Rare & Beautiful

The Illustrated Book in Italy, 1918–1945

By Peter Kraus July 7, 2021

Interior pages from Tullio D’Albisola’s L’Anguria Lirica: Lungo poema passionale (The lyrical watermelon: long passionate poem), 1934.

The era 1918–45 is noteworthy for the publication of a wealth of illustrated books in Italy, including a number of design treasures. The rise of Fascism and the beginning of dictator Benito Mussolini’s rule occurred during this time, not coincidentally accompanied by the post–World War I flourishing of Futurism: Mussolini often found an artistic ally for his propaganda in Futurist machine-oriented, history-discarding graphic design — and in some cases, the designers themselves. The resulting books, while appalling (and mostly dull) in written content, are visually fascinating.

F. T. Marinetti, Les mots en liberté futuristes (Futurist words in freedom) (1919).

The year 1919 witnessed the founding of the Fascist party in Italy and the publication of F. T. Marinetti’s Les mots en liberté futuristes (Futurist words in freedom), a landmark work that is one of the most important examples of Futurist typography (For more on this work, see our article “A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”) This hugely influential, but modestly sized booklet, was followed by three books that are among the most outstanding design objects published in the twentieth century.

First came the now legendary “Bolted Book,” Fortunato Depero’s homage to his own work, which he titled Depero Futurista (Depero Futurist), published in 1927 (issued in a facsimile edition by Designers & Books in 2017).

The Book

Depero Futurista Fortunato Depero

In addition to its arresting cover and binding—the book is held together with two large metal bolts—and interior with array of typographic styles and colored papers—it is also important because it anticipates Marcel Duchamp's famous Boîte-en-Valise, in that the book acts as a self-published catalogue of the artist’s works.

Two milestone books by Marinetti printed on metal appaered a few years later. Published in 1932, Parole in Libertà Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche (Words in Futurist, olfactory, tactile, thermal freedom), consists of twenty-seven metal sheets onto which the text and illustrations were lithographed.

F. T. Marinetti, cover of the Parole in Libertà Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche (Words in Futurist, olfactory, tactile, thermal freedom) (1932).

Known as the “Metal Book,” it is a collaboration between a poet, an artist, and artisans. Marinetti contributed a selection of his earlier writings, including “words in freedom” (parole in libertà), and the polymath Tullio D’Albisola designed the page layouts using imaginative design and contemporary typefaces. Artisans were enlisted from a firm specializing in sheet-metal manufacturing to enable the book to be printed on tin and bound with the use of a cylindrical metal spine and ball bearings. This was followed, in 1934, by D’Albisola’s L’Anguria Lirica: Lungo poema passionale (The lyrical watermelon: long passionate poem), featuring color lithographs printed on twenty-one rolled-edge tin sheets.

All three books combine brilliant creativity with remarkable technical innovation. Printed in very small editions, they are now extremely rare.

Vincenzo Fraschetti and Carlo Testi, Italia dall’ A alla Z (1936).

Like his fellow dictator Joseph Stalin, Mussolini had a great belief in the power of books to influence. Not surprisingly, Italian youth were a prime target. Among the books directed toward a young audience, Italia dall’ A alla Z by Vincenzo Fraschetti and Carlo Testi (1936) stands out. This stunning book, however, seems to have been published for the children of diplomats, and to impress a foreign audience. For local children there were more prosaic volumes, such as Il Primo e Secondo Libro del Fascista (1938), and the somewhat more elaborate hagiography Una Favola Vera: La Vita prodigiosa del Duci illustrata e raccontata ai Bimbi by F. Hardouin di Belmonte, published in 1933.

F. Hardouin di Belmonte, Una Favola Vera: La Vita prodigiosa del Duci illustrata e raccontata ai Bimbi (1933).

One of the notable features of the propaganda books produced under both Stalin and Mussolini is their use of photomontage. Among the many Italian books published using this technique, three stand out, not only for their massive size, but for their inventive layouts and extensive use of photography-based illustrations. The best known of the three is the large-format, more than 600-page Italia Imperiale, by Manilo Morgagni, published in 1937 and a tour de force of design, from its elaborate binding to its spectacular interior. The Italian photo-book of this period culminated in Il Fascio Primogenito, published in 1938 by the Officine Grafiche Esperia.

Manilo Morgagni, Italia Imperiale (1937).

Officine Grafiche Esperia (Milan), Il Fascio Primogenito (1938).

Maria Garatti, Italiani di Mussolini in A.O. (1937).

Another massive book, Italiani di Mussolini in A.O. was created by Maria Garatti in 1937 to celebrate Mussolini’s African conquests. At more than 560 pages, it stands out less for its interior design, which is by no means insignificant and includes some 720 photographs, but rather for its spectacular binding, which takes a leaf out of the Futurist metal books and has a spine made up of strips of copper tubing, and an inlaid steel ax—associated with the ancient Roman symbol adapted by the Fascist regime—on the front cover.

Smaller publications redeemable because of their design include Il Capo Squadra Ballila by Raul Verdini (1934), which promotes the Italian equivalent of Nazi Germany’s Hitlerjugend. Among the more unusual publications was Le Giornate del Duce a Genova: 14-15-16 maggio XVI (1938), which is something of a throwback to an earlier time, in that it is a twentieth-century “fête book,” celebrating a visit to Genoa by Mussolini and featuring etchings by Ettore Mazzini.

Little bibliographical coverage exists of the Italian illustrated books of this era, making the innovative design—and their frighteningly effective uses—ripe for further investigation.

Le Giornate del Duce a Genova: 14-15-16 maggio XVI (1938).

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including questions pertaining to possible acquisition, please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.

This is the fourteenth installment in a collaboration with Peter highlighting important books from the past.

Previous articles in this series are “Dutch Book Design: 1914–1945,” “The Photo Book in Japan: 1920s–1940s,” “The Artist’s Book in America: The Arion Press in the 20th Century,” “Unusual Book Design for Unusual Times: Revisiting the Work of Iliazd,” “Desert Island Books,” “Architecture and the Illustrated Book,” “The Way It Happened: Modern Art Exhibition Catalogues,” “Matisse as Book Illustrator and Designer,” “Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Publishing Artists and Authors in the Early 20th Century,” “Paris and the Artist’s Book in the 1920s and ’30s,”  “Discovering Old Design Books in Japan,” “A Dialogue with Color,” and A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”

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