Paul Corner recently stressed that despite national rhetoric in Fascism, Fascist Italy remained a myriad of diverse localities each led by local chiefs The Fascist Party and Popular Opinion in Mussolini's Italy. Kate Ferris' Everyday Life in Fascist Venice, 1929-40 refines both Renzo De Felice's general idea that the Ethiopian War was the height of the dictatorship's consensus Mussolini il duce. Gli anni del consenso 1929-1936, and Emilio Gentile's assertion that the regime's attempt to "sacralise " politics, instilling a sense of faith, love and spiritual devotion, which with the apparatus of the Roman Catholicism helped bind the population in faithful, devotion to Mussolini and the state Politics as ReligionThe Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy. In a historical city tourist stage-set projecting the new disciplined image of Fascism to a global audience, the study of Venice also tests the consent-dissent of the locals to the "brutal" regime.
During the inter-war years Venice at this time was headed by former national party secretary, Giovanni Giuriati, and industrial magnate, Giuseppe Volpi (later ennobled Count of Misurata), with members of the city's historical patrician families of the Serenissima Republic, including the Alveràs, the Orsis, and the Zorzis, co-opted into the city's and party's administrative and social welfare agencies, giving the impression that the Fascist Revolution had not radically altered or extended the ruling class base since the "decadent" days of Liberal democracy. Some went whole heartedly with the regime's dream to rebuild the glories of Venice's past in the east. Moreover, since the successful ratification of the Lateran Pacts, the Church, in the guise of Cardinals La Fontaine and Piazza appeared ever present and part of the new regime. The author focuses on four main topics: on death and the "Fascistization" of funerals; on local Venetian festivals; on family life during the Ethiopian War; and on the ideas of the young, to assess the amount of consensus.
Death proved to be strongly evident in all Fascist rituals and functions linking the city's military/ naval past achievements: the Risorgimento, the Great War, to the present: from the "birth of the new nation" with the Fascist March on Rome in 1922, the declaration of the Italian East African Empire, and the Italian /Blackshirt involvement in Spain, as well as to future: when the country would call its brave warriors to rise anew.
In the case of the three festivals: the re-introduction of the Medieval feast of the three Maries in January/February 1934/35, the appropriation of Christmas Eve as a state ritual event in 1933 to commemorate motherhood and young -in the Day of the Mother and Child, and 20th anniversary of the victory of the Battle of Piave in the Great War, in June 1938, despite the photo opportunities for the stage managed splendour and adulation the author indicated mixed consent. Indeed, certain individuals of the Church viewed the innovations as an attempt to usurp their traditional welfare works previously ignored by the Liberal regime, and believed that the decision to interrupt the continued commemoration of the Maries beyond 1935 may have been due to the regime's failed policy to encourage a rise in births, an opinion which requires further exploration. But for Corner, changes in a local practices may have been more due to jealous internal infighting or beghism, between leading local party chiefs, reflecting the centuries old Italian family rivalries such as in Verona between the Capulets and Montagues, which were subsequently justified for practical economic reasons with the of the continuing of the long great Depression.
The League of Nations' sanctions imposed on Italy throughout the Ethiopian campaign between 1935-36 did not necessarily encourage local rich Venetians to show greater consent towards the regime; it showed the sly methods of being seen to acquiesce to the regime's demands, as for instance when in December 1935 women were called to follow the example of Queen Elena to give up their gold wedding rings to the nation for the national struggle some preferring not to lose face to purchase valueless substitutes in their place; instead, the decision to consume meat or switch on electricity on fewer days was something which was only relevant and affected the more affluent, rather than the needy poor sections who normally could never afford these luxuries at home. One worthy long-term by-product of the sanctions for the regime, however, was the expansion of Italian fashion houses and the transfer of local custom from Chanel, Hermes, and Patou to Ferragamo, and Biki. Ferris underlines this issue in the consent-dissent dichotomy, between fascists, a-fascists, and anti-fascists as more complex and should hence forth be widened to include acquiescence-accommodation-negotiation-mediation analysis to address the ambiguities and ambivalences of daily life under the dictatorship.
The most original attempt to examine consent -explored more in the field of history education, was by examining children's comics to see how they influenced the development of children's feelings and language. Three typical examples were used: one popular national, il Corriere dei Piccoli, one local, il Gazzettino dei Ragazzi, and the official Fascist youth movement paper, il Balilla, for their images and content. More important, the best 9-10 year old pupils of all schools in Venice were selected to partake in a local essay competition, in January 1935, important as these were boys and girls who were born soon after Mussolini's entry into government, i.e. those pupils who lived entirely during Fascism.
The author claims the majority of children surprisingly failed to show any influence of Fascist culture or of the Duce. The few pupils who portrayed more examples of Fascism: nation, military glory, self-sacrifices, however, were not rated highly by the judges. This interesting project proved inconclusive, and disappointing, because there was no indication if the judges (obviously now parading in their Fascist heaven) were evaluating the papers with the same criteria which the author was interested in, or if they were simply judging the essay for their accuracy and creativeness in the standard national language, something which even for the better candidates coming from poorer backgrounds was still an arduous second tongue requiring frequent linguistic code switching from their first language, the local Veneto dialect.
On the other hand, though it can not be disputed that those who demonstrated the strongest Fascist influences, parroting the key phrases and cultural features of Fascism, were regular weekly readers of il Balilla, there is no indication that those who never mentioned the regime did not approve or disapprove of it, especially as they would not have known any other system. More likely, children of anti-fascist families where adversary politics would have been discussed in hushed muted form, they would have learnt to censor or re-phrase their comments in vaguer, more acceptable models. Furthermore, since the regime tried to adopt traditional Italian cultural features as its exclusive, only the most informed teachers would have been prepared to identify and root out possible dissidents from their communities, and then did they wish to be identified as being the one to have brought unnecessary problems to the education to members of their classes simply because it was common knowledge that their fathers were "ignorant", "hot-head" "drunks".
The decision not to select any topics that occurred either after the passage of the Race Laws in 1938 affecting the local Jewish community, or after Italy's entry to war in June 1940, or again after the collapse of Fascism thirty-seven months later may in part have been justified for wishing to test the De Felice thesis up to 1936; and with the life clocks of the surviving 1930s youngsters fast running out, it would leave much on the state of evolving, crystallizing dissent sadly left unsaid.
I recall the famous saying: it is better to travel than to arrive. Kate Ferris' long journey down the Venetian peaks from Austria and across the plains has not yet pulled into its last stop at Santa Lucia station in Venice. It is speedily heading closer, having already explored interesting cultural examples of a past age along the way based on the findings published since the 1980s. The book will be appreciative to the specialists for providing something of the 100 cities which had been previously less commonly known, but it will leave the general readers a little confused. There is room for more, to bring the story home to all. I welcome Ferris' next concluding accounts of that trip.