A Fascist figure of eight: place, Fascism and the Mille Miglia

THURSDAY 13 JUNE 17.30–19.30

Paul Baxa (Ave Maria University)

 

Every May, in the northern city of Brescia, automobile enthusiasts participate in a historic recreation of the Mille Miglia; an event that covers roughly 1600 km from Brescia to Rome and back to Brescia.  Starting from the Fascist-era Piazza Vittoria, vintage car owners retrace much of the original route of the race in a three-day rally cheered on by thousands of people along the roads.  It’s a festive event, designed not only to commemorate one of Italy’s greatest motor races, but also to celebrate Italy and Italian culture.  For three days, immaculately restored racing cars, sometimes driven by celebrities, take to the roads of Tuscany and Umbria and make detours through old villages and towns illuminating the style, culture, and landscape of the Bel Paese.  It is also an event infused with nostalgia for a lost age of motoring and racing heroes and an opportunity to admire the great marques that have participated in the race like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, MG, and Mercedes Benz among others.

The original race was run from 1927 to 1957 spanning the Fascist and First Republican eras of Italian history.  It accompanied Italy’s industrialization and modernization and was always held up as an example of Italian technology and ingenuity.  Generally ignored are the Fascist origins of the race.  The numerous books on the Mille Miglia and a recent documentary by George Selkirk are examples of this elision.  This is surprising considering the regime’s predilection for motor sport and its support for the race.  The few scholars who have published on motorsport in Fascist Italy, such as Daniele Marchesini and Enrico Azzini, have downplayed the Fascist influence on the sport, noting the regime’s strong support for it but also recognizing that state support never reached the scale of Nazi Germany.  Iconic racing events like the Mille Miglia or the Targa Florio are seen as products of local motorsport enthusiasts working through the automobile clubs and having little to do with the regime.  This is demonstrated by the fact that these events, and the clubs that sponsored them, would outlive Fascism.

My paper will argue that the Mille Miglia was, in fact, a Fascist-era artifact that carried with it Fascist assumptions and aims.  It was not only a mirror of Fascist aspirations, but also an instrument for reimagining the Italian landscape in a Fascist key.  This was done primarily through the “figure of eight” shape of the course covering half of the Italian peninsula.  This itinerary, which was modified but never lost its essential shape, became iconic and fixed in the popular imagination.  While the rules changed often, the races geography remained the same.  The Mille Miglia’s route served to reimagine Italy in three ways.  Firstly, the mapping of the race was designed to create a speedway linking Brescia-Rome-Brescia to be completed in the fastest possible time.  This entailed high speed race cars racing through towns and roads occupied by spectators and normal traffic. In short, half of Italy was transformed into an autodrome.  Secondly, the iconography of the race found in posters, magazines, and on the route emphasized the Fascist re-visioning of Italy as a landscape of tradition and modernity mediated through speed and technology.  Finally, this hybridization of modernism and traditionalism was produced through the framing of sites by photographs and narratives of the race found in contemporary accounts.  The myth of the Mille Miglia, re-produced in the present-day revival race, was forged through a Fascist synthesis of Futurism and Populism found in the open-road format of the race.  The race was designed to demonstrate the “rebirth” of Italy under Fascism, a language that was revived after World War II when the Mille Miglia was used to show the “rebirth” of Italy under the First Republic.  The Mille Miglia transformed Italian space into place and conformed to an image of an Italy that was constantly being reborn.

In examining the spatial impact of the Mille Miglia, this paper will touch upon three areas of scholarship.  One is the ongoing debate on the nature of Italian Fascism, the second concerns a return of the idea of place in cultural geography, and the third concerns the place of sport in Fascist Italy.  In recent years, a group of scholars led by Roger Griffin has argued that Fascism was a revolutionary movement aimed at national rebirth through a distinctly modernist cultural paradigm.  My paper suggests that this myth of rebirth, or “palingenesis”, is inscribed into events like the Mille Miglia.  The race presented a modernist reimagining of the Italian landscape through the agency of sports cars, drivers, and spectators.  I will show that this process of reimagining the Italian landscape involved the integration of familiar landmarks with modern, Fascist spaces.

The mapping of the Mille Miglia and its iconic figure-of-eight layout became mythical in its own right and a vehicle for the re-envisioning of Italian space.  Drawing from some recent work on cultural geography, it can be argued that the Mille Miglia’s route created a new “sense of place” shaped by process and movement, and not stasis.  In his study of sporting landscapes, John Bale has identified place as one of several possible landscapes produced by sport.  Even though “landscapes of speed” such as a racing track usually produce a sense of “placelessness”, they too can generate a “sense of place.”  The Mille Miglia is an illustration of Bale’s paradoxical landscape of speed and place. The event was run on public roads leaving little physical trace of its passages through the towns and cities of half of Italy.  Yet, the relative consistency of the course over the years created a definite sense of place, one that was intimately connected to Fascism’s reimagining of Italy.

Finally, this paper will also engage the subject of sport under Fascism. This topic, which has a rich scholarship in Italian, has recently found a fresh injection of interest from English-language scholars like Simon Martin and John Foot.  This new interest in sport in Fascist Italy has raised the issue of the imprint left on sport by Fascist ideology.  While it’s true that sport became a mass phenomenon under the regime, the general consensus is that Fascism had little real impact on sports and that its relationship to sport was that of a parasite latching onto sport for propaganda value more than anything else.  While this argument has some merit, I argue that an exception needs to be made for the Mille Miglia as this was an event inscribed with a Fascist DNA that is currently hidden beneath the nostalgia of the present-day revival.

 

MODERN ITALIAN HISTORY SEMINAR SERIES