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July 19, 2011

Maria Elena Versari on “Iconoclasm by (Legal) Proxy: Restoration, Legislation and the Ideological Decay of Fascist Ruins”

Update: This post has been republished with corrections.

By Kirsten Hower, ARCA Intern

Maria Elena Versari, the Assistant Professor of Modern European Art and Architecture at the University of North Florida, spoke about the perception of and reaction against  Fascist architecture in Italy. Her presentation, titled “Iconoclasm by (Legal) Proxy: Restoration, Legislation and the Ideological Decay of Fascist Ruins,” examined the conflicting modern views of Fascist architecture and, particularly, what to do with what remains of it. The debate that Versari highlighted centers on those historians who wise to preserve the architecture of the past for its part in history, and those who wish to wipe away the memories of Fascism and its place in Italian history.

Versari’s main focus concerned iconoclastic acts towards remaining Fascist architecture: both destructive and in terms of conservation. In specific reference to the Mancino Law of 1993—which punishes acts that incite violence—she referred to people who had been prosecuted for publicly endorsing Fascist symbols. In addition, Versari referenced the application of Hans Belting’s division of symbols and how that can apply to the iconoclastic actions against Fascist art and architecture—an attempt to destroy the collective mental symbol by destroying the physical symbol. However, as Versari pointed out, Mussolini  appropriated past symbols and images, using them for his own purposes and changing their meaning—making the selective destruction of Fascist iconology within the Italian public space a particularly compelling enterprise.

Versari focused on the other form of iconoclasm found in the action or inaction of conservation on the part of governmental bodies. She specifically pinpointed the legal complexities that led to the inaction on the part of several offices to allocate the funds to properly preserve architecture built during the Fascist period, allowing these buildings to decay and crumble rather than preserving them for their historical purposes. Versai concluded by comparing recent practices of local administrations in dealing with Fascist art and architecture. While some will give money to alter or ‘cover up’ the symbols of Fascism in certain architecture—whitewashing plaques and the like, others, as in the case of Forlì, are pursuing a more subtle critical practice, suggesting the visual historicization of Fascist remains and of their subsequent iconoclastic history.

After graduating with her PhD from Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Versari has taught in both Italy and the United States and published many scholarly works, including Constantin Brancusi (Florence: Scala Group/Rome: L’Espresso, 2005) and Wassily Kandinsky e l’astrattismo (Florence: Scala Group, 2007). In addition to teaching, she is currently a member of the Advisory Board for the online journal Art in Translation.