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Mussolini and the Royal Academy: a 90-year-old controversy

Published 21 April 2020

In 1930, the greatest works of the Italian Renaissance drew half a million visitors to the Academy. But there was a darker, political undercurrent to this blockbuster show, explains Katherine Jane Alexander…

  • From the Spring 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA. Katherine Jane Alexander is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Dazed, Another and Little White Lies.

    The very first day of the 1930s saw the opening of an exhibition at the Royal Academy that would become one of the most popular shows in its history – but also one of its most controversial. On 1 January, the Exhibition of Italian Art, 1200-1900 went on display at Burlington House; originally scheduled to run until 8 March, the show proved so successful that it was extended for another 12 days. The galleries were adorned with more than 900 works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Piero, Bernini, Duccio, Mantegna and many others, and included such dazzling examples as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Giorgione’s Tempest and Donatello’s David – works that would be impossible to borrow today. The exhibition was attended by almost 540,000 people, and it ranks as the fourth most visited show in the RA’s 251-year history.

    But there was a more problematic story behind the outward success of the show. Examining the opening pages of the official exhibition catalogue gives an indication of the reason: at the head of the list of the show’s Honorary Presidents is the name Benito Mussolini, who had been Prime Minister of Italy for the previous eight years, and who had led the Fascist Party since 1919. By 1930 “Il Duce” had turned Italy into a police state and removed all forms of democracy and free speech. So how did the Italian dictator come to be involved in this show?

    • The idea for the exhibition had originated in 1927 from Ivy Chamberlain, an Italian art enthusiast and wife of then-Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain. As discussed by Francis Haskell in a 1999 article for The Burlington Magazine, both Chamberlains were already on friendly terms with Mussolini, and Haskell estimated from reading Ivy’s correspondence that she had most likely contacted Mussolini first to discuss the prospect of Italian artworks being loaned for the show, before approaching the Royal Academy to propose it as the venue. Negotiations between the RA and a committee headed by Ivy took some time, but eventually the Academy agreed to host the show, having had success with their previous international art exhibitions.

      Mussolini saw the exhibition as an opportunity to promote Italian power abroad: the wealth of Italy’s artistic accomplishments would ennoble his own regime by association. He was also keen to improve his international reputation, which had been shaken by accusations that he had been directly involved in the 1924 murder of Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist politician and critic of the Fascist regime. Mussolini’s role in organising the exhibition was heavily emphasised by the Italian ambassador, who tried to claim that without the autocrat’s involvement none of the paintings could have left Italy. Mention was also made that Mussolini had personally chosen a ship, named Leonardo da Vinci, to take the artworks from Genoa to London.

      Arthur Fischer, Benito Mussolini

      Arthur Fischer, Benito Mussolini, 1934.

      Oil on canvas. 81.9 x 61.5 cm. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 7283).

  • When ‘Signor Mussolini’ was mentioned in the Press, it was usually to talk about his kindness and friendship towards the British government.

    Ilaria Scaglia, Aston University

  • The prospect of the exhibition was not welcomed by everyone. While many were keen to see the Italian treasures, there were concerns the works might be damaged in transit, especially as all were being transported on one ship in the middle of winter. Some, including the art historian Bernard Berenson, also identified Mussolini’s ambition to promote Fascism through the exhibition, although media coverage of the show made relatively little mention of that. “The adjective ‘Fascist’ or the term ‘dictatorship’ rarely showed up in contemporary references to the Italian government,” says Ilaria Scaglia of Aston University, who has researched the exhibition. “When ‘Signor Mussolini’ was mentioned in the Press, it was usually to talk about his kindness and friendship towards the British government.”

    The works sourced from galleries and private owners in Italy – around half of the exhibits – arrived on the Leonardo da Vinci on 20 December, 12 days before the exhibition was due to open. The remainder came from various institutions in the UK, in Europe and the US. A correspondent for the Yorkshire Post reported that at the private view, “the stairs were so thick with humanity that it took 20 minutes to get in or out”, and noted that the most popular work on display seemed to be The Birth of Venus. When the exhibition opened to the public, it was a major hit, as the visitor figures showed.

    Most of the Press reaction at the time was also very positive. However, in retrospect the show would be viewed with greater unease: Kenneth Clark, who as a member of the British Executive Committee for the show was closely involved in organising the event, would later express regrets that the show was part of Mussolini’s agenda, describing the exhibition in his 1974 autobiography as “infamous” and “basically a piece of Fascist propaganda”. In a 2019 article for The Art Bulletin, Andrée Hayum notes that when Chamberlain published his memoirs in 1935, two years before his death, he never mentions Mussolini’s name in any context in relation to the exhibition, suggesting even he was no longer comfortable with the dictator’s involvement. Today, the show, which is regarded as one of the RA’s earliest ‘blockbusters’, stands as an illustration of the way politicians can attempt to harness art for their own ends.

    Katherine Jane Alexander is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Dazed, Another and Little White Lies.


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