Many a visitor to Tuscany makes a pilgrimage to the picturesque walled medieval town of San Gimignano, famed for its white wine and its narrow towers. There were an astonishing 72 of these towers in the 14th century. The 13 towers that remain existed as fortified family compounds, intimately clustered in the dense urban plan. They represent the wealth, power, and conflict among the town’s ruling families, and they give the hill-topping town the look of a major metropolis in the distance, bristling with high-rises.
Probably very few of the visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage site realize the town was redesigned by the fascist state under Mussolini. D. Medina Lasansky argues this design was intended to to re-master the past to serve contemporary ideological ends.
In selectively mining the past to legitimize their rule, the Partito Nazionale Fascista is best remembered for romanità, the celebration of their version of ancient Roman history. But their mission to forge a new and distinct national identity, italianità, also put great emphasis on the medioevo, the medieval and Renaissance period.
As part of this process, “urban spaces and monuments were carefully edited for the public.” San Gimignano is Lasansky’s case study of this fascist medievalization under the influence of an increasingly racial vision of Italian culture, as Italy attempted to colonize Ethiopia in the mid-1930s. Interestingly, the Baroque period was hated by the fascists, who “hunted” it down in San Gimignano to erase all traces of it.
When Italy implemented its Nazi-inspired 1938 race laws, “the public was already comfortable with the idea of a single, pure, simple, Italian culture—rooted in medieval culture.” And historical tourism in the museum/set-piece town was key to what she calls ethnic cleansing by architecture. The redesign has “remained the operative image of the city” to this day.
Lasansky presents a challenge to the notion of historic preservation in general by asking who is doing the preservation and why. There’s always been an aspect of politicization in such efforts, she notes, from antiquity on. She forces a more critical look at historic conceptions of the Renaissance itself, which for nearly a century now has been seen through the lens of what fascist architects and historians did to it. The title of her 2005 book, The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle, and Tourism in Fascist Italy (Penn State University Press) distills her thesis, and her challenge.