The big hot air balloon on the cover of L’Aeronautica Italiana Nell’Immagine, 1487-1875 immediately shows what this large book is about. Measuring 42 centimeters long, with gold printed letters on the binding, it invites the onlooker to peek inside, while sitting in the library of the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome. The title translates to ‘Italian aeronautics in images’ and details the history of Italian aeronautics – the science or art of the design, study and manufacturing of air flight capable machines – starting with Leonardo da Vinci and ending with Enrico Forlanini. The previous, a famous uomo universale, made sketches and designs for so-called ‘flying machines’. The latter was an engineer, and developed an experimental helicopter in 1877.
The 1938 book is authored by Timina Caproni Guasti and Achille Bertarelli. Timina was the wife of aeronaut and airplane engineer Giovanni Battista ‘Gianni’ Caproni. Together they founded the Museo Caproni, an aeronautical museum that also is the publisher of L’Aeronautica. Gianni also founded an airplane factory. On the picture below, you see the factory, with above the entrance a large M (for Mussolini). Credited as well are Guiseppe Boffito for the bibliography and Paolo Arrigoni. As you may have noticed, this is the only book on our website that is written by a woman.
Aeronautics and fascism
L’Aeronautica was published in 1938, during the time of Mussolini’s fascism in Italy. To illustrate this: the book states on the title page next to the year 1938 ‘VII E.F.’, which signifies the seventeenth year of the Era Fascista. The development of aeronautics provided dilemmas for the fascist regime. Technological progress provided a feeling of modernity, rationality, scientificity and progressiveness. This modernity was also associated with a cosmopolitan and decadent lifestyle, which stood for a conflict with fascism’s conservative ideas. That is why under the influence of fascism aeronautical history in Italy was rewritten. Through an Italian mix of fascism and futurism, the development of airplanes was changed from a rational and scientific process to the mythical rebirth of the nation. By doing so, these wonders of science, that had become banal through the past century’s scientific explanations for human flight became a source of wonder once again.
Aeronautics inspired many people in Italy to artistic expressions. There are several songs that praise airplanes and fascism all in one, for instance La Disperata and Il canto dell’aviatore. In the 1930s a large group of Italian artists arose that all applied their art to the glory of aeronautics. This group received the name of ‘aerofuturists’. They were visible in all the important exhibitions of this time. Architects and other designers also contributed to these. These extremely popular fairs mythologized aeronautics and tried to move the Italian commoners to devotion to fascism.
But how does this large book, that does not feature any aerofuturists as it deals with the past, tie into all of this?
The golden lining
First, let us take a look at it. L’Aeronautica Italiana Nell’Immagine is gilded on the top edge. The other edges are ‘deckle edges’, a cut of paper that makes the edges look rough. This look was unavoidable until the nineteenth century, but became a thing of the past when printing machines developed, and became more refined and equipped to mass-produce books. Paradoxically, it became something of a status symbol afterwards, to give the book an older, luxurious vibe. The endpapers show the presumed logo of Museo Caproni – the book’s publisher – and two mottoes, that are arranged in a pattern. The texts of these mottoes clearly align with Italian Fascist ideals. One of the mottos says ‘volare, volere, valore’ (fly, will, value), the other ‘dare ali all’italia e volare’ (give wings to Italy and fly). The pages are thicker than average books and feel luxurious to the touch. The layout of the pages leave a lot of room in the margins, but no one has written anything in them. The book looks very new on the inside, but the outside shows some small imperfections.
The book starts with a couple of pages with a preface ‘presentazione’ by V. Beonio Brocchieri, an Italian historian and journalist who also was a part of the Italian air force during the Second World War. Then starts the history of aeronautics in Italy, which is separated into thirteen chapters that are organized chronologically. After 88 pages, the images start. These are printed only on one side of the page, on the right, and illustrate the aforementioned history that often refers to one of the 174 images in this section. This section contains facsimiles of paintings, portraits, posters, sketches and engravings, some of these are printed in color. In that case, they are loose pictures, that are stuck into the book after it was published. Flipping through the pages, you can see all kinds of balloons and other flight-related constructions. Several leaves are dedicated to the discovery of life on the moon in 1834 – later discredited as the Great Moon Hoax – that show fantastical images printed in Italian newspapers of how life on that satellite was imagined. A hundred pages of bibliography on Italian aeronautics follow this section. Clearly, the book wished to provide the reader with a history of aeronautics, not a universal one, but rather highlighting Italy’s contributions to the development of flight.
The big picture
L’Aeronautica seems to appeal to fascist ideals by way of the motto and the VII E.F. marking, the sole focus on Italy’s contributions to aeronautics and tracing it back very far into history. However, as mentioned before, the book is large and quite luxurious. It was not cheap to publish, and it seems likely that it was not meant for everyone. In one of the first pages it notes that it has been published in an edition of five hundred, plus only one hundred that will be put on the market at the cost of four hundred Italian lira (about €600 nowadays). Therefore, this book might not have been the fascist revisionist bible it might seem when solely looking at its contents. By looking at it ‘from the outside’, we see how the book was intended: for relations of the authors and a rich few who could afford the book.
Curious about this book? At the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome the book can be viewed. If you would rather own it, there are a few options available on eBay, but be prepared to pay a fortune.
Christianne Alvarado (1993) is finishing her research master in history at the University of Amsterdam. She specializes in Caribbean history, currently focusing on internationalist education in communist Cuba. She likes big books and she never lies.
SHORT TITLE: Timina Caproni Guasti and Achille Bertarelli. Aeronautica italiana nell’immagine, 1487-1875. Milan: Museo Caproni, 1938.
SIZE: 41 x 33 cm
TITLE: Timina Caproni Guasti e Achille Bertarelli. L’Aeronautica Italiana Nell’Immagine 1487-1875. Bibliografia di Giuseppe Boffito. Con aggiunte di Paolo Arrigoni. Museo Caproni – Milano 1938 XVII E.F. Edizioni d’arte Emilio Bestetti.
COLLATION: 2°: unsigned leaves, pp.  I-IV, 1-88  89-184 .
DESCRIPTION: Contains 174 leaves of plates with illustrations, facsimiles, maps, portraits (some colored, some mounted). Half vellum binding with decorated paper. With letter mounted on front flyleaf from the president of the Reale Accademia d’Italia to Timina Caproni Guasti announcing an award to the author in 1938 for the publication of this work and her 1931 book, Francesco Zambeccari, aeronauta. Includes “Bibliografia cronologica dell’aeronautica italiana da Leonardo al 1875” (p. 89-167) and indexes.
Moraglio, M and E. O’Loughlin (translator). Explorations in mobility v.3: Driving modernity: Technology, experts, politics, and fascist motorways, 1922-1943. 2017.
Caprotti, F. “Technology and geographical imaginations: representing aviation in 1930s Italy.” Journal of Cultural Geography 25:2 (2008): 181-205.
Fernando, E. “In “the shadow of the winged machine…”: The Esposizione dell’aeronautica Italiana and the Ascension of Myth in the Slipstream of Modernity.” Modernism/modernity, 19:1 (2012): 139-152.
Härmänmaa, M. “The 20th Century fear us: The Glorification of Aviation in Italy between the Two World Wars.” Zagadnienia Rodzajów Literackich 54:1 (2011): 25-33.