Cassandra Burns: Italian Futurism and Fascism

The Language of Il Duce’s Nation: Youth and War Rhetoric in Italian Futurism and Fascism

Cassandra Burns

Fascism is a religion. The twentieth century will be known in history as the history of Fascism.
-Benito Mussolini


History considers Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), the creator of Italian Fascism, among the world’s most brutal dictators. Pragmatism characterized Mussolini’s style of governing. For instance, he used propaganda to turn his Fascist Party and even himself into a sort of religious cult to inspire the loyalty of the Italian people. Additionally, he repeatedly used rhetoric referencing youth and warfare to inspire nationalism and glorify the state.

Often considered a youth regime, Mussolini’s Fascist rhetoric was not new to Italy, but rather had its origins in earlier movements. In the early twentieth century, following Italian unification, new intellectual movements such as Futurism emerged, particularly among young people. Spurred by disillusionment with the liberal Italian state, these intellectual movements developed what would become Mussolini’s rhetoric to inspire action to overthrow the old, corrupt elite and create a new world order. Futurism and other youth movements contained the seeds of Fascism. Although Mussolini ultimately split with the Futurists for pragmatic reasons, he continued to use Futurist rhetoric in order to gain and maintain power.

Territorial Unification and Trasformismo

The political and economic situation in Italy throughout the nineteenth century brought about the Risorgimento, the political movement that began in the early 1800s and ended with the completion of Italian unification in 1870 and the emergence of the liberal state. By the end of the 1700s, there was social disparity between northern and southern Italy and between Italy and the rest of Europe. Areas of the North became more industrialized as well as agriculturally efficient, while areas of the South lacked many advanced industries, such as railroads. The divide between Italy and Europe in addition to within Italy itself “made the introduction of liberalism into the peninsula seem, to some at least, more pressing than ever,” as many considered a constitutional government both “an antidote to social revolution” as well as the “best guarantee of prosperity.”[1] However, the definition of liberalism differed in the North and in the South. Right-wing liberals consisted of mostly northern educated entrepreneurial landowners and manufacturers who believed “that the state should act merely to facilitate and safeguard the activities of the industrious.”[2] The left-wing liberals, on the other hand, consisted of southerners who believed that liberalism and freedom were “‘built’ through strong state action.”[3] Additionally to a divide between North and South, Italy had been under the influence of foreign powers since the French Revolution of 1789. Initially governed by France, Austria replaced France as the dominant power in Italy after the 1814 Congress of Vienna. The industrial divide along with the resentment of foreign influence created the desire for an independent Italian nation-state.

By 1849, only the Italian state of Piedmont retained its own constitution under its new king, Victor Emmanuel II (1820-1878), a prime minister, and a parliament. One of the leaders of the movement for independence and a right-wing liberal, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour (1810-1861), pitted Austrian interests against French interests, which resulted in a war between the two powers in 1859. While the war did not go as Cavour planned,[4] it resulted in the expansion of the Kingdom of Piedmont. Opposed to Cavour and disgusted by his failed deal with France that promised to give away Nice and Savoy was left-wing liberal Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), a general and politician born in Nice and a staunch supporter of Italian unity. He criticized Cavour’s deal with the French as being opposed to Italian unification, and attempted to finish the process of unification himself with the help of King Emmanuel II. With the help of only about a thousand followers, Garibaldi liberated the South, leaving everywhere but the Papal States under the Italian name. Cavour, who wished to retain political authority while preventing foreign intervention from the French, occupied the Papal States for Italy before Garibaldi, tricking Napoleon III by telling him that he had to invade them to prevent Garibaldi from taking Rome from the French. In doing so, Cavour completed Italian unification, leaving only Rome in the hands of the French.

Because of the ancient Roman Empire’s importance and centrality in Italy’s history, those who desired unification viewed the seizure of Rome as the final goal for unification that could call upon past glory and give the country a national identity. During summer 1870, Napoleon III withdrew his forces, which had occupied Rome since 1859 to support the French armies in their war against Prussia. Their withdrawal left Rome open to Italian troops, which occupied the city on the 20th of September. Disillusionment with the new Italian government began as early as the seizure of Rome and the foundation of the liberal state in the form of a constitutional monarchy. For Italian patriots, the acquisition of Rome “was a symbol of moral regeneration, pregnant with the idea of mission and responsibility . . . the ‘Third Rome’, that of ‘the people’, would arise and convey to the oppressed the gospel of liberation and peace.”[5] The public had high expectations for the new parliamentary government to promote morality and create a new order. However, even the acquisition of Rome left many who had imagined a glorious “march on Rome” feeling overshadowed by German unification in 1871 and disappointed “at the lack of idealism and ‘poetry’ in the new Italy.”[6] Under popular pressure to achieve lofty goals, the completion of Italian unification left the new government unsure of what to do next. For the better part of a century during the Risorgimento the Italian government’s overarching desire had been to complete unification and establish a liberal state. The completion of unification then left the government without a clear agenda or well-defined idea of liberalism, which took the form of a constitutional monarchy under King Victor Emmanuel, a parliament, and a prime minister.

Growing social problems, prevalent especially in the impoverished and agricultural-based south, increased dissatisfaction with the right-wing government. Prior to 1870, the desire for national unity masked Italy’s social problems, but with the goal of unification achieved, these problems came to the forefront of politics. In the 1870s, about 60 percent of Italy’s population relied directly on agriculture, with much of the rural population living in extreme poverty. Other problems included “the corruption of local government, the prevalence of private violence. . . the excessive taxation of the poor, the shortage of smallholders and the concentration of property in the hands of great landowners . . . the primitive nature of farming methods, the absence of roads, the chronic indebtedness of the peasantry, and the shortage of credit facilities,”[7] to name a few. Italians hoped that unification and liberalism would foster booms in both the agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy. However, the Right focused primarily on the country’s debts. While Italy did experience some improvements in agriculture and industry, the economic situations of many remained perilous. Economic difficulties added to a general feeling of discontentment with the Right, leaving the country desperate for a change in parliamentary leadership.

Despite a shift in political leadership to the Left in 1876, no radical change occurred; however, new political patterns arose which led the country away from liberal government and toward authoritative leadership. In March 1876, the Left defeated the Right in parliament and Agostino Depretis assumed the role of prime minister from March 1876 until March 1878, December 1878 until July 1879, and then uninterrupted from May 1881 until July 1887. Much to the dismay of many Italians, this parliamentary “revolution” initiated no extreme break from the past. The Left had no firm political program, and increasingly the line between Right and Left became blurred. In fact, following the elections of 1882, which occurred after a new electoral law enfranchised over two million Italians[8] and during which one socialist won a seat in parliament, Depretis himself moved to the Right. His rightward move began trasformismo, “the practice of forming alliances in parliament, almost regardless of political ideology, in order to guarantee a government majority.”[9] Depretis created a centrist coalition in order to avoid radical change from the far Left and Right of politics, and while trasformismo “was not necessarily deleterious . . . . [I]t fed into the increasingly heated debates that were taking place in the 1880s about the supposed malfunction of the Italian parliamentary system. It became a term of abuse, synonymous for opportunism and corruption.”[10] In the eyes of the Italian people, trasformismo negated the need for a two-party democratic system or a participatory public sphere, allowing the old elites to retain all their political power and keeping the old social structure intact. As a result of the lack of change, many began to desire assertive leadership instead of the flawed parliamentary system.

The Politics of Francesco Crispi

Francesco Crispi (from Wikimedia Commons)
Francesco Crispi (from Wikimedia Commons)

An authoritative leader and opponent of trasformismo, Francesco Crispi (1819-1901) assumed the role of prime minister following Depretis’ death. Crispi held office from 1887 until 1891 and again from 1893 until 1896, initiating several trends in government leadership that continued into the twentieth century. Due to the lack of a shared history before unification in 1870, Crispi emphasized the need to nationalize the masses and “make Italians.” To achieve nationalization and instill in Italians a moral unity, “he looked to mobilize the nation through war,”[11] and glorified the archetypal young man who became a soldier and fought and died for the sake of his country. A glorious, victorious war would presumably inspire patriotism among the public, compensate for the lack of splendor in the 1870 acquisition of Rome, and arouse emotional attachment to government institutions. Intellectuals in the twentieth century would later glorify war for similar reasons, but in a more extreme way.

Crispi also paved the way for an authoritarian dictatorship in Italy. Given the Italian tendency toward authoritarianism, continued in modern times by Cavour[12] and Garibaldi,[13] tradition implied that “recourse to dictatorship was acceptable if ‘the nation’ were in danger.”[14] In view of the turbulent social and political conditions, many accepted a shift toward authoritarianism in order to pull the nation together. Crispi also promoted the idea of a “man of genius,” “[t]he idea of a great man who could alter the course of world events.”[15] The “man of genius” particularly appealed to young writers and intellectuals, who looked to Crispi as one who had the virility and energy to act as the “man of genius” and give the Italians not just territorial unity, but moral and national unity. Crispi’s domination of politics paved the way not only for a dictatorship—which Mussolini would establish in 1925—but also for the cult of Il Duce in Italy.

Though Crispi’s leadership had lasting effects, the crisis of the 1890s reinforced the sense of disillusionment with the government, and many began to call for a real revolution. Throughout the 1880s, several banks illegally printed money to avoid bankruptcy and paid prominent officials and politicians to ignore their illegal activities. Along with the king himself, Crispi was implicated in the Banca Romana scandal in 1894. Additionally, in March 1896 Crispi launched an attack in the Ethiopian town of Adowa with hopes of the glorious victory he had longed for throughout his political career. In the midst of the colonization of Africa by imperial Germany and other European powers, Italy signed the 1889 Treaty of Uccialli with the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik, which “allowed Italy to occupy additional territory and to proclaim the official foundation of the colony of Eritrea in 1890.”[16] Italy overreached the agreement of the treaty and claimed that the treaty established a protectorate over the entirety of Ethiopia, which caused Emperor Melenik to renounce the treaty in 1893. Over 5,000 Italian soldiers died in the ensuing Battle of Adowa in March 1896. These two events and an economic recession led to Crispi’s downfall, which left the political field open for extremes, especially Socialists, to call for a revolution.

The Giolittian Era

Giovanni Giolitti (from Wikimedia Commons)
Giovanni Giolitti (from Wikimedia Commons)

Giovanni Giolitti (1842-1948) attempted to stabilize parliamentary government through industrial modernization to elevate the standard of living rather than through nationalism and enthusiasm. Giolitti dominated Italian politics from 1901 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, a time period often referred to as the Giolittian Era. During the first decade of the twentieth century under Giolitti, Italy experienced an economic boom accompanied by a dramatic growth in Italian industry. Giolitti adopted reforms to increase the standard of living in order to “undermine socialism, alleviate violent confrontation in the workplace, and, for those reasons, win the political support of businessmen and moderate conservatives.”[17] Giolitti’s rather pragmatic political program focused on political stability rather than the idealist task of creating a national identity through war. Despite economic growth, increased urbanization, and modernization, Italy remained a predominantly rural society. By 1911, approximately 59 percent of the workforce still depended on agriculture.[18] Those in the South, “which scarcely felt the impact of the Giolittian boom, continued to live close to the margins of subsistence.”[19] Though many did experience an increase in the standard of living, Giolitti’s failure to significantly improve the social situation for all Italians and his failure to address the Southern question cast a shadow over his politics and did not inspire any public faith in the government.

Despite Italy’s economic advancement, Giolitti’s pursuit of trasformismo caused public dissatisfaction with and opposition to his government. To the dismay of employers and members of the extreme Right, he collaborated with certain members of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) who viewed industrialization as a prerequisite for a socialist revolution. However, within itself the PSI was divided between reform socialists who generally supported Giolitti and militant revolutionaries, who emphasized “will, intuition, violence, and myth,”[20] one of whom was Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). Though Giolitti made compromises with the Socialists and passed labor reform laws, the “killing of strikers or demonstrators by police gave the revolutionary factions in the Socialist Party an important argument against the reformists’ policy of cooperation.”[21] For instance, in 1921 Giolitti allowed unions of rural laborers to strike, which resulted in strikes by over 200,000 rural workers compared to only 2,000 workers in 1899. However, the police maintained a firm hand in the intervention and crushing of these strikes.[22] At the 1912 PSI party congress, the reformists lost their majority to the revolutionaries. Giolitti’s failure to bring the Socialists to a consensus further polarized politics, leaving Giolitti and his government open to criticism, especially from extremist groups on the Right, including Nationalists and Futurists.

The Futurist Movement

Disillusionment with the Italian government became especially prominent during the beginning of the twentieth century. During this time new intellectual movements arose, especially among young people. These new intellectual movements were the direct precursors to Futurism and Fascism. One of the early influences of these new intellectual movements was the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce (1866-1952). Croce hoped for the creation of a single national identity and political consciousness promised by the Risorgimento, and recognized that “all the great animating ideals seemed to have been drained from Italian life”[23] in the era after unification. He rejected the religion of the Church and Marxist materialism that both, he argued, failed to address natural human spirituality. Rather, he favored a “spiritual dimension of unification,”[24] or a “lay religion,” that could connect creative human impulses with a shared political consciousness. He argued that this lay religion would become “the successor to traditional Christianity in a post-papal Italy that [would] give ‘meaning not only to ordinary life but also to politics.”[25] Croce’s 1902 work, the Aesthetic, focused on this philosophical idealism and “was devoted to defending art as the ‘pure expression’ of artistic ‘intuition,’”[26] a way for human beings to create their own reality and share an identity as well as a political consciousness. The connection between art and philosophical idealism as well as political thought clearly influenced Futurism throughout the twentieth century. Croce’s philosophical idealism inspired the young generation of Italy, who admired Croce’s Aesthetic, as they began to publish their own thoughts in periodicals as a response. Though Croce eventually opposed Mussolini and Fascism,[27] his philosophical thought contained ideas that developed into Futurism and Fascism.

Inspired by Croce’s work, two young men, Giovanni Papini (1881-1956) and Giuseppe Prezzolini (1882-1982), emerged as the most prominent leaders of the period’s young intellectuals. Papini and Prezzolini helped launch several publications such as Leonardo,[28] La Voce, and Lacerba, intended to educate an elite group in the younger generation. In these publications, Papini and Prezzolini began to use rhetoric that focused on youth in order to target “the mediocrity of Italian intellectual life”[29] as well as Giolitti’s liberal government. For instance, in the first issue of Leonardo Papini and Prezzolini “identified the editorial staff as a group of young men gathered in Florence, ‘desirous of liberation, wanting universality, and longing after a superior intellectual life.’”[30] The intellectual publications of the early twentieth century often promoted ideas, reminiscent of Crispi’s politics, which during his rise to power Mussolini would later adopt into the Fascist political program. For example, Prezzolini “announced the advent of the ‘Man-God,’”[31] similar to Crispi’s “man of genius,” and Papini preached that philosophy “should embark upon the conquest of the world,”[32] through warfare if necessary. Above all, Papini, Prezzolini, and their contemporaries wanted to regenerate Italy and move it away from the corruption of old Europe. Many of these young intellectuals then carried their ideas directly into the Futurist movement, from which Mussolini’s Fascism developed much of its content.

The Futurist movement radically glorified youth and warfare in order to dispose of outdated traditions and create a new order. Characterized by “militarism, colonialism, and nationalism” as well as a “relentless emphasis on speed or dynamism” and a “commitment to industrialism against ruralism, modernity against backwardness, the future against the past, the transient against the permanent,”[33] Futurism made use of strong rhetoric in order to stir the people into action. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), the father of Futurism, made clear use of the rhetoric of youthful vigor and violence in the movement’s founding documents, published on the front page of the prestigious French newspaper, Le Figaro, on 20 February 1909.[34] In it, he repeatedly called for war and violence:

We want to glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gestures of freedoms, the beautiful ideas for which one dies . . . . And from Italy, that we launch through the world this our manifesto of overwhelming and incendiary violence, with which we found today Futurism, because we want to liberate this country from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, cicerones, and antiquaries.[35]

In venerating the vigor and energy of youth, Marinetti also disparaged the old traditions of Europe:

To admire an old painting is equivalent to pouring our sensibility in a funerary urn, instead of hurtling away, in violent jets of creation and action. . . . The oldest among us, are thirty years old: there remains at least a decade, to complete our work. When we are forty years old, other men younger and stronger than us, throw us in the wastebasket, like useless manuscripts. We desire it![36]

Futurist art captured these themes of youth and violence, and depicted objects such as the car, the airplane, and other industrial items. Marinetti’s Futurism merged politics with art in order to create an Italy of the future that “meant youth, speed, the beauty of the motorcar and the aeroplane.”[37] These themes and the Futurist world view appealed to young people who “desire[d] to be part of a community, and yet to retain their individual identity”[38] in order to throw off the outdated and immoral politics of the Giolittian era.

The publications of young intellectuals as well as the manifestos and artwork of Futurism encouraged more people to oppose Giolitti’s government. However, while these intellectuals criticized the liberal government, they lacked firm goals and were “initially intemperate, and clearer as to what they loathed than as to what they wanted.”[39] Despite an initial lack of a political program, Futurism contained many seeds of the origins of Fascism. As Mussolini rose to power, his rhetorical approach, emphasizing youth and violence, closely resembled Marinetti’s.

Mussolini, born in 1883 to a poor family in Dovia, shared many similarities throughout his early years with the young intellectuals and Futurists. Though a Socialist until 1914, a party which the Futurists and young intellectuals staunchly rejected, Mussolini too perceived a “constricting cultural atmosphere in Italy” and believed that Italy needed a “new aristocracy.”[40] He even wrote to Prezzolini in July 1912, two years before his split with the Socialist Party, and stated that “he felt ‘exiled’ from his fellow socialists . . . and he wondered if La Voce might have space for his ‘efforts at revisionism in a revolutionary sense.’”[41] Though a Socialist by name, Mussolini clearly did not follow a strict Socialist program and identified with the young intellectuals early in his political career. As World War I broke out, Mussolini, the Futurists, young intellectuals, and Nationalists perceived the opportunity to act on their call for a revolution through warfare and united into a movement advocating intervention.

Interventionism and World War I

The onset of World War I and the case for interventionism definitively united Mussolini with the intellectual youth movements. When war began in August 1914, Italy initially opted not to intervene and instead remained neutral despite its alliance with Germany in the 1880s. However, by September, a coalition of groups from both the right and left began to call for intervention based on the idea that “the war offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to destroy the Giolittian regime, to throw off the fetters of bourgeois existence, and to open the way toward some ill-defined but radically different future.”[42] The interventionist coalition included parts of the PSI—to which Mussolini initially belonged—as well as Futurists, Nationalists, and other intellectuals. Among these groups, “the noisiest and most active groups were those who claimed to represent ‘Italian youth’ and the ‘younger generation.’”[43] The interventionists clearly shared with the Futurists the same rhetoric that glorified youth and war. Moreover, the interventionists saw World War I as the opportunity for war to prove itself as “the world’s only hygiene” and cleanse Italy of the old generation. Young people wanted to seize their chance to shape the character of new Italy. One young Italian who would later die in the war wrote in his diary: “This is the hour of the courageous and the strong; this is the hour of the triumph of the most worthy values; this is the hour of youth, since the new age belongs to the young men who are maturing; our age, our tomorrow—we ourselves want to create it.”[44] Young people who desired glory and heroics saw the war as a revolutionary symbol of the overthrow of the Giolittian government and were willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Despite the vocal interventionist movement, they only constituted a minority of the Italian population, a fact that demonstrates the power of the strong rhetoric of the interventionists and later the Fascists.

The interventionist movement also freed Mussolini from his commitment to the PSI and left him open to create his own political party. Mussolini depicted himself as the leader of the interventionists within the PSI, as he “began to drag with [him] a fraction of the Socialists in favor of war.”[45] Though a minority of the PSI joined the interventionist movement with Mussolini, the majority remained neutral. As a result, the PSI removed Mussolini as editor of the Socialist publication Avanti and soon thereafter expelled him from the party. Once he officially severed his connection with the Socialist party, Mussolini declared that he “felt lighter, fresher. [He] was free! [He] was better prepared to fight [his] battles than when [he] was bound by the dogmas of any political organization.”[46] In his autobiography, he claimed to have “created the Fascisti—a group of daring youths who believed that intervention could be forced”[47] at this time, though he did not really launch the first pre-Fascist movement until March 1919 with the fasci di combattimento. Because of Mussolini’s pragmatism throughout his political career, perhaps Mussolini too saw the opportunity for war to overthrow the Giolittian government, creating a power vacuum for a new leader to fill with the help of support from the young members of the radical intellectual movements. This new leadership could presumably take credit for the victories of the war and praise the youth for their commitment to war and a new order, while blaming any failures on the reluctance and corruption of those who remained neutral and corrupted by the older generation. The claim in his autobiography that he created a group of fascisti as early as 1914 suggests he had planned on creating his own political party all along.

Following his split with the PSI, Mussolini’s rhetoric became clearly connected to the Futurists and other intellectual movements. In November 1914, in order to disseminate his current ideas about interventionism and any future political ideas, he founded the newspaper Popolo d’Italia. In the first issue, he styled himself as a soldier who needed to “resume—with another weapon—[his] place of combat,”[48] comparing his new publication to a new weapon designed to fight his battle for interventionism and political power. He asserted that “antiwar propaganda is the propaganda of cowardice.”[49] He then questioned if the people of Italy wanted “to drag [their] miserable existence of the day . . . blessed by the monarchical and bourgeois status quo” or if they wanted instead “to split the dull and murky team of intrigue and cowardice.”[50] He then called on the people to shout for war, “a word that he would never have pronounced in normal times, and that [he] raise[d] rather strong, out loud, without pretenses, with sure faith.”[51] Mussolini clearly shared the interventionist stance with the Futurists and other young intellectuals, using the same glorification of war as a method to break the status quo and overthrow the Giolittian government.

When Italy entered the war, the interventionists claimed it as a victory against the parliamentary government. Italy actually entered the war in May 1915 on the side of Britain and France as a result of a secret deal for territory made by the prime minister and the foreign secretary, consulting neither the king nor the army. The vocal intellectual minority, however, did help pressure the government into intervention, compared to the quiet majority that desired peace. Although the Allies won the war, the experience of the war “served to fragment the nation more than ever.”[52] Of the approximately 6 million Italian men who fought, about 600,000 died, 500,000 were left permanently disabled, and an additional one million were wounded.[53] Despite heavy loss of life and an economic crisis following the end of the war in November 1918, the victory “meant that a whole set of political and moral values acquired a new aura of legitimacy, and could mount a powerful challenge to Italy’s much battered liberal identity.”[54] The devastation of the war for all Italians produced popular disdain for the state, which could never regain authority following the losses of the war. There was disillusionment among the Italians for the failure of the government to make good on the promises of what Italy could achieve in the war. World War I therefore marked liberalism’s final downfall and allowed Mussolini to seize power in the political vacuum.

The Rise of Fascism

Following the war, in the midst of economic crisis and expectations for political change, Mussolini seized the opportunity to create a new political movement with himself as the indispensable leader. In December 1918 the government allowed universal male suffrage, an increase from the previous two million voters of a population of 28 million in 1882. With the advent of universal suffrage throughout the rest of Europe, the rise of mass politics changed the nature of politics. The victory of the United States, Britain, and France over Russia and imperial Germany and Austria appeared to reflect the victory of democracy and political participation over autocracy. The increased opportunity for mass participation in post-WWI Italy brought new groups into the electorate, thus increasing the attraction of Socialism. Mussolini, who had been removed from the Socialist Party in 1914, could not find followers among Socialists and other left-wing sympathizers. Additionally, groups of former soldiers, Futurists, and intellectuals promoted radical change but rejected Socialism. The threat of a Socialist takeover as well as the need for a solid political following prompted Mussolini, for opportunistic reasons, to move to the right and create the Fasci italiani di combattimento in March 1919. According to Prezzolini, Mussolini took the lead of the Fasci because of “his moral and physical superiority to all the others.”[55] Present at the meeting were representatives of the Fasci futuristi d’Italia, the Fascio futurista of Rome, and the Fascio futuristi of Florence, including Marinetti. At the creation of this movement, a clear connection existed between what would become Mussolini’s Fascism and the Futurists. The title of the Fasci di combattimento movement clearly evoked imagery of the war and combat as an appeal to young people. Indeed, the Fasci di combattimento “found its most enthusiastic adherents among young reserve officers from the professional and bureaucratic classes . . . who regarded the war idealistically and unrealistically as a ‘revolution’ against the established order.”[56] Though Mussolini’s movement initially suffered losses to the Socialists and the new Catholic Partito Popolare Italiano (PPI) in the November 1919 elections because the movement lacked numbers and a political program, the Fasci di combattimento movement provided the groundwork for the creation of the Fascist party in 1921.

As squadristi, squads composed of young men who had served in the war, reacted negatively to the policies of the PSI and what they called “Bolshevik tyranny,”[57] the movement became increasingly militant, acting from a “blind hatred of socialism and a love of violence.”[58] The military organization of the squadristi created “a climate of almost hysterical fear and nationalist exaltation”[59] in Italy in 1920 and 1921. This militant movement paved the way for Mussolini’s dictatorship, a police state based on the rhetoric of youth and militancy, as long as Mussolini could control his squadristi and maintain his leadership among them. To maintain his somewhat unstable power over the squadristi and put himself in a position of official authority, Mussolini created the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF) in October 1921.

The early years of Fascism demonstrate Mussolini’s pragmatic political considerations, as most of his actions served to increase his power. To those involved, Fascism itself represented a:

revolt of the middle classes, inspired by Nationalist and Conservative ideals, to range themselves against the pretensions of the proletarian classes and the ill-distributed fortunes of the capitalists; the revolt of a class disillusioned by a peace which had failed to realize in internal politics those rewards in which they had been led to put their trust, and which in foreign politics had failed to obtain for them what they considered their rights and dues.[60]

Fascism was a response to all the events that had disillusioned the Italian people during the early twentieth century. The party attracted “for the most part soldiers or ex-soldiers, ruffians enrolled without distinction from the slum areas” and “a strong force of young men inspired by fanaticism, ideals, romanticism, and a love of sport.”[61] Fascism became inextricably linked to youth and combat and, as a result, Futurism. Marinetti himself “claimed that Fascism was a fulfillment of Futurism—or at least of Futurism’s minimum program, which included, among other things, ‘the coming to power of youth against the parliamentary bureaucratic, academic, and pessimistic spirit.’”[62] However, though Mussolini depended on their support, he viewed the youth and veterans primarily as initial followers for the purpose of gaining power for himself. At first, Fascism lacked any political agenda because Mussolini emphasized his own importance and downplayed any sort of concrete ideology. Prezzolini recognized this characteristic of early Fascism when he noted, “the personality of the leader far outweighed the actual programme of the party in importance.”[63] Consequently, Mussolini was able to “walk a political tight-rope”[64] portraying himself as both subversive and appeasing to the established government. Ultimately, he rejected a distinct political program in favor of “a return to stability, order, and normality.”[65] Pragmatism and what seemed like Mussolini’s own form of trasformismo over radical ideology helped to solidify his position of authority, while simultaneously relying on the support of youth and veterans.

The Fascist and Futurist Split

Mussolini’s preference for pragmatism over radical ideology led to his split with Marinetti and the Futurists. From 1915 until 1919, Marinetti had a romantic vision of Mussolini, while Mussolini viewed Marinetti as a useful ally because of his cultural prominence. However, as Marinetti’s demands became more aggressive and radical, Mussolini moved away from Marinetti, viewing him as a hindrance to the political compromises Mussolini sought in the 1920s. The split within Fascism “was not one between different social programmes or conceptions, but one between the pragmatism of Mussolini, wishing to use Parliament and make alliances with the old parties, and the pursuit of integral intransigence.”[66] While Marinetti staunchly believed in the Futurist ideology and loathed the liberal government of Giolitti, Mussolini followed the political strategy that increased his power regardless of ideology.

Mussolini approached the question of the Catholic Church with the same political pragmatism. His reconciliation with the Church was central to the Fascist-Futurist split. Mussolini sought reconciliation with the Church because of its power and numbers – Mussolini knew that its support would both add numbers to his cause as well as lend credibility to his government. Marinetti wrote that on the 29th of May 1920, he and “other head Futurists left the Fasci di combattimento, not having been able to impose on the Fascist majority their antimonarchical and anticlerical tendency.”[67] The Futurists’ departure did not affect Mussolini’s policy nor did it encourage him to adopt a more radical political stance. Instead, he continued his policy of negotiation with both sides; he reconciled with the Church in order to secure “mass political consent”[68] so that by 1929 the Vatican became its own sovereign state and received compensation for the loss of its territories in the Italian enterprise of unification in 1860 and 1870. As in the case of his relations with the Church, Mussolini acted shrewdly and pragmatically in order to strengthen his power over the country.

Fascist Politics and Culture

Though the Fascists had split with the Futurists, Mussolini continued to use Futurist rhetoric about youthful energy and war to maintain support and an aura of revolution. In the 1909 founding documents of Futurism, Marinetti had stated that “the oldest among us, are thirty years old: there remains at least a decade, to complete our work. When we are forty years old, other men younger and stronger than us, throw us in the wastebasket, like useless manuscripts. We desire it!”[69] Mussolini certainly did not desire the younger, stronger generation to overthrow him, but Mussolini did use parts of the powerful Futurist rhetoric to his advantage. As time went on, Mussolini recognized that “the Fascist state of mind was beginning to appeal to larger sectors of the middle classes, especially to students too young to have served in the war.”[70] He emphasized youth over warfare, and “by the end of the twenties it had become a truism . . . that Fascism was a creation of the war generation and that Mussolini’s regime was a regime of youth.”[71] Several examples demonstrate Mussolini’s use of Futurist rhetoric, both before and after the Fascist split with the Futurist movement.

The Fascists subscribed to the Futurist idea of the cult of the fallen soldier. For the Futurists following the First World War, “the unprecedented experience of mass death was made generally acceptable for the nation, tamed, as it were, through the cult of the fallen soldier with its constant analogy to Christ’s death and resurrection.”[72] The Fascists under Mussolini, who saw value in promoting dedication to and sacrifice for the Fatherland, perpetuated the myth of the fallen soldier as a way to approach the loss of life that came with war and revolution.

The first major Fascist exhibit, the Mostra della rivoluzione fascista (Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution), demonstrated Mussolini’s use of youth and war rhetoric to admiration for and devotion to the state and, as a result, awe of and dedication to Mussolini himself. The exhibit displayed about 18,040 objects,[73] which together depicted the brief history of Fascism from 1914 until 1922. Room N (“The Year 1921”) of the exhibit “presented the visitors with the historical documentation of young fascists’ tragic martyrdom, including bloody shirts in window cases;”[74] the exhibit ended with a Sacrario dei martiri, a Martyrs’ Sanctuary:

To the memory of the Martyrs, whose generous blood flooded the hard roads of the Revolution, is dedicated a hall with the title ‘Sacrarium of the Martyrs.’ . . . In the center of the circular hall one finds a pedestal of a red blood color, with a diameter of seven meters in the center of which grows a metal cross, seven meters high, infused with a white light and with the inscription ‘To the immortal Fatherland.’ The Martyrs, who are celebrated in six circles along the circular walls of the Sacrarium, answer Present! to the mute evocation of the living. The atmosphere of the Sacrarium, all dominated by an azure tonality, is highly mystical and suggestive.[75]

The exhibit portrayed Fascism as religion: “Fascism, the exhibit proclaimed, was saintly and moral. It had sacrificed itself for the nation; its martyrs were now the whole country’s martyrs. This chain of meaning construction that linked blood to martyrs and youth ultimately referred back to Fascism as the nation’s savior.”[76] Through exhibits, shows, and other propaganda such as this exhibition, Mussolini solidified loyalty to Italy and to himself using the rhetoric of youth and warfare.

The Fascist anthem also evoked youth rhetoric to inspire the Italian people to the Fascist cause. The song Giovinezza, Italian for “youth,” was the anthem of the PNF and served as the national anthem of Italy between 1924 and 1943:

(Click note 77 to view an English translation) [77]

The chorus of the anthem clearly glorifies youth as an ideal, declaring youth as the “spring of beauty” that perseveres despite the hardships of life and the obstacles faced by Italians. Giovinezza also promotes a national identity under Mussolini, who “remade” the Italians for the glory of the nation. Additionally, throughout the hymn rhetoric of battle and warfare calls all of Italy into action—to “send its hordes” and to “unfurl the flags” for Fascism and the country under Mussolini. According to the song, Fascism applies for lords and countrymen, poets and artisans, as well as all the poor of Italy. The song glorifies youth and war, uniting the entire country under these ideals of Fascism. At the very same Mostra della rivoluzione fascista, the Fascist anthem that glorified youth greeted visitors to the Martyrs’ Sanctuary, emphasizing the intensity of the sacrifice by the martyrs of Fascism. The triumphant song praised Mussolini as savior of the nation while revealing the Fascist regime’s emphasis on youth as a national principle.

Throughout the height of its power, the Fascist Party and Mussolini also relied on youth groups to ensure young people remained involved in and supportive of the nation and Fascism. In 1926, Mussolini united all youth groups into a single institution, the Opera Nazionale Balilla (Balilla National Labor),[78] made up of three divisions: Balilla for boys eight to fifteen, the Avanguardie (Vanguards) for boys fifteen to eighteen, and the Piccole italiane (Little Italians) for girls. These groups required their member to swear loyalty, “as part of a Fascist creed, ‘I believe in the genius of Mussolini; in our Holy Father Fascism; and in the communion of its martyrs; in the conversion of the Italians; in the resurrection of the empire.”[79] Mussolini guaranteed the loyalty of young people through Fascist education, a loyalty that reinforced the youthful vigor that characterized the rhetoric of the Fascist regime.

Despite his continued use of youth and war rhetoric, in certain cultural aspects Mussolini diverged dramatically from the Futurists. Contrary to the Futurists’ call for a completely new future Italy, Mussolini summoned memories of ancient history to create a cult of ancient Rome, which “formed part of Fascism’s attempt to manufacture a new national identity.”[80] The cult of ancient Rome recalled an identity that was strictly Italian, free from foreign influences. Italian art, especially architecture, inspired by the Rome of the Caesars did not present any possibilities for radical revolution depicted in Futurist art. For example, Marcello Piacentini’s Palace of the Civilization of Labor, designed in 1940 and 1941, featured imperial style architecture and with its Roman arches represented “a modern reworking of ancient Roman motifs.”[81] Perhaps the most prominent example of the imperial style was the Altare della patria (Altar of the Fatherland), or the Monumento nazionale a Vittorio Emmanuele II (National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II), commonly known by many simply as “The Wedding Cake.” A monument to the first monarch of unified Italy, it also houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the eternal flame in memory of the nation’s dead. These military references in the monument “linked military sacrifice and past heroism to aerial flight and future victory within the Fascist cult of male youth.”[82] Despite disillusionment with Italian unification in the late 1800s, Mussolini recalled unification as a glorious event because it made possible a distinctly Italian identity.

Futurist Politics and Culture

Despite the split with the Fascists, Mussolini and Marinetti maintained a complex relationship. Mussolini’s cult of ancient Rome reinforced the rhetoric of war and youth, but did not advocate the completely new world order that the Futurists desired. Though Marinetti left the Fascists in 1920 because of Mussolini’s pragmatism, he realized that his movement “was being steadily pushed aside”[83] and rejoined the Fascists in 1924. When he returned to the FNP, he begged Mussolini to “free [him]self of parliamentarianism… restore to Fascism and Italy the marvelous spirit of ’19 . . . imitate the great Mussolini of ’19.”[84] However, it was too late for Marinetti to convince Mussolini to re-radicalize his thought and take an antimonarchical and anticlerical position. Despite his disillusionment with Fascism, after 1924 Marinetti remained loyal to the FNP and to Mussolini. He dedicated his 1924, Futurismo e Fascismo, to his “dear and great friend Benito Mussolini,”[85] and in this same document downplayed his 1920 split with Fascism while emphasizing his presence at all important Fascist events. He continued to advocate for the “political function of art,”[86] but failed to make any impact on Fascist art with his claim. As Fascism “receded further and further from the last vestiges of anything that could be confused with revolutionary thought, Marinetti followed, relinquishing the position of opposition”[87] he previously took. Perhaps he still had idealistic thoughts and believed he could change the course of Fascist art; alternatively, perhaps he realized that Mussolini had consolidated power to the extent that the Futurists could either rejoin the Fascists to retain some political influence or remain separated from them, perhaps becoming victims of censorship and oppression. Whatever the reason, Marinetti sacrificed Futurist political ideology for loyalty to Mussolini.

The Futurist art movement, which lasted from 1909 until Marinetti’s death in 1944, underwent many changes, especially after it lost prominence following Marinetti’s split with Fascism. Ironically, Fascism influenced the course of Futurist art. In the wake of World War I, “there [was] a return to order and there [were] artists who [became] much more classicizing and more figurative. Even the Futurists turn[ed] to a more figurative type of idiom, but one that [was] more mechanically informed.”[88] The return to classicism and eventually the cult of ancient Rome affected the Futurists, though they attempted to maintain distinct characteristics in their artwork. During 1930s until 1944, Futurist art focused on aerial themes, and depicted blurred pictures of Roman ruins, perhaps as their own form of contribution to the cult of ancient Rome. Thus, Futurist art, especially after Marinetti’s restored his loyalty to Mussolini, could not escape the limitations of the Fascist regime, though it still maintained its distinct themes and characteristics.


As a regime celebrating youth, Mussolini’s National Fascist Party largely relied on young people for support; nevertheless, Il Duce’s use of youth and war rhetoric was not an original concept. Rather, Futurism and its repetition of the themes of youth and war along with other early intellectual youth movements contained the seeds of Fascist politics and culture. Because Mussolini refused to appease Futurist demands for antimonarchical and anticlerical action, the Futurists left the Fascist camp. Nevertheless, Mussolini continued to use the same rhetoric throughout his regime in order to maintain support for his political leadership. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Futurism and Fascism mutually influenced each other. Although Futurist ideas influenced Fascist culture and vice-versa, in the end Mussolini’s shrewd pragmatism and cult of personality surpassed the radicalism and idealism of Futurism.


[1] Duggan, Christopher, A Concise History of Italy, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984), 118.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Ibid., 119.

[4] Cavour made a deal with Napoleon III regarding the terms of a war between France and Austria. Italy “was to become a confederation headed by the pope and split into four states: Piedmont would take over northern Italy, including the Romagna, and give Nice and Savoy to France; a new central Italian kingdom would be created around Tuscany; Rome and its environs would be left to the papacy, and Naples would remain unchanged.” (Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 127-28.)

[5] Ibid., 143.

[6] Duggan, Christopher, “Politics in the Era of Depretis and Crispi, 1870-96,” Italy in the

Nineteenth Century 1796-1900, Ed. John A. Davis, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 154-80, 155.

[7] Ibid., 159.

[8] The Electoral Reform of 1882 increased the number of enfranchised Italians from about 600,000 to over 2 million. The total population of Italy numbered about 28,000,000. (“Electoral Reform in Italy,” The Tablet, [London: 18 March 1882], 7.)

[9] “Depretis, Agostino,” Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1 January 1997): Biography Reference Bank, EBSCOhost, 10 November 2014.

[10] Duggan, “Politics in the Era of Depretis and Crispi, 1870-96,” 164.

[11] Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 165.

[12] Cavour was an Italian statesman who contended for Italian unification and independence and later served as the first Prime Minister of Italy. Many suspected he desired to unite Italy for his own purposes, and during the 1850s he often implemented his own political program without consulting parliament. (Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 169.)

[13] Garibaldi was an Italian general and politician who also advocated and fought for Italian unification. He supported and practiced dictatorial rule in times of emergency. (Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 169).

[14] Ibid., 169.

[15] Duggan, “Politics in the Era of Depretis and Crispi, 1870-96,” 173.

[16] Holmes, George, The Oxford History of Italy, (New York: Oxford UP, 1997) 248.

[17] Killinger, Charles L., “The Era of Giolitti and World War I, 1900-1918,” The History of Italy, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 125-38, 127.

[18] Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 175.

[19] Ibid., 175-76.

[20] Ibid., 184-85.

[21] Lyttelton, Adrian, “Politics and Society, 1870-1915,” The Oxford History of Italy, Ed. George Holmes, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997), 235-263, 257.

[22] Ibid., 257.

[23] Colella, E. Paul, Notes on Croce and the Search for the Lay Religion, MS, Cincinnati, 1.

[24] Ibid., 3.

[25] Ibid., 4.

[26] Bellamy, Richard, “Social and Political Thought, 1890-1945”, Liberal and Fascist Italy: 1900-1945, By Adrian Lyttelton, (New York: Oxford UP, 2002), Print, 241.

[27] Croce initially supported Mussolini and the Fascist regime; however, “[o]nce it became clear that Fascism aspired to create a new type of regime rather than merely strengthening the hand of the liberal state, he quickly changed tack.” He believed government should only concern itself with efficient governance. (Bellamy, Richard, “Social and Political Thought, 1890-1945,” 246.)

[28] The creation of Leonardo was the direct result of inspiration from Croce’s Aesthetics.

[29] Wohl, Robert, “Italy: Giovinezza! Giovinezza!” The Generation of 1914, (Cambridge, MA:

Harvard UP, 1979), Print, 162.

[30] Ibid., 162.

[31] Ibid., 162.

[32] Ibid., 162.

[33] Holmes, The Oxford History of Italy, 298.

[34] Marinetti, like many of his intellectual peers, studied in the more advanced intellectual centers of Europe throughout his early life, which thus suggests the influence of foreign countries on Futurist ideology, and an idealized disconnect with the true problems of Italy, hence the radical rhetoric with a lack of a positive political platform. Futurism itself was largely pro-French and anti-clerical.

[35] Marinetti, F.T., “Fondazione e Manifesto del Futurismo,”Teoria e Invenzione Futurista, Ed.

Luciano De Maria, (Milano: Arnolda Mondadori Editore, 1968), Print, 11. Translated from “Futurisme,” Le Figaro, 20 February 1909.

[36] Ibid., 12.

[37] Tisdall, Caroline, and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), Print, 9.

[38] Mosse, George L., “The Political Culture of Italian Futurism: A General Perspective,” Journal of Contemporary History 25.2/3 (1990) 253-268, JSTOR, Web, 29 September 2014, 256.

[39] Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 179.

[40] Adamson, Walter L., Avant-Garde Florence: From Modernism to Fascism, (Cambridge, MA:

Harvard UP, 1993), Print, 140.

[41] Ibid., 142.

[42] Wohl, Robert, The Generation of 1914, 168.

[43] Ibid., 168.

[44] Marconi, Paolo, Io udii il comandamento, (Rome: 1919), Print, 64, Qtd. in Wohl, Robert, The

Generation of 1914, 169.

[45] Mussolini, Benito, and Richard Washburn Child, My Autobiography, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928), Print, 37.

[46] Ibid., 38.

[47] Ibid., 37.

[48] Mussolini, Benito, “Audacia!” 1905, Il Popolo d’Italia, Ed. Marco Tarchi, (Firenze: Luciano Landi Editore, 1982), 105-108, Print, 105.

[49] Ibid., 106.

[50] Ibid., 107.

[51] Ibid., 108.

[52] Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 191.

[53] Adamson, Walter L., Avant-Garde Florence, 218.

[54] Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 194.

[55] Prezzolini, Giuseppe, Fascism, Trans. Kathleen Macmillan, (London: Methuen, 1926), Print, 7.

[56] Wohl, Robert, The Generation of 1914, 174.

[57] Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 200.

[58] Ibid., 202.

[59] Lyttelton, Adrian, The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929, 2nd ed, (Princeton, NJ:

Princeton UP, 1987), Print, 54.

[60] Prezzolini, Giuseppe, Fascism, 33.

[61] Ibid., 34.

[62] Wohl, Robert, The Generation of 1914, 178.

[63] Prezzolini, Giuseppe, Fascism, vi.

[64] Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 203.

[65] Ibid., 206.

[66] Lyttelton, Adrian, The Seizure of Power, 49.

[67] Marinetti, F.T., “I futuristi nella lotta fascista,” Teoria e invenzione futurista, Ed. Luciano De

Maria, (Milano: Arnolda Mondadori Editore, 1968), 508, Print.

[68] Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 227.

[69] Marinetti, F.T., “Fondazione e Manifesto del Futurismo,”Teoria e Invenzione Futurista, Ed. Luciano De Maria, (Milano: Arnolda Mondadori Editore, 1968), Print, 12. Translated from “Futurisme,” Le Figaro, 20 February 1909.

[70] Wohl, Robert, The Generation of 1914, 177.

[71] Ibid., 179.

[72] Mosse, George L., “The Political Culture of Italian Futurism,” 259.

[73] Zamponi, Simonetta Falasca, “Of Storytellers and Master Narratives: Modernity, Memory, and History in Fascist Italy,” Social Science History 22.4 (1998): 415-444, JSTOR, Web, 29 September 2014, 430.

[74] Ibid., 432.

[75] Ibid., 431-32.

[76] Ibid., 432.

[77] Blanc, Giuseppe, and Salvator Gotta, Giovinezza, YouTube, Web.  English translation:

Hail, people of heroes
Hail, immortal Fatherland
Your sons were born again
With the faith and the ideal
Your warriors’ valor
The pioneers’ virtue
Alighieri’s vision
Today shines in every heart

(refrain) Youth, youth
Spring of beauty
In the hardship of life
Your song rings and goes!

In the Italian borders
Italians have been remade
Mussolini has remade them
For tomorrow’s war
For labor’s glory
For peace and for the laurel
For the shame of those
Who repudiated our Fatherland


The poets and the artisans
The lords and the countrymen
With an Italian’s pride
Swears fealty to Mussolini
No poor neighborhood exists
That doesn’t send its hordes
That doesn’t unfurl the flags
Of redeeming Fascism

[78] Balilla was the nickname of Giovan Battista Perasso, the little boy who, according to the story, threw a stone at an Austro-Hungarian patrolman and started the 1746 revolt against the Hapsburg Empire in Genoa.

[79] Il Duce, New York: Films Media Group, 1934, Xavier XPLORE Library Catalogue, EBSCOhost, Web, 15 September 2014.

[80] Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, 227.

[81] Ibid., 229.

[82] Atkinson, David, and Denis Cosgrove, “Urban Rhetoric and Embodied Identities: City,

Nation, and Empire at the Vittorio Emmanuele II Monument in Rome, 1870-1945,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88.1 (1998): 28-49, JSTOR, Web, 26 January 2015, 28.

[83] Tisdall, Futurism, 207.

[84] Ibid., 207.

[85] Marinetti, F. T., “Futurismo e Fascismo,” Teoria e invenzione futurista, Ed. Luciano De Maria, (Milano: Arnolda Mondadori Editore, 1968), Print, 489.

[86] Tisdall, Futurism, 208.

[87] Ibid., 208.

[88] Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Guggenheim, Web.


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