The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

African Utopias: Fascist Fantasy in the Italian Colonies

Gianna Albaum

The notion of a paradiso terrestre, or an earthly paradise, has long been a central motif of Italian literature: Dante himself depicted a fantastical Garden of Eden in The Divine Comedy, while travel writings of Boccaccio and Petrarch represent far-off islands as primitive utopias. Such writings demonstrate that noble savages existed in Italian literature long before John Dryden coined the term. It is no surprise, then, that these literary tropes resurface in Italian colonial rhetoric during the Fascist era. Colonial enterprises have long been associated with paradisiacal images: from John Winthrops city upon a hill to Herzls New Society, colonial history is rife with utopian fantasy. This article demonstrates that the Italian colonies in north Africa were represented as a paradiso terrestre in contemporary texts: from newspaper accounts to popular novels, Africa is depicted as a modern Garden of Eden. Understanding the crucial rhetorical position of the paradiso terrestre helps to illuminate both contemporary and modern interpretations of Italys colonial history.



“In the next few years the struggle will not be between utopia and reality, but between different utopias, each trying to impose itself on reality.” (Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason)

Gino Boccasile was only a child when, while taking a sip from a school water fountain, an errant splash of quicklime blinded him permanently in his left eye. It is fitting that this man, a prominent Fascist illustrator once referred to as “l’uomo che inventò la pubblicità” (“the man who invented publicity”)[1] (Rossini), had such an intimate and visceral understanding of the power of sight. Boccasile is known in the United States for his inflammatory WWII posters, one of which depicted a black American sergeant grasping an ornate Greek statue upon which the price ‘$2’ is scrawled in black ink. However, as an illustrator under the Fascist regime, Boccasile created advertisements and propaganda that were intended not to demonize Africans but to glorify the Italian colonies.

Far from representing Africans as barbaric aggressors — as much Italian travel writing and journalism in the nineteenth century had done — Boccasile’s posters depict Africans as submissive and deferential. One liquor advertisement depicts an elegant white man looking benevolently down at a black man kneeling at his feet. The caption reads: “Corri verso la montagna dove il sole accende con riflessi d’oro, le candide nevi ma porta sempre con te il Cordial Campari” (“Run toward the mountain where the sun shines its golden reflection on the white snow, but always bring with you Cordial Campari”). The rhetoric fuses praise for the African climate with a reference to “d’oro” (“gold”), implicitly alluding to the potential for individual and national prosperity in the colonial territories. At the same time, the white man, presumably enjoying his sojourn in Africa, looks benevolently down on the African: both the land and its inhabitant are presented as existing solely in order to satisfy the white man.

Boccasile also produced several advertisements depicting smiling and scantily clad black women with large chests and round buttocks, proffering bottles of liquor or posing seductively amidst a pile of loose coffee beans. These women are presented as the titillating and sexually available objects of the white male gaze. Both types of images reinforced the notion of a ‘benevolent’ colonial domination, in which the African is portrayed as acquiescent and submissive. Boccasile’s advertisements are representative of a very particular type of Italian colonial imagery from this era, depicting Africa as enticing and Africans as desirable. Such propaganda was not typical of contemporary European representations of Africa. Italian colonialism was both initiated in a later era and intended to achieve different aims, and these contrasts were reflected in their national colonial rhetoric.

By the turn of the 20th century, Great Britain, France, and Spain had been conquering nations and building imperial regimes for centuries. But, unlike the British or the French, few Italians at that point would have characterized their national colonial endeavors as successful. After 12 years in North Africa, the Italian army had suffered an embarrassing defeat in their one major colonial battle and maintained only nominal control over the coast of Eritrea. And yet, in a world starkly divided into colonizer and colonized, many Italians felt that the only hope of Italy’s becoming one of the great nations of Europe lay in the success of her imperial domains. By the time the Fascists took power after World War I, the African colonies had become a sort of holy grail, represented in popular Italian literature and media as a luscious Edenic paradise that would ‘save’ the nation.

From the ideological movements of futurism, primitivism, and fascism, three rhetorically distinct utopian visions of Africa emerged. All had common thematic and linguistic motifs and all were populated by the Italian version of the ‘noble savage’: il buon selvaggio. Although Fascist utopian rhetoric and the Italian futurist and primitivist movements have been studied at length, their relations to Italian colonialism have been largely ignored (De Donno & Srivistava 371). In this article, I will describe and analyze each of the three colonial-era utopian representations of Africa, to examine both their commonalities and differences, and finally to explore the significance of these representations in the Italian colonial context. These texts informed Italian colonial-era understandings of Africa — and as Foucault writes, there is no field of knowledge “that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish 506).


Italys Broader Colonial Context

Italy’s unique colonial situation led many Italian academics and journalists to view Africa not as a distant, uncivilized appendage to the motherland, but as an attractive — even beguiling — destination for Italians. First, unlike most European imperial territories, Italian Africa was intended to serve as Italy’s quarta sponda (“fourth shore”), not as a distant source of wealth, but as a destination for Italian migration. Overpopulation, scarce economic opportunities, and inferior farmland had precipitated a large-scale exodus of Italians beginning in the mid-1800s. The Fascists, viewing this emigration as weakening the nation, hoped to redirect this movement to the African colonies (Barrera 429). Second, a rhetoric of Roman rebirth promoted Italy’s ‘reclamation’ and reconstruction of territories previously belonging to the Roman Empire. Excavations of Roman ruins in Libya and Eritrea reinforced this discourse. Finally, unlike other European imperialist regimes, which had established their domains centuries previously, Italian colonialism emerged just as the world began to grapple with the disillusionment with ‘progress’ that followed World War I. Africa was viewed as an alternative to the disappointments of ‘modernity’: as the massive devastation of World War I rendered linear notions of progress increasingly troubling, many intellectuals glorified ‘primitive’ cultures as pure and uncorrupted by civilization. The African was depicted as man before the Fall and Africa-cum-Garden of Eden a paradiso terrestre “earthly paradise” in which modern Europeans could seek redemption.


Imagined Geographies: The Significance of Media Narratives and Images in Perpetuating Cultural Colonialism

At the turn of the century, a small portion of the Italian populace had visited ‘il continente nero’ (‘the black continent’) and media representations of Africa and Africans constituted the entirety of most Italians’ understanding of the territory (Labanca 2). Western ‘knowledge’ of Africa was at that time shaped as much by popular images and film as by encyclopedia entries and other supposedly objective sources of information.

In the first decades of the 20th century, an entire system of representations of Africa emerged — advertising images, travel narratives, official political rhetoric, etc. — that created an ‘imagined geography’ of Africa in the collective Italian consciousness. African men were often depicted as barbaric and primitive and African women as servile, submissive, and sexually available in Italian films (Ben-Ghiat, 2003: 54). Indeed, many Western directors functioned as ‘cultural colonialists,’ filming movies in Africa that “helped to perpetuate and strengthen racist and colonialist modes of thinking” (Dunn 149; Ben-Ghiat, 1996: 130). Anthropologists and ethnographers proffered countless purportedly scientific explanations of the inferiority of the African people. Explorers and journalists wrote travel diaries for popular consumption, describing in vivid detail the people, places, and things they encountered (Polezzi, 2012: 339; Rossetto 40). Pornographic images of African women were widely available, whether overtly eroticized or purportedly ethnographical (Ponzanesi 166; Romani 108). While it would be impossible to bestow a great deal of import on any individual work, taken as a whole these representations constituted a collective construction of reality that not only influenced Italian understanding of the African continent and affected public policy.

Edward Said argued that such modes of representation and information were detrimental largely because they are seen as objective portrayals of a culture. According to Said, we falsely imagine that our knowledge of the world largely rests on our own experience. Yet we carry inside of us images of many places we have never visited. Where do these images come from? How do we know that they are accurate representations? More importantly, how do these images affect our political positions and policy decisions? “Pictures and ideas,” Said cautions us, “do not merely spring from reality into our eyes and minds” (44–45, 1983). These images, portrayals, and representations of other cultures create a powerful network of associations — often erroneous or misleading — about another culture that reflects both our impressions of that culture and our perceptions of ourselves.

The myriad representations of Africans in Italian culture during the colonial era constituted a body of knowledge that was perceived as objective, informed Italian understandings of Africans, and constituted an ‘imagined geography.’ Geopolitics, according to Said, is “not only about soldiers and cannons but also about forms, about images and imaginings” (1993, 6). No representation is objective. Even photographs and film footage, too often perceived as direct representations of reality, are inherently taken out of both temporal and spatial context. Long before the twentieth century, findings of the scientific community — the self-proclaimed emblem of objective truth — on the biological significance of race have been denounced as not only immoral but spectacularly wrong. While epistemology is a highly fraught field in the postmodern era, it is established that no representation — no matter its form, context, or content — can be guaranteed to be entirely unbiased or factual. The myth of the impartial observer or the objective description is no more than a comforting illusion. “Words are never ‘only words,’” Slavoj Žižek writes, “they matter because they define the contours of what we can do.”


Part I: Il Buon Selvaggio and Il Paradiso Terrestre in the Italian Literary Tradition


“I am as free as nature first made man,

Ere the base laws of servitude began,

When wild in woods the noble savage ran.” (The Conquest of Granada, Vol. 4, John Dryden)

While John Dryden is typically credited with coining the phrase ‘noble savage,’ idealized figurations of primitive people and societies are evident in Italian literature as far back as the medieval period, including in the works of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarca. However, the figure of the buon selvaggio in the Italian literary tradition is imbued with a religious significance largely absent from the secular Anglo-Saxon ‘noble savage.’ First, the buon selvaggio is represented as man before the Fall, an Adam-like figure in its innocence and simplicity. This buon selvaggio is thus inextricable from its habitat, the ‘earthly paradise’ (paradiso terrestre) of the Garden of Eden, in its natural beauty and segregation from civilization and society. Second, there are several characters in the Bible that can be characterized as buoni selvaggi. David Abulafia writes of the medieval trope of the ‘wild man of the woods’:

He… was a constant subject in late medieval art that drew on biblical references: the mad King Nebuchadnezzar condemned to live in the fields like an ox; Elijah or John the Baptist wearing a few skins and living in the desert; St. John Chrysostom doing penance naked and alone. (16)

While the biblical characters cited are often alone, myriad authors locate their buon selvaggio in an idealized community of some kind, ranging from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to the Utopians in Thomas More’s Utopia. Indeed, utopian communities are merely secularizations of the various earthly paradises in Western religions, such as ‘World to Come’ of the Rabbis, the ‘city of the living God’ of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Dante’s own paradiso terrestre, and of course, the Garden of Eden. Despite their religious character, such paradises closely resemble the idyllic loci of ancient Roman and Greek literature, such as the Elysian Fields. Ovid’s description of the ‘golden age,’ for example, includes virtually all of the characteristics that later came to define both utopian and biblical paradises.

Golden was that first age [of man] which unconstrained,

With heart and soul, obedient to no law…

No punishment they knew, no fear; they read

No penalties engraved on plates of bronze…

No judges had they then, but lived secure.

No pine had yet, on its high mountain felled,

Descended to the sea to find strange lands

Afar; men knew no shores except their own.

No battlements their cities yet embraced,

No trumpets straight, no horns of sinuous brass,

No sword, no helmet then no need of arms;

The world untroubled lived in leisured ease.

Earth willingly, untouched, unwounded yet

By hoe or plough, gave all her bounteous store;

Men were content with nature’s food unforced

And gathered strawberries on the mountainside…

Springtime it was, always, for ever spring;

The gentle zephyrs with their breathing balm

caressed the flowers that sprang without a seed;

Anon the earth untilled brought forth all her fruits,

The unfallowed fields lay gold with heavy grain…

(emphasis added, Metamorphoses 1.88-115)


The distinction, then, between ‘utopia’ and ‘paradise’ is partially religious, but their comparative etymologies reveal an even more substantial difference. Where the term ‘paradise’ stems from the Avestan pairidaeza — formed from pairi- (around) and diz (to make, form a wall) — utopia is derived from the Greek ou (not) and topos (place) (Giamatti 11). That is, a paradise was originally used to denote a walled space, while utopia is literally defined as a no-place, or a place without a specific geographic location. Burdett comments:

A characteristic of all utopias is their shifting temporal location. A blueprint for a perfect society ceases to be so if the lines of development that it traces are fully or partially followed: what was previously a design or an aspiration has become a reality. Equally, a model of an ideal community that is taken from the past can no longer be said to belong entirely to the past if it forms the basis for the working of an actual community. (2003: 96) [2]

Unlike illustrations of utopia, all representations of paradise — including Ovid’s — are presented as historical accounts of real spaces that once existed. These paradises share a handful of characteristics: first, the inhabitants exist in a state of original innocence and righteousness, eschewing excess for moderation in all things. Second, the society is anarchic, egalitarian, and permanently peaceful, with no laws and therefore no punishments. Third, the land is bountiful and the inhabitants must do little or no work to obtain nourishment. This is often due to a mild climate and a proximity to water. While a complete analysis of Western literary and biblical paradises is beyond the scope of this essay, it is worthwhile to evaluate the representation of the buon selvaggio and il paradiso terrestre in the works of Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante in order to better understand the historical context of this motif in Italian literature.


Boccaccios Le isole fortunate

Many Italian explorers believed that the Garden of Eden and the various paradises depicted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses — such as the Elysium Islands — were real spaces and some, including Columbus, mistook various shores for these lost paradises (Balasopoulos 3). Boccaccio’s 14th century account of the discovery of the Canary Islands describes the indigenous culture in terms that are strikingly reminiscent of these early accounts, emphasizing both their indolence and their innocence.

Boccaccio’s account of the Canary Island natives evokes the Garden of Eden, with its images of nude, idle natives entirely lacking the accoutrements of modern society. David Abulafia argues that Boccaccio created a romanticized image of the Canary Islanders living in an “ideal pastoral society” and a “pure state of nature” in which the buon selvaggi lived “free of materialistic corruption” (40). Boccaccio writes that the natives “vanno affatto nudo, non stimando vergogna di andare così” (“they go around entirely nude, with no shame in such behavior”) (Spila 70), describing them as idle, not working but only singing and dancing. The rest of Boccaccio’s account directly mirrors Ovid’s ‘Golden Age.’ Boccaccio notes the natives’ incomprehension when presented with the products of civilization, such as money and weapons, and adds that perhaps because of the egalitarian nature of their society, there is infinite trust and loyalty between individuals. “[Ci sono] fidanza, et lealtà grandissima infra di loro…perchè niuna cosa manucabile dassi ad alcuno di loro, senza che prima di manucarla la divida in uguali porzioni, et ne dia ad ognuno la sua porzione” (“[There is] faith and great loyalty between them… because nothing edible comes to them without it being equally divided and each person being given his portion”) (Spila 70). This expression is remarkably close to Dicaearchus’ description of Hesiod’s ‘golden age,’ who imputed all of civilization’s evils to the multiplication of human desires: “There was no conflict or emulation among them because there was nothing of value about which to contend” (Manuel 86).


Petrarchs La vita solitaria

In La Vita Solitaria, Petrarch describes primitive societies as a sort of Edenic paradise, noting nudity and the absence of gold as evidence of their innocence (Abulafia 43). The natives “disprezzano le richezze e la politica” (“despised wealth and politics”) and prefer idleness to work: “[L]‘ozio è il loro godimento, la libertà il loro bene più grande” (“Indolence was their recreation, liberty their most treasured possession”) (239). Petrarch’s description echoes Hesiod’s ‘golden age’ in one very specific way: the natives welcome death:

Come infatti gl’Indiani si gettano tra le fiamme, così costoro, quando li prende, come si dice, non il tedio, ma la sazietà della vita e il desiderio di morire, si avviano, ornati di corone, come a una festa gaia e solenne, e da una rupe altissima si gettano nel mare vicino. Questo è per loro una morte illustre, questo un sepolcro eccezionale. (239)

(Just as the Indians throw themselves on the flames, thus, when one is sated by, as we say, rather than bored by life, and one feels the desire to die, they wearing a crown, as though they were going to a party throw themselves into the ocean from a very tall cliff. This is for them an illustrious death, an exceptional burial.)

Compare this to Hesiod’s ‘golden age,’ in which the inhabitants feel this same satiation and welcome death at its proper time: “The golden ones, in a state of eupsychia, led a life free from violence, pain, and grief — a pastoral idyl. Evils of old age were outside their ken, and so were the terrors of dying: in their golden well-being they glided into death as if they were falling asleep” (84).


Dantes Purgatorio

Finally, Dante offers a vision of a paradiso terrestre in Purgatorio, where souls are cleansed in the River Letè before entering paradise. As in the Inferno, Dante draws on the literature and mythology of antiquity as well as ecclesiastic traditions [3] to construct the landscape (Cook 3). Dante explicitly connects these pagan paradises to the Garden of Eden when he writes in Canto 28:

Quelli ch’anticamente poetaro

l’èta dell’oro e suo stato felice,

forse in Parnaso esto loco sognaro

Qui fu innocente l’umana radice;

qui primavera sempre e ogne frutto;

nettare è questo di che ciascun dice. (139-144).


They, whose verse of yore

The golden age recorded and its bliss,

On the Parnassian mountain, of this place

Perhaps had dream’d.  Here was man guiltless, here

Perpetual spring and every fruit, and this

The far-fam’d nectar. [4]


Thus, Dante links his paradiso terrestre, an artistic rendering of the Garden of Eden, to the utopian visions of antiquity (Poggioli 3).

Significantly, the Garden of Eden is shown not as the location of man’s Fall, but as the entry to Paradise: that is, the Garden of Eden is a location of redemption (Lansing 103). Dante’s paradise emphasizes sensual and aesthetic pleasures, depicting a chorus of angels, candles, and lush natural forms. The figure of Matelda represents the ‘buon selvaggio’ of this paradise: not despite, but because of her innocence, she is placed in a didactic and superior role to the ‘civilized’ protagonist. Dante’s comparison of Matelda to Proserpina/Persephone also rhetorically emphasizes her primitive qualities: “Tu mi fai rimembrar dove e qual era / Proserpina nel tempo che perdette / la madre lei, ed ella primavera” (“I call to mind where wander’d and how look’d / Proserpine, in that season, when her child / The mother lost, and she the bloomy spring” [5]) (Purg. XVIII, 51-53).

Like the climates of most paradisi terrestri, the landscape is lush and fecund (“la divina foresta spessa e viva” (“the thick, luscious, divine forest” [Purg. XVIII, 2]), in stark contrast to Dante’s selva oscura and the barren landscape of the Inferno. Kenneth Bleeth argues that in Dante as well as in literature more broadly the fertility of the landscape symbolically indicates a certain morality and righteousness (35).

These examples show that while the figure of the noble savage was not common in Anglo-American texts until after the Renaissance, all three of Italy’s tre corone drew on biblical and mythological representations of paradise to create glorified images of a natural Edenic paradiso terrestre. The language of these texts finds striking parallels in early travel narratives of the 1880s. While these works offer admittedly contradictory images of Africa and Africans even within isolated descriptions from a single text, the image of Africans as resembling the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden before the Fall is persistent.


Il Buon Selvaggio in Colonial Era Texts

“How dignified, good, and interesting is the Libyan race! Who would have the courage to disturb these primitive people in their tranquil, pastoral life? Entering one of these tents, so many thoughts of the vainglory of civilization present themselves.”

(Lesploratore, Manfredo Camperio)

The figure of the buon selvaggio, as outlined in the medieval texts of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, is clearly evident in colonial-era travel writing and journalism. The authors refer to the indigenous peoples of Africa as simple and idealized — “sotto i cui raggi [di Africa] nulla è volgare” (“under the African sun, nothing is vulgar”) (Martini 10) — depicting their purportedly ‘innocent’ culture as a possible alternative to the ‘immoral’ excesses of modernity and progress.

This rhetoric of innocence was often imbued with religious significance. Cristina Lombardi-Diop writes that Italians “disseminate[d] the myth of Libya as ‘promised land’” (61) as early as 1912. Journalist Antonio Cecchi wrote a series of articles for Il Corriere della Sera in which he described Africa, explicitly referencing Genesis, as “un ritorno alle origini, nel mattino sul terzo giorno della Creazione” (“a return to the origins, to the morning of the third day of Creation”) (qtd. in De Pascale 110). Ferdinando Martini writes in his travelogue Nella colonia eritrea that the natives “stimano fratelli i serpenti e come tali li educano ed amano; alle donne degli Efè, tuttavia paghe del semplice abbigliamento di Eva” “view the serpents as brothers and educate and love them as such; the women all wear the simple clothing of Eve” (Martini 7). Explorer Giuseppe Matarazzo Carveni described the Africans as “semplici, selvaggi, [ed] adamici” “simple, wild, and Adam-like” (15), explicitly making a parallel to Adam in the Garden of Eden. The natives do not work, according to Carveni, preferring instead “una vita indolente” (“an indolent life”) and to “passano il tempo fumando e dormendo sdraiati per terra” (“pass their time smoking and sleeping stretched out on the ground”) (15).

Pickering-Iazzi describes the African travelogues from this period as offering an idyllic and idealized vision of Africa. The travelogues’ “enchanting landscapes feature vast open spaces, majestic trees, and lush fauna; picturesque cities and towns are unveiled, boasting magnificent palaces, gardens, and circular ruts with cone-shaped roofs; ‘primitive’ natives garbed in colorful adornments nearly come to life, exhibiting unusual beliefs, rituals, and customs” (403). Cherubini’s Pinocchio in Africa mirrors this language, depicting Africa as a land so bountiful that one no longer has to work to survive:

A country, my dear boy, full of plenty, where everything is given away free! A country in which at any moment the strangest things may happen. A servant may become a master; a plain citizen may become a king. There are trees, taller than church steeples, with branches touching the ground, so that one may gather sweet fruit without the least trouble. My boy, Africa is a country full of enchanted forests, where the game allows itself to be killed, quartered, and hung… (14)

Such an image is of course reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve relaxed, languid and indolent, before God decreed that humans should only procure their bread “by the sweat of [their] brow” (Genesis 3:19).

Pickering-Iazzi cites Poggiali’s travel writing as an example, noting that Africa is not only depicted as a natural paradise but as a place where one’s desires can be satisfied: “Esso può appagare tutti i gusti, soddisfare tutti i desideri, piegarsi alle necessità di tutti i temrperamenti…[In Africa, c’è] tutto il mondo fisico, aduna quaasi tutta la fauna e quasi tutta la flora” “Here one can sample all tastes, satisfy all desires, give in to the needs of every mood… [In Africa exists] all the physical world, almost every plant and animal” (Poggiali, qtd. in Pickering-Iazzi 406). Importantly, Pickering-Iazzi notes, Africa is not the object of desire, but its setting; Africa becomes intrinsically associated with the psychological needs and desires of the colonists (402). The idealization of Africa and its inhabitants inevitably stripped the continent of its specificity, transforming it into “a floating signifier that can stand for whatever they [the Italian authors] may desire” (Pickering-Iazzi 406).

Part II: LAfrica Romana: Futurist, Primitivist, and Fascist Colonial Utopias


“Currao: Siamo al primo principio; tutto dipende da noi; pensate quant’è bello questo: che la nostra vita qua ce la facciamo noi, con niente, con quello che c’è; la facciamo sorgere noi, di pianta; e sarà, come saremo capaci di farcela. La terra è gia tutta verde!” (Luigi Pirandello, La Nuova Colonia)

Were just starting off; everything depends on us; think, think how beautiful this is: that here we make our own life, with nothing, with what there is; we make it rise, from scratch; and it will be just like we make it. All of the earth is already green! (Luigi Pirandello, The New Colony)


“Crocco: [H]o dipinto a tutti quest’isola come il paradiso terrestre.” (Luigi Pirandello, La Nuova Colonia)

I painted this island like an earthly paradise for everyone. (Luigi Pirandello, The New Colony)


Pirandello wrote La nuova colonia — a play purportedly supporting Italian colonial endeavors — just two years after declaring his full obedience to Mussolini and to the Fascist party (Ortolani xxvii). Far from the strange, absurdist metaphysics and fantastic realities of his previous plays, La nuova colonia was better characterized as the vivid articulation of an idealistic hope. “[L]a facciamo sorgere noi, di pianta,” says the protagonist, the leader of the utopian band of travelers. La nuova colonia offers fascinating insight into contemporary views of the colonization of Africa: just as Corrao dreamt of building a new society, the Italians hoped to resuscitate their flagging country and create the bel paese they had dreamt of for so long. The volcanic island which Pirandello’s characters colonize is described as a ‘paradiso terrestre,’ language that was often used to describe the African colonies in the 1920s and 1930s.

Indeed, Pirandello’s utopian vision in La nuova colonia was just one of myriad Fascist colonial fantasies. These diverse utopian visions — some literary, some artistic, some political — can largely be categorized as Futurist, Primitivist, or Fascist. Each ideological movement rhetorically transposed a different kind of utopian space on the Italian colonies and the African continent more generally. Despite their differences, however, all these visions were deeply atavistic, focusing on a return to an idealized and primitive paradiso terrestre and eschewing modernity and all its accoutrements. The ‘barbaric savage’ of 19th century rhetoric was elevated once more to the buon selvaggio of the medieval era, offered as an anachronistic specimen of the quintessential primal man.


Barbari civilizzatissimi: Primitivist and Futurist African Utopias


Il più sublime lavoro della poesia è alle cose insensate dare senso e passione, ed è proprietà de’ fanciulli di prender cose inanimate tra mani e, trastullandosi, favellarvi come se fossero, quelle, persone vive. Questa degnità filologico-filosofica ne appruova che gli uomini del mondo fanciullo, per natura, furono sublimi poeti.”

(I, XXXVII, Scienza Nuova, Giambattista Vico)

Poetrys most sublime aspect is that it gives passion and sense to things insensate. It is the peculiar domain of children to take inanimate things between the hands and, toying with them, play with them as though they were live persons. This philological-philosophical quality demonstrates that primitive men are, by nature, sublime poets.

(I, XXXVII, New Science, Giambattista Vico)


While the futurists and the primitivists were often perceived in opposition to each other — the former looking to the future, the latter to the past — both were fundamentally characterized by a rejection of linear time. The primitivists, for example, utilized contemporary art forms from Africa, creating an image of a purportedly primitive space that depicted not a specific historical moment but an escape from civilization and a return to nature. Similarly, the Italian futurists were well known for embracing a ‘mediterranean’ strand of futurism, which explicitly celebrated a barbaric and primitive aesthetic (Fogu 29).

Futurism and primitivism must be understood as attempting not to mimic or promote a particular era in time but rather to reject the concepts of linear time and progress. Marinetti explicitly writes, “We have almost abolished the concept of space and notably diminished the concept of timeWe will thus arrive at the abolition of the year, the day and the hour” (qtd. in McKever 105, emphasis added). This is particularly significant in juxtaposition with the concept of utopia: an atemporal space without a precise geographic location. Both primitivism and futurism used symbols and imagery associated with Africa to create utopian images of society modeled after their respective ideals.

Because Africa was often characterized as atemporal, it was also often described as an ahistorical space — a land without a written history — both movements were able to utilize its symbolic imagery to invest it with their own values. Alberto Moravia, a famous Italian author who wrote several volumes about Africa, echoes this notion that Africa is a land outside of time:

È una pianura dall’aria preistorica, trogloditica; nella steppa gialla, ogni tanto, si levano enormi onumenti creati dall’erosione qualche milione di anni fa… Sono colossali sassi, lisci e ovali, ammonticchiati l’uno sull’altro con strani e, si direbbe, eccezionali equilibri. Nella luce stralunata del temporale imminente, fanno immaginate minacciose deambulazioni di dinosauri, orrende zuffe tra giganteschi erbivori e carnivori antidiluviani.” (33)

The flatlands have a prehistoric, troglodytic air. On the yellow steppe, every so often, rise enormous testaments to erosion that occurred millions of years ago. There are colossal stones, round and smooth, piled one by one with strange and, one might say, exceptional balance. In the strained light of the impending storm, they seem like threatening dinosaurs wandering around, horrible fights between gigantic prediluvian herbivores and carnivores.


Moravia ignores entirely the passing of millions of years of African history since the prehistoric era, figuratively fixing the continent in time. Because Africa was imagined as an ‘ahistorical’ territory, it was an ideal vessel for utopian fantasies. McKever writes that Africa became a “mythological territory where the metamorphosis of man and his environment unfold[ed] in the institution of a new era” (100). Futher, as Frantz Fanon points out in The Wretched of the Earth, historical erasure was a tactic characteristic of colonial regimes:


Perhaps we haven’t sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. (210)


Indeed, some explorers even erased the markers of the land itself, figuring Africa as a blank slate for the colonizers. Guido Podrecca, Italian politician and founder of the magazine LAsino, described Africa as a land characterized by inexistence, silence, and emptiness:

The golden softness of the sands. Around me is the inexistent: absolute solitude and silence that create a sensation of emptiness. The same dunes that fade into the infinite lose their lines and hues; they change into the nothingness of a distressing uniformity… Only Debussy could render in notes the splendor of that sky without voices. (Podrecca qtd. in Labanca 2)

Because Africa was, in the Italian consciousness, represented as a place outside of both geography and time, it was an ideal location for a utopia — a physical space that was, paradoxically, a no-place. Riccardo Bacchelli, in his famous colonial novel Mal dAfrica, describes Africans as the “figli della natura selvaggia ed incorrotta” (“children of a wild and uncorrupted nature”) (qtd. in Lombardi-Diop 79) and “l’umanità negra e selvaggia originale” (“black and wild original humanity”) (qtd. in Lombardi-Diop 84):

Non era dunque una favola di filosofi e di poeti l’innocenza e filicita dell’uomo naturale, e il Capitano immergeva l’animo in una fiducia, in una tenerezza, simile a quella che inondò di lacrime le più soavi della sua vita, gli occhi del Ginevrino quando ne formò per la prima volta il pensiero. Anche la loro crudeltà gli pareva innocente.


(It was not, therefore, a tale told by philosophers and poets, this innocence and felicity of original man. The Captain immersed his soul in a trust, a tenderness, similar to that which floods with tears the sweetest moments of life, the eyes of little Ginevre when he formed a thought for the first time. Even their cruelty seemed innocent.)

The Africans are seen as representations of ‘original man’ — of Adam, even — living in a Garden of Eden, outside of civilization and its corrupting influences. A return to nature was viewed as an alternative by those disappointed in the gains of progress and modernism at the beginning of the 20th century, who eventually were gathered together under the primitivist cultural movement.

It was during this period that the adjective ‘primitive’ took on a positive connotation. Where before it had indicated illogical beliefs and barbaric practices (Re 354), it was now largely associated with simplicity and morality. However, postcolonial critics typically criticize primitivist work as maintaining a hierarchical relationship in which whites are dominant.

Although primitivism is often (mistakenly) perceived as being in opposition to futurism, there are many aspects in which the two movements are indistinguishable. Futurist painters Boccioni and Carrà, for example, drew on tribal motifs and stylized African masks to create their works.

Futurists not only denounced primitivist ideals but argued that barbarism and civilization were “two sides of the same coin” (Re 356). Marinetti, in fact, called the futurists “barbari civilizzatissimi” (“very civilized barbarians”) (qtd. in Re 351). While the notion that primitivism and civilization were fundamentally intertwined undermined attempts to justify colonization as a mission civilisatrice (352), many of the futurists still supported the colonial enterprise not as an altruistic endeavor but as a renewal of the Italian nation. Boccioni writes, “Noi italiani abbiamo bisogno del barbaro per rinnovarci. La nostra razza ha sempre dominato e si è sempre rinnovata coi contatti barbarici” (“We Italians need the barbaric to rejuvenate ourselves. Our race has always dominated and it is always rejuvenated by its contact with the barbaric”) (351).


Le Camicie Nere, Il Continente Nero: Fascist Visions of an African Paradise


“Del miglior sangue fa le tue rugiade

e serba la promessa d’Oriente,

se il paradiso è all’ombra delle spade.”

(La Canzone d’Oltremare, Gabriele D’Annunzio)


The Fascist vision of a utopian Africa was extraordinarily different from the visions of the futurist and primitivist movements in both motivation and manifestation. First, the ideological aims of the futurist and primitivist movements — that is, seeking an alternative to the problematic consequences of modernity and ‘progress’ — were very different from the goals of the Fascist regime, and these distinct motivations directly influenced the development of these utopian visions. Mussolini’s desire to create a ‘terza Roma’ (‘third Rome’) led to a representation of the colonies as a utopia based not on the Garden of Eden but on an idealized Roman Empire. However, while most academics believe that Fascist political oratory was marked by a distinct lack of biblical and religious imagery, Charles Burdett persuasively argues that the regime’s utopian rhetoric was a merely superficial secularization of a profoundly religious concept. As Burdett writes, Fascism could be paradoxically described as a “civic religion” (2003: 95). Second, while the futurist and primitivist movements constructed their African Edens primarily through literary and artistic means, the Fascist regime was also able to utilize political oratory, architectural rhetoric, and other more official and concrete modes of construction to shape a collective utopian vision of an africa romana.

Despite these differences, the Fascist vision of Africa retained some similarities to those of the primitivist and futurist movements. As noted in the previous section, all three ideological movements employed the illusion that Africa was an ahistorical blank space to effectively transpose their own fantasies on the continent. Second, claims that Italy would adhere to the Roman Empire model of a supposed ‘benevolent imperialism’ contributed to the view — consistent with the primitivist and futurist movement visions — that Italian colonization was beneficial for the African territory and its inhabitants (González-Ruibal 38). Further, just as the futurist and primitivist movements both projected a future image of Africa that was rooted in the ideals and culture of the past, the Fascist regime’s africa romana founded their utopian vision on an idealization of the ancient Roman Empire. Finally, while the motivations of the three movements were disparate, all viewed the African continent as a potential resolution of certain contemporary problems in Italy. As has been noted, the futurist and primitivist movements ought to be considered reactions to World War I and the concomitant negative implications for the linear model of ‘progress’ and modernity. By contrast, the Fascist regime was concerned with more concrete national issues, such as mass emigration, economic growth, and Italy’s relatively marginal position within Europe.



Roman Empire and Africa


“The darkest secret of this country, I am afraid, is that too many of its citizens imagine that they belong to a much higher civilization somewhere else. That higher civilization doesn’t have to be another country. It can be the past instead… This state of mind allows too many of us to lie and cheat and steal from the rest of us… What are the rest of us, after all, but sub-human aborigines?” (Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut)


The Fascist regime was able to use the ancient Roman Empire as the foundation of its utopian vision in part because, at its zenith in 117 AD, the Roman Empire’s territories extended well into Africa. Extending 2.5 million square miles, its expanse nearly rivaled that of the United States mainland. Bounded by modern day Spain in the west, England in the north, Iraq in the east, and the coast of North Africa in the south, the region incorporated Italy’s contemporary colonial territories in Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. As the self-proclaimed descendants of the Roman Empire, this geographical history purportedly offered the Italians a moral justification for the invasion and conquest of these lands — that is, these territories rightfully belonged to the inheritors of the Roman Empire.

The Italians invoked Rome’s glory, however, not only to justify colonial expansion but to legitimize the nation as an influential European power. Italians suffered from an ‘inferiority complex’ that stemmed from both the European stereotype of Italy as a backward nation and racial theory that genetically linked Italians to Arab and African civilizations (Braun 260; Trento 284). Thus, rhetorically linking modern Italy to the unquestionably superior Roman Empire would have done much to repel the notion that Italy was the ‘internal Other’ of Europe [6]. Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini proclaimed Italy’s unification the birth of a ‘Third Rome,’ arguing that Italy should invade Tunisian territories and that they had a right to do so as a direct result of being the successors of the ancient Roman Empire (Patriarca, Riall 248). Giovanni Pascoli famously invoked the notion of Rome in his passionate speech “La Grande Proletariata Si È Mossa” (“The Great Proletariat Has Risen” [Baranello]), painting the colonies as a utopia for Italian workers, bequeathed to the workers by their Roman ‘forefathers’ and theirs by right of patrimony and by right of the ‘indolence’ of the current inhabitants:

But the great Proletariat found a place for [the Italian workers]: a vast region bathed by our sea and that our small islands watch over, like advanced sentinels. Our great island impatiently reaches out toward this vast region where once, by the work of our forefathers, water was abundant as were the crops. It was covered with trees and gardens, but now due to the inertia of the nomadic and indolent populations, it has long since become mostly desert.

Mario Rapisardi’s poems in his collection ‘L’Africa Orrenda’ also use Rome as a moral justification for colonial conquest. The first poem in the collection, “Per l’Eccidio di Dògali” (“For the Dògali Massacre”), opens with the stanza:


Dai ghermiti scanni,

Razza maligna, inetta,

Che fra venali inganni

Pompeggiandoti abjetta,

Raccogli infami frutti

Dal disonor di tutti!


(From their stolen seats,

The maligned, incompetent race

Through corrupt trickery

And despicable ostentation

Secured their shameful gains

By disgracing us all! [7])


The ‘maligned, incompetent’ race in question refers to the Ethiopians, who are painted as thieves (“ghermiti scanni”) who have “disgraced” the Italians through “corrupt trickery.” This is incredibly unusual for colonial rhetoric, in part because it effectively invests the Ethiopians with a certain dominance and power; they have, if only through trickery, “secured their shameful gains” at the expense of the Italians. The repeated references to Rome throughout the rest of the poem that what has been stolen from the Italians is the African land: Italy is portrayed as reclaiming what rightfully belongs to it as the descendant of the Roman Empire. The rhetoric of ‘empire’ is emphasized in the second poem, Lespiazione, which opens with the accusation of an unnamed African figure of casting his shadow on the Italian empire: “…su la gloriosa luce del nostro impero / L’ombra sua getta” (“on the glorious light of our empire / throws his shadow”) (L’espiazione 3-4) [8]. This sentiment is echoed closely in the last section of ‘L’Eccidio di Dògali,’ where Rapisardi writes: “…l’ultima latina / Terra aduggiando inquina [l’Abissino]” (“…the last Latin / land [the Abyssinian] pollutes and darkens with his shadow”).

This rhetoric depicting North Africa as a rightful possession of the Roman Empire became more and more common at the turn of the century, signaling a shift in the Italian understanding of the region. A perfect example of Edward Said’s term ‘imagined geography,’ the territory was rhetorically transformed from an undesirable, primitive African region to a land imbued with the illustrious specter of the Roman Empire and the rightful possession of the Italian nation.

Such geographical and rhetorical fantasy was used, under the Fascist regime, to not only bolster support for the colonial enterprise but to unite the Italian public around a common ideal. Africa was to be the ‘palingenesis of Italy,’ where Italy would establish its status as a powerful European nation by regaining the territories of the former Roman Empire. Mussolini himself underscored the rhetorical significance of Rome in the Fascist regime, saying, “Rome is our departure and reference point: it is our symbol, or if you wish, our myth” (qtd. in Burdett 97). Such rhetoric was mirrored by myriad cultural symbolic gestures intended to celebrate Italy’s Roman origins, including the prominence of ‘martial’ architecture, the popularity of the ‘Roman’ salute, and the rebranding of the ‘goose step’ — a special military marching step — as the passo romano (Visser 6).

This notion of a Roman rebirth, which located an idealized recreation of the Roman Empire in the African colonies, was an extraordinarily powerful rhetorical tactic for the Fascist regime in part because of the significant role that fantasy plays in mobilizing a society. Charles Burdett, who has conducted extensive research into Fascist utopian rhetoric, argues that the coercive power of society lies not only in its use of propaganda but in its ability to be perceived as objective reality (Burdett, 2011: 333). Burdett draws heavily from sociologist Peter Berger’s work on the dialectical relationship between the society and the individual. Berger argues that “[t]he externalization of [human] activity continually produces and reproduces a world that becomes objectivated as the products of the human physical and mental labour” (Burdett, 2011: 333). Put another way, our abstract understanding of our society derives from the conglomerated output of human labour. This notion of society is no more than a mental construct, but the extent to which it is perceived as reality by the individuals within it determines its coercive power. Berger argues that just as individuals construct society, they are in turn formed and defined by it:


Society…functions as the formative agency of individual consciousness as the subject apprehends various elements of the social world both as external reality and as phenomena internal to his or her own consciousness: the institutional programmes set up by society are subjectively real as attitudes, motives, and life projects. (Burdett, 2011: 333)


Burdett argues that Italian Fascists were particularly adept at encouraging mass consensus: a vast portion of the Italian populace was prepared to accept the Fascist vision of society as their own (Burdett, 2003: 94). And their ability to impose their worldview as reality was augmented in part by the presence of the colonies: as Burdett argues, the “violent and dramatic process of world creation” that took place in the colonies offered proof — or better, “objective facticity” (2011: 335)[9] — of the possibility and desirability of the ideal Fascist future society glorified by national rhetoric. Burdett writes:

The awe-inspiring transformation of the appearance of the colonies encouraged a faith in the inevitability of the material advantages that would accrue from territorial aggrandizement as well as a belief in the ultimate purpose of the expansionist path on which the nation had embarked. (Burdett, 2011: 336)

Burdett argues that this Fascist colonial rhetorical fantasy was characterized first and foremost by the evocation of a utopia, or an earthly paradise. Burdett writes, “[T]he creation of a blueprint for an ideal society was central to this rhetoric and … the notion of the arrival in an earthly paradise was to form the master narrative for most representations of Mussolini’s newly acquired African territories” (Burdett, 2003: 93). Not surprisingly, this utopian rhetoric is temporally ambiguous: Burdett notes that colonial writing was “haunted…by nostalgia for the ancient past, but…was essentially anticipatory in character” (Burdett, 2011: 335).


Roman Archeology and Architecture


“But everywhere there are the ruins of the ancient civilizations; wherever the Roman olive tree is still leafing… [W]e found Roman wheels. And the Roman concrete bases, the dams of stones down the slopes of the wadis in order to terrace the good land. And the Roman tanks and the other hydraulic works. And finally the Roman castle that protected the best of the agricultural works. All, so to speak, of the skeleton of the wonderful Roman administration is still there in the loneliness of Cyrenaica…” (Enrico Corradini (qtd. in Munzi 75))


A visitor to the Museo di Tripoli [“Museum of Tripoli”] expecting to see indigenous artifacts from the local peoples would be sorely disappointed: in their place are Roman statues and other paraphernalia. Far from preserving the past of the North Africans — which the French had sporadically or at least nominally attempted (Fuller, 2000: 122) — the Italians sought instead to erase that history and replace it with a dominant narrative of Roman-Italo rule in the area (Fuller, 1988: 459). At the same time, while archeological excavations allowed the Italians to erase local African history, architectural projects were able to literally demolish the local African present in the area in favor of the construction of a fantasy land. Mia Fuller writes:

 “The fantasy of colonial planners…was to be given a blank slate on which to map out their organized, subdivided vision of colonial Italian society…Planners therefore proceeded to design and write as if they were in fact constructing entirely new cities… This insistent, wishful vision on the part of the Italian plannners amounts to a ‘virgin fantasy’, in which there are no obstacles… and there is nothing that has to be preserved or privileged.” (Fuller, 1996: 403)

The extent of Fascist archeological excavations was incredible, and highly publicized. One patriotic medal portrayed palm trees on one side and Roman ruins on the other, with the inscription: “To the Italian army that on the Libyan fields is renewing the glories of Rome” (Munzi 78). Another postcard depicted a sailor collecting the sword of a Roman legionary, with the caption “Italy brandishes the sword of ancient Rome” (Munzi 76). The first archeological missions were started in 1910 and 1911 (Munzi 77), and while they were successful in uncovering hundreds of Roman buildings, they were accused of doing shoddy archeological work — e.g., rushing excavations of the upper strata in order to more quickly reach those dating back to the Roman Empire — presumably to achieve political goals (Munzi 80).




Utopia, fundamentally, is inextricably connected to ideology. Any given utopia derives from a set of prescriptive principles that amount to an ideology; that is, a utopian society is “the anticipation of the logic of a collectivity which has not yet come into being” (Childs and Williams 7). Similarly, the ultimate and complete societal realization of any given ideology is by definition a utopia. That is, as soon as a particular group attempts to put an ideology into practice, to embed its principles into their collective conduct, they are in the process of enacting a utopia (Balasopoulos 9). All three ideologies described in this article — futurism, primitivism, and Fascism — therefore can be expressed as three distinct utopian visions of society based on a diverse set of values and principles.

But why were all three of these utopias rhetorically located in Italy’s colonial territories? Antonis Balasopoulos highlights an interesting passage from one of Thomas More’s letters, following the publication of Utopia, which reveals the fundamental connection between utopianism and colonialism: “There are various people here, and one in particular, a devout man and a professor of theology, who very much wants to go to Utopia. His motive is by no means idle curiosity, but a desire to foster and further the growth of our religon” (7). The blurring of the line between fact and fiction — i.e., a real human who wants to visit an imaginary place — is matched by a blurring of utopian and colonial intentions.

The utopian rhetoric centered on Africa during the colonial era also reflects this interesting and often overlooked nexus between the two purportedly unrelated disciplines of utopian studies and colonial studies. While colonial theorists generally agree that colonies function as ‘transformative’ and ‘performative’ spaces (Polezzi, 2006: 191), the tendency of colonial rhetoric to veer into utopian and fantastic oratory indicates that they are radically transformative, encouraging not only the possibility of incremental societal changes but of total revolutionary upheaval. Because colonial domains are typically imagined as ‘blank spaces’ — devoid of any historical, temporal, and geographical significance — they are ideal loci for utopian fantasy. This is in part because utopian societies — described by Burdett as ‘placeless places’ (Burdett, 2000: 7) — are by definition atemporal and ageographical. Christopher Marouby — the author of Utopian Colonialism — argues that for these reasons, there is a ‘fundamental’ and essential connection between utopianism and colonialism (qtd. in Balasopoulos 4).

The aim of this article, however, is not to theorize on the abstract connections between utopia and colonialism. However, by understanding the utopian rhetoric utilized by Italian primitivist, futurist, and Fascist movements during the colonial era, we can better conceptualize how utopian rhetoric informs and impacts both historical imperial practice and the cultural and political postcolonial remnants of those regimes in the modern era. As Frantz Fanon writes, “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.”



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[1] All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Burdett does note in his other writings that some academics studying the intersection of utopia and colonialism posit that the colonial experience created a ‘new temporality.’ This ‘new sense of time’ consisted of the imperative ‘futural’ logic that characterized the colonies, which existed as ‘temporalised utopia[n]’ spaces (Burdett, 2010: 5). Similarly, Burdett notes, utopias can exist in semi-geographical spaces. Foucault’s description of the ‘heterotropia’ denotes a physically constructed space (in reality) that is an ‘effectively enacted utopia’ (Burdett, 2000: 7).

[3] On the claim that Dante drew on narratives within Islam in the construction of The Divine Comedy, see Cantarino, Vicente. “Dante and Islam: History and Analysis of a Controversy (1965).” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 125 (2007): 37-55; Canuti, Guiseppe. L’Italia in Africa e le guerre con l’Abissinia. Adriano Salani, 1907; and Morpurgo, Enrico. “Dante tra l’islam e il medio evo: A proposito di una nuova pubblicazione.” Neophilologus 37.1 (1953): 116-118.

[4] Translation from Project Gutenberg. Dante, Alighieri, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Purgatorio. Vol. 12. New American Library, 1961.

[5] Ibid.

[6] On the notion of Italy as the ‘internal Other’ of Europe, see Greene, Vivien. “The ‘other’ Africa: Giuseppe Pitrè’s Mostra Etnografica Siciliana (1891–2).” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 17.3 (2012): 288-309.

[7] Thanks to Steven Botterill for personally providing this translation.

[8] The rhetoric of ‘dark’ as immoral and ‘light’ as pure has precedent in racial representations as far back as the Middle Ages (See Verkerk, Jordan, and Hahn).

[9] Burdett cites one statement made by Ciarlantini as an example of the fallacious perception that a given object inherently embodies a given truth: “Beside this arch [of Marcus Aurelius] the gigantic power of Rome is fully revealed. This is a gigantic vertebra of marble raised as a challenge to time and to men, tempered like a formidably strong metal by an imperial discipline and by an imperial tradition” (Burdett, 2003: 99). The concept of ‘objective facticity’ explains why architecture can function as a persuasive rhetorical tactic.