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Art and Colonialism: the “Overseas Lands” in the History of Italian Painting (1934-1940)

Giuliana Tomasella


When did Fascism recognize the propaganda potential of art in the construction of colonial imagery? What were the strategies through which art was put at the service of Mussolini’s expansionist policy? The article will try to answer these questions, analyzing the instrumental use of Italian art history in the two major colonial exhibitions held in Naples in 1934-1935 and 1940, where for the first time specific sections dedicated to Old Masters were organized. In this phase, we can see the progressive development of the propaganda strategy, which gradually antedated the evidence of Italian expansion beyond its peninsula in a manipulative manner, leading to the “invention of tradition”. Old Masters’ artworks were thus seen as proof of Italy’s longstanding vocation for expansion into “Overseas Lands”. Paradoxically, however, the more the role of art grew within these exhibitions, permeating the general set up, the less important became the relief of individual works of art. These were reduced to mere tesserae of a larger mosaic, whose meaning arose from its whole.