Christin Müller
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Staging an Ideology

History leaves its mark on architecture, spaces, and objects alike. Everyday actions, like political standpoints, become etched into their surroundings. In her photographs Johanna Diehl retraces all of the above. She is interested “in the extent to which an idea, an ideology, a memory manifests itself in the world of objects.”1 The spaces she photographs reflect those who created them as well as those who now use them. As places in which a “collective and individual consciousness is deposited,"2 they can be read as indicators of a political dimension shaped by society.

In Borgo, Romanità, Alleanza, and Ufficio, Johanna Diehl explores how a particular design aesthetic is used to establish and maintain power structures. How diverse were the mainstays of the regime in question? Do they convey their visual messages through to the present day? The series collated here, which can be read either individually or as a group, highlights four aspects of this tense relationship between Fascist ideology and architecture. During his period in office from 1922 to 1943 Benito Mussolini initiated more urban planning projects than any other European dictator. Mussolini regarded building as a non-verbal form of communication that impacted directly on everyday life, an apposite means for conveying his ideology to all sections of society. But for the dictator, it was about more than formulating and disseminating an aesthetic of power. His major architectural upheavals also have to be seen as instruments aimed at implementing a Fascist social and societal policy.3 In its representative monumentality this architecture was designed not least to create a media impact capable of unfolding in both photography and film. So when Johanna Diehl retraces in her photographs the symbols of Fascist ideology in Italy’s architectural image, she initiates a form of communication4 in which two processes of translation are inherent: first, from ideology into architecture and, secondly, from architecture into photographic image. This essay examines those two phases of translation5 and their impact on image reception.

Borgo: a village imagined
Set among Sicily’s hilly landscape are clusters of concrete shells with windows bereft of glass. These small abandoned townlets were built in the Italian hinterland as part of the Fascist land reform of 1939. Known as borghi rurali and named after heroes of Fascism, they were designed to establish an infrastructure as well as a new type of spatial and social order epitomizing a politically motivated utopia. Big landowners were compelled to parcel their land into plots of twenty-five hectares each and lease them out to local farmers. As part of the policy, dozens of small urban service centers were planned alongside the borghi in a bid to develop rural Italy and make it more attractive to its inhabitants. Thus the middlemen in the pay of big landowners were to be disempowered—they who previously had ruled unrestrained and unsupervised over the rural population and were regarded as the cradle of the mafia.6 

The tragic and bizarre story of the Borgo Mussolinia, situated in the region around Caltagirone, is the inspiration for Johanna Diehl’s working method and the precursor of the large-scale land reform.7 Planned originally as a garden city, the town was intended as a showcase project for the Fascist regime; indeed, in the dictator’s honor, it was to bear his name. Mussolini turned up for the cornerstone-laying ceremony in 1924 and showed a great deal of interest in the development of the locality. However, for practical and financial reasons, the building work made little headway, which in turn caused a bit of a headache, as it was the Duce’s express wish to see photographs of the progress being made on the building project. In desperation local politician Benedetto Fragapane decided to compile a fictitious photo album and used photography to construct a locality that, in reality, did not even exist.8 In his novel Privo di titolo, Andrea Camilleri gives an account in which local officials use plywood backdrops to create the appearance of the town as it had been planned on paper.9 In his version of the story, the combination of photographs of these backdrops and of buildings from surrounding towns gave rise to the imagined locality of Mussolinia, like a mirage trapped between two album covers.

In her work Borgo, Johanna Diehl picks up on this play with fictions and media-based realities. She highlights the fact that, even if the borghi are situated at the periphery of Mussolini’s sphere of influence and the architecture appears far less representative than it does in Rome, they are nonetheless visibly inscribed with Fascist ideology. The genius loci of the borghi is captured in two image forms. Smaller photographs compiled in an album analyze the structure of the townlets and illustrate the features of the different types of building. They confront the viewer with large expanses of wall, which then appear monumental, but also forbidding and inaccessible. The compilation of photographs of all the typical elements of these planned towns – central piazza, church, party building, post office, school, and a couple of shops – in turn creates another fictitious borgo.10 

Johanna Diehl uses large-format photographs to situate the borghi among fields and make the logic of their spatial arrangement accessible. As viewers we are able to stroll about the streets with our eyes; indeed, we feel we are almost able to stand on the piazza and sense its bizarre, majestically presumptuous atmosphere. The architecture reflects the self-image of its planners and assigns particular roles to its inhabitants. The party building had to be at least as tall as the church tower; vast sweeping squares were to be used for parades and gatherings; and triumphal arches referenced the design idiom of ancient Rome. In the photographs the streets seem oddly empty, frozen into unreal and almost artificial backdrops. Characteristics such as these bring to mind Michel Foucault’s notion of “other spaces,” i.e. what he refers to as “heterotopias.”11 He describes places that have a particular relationship with the landscape that surrounds them. Here things are assigned different functions; a discrete temporality prevails, and other rules apply. Highlighting the heterotopic characteristic12 in Johanna Diehl’s photographs serves to uncover the ideological calculation. Manifest in the buildings is the idea of surveillance and spectacle that was to be expressed in the speeches and marches of the Fascists or to serve as backdrops for film footage featuring the Duce.13 Johanna Diehl has highlighted this potential for the theatrical in two diptychs. Extending across the double-spread of two photographs, the building in Borgo Bassi III illustrates the almost dramatic scope of the architecture. Again, the slightest change of perspective and light in Borgo Rizza I imitates a camera tracking shot, hinting at the location’s cinematic energy as a reflection of the media deployed. The large-format photographs also provide an insight into the level of detailing, thereby exposing the borghi as Potemkin villages14—with their crumbling façades, windows without panes, the fissured asphalt, and the scorched grass. From the outset most of the borghi were left vacant,15 and of the many towns planned, only eight were actually built;16 they languish to this day, caught in a spectral limbo between failure and beauty.17

Romanità: Staging glories past
Muscle-bound heroes of antiquity, lictors, equestrian figures, fasces, and axes in front of triumphal arches or columns in elaborately designed frescoes and mosaics, surrounded by carmine velvet, gilding, mirrored wood inlays, marble, and travertine: it all looks so out of place in modern-day Italy. Unlike Hitler’s Nazi symbols, banned from public spaces, Mussolini’s “exuberant fragrances”18 are still present in many places throughout in Italy.19Romanità focuses on the Fascist symbolism and the materials found in public institutions in Rome and northern Italy, drawing the viewer’s attention directly to Mussolini’s power center. As a view from the inside, the imagery of these Fascist interiors contrasts sharply with the borghi, the exterior, the rural. The title Romanità20 references an evocation and revival of ancient Rome. Mussolini was eager to follow up on the grandeur of the Eternal City and the Roman Empire, instrumentalizing its significance and iconography for his own political interests. As the dictator made clear in 1934, “Rome as a capital city is not just a city, but a political institution, a moral category.”21 The aim was to make Rome a capital city that radiated far and wide through its symbolic, institutional, and urban planning projects, surpassing antiquity itself with the help of a Fascist policy of renewal.22 

The iconography implemented is as overpowering as Fascist ideology itself. These antiquity-inspired symbols appear to thrust themselves right into Johanna Diehl’s photographs in a bid to dominate. Casa dei Mutilati IV, Rom features horsemen, lictors, and a Roman standard interlocked with the word DUX23 and Mussolini’s portrait in the manner of a collage. In some photographs the way in which image elements are superimposed is almost grotesque—for instance, the Roman bust placed in the center of a cluster of benches (Casa Madre dei Mutilati II, Rom). It is as incongruous as the mural along a snow-covered street in Foro Italico II, Rom, which features men clad only in linen robes with fasces and axes in their hands. Johanna Diehl resists the temptation of a historically illuminating interpretation of this image-bound symbolism. Even though she reproduces the staging of these premises, she depicts the Fascist imagery merely in excerpts, inducing a hiatus among these means of seduction and persuasion. In the photograph of the Palazzo degli Uffici I, Rom, we only see the left-hand edge of a wall relief representing four belligerent lictors. The core of the relief – the unmistakable sovereign motif of an equestrian statue – is perceived merely as a reflection in the glass doors. As we look more closely at the photographs in this series, we realize that the fragmentary depiction of historical iconography is enhanced with symbols of the present. At the Casa Littoria in Bergamo, a pane of glass in front of a wall painting refers to present-day visitors forced to observe the wall relief from a respectful distance. In Foro Italico, a Roman sculpture and its shadow stand heroically enthroned above the rows of seats of a conference room that, presumably, was refurbished only a few years ago. Similarly, vestiges of the motto credere, obbedire, combattere reverberate from the walls of the former Casa del Fascio in Bergamo like an echo of history that will never fall silent.

Romanità can be seen as a poetic response to Aram Mattioli’s statement that, under Silvio Berlusconi’s government, Italy has become a country “without a historical memory.”24 The photographs refer neither to a topical event nor to a particular point in time in the past. Rather, the time narrated by the photographs appears to drift in two directions. In showcasing Fascist design elements it refers to the era of Mussolini’s rule. Traces of the more recent past creep into the images as a result of subsequently added interior elements such as the glass pane, or minor scuffmarks. The different eras have been overlaid and stratified like stone sediments, thus depicting Aleida Assmann’s concept of “place memory.” This implies not just a remembrance of the places themselves, but also a memory that is sited there.25 In the photographed interiors the fine furnishings evoke Mussolini’s referencing of antiquity. The fact that these furnishings and interiors appear, for the most part, well cared for and looked after is testimony to the high regard in which they are held to this day. The clash with the present that characterizes the viewer’s point of reference creates a dialectic tension in which the carefully interwoven references add to the pleasure that is to be gained from deciphering image elements from past, present, and future.26

Alleanza: commingling of architecture and ideology
A long and complex relationship has always existed between architecture and photography. Transferring three-dimensional objects to the two-dimensional realm of photography and the process of selecting cropping and perspective options all result in an interpretation that affects the way in which the viewer perceives what is shown: photographs are capable of controlling, pre-empting, and even modifying the viewer’s experience of a building through their interpretation of it.27 This relationship is certainly reflected in the Alleanza series, which focuses on the alliance between the Church and Fascism and its legacy as manifested in the architecture. For Mussolini, sacral buildings were a key element of Fascist architecture; they were erected in the new planned cities as well as in Rome itself. In the first few years of his regime, Mussolini made concessions to the Church purely for opportunistic reasons of politics and power, concessions that would subsequently underpin the Lateran Accords of 1929. The Catholic Church, to which over ninety-eight per cent of Italians belonged, would later emerge as one of the regime’s mainstays.28

The work entitled Alleanza is shaped by a clear-cut, strictly executed concept that revolves around a typifying observation. In an approach that is almost catalogue-like, Johanna Diehl contrasts the formalistic exterior design of the churches with their atmospheric interior design. Like classic architecture photographs, the exterior views depict the edifice as a whole. The reduction to black-and-white emphasizes the clear, modernistic lines of the buildings erected in and around Rome under Mussolini’s influence. As protagonists, the churches take center stage within the image, illuminated by intense sunlight that affords a heroically monumental aspect to the reduced oval and rectangular shapes featured in the photographs. In Santa Annunziata in Sabaudia, the composition of rectangles and cylinders creates a factory-like appearance, and in the view of the Capella del Cimetero the level of abstraction is such that the chapel appears to dissolve into simple geometric shapes. Urs Stahel’s pointed observation on the relationship between architecture and photography could not be more apposite here: “The most radical thinning of architectural bodies occurs in the way that architecture is portrayed. The mass, the materiality stands in contrast to the (ultra-flat) images.”29

The exterior views have their counterpart in the interior shots that accentuates the interplay of light, shape, and color. In the photograph of the church pews of Cristo Re, the colorfully iridescent light creates an atmosphere that is almost transcendentally psychedelic. And it is almost incidental that the detailed images that have been chosen feature the characteristic elements of places of worship. The uniform lighting, for instance, gives rise to the modernistic abstraction of a baptismal font. Scattered among the photographs of churches are images of hydroelectric plants and drainage systems, symbolic of the draining of the Pontine swamps and therefore of land reclamation. So on the one hand, Johanna Diehl refers to the foundations on which these new towns and cities were built. On the other, the architectural similarity with industrial buildings highlights the way in which the churches are ideologically embedded. An exploration both analytical and emotional is thus precipitated by this juxtaposition of interior and exterior, overview, detail, and visual comparison. Through her work the artist sees architecture in the sense explored by Walter Benjamin; she senses its structures, successfully blurring the boundaries between objectified shell and subjective content.30

Ufficio: Gaps and blanks as spaces for reflection
Any consideration of Johanna Diehl’s oeuvre inevitably gives rise to the question of the documentary. Here a semiotic definition as proposed by Abigail Solomon-Godeau proves appropriate: “As part of a larger system of visual communication, as both a conduit and agent of ideology, purveyor of empirical evidence and visual truths, documentary photography can be analyzed as a sign system possessed of its own accretion of visual and signifying codes determining reception and instrumentality.”31Johanna Diehl makes use of signifying codes such as these in contrasting historical and contemporary finds. Through details and conscious omissions, she generates a vacuum that draws the viewer into her photographs. This immersion in the images is further underscored by the reduced imagery and by the factual descriptive titles, which merely situate spatially or geographically that which is depicted. By playing with visual clues and uncovering layers of time, she challenges the viewer’s analytical gaze to decipher the logic of the staging methods used by the Fascist regime.32 

This artistic approach is taken to the extreme in the last series in the book. In Ufficio Johanna Diehl explores the premises of the former Casa del Fascio in Predappio, Mussolini’s birthplace. Inside an oval hall with many windows and dilapidated ceilings, a flag mast lies recumbent like a fallen, oversized dagger. The next photograph features a heap of discarded, dust-covered computers shoved between two doorways, positively questioning its own destiny. In a third photograph we see the word Ufficio in red letters on a door. They look as if they have only recently been affixed there; the nature of the “office” involved remains unresolved. These few things are like clues that, together, tell the story of the house itself. Along with Wolfgang Iser, it is tempting to interpret the emptiness between these clues as “blank spaces.” They challenge the viewer to piece together what he or she sees so the story can emerge.33 It is in spaces such as these that Johanna Diehl’s works make such a powerful impact, giving us space to reflect, and contemplate.


1   Johanna Diehl, address given at the Meisterschüler examination, March 2012, Tapetenwerk, Leipzig.

2   Ibid. This particular interest is also found in some of Johanna Diehl’s earlier works, such as Gefrorene Räume [Frozen Spaces] (2006) and Displace (2008/2009).

3   See Aram Mattioli, “Architektur und Städtebau in einem totalitären Gesellschaftsprojekt,” in Aram Mattioli and Gerald Steinacher, eds., Für den Faschismus bauen (Zurich, 2009), pp. 13–44.

4   This is precisely what Rolf Sachsse proposes as a contemporary form of architectural photography: “It is no longer a matter of conveying the shape of a building as an image; rather, it is first and foremost about using that image to convey a message of a different kind. It can be a mood one wishes to convey; it can be the prompt for critical comments about building materials, architecture, or designs; but it can also be the context for a story, which, as a sequence of many individual stories is then condensed to survive as history”; see Rolf Sachsse, Wenn Raumbilder zu Bildräumen werden (Berlin, 2009), p. 5.

5   On the notion of translation in Johanna Diehl’s oeuvre, see also Miriam Paeslack, “Übersetzungen, Raum und Gedächtnis” [Translation, space, and memory], in Johanna Diehl, Displace (Salzburg, 2011), not paginated.

6   See Harald Bodenschatz, “Mussolinia di Sicilia” (1924 cornerstone-laying ceremony), in Harald Bodenschatz, ed., Städtebau für Mussolini (Berlin, 2012), pp. 322–24, here p. 324.

7   Ibid. 

8   Bodenschatz 2012 (see note 6), p. 324, and Leonardo Sciascia, Mein Sizilien (Berlin, 1999), pp. 33–38.

9   Andrea Camilleri, Der Märtyrer im schwarzen Hemd [German title; Italian original: Privo di titolo] (Munich, 2008).

10   Diehl 2012 (see note 1).

11   Foucault defines heterotopias as “effectively enacted utopias in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.” See Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces [Des Espaces Autres], trans. Jay Miskowiec (Paris, 1967).

12   Joshua Samuels has examined at length the interpretation of the borghi as heterotopias. See Joshua Samuels, “Of other Scapes: Archaeology, Landscape, and Heterotopia in Fascist Sicily,” in Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress, vol. 6, no. 1 (April 2010), pp. 62–81, here p. 68.

13   Diane Yvonne Ghirardo, “Città Fascista: Surveillance and Spectacle,” in “The Aesthetics of Fascism,” special issue, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 31, no. 2 (April 1996), pp. 347–72.

14   The comparison is the artist’s own, in Diehl 2012 (see note 1).

15   The main reason is that local farmers had no attachment to these artificial constructs, preferring to live in the social environment and tight-knit community of their villages rather than scattered about the countryside. By then automobiles were in wider use, which meant they could drive to their fields every day. The big landowners and their middlemen undermined the building projects; the planning and administration were poorly organized; some of the localities were built on soil that was infertile. See also Samuels 2010 (see note 12), p. 75ff. 

16   Bodenschatz 2012 (see note 6), p. 324.

17   Swantje Karich, “Verloren in Vollkommenheit,” in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 1, 2012, p. 37.

18   Harald Bodenschatz, “Auf dem Weg zu einem neuen Rom,” in Bodenschatz 2012 (see note 6), pp. 40–41, here p. 41.

19   On the spectrum of ways in which Fascist legacies have been approached, see also Aram Mattioli, “Die Resistenza ist tot, es lebe Onkel Mussolini!” in Mittelweg 36, (May 2008), pp. 75–93.

20   Simonetta Fraquelli describes the excesses of Romanità in the following terms: “After Mussolini seized power in 1922 references to ancient Rome and Roman symbols such as the Fascist party symbol of the fasces – a bound bundle of wooden rods incorporating an axe which in ancient Rome was carried by lictors as a symbol of the judicial and magisterial power of the state’s highest ranking officials – and the motif repertoire of eagles, Roman standards, and she-wolves became increasingly prevalent in all areas of everyday life in Italy, from advertising to textbooks – and even manhole and drain covers in the form of the SPQR abbreviation.” Simonetta Fraquelli, “Alle Wege führen nach Rom,” in Dawn Ades, ed., Kunst und Macht im Europa der Diktatoren (Cologne, 1998), pp. 130–36, here p. 130.

21   Quoted in Bodenschatz 2012 (see note 6), p. 41.

22   See also Wolfgang Schieder, “Der Umbau Roms zur Metropole des Faschismus,” in Mattioli and Steinacher 2009 (see note 3), pp. 65–87.

23   The Latin word for “leader.”

24   Aram Mattioli, ‘Viva Mussolini!’ Die Aufwertung des Faschismus im Italien Berlusconis (Paderborn, 2010), p. 10.

25   Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses (Munich, 2010), pp. 298–300.

26   Siegfried Kracauer has described two kinds of times inherent to photography: the time when the photograph is taken and the time when it is viewed; while the former is in the past, the latter stands for the present. Since both these temporal elements inexorably drift apart, they become alienated. See Siegfried Kracauer, “Die Fotografie” [1927], in Wolfgang Kemp, ed., Theorie der Fotografie II, 1912–1945 (Munich, 2006), pp. 101–12.

27   Lorenzo Rocha, “Building Architectural Images: On Photography and Modern Architecture,” in Daniela Janser, Thomas Seelig, and Urs Stahel, eds., Concrete (Zurich, 2013), pp. 46–51, here p. 46ff.

28   Aram Mattioli, “E salva l’Italia e Duce: Die katholische Kirche im faschistischen Italien 1922-1938,” in Richard Faber, ed., Katholizismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Würzburg, 2005), pp. 121–42.

29   Urs Stahel, Preface, in Janser, Seelig, and Stahel 2013 (see note 27), pp. 9–11, here p. 9

30   Walter Benjamin, “Strenge Kunstwissenschaft: Zum ersten Bande der ‘Kunstwissenschaftlichen Forschung’ (erste und zweite Fassung)” [1932], in Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Hella Tiedemann-Bartels, vol. 3, Kritiken und Rezensionen (Frankfurt am Main, 1972), pp. 363–74, here p. 368.

31   Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Who Is Speaking Thus? Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices (Minneapolis, 1991), not paginated.

32   “She controls the experience of what we see through omissions: her own withdrawal … And yet it is the tiniest details that relate something about the situation.” Paeslack 2011 (see note 5), not paginated.

33   Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading (Munich, 1976), p. 284. 

Place of Publication
Johanna Diehl: Borgo, Romanità, Alleanza, Ostfildern-Ruit 2014, not patinate
Links (external)
Johanna Diehl