- - Sunday, November 25, 2012

By John Champagne
Routledge, $130, 221 pages, illustrated

Why was that ghastly trio of 20th-century European dictators so obsessed with art? Of course, they were megalomaniacal about their legacy. We know, in fact, it turned out to be all manner of odium and mayhem, but their grandiosity knew no bounds. It’s hard to know what is more galling, that Stalin’s musical judgment on Shostakovich — actually expressed by him in print in Pravda — was spot-on or that Nazi and fascist architecture was so predictably hideous, besmirching the great traditional cityscapes of Germany and Italy.

Fortunately, Hitler’s plans for remaking Berlin were, thanks to the war he started, largely confined to the drawing board, but Mussolini ruled Italy for two decades, and so too many of his vulgar, brutal edifices stand alongside the noble Roman ruins they were supposed to eclipse, but in fact only serve to shame them artistically. Which brings us to this book about the aesthetic sensibility of fascist Italy, or at least to one part of it.

It is unfortunate that John Champagne, the author of “Aesthetic Modernism and Masculinity in Fascist Italy,” who is an associate professor of English at Penn State Erie, appears to suffer from the form of tunnel vision all too common in academia these days, which accounts for the narrowness of his focus and his lack of attention to the wider context — European as well as Italian — of the phenomenon he is examining. His invocation of the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton and too much sociology signals that we are in trouble, and it soon becomes apparent that we have here a fine example of what Harold Bloom has dubbed “The School of Resentment,” in which narrow identification with a group or creed takes the place of holistic analysis.

Mr. Champagne leaves readers in no doubt as to where he stands: “As I have sought to reread these representations of fascist era Italian masculinity, I have been made acutely aware of how my own historical identity as a self-identified gay man has acted as a lever into these texts. This awareness has required me to contend with the specter of homofascism, to question my own investment in masculine beauty to revisit such nagging questions as the cultural and psychic meaning of queer sexuality.”

This sort of prose means that many may not be able to penetrate its opacity, but the real problem is for those who do manage to get beyond its off-putting surface and see it for what it is: a wallowing in narrow identity criticism more intent on self-expression by the author than enlightenment of the reader. The writers and painters included in this study are seen through its author’s prism, to their detriment. And when Walt Whitman enters the scene, we can see that the focal point of the book lies closer to home than Rome.

It is not that there isn’t a homoerotic context to the fascist artistic ethos. This included Il Duce himself, who was particularly fond of paintings of muscular men stripped to the waist. I happen to have seen some of those, of such importance to him that he took them along even in his last peripatetic days on the run from the advancing Allied forces before being captured and shot by Italian partisans. My father was an officer in that campaign and occupied the villa on Lake Garda that was one of Mussolini’s last refuges. He brought home as a souvenir an enormous portfolio of such paintings from Il Duce’s personal collection, and they encapsulated the in-your-face crudity — as well as an unmistakable whiff of homoeroticism — that is the hallmark of fascist art.

But why concentrate on a side issue when the main ones are so glaring? Michelangelo’s homosexuality is well-known, and there is an erotic aspect to his famous statue of David. But is that why millions have trooped to Florence over the centuries to admire it? Concentrating on this sidelight rather than on Michelangelo’s stunning artistry would be disrespectful to the great sculptor. There is a book to be written on the subject Mr. Champagne has chosen, but there’s got to be a better way to do it so as, in Thomas Carlyle’s words, to see it steadily and see it whole.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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