Above: Art Deco travel booklet entitled, Sportleben in Italien (Sport Life in Italy) by Mancioli, c. 1933. German language edition produced by Novissima - Roma for the ENIT (Ente Nazionale Industrie Turistische) and the Ferrovie dello Stato.
Italy’s state tourist board, the ENIT, commissioned different cover art for the various language editions of this booklet, Sport Life in Italy.
In the French version a man sails a boat. In the English version a man drives a car. In the German version (pictured) a discus thrower practices in a stadium.
Sailing and driving can be competitive sporting events but they're also leisure activities and therefore are suitable subjects for travel publicity. But discus throwing is a competitive track and field event--not the average tourist's idea of a leisure activity.
Designed around the time the Nazis came to power, this piece of propaganda shows a burgeoning allegiance between Italy and Germany--fascist to fascist.
Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922 backed by the strength of his Blackshirts (a.k.a, CNN or camicie nere ). That paramilitary group provided the model for Adolf Hitler's Brownshirts (a.k.a. S.A. or Sturmabteilung) who were instrumental in the Nazi party's rise to power in 1933.
Having seen the results of brute force, it's little wonder that these fascists believed that the strength of their nations depended quite literally on the strength of their people. Both regimes created a cult of physical fitness around that belief, building stadiums and investing in programs for their athletes who were the symbolic embodiment of their fitness as nations.
Here a discus thrower trains for competition-- i.e., Olympic competition--in one of the Italian government's newly minted public stadiums, the Mussolini Forum in Rome.
The approaching 1936 Berlin Olympic Games appealed to both Italian and German fascists not just because it allowed them to show off the results of their athletic programs but, as we see here, because they saw themselves as heirs to the great civilizations of the past (Fascist Italy and the Roman Empire; the Third Reich and Ancient Greece).
Artist Mancioli invokes the glories of Italy's present and past simultaneously in Sport Life in Italy.
This athlete is the modern successor to a line of great athletes going back to the Roman Empire. This connection is clearly delineated by the row of ancient statues along the stadium's perimeter, which recede into the distance as if moving backwards in time.
But something rings false.
Discus throwing originated in 5th century B.C. Greece (not Rome). Organizers of the first modern Olympiad even exploited the image of the discus thrower, a popular subject of Greek sculpture, by using it in their publicity to raise funds for the inaugural 1896 Athens Olympic Games.
Italian fascists and their Roman forebearers were alike in their desire to appropriate Greek art and culture.
However, there was one element neither regime wanted from antiquity: Greek society's endorsement of homosexuality. Italy made sex between men illegal in 1931; the Nazis persecuted (mostly male) homosexuals, enforcing and later expanding upon the German criminal code's paragraph 175.
However with their Spartan-like emphasis on so-called "masculine" principles of heroism, militarism, and discipline, both regimes ended up promoting homoeroticism.
Greek athletes may have competed in the nude but our Italian proxy's tight white uniform is just as (homo)erotic. His singlet clings to his pectorals while his short shorts hug the curve of his athletic buttocks. The color white emphasizes his bronzed muscular limbs.
A fit figure has broad appeal.
When the Olympics began in Berlin, Hitler made sure film director Leni Riefenstahl was there to capture what he assumed would be a German sweep of the games. The resulting film, Olympia (1938), may have disappointed her leader.
Rather than focus on a perfect racial type, Riefenstahl focused on a perfect physical type.
With its pioneering use of tracking shots and multiple camera angles, including low-angles like the one on our booklet's cover, the film exalts athletes of every ethnic background as god-like. Even Hitler’s nemesis, Black American track star, Jesse Owens, received the same heroic treatment as his Aryan competition.
Black athletic types proved to be a continuing source of fascination for Riefenstahl. In 1975, she traveled to the Sudan to photograph the Nuba, a tall athletic African tribe located in the Nuba mountains. She documented her efforts in the book, The Last of the Nuba (1976).
The Nuba believe in the power of beauty (reflected in the hours they spend painting themselves), which is something that's given the James Bond film franchise box office glory for decades.
Director Lewis Gilbert's Bond film, Moonraker (1979) is the familiar story of a self-appointed leader, Hugo Drax (played by Michael Lonsdale), who schemes to create a master race--this time from outer space. While flying in a helicopter over the Drax's estate in an early sequence, Roger Moore as Bond eyes one of these elite multi-ethnic squadrons uneasily.
His apprehension is justified.
We've seen it before. Like the athlete from our booklet, these perfect physical specimens train outdoors, getting fresh air and sunshine, wearing skimpy white uniforms that show off their athletic bodies.
Luckily, as with World War II, an anti-fascist British-American alliance (formed by Bond and Dr. Holly Goodhead played by Lois Chiles, respectively) ultimately saves the day.
Above: Fascism may have embraced the masses but Bond villain Hugo Drax culled his master race from the elite classes. Françoise Gayat (left) as Lady Victoria Devon and Catherine Serre as Countess Labinsky wear all-white uniforms in a promotional still for director Lewis Gilbert's film, Moonraker (1979).