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Des Empires en carton

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Nadia Vargaftig

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1How was empire perceived in Salazar’s Portugal and Mussolini’s Italy ? Going beyond the generality of the different national histories and empire-building processes, Portugal and Italy, on the winning side in the First World War, emerged from the conflict with plans for expansion essentially on the African continent. However, international realities and the balance of forces in Europe swiftly condemned these plans to the realm of illusion — a situation that helped pave the way for fascist regimes in Mussolini’s Italy and Salazar’s Portugal and permitted them to prosper in a breeding-ground of truncated victories and frustrated nationalist ardour.

2By examining national exhibitions and participation in international exhibitions and colonial fairs, this study enquires into the modes of production and reception of a phenomenon rooted in the 19th century West and bearing on the history of ideas, science and the arts in the contemporary era. What registers, references and images did the promoters of the colonial idea in Portugal and Italy conjure, and in what ways did they alter them so that they would fit the standards of the new regimes ? How, as far as one can judge, did the target public react to and receive these events, whose aims were more diverse than might have appeared ?

3By cross-referencing print sources and archived documents from the two countries, comparing writings and images, multiplying the angles and scales of analysis and locating the discussion in a historical context of international relations and inter-imperial connections, this study identifies the political, social and cultural wellsprings underlying events whose essentially ephemeral nature poses difficulties for historians and social science researchers. In an attempt to achieve as exact a reconstruction as possible, it tries to fill in some gaps in our knowledge of the colonial culture and propaganda of two empires ruled by dictators, and to address the issue of breaks and continuities in time (with reference to earlier periods and regimes) and space (by comparison with other European colonial empires — France, Great Britain, Belgium).

4Beginning with an analysis of the broad changes which in one decade (1918- 1928) transformed the context of colonial propaganda in each of the two countries through a vigorous pursuit of political conformity, the study goes on to examine a number of exhibitions, which became progressively larger in both the Italian and the Portuguese cases. The scale of the participation in Northern European colonial and international exhibitions from the beginning of the 1930s to the apogees of imperial and national pride in the 1940s, the Mostra triennale delle terre italiane d’oltremare (Naples) and the Exposição histórica do mundo português (Lisbon), betrays the growing involvement not only of the regimes in power and their collaborators but also the generality of the metropolitan societies, either willingly or forcibly co-opted into ill-defined projects in which a cult of the past was blended with visions of the future and a desire for power. From the initial idea to the dismantling, by way of the legal concept, the financial structure, the urban site, the inauguration and the day-to-day operation, these exhibitions indeed read like instruments of colonial propaganda, but also as tools of political and social regulation, or even as levers of public policy. Idealised depictions of a hierarchical world in which races, genders and classes were graded on scales of values imposed by the new strongmen of Southern Europe, they nonetheless revealed the defects and weaknesses of two empires which lacked or no longer possessed the means to fulfil their ambitions on the international stage.

5The diversity of these events progressively gave way to homogeneity in the historical and cultural referents underpinning the fascist and Salazarist colonial propaganda. This tends to confirm the idea that the continuities, both spatial and temporal, carried greater weight than the breaks despite the ostensibly “revolutionary” discourse and language employed by the dictatorships. Their concern to dissociate themselves from the “plutocratic” kinds of colonialism embodied by Paris, and above all London, and to build up an image of a colonialism of workers (Italy) or evangelisers (Portugal) does not conceal the broad homogeneity of ideas and intentions, or the ambiguous use of cultural and racial categories. Their “civilising mission” was thus the stated rationale of two European nations in pursuit of imperial recognition.

6The last chapter, devoted to the forgotten actors in the exhibitions, seeks to give expression to the colonial natives of either sex, inevitable “guests” at events of this kind. Here too, a closer examination reveals at once the precariousness, but also the diversity of the statuses of these individuals and these groups, who were utilised or even brutalised, but whose presence in the metropolis could bring benefits, especially of the financial sort. In the context of an officially segregationist policy in the Italian colonies, more ambiguous but just as brutal as the Portuguese, colonial racism was rampant in the thoroughfares and displays of the exhibitions, which thus came — with all the scientific caution of official anthropologists — to constitute particularly effective vehicles for expression of the notion of racial inequality.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2016

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