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Building the New Man

Francesco Cassata


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1The eugenic gospel spread in Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, providing a scientific solution for the profound political, economic and social problems characterizing a country that had achieved political unification only in 1871. The construction of a national identity, social cohesion, and the problem of emigration were as central to eugenics as they were to other social and political movements.

2In 1912, the Italian delegation at the First International Eugenics Congress in London represented the whole spectrum of positivist science: from legal medicine (Raffaele Garofalo) to physical anthropology (Giuseppe Sergi and Vincenzo Giuffrida-Ruggeri); from psychiatry (Enrico Morselli and Antonio Marro) to political economy (Archille Loria); from political sociology (Roberto Michels) to statistics (Alfredo Niceforo and Corrado Gini). Despite the heterogeneity of these disciplinary perspectives, several elements indicate the specificity of Italian eugenics within the international context right from the start: an anti-Mendelian, and often neo-Lamarckian hereditary theory; a natalist approach to population policies; a prevalently favorable evaluation of social exchange and racial breeding; a widespread emphasis on positive eugenic measures. In 1913 the First Italian Committee of Eugenic Studies was established, headed by Giuseppe Sergi: the members numbered just eighty-three, including anthropologists, legal physicians, military physicians, psychiatrists, demographers, statisticians, gynecologists and hygienists.

3The First World War—simultaneously a biological threat and an immense human laboratory—deeply influenced the Committee’s activities, favoring the development of a new phase, which was protracted until the First Congress of Social Eugenics in 1924. The postwar period saw a process of intense institutionalization of Italian eugenics, producing debates of an extreme variety and on a number of issues. In 1919, the Italian Society for Genetics and Eugenics (SIGE) was founded, directed by gynecologist Ernesto Pestalozza. In 1921, the Italian Society for the Study of Sexual Questions (SISQS) was established, and its members were deeply involved in the issue of premarital certification. In 1922, the Institute for Public Welfare and Assistance (IPAS) was constituted which, due to the commitment of its director and founder, Ettore Levi, led the campaign in favor of birth control as main instrument of eugenic selection. During this period, even the introduction of some form of eugenic sterilization found support, from Angelo Zuccarelli’s criminal anthropology to Umberto Saffiotti’s experimental psychology; from Gaetano Pieraccini’s neo-Lamarckian social medicine to Paolo Enriques’ Mendelian biology.

4In December 1923, the results of the meeting between Pietro Capasso, leader of the Neapolitan Eugenics Group and Benito Mussolini, announced the beginning of a new phase in the history of Italian eugenics. Mussolini’s refusal to introduce a form of premarital certification in Italy was confirmed a year later, in 1924, in the rather moderate nature of the conclusions of the First Italian Congress of Social Eugenics, both from the theoretical and from the practical point of view.

5An evident political turning point came with Mussolini’s “Ascension Day speech” in 1927, which inaugurated the fascist natalist demographic campaign, and with the publication of Pope Pio XI’s encyclical “On Christian Marriage” in 1930. The impact these developments had on Italian eugenics was immediate. The principal institutions involved in “qualitative” eugenics—Aldo Mieli’s SISQS and Ettore Levi’s IPAS—were quickly “fascistized.” SIGE passed into the control of the statistician and demographer Corrado Gini—president of the National Central Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) between 1926 and 1931, and of the Italian Committee for Population Problem Studies (CISP) after 1928—and of the physician and psychologist Agostino Gemelli, founder and chancellor of the Catholic University of Milan. At the international level, between 1927 and 1932, CISP controversially separated from the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems (IUSIPP), and SIGE abandoned the International Federation of Eugenic Organizations (IFEO). On 14 July 1933, when Nazi Germany approved the “Law on the Prevention of Genetically Deficient Progeny,” fascist Italy expressed its severe ideological and scientific criticism.

6The strengthening of the ideological and political alliance between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during the second half of 1930s produced new tensions and contradictions in the field of Italian eugenics, which exploded in 1938 with the publication of the so-called “Manifesto of racist scientists,” the official document enshrining fascist state racism in Italy. Between 1938 and 1943, new conflicts emerged, characterized by the opposition between hereditarian, “Nordic,” Mendelian, philo-German eugenics, which influenced the biological and esoteric-traditionalistic currents of fascist racism, and an environmentalist, neo-Lamarckian and “Latin” eugenics, which instead distinguished the nationalist current of fascist racism.

7After the Second World War, in a period spanning from 1948 to the first half of 1970s, the last complex phase in the history of Italian eugenics unfolded. During these decades, the internal dynamics of eugenics in Italy was articulated on at least three different levels.

8First of all, the development of Italian genetics after the Second World War led to the internal schism of SIGE, between 1948 and 1950, followed by the birth of the Italian Genetics Association in 1953: the International Congress of Genetics held in Bellagio, in 1953, represented a catalyzing event in this respect.

9Second, between the 1950s and 70s, the recontextualization of eugenics within the new cultural, ideological and political framework was intertwined with the radical conflict concerning the methodology and clinical practices of medical genetics. The Study Center for Human Genetics, headed in Milan from 1940 by the zoologist Luisa Gianferrari, and the Institute of Human Genetics and Twin Research “Gregorio Mendel” in Rome, directed, after 1953, by the physician Luigi Gedda, proposed a methodological approach still focused on social hygiene, and a craft knowledge of heredity, interpreting “eugenic” counseling in terms of preventive medicine and reproductive hygiene. On the other side, Italian human genetics, adopting the lines of research introduced in Great Britain by Lionel Penrose during the 1930s, developed a medicalized form of eugenics based on Mendelian statistical analysis of modes of transmission, construction and examination of genealogical trees indicating genetic transmission, and diagnosis of transmission or recurrence probabilities. The collaboration between geneticist Giuseppe Montalenti and clinicians Ezio Silvestroni and Ida Bianco on the genetics of thalassemia and on the implementation of a widespread prevention campaign between 1949 to 1955 represents a significant example of this latter approach. This contraposition in the field of medical genetics was not only theoretical and methodological, but also affected the question of professional boundaries, feeding the struggle between clinical physicians and experimental biologists. Furthermore, other sources of tension arose from the broader ideological and political context in which the Catholic, familist and natalist positions encountered secular, birth control and family planning-oriented ones.

10Third, racist mainline eugenics, represented above all by Gini’s theories, did not disappear with the fall of the fascist regime, but remained active after the Second World War, offering an important—and heterodox—contribution to the racist campaign organized by the International Association for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics (IAAEE) and The Mankind Quarterly. From the historiographical point of view, the history of Italian eugenics constitutes an important case study on several relevant issues that would merit further research and study.

11First of all, it allows us to consider the introduction of the label “Latin eugenics” as a form of scientific, political and ideological demarcation. On this subject, the centrality of Corrado Gini’s role provides a fundamental connection between the constitution of the Latin Federation of Eugenic Societies in 1935; the natalist and neo-Lamarckian paradigm of Italian eugenics since the late 1920s; and the ideological, political and cultural strategies of Italian Fascism on the international stage.

12Secondly, the Italian case demonstrates an original interconnection between eugenics and genetics after the Second World War. In fact, starting from the end of the 1940s, the process of institutionalization and autonomization of genetics developed in a context of radical refusal of fascist eugenics, embodied by Gini’s SIGE. Such a break coincided with the internal conflict concerning the definition of another label—“genetics”—between different social actors (geneticists, clinicians, statisticians, agronomists), as well as the reformulation of the concept of “eugenics” in relation to the development of medical genetics in the 1950s and 1960s.

13Last but not least, Italian eugenics was undoubtedly distinguished by the institutional, political and ideological influence of Catholicism. Catholic eugenics not only had a function of opposition to negative eugenic measures, but also elaborated a precise alternative model. The latter was theoretically based on medical constitutionalism and biotypological holism, and institutionally articulated in the international network of Catholic physicians and in the activity of research institutions, such as Nicola Pende’s Biotypological Institute during the fascist period, and the “Gregorio Mendel” Institute in Rome, directed by Luigi Gedda, after the Second World War.

14The analysis of the international impact of Catholic, “Latin” and biotypological eugenics, and the Italian role in this history, constitutes a fascinating topic, which certainly deserves further historiographic attention.

© Central European University Press, 2011

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