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Ardengo soffici's Rete mediterranea: the aesthetics and politics of post-war modernism.

The periodical Rete mediterranea, entirely written and edited by Ardengo Soffici, was published by Vallecchi on a quarterly basis between March and December 1920. A short-lived project (only four issues were published), it was conceived after the equally short-lived periodical La Vraie Italie, which Soffici had co-edited with Giovanni Papini between 1919 and 1920. Although it has received some critical attention, Rete mediterranea has not been extensively explored. According to Mario Richter, the magazine was used by Soffici to voice the idea of a national redemption, as he was convinced that the war had shown Italy's maturity and ability to lead other nations (Richter, Papini e Soffici 177). Intellectual historian Walter Adamson has noted how Rete mediterranea was used to promote Soffici's post-war "retrogardism" and was the result of the artist's increasing detachment from Papini and Prezzolini's views, particularly with regard to Soffici's antisocialism and support for Mussolini and D'Annunzio's occupation of Fiume (Avant-Garde Florence 245-47 and "Soffici and the Religion of Art" 60-61; Papini and Soffici 73-80). Simonetta Bartolini too has stressed how Soffici had grown increasingly dissatisfied with Papini's editorial line in La Vraie Italie, particularly as it avoided overt politicization. She describes 1919 as Soffici's annus horribilis, in that the post-war situation presented itself as very different from what he had envisaged. The treaty of Versailles had resulted in a disappointing outcome for Italy, causing a negative reaction among war veterans, who saw the dissolution of the pre-war world, but could not entertain the prospect of a new one. On a personal level, Soffici found himself at odds with Papini and Prezzolini, just as he no longer had a periodical to use for his cultural and political militancy. At the same time, his artistic development had been interrupted by the war and needed reflection and revision, after four years at the front (Bartolini, Ardengo Soffici 353-54). In this context, Bartolini defines Rete mediterranea as "la rivista della solitudine, della riflessione, dopo la temperie bellica, del 'richiamo all'ordine'" ("Introduzione" 15). She also stresses the specific post-war dimension of the magazine, by stating,

Rete mediterranea e il naturale sfogo dell'intellettuale maturato nella guerra e tornato a una vita civile carico di un bagaglio umano, spirituale ed esistenziale che non poteva essere deposto in fondo a un armadio con la divisa grigioverde. Al tempo stesso essa diventa il luogo esclusivo [...] nel quale elaborare il lutto provocato dalla scomparsa di alcune illusioni da una parte (la guerra risolutrice, salvifica o, per dirla con il lessico futurista, igienizzante), e di un mondo (quello di prima della guerra, appunto), dall'altra. (Ardengo Soffici 355)

While an atmosphere of rappel a l'ordre undoubtedly pervades Soffici's magazine, the inscription of Rete mediterranea exclusively within the narrow framework of the post-war return to order seems somewhat reductive, as is the interpretation of the magazine as a personal space created by Soffici to mourn the loss of the pre-war world and its illusions.

This article proposes instead a reading of Rete mediterranea which takes into account its strong political component, both in its direct discussion of political matters and in its politicization of the artistic discourse. According to this reading, Rete mediterranea cannot be simply considered as "la voce sofficiana in un panorama culturale ormai avviato [...] verso una revisione delle esperienze culturali prebelliche per un recupero della tradizione classica, da leggersi in chiave moderna," as Bartolini puts it ("Introduzione" 15). In particular, the rethinking of the relationship between art and politics makes the magazine an important voice in the post-war artistic and intellectual debates. By focusing on Soffici's position on a number of key themes, both artistic and political--such as the role of the artist-veteran in the creation of post-war national culture, the relationship between classical heritage and modern art, the place of Italy in the European artistic scene, the rise of Socialism and the desire to regenerate both culture and politics after the experience of the war--the article will demonstrate how the Tuscan artist reconfigured the relationship between art and life that had been at the core of the avant-garde experience (Burger) and reviewed the role of the artist in the post-war context. Finally, the article will shed light on the politicization of Modernism and the forging of ideological links between aesthetics and politics in the crucial transition between the end of the war and the rise of Fascism, which paved the way for the conceptualization of the relationship between culture and politics during the fascist regime.

The Artist-Veteran and the Politics of War Memory

It is significant that Rete mediterranea was conceived and published immediately after La Vraie Italie. Written in French, the latter had meant to address an international audience and act as an intellectual link between Italy and other countries. As Luca Somigli has noted, the aim of La Vraie Italie was to make Italy better known abroad, improve its relations with the other nations that had emerged victorious from the war and foster greater cooperation between the so-called "sister nations," Italy and France, thereby accomplishing both a cultural and a political mission (Somigli 486; see also De Carlis 16 and Adamson, Avant-Garde Florence 236). Despite its short life and the disagreements between Papini and Soffici, La Vraie Italie, Somigli argues, had been crucial, as it was representative of the crisis of that articulation of the relationship between art and politics which had marked avant-garde culture and had characterized a number of magazines (such as, for instance, Lacerba and L'Italia futurista). La Vraie Italie was symptomatic of that crisis, for, despite its nationalist programme, it missed, according to Somigli, "the faith in the power of art to renew and transform lived experience by giving shape to modernity and its radical innovations in science, technology and social and economic relations" (489-90).

I would like to argue that at the core of the Rete mediterranea project is precisely the attempt to reconfigure the relationship between art and life that had characterized the pre-war avant-garde movements and that seemed to have been lost in the post-war context. In the magazine Soffici reclaimed a political role for art, rethinking the pre-war avant-garde experience and reshaping the artistic and political trajectory of Italian Modernism in the post-war years. After surviving the experience of the trenches, the artist reconfigured his role both as a cultural operator and a veteran, embodying a double function, equally artistic and political. In this context, the experience of the avant-garde was key in the integration of the political agenda into the artistic discourse. As Adamson has observed, the world of 1918 was profoundly different from the one in which the avant-garde had taken shape. The cultural avant-garde had largely collapsed in the war and the sense of political crisis in Italy created the expectation of an impending system change in politics, with Socialism looming larger than in the pre-war years as a result of the Bolshevik revolution ("Soffici and the Religion of Art" 60). After the war, Tuscan avant-gardists, including Soffici, distanced themselves from pre-war modernism not on the question of the latter's project of spiritual renewal, but on their assessment of the aesthetic and political means needed to fulfil it (Adamson, Embattled Avant-Gardes 252). Avant-gardism was reconceptualized in terms of a new model, Adamson argues, which entailed a mass movement incorporating the modernist spiritual revolution as the basis for a genuine populist aesthetics politics. These would be nationalist rather than internationalist, reject experimentalism and be based on a communal celebration of heritage and on a restoration of those aesthetic values associated with the great moments of the Italian past ("Soffici and the Religion of Art" 60). What emerges from a close reading of Rete mediterranea is, therefore, not so much a retro-gardist "call for order," but a re-elaboration of the avant-garde experience in the post-war context. The aims of Rete mediterranea were to reposition the artist after the war, giving him the political legitimacy that derived from having fought in the trenches, to identify the area of intervention for the artist in an aesthetic/political reconfigured field, and to prioritise the creation of a national forum for the discussion of Italian art and politics. Within this framework, the classicism championed by the magazine under the Mediterranean banner proclaimed in the title was not an indicator of a detachment from politics, but of a shift in discourses of engagement and a reformulation of aesthetic politics, in which classical references assumed a political value and in which the artistic discourse was strictly interrelated with the political.

Prior to the publication of Rete mediterranea, Soffici had chartered the transformation he had undergone in the trenches in his war writings, Kobilek (1918) and La ritirata del Friuli (1919), in which the artist had been developing a war narrative marked by a sense of interclass comradeship engendered by the war effort and also some form of communion between the officers and the soldiers. This communion posited unity in a newly found national cohesion, which was equally distinct from the high command of the army and the Italian political leadership (Isnenghi 193-95 and 336). That Rete mediterranea is informed by the experience of the war is reinforced by the publication in instalments in the magazine of Soffici's war memoir "Errore di coincidenza." This was the diary of Soffici's hospital stay in the summer of 1917, prior to the events narrated in Kobilek, after he had been hit and wounded by shrapnel. "Errore di coincidenza" is a personal recollection of hospital life, which allows Soffici also to reflect on the corporeal dimension of the war, devoting attention to the pain, mutilation, recurrent visions of death and trauma of shell-shock, but also to the human dimension of the war, the soldiers' courage, resilience and good humour, their solidarity and comradeship. The "errore di coincidenza," as Soffici explains, is the chance by which life and death are dispensed by fate and the random events that allow an individual to escape death ("Errore di coincidenza," (a), 243-46).

The focus on hospital life in Soffici's diary moves the attention away from life on the battlefield and in the trenches to concentrate instead on the human repercussions of the war, representing the soldiers in their most vulnerable moment but also showing their courage and resilience. It also focuses on survival, thereby reversing the apocalyptic tendency of war writing (Winter 178303), and creates a dialectical relationship between life and death, which is reiterated by the memoir's title. The strong sense of camaraderie engendered by the war and the idea of the war as a unifying experience which resulted in a renewed national community, and had featured prominently in previous memoirs, are still present here and they are deployed instrumentally to inscribe the soldiers in a cross-class national narrative engendered by the conflict. The emphasis on the corporeal dimension of the war allows the discourse of the nation to be extended to the bodies of the wounded or the dead soldiers, proposing an almost metonymical association between the soldier's body and the fatherland:

Laggiu e il Carso. [...] Quella soave collina che il sole accarezza amorosamente e tinge dei suoi ultimi raggi, la gioventu d'Italia [...] l'arrossa essa pure e la inzuppa del proprio sangue; in tutto quel riposo c'e anche il riposo di migliaia e migliaia di tombe. Laggiu e la bellezza, ma insieme lo strazio e tutta la passione della Patria. E allora capisco qual e la forza che m'avvince a quel lembo di terra e di cielo, la cui immagine portero sempre con me.

("Errore di coincidenza" (b) 352)

The entries of "Errore di coincidenza" create a thread which acts as a narrative counterpoint to the reflections carried out in the other sections of Rete mediterranea. The experience of the war underpins Soffici's intellectual, ideological and artistic direction in the post-war years. Nonetheless, as Bardolini rightly points out, the core of Rete mediterranea is no longer the narration of the war events but on how they affected Soffici's view of the world (Ardengo Soffici 357). The episodes narrated in the memoir reinforce Soffici's position with the consequent legitimation deriving from his first-hand experience of the war. The narrated events and experiences reiterate the significance both of the war as a transformative event and its account as a shaping factor in the narrative of national identity.

The New Nation and the Myth of the Mediterranean

All four issues of Rete mediterranea opened with a feature article, which was followed by a section entitled "Ricordi di vita artistica e letteraria," in which Soffici reminisced about his encounters with such artists and intellectuals as Remy de Gourmont, Giovanni Boine, Guillaume Apollinaire and Leon Bloy. A substantial section of the magazine was devoted to a section entitled "Taccuino," a collection of Soffici's personal reflections on literature, art, philosophy and politics, as well as anecdotes of his life. As Soffici's space for unstructured reflection, the "Taccuino" was the most ideologically connoted part of the magazine.

The first issue of Rete mediterranea opens with the feature article "Dichiarazione preliminare," a declaration of intents aimed at situating the periodical within the specificity of the post-war context. Soffici's opening statement declares: "Sono uscito dalla guerra un altro uomo; e come tale intendo presentarmi subito ai lettori di questa mia pubblicazione periodica" ("Dichiarazione preliminare" 3). The declaration is followed by a reflection on the circumstances that led to the war, with the expectations that it generated among artists and intellectuals, particularly those, like Soffici, who were committed to the modernization of Italian culture. But what Soffici stresses above all is how the war offered the occasion to rethink the social preconceptions that had characterised the discursive and artistic practices of the avant-garde. The anti-bourgeois rhetoric that had permeated the avant-gardist "revolutionary orgy," as he called it ("Dichiarazione preliminare" 5), was repudiated in the name of a rediscovery of the value of the bourgeoisie. Quoting a passage from Kobilek, he declares:

[...] mi rendo conto, dopo un'esperienza di due anni di vita militare, di quanto sia ingiusto e vano il confinarsi, come ho fatto io, in un circolo di gente che fa il nostro proprio mestiere; fra artisti, poeti, filosofi, o sedicenti tali. Questa guerra avra insegnato a molti di noi, uomini partigiani, membri di elites discutibili, quanta umanita, bellezza, spontaneita di vita e di sensi si trovi oltre i nostri confini artificiali, fra i componenti, poco vistosi ma non per questo meno degni, di quella massa, che e poi quasi tutta l'umanita, e che noi battezziamo in blocco e con disprezzo: borghesia! ("Dichiarazione preliminare" 7; Kobilek 27).

As his previous war writings reiterated, Soffici's reappraisal of the bourgeoisie is linked to a critique of the ruling class (Isnenghi 336). Therefore, what Soffici names here as the "bourgeoisie" is to be understood as the petty bourgeoisie, which is incorporated in the more general notion of "la massa" and somehow distanced from the military and political elites. The artist's appreciation of the bourgeoisie is also presented as a polemical rethinking of the avant-garde's antibourgeois stance. The war had exposed the illusory character of any form of artistic elitism, repositioning it within the self-excluding attitude which had characterized bohemian artistic circles in capitalist society, and had created the conditions for a reformulation of the relationship between art and society. The special significance of the figure of the artist-veteran allows the artist to rethink his social role; the oppositional attitude and the critique of the social, political and moral values of modernity, that had characterized the position of the artist since the nineteenth century (Wilson 18), are reconsidered in favour of a self-positioning within a new elite, at the same time is artistic and political, who claims to represent the new Italy emerging from the trenches and whose aim is to delegitimize a ruling class whose weakness had been exposed by the war (Isnenghi 336).

Soffici justifies the creation of his new periodical by stressing the notion of maturita acquired with the war and by placing a specific emphasis in the role of the conflict in transforming the artistic agenda and the intellectual life of the nation. On a personal level, he explains how the prolonged acquaintance with pain, danger, tragic events, and above all the constant presence of death, have had a sobering effect and instilled a sense of gravity, austerity and purity, resulting in a spiritual catharsis: "In guerra, davanti al rischio imminente e continuo, l'uomo e nudo [...]. In quel terribile agone della morte, tutti appariamo a tutti veri e genuini. E nulla e piu grande e bello di questo ritorno umano nella luce all'innocenza prima" ("Dichiarazione preliminare" 14). Such a sense of regeneration brought about by the war led to a rejection of the perceived falseness and vacuity equally affecting contemporary art--particularly in its obsession with "returns"--and politics, on both a national and international level. The artist attributes the rethinking of his attitude to a number of factors resulting from the war, including a renewed appreciation of the formerly vilified bourgeoisie, the consequent repulsion towards an unengaged intellectual class and a revitalised commitment to serve the national cause and promote national heritage, an assertion of the simple values of human solidarity, and a rejection of anything considered "falso and sofisticato". These factors coalesce in a cult of the nation which collapses aesthetics into politics:

Trovo che un culto geloso della nazione nel suo insieme vivo e concreto, storico ed in atto e adesso piu che mai una condizione imprescindibile di forza animatrice, del profondo senso delfindividualita, e pertanto di stile originale nel pensiero e nell'espressione lirica. Considero percio con avversione ogni forma di misconoscenza o tradimento di questa idea luminosa nei secoli, incorruttibile, pregnante e che e la sostanza stessa del nostro essere geniale. Poiche non e possibile ammettere, senza, nello stesso tempo, dar prova d'infantilita, o di ottusita intellettuale, che quello che e la materia stessa della nostra piu diretta osservazione, della nostra conoscenza piu intima, della nostra creazione come e tutto quello che costituisce la patria--costumi, lingua, luoghi, pensiero e discendenza--possa divenir mai indifferente a chi vive al di sopra degli interessi corporali e transitori.

("Dichiarazione preliminare" 17)

The nation is at the core of Soffici's post-war artistic programme and the selfprofessed maturita is anchored to a strong national agenda. Thus this conviction materializes in a sense of sympathy for, and communion with, what he calls the "anima della stirpe," a cult of the nation and an aversion to any misrecognition of the national idea. Soffici proclaims a belief in an art rooted in historical culture and an admiration for "il semplice, il vero, il reale" ("Dichiarazione preliminare" 18). All this, he claims, must not be interpreted as conservatism or a return to the past, but rather as the sense of personal and collective continuation, in harmony with a self that had been lost amidst the pre-war chaos and that the experience of the war had helped to recover. Simplicity, truthfulness and realism are ambiguously posited both as moral and artistic categories, creating a discourse which conflates the aesthetic and the political. As Emilio Gentile notes, the veterans returning from the war felt that they had a mission to carry out in the name of the nation. Their politics expressed "l'odio verso gli istituti rappresentativi, considerati strumenti di potere nelle mani di pochi politicanti corrotti, e il disprezzo per la politica dei partiti in nome d'una politica totale, identificazione di stato e nazione, di produttore e cittadino, di individuo e massa, fusi in una mistica unita di militanti al servizio della collettivita rigenerata" (Gentile, Le origini 128). The nationalism that had been bound up with Modernism since the end of the nineteenth century, is deployed here to emphasize the equation between national tradition and genuine culture (Adamson, Embattled Avant-Gardes 13-14). In this sense, the periodical's title, Rete mediterranea, is programmatic. With regard to it, Soffici declares:

Ho scelto il titolo Rete mediterranea, per significare la mia intenzione di creare un centro di collegamento fra i punti sensibili della civilta, appunto, mediterranea, che credo superiore a tutte. Come sono un fervente dell'italianita, cosi il mio amore e la mia fede si estendono come una rete a tutto quanto di solare e nel pensiero e nell'arte delle nazioni affini, intorno al glorioso bacino, e che all'Italia si riconnette per ascendenza o discendenza. E in quanto al programma, esso puo riassumersi in questo. Difesa e illustrazione della stessa cultura mediterranea, con l'affermazione insieme, di un'energia personale nella sua fase di pieno sviluppo.

("Dichiarazione preliminare" 19-20)

By conflating the notion of mediterraneita, with all its cultural and political implications, with that of the nation, Soffici proposes an artistic programme in which aesthetics and politics are interwoven in a single discourse. The end of the war and the subsequent return to order proclaimed at an artistic level, far from removing the artist/intellectual from the arena of political commitment, rewrites his role as the creator of an ideology for the new nation emerging from the conflict. The palingenetic stance of the cultural discourse is key to the self-positioning of the intellectual in this new context. The creation of a periodical such as Rete mediterranea is evidence of Soffici's self-assigned political mission, reinstated by his criticism of the position taken by such contemporary periodicals as La ronda, which deliberately proclaimed an abstention from political matters and the return to formal values (Soffici, "Ritorni"). By distancing himself from La ronda's abstentionist attitude towards politics, Soffici rewrites the agenda for the modernist intellectual in the post-war years, by reworking the legacy of the avant-garde experience and rethinking the relationship between art and politics.

The notion of mediterraneita, expressed both by the title and the content of the periodical, alludes to an instrumental use of the myth of the Mediterranean and was employed by Soffici on several levels. First of all it reiterated and highlighted the artistic and cultural link--as well as the political alliance established by the war--that united major centres of artistic excellence in Europe, with particular reference to France and Italy. Therefore, Rete mediterranea was positioned, to an extent, as a continuation of the programme carried out by La Vraie Italie. However, with respect to the outward-looking position adopted by the latter, rather than focusing on an international audience, Rete mediterranea adopted a more inward-looking approach, intent on emphasizing the idea of the primacy of the Italian nation to an internal readership. The amplification of the geographical area, from an exclusive axis established between Italy and France to the wider, albeit undefined, idea of the Mediterranean, served to reposition Italy as the cultural centre of gravity of Southern Europe, thereby claiming the primacy of Italy with respect to France. It also reinforced the opposition between the Northern and Southern European cultures that had dominated the cultural discourse during the war years. (1) The unspecific approach to the notion of the Mediterranean recalled echoes of Greco-Roman classical civilization and reclaimed Italy's central role in the development of Western culture. The Mediterranean was therefore used as a concept that could resonate both at an artistic and at a political level.

Mediterraneanism has a specific place in Western culture and, as Berry Bergdol has argued, one that is characterized by a tendency both towards "radical change" and "atemporal fullness" (xv). The notion is composed of a complex articulation of motifs which encompass a celebration of the primacy of Greco-Roman classicism as well as vernacular regionalism and therefore it can incorporate both nationalist and regionalist arguments. For this reason, as Benedetto Gravagnuolo notes, mediterraneita is not to be confused with romanita. He identifies "many affinities of climate, traditions, topography, and even ethnic traits [...] along the coastlines of countries facing the Mediterranean" (15). The mixing of this plurality of cultures, languages and ethnicities into the notion of mediterraneita "can only be re-proposed--or, at least, it has always been reproposed that way--through a mytho-poetic transfiguration and an acknowledged invention"; "The deceit that the Mediterranean myth dispenses", Gravagnuolo continues, "is [...] the transhistorical representation of the past as present. It insinuates the elegant assumption of the eternal, [...] the desire for harmony. And it is exactly as myth, as a desire for simple and harmonious construction [...] that the concept of mediterraneita can and must be evaluated beyond its objective verifiability" (Gravagnuolo 16).

Yet around the 1830s the Mediterranean started being politicized, coming to express "the crucible in which diverse cultural traditions were mixed, synthesized [...], in a process which led to continual transmission, hybridism, and the sponsorship of new inventions" (Bergdoll xvii). Mediterraneanism lends itself therefore both to nationalistic appropriations and transnationalist agendas, relying, as Michelangelo Sabatino has noted, on the many voices and traditions characterising the cultural heritage of the Mediterranean basin (44). Within the specificity of the Italian context, as Claudio Fogu and Lucia Re have argued, Italian culture and the Italians themselves have been invested in a complex process of self-identification with "Mediterranean-ess," which, while marred by intellectual colonization, has nonetheless played a key role in the formation of modern Italian culture, Italian national identity and foreign policy (Fogu and Re 1).

The idea of the Mediterranean had emerged strongly also in the context of pictorial Modernism, Elizabeth Cowling and Jennifer Mundy observe, where it had metamorphosed into the myth of Arcadia, "an earthly paradise protected from the sordid materialism of the modern industrialised world, free from strife and tension, pagan not Christian, innocent not fallen, a place where dreamed-of harmony is still attainable" (Cowling and Mundy 12). They note that at the heart of the Arcadian myth throughout the centuries lurked the potential for profound melancholy, a sense of loss and the knowledge that the ideal can never be attained (12). Such melancholy pervaded the work of Nicolas Poussin and Camille Corot as well as, later, Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico; even when the setting of some of their works was contemporary, there was always an intentional ambiguity, so that the present was seen through the perspective of the past, and thus idealised and made more resonant (12-13).

The association between the myth of the Mediterranean and the idea of latinita had also permeated Gabriele D'Annunzio's rhetoric during the pre-war years and was based on the opposition between latinita and German "spirit," which placed Italy as the leader of a Latin civilization centred on the Mediterranean. As Filippo Caburlotto notes, the reference to the Mediterranean in this context alludes to a historical, social and cultural heritage from which that leadership had developed. He further argues that these motifs had been appropriated by national irredentism in the post-war years and formed the basis of a nationalism infused with expansionist and colonialist aspirations.

The intersection of such notions and myths centered on Italy's classical heritage and its role in the Mediterranean, therefore, facilitated the politicization of the aesthetic agenda, allowing a simultaneous focus on vernacular nationalism and the transnationalization of the artistic discourse. It could be argued, as Crispin Sartwell does with reference to the classical and the baroque (201), that the Mediterranean provided a "vocabulary" within which artistic and political discourses inscribed themselves, allowing them to conflate.

The choice of Rete mediterranea as the title of Soffici's magazine, therefore, was deliberately laden with ideological markers, which underscored the political agenda of the project. The primacy of the Mediterranean was based here on a trans-historical notion which encompassed, yet went beyond, mere political nationalism and placed the aesthetic realm in strict interrelationship with politics. Ultimately, the trans-historical representation of the past as present which was predicated as central to the myth of the Mediterranean would also feed into the historic imaginary that constituted the nexus between aesthetics and politics in Fascism's conception of history. (2)

The Artist as Politician

Soffici devoted a section of the Taccuino--entitled "Politica"--entirely to politics, thus exposing his political reflections as a key element of the cultural project elaborated in Rete mediterranea. In the opening of the section of the first issue of the magazine, Soffici declares himself not to be political; yet, he continues, in the current moment "i fatti di ordine politico sono spesso cosi strettamente aderenti, o minacciano di diventarlo, a quelli spirituali ed estetici da dover per forza prenderli in considerazione per metterne in chiaro i rapporti e [...] far del nostro meglio per modificarli a vantaggio, o a minor minaccia, almeno dell'intelligenza e della bellezza" ("Politica" 80). Not only does he, therefore, advocate the artist's direct intervention in political matters, following a practice already tested during the pre-war and war years, but he also establishes a clear interconnection between aesthetics and politics. The legacy of the avant-garde discourse of the reconciliation of art with life praxis, as explained by Burger in his Theory of the Avant-Garde, metamorphoses here conflating the political and aesthetic discourse in such a way as to envisage the world of politics directly shaped by artistic practice. The "gagliardo disgusto" which Soffici feels for politicians and political matters is overcome in the name of the artist's self-sacrifice "sull'altare dello Spirito e della Patria" ("Politica" 80). The national agenda is therefore at the forefront of Soffici's involvement in politics, assigning to the artist a key role as the gatekeeper of the spiritual life of the nation.

The first declaration of the magazine's section on politics is an exaltation of the war ("Evviva la guerra" is one of the section's subtitles), not only justified as a catalyst for the resurgence of the idea of the nation and of the Italian stirpe, but also in its aesthetic connotations: "Viva la guerra d'Italia, nobile e bella fra tutte, con i suoi cinquecentomila morti che sono la nostra piu sicura ricchezza" ("Politica" (a) 81). The assertion of the beauty of war is still resonant with the interventionist rhetoric championed by Lacerba during the war years; however, the mention of the Italian war dead inscribes the aesthetic component of the war firmly within the sphere of the nation in the post-war context, reclaiming for beauty a political dimension and appropriating an aestheticized post-war memorial discourse. As a veteran, Soffici reclaims the right to justify the war and to rewrite its narrative in regenerative terms, by reconfiguring an aesthetic of the conflict which goes beyond the exaltation of the war machine proposed by Futurism and which encompasses a new relationship between death and beauty. This claim is crystallized in the body of the dead soldier and its symbolic resonance, both as the sacrificial victim from whose blood the nation is reborn and as the life-affirming quality of its beauty (Carden-Coyne 127; Wittman). The palingenetic expectations generated by the war are reiterated and the conflict is glorified as a transformative and spiritual event, which has the ability to cleanse the world and lift man from the sordidness of his appetites: "Essa [the war] suscita nell'individuo d'animo molle e sonnifero le volanti energie, che solo conosce senza di lei il privilegiato che vive la vita del pensiero o del sogno. E una creatrice di valori nuovi, una spargitrice di semi [...]. La guerra e giustizia, nobilta ed e pieta fratellevole" ("Politica" (a) 81).

Soffici's assessment of the war experience includes a reference to "the people," which reverberates with descriptions of the sort that he had included in his war memoirs. The artist claims to be a friend of the people, of whom he praises "la [...] rude natura, la [...] forza e salute, l'impeto dei [...] grossi canti --e anche la [...] violenza" ("Politica" (a) 82). The hyper-stylized, rather paternalistic, description of the people is coupled with a wish for their material fulfilment and happiness, but also with an appeal to obey their leaders. The mention of the people in Soffici's writings, however, is not only linked to the experience of the war and the subsequently newly found cross-class solidarity, but also to the awareness that, as Roger Griffin puts it, the history of the postwar years would be determined by the masses as a new subject "whose palingenetic reflexes had been awakened by this intensive experience of the end of the world" (162).

Soffici extols the atmosphere of regeneration brought about by current circumstances. The present time is perceived as attractive, full of opportunities and, significantly, "beautiful," where the beauty is generated by the sense of rebirth created by the war:

Io trovo questo momento incredibilmente bello e attraente. Sento che la storia non ne ha mai avuti de' piu sublimi, e che i posteri invidieranno noi che viviamo nel suo corrusco. Pensate! Tutto e in questione: il mondo bolle come una pentola; liberta assoluta di riplasmare noi stessi ed il nostro avvenire. Tutto e da rifare: attrezzi, roba, paesi e filosofie. Si pensa gigantescamente, si puo creare con popoli e continenti [...] Vertiginosamente la storia aggiunge forti colori alla sua tela. Ogni momento e pieno di sorprese e possibilita.

("Politica" (a) 82-83)

Soffici uses Rete mediterranea to voice his analysis of Bolshevism, which he reads as a phenomenon of reaction against the bourgeoisie. He is of the view that similar anti-bourgeois reactions are likely to manifest themselves in Western Europe: "[...] la cosiddetta classe borghese e troppo vecchia, corrotta e rammollita per servire da sostegno alle societa nuove che si vanno formando. Una forza politica vergine dovra dunque sopravvenire e questa puo essere benissimo quella del bolscevismo" ("Politica" (a) 86). Once again, the object of his attack is not so much the petty bourgeoisie as such, but, as Gentile puts it, "le forme e la mentalita della societa borghese" (Le origini 163). He expresses little faith in the Italian Socialist leaders and laments, in Italy, the lack of men "di studio, coscienza, fegato" (86) who could lead the anti-bourgeois movement and direct it towards a political programme capable of overcoming chaos and destruction and reassuring the public. Soffici notes with interest the importance attributed to culture by Bolshevism and comments on the particular significance acquired by art at a time of social renewal. Finally, he argues that Russia is an interesting case study in the reconstitution of a national character following the Revolution. He concludes that Italy too might have to undergo a revolution similar to that of Russia to achieve a national renewal (87).

Soffici's analysis of Bolshevism is intertwined in the magazine with his evaluation of the post-war circumstances in Italy. He laments the lack of a political and moral guide, as the Italian political parties are guided by contradiction, ambiguity, confusion, and mendacity. He invokes the creation of a political doctrine which would move away from nationalism, internationalism, democracy, liberalism, socialism and anarchism, and would be the expression of the Italian "race." The cultural reference points for such a doctrine would be Dante, Machiavelli, Mazzini, but also Alfredo ("Politica" (b) 174). Soffici's political analysis stems from his rejection of materialism, which he sees as the cause of the decadence of his age. His critique of Socialism is not so much conducted in terms of its political principles or in relation to its mobilization of the masses--which he considers a sign of strength against "l'abbietto, stomachevole, filisteismo delle nostre classi cosiddette dirigenti" ("Politica" (c) 276)--but it is rather predicated on its neglect of what he calls "le forze spirituali" (276). He argues that the lack of a spiritual dimension makes Socialism unsuitable as a mass ideology and results in a disaffection from the fatherland, which it considers an obsolete concept (277). Soffici's reflections were steeped in the post-war nationalist debates, which promoted the idea of a social revolution which would not relinquish the values of national tradition, seen as the locus of a cross-class identity in which the masses could participate (Gentile, Le origini 143). The evocation of a spiritual dimension in the discussion of politics blurs the boundaries between aesthetics and politics. This instance is particularly evident in Soffici's critique of Socialism as lacking an "aesthetic" component, being, as it is, immersed in a vulgar materialism which obliterates the beauty of the nation and its civilization to concentrate on economic preoccupations. He calls for an integration of beauty in history and envisages a political situation which would establish the primacy of beauty:

Ho troppa fede nella fatalita dei grandi destini dei popoli, nella necessita della bellezza nella storia; credo troppo allo Spirito armonioso ed al suo trionfo finale, nella vita nazionale ed internazionale, per non essere sicuro che un giorno qualcuno o qualcosa verra che, con un soffio violento o un atto fiammeggiante, spazzera via tutto questo sterco; fara sparire tutte queste vergogne, queste umiliazioni e stupidita; e l'intelligenza, la gentilezza e la bellezza torneranno alla fine a brillar sulla terra.

("Politica" (c) 279)

Soffici identifies in Giovanni Gentile's philosophy the terms for a national spiritual regeneration. Commenting on Gentile's collection of essays entitled Dopo la vittoria (1920), he extols the teleological necessity of historical events underscored by Gentile's writings for its spiritual underpinning, according to which any historical event is inevitable and the result of the collective spirit of the nation realizing its destiny. What Soffici admires in particular about Gentile's philosophy is its quasi-religious character. His writings, he argues, "rappresentano [...] il nutrimento piu sostanzioso per lo spirito nazionale." "In essi, l'uomo italiano che ha vissuto il fatto sublime della guerra, trovera di tal fatto la ragione profondissima, la giustificazione, non solo, ma l'esaltazione ragionata come di un'epopea della nostra maturita spirituale di nazione risorta" ("Politica" (b) 179). The artist shares with Gentile the sense that the war had been fought for a renewal of the spiritual life of the nation and his belief in a cultural revolution which would revitalize Italy and defeat materialist ideologies (Gentile, Le origini 118-20).

The Return to Order and the Politics of Classicism

A reconfiguration of the relationship between Italy's classical heritage and national culture underpins Soffici's articles. He provides an extensive commentary particularly on French art, with the aim of reassessing the French artistic legacy and reinforcing the historical primacy of the Italian tradition and its privileged position as the leader of the artistic renewal in post-war Europe. Within this ideological and aesthetic framework, in an article on Medardo Rosso's drawings, he presents the work of the sculptor as an example of "pretta italianita"--alien to any German or English-inspired mannerism and exoticism --and defines his sculpture as "classical," where the term is used to denote what he considers as "perfetto e definitivo," regardless of the style the artist has chosen to use ("I disegni di Medardo Rosso" 35-41). The definition of classicism employed to describe Rosso's work, intertwined with notions of national character, is opposed to the equally loosely applied notion of "preRaphaelitism" (Preraffaellismo), which is used negatively to indicate passive imitation of archaic styles and polemically to describe not only British preRaphaelite art, but also such post-impressionists as Gauguin, Van Gogh, Paul Serusier and Maurice Denis, who, according to Soffici, sought refuge in the past to borrow the artistic rules for the present. Soffici includes Cubism as well as Fauvism, Orphism, Futurism and Dada in this "pre-Raphaelite" tendency and invokes an art that would create a dialogue with pictorial tradition without resorting to the sterile imitation of the past. To pre-Raphaelite mannerism he opposes the art of Cezanne, Renoir and Fattori, who managed to establish a fruitful relationship with tradition, while being modern at the same time ("Preraffaellismo" 71-76). Similarly, in reviewing Carlo Carra's recently published volume Pittura metafisica, he stresses the classicism intrinsic in Carra's search for the object's essence and permanent quality. He states that

tutti i veri artisti [...] hanno capito oggi una verita: che, cioe, l'epoca delle ricerche, delle analisi e degli acerbi arbitri deve essere chiusa, e che bisogna arrivare ad una verita sostanziale. E noi italiani non potevamo se non esser destinati a metterci alla testa degli altri in questa indagine per avanzare nella quale abbiamo la guida di tutti i piu grandi fra i nostri padri.

("Pittura metafisica" 78)

Soffici mentions French magazines, such as L'Occident and Nouvelle Revue Frangaise, as examples of periodicals that had engaged with the need to reconnect modern art with variously defined roots of national culture, as a reaction against the culture of their time. In particular, the idea informing the Nouvelle Revue Frangaise was that philosophy, literature and the arts had become self-serving and wrapped up in the individual, forgetting their civic role. Yet, both periodicals were deemed by Soffici to be too "academic" ("Ritorni" 156). Italy too at the beginning of the twentieth century had seen the flourishing of academic magazines such as Il convito, Hermes, Il rinascimento, followed by the subversive Il Leonardo, La voce, Lacerba, which were in turn followed by intellectual groups promoting a "return" of the values championed by earlier magazines, resulting in sterile and derivative academicism (157-58). While not explicitly mentioned, the reference to La ronda is obvious here, particularly in the allusion to the magazine's reverence for Shakespeare and Leopardi, who were heralded in that magazine as literary models.

It was to counter the tendency to academicism prevalent after the post-war return to order that, in the third issue of Rete mediterranea, Soffici published his "Apologia del futurismo." In it, he proclaims the death of Futurism ("il futurismo doveva morire; il futurismo e morto". "Apologia del futurismo" 199). Yet Futurism, he argues, managed to renovate the form and content of Italian art and free Italy from its obsession with the emulation of foreign forms of cultural modernity. It regained respect for Italian culture abroad when this was just considered as recycling empty forms inherited from its past glories. Futurism had been, according to Soffici, a triumph of national culture, as it served as an artistic model for other countries: "[...] gli altri hanno dovuto seguirci, imitarci. L'Europa, la Francia, hanno preso a modello il futurismo italiano" ("Apologia del futurismo" 205). From an artistic point of view, Futurism managed to renovate the stagnant artistic scene in Italy, catalyse the artistic debate and inject youth and vitality into it, while broadening its intellectual and creative horizons. Futurism--he claims--"accese la passione eroica per la vita e per la bellezza; imposto e risolse con festoso coraggio alcuni problemi che il momento storico artistico imponeva; rinvergini il linguaggio e la tecnica: i modi espressivi delle arti, schiudendo illimitati prospetti alla forza creativa della gioventu italiana" ("Apologia del futurismo" 206). Importantly, Soffici stresses how Futurism had an influence on young soldiers' heroic behaviour in the war: "[...] i futuristi ebbero la loro gloriosa rappresentanza fra i morti, i mutilati e i feriti delle piu terribili battaglie. Fra la canea dei suoi rianimati detrattori si notano invece in prima fila gli antichi tedescofili, neutralisti, imboscati e disfattisti" ("Apologia del futurismo" 207). Once again, Soffici coalesces artistic and political discourses. For him, the legacy of Futurism is not only artistic but also, and eminently, political. To return to an order marked by the intellectuals' proclaimed detachment from the political sphere (La ronda's model), he opposes the example of Futurism to reclaim for the artist a political agency intrinsic in the artistic activity. The disenfranchisement from France and the rest of Europe operated by Futurism at an artistic level has a political equivalent in the patriotic heroism engendered by Futurist ideas and ideals. Soffici, therefore, identifies the core legacy of Futurism, beyond its formal implications, in the principle of the indissoluble link between art and life and its transformative potential on a political and social level.

The September issue of Rete mediterranea features an article on Guillaume Apollinaire, who had fought in the war and had died as a result of the flu pandemic in 1918, becoming the international emblem of the artist-combatant (Winter 18-22). Apollinaire had been appropriated by Italian artists as a supporter and promoter of the avant-garde but also as a champion of classicism and Latinity (Adamson, Embattled Avant-Gardes 110-42). He had become close to Soffici and had followed closely the development of La voce and Lacerba (to which he had contributed), as his correspondence with Soffici, published in Rete mediterranea shows ("36 lettere inedite di G. Apollinaire" (a) and (b). In his article, Soffici highlights the political currency of the French poet's classicism, which he describes as consisting of "assoluti tradizionali, di principi armoniosi e di gerarchie intellettuali [...] ordine e perfezione e limpidita apollinea d'idee e di forme" ("Ricordi di vita artistica e letterararia" 220). He proclaims Apollinaire's classicism as incorporating such characteristics as discipline, a cult of the reason, a sense of measure and balance, both in his artistic and critical activities, interwoven with his italianita (Apollinaire was born in Italy). He declares Apollinaire to be "un vero concittadino," as he was impregnated with "lo spirito della nostra razza," whose features were "il senso dell'armonia, dell'ordine, della chiarezza, della grandezza morale e della schiettezza" (222). Even his physical features betrayed his Italian lineage: the "membra proporzionate e aitanti, l'aperta faccia prelatizia, l'occhio nero luminoso e vivo, il capello scuro e la fine bocca" carried a familiarity which was immediately identifiable with the Italian people (222). Apollinaire himself was quoted by Soffici as declaring that Italy was the "mother of civilization." In his memoir, Soffici justifies the combination of Apollinaire's love of traditional order with his notorious interest for the avant-garde by defining him as "sviscerato dalla bellezza antica, fatalmente spinto alla ricerca di una bellezza nuova; per il quale l'idea dell'ordine che gli deriva dalla conoscenza del passato, non e un'idea che viva soltanto di passato ma che vuol concretizzarsi nel presente e per l'avvenire; che percio l'ordine invoca e persegue nella modernita" (224-25). The figure of Apollinaire is therefore appropriated and used to glorify the artist as a war hero and underscore the interlinking of classicism and modernity.

In the September and December issues of Rete mediterranea, Soffici published a two-part review of French art from Edouard Manet to Andre Derain. While the majority of French artists are criticized for being either mediocre, unoriginal or too preoccupied with technical aspects (these criticisms are directed to Manet and Monet as well as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Matisse, Picasso and Derain), only three artists receive praise: Renoir, Cezanne and Degas. Interestingly, both Cezanne and Degas are inscribed in the great Italian tradition. In particular, Cezanne's art is associated with the "tragic and sensual realism" of such artists as Masaccio, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Tiziano, Tintoretto, the Carraccis, and Caravaggio. Regarding Degas, Soffici evokes Michelangelo, Raffaello and Caravaggio--as well as Rembrandt and Courbet--in the description of his style and technique, even intimating the artist's presumed Italian origin. But what associates Degas with the Italian tradition is the "classical" quality of his art, that is, an orderly and harmonious character that makes it timeless ("Bilancio dell'arte francese contemporanea" (a) 261-72 and (b) 364-71).

Soffici's survey of French art conceals, once again, nationalistic concerns. The argument underlying his analysis is that the primacy of contemporary French art is overstated and that even the most successful French artists are indebted to the Italian tradition. Innovation at all costs is condemned and the reference to the classics is eulogized. The motifs that had underpinned the apology of Futurism are sidelined while some Cubist masters, such as Braque, are deliberately omitted from the review. The predominance of France in the contemporary artistic landscape, with few exceptions, is therefore challenged and the only primacy acknowledged as legitimate is that of the classical tradition defined by the Italian artistic pantheon. Such a critique is aimed at re-stating the primacy of Italian art by reclaiming not only the historical value of the "great tradition," but also its connection to the present and its transformative potential in relation to contemporary art.


While, like many of his contemporaries, Soffici claimed to have been turned by the war into a different man, his cultural project, as it emerges from his post-war writings, was still rooted in the principles that had underpinned much of the Florentine avant-garde project in the pre-war years. These were: a strong nationalist drive, a hostility towards Socialism, the rejection of materialism, and the desire for a cultural, spiritual and moral renewal (Adamson, Avant-Garde Florence 264). This rethinking, brought about by the experience of the war, had not resulted in the denial of those principles, but rather in a recalibration process, whereby the nationalist agenda was linked to the quest for the return to artistic tradition invoked across post-war Europe. The politicization of the return to Italy's classical tradition which constituted the basis of Soffici's and many other artists' intellectual projects, combined with the nationalism and palingenetic expectations created by the war, resulted in the belief, as George Mosse put it, that "the spiritual unity of the nation would solve all difficulties." Such spiritual unity was defined as "a resurgence of creativity viewed in aesthetic terms: the dawn of a new world of beauty and of aesthetic form" (Mosse 98; also Storchi and Braun). Rete mediterranea constituted an important voice in this debate; it reconfigured the relationship between art and politics, proposing the veteran-artist as the exponent of a new artistic-political elite, capable of capturing the mood of the time and providing spiritual guidance to the new nation emerging from the conflict; it sought to reassess the relationship between the recent artistic tradition in Italy and in France, repositioning Italy as the leading nation in the post-war artistic resurgence and establishing its primacy as the leader of the civilization expressed by the idea of the "Mediterranean"; it proposed itself as a bulwark of anti-socialism, envisaging an impending age of mass politics and invoking a political ideology connoted by powerful leadership, a nationalist outlook, a strong spiritual component and an aesthetic dimension, which would actualize the avant-garde quest to organize "a new life praxis from a basis in art" (Burger 49). Ultimately, these principles, ideals, and quests culminated in support for the fascist regime, of which Soffici became a staunch advocate. To consolidate his support for Fascism, in 1924 Soffici published an article entitled "Spirito ed estetica del fascismo" (Lo spettatore italiano, 1 May 1924), in which he outlined his vision for an aesthetic for the new regime. In it, he proclaimed classicism as the aesthetic formulation of Fascism, where the classical was redefined not in terms of return or reaction, but as an art originating from a deep knowledge of artistic techniques and from the awareness that true art can only be born from an artist's productive engagement with his time. But the classical envisaged by Soffici was also steeped in a moral and political order and principles aimed at reinforcing the national community ("Spirito ed estetica del fascismo"). The return to the classical envisaged in Rete mediterranea had found its political counterpart and Soffici, like many modernist artists in Italy, would become an agent of the collusion between aesthetics and politics which defined the fascist regime.

University of Leicester

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(1) In this regard, I refer to, for instance, Soffici himself, "Per la Guerra," and his contemporary Papini, "Cio che dobbiamo alla Francia"; among critics, see Somigli 477; Adamson, Avant-Garde Florence 192-95; Gentile, L'apocalisse 195-242.

(2) On Fascism's historic imaginary, see Fogu, Historic Imaginary and To Make History Present.
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