March 12, 2015

Colonial Networks and Geographies

In my continuing work on a book manuscript on architecture and racial politics during the late-Fascist era in Italy, I am writing about the organization and displays of the Italian Overseas Exhibition. This politically charged representation of Italy’s colonies was held in the Fuorigrotta (literally, “beyond the grotto”) area of Naples, beginning in May of 1940. One of the most striking aspects of the event was its display of a combination of networks of industrial and commercial enterprise that extended outwards from Italy to its overseas possessions with colonial geographies that were transported back. The resulting exhibition evidenced a rather dramatic contrast that was immediately apparent in the buildings and spaces of the site. One half was organized in the manner of a conventional urban plan, with a Historic Section that was dedicated to representing Italy’s colonies dating back to the Roman period as well as a Production Section that encompassed its current economic and industrial activities abroad. The other half was called the Geographic Section, and it presented Italy’s overseas possessions through a series of pavilions located in a highly contrived parkscape created with transplanted flora. Notably, this section also included a zoo with representative species.


Italian Overseas Exhibition, 1940. View of Piazza dell”Impero. From Architettura 20, nos. 1-2 (January-February 1941): 14.

The Production Section of the Italian Overseas Exhibition was quite unusual when considering the typical nature of such European displays. Indeed, the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition was primarily focused on communicating the indigenous culture of the various colonial lands rather than the accomplishments of their respective colonizing nations. In contrast with this approach, the Naples exhibition attempted to convey the current economic networks that extended into Italy’s African Empire, providing both evidence of and incentive for Italian enterprise. In so doing, it embraced the full range of economic activity, with a major focus being on the extraction of goods and materials. These displays included a combination of fishing industries, the harvesting of agricultural products, such as bananas, tobacco and coffee, and the mining of minerals and other natural resources. Another facet of the Production Section were exhibits that included consumer goods, as well as larger products of industry, with a particular focus on various modes of transportation, including cars, trucks and railways. There were also displays related to forms of infrastructure that ranged from the construction of roads and transportation systems to electrical and sanitary services. A particularly compelling example is the system of the Banca d’Italia, which had already established branches in Eritrea, Somalia, Libya and Ethiopia. The significance of the bank as an instrument of colonization is evident in its many advertisements, one of which employs a map of Italy’s colonial empire in Africa flanked by images of the accomplishments of this network of financial support.


Advertisement of Banca d”Italia, Italian Overseas Exhibition, 1940. From Mostra triennale delle terre italiane d”oltremare, Napoli, Campi Flegrei, 9 maggio-15 ottobre, 1940-XVIII. Documentario, Naples, 1940.

The other part of the site, the Geographic Section, was more typical of colonial exhibitions in attempting to create a series of reenacted colonial environments. The most extensive and elaborate of these displays was the Libyan Pavilion, designed by the architect Florestano Di Fausto who was already well established through his service to the Municipality of Tripoli. Not unlike his design for the luxury Uaddan Hotel and Casino, this building was an eclectic amalgam of references to the indigenous architecture of the region synthesized in such a way to directly suggest the landscape and environment of North Africa. However, despite its faithful staging of that environment and its careful use of native forms, the presence of the building in Naples as part of this exhibition gave it an altogether different significance. Just like the larger landscape of the site, this building is a product of a conscious act of racial mixing that was both a legitimization of the Italian Empire in Africa and an affirmation of its racial superiority. In a similar manner, the layout and design of the interior spaces of the Libyan Pavilion show a strategic fusion of indigenous and metropolitan elements. There was a “Popular and Documentary Section” organized by the Libyan Tourism and Hotel Association, that put a broad collection of local artisanry on display. However, any appearance of authenticity in these displays belies the extent to which the Italian authorities had already shaped these Libyan traditions to their own purposes. These representations did not end with the display of objects, it also involved the display of people. Spaces like the Arab Café put Libyans and their traditional culture on display for the purpose of establishing the “prestige of the Italian race.”


Florestano Di Fausto, Libyan Pavilion, Italian Overseas Exhibition, 1940. From Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rome. Ministry of Italian Africa—Volume 3.

More than any prior colonial exhibition in Italy, the Italian Overseas Exhibition was a product of the political exploitation of the economic and cultural interactions between the metropole and the colony. The site and the architecture were at once a projection of metropolitan industry and commerce onto the colonial context and an enclave of colonial space transplanted in the metropole. While the site plan attempted to keep these incommensurable worlds apart, inevitably there was an interaction that operated at the scale of the site as well as the individual buildings and their displays. Seen in the historical context of the late-Fascist Period, it was a miscegenation that was in open conflict with the Italian racial laws. Rather than transporting the Italian visitors to the colonies, this exhibition was an imposition of the problems that presented themselves in the Italian Empire on Italy. The precise nature of this dilemma was soon exposed with Italy’s entry into World War II. Italy lost the war in East Africa by November of 1941 and the North African Campaign by May of 1943. Following the Allied invasion of Sicily on June 10th 1943 and the Italian surrender on September 8th, Italy was itself an occupied territory awaiting its liberation. The Italian Overseas Exhibition had arguably reached its apotheosis as a site of violence and military struggle and in this process these overseas networks, which were a direct product of a politics of military conflict and racial discrimination, met their own inevitable end.


Brian L. McLaren, Associate Professor

Seattle, Washington, March 10, 2015