Laughing, Reading and Writing in Italy in the early Twentieth Century.
This exhibition, curated by Matteo Al Kalak, invites visitors to reflect on the values of co-existence, democracy, and the important role that culture plays in the formation of a collective conscience. The display retraces the history of the early twentieth century in Italy through the life of Angelo Fortunato Formiggini: a Jew from Modena, a man of extraordinary culture, a lucid intellectual as well as a great publisher. The exhibition begins with a section on the history of Judaism in Italy, which has its roots in the ancient and medieval periods. Among the exhibits are important documents, such as the act with which Pop Nicolas V formalised the politics of ‘tolerance’ inaugurated by the Dukes of Ferrara and Modena, allowing the Este family to welcome Jews into their States. There are also marriage contracts, an old Bible, all richly decorated, on show, which bear witness to the cultural sophistication of Jews living in the Este states, from which Fortunato descended.
The exhibition continues by exploring Formiggini’s youth, which unfolded against a fast-developing backdrop. With the War of Independence in the past and the First World War still ahead, Italy was like a laboratory for new ideas and movements.
The recently united State entered the new century with the sensational attempt to assassinate King Umberto I, and with the political front dominated by Giovanni Giolitti, whose governments dominated the period leading up to the First World War. In 1911, he would lead Italy into its colonial enterprise in Libya.
These were also fertile years on the cultural front. Among the most prominent writers were Giosuè Carducci, the ‘poet-bard’ of the nation, and Giovanni Pascoli, who was destined to play a decisive role in Formiggini’s story. There were also other voices: from the lyrical, aestheticizing voice of Gabriele d’Annunzio to the thundering tones of the Futurists, in particular Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Formiggini’s youth unfolded within this climate of profound change. After a period in Rome, he moved to Bologna where, in 1907, he graduated with a degree in philosophy, writing a thesis on ‘the philosophy of laughter’, which is shown here in its original version. In it, he presents a theoretical reflection on humour and laughter, which would form the preface of the series of editions and books that he launched over the following decade. Displayed alongside are several items Formiggini donated, such as the ‘tin book’ by his friend, the Futurist Tommaso Marinetti.
In 1908, Formiggini embarked on his publishing activities, guided by the ideals of universal brotherhood that inspired him during his youth. Formiggini launched his editions with the Tassonian Miscellanea, in the spirit of the Modenese poet Alessandro Tassoni, and a burlesque anthology called The Bucket. Both publications featured illustrious names such as Giovanni Pascoli, Giulio Bertoni, Carlo Frati, Albano Sorbelli and Giulio Bariola.
After moving to Genoa in 1911, the publishing house reached the pinnacle of its success, with 29 titles published in 1912 and 46 in 1913. When the First World War broke out, Formiggini, a confirmed interventionist, left for the Front, convinced that post-War Europe would emerge as ‘civil and brotherly’ as long as there was a ‘communion of culture between the people’. While on medical leave between the end of 1915 to 1917, he sent fourteen boxes of books to his fellow soldiers, accompanied by a ‘letter to the fighters’. In it, he explained the need to build libraries in the camps. Despite the constraints imposed by the war, Formiggini remained a publisher, convinced that only by disseminating knowledge in books could people’s destinies be restored.
With the war over, the second phase of Formiggini’s publishing adventures continued under the Fascist regime. Although he had not failed to look favourably at new political developments, he had to contend with the difficult situation that emerged. His relationship with the regime and, above all, its leaders, big and small, was not easy.
The impact of the new order imposed by Fascism was soon felt, in culture too, inevitably: Formiggini presented an ambiguous front as he tried to strike a balance within the atmosphere of repression and control that emerged. On the one hand, his publications from the 1920s and 30s include biographies of figures unpopular with the regime, such as the ‘Medaglie’, dedicated to anti-Fascist figures such as Luigi Sturzo, Giovanni Amendola or Filippo Turati; and on the other hand, Formiggini tried to appease Mussolini and his entourage with works such as the journalistic ‘Battaglie’, which presented to the public the debates that the Duke had launched from his newspaper columns.
Although Formiggini described Mussolini’s activities as: ‘a formidable attempt to give Italy a new and vibrant spirit’, he recognised the bad practice among Mussolini’s leaders and other supporters. Formiggini’s break with the regime and, in many ways, the misfortune that beset his publishing company began with his conflict with the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, one of the regime’s most illustrious exponents.
For Formiggini’s company, the 1930s were a time of rapid decline. Despite his attempts to change the shareholding structure – the publishing house was transformed into the Formiggini Anonymous Society – its capital was devalued by 40% and the liabilities that grew were settled through the sale of by Angelo Fortunato’s family land and property.
In 1937, the regime confiscated Formiggini’s house in the Campidoglio area of Rome, where Mussolini changed the urban plan around the current Via dei Fori Imperiali. In 1938, with the publication of the Manifesto of Race and soon after, the passing of the anti-Semitic laws, the Ministry of Culture began investigating the ethnicity of the staff at the Formiggini publishing house. For the Modenese publisher, these were months of great disillusion, when he did everything to be ‘discriminated’: that is, to be exempted from the race regulations. He wrote to the Ministry of War to ask for the Cross of War that would save him from the anti-semitic laws – in vain. Among the documents drawn from the publishing house’s archives are the curt and angry letters that Formiggini wrote to Mussolini and other henchmen of the Fascist regime.
The publisher’s life story ends tragically when he throws himself off the tower of Modena cathedral.
The exhibition ends with two exceptional documents: Formiggini’s holographic will and a virtual reconstruction of The House of Laughter based on photos of the period and archival research. The House of Laughter was Formiggini’s collection of manuscripts and books on the theme of humour, which he closely guarded until his last days, before leaving them at his death to the Biblioteca Estense.
The exhibition is accompanied by an overview of Angelo Fortunato Formiggini’s post card collection, which comes from his House of Laughter, an ambitious and varied collecting project that he himself described as ‘a kind of library and museum of everything that relates to Laughter, beyond time and place’. ‘Laughter in Times of War: The Great War recounted through the postcards of Angelo Fortunato Formiggini’ is curated by Nadia de Lutio and Erica Vecchio, and can be seen in the Sala Campori of the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria. The exhibits provide an overview of the developments and main events of the Great War as seen through the lens of Angelo Fortunato Formiggini’s humorous post cards. In the spirit of philosophy of laughter so loved by the Modenese publisher, the visitor can retrace the history of figures such as Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph I of Austria, as well as the crucial years of the conflict and its tragic impact.
As well as their unquestionable value as historical evidence of the Great War, these post cards also demonstrate the lively beauty, and artistic and satirical talent of important illustrators of the period, such as Aurelio Bertiglia, Attilio Mussino, Golia (the pen name of Eugenio Colmo), and Virgilio Retrosi.