February 4, 2014

Architecture and War

Written by Associate Professor Brian L. McLaren

While in Rome this past fall, when I was not teaching or preparing for lectures, field trips or studio, I spent my time on my current research project, which examines the architecture of the late-Fascist period in Italy. My work in Rome was a continuation of my efforts of this past summer, when I started to look into the situation just before and immediately after Italy’s entry into World War II. This is something that has interested me for a long time, but which until recently I had not had a chance to look at carefully. This interest began some fifteen years ago during a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome while working on my dissertation. I was looking for information on the Italian Overseas Exhibition, which was held in Naples in 1940, and found a file that concerned the “indigenous villages” that were constructed on the exhibition grounds. The villages, which were part of the Italian East Africa Exhibit, were comprised of a series of small groupings that recreated the indigenous building forms from the regions of Galla and Sidamo, Scoia, Eritrea and Somalia. Not only were the buildings constructed using materials transported from Italian East Africa, the workmen and their families were brought from the colonies and “lived” in the exhibition.


Italian East Africa exhibition, 1940. Indigenous village. From Illustrazione Italiana, June 2, 1940.

What I discovered in the file was a series of documents and correspondences that chronicled the story of the workers and their families who were transported from East Africa. Although in my dissertation the material only led to a concluding paragraph and a few footnotes in a chapter on Italian colonial exhibitions, it is now a central part of my current research project. This past fall I returned to the same file of documents to look more deeply at the story of the East Africans from the indigenous villages and in particular to find out what happened during the wartime period. While in Italy I also visited the archive of the Italian press photographer Federico Patellani, who was hired by Tempo magazine to document the opening of this exhibition in May of 1940. In the summer I had discovered that Patellani, who was fascinated with African culture and traveled extensively in Africa, had taken a number of compelling photographs of the East Africans, who were housed in a former army barracks where they were to stay for the duration of the exhibition. Located to the immediate west of the exhibition grounds, these derelict wooden structures were painted white, presumably to make them more congenial to the cultural needs of their temporary inhabitants.


East African families at former barracks, April 1940. © Federico Patellani – Regione Lombardia / Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea.

If the photographs of Patellani document the lives of the East Africans during the course of the exhibition as a work of photojournalism, the material from the archive conveys a much darker picture. The documents include information about this group from early 1940, when they arrived in Naples, until July of 1944, when a group of them were transported to a holding camp in Bari by the Allies, who were in the process of liberating Italy from German occupation. In between those dates this group of East Africans, who were brought to Italy by the Fascist government to demonstrate their local culture, suffered numerous indignities. With Italy’s entry into World War II the exhibition was almost immediately closed and the Eritrean, Somalian and Ethiopians were no longer needed. Unfortunately they were not allowed to return to East Africa due to the military conflict in the Mediterranean or permitted to travel freely within Italy. In addition to the disgrace of living in this temporary housing for what ended up being over three years, they were deprived of sufficient food and clothing and under the constant threat of Allied bombing.


Villa Vannutelli, Treia (Macerata), drawing, 1943. Historic Archive of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rome. Ministry of Italian Africa—Political Affairs.

Due to the onset of World War II, the Eritrean, Somalian and Ethiopian workers and their families who came to construct and perform their daily lives in an authentic environment, as well as the East Africans that were hired to be their guards, became what at the time were called confinati. They were the equivalent of the most dangerous political prisoners from Italy’s African colonies, who were housed in internment camps throughout Italy. Just like these East African confinati, the presence of the inhabitants of the indigenous villages was incommensurate with the racial laws of the country, especially as they were being enforced under the conditions of war. In April of 1943, the East African families who were housed in the makeshift barracks in Naples were moved to the Villa Vannutelli in Treia (Macerata)—a former concentration camp for European women that had been closed due to its poor sanitary conditions. While the record is not complete, over the course of their five year stay from this group of almost 60 East Africans; one family of three returned early; eight children were born and one died; one man and one woman died; four disappeared from the official documents; two were charged with crimes against Italian officials and put in jail; one spent much of his time in hospital; two were wounded during an unsuccessful attempt by the Allies to free them while five men and one woman escaped; one guard died of tuberculosis; and three guards escaped, two of which died fighting alongside Italian partisans who were attempting to liberate Italy from German occupation.