Book Review: Catherine Paul’s (2016) ‘Fascist Directive: Ezra Pound and Italian Cultural Nationalism’ – June 2018

Italy, Fascism, Rome, Nationalism,
© Liverpool University Press

Two Latin scholars made unusual headlines in summer 2016. Hans Lamers and Bettina Reitz-Joosse had just published The Codex Fori Mussolini: A Latin Text of Italian Fascism: a translation and extended annotation of the 1,220-word Latin inscription praising ‘the Boss’. Reconstructed from several Roman libraries, the original text remains at the bottom of a 300-tonne modernist column, the Mussolini obelisk (‘MVSSOLINI DVX’ is chiseled vertically down 60 feet of Carrera Marble). In turn, that column was unveiled by no less a figure than Il Duce on 28 October 1932, formally commencing the ‘Decennio’ celebrations marking a decade of Fascist rule in Italy. BBC News online reported on 31 August 2016 (echoed by the Daily Mail and Telegraph) that the inscription ‘describes Italy as on the brink of disaster following World War One only to be rescued by Mussolini, “regenerating the country through his superhuman insight and resoluteness”, said Dr Lamers […] “The text presents Mussolini as a kind of new Roman emperor, but also, by using biblical language, as the saviour of the Italian people.” “The text wasn’t meant for contemporaries at the time,” Dr Reitz-Joosse […] told the BBC. “The obelisk was a major spectacle but the existence of the text wasn’t reported at all. It was meant for an audience in the remote future.”

That adds a fascinating twist to Italian Fascism’s ‘cult of Romanità’ that was so prevalent under Mussolini’s rule; an attempt to juxtapose Ancient Rome with Fascist Italy as bearers of a ‘new civilisation’. Books by Paul Baxa and Aristotle Kallis, amongst other recent scholarship, have examined how Rome acted as the focal point for archaeological projects of reclamation and modern(ist) renovation under Italian Fascism. This was intimately linked to the idea of ‘bonifica’ in Fascist Italy, understood by Ruth Ben-Ghiat as “a comprehensive project to combat degeneration and radically renew Italian society by “pulling up the bad weeds and cleaning up the soil.”’ The irony here is that, were it not for library holdings of the draft text, the Mussolini obelisk itself would have to be knocked over and subsequently examined in order to actually see the Latin inscription – an admittance of defeat, surely.

But Romanità was always more about the ‘myth of Rome’ than the actually existing ‘Eternal City’. Perhaps that is why the grandiose redevelopment of central Rome was never – could never? – be completed. For the Mussolini obelisk (still standing in the Foro Italico sporting complex, itself formerly the Foro Mussolini) was but a part of a wider Fascist project, unveiled with much fanfare in Autumn 1932, which ‘visibly created a modern broad road linking the Colosseo and the Piazza Venezia, the site of the Palazzo Venezia, from which Mussolini governed and from whose balcony he made speeches’ (126). In devoting several pages to the via dell’Impero (133ff), Catherine Paul’s Fascist Directive: Ezra Pound and Italian Cultural Nationalism (Clemson, 2016) draws upon literature in the field of Fascist studies, describing the monument as a prime example of initiatives toward fascistizing cultural heritage ‘as a kind of lay religion of the state’ (40) that drew the American poet Ezra Pound to Fascism.

Remaking the old for a new audience, or advocating a newness that draws upon a classical heritage, is itself quintessentially ‘modernist’; at least, according to Pound, perhaps the movement’s greatest activist. Even his slogan ‘make it new’, oftentimes used as shorthand for artistic modernism, was appropriated from a 18th century Chinese emperor’s bathtub. For Paul as for many other scholars, the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista [Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution], also part of the Decennio celebrations – and visited by 3.8 million people in late 1932 – is paradigmatic: imposing neo-classical rooms glorifying Fascism’s conquest of Italy, yet with modernist installations by Adalberto Libera and Mario Sironi and even a Sacrarium for fallen Fascist martyrs. Pound was much moved by what he saw of the Decennio during Christmastime 1932 – doubtless including the Mussolini obelisk – subsequently mentioning it a handful of times in his voluminous poetry and prose across the 1930s. By the end of the next month, having met Mussolini (for the only time) on 30 Jan. 1933, Pound was converted to Fascism’s political faith, and spent the ensuing fortnight writing the astonishing conjunction, Jefferson and/or Mussolini, published in 1935 after scores of rejection letters.

Fascist Directive, moreover, is absolutely right to zero in on Pound’s engagement with Italian cultural heritage as a key driver for his drift toward Fascism. The subject remains largely non grata in Pound Studies, all too often engaged in what Paul calls the ‘mental gymnastics’ (245) of apologia or exculpation for Pound’s descent into some of the vilest radio propaganda heard from the wartime Axis. Most regrettably, this thorny topic is skipped over in this book, which moves from 1938 to a final chapter entitled ‘Propaganda Art’ – picking up in 1945, when Pound was under indictment for treason in the U.S. and at the same time composing his award-winning sequence, The Pisan Cantos. Far from an acknowledgement that his genocidal anti-Semitism and untarnished faith in the Axis were morally and politically disastrous for both him and his audience, Paul sees in the Pisan Cantos ‘an insistence on the survival of the Fascist dream’ (252), and dogged praise of ‘the ability of Fascism’s cultural methods to survive Mussolini’s death’ (258). This supports her larger contention in Fascist Directive: ‘It was largely through his confrontation with Mussolini’s Fascist modernism that Pound’s own version of modernism was transformed.’ (256)

Paul dates this confrontation to 1932; less to the Decennio’s effects than six months earlier, with the publication of Pound’s edition Guido Cavalcanti Rime: ‘By diving into Italy’s cultural heritage, and emerging with Cavalcanti in his teeth, Pound would offer to modern Italy pieces of its past that could well serve its present.’ Indeed, Paul argues that, living as he had in Italy since 1924, ‘a nation that, en masse, was looking to its cultural heritage as a means of enlivening its modernity must have seemed like a dream.’ Aside from the unnecessary imputation of ex-post facto perception – an intrusion that emerges from time to time – the argumentation is consistently focussed and well-evidenced. After a necessary contextualising overview, Paul makes a convincing case that Pound’s Cavalcanti book became ‘one of Pound’s earliest contributions to the Fascist cultural projects in Italy’ (80)

Shortly afterward, Pound played a central role in the Vivaldi revival from his home in Rapallo; his mistress Olga Rudge, for one, identified fully 308 previously unknown instrumental works (175). Together they publicized Vivaldi’s work in a series of concerts and publications in the later 1930s. Thanks partly to these efforts, some 770 Vivaldi works are now known today, in contrast to 100 in Pound and Rudge’s day. This is further proof for Paul that interwar Pound’s aim was ‘to act as a Fascist cultural administrator’ (160), to become part of the Fascist Gerarchia of elites and ideologues that, as he intuited, his nationality likely precluded. Yet his radio speeches during World War Two, 110 of which were collected by Leonard Doob and still have not been properly faced by Pound Studies, made up for Pound’s spurred advances to ‘Who’s Who of the Italian Fascist hierarchy’ with whom he was in correspondence (144; Paul names Mussollini, Pellizzi, Sarfatti, Monotti, Bottai and Farinacci, amongst many more). He even managed to get some of his Vivaldi ‘reclamations’ onto Radio Rome in 1942 – after being suitably nationalised, of course: You will now hear one of the songs of our people followed by Ezra Pound, and Vivaldi’s “Gloria” as conducted by Maestro Alfredo Casella in Turin.’ Grist enough, perhaps, for a subsequent study taking these combative issues into the no-man’s-land of WWII, even if this knowledgeable, wide-ranging, and well-developed study is welcome enough as it is – especially for Pound Studies, but with an interdisciplinary value far beyond it.

Dr Matthew Feldman is Director at CARR, and a specialist on fascist ideology and the far-right in Europe and the USA. See his profile at:

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