One of the most beautiful buildings in Bari is undoubtedly the Palazzo dell’Acquedotto (Palace of the Aqueduct). It’s rather unassuming façade masks a nearly unaltered interior entirely decorated in what the Italians call stile Liberty, or Art Nouveau in the English speaking world. Art Nouveau was already well on its way out in 1924 when the building was commissioned, but then when you have an artist and designer as good as Duilio Cambellotti to bring an edifice to life, what happens to be in vogue becomes somewhat irrelevant.
In many respects, Cambellotti was the right man for this project. He was a firm believer in agriculture, man’s connection to the soil, and the peasant. So what better way to express his artistic and philosophical beliefs than by designing the interior of the regional waterworks? Cambellotti’s use of light and color to make solid objects seem to flow is almost magical. But the choice of Cambellotti is also interesting for another reason, politics. For this was the Italy of Benito Mussolini.
Was Cambellotti a fascist? I don’t know enough about the artist to offer a steadfast opinion on the matter. Despite his loathing of industry, he certainly would have been in contact with the Futurists (Enrico Prampolini studied under him). Futurism and Fascist politics emerged together after World War I, and the two were in many ways interlocked, goose-stepping to the same beat.
Then there is Cambellotti’s love for peasants toiling in the earth, a common theme in fascist art and propaganda. Although Cambellotti’s adoration of all things rural predates the rise of fascism, it’s hard not to see him at least sympathetic to the ideology in some ways.
Probably most damming of all, though, are two busts, one of Cambellotti the other of Mussolini, perched side by side in the Palazzo dell’Acquedotto. One would have thought that by now someone would have put Benito in storage. But then again, this is Italy.
For Americans, this rather laissez-faire attitude towards fascism may seem strange or downright terrifying. In our current climate of iconoclasm, someone like Cambellotti would have certainly been “canceled,” his artistic legacy consigned to the dust bin of history for not having the courage to stand up to totalitarianism. Of course, that would also mean about two decades of Italian artists and their art would need to be pulled from museums, their biographies ripped from the pages of texts books. And here is where things get really problematic: how do you appraise a government that actively fostered artistic creativity when that government happened to be fascist? Is it even worth pointing out?
Prior to the run-up to World War II, Italy and the Weimar Republic were the avant-garde of the art world. In Italy, the creative climate had much to do with Mussolini who, despite being a generally loathsome individual, pretty much left the artists to themselves even going so far as to state in 1923 that, “The State has only one duty: not to undermine art, to provide humane conditions for artists, and to encourage them from the artistic and national point of view.”
Mussolini himself wasn’t especially interested in art, but he saw its protection as a useful tool in gaining the support of the intellectual class. It also formed an intrinsic part of Italian culture, which the fascists were keen to promote both at home and abroad. Indeed, there was arguably more art censorship in 1920s America (see Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) than in Italy.
Obviously, problematic art isn’t confined to fascism. Just look at socialist realism; its greatest period of output was smack dab in the middle of Stalin’s reign. Does the regime’s brutality mean one can no longer appreciate the sculptures of Vera Mukhina or the architecture of Lev Rudnev? To lose significant pieces of work simply because they were created in the wrong period or by individuals on the “wrong side of history” should not negate their artistic value. One must separate the work from the artist.
Today, the United States continues to debate the rightful place of everything from Confederate statues to American flags on shoes. While I do think we need to have these conversations, it is important to remain vigilant as we reevaluate our history so as not to destroy it in the process. This is particularly true when it comes to art (both contemporary and historical), which by its very nature is often meant to be subversive.
There is, of course, a difference between a banal, turn-of-the-century statue of Robert E. Lee and a man of Cambellotti’s talents. However, one only has to look at a list of frequently challenged books to see how deep a culture of censorship runs in the United States. Many of us would rather close our eyes than have our views challenged or, God forbid, accept that there is quite a bit of nuance in the world. Life is not black and white, and one should not be afraid to celebrate the inspired while understanding the context of its creator. Cambellotti was almost certainly a flawed human being, but the world is a better place with his art in it.