographic reproduction and distribution for national and international press. With increased totalitarianism, the Ministry of Press and Propaganda was amplified and in 1937 changed its name to become the Ministry for Popular Culture (Ministero della Cultura Popolare), otherwise known as Minculpop, an improbable-sounding name for an organization that issued censorship decrees. Due to the lack of research on censorship rules for photography, I rely on an examination of those established for the LUCE Institute and the Corriere della Sera during the Ethiopian War.30 These guidelines serve to read photographs published in periodicals during the Second World War (e.g., Difesa della Razza, Costruzioni-Casabella, Tempo, or Almanacco Bompiani) or to understand the reasons behind the lack of publication of, for example, Curzio Malaparte’s photographs taken in Eritrea.

Badly framed, out-of-focus images aside, a large section of LUCE Institute censorship was dedicated to behavioral aspects of subjects photographed, in particular the Duce himself. A photograph showing Mussolini shaking hands with a government official instead of giving him the Fascist salute from a distance was banned; photographs that portrayed the Duce alone, looking tired or too human were eliminated—this was in line with what Mussolini defined, in an interview with the French academic Henry Bordeau, as the need to “look terrifying.”31 The Ethiopian War was the film and photographic testing ground for the regime, the first war in which “embedded” photojournalists practiced within a Fascist context of military censorship.32 In order to validate his imperialist claims, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, which the Kingdom of Italy had failed to conquer in 1896, on October 3, 1935. With the regime generously sponsoring the war effort, the LUCE was able to establish the Cine-Photographic Unit for O.A. (Reparto cine-fotografico per l’A.O.), a specific group in Asmara (Eritrea) to document the “Oriental-African” War (or Ethiopian War)—it produced 11,000 negatives in one year.33 In spite of the funding, however, LUCE photographers continued, up to the beginning of the Second World War, to use antiquated heavy-plate cameras rather than 35 mm lenses—the acquired norm in other professional photojournalistic contexts since the invention of the Leica in 1924.

The Press Office for the Ethiopian War permitted the following types of photographs:

the positioning of canons and weapons in general (machine guns, tanks, armored cars, etc.), convoys bringing supplies to the front, villages, the construction of roads and the rebuilding of conquered land, life behind the scenes of soldiers and natives, natives who have been assimilated (for example of Ethiopian children giving a Fascist salute or dressed as balilla), submission of Abyssinian chiefs and soldiers.34

As a result of these norms, a LUCE photograph that made Italian soldiers look weak was censored and scribbled over with an ironic exclamation: “What brave artillery-men!!!” (Figure 2.5). The arrows point at the soldiers who are holding their ears shut, revealing the preoccupations of the censor with heroics and style, rather than the practical aspect of the drill: blocking out the noise as artillery was fired off was standard operating procedure without which soldiers would have soon lost their hearing. This photograph would be stamped by the censor and denied circulation. LUCE photographers functioned within the totalitarian system, which would act as a form of precensorship, that is, the photographers already knew what not to photograph.

FIGURE 2.5 LUCE, Artillery of the Armed Forces (Artiglieria del Corpo d’Armata), 1937 © Istituto LUCE, Rome.

The Ethiopian War is also considered the beginning of an explicitly racist dimension in Fascist ideology.35 Photography was used extensively after 1938 to document the racial superiority of Italians in the magazine The Defence of the Race (La Difesa della Razza), which lasted the life span of the Racial Laws, from 1938 to 1943.36 The “Italian genius” (genio italiano), promoted by the magazine, was a racially sustained theory based on Ancient Roman and Renaissance legacies, which allowed the Fascist regime to ascertain the Italian people’s moral and cultural superiority over “Barbarian” races, because their ancestors had provided the foundations of Christian Europe. Italian moral superiority was perpetuated yet subverted in photographs taken by intellectual war correspondents, including the novelist Curzio Malaparte and the architect Giuseppe Pagano.

The intellectual war correspondent

In the Ethiopian War, censorship did not allow photographers to show warfare, colonial police action, or military action; this was different during the time of the Second World War when representations of warfare in photojournalism became crucial to national credibility. It remains a moot point, then, as to why Malaparte did not publish his inoffensive documentary photographs when posted as special correspondent for the Corriere della Sera in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Balkans in 1939. The newspaper had begun replacing traditional prints with photographs in 1933 and every one of its correspondents was contractually held to take photographs.37 Instead, many of Malaparte’s photographs were not seen until private collector Michele Bonuomo exhibited his collection in Prato with the Archivio Fotografico Toscano (AFT) in 1987.38 Having asked to be given leave or placed in noncombatant service, Malaparte was sent by the Minculpop to cover the colonial war and write home victoriously and reassuringly. His journalistic style was patriotic and imperialist, but his photographs, taken with his trusted Rolleiflex, reflect a more subtle reality. The 1987 exhibition catalogue gives no valid reason as to why he did not publish his photographs and kept them hidden even after the war, conjecturing vaguely about Malaparte’s “modesty” and his “shame.”39 His rapport with the regime was ambiguous, and he had been condemned to five years in internal exile on the island of Lipari in 1933 for antifascist activity abroad, although he was liberated in 1935. In 1937, he founded the periodical Prospettive in an attempt to regain Mussolini’s favor, although many of his collaborators, from Arrigo Benedetti to Renato Guttuso, belonged to critical intellectual circles. In Figure 2.7, Malaparte’s photograph of an Ethiopian teenager holding a draught horse may show how his private relationship to the war was nonparticipative, in comparison with his published articles (Figure 2.6). The boy’s gaze is hard to read, while his thin shape and pose mirrors that of the horse, which is nuzzling his hand, possibly trying to get at the package he is holding. The pair and their photographer have taken a rest, perhaps, from the military convoy snaking through the valley in the background. The three characters in the friendly narrative—Malaparte, the Ethiopian, and the horse—conspire to create a situation in which human and animal emotions and needs come to the surface. The accepted norm where the colonizer photographs the submissive colonized at a safe emotional distance has been disrupted. Malaparte’s photograph, void of the rampant racism present in photographs taken by soldiers at the time, looks like it might belong in a private album of the people he met and befriended as a foreign correspondent. Malaparte perhaps realized that, placed in the wrong context, his photographs of the Ethiopian people he met risked being interpreted in ways he had not intended. On August 23, 1944, Malaparte was, despite his Fascist past, endorsed by Togliatti as the first “special correspondent” for the war front in the north of Italy for L’Unità, where he wrote under the pseudonym Gianni Strozzi.40

FIGURE 2.6 Curzio Malaparte, Untitled, c. 1939. Courtesy of the Fondazione Biblioteca di Via Senato, Milan.

Men of culture such as Pagano (architect and photographer), the aristocrat Patellani (photojournalist and film director), and Enrico Peressutti (architect and engineer) were also sent to war fronts, where they took photographs for the Italian periodicals Costruzioni-Casabella, Tempo, and Almanacco Bompiani, respectively. In 1941, Pagano was sent to Greece as major in charge of the First Battalion of the 17th infantry regiment.41 Here he made two reportages for which he photographed the Greek people stunned amid their destroyed cities and homes. Pagano’s photographs showed the results of war: from a Fascist consideration of architecture and the glorification of primitive dwellings at the VI Milan Triennial seen in the previous chapter, he was photographing the remnants of buildings after a bombing. One photograph shows a man standing with his back to the viewer before the debris of an exploded cityscape in Corfu (Figure 2.7). The image was used two years later for the cover of the March 1943 issue of Costruzioni-Casabella.42 The article, written by Pagano and the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, was a proposal for the reconstruction of Europe with standardized housing designs advocating “human-economic” rather than “socio-economic” concerns. The photographs had no captions or dates and were meant as generic images of the consequences of war. In reality, they had been taken after the Italians and the Germans bombarded the town on November 28, 1940, which was then occupied by the Italian military until April 1941. By the time the reportage was published, a bombed Greek town could adequately represent an Italian landscape and depressed mood. The man in the photograph stands still amid the ruins, dressed in a shabby suit and a cap. A small pillar that may have been a fountain in the square remains erect at a slight angle, replicating the stance of the man, perhaps an ironic portrayal of Horace’s words, used as a Latin motto under Fascism among the piccole italiane (the equivalent of the balilla, the Fascist youth organizations): impavidum ferient ruine ([He would] stand secure amid a falling world).

FIGURE 2.7 Giuseppe Pagano, Corfu, 1941, cover of Costruzioni-Casabella, a. xvi, n. 183, March 1943.

Source: Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, Milan.

Corfu, the largest Ionian island, had been under Venetian rule in the eighteenth century and was a target for Fascist expansionism. The Italian military occupation in Greece was an infernal “forgotten” occupation during which the soldiers “exercised [them]selves in loving Greek women taken out of hunger, alternating them with round-ups, execution of partisans, suicides of soldiers who were despairing for not receiving their leave, gathering up of Greek corpses who had died of hunger.”43 Pagano had volunteered for the Fascist military training of the Scuola di Mistica since 1937, a sign of his commitment to the regime, which in 1943–44 he overturned by joining the Resistance. Eventually, he was captured and died at the Mauthausen concentration camp on April 22, 1945. When Pagano took the photographs, he appeared to document the daily lives of the Greek people as he might have those of Italians. Despite the war context, photographs could be humanist, depicting simple, humble people trying to recover their dignity and reconstruct their destroyed lives.

Photography of poverty abroad was also used as a narrative with which to boost morale through the promotion of comparative Italian wealth and well-being. The Russians, for example, were subjected to racist treatment by Italian war correspondents. In an attempt to avoid the spread of defeatism with regard to the Russian front, the meaning of “humanist” photography of the disenfranchised was often inverted. This arguably was the case both in the mainstream “Fascist” periodical Tempo as well as the more intellectual, quirky, annual literary almanac published by Valentino Bompiani, the Almanacco Letterario Bompiani. A reportage by Patellani on Russian schools in Tempo reveals anti-Bolshevik racism in his caption for a photograph of schoolchildren sitting demurely on a bench: “However miserably dressed, dirty, and impolite, children are the best thing that Soviet Russia can offer you in its landscape.”44 After Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, breaking the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, anti-Bolshevik propaganda increased in Italy.

Patellani would famously write his own captions, although his biting, staccato style was one also employed by his colleague, Tempo’s chief editor in Rome, Lamberti Sorrentino, a war correspondent and photographer in his own right who would later be captured in Hungary and imprisoned in a concentration camp as narrated in his controversial book Dreaming in Mauthausen.45 A glamorous “D’Annunziano” figure and one of the first Italians to have “invented” the role of foreign correspondent, Sorrentino recounted his rocambolesque travels in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1942 and his participation in the Spanish Civil War fighting against the “reds.”46 Despite his right-wing history, Antonella Russo considers him “one of the main protagonists of photographic Neorealism,” proving the way in which an ideological stance can not only easily shift in the work of an individual, but also easily be misread.47

The difference between a natural, strong, and healthy Italian lifestyle versus foreign struggles against injustice, poverty, and bad or indifferent governments was also made in the Almanacco Letterario Bompiani, which, however, was known for its avant-garde layout, ideas, and authors. Its alternative reportages, such as Peressutti’s “Paradigm of the Verb To Be” (“Paradigma del Verbo Essere”) published in the 1941 annual, have been discussed, for example, by Russo who interprets it as “proto-neorealist”; daily life in picturesque photographs of street life.48 On the other hand, his photo-essay from Russia in an article titled “Encounters in Russia” (“Incontri in Russia”) published in 1942 shows a people struggling, looking defeated and miserable after the beginning of the Siege of Leningrad (September 8, 1941), when the city starved due to the lack of an evacuation plan.

Valentino Bompiani, the editor of the literary almanac, was an intellectual who preferred to promote the avant-garde, but like most literary productions of the time, needed to keep his publishing house in the good graces of the regime and those of Pavolini, the head of the Minculpop.49 As such, it is difficult to determine the extent to which Peressutti’s photographs of Russia are about pitying and despising the enemy on the verge of collapse or developing a sense of compassion for their predicament. Similar photo reportages portraying poor foreigners, socially reviled “underdogs,” indigenous “laziness,” and bad government in Britain and the United States were published in Tempo throughout the war. These prejudices could be maintained more easily since after December 1, 1942, no foreign newspapers except German ones could enter the country, all private telegrams had been abolished throughout Italy, and private citizens were not allowed to make private calls abroad without the express permission of the prefect of the province.50 On the whole, by publishing depressing photographs of the enemy, Italy could maintain a victorious discourse, despite the country’s weakened military and economic situation.

At the same time, it can be seen as a space in which intellectuals like Pagano and Peressutti were exploring a humanist sensibility: empathy and understanding for the enemy could easily replace contempt and vice-versa. This arguably opened up a liminal psychological moment in time, where the photograph remained poised on the threshold between its humanizing and dehumanizing power, revealed in terms of its easily subverted ideological meaning. It was around this time that Alberto Lattuada published his photographs of people living in the peripheries of Milan, “inverting” his camera on the Italians and turning the victimization of foreigners inward in his photobook Occhio Quadrato (1941).

Occhio Quadrato and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The evolution of the humanist photographic tradition in an Italian context can be traced to lessons learned from Walker Evans and American Depression photography. Two left-wing intellectuals—Alberto Lattuada and Elio Vittorini—who were involved in the Milanese underground cultural scene of Corrente, worked on photographic book projects in 1941.51 Corrente: periodico mensile di letteratura, arte e politica, an antifascist underground periodical founded by Ernesto Treccani on January 1, 1938, survived with Bottai’s support until Mussolini suppressed it in May 1940.52 Although Corrente did not publish much photography, its graphic designer Alberto Lattuada, who would become a neorealist film director, produced the historically significant Occhio Quadrato with Corrente editions. The book gave unprecedented room to the urban poor as valid photographic subjects. This took place in the wake of Evans’ exhibition American Photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938. Giulia Veronesi, the artist Luigi Veronesi’s sister, published a review of the show in Corrente in October 1939. Veronesi praised Evans’ simplicity and his lack of technical refinement, observing, “Don’t look for skyscrapers and cowboys, Evans found simple houses and men (the impersonal faces of Americans of every colour).”53

A documentary survey of daily life in the Milanese periphery, Occhio Quadrato’s twenty-six black-and-white square Rolleiflex-format photographs show the urban poor washing clothes outdoors, at the flea market, or in the streets. Lattuada portrayed the people who had been expulsed from the city center when Mussolini began his architectural master plan, in particular in Rome but also in other cities in Italy, following in the steps of Rome’s mayor Ernesto Nathan, who began a project of urban “sanitization” in time for the 1911 Rome Exposition.54 Entire areas of the capital were destroyed to make room for grandiose Rationalist buildings, while the expulsed inhabitants were moved into purposely built council houses on the outskirts of Rome. The council houses were made from cheap materials and were dark and unhygienic. A large part of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s antifascist works, such as Mamma Roma (1962), Uccellacci Uccellini (1966), or the novel Ragazzi di Vita (1956) were set in slum areas and shanty towns that expanded under Fascism.55

Occhio Quadrato, published the same year as Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in 1941, was preceded by a number of similar photographic book projects in the United States that focused on the margins of society including Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) and Paul S. Taylor and Dorothea Lange’s An American Exodus (1939). Lattuada’s non-celebrative photographs of the everyday were meant to awaken the potential for solidarity and a communal sense in order for social transformation to occur. In the introduction to Occhio Quadrato he wrote: “It is urgent to start looking at men again with eyes of love.”56 Lattuada wanted to engage his viewer in an emotional reading: “Man wants the richness that has been taken away from him, the warmth of feelings and affection, Christian solidarity.” The need for photography to “get away from formalism” struck Lattuada as a new direction for the practice because he wanted to avoid abstract “aesthetic pleasure” and was looking for “human contact.”57 Lattuada’s photographs were accompanied with ironic titles: An Evening Stroll (La passeggiata serale), for example, shows a forlorn man malingering by a shack (Figure 2.8). This particular photograph tends to be the one scholars select to discuss Occhio Quadrato, no doubt because it is one of the images that contains the most pathos and is also the best composed, compared to the rough snapshot style of some of the other photographs.58 La passeggiata refers to the Italian predinner tradition generally indulged by the urban classes when people come out of their houses for an hour or so to walk up and down the main drag and talk about the day’s events, flirt, or relax: here, a disaffected man appears to have glanced up at the photographer as he walks toward a patch of water. Bits of rubbish are strewn around him and he appears trapped by the high, crumbling walls that loom up around him. He represents an antihero, socially defeated and impotent. A circular movement created by the bird’s-eye view of the shot and the rounded walls lend the photograph a sense of a vortex, or a vacuum.

FIGURE 2.8 Alberto Lattuada, La Passeggiata, A. Lattuada, Occhio Quadrato (Milan, 1941) © Alinari/Alberto Lattuada.

The print run of 2,000 copies of Occhio Quadrato risked Lattuada a near-arrest and imprisonment by the Fascist police, who considered his work an objectionable portrayal of the most miserable aspects of Italian life. According to Lattuada, the reason the book was not censored and he was not imprisoned was due to Corrente founder and member, Ernesto Treccani, who had the financial and moral support of his father, Giovanni Treccani degli Alfieri, a Senator in Parliament. Lattuada’s photographs had also been published in Tempo, and Fascist commanders living in Milan told Alberto Mondadori—Lattuada’s friend—they “wanted his head,” ending Lattuada’s employment at the magazine.59 Vittorini suffered a similar fate with the Minculpop in attempting to publish his contentious collection of essays, Americana. The book contained photographs by Walker Evans (twenty-seven were from the American Photographs exhibition), Matthew Brady, Alfred Stieglitz, and Lewis Hine as well as film stills from Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Vidor’s Our Daily Bread. The authors and titles of the photographs were not mentioned; instead they were captioned with short abstract phrases that were meant to correlate directly with essays and short stories by Hemingway, Faulkner, Ring Lardner, Saroyan, Steinbeck, Cain, and Erskine Caldwell. American photography captured the imagination of young Italian intellectuals who were avid consumers of 1930s realist American literature. Americana maintained a revolutionary aura because of the mito americano (American myth), and Fascism’s love-hate relationship with the United States. American-Italian diplomatic relations had begun to deteriorate after the formation of the Rome-Berlin Axis in October 1936 but americanismo remained a popular taste, particularly in magazines. Pavolini censored Americana in 1941 forcing Vittorini’s editor, Bompiani, to call on the Fascist expert and critic of North American literature Emilio Cecchi to rewrite the introduction and footnotes with an anti-American angle.60 It was then republished with amendments in 1942. Vittorini, who was writing for L’Unità during the war, would later claim the revolutionary foresight of Americana for Italian photographic culture, republishing it in serial form in his postwar periodical Il Politecnico, examined further on. Vittorini was a committed if critical Fascist until 1937 and “remained in good relations with members of the Fascist hierarchy until 1942, when he joined the antifascist struggle.”61 Nevertheless, the introduction of photographs by Evans and Hine into Italian culture coincided with the Occhio Quadrato “moment” and the need to promote a different photographic discourse from the one established by Fotografia. An epistemological shift in visual practices of war photography accompanied the ideological chaos that broke out after September 8, 1943, when the civil war began. The enormous production of vernacular photography, which has remained unexamined to a large extent, introduced a less formal, more spontaneous style of photography as part of an antifascist trend, arguably influenced by the Allied presence in Italy.

Allies, Partisans, and cameras

Sicilian photographer Vittorugo Contino was seventeen years old on July 7, 1943, when he returned to Palermo on leave from his military duties. He had won a camera earlier that year as a fencing prize at his military school, La Nunziatella, in Naples. He only managed to take a few photographs with it, before it was confiscated by the US Army that invaded Palermo on the night of July 9, 1943.62 The Americans seized the weapons and cameras of all Italian soldiers as part of their strategy to prevent information on their position being passed to the Germans. On the same night as Contino’s camera was confiscated, Robert Capa landed as a (Hungarian Jewish) photographer embedded with the American troops. A month later, on August 4–5, 1943, Capa shot the photograph Troina, Sicily, August 1943. An American Soldier (left) and an Italian Policeman (right) (Figure 2.9).

FIGURE 2.9 Robert Capa, Troina, Sicily, August 1943. An American soldier (left) and an Italian policeman (right) © Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos.

The comedy of the photograph that opposes a huge American GI and a little Sicilian policeman is one that Capa picked up on in a number of his photographs on the island, contrasting the powerful, well-fed liberators to the diminutive, undernourished locals. In these photographs the Sicilians tend to be helping the Americans by passing on information about the Germans or, in this case, possibly giving the soldier a drink. Here, the mockery is heightened by the fact that both men belong to military outfits, whereas in the more well-known photograph that opposes a shepherd with a GI, the difference between the men is to some extent, assumed. By taking these photographs, Capa was illustrating the approaching US military victory over the enemy while simultaneously showing the penetration of the “New World” in a place that appears stopped in time, encapsulating the Allies’ initial perception of southern Italy: a picturesque, amusing culture as yet untouched by modernity and industrialization.

Like Capa, Margaret Bourke-White and Carl Mydans were employed by the American Office of War Information (OWI) allowing them to accompany US troops in Italy. Bourke-White, who had worked for Life magazine since its launch, published her photographs from the front as Life assignments and in a documentary photobook titled They Called It “Purple Heart Valley”: A Combat Chronicle of the War in Italy (1944). Before covering the Liberation in Italy, Mydans had joined the FSA in 1935. In Italy, he documented each town he visited, reading a guidebook to “see what various conquerors had been there before.”63 In his book Carl Mydans, Photojournalist, published in 1985, Mydans remained patriotic, still employing military language. There is a chapter titled “Victory in Europe and Asia” and it is illustrated with photographs of executions and enemies captured by the Allies. His spectacular photograph of the debris of the hill of Monte Cassino and the surrounding town was taken in the spring of 1944 (Figure 2.10). The Abbey of Monte Cassino was located on a hill above Cassino, now also known as New Cassino (Nuova Cassino). The Americans dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on the monastery on February 15, 1944, when it was suspected to be a lookout post for German defenders. Around a year later, Patellani took a photograph of Monte Cassino titled New Cassino (Figure 2.11). Mydans’ and Patellani’s images taken from apparently similar vantage points within a year of one another offer contrasting messages: one represents the destruction of war and its emptiness, and the other is a symbol of postwar reconstruction and hope. Mydans’ dramatic image is ironically titled The Abbey of Monte Cassino showing a close-up of the hill, charred skeletons of trees poking out of stagnant water, and gouged-out buildings. The abbey is nowhere to be seen. In Patellani’s photograph, a young woman walks away from the photographer, balancing bricks on her head in the sun and holding a jerry can. The low angle throws her hourglass shape into relief as she heads apparently unperturbed to the destroyed hill of Monte Cassino, embodying an attractive and empowered symbol of renewal.

FIGURE 2.10 Carl Mydans, The Abbey of Monte Cassino, Italy, after Allied bombing in the spring of 1944, C. Mydans, Carl Mydans, Photojournalist (New York, 1985) © Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection.

FIGURE 2.11 Federico Patellani, Nuova Cassino, Frosinone 1945 © Federico Patellani—Regione Lombardia/Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea, Milan.

American superiority was proven in terms of their vision of Partisan action, although this was done in a less stark way, often simultaneously undermining and glorifying the Resistance. In the US-funded periodical Nuovo Mondo (New World), a photo-essay on the Italian Resistance included a two-page spread showing Partisans firing at the enemy (Figure 2.12).64 On the following page, five photographs demonstrate the way in which Partisans could not have functioned without American or Allied aid: an American map-reads for a group of Partisans and an Allied airplane releases aid to Partisans from the sky. The guerrilla fighters (“patriots”) are simultaneously built up and torn down. Nuovo Mondo was published by the United States Information Office for the “duration of the war period,” lasting seven months from March 19 to October 15, 1945. The magazine began as an American governmental production under anonymous direction and authorship and evolved to listing some of the team collaborators in the June issue.65 It was also heavily illustrated with black-and-white photographs that were not credited. The periodical was part of the Allied strategy to create productive connections with Italians, introducing their readership to baseball and rodeo, among other American traditions. Their attitude toward the Resistance was ambivalent: they acknowledged a powerful grassroots movement, which, however, was meant to seem entirely under their control. The PWB had banned public meetings from the end of 1943 and throughout most of 1944 in an attempt to curb Communist uprisings and took control of newspaper publications after the armistice until the Liberation.66 The British Allies openly supported the conservative rule of King Vittorio Emmanuele III and Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio, while the American fear of the Communist stronghold meant that they “broke the spirit of their formal agreement with Britain [and] started to become the dominant Allied force in Italy in the second half of 1944.”67

FIGURE 2.12 The Clandestine Italian Army (L’esercito clandestino italiano), Nuovo Mondo, vol. 1 n. 1 (March 19, 1945).

Source: Biblioteca di storia moderna e contemporanea, Rome.

Partisan attitudes toward the Allies, however, sought to maintain “autonomy and dignity” before them as a way of differentiating themselves from the behavior of the Italian Fascists toward the Germans.68 The identity of the Resistance was bound with the international, and in particular the Allied, perspective on Italy. Only one file is held at the photographic archives of the Imperial War Museum in London documenting “Patriots” among ninety-one files in total. Guerrilla fighters in British photographs tended to be portrayed as handsome, smiling and at ease, and only rarely at war (Figure 2.13). It has been argued that these photographs deflated any laudable Resistance narrative allowing the Allies to diminish the role of the Italian Resistance in the war, although the degree of their circulation is unclear.69 Allied concerns over the power of the Resistance contributed to their ambivalent representation of the movement: at first, they disregarded the military strength of the Resistance, but as the war progressed and resources dwindled they relied on it increasingly.70

FIGURE 2.13 British War Office, Patriots, n. BNA 18533 (XP) © Imperial War Museum, London.

Photographs of the British army with Italian civilians, particularly in the South, represented soldiers fraternizing with the locals. Photographs show “Tommies happy to help” farmers harvesting, sewing, having their hair cut, pressing grapes with the women, hugging children, eating with them, or having their laundry done by the local women. Norman Lewis’s military memoir of the Allied experiences in Naples ’44 is a much rawer depiction of trigger-happy Allied soldiers and the poverty of the people who were the subjects of these photographs: women forced into prostituting themselves, a destitute people reduced to scavenging for a living.

After Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet Pact on June 22, 1941, legitimating the Communist Resistance globally, the Italian Communist network began to build up slowly on a national level. Umberto Massola, whose accounts of the strikes in 1943 informed this chapter, would be the first Communist commander to reenter Italy on August 1, 1941, from Ljubliana.71 Palmiro Togliatti, on the other hand, had been arrested along with other PCI leaders in exile in Paris after the Pact of Non-Aggression of August 23, 1939, which also suppressed the PCF and isolated all Communist parties in Europe. The French did not recognize Togliatti, releasing him in May 1940 when he fled to the Soviet Union before the German occupation of France and before Italy declared war on Britain and France on June 10, 1940.72 Togliatti first landed in Naples on March 27, 1944, on his return from eighteen years in exile in Moscow. In Naples he met with Benedetto Croce and began organizing the new Communist party, leading the svolta di Salerno (the Salerno Turn) when the PCI supported democratic measures of reform in Italy and refused to engage in armed struggle for the cause of Socialism.73

With its roots in the Italian Communist participation in the Spanish Civil War, the Italian Resistance began as a working-class movement of strikes, starting with the women’s protests against food shortages in summer 1942 in Milan.74 Workers’ strikes at the Alfa Romeo and Tedeschi factories were the first political acts of protest against Fascism, after twenty years during which workers had kept their heads down, hoping for better days and suffering increasingly paralyzing hunger and deprivation. On March 5, 1943, Turin’s FIAT Mirafiori workers walked out, setting the example for other workplaces, although the strikes often only lasted a few hours.75 Many of the strikers would become guerrilla fighters in the Resistance. Very few photographs of the strikes exist. However, after the war, reconstructed photography employed an empowered Worker Photography Movement style, as in the iconic photomontage showing six factory workers, their folded arms symbolic of their strike, with factory chimneys looming upward, increasing their stature and strength (Figure 2.14).

FIGURE 2.14 Anon., Poster shown at the Exposition de la résistance italienne in France, 1946.

Source: Istituto nazionale per la storia del movimento di liberazione in Italia (INSMLI), Milan.

Based on a Constructivist low-angle model, the photomontage was, in all probability, created after the end of the war, although “various agencies” tried to propose it as an original.76 The image was exhibited at the Exposition de la résistance italienne, which toured France, inaugurating in Paris at the Salle Foch of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts on June 14, 1946.77 The brightly colored lettering reads: “For Mussolini: folded arms. In August 1942—when the Fascist war still fed hopes of glory—here the strikes of the workers from Milan, Turin, Asti and Modena began. Northern Italy 1942, 2 strikes a month/1943 5 strikes a month.”

One of the main organizers of the exhibition, the artist Gabriele Mucchi, observed that he preferred “a moving photograph of an event that took place within a small [Partisan] formation . . . to a banal photograph even if the latter is contributed by a very important [Partisan] formation.”78 Red, blue, and yellow statistics and titles were printed in lowercase lettering (emphasizing a protest against the perceived authority of the capital letter) across enlarged black-and-white photographs of Partisan and military activities, strikes, torture, and deaths as well as information on, and photographs of, everyday Fascist oppression.

The Parisian chapter of the Exposition was subsequent to its Italian original, the Exhibition of the Liberation (Mostra della Liberazione), which first opened in Milan on July 7, 1945, at the Palazzo dell’Arengario on Piazza del Duomo. The exhibition was sponsored by the PCI through L’Unità and traveled to other Italian cities, through France and to Amsterdam, with some variations in size, content, and style. The image of the Resistance at the Exhibition of the Liberation relied on a multiplicity of contrasting views in order to tell the strange story of the “winner-losers” of the war, partly due to the fact that Partisans only began keeping photographic records of their activities toward the end of the war.79

The exhibition portrayed the opposite of what had been enforced by Fascist war propaganda, which forbade showing soldiers in positions of weakness. “To display the dead, after all, is what the enemy does” as Susan Sontag observed in Regarding the Pain of Others (2004), writing that “the images may be too terrible, and need to be suppressed in the name of propriety or of patriotism—like the image showing, without appropriate partial concealment, our dead.”80 The Partisans, instead, flouted ideas of “propriety” and “patriotism” as they are traditionally imagined: they showed themselves weak, beaten up, and went to great lengths after the end of the war to represent such scenes in reconstructed photographs of torture and killings.

The INSMLI and other institutes for the Liberation of Italy recuperated many of the photographs taken by Partisans, which had not been intended for publication. These vernacular photographs reproduced characteristic typologies of Partisans that coincide with average soldier typologies, including lookouts and snipers that did not feature extensively in the Mostra. Many of these photographs are in tiny “family album” formats and show groups of Partisans camping in forests or posing outside their camps looking folkloric, disorganized, and unarmed. Certain photographs of the Resistance appear to explicitly contravene Fascist photographic censorship rules, such as one of a makeshift Mass in the mountains showing soldiers kneeling and praying (Figure 2.15).

FIGURE 2.15 CVL General Command for Occupied Italy (Comando Generale per l’Italia occupata), Mass at camp for the men of the Nino Nannetti division on the plateau of Cansiglio, Belluno area (Messa al campo per gli uomini della divisione Nino Nannetti nell’altipiano del Cansiglio, zona di Belluno), 295 × 235 mm, 1944, Archivio Storico—Nannetti, busta 1 n. 14, fondo Corpo volontari della libertà.

Source: Istituto nazionale per la storia del movimento di liberazione in Italia (INSMLI), Milan.

As seen in the introductory epigraph, Fascist photographic censorship rules for the military forbade showing “soldiers kneeling during Mass.”81 Belonging to the Nino Nannetti Partisan faction, these Partisans were affiliated to the Garibaldi brigade, which was prevalently associated with the PCI. This may have been a faction with Christian Democrat or Partito d’Azione elements, considering the fact that they were celebrating Mass, although Communists were not necessarily atheists. In art, the Partisan soldier was represented as an emaciated Christ-like figure. Mucchi described his Partigiano Ucciso (Murdered Partisan) from 1945 as a “hymn to the Partisans”, a pietà, and an accusation against the social forces that had forced the country into that tragic battle: “a mother finds her son killed and covers him tenderly with a shroud” (Figure 2.16).82

FIGURE 2.16 Gabriele Mucchi, Murdered Partisan (Partigiano Ucciso), oil on canvas, 60 × 50 cm, 1945, private collection, Milan © Antonio Mucchi by SIAE 2015.

Imagery representing Catholic pathos emerged powerfully in Communist art like Guttuso’s Crocifissione (1940–41) and Gott Mit Uns (1944).83 Although the Partisans were conscious of wanting to create an image that contained none of the Fascist rhetoric of virile power and warmongering, it was inevitable that their evocations of Christian martyrdom resembled the Fascist concept of sacrifice, in turn founded in a religious ideology. The figure of the martyr (etymologically, “witness”) was necessary in both ideologies to create a new cultural order. Fascist fascination with death and funeral ceremonies was part of a sentimental kitsch meant as uplifting edification, while Partisans represented it with the pathos of a Christian narrative. Nonetheless, one of the Fascist themes of visual representation that the Partisans avoided nearly entirely was the commodification of masculine eroticism and the Fascist glorification of the male superhero. The asexual, heroic, and life-giving figure of Christ was used as a metaphor for the martyrdom of the Partisans and their experience of torture, brutality, and murder at the hands of the Fascists.

Another way in which the Fascist trope of masculinity was overcome was through a focus on women Partisans and their role in the Liberation of Italy. Due to the strong presence of the Allied military in Milan, which approved of equality between men and women, the representation of women Resistance fighters was greater in the first version of the Exhibition of the Liberation in Milan than in other contemporary exhibitions.84 Women’s suffrage was achieved in 1920 in the United States and in 1928 in the United Kingdom, while Italian women would only receive the right to vote in 1946. One of the panels in the exhibition was dedicated to the clandestine women Partisans’ periodical Noi Donne (Figure 2.17). Founded in Naples in July 1944 as the organ for the Unione delle Donne Italiane (UDI—Italian Women’s Union), the Italian equivalent of the French Communist Union des Femmes Françaises, Noi Donne would play an important role in maintaining a critical line against the government. Its first print run was 500, which rose to between 6,000 and 10,000 after a few months until the end of the Resistance.85 From 1950 to 1956, it was directed by Maria Antonietta Macciocchi who subsequently took over the direction of the PCI weekly Vie Nuove. Out of the photographs displayed on the Noi Donne panel, one showed a woman Partisan, taken by an Allied soldier, covered in a shawl and carrying a machine gun, that grabbed the imagination of the Allied military presence and acquired a semi-iconic status. Observing the photograph within the exhibition layout, however, it emerges that the size of the photograph on the left representing a poor young mother holding her baby in dirty clothes, is much larger than the one of the heroic woman guerrilla fighter. This placed the emphasis on the victims of the war and the need for reconstruction rather than nostalgic glorification of a militarized past.

FIGURE 2.17 Noi Donne panel at the Exhibition of the Liberation, June 1945.

Source: Istituto nazionale per la storia del movimento di liberazione in Italia (INSMLI), Milan.

Constructing and reconstructing the Resistance

Launched on September 26, 1945, Il Politecnico, Vittorini’s celebrated magazine that was partly funded by the PCI, expressed a new national-political fermentation. It brought together the talent that had worked on the Exhibition of the Liberation and was designed for “workers, peasants, intellectuals” acting as a Communist call for Gramsci’s hegemony and the rule of the proletariat. For six months it was published as a weekly broadsheet, after which it was turned into a handy A4 size and published monthly (although sometimes every three months). It had a bold design in red and black and made rich use of illustrations, photographs, film stills, and cartoons. The strength of its graphic style was seconded by articles that promoted a “new culture,” including Vittorini’s republication of Americana and a selection from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks before Einaudi published them as a volume.86 According to most scholars of “neorealist” photography, Luigi Crocenzi’s photo-essay published in the May 1, 1946 issue, An Eye on Milan (Occhio su Milano) heralded a style in terms of form and content: photographs of the everyday taken in the streets of Milan were presented in a narrative sequence with very little text (Figure 2.18).87 Slightly out-of-focus portraits of often tired-looking people in the streets taken on the sly are combined with price tags at markets and in shop windows as well as more indistinct street scenes. It is generally acknowledged as the first attempt in Italy to practice photojournalism with an image-based rather than text-based bias. I argue that this attribution is conditioned by a scholarly bias against Fascist photojournalism: as seen in Chapter 1, Crocenzi’s photo-essay had a number of precedents, particularly in Federigo Valli’s Documento and Vittorio Mussolini’s Cinema, which can be considered part of the late Fascist vent de fronde. Vittorini, in a potentially self-mythologizing move, was the first to write about the photography he had published in Il Politecnico a decade later, observing that the photo-essays he was interested in were “cinematographic, not photographic.”88 As editor of Americana and founder of Il Politecnico, Vittorini’s approach to photojournalism was more concerned with inserting photography into an intellectual literary and cinematic tradition, rather than with ideas of visual impact. He claimed he was not interested in single images for their aesthetic qualities but in whether they could reproduce a certain idea together as a series. Published on May 1, a Communist holiday, and with its focus on “humanist” subjects, the article worked as a “screen shot” of Milanese street life. One of the reasons Crocenzi’s work has been turned into “the” first neorealist moment for photography is possibly due to the polemic that arose between Vittorini and Palmiro Togliatti over Il Politcenico, leading eventually to the journal folding in December 1947. Beyond the magazine’s central role in postwar Italian culture, Crocenzi’s raw photographic sequence has also potentially been endowed with a weighty “posthumous” importance in scholarship due to his role as a critic and founder of the Centro per la Cultura nella Fotografia (CCF) in 1954, discussed in Chapter 4.

FIGURE 2.18 Luigi Crocenzi, An Eye on Milan (Occhio su Milano), Il Politecnico, May 1, 1946. Courtesy of the Centro di Ricerca e Archiviazione Fotografia (CRAF).

It was only after the Liberation that Partisans sought to legitimize the Resistance movement through a more stereotypically empowered style of photography by reconstructing scenes of strikes, sabotage, and fighting. Neorealist film introduced characteristics prefiguring the documentary-fiction genre, using a combination of live footage and reconstructed scenes, first experimented by neorealist director Luchino Visconti in his film Giorni di Gloria (1945).89 The PWB commissioned Visconti, a Resistance survivor and film director, with other directors to film, among other scenes, the three-day trial and execution of Pietro Caruso, chief of police in Rome, found guilty for assisting the Germans in carrying out the massacre of 335 civilians at the Ardeatine Caves. Paradoxically, the “raw” documentary mode of Giorni di Gloria is subverted by the theatricality of the trial and the way in which the execution at Forte Bravetta looked like a film set, with Allied and Italian cameras and film cameras pointed at the action from various high and low vantage points. The filmed execution remains an orchestrated symbol denoting the end of Fascism and the beginning of democracy, officially inaugurated on June 2, 1946, when the Italian Republic was born, under the aegis of an innovative aesthetic that comprised a specific cultural ideology: neorealism.

In photography, the Publifoto agency owner and professional photographer Vincenzo Carrese created a post-Liberation reconstruction of rooftop Partisan war action from 1945 as part of a series to establish a new narrative for the Resistance. The photographic series appear inspired by Hollywood action movies, close to the heroic war narratives established in American photojournalism such as those in Life magazine.90 Retrospective self-representation was the main form in which the Resistance was able to create a heroic identity, in the form of literature, cinema, photography, and exhibitions. Despite the Exhibition of the Liberation trying to promote an image of solidarity, internal dissent over the preparation of the exhibition and the fact that the Christian Democrats did not condone it, underlined the lack of unanimity among post-Resistance ideologies.91 The ideological magma of the Italian Resistance, in which Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Anarchists, anti-Marxists, and Catholics fought for the Liberation of Italy prefigured the political instability and fight for power between Christian Democrats and Communists after the war.


The war produced human landscapes of destruction, poverty, and abjectness. Humanist photography’s power of affect was meant to evoke the viewer’s compassion for such visions, for the disenfranchised and those who are suffering. And yet, Fascist photographs of the enemy could be mistaken, at times, for humanist ones, just as Allied Power photographs of Italian peasants could be too, were the viewer to ignore the captions or the contexts within which they were taken or published. The humanist photography genre risks therefore being charged with the potential to humiliate and elicit a sense of schadenfreude. This complicates the traditional sociopolitical, left-wing ideological frame in which the genre is generally understood. Further confusion arises from the fact that some of the war photographs examined were taken by intellectuals (e.g., Giuseppe Pagano, Curzio Malaparte, and Enrico Peressutti) who were declared Fascists in the 1930s but whose political position began shifting during the course of the war. The context of the conflict increases the ambiguous nature of humanist photography in its raw state and its capacity to serve different ideological camps depending on who is behind the camera and who is making editorial decisions.

This is why the vast production of Resistance photography provides a new set of criteria through which to understand humanist photography. Despite its small distribution and circulation, it contributed to a visual atonement of Fascism, acting as a forerunner to the explosion of humanist photography after the war. The power of Partisan photography, as a participant in the creation of an antifascist aesthetic and vision, has not been considered in the history of Italian photography, save as a standalone body of work. The physically powerful masculine body as the morally upright symbol of the Fascist state was imploded into one of Christian pathos, which helped negotiate a new image for Italians that was not based on the bombastic, nationalist rhetoric of the regime, while simultaneously representing a new form of power. These ideas were exemplified in PCI-funded periodicals such as Noi Donne and Il Politecnico. The internal battle between a Fascist and an antifascist visual culture was overshadowed by the influence and the photographic production of the Allied Powers, both in the form of “embedded” soldiers during the war like Mydans, Bourke-White, or Capa and in the form of the American photographic avant-garde, such as Walker Evans’ American Photographs. In the next two chapters the complicated relationship between American and Italian photographic practices after the war is explored in terms of the political theater that the south of Italy became in its immediate aftermath, and, in the fourth and last chapter, in terms of the effects of the Cold War, from The Family of Man exhibition in 1955 until the years of the miracolo economico (economic miracle), on an Italian humanist vision that grew in the north of Italy.

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