Troubled Times

Three exhibitions on Italian design between the world wars reveal a culture producing great beauty in an era of turbulence.

Sugar bowl, jugs, and bottle, c. 1932, Nicolaj Diulgheroff (Bulgarian, 1901-1982) Casa Giuseppe Mazzotti, Albisola (Savona), Earthenware various dimensions

Courtesy The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection 84.7.32-35, 85.7.284; Photo: Silvia Ros

Bertrand Russell famously argued that propaganda is better at fostering hate than love, but a group of three interrelated exhibitions on Italian art and design between the world wars, currently on view at the Wolfsonian-Florida International University museum in Miami Beach, tells a different story. “The exhibition [The Birth of Rome] starts with promotional posters, made under Mussolini, that show the vision he had for Rome,” says curator Silvia Barisione. “He wanted to update the idea people had of the city as this ancient, picturesque place—the Rome of the Grand Tour.” By showcasing newly restored Imperial monuments, the posters rebranded Rome as modern while recalling the splendor of the past. “The idea was to re-create the Roman Empire,” Barisione explains. 

Propaganda only goes so far, but Italian art and design flourished between the wars. Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design illustrates this with a wide range of objects from the Wolfsonian’s collections, from Renato Bertelli’s Futurist sculpture to Gio Ponti’s furniture to ceramics by Guido Gambone. “It was a turbulent period that brought both great political turmoil and an explosion of new ideas,” Barisione says.

The three exhibitions, which also include Rendering War: The Murals of A.G. Santagata, depict both sides of this dichotomy: “We tried to show, in a very objective way, the art and design that was created during the Fascist dictatorship. They made some beautiful things,” she says. “And yet we wanted to show also the violent rise of Fascism in Italy.” She cites a painting by Giacomo Gabbiani, depicting blackshirted Fascists taking to the streets in 1919. “Gabbiani evidently sided with the Fascists,” Barisione says. “But it’s an important painting for what it tells us about the past.”


Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design

Writing desk, 1935 Clemente Busiri Vici (Italian, 1887–1965), Made by Ditta Alfredo Papalini, Rome Aluminum, plate glass, fiberglass mat, wood, steel 32 3/4 x 59 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches (83. 2 x 150.5 x 76.8 cm)

Courtesy The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection 84.11.13.1; Photo: Bruce White

This desk, designed by Clemente Busiri Vici, typifies the explosion of new materials designers and builders could incorporate into their work in the period between the wars.

Jug, Conversazione Classica [Classical Conversation], ca. 1927, Giò (Giovanni) Ponti (Italian, 1891–1979) Richard-Ginori, Doccia (Florence) Gilt porcelain 7 x 5 inches diameter (17.8 x 12.7 centimeters diameter)

Courtesy The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection 84.7.52; Photo: Silvia Ros

Many of the seeds that would come to fruition during Gio Ponti‘s long and prolific career were sown during the interwar period. This 1927 gilt porcelain jug depicting “Conversazione Classica” deliberately recalls the forms and figures of classical antiquity in a more modern form.

Poster, Magneti Marelli. Licenza Bosch [Magneti Marelli. Bosch License], 1938, Filippo Romoli (Italian, 1901–1969) SAIGA Barabino and Graeve, Genoa Offset lithograph 39 x 27½ inches (99.1 x 69.9 centimeters)

Courtesy The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection 87.979.4.1; Photo: Silvia Ros

Filippo Romoli designed this offset lithograph poster from 1938, made to advertise Magneti Marelli sparkplugs. The sparking ignition engine was a recent invention, and the image, with its glowing upward spiral and racing red cars, embodies the Futurist embrace of technology and speed.

Poster, Lloyd Sabaudo. The Famous Counts [Lloyd Sabaudo. I Famosi Conti], 1927, Giuseppe Riccobaldi Del Bava (Italian, 1887-1976) Barabino and Graeve, Genoa Offset lithograph 27-13/16 x 26-1/8 inches (96 x 66.4 centimeters)

Courtesy The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection XX1992.132; Photo: Silvia Ros

Symbols of Italy’s glorious past and fastmoving future abound in this 1927 offset lithograph poster designed by Giuseppe Riccobaldi Del Bava for the Lloyd Sabaudo steamship lines.

The Birth of Rome

Foro Mussolini, Roma, ca. 1937, George Hoyningen-Huene (American, b. Russia, 1900–1968), photographer Gelatin silver print 9-1/2 x 9-1/2 inches (24.1 x 24.1 centimeters)

Courtesy The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection XX1990.2665; Photo: Lynton Gardiner

This gelatin silver print of the marble stadium at the Foro Mussolini, designed by Luigi Moretti in 1937, was taken by George Hoyningen-Huene.

Maquette, Italian Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1939, Michele Busiri Vici (Italian, 1894–1981) Painted wood 10-2/5 x 10 x 16-3/10 (26.5 x 25.5 x 41.4 centimeters)

Courtesy Wolfsoniana–Fondazione Regionale per la Cultura e lo Spettacolo, Genoa

This painted wood model by architect Michele Busiri Vici shows the plan for the Italian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

La Città di Cemento [Concrete City], ca. 1919, Virgilio Marchi Artist Stabilimento per la Reproduzione Disengni L. Bazzechelli Printer

Courtesy The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A speculative Futurist composition by Virgilio Marchi Artist Stabilimento imagines a massive three-story structure with integrated streets and rail tracks.

Rendering War: The Murals of A. G. Santagata

Ritorno. Canzone. Cartone per l’affresco nel salone delle assemblee della Casa Madre dei Mutilati di Guerra a Roma [Return. Song. Cartoon for the Fresco in the Casa Madre dei Mutilati di Guerra in Rome], 1932, Antonio Giuseppe Santagata (Italian, 1888-1985) Charcoal on pasteboard on canvas 92 x 141 inches (234 x 359 centimeters)

Courtesy Marcello Cambi Collection, Genoa

The Italian Novocento artist Antonio G. Santagata created these large-scale drawings in charcoal and crayon on paper as studies for the murals he completed for the Association for Disabled and Invalid War Veterans (Casa Madre dei Mutilati).

Audacia. Cartone per l’affresco nella Casa Madre dei Mutilati di Guerra a Roma [Audacity. Cartoon for the Fresco in the Casa Madre dei Mutilati di Guerra in Rome], 1937, Antonio Giuseppe Santagata (Italian, 1888–1985) Charcoal on pasteboard 113-3/4 x 62-5/8 inches

Courtesy The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection 84.5.44; Photo: Lynton Gardiner

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