Between Mussolini and Me

Lawrence Rainey traces Pound’s Fascism to the Palace Hotel, Rimini

Ezra Pound’s support for Italian Fascism has long been a contentious subject in modern literature. For some, it is merely a vivid instance of the uncritical acclaim that surrounded Mussolini well into the mid-Thirties. Others see it as evidence of a private pathology, a grotesque outgrowth of the virile posing that Pound sometimes indulged in. Still others have urged that it ‘arose from the great contempt he felt for the masses’, an avant-garde disdain that turned into a massive political delusion. Finally there are those who believe that Pound’s admiration originated in an essentially humane response to ‘the Great Depression and the economic chaos of the Thirties’: that his adherence to Fascism was the result of goodwill marred by naivety, of noble impulses that went astray.

Whatever their views, critics have always agreed on two points. First, Pound’s Fascism came late in his career: towards the end of 1931, when he began to festoon his letters with dates from the Fascist calendar (Anno X for 1932, for example), or perhaps in early 1933, when he met Mussolini for the only time and was granted a half-hour interview, which he proudly recounted in the Cantos. Second, it was quite separate from his aesthetic concerns. Indeed, it marked their demise: his ‘serious literary interests had burnt out’, one biographer has written, and now he ‘badly needed something to fuel the fire’. Deliberately or not, these views reinforce the assumptions we are inclined to make about art and power, the imagination and politics, which must never be allowed to mix. Pound’s career thus neatly divides into two stages, an early one in which he battles at the forefront of the avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s, and a later one in which his art slowly withers while his political passions burn out of control.

Some recently discovered letters by Pound suggest a different account. Dating from 1923 and 1924, they show Pound seeking interviews with Mussolini, plying him with requests for a contribution to an avant-garde journal, even urging him to hire Pound to direct a programme of cultural renovation. More significantly, they detail Pound’s first encounters with Fascists and Fascist sympathisers in Italy and suggest that Pound’s fascination with Fascism was more complex and much darker than we have previously suspected: that it arose partly from the dynamics of patronage in which Modernism thrived, and partly from something far simpler and more primitive – the thrill of authoritarian violence.

Early in the morning of 12 March 1923, scarcely four months after Mussolini had come to power in the famous March on Rome, Pound arrived in the town of Rimini. He knew very little about the March, no more than the typical reader of contemporary newspapers, and his immediate interest lay elsewhere. He had come to work in the library at Rimini, which was noted for its trove of manuscripts and archival material relating to Sigismondo Malatesta, who had ruled the city from 1430 to 1468 and sponsored the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco, better known as the Tempio Malatestiano. With its quattrocento façade designed by the humanist Leon Battista Alberti, it had been the first church to incorporate the Roman triumphal arch into its structural vocabulary, becoming a landmark in Western architectural history. Its new interior, teeming with bas-reliefs executed by Agostino di Duccio, unfolded a recondite series of motifs from classical antiquity. The church and its sponsor became compelling symbols of the meaning and fate of art. In the view of Jakob Burckhardt and his followers, Sigismondo was the patron par excellence, a man who had given commissions not only to Alberti and Duccio, but to Piero della Francesca and the greatest of all the Renaissance medallists, Pisanello.

Pound had seen the building for the first time some ten months earlier, in May 1922, while touring Central Italy with his wife Dorothy. It had seized his imagination, and a few weeks later he wrote the first draft of what would eventually become four cantos, his most sustained production since 1920. Returning to Paris, he had undertaken a vast programme of research in the Biblio-thèque Nationale, going over every account of Sigismondo and the enigmatic Tempio in Rimini. In January 1923, he had returned to Italy to begin a second tour of sites, libraries and archives associated with Sigismondo. In February he visited the places in Tuscany where Sigismondo had conducted his campaigns of 1455 and 1456, taking Hemingway along with him in order to get seasoned military assessments. (Hemingway later recalled explaining how Sigismondo ‘would have fought where and for what reasons’, but he had concocted these accounts out of thin air and feared he had misled the poet badly.) Pound had gone on to Rome, where his days were spent in the Vatican Library and his evenings given over to socialising with Nancy Cox-McCormack, an American sculptor whom he had met two years before in Paris.

Finally, after brief stops in Florence and Bologna, he arrived in Rimini. Besides visiting the Tempio, he had set his sights on an unpublished chronicle of Sigismondo’s life and times, written by his closest adviser and kept in the library. But as he informed his wife the next morning, in a letter datelined ‘Palace Hotel, Rimini’, he was unable to get started as soon as he had hoped. (I have translated all phrases originally in Italian and expanded Pound’s abbreviations.)

Blood And Thunder.

   Library here closed at least until the 20th as the damn custodian has flu, and the boss is too lazy – or has to teach physics elsewhere.

   Am going to San Marino by the little train in a few minutes and shall try to fill in time in Pesaro, Fano, etc till the bloody custodian recovers. IF he recovers.

Pound spent the next week touring nearby towns that were also connected with the story of Sigismondo. He returned to Rimini in the late afternoon of 20 March, staying again at the Palace Hotel, and wrote to Dorothy the next morning. Already he had acquired an unexpected ally in his efforts to resolve the question of the library’s closure: ‘I go to library here at 10 o’clock this a.m. Hotel-keeper ready to sack the place and have up the mayor if it isn’t open; he is a noble Fascist.’ Concluding his letter as he hastened out of the door, he added: ‘Will now try the library.’

What happened next is unclear. Did Pound find the library open when he arrived, or was it forced open with assistance from the ‘noble Fascist’? We don’t know. In eidier case, its resources were soon at Pound’s disposal, and the ensuing week vanished in a happy haze of documents relating to Sigismondo and the Tempio. In the evenings, Pound returned to his hotel.

Pound’s ‘hotel-keeper’ was Averardo Marchetti. A native of Rimini in his early thirties, he had served in the Armed Forces during Italy’s participation in the Great War. Wounded once and decorated repeatedly, he had been promoted to lieutenant and then captain. At the war’s end he had married and started a family. By 1923, when Pound met him, he was managing the Palace Hotel, located close to the railway station and within walking distance of the Tempio. Like many officers of the lower ranks during the Great War, Marchetti had experienced a strong sense of camaraderie and sacrifice that suggested the possibility of a ‘new’ Italy, a possibility rudely betrayed by the Italian political class when the war ended. These junior officers were to swell the ranks of the emerging Fascist movement. On 24 May 1921 Marchetti and seven other men founded the Fascio Riminese, the local chapter of the Fascist National Party created two years earlier in Milan.

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