The Art of the Italian Peplum


In the forward to his revised edition of The Greek Myths, written in Deya, Majorca, in 1960, Robert Graves sketched a theory:

 I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanor, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshiped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called ‘the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence […] suggests that Satyrs, Centaurs, and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom, amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. (1)

Graves had experimented with magic mushrooms himself and this stimulated his ideas about the origins of Greek Mythology which he set out in  ‘Centaur’s Food’ (2), an essay dismissed by every classical scholar who came into contact with it. But even if they were spurious, his theories were tantalising and suggestive, recapturing the primeval strangeness and tribal traces of the original stories.  Hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, remarkable muscular strength: such behavioral extremes had been largely purged from modern representations of the ancient world. When Hollywood got hold of the Classics they had a fairly safe set of tales to ransack, having already been put through a cultural rinse by the Renaissance and the Romantics. It took the Italians, literally picking up leftover American sets and costumes at Cinecitta studios, to put some strangeness and savagery back into the stories. 

I suppose that Graves would have disdained the Italian pepla had he ever watched one, an unlikely event in his Majorca retreat. Even among Italian film enthusiasts they tend to be considered camp crap; hammy kitsch dumped on YouTube channels for the nostalgic or those looking for a laugh. Yet, when Tim Lucas described Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al centro della terra, 1961) as the first psychedelic movie he wasn’t being lazy or flippant at all. This film followed the 1960 Gothic chiller Black Sunday, in which Bava defined his visual style in pure form for the first time, balancing and manipulating light and shade to evoke and elicit extreme states of fear and eroticism. In Hercules in the Haunted World he did the same thing, but with deep, bold Technicolor. Presented as a mythical yarn, his Hercules was a visionary spectacle: a fever-dream in which action was secondary to visual concepts and the exploration of hypnotic states, spells and hallucinations. By this point the lines between Bava’s pepla and horror had blurred (this also happened in his science fiction nightmare, Planet of the Vampires) so that Christopher Lee could play villainous King Lico as if he was Count Dracula. The closing World of the Dead sequence effectively laid the groundwork for the visual assaults of the early 80s Italian zombie cycle: Bava’s Living Dead rising from their crumbling crypts foreshadowed Lucio Fulci’s own underground uprising at the end of City of the Living Dead. Bava’s film showed that the Italians, at this time, had the ability and licence to do things that Hollywood could barely imagine, let alone execute. 

In his overview of the cycle Jon Solomon usefully summarised the basic template of the Italian peplum: “at its nucleus was always the heroic male bodybuilder protagonist performing feats of strength while righting wrongs, originally and predominantly within the mythological and historical parameters of the Greco-Roman world” (2). This provides a neat starting point that is basically accurate for most pepla churned out between 1958-65. It also shows how far the Italians took the formula, not just in terms of geography and history, but thematically and aesthetically. Solomon details plot excursions to such locales and eras as Ancient Egypt, Carthage, Atlantis and Mongol Central Asia. But there was no fidelity to period detail, literary integrity or historical accuracy in these films: each setting simply provided a stage for the most extreme spectacle possible. As Solomon notes, for many producers and directors the innate exoticism of the genre provided an opportunity to accentuate “villainy in the tyrants and sensuality in the femmes fatales” (3): in other words, to maximise the sex and the violence. 

Even in his dry academic summary Solomon can convey some of the vitality and colour of these productions in comparison to their sometimes stolid Hollywood models. European producers pushed Italian directors to mine story and history books for salacious material, which was then spliced together and given lavish visual attention by local film crews, triggering an explosion of energy and creativity that fueled Italian genre cycles until the late 1970s. In his foundational Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole, 1958) and its sequel Hercules Unchained (Ercole e la regina di Lidia, 1959) director Pietro Francisci promiscuously adapted elements from Appollonius of Rhodes, Sophocles, Aeschylus and the legends of Hercules and Omphale. This produced an anarchic remix of mythology and history even more frantic and audacious than opera: stories and characters conflated, condensed and recombined in pursuit of rapid, non-stop sensation. The effect could be surprising, even thrilling, and often hilarious; this would sometimes be unintentional, but no less impressive. There was liberty in this lurid mess. 

As the peplum cycle developed, the need to generate novelty produced a kind of aesthetic delirium: constant escalations spawned increasingly strange hybrids. Riccardo Freda’s The Witch’s Curse (Maciste all’inferno, 1962) is an example of the apparently accidental Surrealism that could result. Freda’s film opens as an atmospheric period chiller about witch trials in 16th Century Scotland, but is quickly disrupted by the entrance of Maciste from another time and realm altogether, bursting into the dark and frigid landscape of Protestant Loch Laird on horseback and wearing only a loincloth. There is no explanation for this temporal irruption, certainly no logic, but it sets up the sudden descent into a feverish subterranean landscape drawn from Hieronymus Bosch: a vision of hell crowded with bestial subhumans and writhing demons, rivers of fire and fluorescent spumes of flame. The overall effect is Gothic, discordant, searing, unhinged; a dizzy rush of wild pyrotechnics and vivid streams of colour creating similar effects to the horror films that Freda was creating alongside Mario Bava at exactly the same time. This is something altogether different from a hammy Hercules tale, and it is as hallucinatory and unsettling as the Greek myths presented in Graves’ own translation.

This was a fast and experimental creative environment that had no scruples and no respect for originality or the auteur theory of film-making or conventional notions of good taste. There was a hungry domestic audience to capture, for one thing, while film crews and directors were encouraged by ambitious producers with greedy eyes on the equally deep and extreme appetites of the American b-movie circuit. In this atmosphere, limits could be exceeded quickly, for sometimes large profit margins. The films, after all, were cheap, and the talented crews fully up to the task of producing ingenious and dazzling spectacle from practically nothing. Everything was thrown into the mix, and genres blurred: at times, even now, it can be hard to know what you are watching: a mythological epic, a science fiction fantasy, or a Gothic nightmare. The process was chaotic, even random. The resulting products were impure, contaminated; sometimes a magical spell, a lavish confection, at other times barely holding together at all, close to unwatchable. As Howard Hughes notes in his compendium Cinema Italiano, “the central theme of pepla is man’s freedom,” (4) but the means of expression were unhinged. Mario Bava, in particular, excelled at pushing the limits of physical spectacle and moral license with limited resources. In Hercules in the Haunted World and the Viking saga Erik the Conqueror (Gil invasori, 1961) he decorated his tales with lavish, over-saturated images of sadism and sexuality, creating minor period epics that fitted into the visual and thematic world he was conjuring up in Baroque horrors like Black Sabbath and The Whip and the Body

This impurity was perhaps the defining feature of Italian products. It could be glimpsed in the haunting vision of Queen Lydia’s crypt in which former lovers become petrified statues in Hercules Unchained or the gruesome fate of the sacrificial victims to Proteus in Vittorio Cottafavi’s Hercules Conquers Atlantis (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide, 1961), visually rich and uncanny set pieces that defy categorization. In Sergio Corbucci’s Goliath and the Vampires (Maciste contra il vampiro, 1961) the Oriental Kingdom of Salmanac is terrorised by a shape-shifting, blood-sucking, free-floating apparition that materialises in wrathes of red mist, floating in mid air, fangs and talons poised to feast on the blood of virgins. Kobrak (‘the vampire’) is capable of changing his form at will: during the film’s climax he takes the form of Goliath himself so that at the final moment, courtesy of some crafty special effects, Goliath appears to grapple with Goliath. The film is suffused with an atmosphere of spooky sadism and exotic sensuality, decorated with a bone-strewn desert, a depraved Oriental court and a frozen underground lair that conceals an army of blue humanoids. Goliath and the Vampires is a period adventure that exceeds every other production of the time by gleefully raiding tricks and tropes from adjacent genres. Corbucci, like Bava, had the talent and temperament as a director to take these things to their logical conclusion: his Roman epic Son of Spartacus (Il figlio di Spartacus, 1962) and Spaghetti Westerns Django and The Great Silence stand out for their handsome scale and pitiless brutality. Goliath and the Vampires made the peplum frightening and cosmic, within its own frivolous boundaries: in the process it shredded conventions and invented something stupid, new and unrepeatable. 

This wildness, this lack of decorum and taste, a refusal to acknowledge any aesthetic boundaries and push at both moral and legal limits, became a basic driving force of Italian genre cinema, taken to extreme horizons by directors like Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato. It pushed the peplum cycle through to its bitter end and ushered in the amorality, violence and eroticism of the Spaghetti Westerns, horror movies and gialli of the later 1960s. The brutality of the pepla set out both limits and precedents for the cinematic language of Italy by depicting violence with more felicity and imagination than their American models. Films like Goliath and the Vampires or Carlo Compagalliano’s ruthless romp Goliath and the Barbarians (Il terrore dei barbari, 1959) and his voluptuous, savage Son of Samson (Maciste nella valle dei re, 1960) opened with whole villages and towns being massacred in surprising, gory detail: the innocent burnt or  buried alive, stabbed or impaled, with no mercy for women or children. In later pepla like Son of Spartacus or Ferdinando Baldi’s Son of Cleopatra (Il figlio di Cleopatra, 1964) the brutal, parched landscape, visual motifs and pessimism of the Spaghetti Western had started to be sketched out: pitiless bursts of violence perpetrated by desperate, amoral men on horseback in barren desert wastelands. 

The violence was balanced by an extravagant sensuality that was often, and deliberately, decadent and provocative, a central trait of Italian cinema. There is a retrospective tendency to focus on the supposedly homoerotic presentation of the lead actors in the pepla: bodybuilders like Steve Reeves and Reg Parks romping around in skimpy loincloths, flexing oily torsos and wrestling wild beasts. But this is misleading, ahistorical and misses a key point: the pepla often revolve around the motivations, machinations and sexual allure of their women. The female characters were not just sex objects in these films: their erotic charisma often suffused the entire narrative and propelled it. If the central protagonist was invariably the muscular and moral hero, a Hercules or a Maciste, then his real nemesis was more often than not a dynamic and seductive Queen or Courtesan. Occasionally controlled by a larger, more malevolent force (Kobrak in Goliath and the Vampires; a race of rock-headed, be-caped aliens in Giacomo Gentilomo’s legitimately camp and demented Hercules Against the Moon Men), they almost always stole the show from everybody else. 

Hercules Unchained, for example, belonged to Sylvia Lopez, the tragic starlet who died of leukemia one year after the film was released. Her Queen Omphale is an outstandingly lurid and febrile creation: decked in gossamer suits and diaphanous gowns with eyes like steel daggers and lips like lava, she is eventually driven mad by desire and immolates herself in her own cave of horrors like a Technicolor Barbara Steele. In Son of Samson and Goliath and the Barbarians, Chelo Olsonso (“the Cuban H-Bomb”) provided a lethal sexual charge by deploying seductive dance routines learnt at the Folies Bergere in Paris (5), vamping and murdering her way through the Mongols of Central Asia and the dangerous schemers of Pharaonic Egypt in luxurious and only vaguely period-appropriate couture mini dresses. As Queen of the Amazons in Hercules, a wily courtesan in Goliath and the Vampires or a corrupt and lusty aristocrat in Son of Spartacus, Gianna Maria Canale exuded a graceful and intelligent menace that finely balanced the outré sexuality of Olonso and Lopez. Lydia Alfonsi excelled at the role of Prophetess often key to the mythological mini-epics, adding mystery and dignity to such roles as the Sybil in Hercules and Cassandra in Giorgio Ferroni’s The Trojan Horse (La guerra di troia, 1961). In the context of the period these films pushed the boundaries of female agency and sexual aesthetics to produce some of the most memorable yet forgotten lead performances by any Italian actresses.  

The peplum provided a perfect vehicle for the visual sensibility of the Italians, and an important opportunity to develop their talent and expertise in special effects, set and costume design. If there is one thing that distinguished the best Italian productions from their American models, it is their rich visual texture. The Italians presented their stories in vivid Technicolor, fully-saturated and dynamic. Caves, grottoes and crypts were drenched in shimmering colour palettes, filled with jarring blues and livid reds, piercing golden shafts and aquamarine washes. Pioneered and inspired by Bava, the lighting did a lot of work: vivid and unnatural, sheer and unpredictable, he deployed cheap tricks to conjure convincing dream states and hallucinatory nightmares. In fact, the visual signature of Mario Bava is all over the most effective and beautiful-looking pepla, even those without his direct involvement like Hercules Conquers Atlantis (a visual and thematic wonder), or the shonky weirdness of Goliath and the Dragon (Le vendetta di Ercole, 1960) in which Cotaffavi painted a broiling volcanic landscape that was only let down by the ridiculous fire-breathing rubber puppet that Mark Forest wrestled at the climax of the film. Most productions required a dance sequence, both an obligation and a chance to show off: in the hands of Bava these became extreme candy-coloured confections, inserts of arch exotica that enhanced the dreamy delirium, budget versions of the Powell and Pressburger ballet extravaganzas in The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. The nature of Italian productions, the studio combination of outrageous talent and motivated hacks, led to this uneven balance of virtuosity and abject failure, often in the same film, even the same scene. But this is precisely why the Italians excelled at the low-brow: apart from an upper crust of Marxist or moralising neorealists, the Italian film industry was refreshingly mercenary and anarchic, and within that precarious, venal infrastructure the likes of Bava and Corbucci could refine their own style and deliver it, in a commercial package, to hungry regional cinemas. 

The tendency towards extreme stylistic mannerism established during the peplum period would be fully developed in the Gothic horrors and gialli that followed: the thread can be traced all the way into the visual assaults of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. The escalations and deviations of the pepla also established the pattern for subsequent films cycles. This was the first filone, and set a commercial and stylistic template for the Spaghetti Westerns, spy capers, Gothic horrors, gialli and poliziotteschi. Some of Italian cinema’s great genre exponents started here, notably Freda, Bava, Leone and Corbucci. Furthermore, in their big, bold themes (freedom, tyranny, the nature of good and evil, love, sex, power) and however moronic the approach, the pepla wore the scars of Italian society in the heat of industrial and cultural revolution. Like the Gothic horrors and Spaghetti Westerns, they did not, in general, try to preach or convert. Like the best Hollywood genre products, the ideas they explored were not delivered as programmes or slogans, but as symptoms of fear and desire, aspiration and dislocation (6). Their achievements were accidental, but not insignificant. Ignored now, they are worth revisiting (and where possible, fully remastering, 7) for their visual and stylistic achievements but also as central and living documents of a country with unmatched cultural resources and abilities being transformed at every level, from every direction. They are waiting, still, to be rescued and rediscovered. 

(1) Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Penguin, 1992), p.9
(2) ‘Centaur’s Food’ in Robert Graves, Food for Centaurs (Doubleday & Co., 1960). William Graves would partly blame use of psychedelics for his father’s late mental decline, see Joshua Hammer, ‘Robert Graves Found ‘Perfect Tranquility’ in Majorca’, New York Times, July 3, 2015
(3) Jon Solomon, ‘The Muscleman Peplum: From Le fatiche di Ercole (1958) to Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)’ in The Italian Cinema Book (ed. Peter Bondanella, BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.163
(3) Solomon, p.167
(4) Howard Hughes, Cinema Italiano – The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult (I.B. Taurus, 2011), p.2
(5) Howard Hughes, p.13
(6) The best example of this is perhaps Hercules Conquers Atlantis, in some ways the most ridiculous of all the pepla but also the most interesting. In the film, Queen Antinea’s Atlantis is a technocratic tyranny with eugenic ambitions to “change men…create a new race.” The mythological setting tilts into science fiction and even exploitation, with its Futurist cityscapes and charged erotic apparel: the fetishistic black leather uniforms and weapons of Queen Antinea’s guards, as well as her own prowling, vicious performance, an Atlantean dominatrix. The thematic echoes of Mussolini’s own mad dreams of a fully aestheticised and pure totalitarian state are obvious and it is worth remembering that these films were being produced only fifteen years after the destruction of the Fascist regime. 
(7) The model would be Arrow Films’ exquisite release of Erik the Conqueror: their 2K  restoration (with the original Italian vocal track) is a revelation. The reputation of films like Hercules, Hercules Unchained, Hercules in the Haunted World, Hercules Conquers Atlantis and Goliath and the Vampires would be transformed by similar treatment and presentation. Whether this will ever be possible, either technically or commercially, is another matter. 

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Interpreting Fascism in ‘The Conformist’


Outside history man is nothing.
Benito Mussolini


In 1970 Bernardo Bertolucci filmed Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist and in the process provoked a formal rupture with his friend and mentor Jean-Luc Godard. Bertolucci had simultaneously preempted and stoked a hostile response by giving Godard’s real life Parisian address and telephone number to the principal victim of the film, Professor Quadri. He later explained this gesture, with a little self-irony:

The Conformist is a story about me and Godard. When I gave the professor Godard’s phone number and address, I did it for a joke, but afterwards I said to myself, “Well, maybe all that has some significance…I’m Marcello and I make Fascist movies and I want to kill Godard who’s a revolutionary, who makes revolutionary movies and who was my teacher. (1)

Through this retrospectively silly spat, fueled by Godard’s commitment to Maoist praxis and Bertolucci’s indulgent surrender to psychoanalytic theory and Paramount budgets, the intellectual failure of the film can be partly understood. The central character of Fascist civil servant Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) — tasked with facilitating a political assassination while on honeymoon with his new wife in Paris — is too narrow and neurotic to resonate more widely than the local repercussions of his internal drama. As a psychological portrait of isolation, commitment and betrayal Moravia’s novel has limitations, but with the addition of Bertolucci’s own psychological speculations deliberate ambiguity can slip into incoherence. There is too much theory in this film — an awkward overlay of Freud and Reich — but the theory is partial and self-referential. It does not adequately explain Italian Fascism or Marcello Clerici, even if it does reveal aspects of Bertolucci’s own self-image, personal preoccupations and feuds. It condemns Italian Fascism, and even Italy in the Fascist era, using crude interpretative tools in pursuit of private intrigues.

In 1973, after Godard conspicuously walked out of an early public screening of Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci passed judgement: “When Godard theorises he becomes very simplistic. But when he doesn’t do that he’s a great poet.” (2) As Pauline Kael noted in her 1971 New Yorker review, this dynamic runs through The Conformist itself:

I think we may all be a little weary — and properly suspicious — of psychosexual explanations of political behaviour; we can make up for ourselves these text­book cases of how it is that frightened, repressed individuals become Fas­cists. In an imaginative work, one might hope for greater illumination — for a Fascist seen from inside, not just a left view of his insides. Yet though the ideas aren’t convincing, the director makes the story itself seem organic in the baroque environment he has created, and the colour is so soft and deep and toned down, and the texture so lived in, that the work is, by its nature, ambiguous — not in the tedious sense of confusing us but in the good sense of touching the imagination. (3)

Bertolucci puts the sexual psychology of his characters at the forefront, making explicit or including what Moravia hints at or omits. In the film’s clumsy final scene under the arches of the Colosseum — where Marcello encounters and confronts his early abuser, Lino the chauffeur, as Mussolini’s dictatorship falls apart — Bertolucci practically certifies repressed homosexuality as the central motivation for this adoption of fascism. It is not a very useful or artistically satisfying conclusion although it may have been ideologically or theoretically convenient for Bertolucci himself. For the best part of the film, and in Moravia’s novel, Marcello’s sexuality is latent and part of a wider and more complex and even contradictory set of motivating factors. This belongs to a general theme of sexual ambiguity which pervades the story itself and, in Marcello’s case, resists resolution or categorisation. In the same way, his identification with fascism is ultimately opaque: a pointless riddle. His sudden lust for Professor Quadri’s wife is as vivid and irreducible as the memory of Lino from which he seemingly does everything to escape. In the film, Anna Quadri’s sexual charisma is luxurious and fluid (due in large part to Dominique Sanda’s performance), whereas Moravia portrays a flinty, single-minded and predatory lesbian named Lina (in sexual counterpoint to Lino). In the novel, Marcello’s vacuous and sensual petit bourgeois wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) finds Lina’s sexual overtures disgusting and frankly rebuffs her; in the film, her reaction to Anna is more indulgent and ambivalent and, of course, visually arresting.

Moravia and Bertolucci are both able to evoke a liminal world of fluid sexuality that overwhelms Marcello. He is confused, rootless, without fixed identity, and tries to find this by adopting what he perceives to be the most attainable and conventional role available: middle class Fascist party member and husband. In doing this he also rejects his family identity: his chaotic, wealthy upbringing; his insane, incarcerated father; his promiscuous, morphine-addicted mother. As a young boy, he attempts to find refuge in the rituals of school:

The novelty of his schoolfellows, of the teachers, the classrooms, the timetables – a novelty in which an idea of order and discipline and shared occupations was always discernible, under a variety of aspects – was extremely pleasing to him after the disorder, the lack of rules, the loneliness of his own home. (4)

This fails, as he cannot find the order and belonging that he craves: bullied by other pupils because of his effeminate appearance, he falls into the clutches of the predatory Lino. Fascism provides a more fertile opportunity to cut off and condemn the past, because of its definitive postulation of values and its ideological flexibility. As George L. Mosse explained: “The key to fascism is not only the activism and the longing for a community of affinity but also the taming of these ideals into a system of hierarchy, discipline, and order” (5). The immediate utility of fascism for Marcello is clear: as a party and state ideology it rejects the parliamentary, liberal Italy of Giovanni Giolitti that the Fascists associated with decadence and corruption, and which Marcello also associates with his parents. His family’s decadence and “abnormality” is repudiated and condemned by Marcello through the surrender of his individuality to mass identity and social hierarchy within a fascist order. He does not understand that the identity he adopts is extreme in its own way and that he must commit murder to attain it, a major component of the original tragedy he is trying to escape from and the story’s principal dramatic irony. Finally, in this epic of repression, evasion and cancellation Marcello develops a sterile interior life, emotionally and sexually. His act of self-creation through fascism is purely negative and inescapably leads to aridity and dysfunction. 

Bertolucci fatally reduces this dynamic in the process of applying his own Reichian gloss to the narrative. In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich defined fascism as “the organised political expression of the structure of the average man’s character”:

Since fascism, whenever and wherever it makes its appearance, is a movement borne by masses of people, it betrays all the characteristics and contradictions present in the character structure of the mass individual…Fascist mentality is the mentality of the “little man,” who is enslaved and craves authority and is at the same time rebellious. (6)

Bertolucci explicitly adopted this interpretation in the 1973 interview:

Yes, I think the average man is fascistic…the average man is fascist. All my characters are predestined. They’re doomed, but it’s not destiny that’s decided to doom them, it’s their unconscious. (7)

The limitation here, which undermines his film in ways that do not harm Moravia’s novel, is in locating the source of fascism in repressed sexuality and an unconscious desire for authority. In his 1969 survey Interpretations of Fascism, Renzo de Felice identified the limitations of Social Science accounts of fascism exemplified by Reich:

[i]t is difficult to accept their tendency (in certain instances, pretension) to view their contributions as full-blown interpretations of fascism. As historical reconstructions and evaluations these analyses and explanations (including those least inspired by a historical approach) are individually unsatisfactory because they are narrow and incomplete. They are distortions, reverting to schematic and unilateral interpretations based on the exaggeration of a single aspect of the phenomenon and the denial (or, in better examples, underestimation) of other aspects. (8)

In Bertolucci’s film the character can serve the theory, but the theory does not adequately explain the character or the regime. It has a long way to go to fully account for fascism or to evaluate its historical and social significance. As De Felice long contested, and Christopher Duggan subsequently confirmed through extensive work in the Italian archives (9), the Fascist Regime enjoyed broad popular support across all sectors of Italian society until quite late into the 1930s. Even when faith in fascism disintegrated, loyalty to the dictator proved more resilient. But the reasons for this were multifaceted: psychological, mythic, economic, patriotic, aesthetic, erotic, cynical, idealistic, revolutionary and conformist. In this context, Bertolucci’s film fails as a commentary on fascism but stands as a patchy psychological case study, albeit propelled by some of the most ravishing visual compositions in the history of cinema (10).


This is not all it does, however. Through their dual portraits of Marcello both Moravia and Bertolucci can evoke aspects of fascism disregarded as superficial or irrelevant by many of its historians, with important exceptions such as George L. Mosse, Renzo de Felice, Emilio Gentile and Roger Griffin. The narrative of The Conformist does not simply present fascism in Italy as a conservative and reactionary movement but also, and more effectively, hints at its revolutionary and Modernist aspects: the drive to create New Italians, to “challenge time” and establish a political religion, ideas articulated by philosophers and artists such as Giovanni Gentile and the Futurists. Marcello’s attempt to conform through immersion in the Fascist state apparatus is driven by his sense of personal abnormality and abhorrence of all its manifestations. What he finds in fascism is not just an opportunity to conform, but to start again: to erase the past and oppose all its associations, and to recreate his own character. If Marcello’s identification with fascism is essentially negative, it is still an act of self-creation. In this case the motivations are opaque when they are not cynical or he is not simply conflicted and ready to betray everything he is trying to commit to. Nevertheless, fascism provides the existential tools and opportunity to eliminate his past and construct a new identity. In this aspect of his portrayal, Moravia and Bertolucci are both able to locate revolutionary potential and contradictions in fascism often minimised or erased in post-war interpretations. 

Before Marcello marries Guilia, she insists, for the sake of form, that he attends confession, which in turn becomes a minor inquisition. With self-conscious perversity, a kind of pleasurable malice, Marcello presents his record: the ambiguous sexual encounter with Lino; his “murder” of Lino; his subsequent “normal” premarital sex life, mostly using prostitutes (“you call that normal?” replies the priest). It is a key scene because Marcello finds clarity in this ritual and is as open and truthful as he can be. “I am going to build a life that is normal,” he explains, “I intend to construct my normality. But it won’t be easy.” This entails marriage to Giulia, into a class, to become a type, which he designates with the arrogance and coldness of the pseudo-aristocratic outsider that he really is. With a wolfish grin which is partly a grimace, teeth set like razors along the edge of his bottom lip, he states: “I am marrying a petit bourgeois. Mediocre. A mound of petty ideas, full of petty ambitions. She’s all bed and kitchen.” The priest, appalled by his disdain, exclaims: “You have no right to use such expressions!” He councils Marcello to build this life within the moral and social limits defined by Catholicism: “Stay within religion.” Marcello responds with force: “Outside religion!” In the novel Moravio adds:

He was quite aware that, amongst the many possible standards of behaviour, he had not chosen the Christian standard which forbids man to kill, but another entirely different one, political and of recent introduction, which had no objection to bloodshed. (11)

Marcello has no use for the hypocrisy of a Church that is more concerned with one potential homosexual encounter than his unambiguous confession of murder. The act of confession, of playing his role in the rite, clashes with his other “normal” construction: the loyal Fascist. It is a compromise, full of dangerous ironies and fissures, which reflects real conflicts and accommodations between the Vatican and the Fascist regime. Fascism, in its ideological forms, aspired to create a political religion, to establish new values for a New Italy. The Vatican considered this to be a legitimate threat to its status and authority. One of the defining commands of Italian Fascism was faith in the cause and it was this very usurpation of religious concepts to engineer mass, totalitarian engagement with the regime that created conflict with the Catholic Church. Giovanni Gentile, the philosopher, Fascist Minister of Education and co-writer with Mussolini of the The Doctrine of Fascism, tried to define and thereby create a totalitarian state that would embody a new system of ethics and morality, transcending both the liberal era of Giolitti and the spiritual malaise of modern society. As Roger Griffin writes, this amounted to “a regenerative myth…[a] shift from cultural pessimism to palingenetic hope” (12) that fed into the tropes and myths invented and appropriated by the Fascists: the New Italy, the New Man, “making Italians”, “completing the Risorgimento” (13). The historian Emilio Gentile describes this as a “sacralization of politics and the institutionalisation of the cult of the fasces…the construction of a lay religion for the nation” (14). Giovanni Gentile and the radical ideologues of the Fascist movement aimed at nothing less than a “total spiritual revolution” that profoundly challenged the spiritual dominance of the Catholic Church (15). 

The values of this new faith, like Marcello’s own self-construction, were built by defining identity against others, values postulated in opposition to subversion, perversion, weakness, race. The parts of Marcello’s personality that he wants to escape and erase (sexual ambiguity, “decadence”, intellectualism, his physical and moral cowardice) are in precise opposition to the fascist ideal of the New Man and the New Italy. As Special Agent Manganiello spits in disgust after Marcello fails to kill Anna: “Cowards, homosexuals, Jews, they’re all the same thing. If it was up to me, I’d stand them all up against the wall. Better yet, eliminate them before they’re born.” Marcello’s intellectualism is an important focal point of this conflict: like the regime he serves, he disdains the intellectual class as representative of Giolittian liberalism, compromise, decadence, and the anti-fascist values he identifies and rejects in himself. He is willing to betray his former professor, and his own past as the star philosophy student, in order to construct his new identity within the framework of the new ethical state, although this is always fragile. Marcello can even accuse the professor, and his intellectual class, of betrayal, of fleeing the scene of conflict: “you left,” he tells Quadri, “and I became a Fascist.” Quadri is never fully convinced by Marcello’s projected identity: “excuse me Clerici,” he replies, “a confirmed Fascist doesn’t speak like that.” (Later he says to Marcello, probing: “You had me convinced you were the typical New Italian.” “No such type exists yet,” Marcello replies, “but we’re creating him.”) Everything outside of this identity, every aspect of this past that he views with fear and disgust, becomes a compromise, condemns him, and is a crime (real, imaginary and abstract crimes all conflate in this disordered mind): “It was a desire for normality; a wish to conform to a recognised, general rule; a longing to be like everybody else, inasmuch as to be different meant to be guilty” (16).

Marcello tries to be a fanatical Fascist, ready to commit murder for the regime. But his attempt to construct a new identity, to erase his past, is always partly compromised: Moravia makes it clear that if Lina reciprocated his advances, Marcello would immediately betray his new wife, Fascism, the regime, and his country, simply in order to have her. Ultimately, however, he strikes an essentially cynical bargain for reasons he can articulate but not fully understand. It is the Protean ideological ferment of Italian Fascism that gives him the tools to dismantle his past, his family ties, and his formative identity in order to assemble a new “deliberate, artificial” (17) construct. The tools available include Giovanni Gentile’s philosophy of Actualism which understood history as a “dynamic, living, futural reality that is to be proactively made” and “reality as the product of continuous autoctisi or ‘self-creation’” (18). The attempt by Marcello, the former philosophy student, to “remake” himself and to “make history” through one dynamic act, an intervention in real time, is pure Gentile, pure Actualism. (“Action,” as he understands it, is “a confirmation of one’s own normality that must be provided both for oneself and for others” (19).) Like the regime he serves, he can reject the liberal intellectual class while retaining the capacity to embrace and exploit philosophical ideas that serve his interests (20).

Finally, this involves a challenge to time itself: to overthrow the past, to eradicate or manipulate memory, a project mirrored by Fascism itself which sought to redefine Italy’s relationship to its own past and to “challenge time” (in the words of Mussolini). This was dismissed as an example of the Fascists’ inflated, empty rhetoric, but Griffin understood it to be central to the movement’s palingenetic scope and ambition:

In this context, the regime’s introduction of a new calendar to run alongside the Gregorian one which established 1922, the year of the March on Rome, as Year I of the Fascist Era, is a gesture pregnant with symbolic significance…The mathematical manipulations of the measurement of time under Mussolini point to a profoundly mythic will to create a new type of state capable of realizing a new order in which chronos will be suspended and historical time will literally be made anew. (21)

Marcello’s desire to erase his past parallels the regime’s attempt to redefine Italy through the new ethical Fascist state, resurrecting Rome through an erasure of the liberal era. For Marcello time is a trap: he attaches all his psychological disorder to the tyranny of memory and history. Through fascism, he thinks, he can transcend this fate. However Peter Bondanella notes that Bertolucci’s own manipulation of time has another significance for the character of Marcello: 

The plot of the film can be assembled only after a complete viewing of it, since the many flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks disrupt any linear sense of time…[w]ith this ingenious confusion of levels of time, Bertolucci brilliantly manages to render the sense of entrapment in the past felt by Marcello. (22)

The attempt to “challenge time” inevitably fails, both for Marcello and Mussolini. The Fascist Era ends with a bust of the dictator being dragged through the streets of Rome from the back of a motorbike. Marcello, cynically and desperately, finds space in the spiritual revolution that fascism offers to reset his identity, integrate with the Italian masses, and find freedom from his past. The ideology, then, is an opportunity for illusion and self-delusion: Fascism, as such, is a cynical sham. In both novel and movie, Marcello is constantly caught between his recognition of this pretence and the attempt to submit to it. In this way, The Conformist manages to capture something of the Protean, dynamic, revolutionary nature of the Fascist movement, even through a negative and ironic treatment. Politics, for Marcello, has become a way to order identity and to re-order his life: through the ideological apparatus of Fascism he attempts to construct an attitude and an approach to living. It is the totalitarian scope of the project that offers this potential, but also destroys it. This, then, is the most successful interpretation of fascism that The Conformist actually offers.

  1. Bernardo Bertolucci quoted in Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema – From Neorealism to the Present (Continuum, 2001), p.304
  2. Jonathan Cott, ‘A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci’, Rolling Stone, June 21st, 1973
  3. Pauline Kael, ‘The Poetry of Images’, The New Yorker, March 27th, 1971
  4. Alberto Moravia, The Conformist (Penguin, 1974, trans. Angus Davidson), p.30
  5. George L. Mosse, The Culture of Western Europe – the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries 3rd Ed. (Westview Press, 1988), p.348
  6. Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p.xiii
  7. Cott, ‘A Conversation…’
  8. Renzo de Felice, Interpretations of Fascism (Harvard University Press, 1977, trans. Brenda Huff Everett), p.77 
  9. See Christopher Duggan, Fascist Voices – An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy (Vintage, 2013)
  10. As much as anybody else, The Conformist is the triumph of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
  11. Moravia, p.105
  12. Roger Griffin, Modernism and Fascism – The Sense of a Beginning Under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p.197
  13. Griffin, p.198
  14. Quoted in Griffin, p.221
  15. Fascist anti-clericalism was tempered when the movement became a regime and Mussolini was required to compromise with the Vatican; similarly, the Church made its own accommodations with a regime that shared many other social and political interests. On this conflict and compromise see, for example, Duggan, pp.80-3.
  16. Moravia, p.29
  17. ibid. 
  18. Griffin, p.194
  19. Moravia, p. 71
  20. Italian Fascism was not necessarily anti-intellectual, in the sense that it utilised intellectuals sympathetic to its ideas and interests. See, for example, the ‘Manifesto of fascist intellectuals’ published in Il Popolo d’Italia during April 1925. Duggan (p.115): “The manifesto, which had been drawn up largely by [Giovanni Gentile] sought to establish the main coordinates of fascist ideology and justify the assaults that were being made on ‘freedom’ as it was conventionally understood.”
  21. Griffin, pp.223
  22. Bondanella, pp. 301-3
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The Jews in Fascist Italy

A 36244

And he would shake his head, with the expression of someone who, should they wish to, could even understand such subtleties and complications, but who is just not minded to. Such tiny fine discriminations, intriguing and engaging as they might be, at a certain point became irrelevant: they too would be swept away. (1)

From November 1938 the Italian Fascists promulgated a set of Racial Laws that targeted Italian Jews, barring them from public office, banning mixed marriage, stripping their assets and restricting travel. Looking back after the destruction of the major European Jewish populations by the Nazis, the experience of the Italians before and during the Second World War is full of tragic contradictions and historical ironies. In his 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani portrays some of these complexities as experienced by the Jewish community of Ferrara, seen retrospectively through the eyes of a narrator recounting his youthful infatuation with Micol Finzi-Contini and her reclusive, aristocratic family. Giorgio’s story plays between reality and fiction, memory and fantasy, but unravels against the very real backdrop of Mussolini’s doomed alliance with Hitler and its implications for the Ferranese Jews.

In the novel, Giorgio has a heated exchange with his father two months after the introduction of the Racial Laws that captures the defiance and denial still being expressed at this late stage by many Italians, including Jews:

“I hope you won’t want to start on the usual story,” I interrupted him, shaking my head.

“What story?”

“That Mussolini is more good than Hitler.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But you have to admit it’s true. Hitler’s a bloodthirsty maniac, whereas Mussolini is what he is, as much of a Machiavellian and turncoat as you want, but…” (2)

Even at this point there was reason for uncertainty and indecision, if not complacency. Until the Racial Laws, Italy had no antisemitic tradition to compare to the majority of early twentieth century European nations. The introduction of racist legislation triggered shock and open revulsion throughout the country and caused a “crisis of conscience” in the Fascist movement itself (3). The cynics and antisemites of the party elite, men like Roberto Farinacci and Giovanni Preziosi,  understood the need to “prepare” Italians for this new policy, which many considered “the ‘barbaric’ and ‘Celtic’ doctrines from beyond the Alps” (4). The Laws were preceded by a change in the tone and reporting of Jewish stories in the national press, followed by the publication of ‘The Manifesto of the Racial Scientists’ which was generally met with disgust and derision: according to Giorgio’s Communist friend Malnate, “it was hard to know whether it was more shameful or more ridiculous” (5). Renzo de Felice described the Manifesto, the first clear shot in the antisemitic campaign in Italy, as “a text that, from every point of view, scientific, political and moral, remains one of the worst and shabbiest episodes of the Fascist period.” (6) However, these measures singularly failed in their aim to convert Italian public opinion to antisemitism for the simple reason that Italians could not see any reason to discriminate against those citizens they had worked and lived with (and married) without prejudice since the Emancipation.

The Jewish population of Italy, while numerically small, is highly assimilated, successful, and ancient. The first Roman Jews settled in the Second Century B.C. and the Jewish community of  the Portico d’Ottavia neighborhood — the ghetto liquidated by the Nazis in October 1943 — dated back to Emperor Vespasian. The word ‘Ghetto’ partly derives from the original segregation of the Venetian Jews in 1516 on the site of a foundry (‘getto’). The Emancipation and the Revolution of 1848, the Risorgimento and the Liberal Regime that followed unification, successively secured their status. They prospered and integrated. Many distinguished themselves in the Great War and subsequently participated in the early squadristi and local Fascist parties. In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio’s pen portrait of his father is intended to symbolise an Italian (not only Ferranese) type from the subsequent period: “medical graduate and free-thinker, army volunteer, since 1919 card-holder of the Fascist Party, and sports enthusiast, in short the Modern Jew” (7). In the novel, his father never fully recants his allegiance to the Fascists; in Vittorio de Sica’s 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi Contini, however, his pro-Fascism is muted and his final rejection of the regime actually depicted in the closing scenes. This was a serious point of contention between the novelist and film-maker, erasing the record of local participation in Fascism by the Ferranese Jews — the very difficult and biting point of the work — and replacing this with a general (if moving) portrait of persecution. But the power of Bassani’s novel is precisely this exploration and exposure of the accommodations made with the regime, its subtle entwinement in everyday life and thought processes, individual and communal self-awareness, even at a moment of grave and growing danger.  

The reasons that Jews could accommodate and participate in Fascism before and even after the introduction of the Racial Laws were numerous and overlapping, but also as contingent as the regime itself. As Michael Ledeen writes:

Like all other Italians, the Jews saw a variety of tendencies at work in the Fascist Regime. What they saw most clearly, however, was that the situation of the Jews got better and better over the first decade of fascist rule. They consequently behaved pragmatically when they supported a government which not only improved their legal status but […] also became for a time one of the foremost advocates of the Zionist cause in Europe. (8)

Giorgio’s father accuses the Finzi-Contini of avoiding the local community by joining the “scornful isolation of the Spanish synagogue” without even being “good Zionists” to warrant it:

Given that here in Italy, and in Ferrara, they always found themselves so ill at ease, so out of place, they could at least have benefited from this situation and taken themselves off, once and for all, to Eretz! But not at all. Apart from fumbling every now and then for a wee bit of cash to send to Eretz (which was nothing to boast of, anyway) the thought of going had never even crossed their minds. (9)

Mussolini’s shifting attitude towards Zionism illustrated those particular traits recognised by Giorgio’s father at a different moment: cynical, “Machiavellian” and “turncoat”. In the attempt to consolidate Italian influence over the Mediterranean, Zionism proved a useful, if temporary, tool. Mussolini held cordial meetings with Chaim Weizmann and Nachum Sokolov and from 1932 his Regime collaborated with Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Zionist movement. By 1937 different considerations and tendencies abruptly ended this accord, as Renzo de Felice details:

The Zionist card had lost its value in the eyes of the Fascists: alliance with Germany, a pro-Arab policy, and a Mediterranean agreement with England had modified the view the Palazzo Chigi had of Palestine. The efforts of those Jews who, feeling the storm rising above their heads, tried to ward it off by attempting to convince important Fascist leaders that Italy could at last replace Great Britain within the mandate over Palestine, came to nothing. (10)

The Jewish community in Ferrara was perhaps the most advanced and successful example of Jewish assimilation in Italy. This is why the the fate of the city’s aristocratic and middle class milieu so effectively illustrated the overall tragedy of the Italian Jews, in both Bassani’s fiction and the historical archives. Alexander Stille describes how, in Ferrara,

an ancient bond of tolerance and affection tied the Jews to their city. From as early as the thirteenth century, it had distinguished itself among Italian city-states for its religious openness…while most other cities prevented Jews from doing any business other than banking, to avoid competition with local merchants, Ferrara granted them full rights. (11)

This was interrupted by the city’s absorption into the Papal States in 1597 which saw the creation of the ghetto and the abolition of civil rights for Jews. Following liberation, the story of the Jewish community is one of energetic integration and significant contributions to the development of the Italian State. During the Fascist era many middle class Ferranese Jews were members of the Fascist Party, like Giorgio’s father. Bassani himself claimed that when he was growing up he did not recall a single Jew in Ferrara who was not a Fascist. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a portrait of the moment this concord fell apart.  For Giorgio’s father the full import of the Racial Laws does not immediately register and is deflected by rage and suspicion at the aloof attitude of the Finzi-Continis: “Of course […] they were pleased with what was happening! Because to them, halti as they’d always been (anti-Fascist, sure, but above all halti) deep down the Racial Laws gratified them!”(12)

In his group portrait of five Italian Jewish families under Fascism, Stille documents the fate of the Ferranese Schönheits, sent to Fossili before final deportation to Buchenwald, like the fictional Finzi-Contini. He quotes Franco Schönheit who recalled the reaction of the Ferranese Jews to the Nazi assault on the Roman Jews in an interview with the author:

We heard about the October roundup in Rome the day after. Trains carrying prisoners from Rome had passed through Northern cities, and the people inside had thrown postcards and letters from the cars. But we were very incredulous. Italian Jews in general were very incredulous. German refugees who had escaped into Italy would take every opportunity to warn Italian Jews about what was happening to Jews in Germany, but we always said, ‘What happened in Germany can never happen in Italy.’ You heard that phrase constantly, up until the end. (13)

Up until the end. It became difficult, if not actually impossible, for Italian Jews to remain loyal to the Fascist Regime after the promulgation of the Racial Laws. This was also true for Italians in general and marked the beginning of Fascism’s decline in Italy. Renzo de Felice writes:

Those who had shunned politics up to that moment and had, so to speak, “delegated” it to Fascism, began, during the second half of 1938, to think for themselves once again […t]he corruption, the immorality of Fascism, quickly became obvious to everyone, causing disgust, solidarity with the Jews, and loss of confidence in the state. (14)

For the majority of Jews who felt loyal to Italy, who fully believed that they owed their emancipation and equality to the birth of Italian State, and who had also contributed so much to it, the conflict was profound, fundamental:

The realization that Fascism did not represent Italy, and had not made a mistake or misunderstood them, was slow and painful. Fascism had consciously and cynically prepared and undertaken their persecution and it was now useless, naive, and shameful to attempt to convince it of their “good faith” through demonstrations of loyalty, which it obviously did not deserve and in which Jews no longer believed. (15)

But there were even some Jewish exceptions to this. Stille recounts the tragic story of Ernesto Ovazza, a leader of the Fascist ‘bandieristi’ group and the Jewish Community in Turin who felt certain that his well-documented loyalty to Mussolini would save his family from persecution. He held onto this conviction until they were literally dragged out of their hotel in the Italian Alps to be executed and incinerated by drunk SS guards. Before leaving Milan himself, Ovazza told fleeing relatives, “they’ll never touch me, I’ve done too much for Fascism.” Stille quotes another fugitive who encountered Ovazzo at a later date, in hiding: “During several walks we took together he always seemed rather calm because he claimed to have in his possession a signed photograph of Mussolini dedicated to him.” (16)

The whole arc of Ovazza’s awful story provides some insight into the way that Jews were able to find a place within Fascist Italy that was not possible in Hitler’s Germany. In its  conception of the New Man as well as its “spiritual” racism, Fascist elitism diverged from Nazi racial genealogy.  The Italian Fascist ideologues, and Mussolini early on, conceived of Fascism as a revolution of the spirit: dynamic and open-ended where Nazism was fixed and reactionary. As De Felice suggested in his famous 1975 Intervisto sul fascismo,

[w]hile Nazism has a revolutionary appearance through its mobilization of the masses, insofar as the transformation of society is concerned it moves on a double path different from the Italian case. It seems to create a new society, but the most profound values on which this society must be created are traditional, antique, and unchangeable…Nazism sought a restoration of values and not the creation of new values. The idea of the creation of a new kind of man is not a Nazi idea. (17)

De Felice expressed the controversial view that Italian Fascism was a revolutionary movement with roots in the French Revolution (18), an analysis that provoked hostility in post-war Italy, with the cultural hegemony of the Communist Party laying claim to the revolutionary tradition and with the legacy of the Resistance so important to the First Republic. But even the Fascist cult of violence had roots on the revolutionary Left: think of the influence of Syndicalism and Georges Sorel, always present alongside D’Annunzio, the Futurists and the experience of the First World War. In these years there was a tension in the movement between traditional nationalism and revolutionary, avant-garde tendencies. George L. Mosse, in his essay ‘Fascism and the Avant Garde,’ writes:

Italian Fascism was certainly more open to the future than German National Socialism; the new man of the south had avant-garde features lacking in the north, where the ideal German was the ancient Aryan whom Hitler had roused from centuries of slumber. Mussolini was much more ambivalent…[he] did leave the door ajar to the future, while in Germany nationalism and racism blocked all exits. Neither Mussolini nor many of his followers gave up the idea that fascism, while rooted in the past, was not destined to cling stubbornly to these roots. Nevertheless, however uncharted the new spaces, they were to be controlled and dominated by a national stereotype, rooted as a matter of fact in the imagery and the ideals of the attempted revolution of bourgeois youth at the fin de siecle. (19)

Even after the adoption of antisemitism and racist policies it remained important for the Italians to distinguish themselves from the Nazis. Due to the very composition and history of Italy, their racial ideal could not be the pure Aryan of the Northern imaginary; nor could it completely break from the New Man or Universal Fascism or the mystical and Idealist elements espoused by the likes of Arnaldo Mussolini, Giuseppe Bottai and Giovanni Gentile. On a practical level, Mussolini had been drawn towards racism during the campaigns in Libya and Ethiopia, when he decided to emphasise the superiority of Italians over Africans for the purpose of war propaganda and to condemn reports of the sexual activities of Italian troops. Antisemitism was a harder sell and Mussolini’s own rhetoric even more wild and contradictory than on other topics: he could often be candid about the tactical cynicism of antisemitism, stating as late as 1938 that Italy had no ‘Jewish Problem’ and describing Mein Kampf as “that incoherent tirade I have never managed to read” (20).

Once racism and antisemitism had been incorporated into the Fascist programme attempts began to theorise this turn in line with the doctrines of “revolutionary fascism”. Again, this led to a key distinction with Nazi racial doctrine and its pseudo-biological Weltanschauung, fixed and immutable, with non-Aryans marked for slavery or extermination. For Mussolini and the Fascists the difference between Italians and Jews became a spiritual contrast, as described by Ledeen:

For Mussolini there were various spiritual types in the world, and he believed that at certain dramatic moments in history it was possible to speak of “races” becoming coextensive with “nations.” Such was the case with fascist Italy, where the genius of the Italian race (a spiritual “type”) had made it possible to begin the construction of the Fascist State. Yet within that State were some recalcitrant elements, which did not share in the qualities of the “race,” which did not adapt to the new spiritual climate of the period, and which insisted on clinging to the values and goals of an earlier, corrupt epoch. The purpose of the antisemitic policies, as viewed by the Duce, was to retrain these elements, to Italianize and “fascisticize” them, and finally to reintegrate them back into fascist society. When this reintegration was achieved, the Italian “race” and the Fascist State would be coextensive, both geographically and spiritually. (21)

That is: “The Fascists insisted upon their ability to change the human spirit”. Even their most discriminatory policies, in theory if not practice, left enough ambiguity for those inclined to find some psychological space in the Fascist State. After the Racial Laws, Ettore Ovazza did not protest against the Fascist policy, but severed all connections with organized Judaism, “protesting what he believed as the Jewish community’s insufficient fascist rigor.” (22) This chaos of tensions, ambiguities and contradictions within Fascist doctrine is key to the attitudes and fate of Italian Jews during the Fascist epoch but also the final destruction of the Fascist State itself. It was crushed by a more ruthless and murderously deterministic regime than itself.

The clues to this outcome were evident in the early 1930s. In 1934, the Italians organised a pan-fascist congress at Montreux under the leadership of the Comitati d’azione per l’Universalità di Roma (CAUR). Representatives of fascist movements arrived from across Europe, apart from the Nazis who declined to attend. The trigger that undid this enterprise was the Jewish Question, tabled by the pro-Hitler Romanian Iron Guard contingent. The conference split along national lines and in common with their hostility or sympathy to the Nazis. At this point Italy retained a position of prestige within the prospective Fascist International and was far from adopting its own antisemitic policies. In fact, at this stage, antisemitism served to highlight the division and suspicion between the Italians and Germans. The resolution of this split sealed the fate of Italy’s Jews.

Nazism was a terminal ideology for European Jews which could count on mass antisemitic sentiment existing in, say, Romania, Poland or Ukraine. Italy and its Fascist movement was a more complex proposition. It had antisemites and racists among its elite hierarchy and followers, but these ideas were marginal until 1937. Ultimately it was Fascism’s protean and opportunistic nature, aligned with the cynicism of its leadership, that proved deadly for the Italian Jews, rather than any large-scale antisemitic currents within Italian society. This endpoint was as inevitable, maybe, as the Italian Fascist Regime’s squalid and violent collapse; the seeds for catastrophe sown at the start. In The Italians, Luigi Barzini records a conversation with Mussolini as recounted by one of his former socialist comrades:

He swaggered, made faces, pushed his chin forward, bent his knees, hands on hips, as cavalry officers used to do, all in good humour. He recalled some forgotten mutual friends. He boasted about the achievements of his regime. I said nothing. Then he told me: “You are a stubborn fool, not becoming one of us. Why don’t you join the Fascist party?” I felt that if I had said yes, I was tired of living apart from the rest of my countrymen, he would have given me a party card then and there…Finally, I blurted out what was in my mind. I said: “This regime of yours, I am afraid, will end badly. Such things always do. Benito, you’ll die like Cola di Rienzo.” At these words, which I meant seriously but said in a facetious tone, Mussolini made one of his grimaces, expressing mock horror, then laughed and looked at his hands, spread out in front of him, fingers wide apart, the thick and short hands of a peasant. What he said I will never forget. He said: “I wear no rings, you see. It will not happen to me.” (23)

  1. Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Penguin, 2007, trans. Jamie McKendrick), p. 223
  2. Bassani, p. 58
  3. Michael Ledeen, Universal Fascism – The Theory and Practice of the Fascist International, 1928-1936 (Howard Fertig, 1972),  p.134
  4. Ledeen, p.132
  5. Bassani, p.136
  6. Renzo de Felice, The Jews in Fascist Italy: A History (Enigma, 2004, trans. Robert Miller), p.265
  7. Bassani, p.34
  8. Ledeen, p.137
  9. Bassani, p.61
  10. De Felice, p.173
  11. Alexander Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal – Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism (Vintage, 1993), p.284
  12. Bassani, p.61
  13. Stille, p.283
  14. De Felice, p.297
  15. De Felice, p.317
  16. Stille, p.86
  17. Renzo de Felice, Fascism: An Informal Introduction to its Theory and Practice (Transaction, 1977), p.56
  18. This analysis is influenced by J. L. Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. See De Felice, Fascism, p.106: “Insofar as Italian fascism is concerned, I am in complete agreement with Talmon’s analysis; but I do not agree if it were extended to nazism. I, too, see in fascism a manifestation of that left-wing totalitarianism of which Talmon speaks. Nazism, however, is tied to a right-wing totalitarianism and should be discussed in terms of a different analysis…”
  19. George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, 1999), p.150
  20. Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Paladin, 1983), p.256-7; Ledeen, p.101
  21. Ledeen, p.150
  22. Stille, p.78
  23. See Luigi Barzini, ‘Mussolini or the Limitations of Showmanship’ in The Italians (Penguin, 1991), p.155-6


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Ezra Pound & Salò


I want to go on fighting.
Canto 72

In 1948, the year James Laughlin published The Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound remained incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a Federal Government asylum in Washington, having been found mentally unfit to stand trial for treason. During the war, Pound was a vocal anti-Semite whose sympathies lay with the more extreme sections of the Italian Fascist regime in Salò and with the Nazis, as he openly declared in pro-Axis propaganda broadcasts on Rome Radio. This endpoint was evident, and expressed, in his poetry, including The Pisan Cantos which won the Bollingen Prize in 1949, awarded by the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress, among them T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden. These highly accomplished men were perceptive and conceited enough to pen a pre-emptive defence of their controversial choice, made only four years after the discovery of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It stated: “To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.” Or, in other words, l’art pour l’art.

Partisan Review, among other organs, invited comment. Karl Shapiro, a Fellow, disagreed with the selection on the grounds that “the poet’s political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiates his poetry and lowers its standards as a literary work” (1); Dwight Macdonald, by contrast, viewed the award as a  supremely civilised act and a rare example of national magnanimity. George Orwell composed a more subtle position, making two points with direct relevance to contemporary Pound studies, that obtuse critical subgenre. Firstly, he objected to the artificial separation of Pound’s political activities from his poetry, a division never made by Pound himself who considered his adopted economic theories (for one thing) to be central to The Cantos’ purpose, aesthetics and meaning. The tendency to ignore or rationalise the poetry’s politics — the thematic content of The Cantos, in other words — grew among and with Pound’s influential friends, acolytes and protégées after the war, notably Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Hugh Kenner and James Laughlin. These entwined artistic and critical circles preferred to emphasise Pound’s aesthetics at the expense of his economic and racial politics, as if The Cantos could exist without Social Credit, history and Jews, and live through their lyrical technique alone.

Pound learned to accept this in his very late years — in the Sixties, when it was most convenient to do so. By this time he could tell Allen Ginsberg that anti-Semitism had been his “worst mistake” and write to Robert Lowell: “that nonsense about the Jews…Olga knew it was shit, yet she still loved me.” (2) This was also the time, non-coincidentally, when he admitted that, by his owns standards and expectations, The Cantos had been a failure. He would tell Daniel Cory: “I botched it. I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.” (3) Nevertheless, as late as 1959, Pound was sending poetry and Social Credit pamphlets to Oswald Mosely’s post-fascist European journal; and in the middle of the Fifties, Pound acolyte John Kasper achieved some notoriety as a segregation activist in the American South, spreading anti-Semitic and racist screeds encouraged by the unrepentant poet. His late disavowal of anti-Semitism made it more convenient for a Jewish Communist like Zukofsky and a Catholic conservative like Kenner to approach their idol with easier conscience and less prickly questions, but the racial instincts and devotion to Social Credit theories (with their distinct flavour of conspiracy theory) remained. Some put this down to mental health problems; others simply accepted Pound’s recantations and overlooked his unseemly actions and associates, dismissing these as anecdotal and historical. Orwell spotted all of this early and immediately skewered it: “He may be a good writer […] but the opinions he has tried to disseminate by means of his works are evil ones…” (4)

Secondly, Orwell noted a more brazen attempt to fully expunge Pound’s politics: “there has been,” he wrote, “a tendency to claim that Pound was “not really” a fascist and anti-Semite, that he opposed the war on pacifist grounds and that in any case his political activities only belonged to the war years.” (5) This was nonsense, of course. As Orwell had no difficulty illustrating in 1949, Pound’s own activities, pre-war and after, exposed this fallacy; more importantly, the poems vividly demonstrated Pound’s commitment to Social Credit ideas and to Italian Fascism. For Pound’s non-fascist supporters this made rationalisation more important and urgent. It could get desperate. For example, William Cookson, in his commentary A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, made an unintentionally acute attempt to redeem Pound’s wartime radio propaganda: “at their core the speeches are a document of anti-war literature. Incidentally, much that he said against “U.S. economic aggression” made good sense and has an affinity with the more recent polemic of Noam Chomsky”(6); he also described the subject of Canto 73 (see below) as being “like a suicide bomber.” Cookson was sharper than he realised, perhaps: there is the distinct shade of anti-capitalist and anti-American politics that unites far-left and right in the subject matter of The Cantos and Pound’s politics; an attachment to crank economics and conspiracy theory that leads, eventually and inexorably, from left or right, into the gutter of anti-Semitism. (If Pound had been writing today, would there be a Bilderberg canto?)

Cantos 72 and 73 are the low point of Pound’s own descent into Inferno in the tragi-comic form of Mussolini’s fall. The poems were both composed in 1943 in Italian, as the fascist dream collapsed in Italy with the Allied invasion and German occupation of the peninsula. Pound fled North, on foot and by train, sleeping in the open and eating with peasants, to link up with the remaining regime loyalists at Lake Garda. After returning to Rapallo he committed himself fully to the Axis cause, writing newspaper articles and manifestos in defence of the new republic. Salò appealed to him, as it did to other early Italian Fascists who had become disillusioned with the ‘Mussolinism’ of the Thirties; there was purity and potential in this new experiment, an uncompromised, activist esprit de corps that revived memories of the old movement. Mussolini was returning to socialism and syndicalism, while squadristi and regime protection rackets tortured and killed with impunity on the streets of Rome and Milan. The intellectuals and thugs were in charge, extremists like Roberto Farinacci and Alessandro Pavolini: a lethal combination. Pound wrote his two cantos for this regime to use against the Allies: they were propaganda pieces, advanced cases of fascist martyrology and idealism. Pound had apparently been further enthused by the violent, quasi-mystical defiance of Mussolini’s final public speech in Milan, 1944.

72 and 73 are evidence for the prosecution of Pound. In preceding poems he had prepared the ground for this full ideological and aesthetic embrace of the Axis cause. Canto 35, for example, presented a nasty satirical portrait of pre-war Viennese Jewish society. Canto 38 introduced Pound’s new and tragic obsessions: the arms trade and the Social Credit theory of Major C. H. Douglas. In Canto 41, the poet explicitly hailed il Duce (or “The Boss”). In Cantos 45, 46 and 51 the mortal enemy was identified: “usury,” the destroyer of civilisations. By 72 and 73 the contemporary forces of usury had been specified: “Geryon, prototype of Churchill’s backers”; “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,/the Jews, the bastards,/swindlers, the whole lot liars…” All of this was in the air, of course, but the Jews were an obsession for Pound at a time when Mussolini’s regime still employed them, a situation altered by the 1938 racial laws. While not an overt Nazi sympathiser (though he shared their paganism and susceptibility to the occult) Pound’s anti-Semitism was more pronounced than many of the original Italian Fascists, and was there to be exploited when necessary, as Orwell recalled: “I remember at least one [broadcast] in which he approved of the massacre of the East European Jews and “warned” the American Jews that their turn was coming presently.” (7)

Pound’s full identification with the cause and methods of Italian Fascism is revealed in 72 and 73, exposing his doctrinaire extremism. Pound’s family and backers were aware of their damaging potential, and the Ezra Pound Estate has never been willing to authorise English translations of the poems; they were excised from the New Directions and Faber Cantos until the 1987 edition, when they were finally included as an appendix, in Italian and without notes. Even now, 72 and 73 are considered aberrations, rather than (as they are) exemplars of The Cantos’ dark energy and ideological propulsion. These poems are a logical outcome of the ideas and loyalties laid out in Pound’s epic; they are also a key moment in the poet’s own personal and aesthetic journey, a basic underlying pattern and narrative of his work. They express the despair and defiance of the loyalists of Salò: the men who stuck with Mussolini and imposed fascism in Northern Italy in pure, totalitarian form, without the compromise of private business, monarchy or the Vatican. These two cantos are Salò poems: the driving forces of the Italian Social Republic — defiance and loss, sacrifice and redemption — are played out, embodied in them.

So 72 and 73 not only reveal but explicitly confirm Pound’s intimacy with and loyalty to the actual actors and characters who theorised, built and ran the fascist state. Canto 72 exhumes the spirit of Marinetti, killed by cardiac arrest in 1944 but eager to return to the fight in Pound’s body: “I want to go on fighting/& I want your body to go on with the struggle.” Who, in this poem, is the fight against? “[T]he great usurer Geryon,” Dante’s symbol of Fraud and “prototype of Churchill’s backers.” Pound is the poem’s centre, its vessel, visited by four spirits (or “voices”): Marinetti; the librarian and translator Manilio Dazzi; the Venetian tyrant Ezalino da Romano; and (briefly) the Empress Galla Placidia. The tone is elegiac, as well as defiant: Pound is an interlocutor, weary and at one remove, but these voices also appear to transmit his owns instincts and obsessions. Romano lauds Farinacci — the former Fascist ras and party secretary described by Denis Mack Smith as “vindictive, ambitious…a dedicated believer in political violence” (8) — in terms that match Pound’s own obsessions: as one who has “seen thru the swindle” of the “followers of fattened usury.” He is “honoured by the heroes,” among them the fallen Italian Fascist generals intoned by Romano and listed by Pound, but singled out with approval because of his fanaticism and anti-Semitism. It doesn’t seem to me that Pound is distancing this selection by making it Romano’s; rather Farinacci is elevated, in this poem of loyalty, violence and despair, to a fascist hero, a figure close to Pound’s own ideal: man of action and enemy of usury. The poet is not simply channelling his apparitions, but engaging in ventriloquism: Pound uses them to convey personal obsessions and ideals.

Canto 73 is more explicit. The poet is at the service of the regime. This time Pound invokes Guido Cavalcanti, the medieval Florentine scribe and associate of Dante, to recall a contemporary story of an Italian peasant girl who, raped by Canadian troops, takes revenge by leading them into a minefield. The tone is rapturous: an ecstatic martyrdom in the genre of fascist and Nazi iconography: kitsch, quasi-mystical. She is pictured singing with joy, “so brave a spirit”, holding two Germans by the arm, “singing of love.” This is camaraderie within the Pact of Steel, but the girl has “no desire for heaven”: she becomes “defiant of death” only after her violation by Allied soldiers, that “filthy pack.” These are the shock troops of “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,” the pawns of Jewish bankers and arms dealers, rampaging through Italy, desecrating ancient temples and raping small girls. Her death is an instance of the fascist ideal, and her spirit the expression of its soul: “the child’s spirit/courageously/sang/sang…Glory of the fatherland!/Glorious, it is glorious/to die for one’s country/in Romangna.” This is propaganda, and Pound sells his lyric gift to do it: the poem is ugly, crude, tedious. It remains interesting as fascist and Nazi art, tapping into neo-pagan, neo-Romantic volk iconography of German National Socialism and the neo-classical, militaristic kitsch of Italian Fascism. By the middle of the war years, the divisions, separations and tensions within and between the fascist states and movements had become less distinct or important, and Pound’s poems convey this pan-fascist aesthetic, an ideal clarified by Romanian Iron Guard leader Horia Sima: “We must cease to separate the spiritual from the political man. All history is a commentary upon the life of the spirit” (9). These words could summarise Pound’s ultimate intention for The Cantos.

Pound’s supporters creep from defence of the poetry to absolution of the poet; they appear to take his recantations at face value and over-estimate personal relations. (For example, Zukofsky: “I never felt the least trace of anti-Semitism in his presence. Nothing he ever said to me made me feel the embarrassment I always have for the ‘Goy’ in whom a residue of antagonism to ‘Jew’ remains.”) I think Orwell was correct to hold the poet to account for his rhetoric and his opinions; he was also right to dismiss the plea of insanity that Pound would adopt to save his own skin. Pound’s broadcasts, wrote Orwell, “did not give me the impression of being the work of a lunatic”; the poet was a clever propagandist who knew exactly how to play to an isolationist and anti-Allied audience. At Pound’s trial, the Superintendent of St Elizabeths hospital, Dr. Winfrid Overholser, was asked to present his confirmation of Pound’s insanity; however, he did not reveal to the court that his own doctors disagreed with his conclusions and considered Pound to be “merely eccentric and wanted to see him tried and convicted” (10). To accept that Pound was simply “insane” when he composed his polemics, be they Rome Radio scripts or Cantos 72 and 73, is to some extent to accept that all of The Cantos are deranged doodles, a repository of crank conspiracy theories and junk verse, psychological case studies rather than art. Orwell, for one, considered Pound’s work to be “spurious” as poetry, although not because the poet was mad; Robert Conquest did his own forensic demolition job on Pound’s classical pretensions and mistakes, in an attempt to undermine the poet’s carefully cultivated authority.

For modern poetry, or what is left of it (if anything), The Cantos remain, as Delmore Schwartz described them, a touchstone. Or as Basil Bunting wrote: “you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.” You don’t need to reject the poetry along with the politics, or make weak attempts to minimise or separate the politics to redeem the poems. It is a fragmented, incomplete, incoherent, incandescent epic of a life that veers (and veered) between intense evil and luminous insight. Because of this, it retains a unique tension, an awful tautness despite the diffuse elements and ranging references. It can be disgusting and invigorating, vile and beautiful; the fracture of form and rupture of language it initiates keeps its many parts alive. Fascism and anti-Semitism are unavoidable forces in The Cantos that must be faced and understood; they do not reduce but complicate and deepen the poem’s power.

1) Quoted in Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound (Penguin,1974), p.546
2) Quoted in William Cookson, A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (Anvil Press, 2001), p.144
3) Quoted in Stock, p.586-7
4) George Orwell, ‘A Prize for Ezra Pound’, Essays (Everyman Library, 2002), p.1363
5) Orwell, p.1362
6) Cookson, p.115
7) Orwell, p.1362
8) Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Paladin,1983), p.81
9) Quoted in George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution — Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, Inc., 1999), p.12
10) Stock, p.538

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Ben Jonson and the Art of Eating


During an extended walking (and boozing) tour of his ancestral lands in 1618-9, Ben Jonson stayed at Hawthornden Castle as a guest of William Drummond. His host, a pompous, second-tier Scottish peddler of Petrarchan sonnets, scribbled down notes throughout this visit, later published with the title Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (what else?). These contain a rather biting pen-portrait of Jonson, who did not overly impress Drummond:

He is a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements on which he liveth), a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth, thinketh nothing well but what either he himself, or some of his friends and countrymen hath said or done. He is passionately kind and angry, careless either to gaine or keep, vindicative, but, if he be well answered, at himself.

This is meant to be a demolition job, it seems, but is undermined by its own ambivalence, as Drummond betrays an undertone of admiration in this litany of bad traits. All these flaws are (at the very least) half-attractive, double-edged. Drummond’s description adds nothing to our esteem of him, but we are not repelled or appalled by his subject, as he possibly thinks we should be. On the contrary: it is Jonson you’d want at the dinner table, not the self-important, saccharine Scot.

Jonson’s poems are smooth and urbane, choppy and charged; he draws on the Roman models of Catullus, Horace and Martial (“I know nothing can conduce more to letters than to examine the writings of the ancients,” he wrote in his Discoveries). They are more disciplined and conventional than Shakespeare’s sonnets and lack the ornate obscurity and startling naturalism of Donne’s early work. This is not always the case, of course, but holds true for the bulk of his Epigrams, the opening collection of poems in his first printed Folio. Jonson mastered “merry Martial”, solidifying the epigrammatic form for the English language, but he also learnt to stretch the convention thematically and structurally by studying the The Greek Anthology. His formidable and famous Classical learning gave him the edge on contemporary court hacks, who he dismissed: “thou hast seen/Davies and Weever/…mine come nothing like…” (Epigram 18).

And yet Jonson’s Epigrams are not all Roman grit and Greek grace: there is some of the bile and bite of his great stage comedies and satires in these pithy, perfectly formed poem-epistles. Throughout the edited collection you can trace Volpone’s abrupt and broken rhythms and feel the energy and irreverence of those dangerous theatre collaborations, The Isle of Dogs and Eastward Ho! (Jonson would be imprisoned for both of these plays, and face torture and possible execution; he was only rescued, each time, by good fortune and influential friends.) The poems savagely lampoon a gallery of Jacobean Court and Inns of Court characters, barely disguised by a series of riotous sobriquets: Sir Cod the Perfumed, My Lord Ignorant, Court-Worm, Sir Voluptuous Beast and Prowl the Plagiary, to name a few. They also glorify Jonson’s Court allies and Country House patrons in extravagant terms. The poems serve a personal purpose here, and Jonson displays dual “modes” (in the Restoration sense): slanderer and scholar; satirist and sycophant. This was, simply, the way a successful poet lived through, or survived, the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

So there is a general and generous contradiction of character here that we can enjoy and that animate the poems; a “tough reasonableness” underlying lyric grace noted by T. S. Eliot in his 1921 essay on Andrew Marvell. Jonson, as described by Drummond, is abusive, vain, bad-tempered, badly behaved. He was in many ways the wrong sort: son of a brick-layer, convicted murderer (upon plunging a rapier into stage actor Gabriel Spencer), and Catholic convert; an unpredictable theatre-land trouble-maker with connections to the Earl of Essex and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. This was to run just a few of the gravest risks in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. But he was, in the end, too canny, intelligent and talented to die; and, maybe more to the point, too well-connected. The scourge of Society aspirants, phoneys and double-dealers, Jonson was also one of the great buddies and raconteurs of English poetry, a loyal and bold-hearted bugger who could devise a mean masque and drink the King’s favourite under any table.

This stands out in his lovely poem ‘Inviting a Friend for Dinner’ (Epigram 101), the epicentre and great survivor of the Epigrams. Superficially (and formally) it is one of the least epigrammatic works in the collection, although it consciously draws on the “invitation poems” of Martial, Horace and Catullus (as well as the Greeks). It is within the tradition, relocating Rome and Athens in the gardens, houses and taverns of Jacobean England. Jonson invites a highly-esteemed acquaintance (“my grave friend”) to feast at his table, which over-flows with local produce; the appearance of this great guest will, alone, make the evening “perfect” rather than the delicious treats (“the cates”).

Jonson’s party promises colour and variety in its culinary and intellectual entertainment. The poem, in its rich variety and ease of cadence, is a celebration of conversation, friendship, liberty and learning. The correct company is, of course, crucial; “no Pooly, or Parrot” (spies, traitors, bad eggs) will be admitted into the home. Jonson lures his gang with extravagant enticements in the manner of Martial’s mock invitations: I will “lie” (he teases) “so you will come.” To the “olive, capers…some better salad,” the “mutton” and a “short-legged hen…full of eggs,” he adds an unlikely (yet feasible, and edible) menu of local fowl: “partridge, pheasant, woodcock,” “godwit, if we can:/knat, rail and ruff too.” This will be followed by “digestive cheese” and fruit, and (most importantly) “rich canary wine” from the famous Mermaid Tavern. Across this splendid spread they will share and recite a literary selection in line with the poet’s cherished Renaissance humanist ideal: “Virgil, Tacitus, Livy.”

Jonson presents an abstract ideal and an actual occasion, uniting public theme and private experience, the very art of the epigram. It has a social and personal function. It works and it has purpose. Jonson mastered this form better than the lesser Court Epigrammists because 1) his Classical learning far exceeded theirs, and 2) his “character” was already so dominant and to some extent artificial that private and public conflated in his very being, a psycho-social condition we now call celebrity. If he displayed distaste for publication and booksellers (circulation of elaborate manuscripts in private was the correct way to do things in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Courts and country houses) he was also one of the first of his contemporaries to arrange formal publication of his own work. He chose to display a lot of himself (on stage, on page, at Court and Oxford) and he mostly displayed big, glaring, attractive, forgivable contractions. His work may not have been loved in the same way or to the extent of Shakespeare’s, but there was, after all, ‘The Tribe of Ben’ whose influence was felt in living verse for decades.

T.S Eliot, in the Marvell essay, described an “alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified)” which characterised the poetic “wit” established and refined (in different ways) by Donne and Jonson. This tendency, or method, or skill, threaded through Marvell and the Caroline and Cavalier poets, to Dryden and Pope. (After this, according to Eliot, it was lost, fully eradicated by the Romantics.) In an earlier essay on Jonson, Eliot went a little further, to say: “his poetry is of the surface. Poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study; for to deal with the surface of life, as Jonson dealt with it, is to deal so deliberately that we too must be deliberate, in order to understand.” He distinguishes this, of course, from the “superficial” — a different thing altogether and associated here with Jonson’s pygmy stage rivals Beaumont and Fletcher. (Well, we could do with a Beaumont and Fletcher right now.)

The close weave of classical allusion and real life detail in ‘…Dinner’ (“Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,/Are all but Luther’s beer, to this I sing”) is an elegant and easy example of Jonson’s complex surface art. The setting, the purpose, the tone and form are (now) rare and refreshing. This might explain the durability of certain Jonson epigrams, particularly this one: the rare quality and informal use of language in a now defunct formal role. There is something of it in the work of Frank O’ Hara, another singular voice whose influence was also wide but less rewarding than Jonson’s; in, for example, an elegy like ‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s’, a piece composed for specific people on a particular occasion that nevertheless transcends its origin with self-conscious ambition and grace. Like Jonson, O’Hara locates and achieves a fine balance between public and private space and moment, the local and elemental, temporal and eternal. They can both, in these poems, transfigure the ephemeral and make the personal details of the day (of a life) speak for all time.

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