Le Colonie
The Children's Holiday Camps of Fascist Italy

ARNE WINKELMANN

 





























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THE COLONIE AS POLITICAL INSTRUMENT

The first Italian holiday camps for children (colonie) were established by charitable Christian organisations like the Opera Don Bosco or the Opera Bonomelli in the late 19th century. The main purpose of the colonie at the time was to improve child health. Medical problems thought to be caused by poor light, air and malnutrition were treated at the colonie with sun bathing, physical exercise and fortifying meals.
In the 1920s the programme of colonie was taken over by the new Fascist state and expanded. The treatment continued and was in effect extended but it had a new raison d'ŕtre in three distinct ways. Firstly, the Fascist doctrine was concerned with Volksk÷rper, (German: concept of the body of the nation). Under the new regime the strength and health of individuals were no longer as important as the physical superiority of a new generation.


Secondly the national Balilla youth organisation (Opera Nazionale Balilla), which was replaced in 1937 by the GIL (Giovent¨ Italiana del Littorio), had a clear paramilitary dimension. The children wore uniforms, were equipped with a wooden rifle, and were organised into military hierarchies. They practised parade ground exercises and carried out a series of military rituals such as flag-raising and pledging an oath of allegiance, and were taught to idolise their leaders. The colonie contributed to Balilla education and aimed to transform them into soldiers, physically and morally. The Fascist government rationalised all the colonie that were private or run by the church, ensuring that no other organisation could exercise any influence on children.

Balilla

Thirdly, the colonie were used for ideological indoctrination and for developing in children an emotional bond with the Fascist regime. To this end two strategies were pursued: daily political instruction was part of the children's education and an emotional attachment to the "father figure" of il Duce was developed. Above all, the emotional attachment to the regime and in particular to Mussolini during the children's stay at the summer camps was perceived very positively by many children afterwards, even idealised into a "wonderful world" as touched on in the memoirs of sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi (Cities of Childhood, 1988, p. 10).

propaganda picture bild about life in a colonia

It is also noteworthy that, during the 1920s, major industrialists in italy saw in the colonie the potential of shaping their next workforce by instilling in the children of their workers discipline and a bond with their company. FIAT, Olivetti, Piaggio, and Montecatini, amongst others, built and managed the colonie with the intention of raising a healthy, efficient and loyal workforce. As a country that was late to industrialise, Italy was evoking at this time the paternalistic corporate culture that many other European nations had experienced some decades before.

 

Moreover the term "colonia" was intended as an extension of the Lebensraum (German: space-to-live) concept. Although the term "colonie marina" existed long before the 1920s, it acquired a new-found meaning under Fascism. Following the First World War, a programme of colonisation became a cornerstone of Fascism; an aggressive expansion policy that led to both the annexing of colonies outside Italy and the creation of new cities at home, the 'CittÓ Fondazione'. The colonisation of the largely uninhabitable Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coastal marshlands through the colonie building programme was a significant step for the Fascists in realising Lebensraum for Italy. The Fascist regime effectively generated "new land" for its population by way of an expansion within Italy. The Calambrone linear city comprises a series of children's colonie stretching down the coastal strip in front of Pisa towards Livorno. In the early 1930s expansion of the colonie programme led to accelerated construction of new summer camps on the coasts (colonie marine), in the mountains (colonie montane) and of day colonie in the countryside in the periphery of cities (colonie elioterapiche).

Calambrone - the city of colonie

Most of the colonie were built in the rationalist style. Generally in the design of these rationalist buildings attention was focused on structural and spatial qualities, while ideological implications were rarely discussed. The colonie designs are very close in style to both 'Razionalismo", the expression of totalitarianism, and the International Style, the expression of liberal democracy, but this was rarely debated at that time.

Colonia marina "Principi di Piemonte", Santa Severa

The avant-garde modern design of he colonie was an integral part of the political propaganda. There are some structural analogies between the organisation of the floor plan and the military hierarchy of the Balilla. The Balilla were organised into units that followed the historical model of he ancient Roman army. The smallest unit was the squad with 11 children. Three squads made a manipolo, three manipoli made one century comprising 100 children; another three centuries formed a cohort, and three cohorts formed the largest unit with 900 people, the legion. In the colonie, the children slept in dormitories usually with 11 to 33 beds, with the structure of a squad or manipolo. On each floor of a colonie building wing, dormitories were then often re-organised into groups of three. Many colonie had the capacity of a cohort; while among the largest colonie, Bolognese in Rimini or the Colonie "XXVIII Ottobre" in Cattolica, for example, there was the capacity to accomadate a legion. The spatial organisation of the dormitories into military units reflected the simplicity of barrack construction and was characteristic of troop accomodation.

 

Ground floor Colonia marina "XXVIII Ottobre" dei Fasci di combattimento di Torino, Marina di Massa

Ground floor Colonia marina "XXVIII Ottobre", Cattolica

Another aspect that emerged from the similarity of the colonie dormitories to barracks was the efficient running of an operation on a massive scale. The architectural historian Michele Anderle speaks of "mechanism of man" during Fascism, where an individual plays only an anonymous function within a larger machine. This image can be transferred to the structural organisation of the colonie. The colonie were clearly divided into functional sections: the service areas such as kitchen, laundry and administration offices were seperated from the children's areas and there were segregated dormitories for girls and boys (if it was not a colonia exclusively reserved for boys or girls). Aspects of the daily life of the guests, such as sleeping, eating and washing were shared and collectivised. In order to get the children both assembled and then dispersed quickly, buildings were provided with wide ramps, often in spiral or curved form, as the Montecatini and Varese colonie. Functional differentiation, clear geometries and partially panopticon space allowed for close monitoring of activity in the summer camps. The resemblance to machine parts in the designs for the colonie "Roberto Farinacci" in Cremona, or "Maria Pia di Savoia" in Vercelli is evidence of the themes of mechanisation and automation in colonie design.


Colonia elioterapica "Roberto Farinacci", Cremona © Arne Winkelmann

Colonia elioterapica "Maria Pia di Savoia", Vercelli © Dan Dubowitz

This mechanical motif plays an important role in the symbolic function of the architecture. In the Colonie "XXVIII Ottobre" in Cattolica and "Amos Maramotti" in Riccione the ship theme is dominant: the large buildings' shapes clearly evokes hulls, semicircular stairways are prows, handrails and ramps recall railings and gangways. Portholes and flagpoles emphasise the nautical theme. The ship metaphor is a focal typology in the architecture of modernity. It is the dawn of a new era, of a social utopia and euphoria with technology and progress. Furthermore there is an additional image at play here, that of the warship. The Colonia "XXVIII Ottobre" evokes the sense of a small fleet of warships around a central building; the image is based on a contemporary postcard known as the "anchored flagship". The compact form of the four dormitories elicits the image of naval speedboats or torpedo boats rather than cruise ships. Even the stair tower of Colonia Novarese resembles a gun turret or a command bridge, which rises far above the deck into the air. With the sight of Balilla in navy uniforms, the image of a generation in readiness for a war, a naval war, is complete.

Colonia marina "XXVIII Ottobre", Cattolica

postcard of Colonia marina "XXVIII Ottobre", Cattolica

Colonia marina Novarese, Rimini

 
The architecture of the colonie also served the Fascist regime as a political icon. Fascist symbols, emblems and propaganda motifs were widely represented in the buildings. The enclosed parade grounds were designed to display the row of marching Balilla looking up at a pulpit balcony, which were usually part of a larger plain wall surface. These walls displayed prominent inscriptions of the colonia's name, the year the colonia was founded, counting from the birth of the Fascist era, in Roman numerals with the addition of EF for "Era Fascista" (Example XII EF = 1934), and fasces, the Roman symbol comprising a bundle of white birch rods and an axe which was the national emblem for Italy in the Fascist era. All these architectural elements, the balcony, the parade ground, the ramps, the military and spatial organisations crowned with fasces and Roman inscriptions came together to make the perfect Fascist scene for propaganda. The fasces theme is evident as an architectural element in several ways: as a separate structure, such as stairwells of as fluting round towers or as a general plan in the Colonia "Rosa Maltoni Mussolini" in Tirrenia. Fasces motifs often appeared in groups of three as an icon on balconies and over entrances. Design of the colonie also functioned to keep political symbols and emblems omnipresent so that young visitors would always see to whom they should be grateful for their stay and to whom they were to be devoted.


Colonia montana "Montemaggio", Savignone



Colonia marina "Rosa Maltoni Mussolini", Tirrenia

 

From these examples it is evident that even in the vocabulary of modern design there are moments of manipulation and of deliberate opacity. The architecture of modernity, supposedly universal and unburdened by historical references, is readily subjected to totalitarianism's influence. The resulting buildings glorify war and violence, and were used in an effort to subject an entire generation to pledging allegiance to the Fascist regime.

Balilla in uniforms

 

This Web page presents a typological investigation of the architecture of the children's holiday camps of Fascist Italy. It serves neither for glorification and idealization nor belittlement of the Fascist regime and its ideology but as a source for a critical debate on this issue.

 
 
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