The AHRC-funded research project, ‘In vino veritas?: Alcohol and its spaces in Fascist Italy’ examines the place of alcohol in Italian fascist life. In particular it explores: a) the regime’s attitudes and pronouncements on alcohol, and b) the role of alcohol as a mediating actor between individuals and the fascist state.
The project will run from September 2015 to Summer 2017 and is led by Dr Kate Ferris .
In addition to producing written academic publications, the project comprises:
- An early career research network for scholars working on the political, social and cultural history of food in modern Europe.
- A series of workshops, conferences and exhibitions. News of these will be posted in due course.
- Podcasts, intended for use by schools but available for all to download freely. These are expected to be available in 2017.
In order to get to the bottom of the apparent ambivalence and the contradictions in fascist attitudes towards alcohol, the project will address the following research questions:
- What was the fascist regime’s attitude towards the consumption of alcohol and how did this change over the course of the dictatorship? To what extent did income from alcohol consumption and production drive the regime’s attitudes?
- How can we explain the dissonance between the insistence on abstemiousness and ascetic discipline in the idealization of the ‘new fascist man’ and the celebration of wine production as an important tenet of Italian economic life?
- In what ways could alcohol function as a mediating agent in the relationship between individual Italians and the regime?
- To what extent did alcohol consumption promote political conflict and/or to what extent did it function – as Sheila Fitzpatrick suggests was the case in the Stalinist USSR – as a lubricant to dissolve political tension and to maintain relationships which might help an individual to call in favours or ‘solve a problem’ with the regime?
During my research into Everyday Life in Fascist Venice (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012), I was struck by the multi-faceted, perhaps contradictory, role that alcohol seemed to play in the negotiation of the relationships between individual Italians and the regime. Often, alcohol and its spaces provided opportunities for political conflict. Alcohol brought together groups of men in places – bars – which were known to be linked to particular political persuasions. Alcohol could also lubricate bravado and outspokenness, a combination which easily erupted into political violence. One fascist squadrista in the early days of the movement, before the March on Rome (1922), described in his diary how he and his fellow squadristi would frequent the bars and osterie of Via Garibaldi in Castello – a working-class district of Venice – in order ‘to drink and sing war and patriotic songs’ in the hope of provoking a (violent) response from the workers drinking there. The father of one Venetian diarist I consulted did indeed find himself ‘provoked’ in this way, whilst drinking an ombretta at the bar de Manfren in Fondamente Nove. His gentle ribbing of a fascist capo-squadra earned him a severe beating.
At the same time, though, alcohol seemed to play a role in easing and smoothing relations between individuals and the regime and its representatives. Compromises or deals could be reached over a bicchiere (a glass of wine). In at least one case, the consumption of alcohol was judged by the regime to be a mitigating factor, excusing the singing of an anti-fascist song in public. The Venetian prefecture decided that the drunkenness of one man, accused of singing the hymn of the Socialist International, meant that it was impossible to ascertain whether he did so from a belief in socialist values or whether – as he maintained – he was singing the ‘fascistised’ version of that song (the verses of which he overheard sung by a group of fascists out celebrating the anniversary of the march on Rome). Of course, we cannot know what the accused’s intentions were in singing the ‘Red Flag’, but it remains the case that in this instance, alcohol – drunkenness – provided an opportunity to excuse undesirable political behaviour and allowed the diffusion, rather than escalation, of political conflict.
Such individual stories hint at the paradoxical role played by alcohol, drunkenness, bars and other spaces where alcohol was consumed in the negotiation of daily life under fascism. However, we do not yet have a systematic account of the relationship between fascism and alcohol. Despite the frequency with which alcohol and its associated spaces figure in individual accounts of encounters between the adherents and detractors of the regime, the dynamic between alcohol and the expression of support for/discontentment with fascism has not yet been subject to coherent historical analysis. Some historians have made passing reference to the austere position taken by Mussolini and the fascist regime with respect to the drinking of alcohol, viewing it as potentially diluting the health, strength and discipline of Italians. For example, in her inquiry into representations of Mussolini, Mussolini Immaginario (1991), Luisa Passerini noted the repeated emphasis on his abstemiousness, as part of the construction of the Duce as an exemplar of virile masculinity. A historian of food politics, Carol Helstosky, in Garlic and Oil (2004) commented upon the gap between the promotion of wine by some fascist individuals and institutions and the focus on the consumption of (non-alcoholic) grapes, through the institution, from 1929, of the Festival of the Grape. Likewise, other historians, including Alessandro Casellato and R.J.B. Bosworth (mentioned above), have revealed anecdotal evidence of occasions on which drinking alcohol provided the prelude – and perhaps also the impetus – to violent encounters between fascists and anti-fascists or to encounters in which Italians, their tongues seemingly loosened by alcohol, found themselves in trouble with the fascist state. Despite this sparse and anecdotal treatment in Italian historiography, scholarly work on everyday life in other, contemporaneous, dictatorships, shows the study of alcohol and its associated spaces to be a fruitful and important avenue for understanding the negotiation of life under dictatorship. Historians of Nazi Germany have demonstrated the links between the Third Reich’s pronouncements on alcohol consumption and smoking and the ideology of racial hygiene and eugenics. Of particular relevance to this project, Sheila Fitzpatrick (Everyday Stalinism, 1999) sets out the tensions between the Soviet authorities’ desire to curb Russians’ vodka consumption because of its perceived impact on productivity and ‘hooliganism’ and their need to maintain the vital income stream that the production and sale of vodka brought the state at a time of increasing industrialization and military threat. What’s more, she also pointed to the ‘inseparable link’ between ‘drinking and friendship’, which could be used to navigate the intricacies of Soviet bureaucracy. This project will engage with these works by examining the extent to which alcohol and its spaces reveal the tensions between regime ideology and policy and the relationship between state and individual in fascist Italy. It will thereby situate alcohol as an important mediator in fascist life within the context of ongoing historiography and key themes in related fields, such as the place of health, aesthetics and ascetics under fascism, food history, agrarian history and the social history of the lived experience of fascism. As such, the findings of this project build upon work already done and being completed by historians in these distinct fields, finding connections between them and helping to construct a broader and more detailed picture of life under dictatorship.