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Italian Colonization of African Countries

Nick Duffy

HIS 333-Imperial Geographies

Dr. Mark Kehren

12 December 2018
Pavilion of the Governatorato di Roma at the Fiera di Tripoli, by Limongelli, 1929.

Photo from Building Power: Italy’s Colonial Architecture and Urbanism, 1932-1940.

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Italy’s colonization of African countries in the first half of the 20th century completely

reshaped those countries and continues to affect the citizens and landscapes of those places

today. Specifically, the colonization of Ethiopia and Libya provides us with examples of how

countries can be shaped in different ways to achieve the same goal: control for the colonizer. In

Italian African, the spatial organization and control of humans and landscape was the focal point

for the Fascist Italian Empire.

In the 1920s, Italy had the power and freedom to shape Libya to the exact specifications

of the Italian regime. “Modernita ("modernity") was an overriding concern in this moment of

Italian architectural discourse, as it implied the presentation of Italy's character to the rest of

Europe.”1 Italy was once a huge world power and was trying to regain status among other

European nations. One way to gain status was to show off its modern architecture and control of

its new colony. While the appearance of dominance among other European countries was one of

Italy’s main objectives, the goal of the architects in Libya was to properly divide the races and

the architecture that went along with it- the blacks from the whites, and the native African

buildings from the modern Italian buildings.

Initially, Italian architects displayed power through the construction of grand public

buildings, space, and monuments. One such building was the Pavilion of the Governatorato di

Roma in Tripoli. These large, modern buildings were often very symmetrical, with a lot of

straight edges and corners. They looked sharp, official, and powerful. Some other buildings

blended the Italian and African styles, which architects referred to as “Mediterranean,” using a

word to connect the colonizer and the colonized. This sort of language is typical of colonizer

countries and an important propaganda tool. Colonizing countries will try to find middle ground

1
Fuller, Mia. "Building Power: Italy's Colonial Architecture and Urbanism, 1923-1940." Cultural Anthropology 3,
no. 4 (1988): 455

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and point out similarities so as to distract from differences and the fact that they are exploiting a

whole country of people.

In Libya, Italian architects incorporated what they saw as the best aspects of the native

built forms into the new architecture, though they viewed African architecture as mostly

primitive and inferior to European work. Italy chose to incorporate Libyan architecture so as to

properly create its own “colonial architecture.” Pulling functional ideas regarding climate and

connection to nature, Italians could create a new style of architecture, rather than just creating a

brand new Italy. Another justification the Italians used was that the architecture in Libya at the

time was actually colonial architecture already, and had hints of Roman influence in it. This

justification not only allowed them to hold onto some of the old indigenous architecture, but in a

way it also stripped the locals of their culture and history by stating that this was just colonial

work all along. This is all a part of Italian history, not African history. The architects would

never admit to using styles and techniques that they learned from the country that they were

colonizing. Instead, they took ideas from the colonized, mixed them in with their modern

designs, and slapped the term “Mediterranean” on them in order to pass the architecture on as

entirely their own creative accomplishments. This incorporation of styles into the landscape is

the essence of colonial architecture.

It is evident that the main focus of Italian architects in Libya was to try and one up the

colonial architecture of other European countries, namely England and France. In Building

Power, Fuller uses a war analogy, stating that the colonies “were a site at which to do battle with

Europe, and colonial architecture was the means, or weapon…From this point of view, architects

were themselves soldiers in this ‘war of culture’ against Europe.”2 The mindset of the architects

2
Fuller, Mia. "Building Power: Italy's Colonial Architecture and Urbanism, 1923-1940." Cultural Anthropology 3,
no. 4 (1988): 474

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fell in line with the agenda of Mussolini and his Fascist ideals at the time, that being to establish

Italy’s power and abilities over the rest of Europe, and in time the rest of the world.

The plans and goals of the colonization of Ethiopia differed from those of Libya. While

the mission in Libya was to show off Italy’s colonial prowess, the mission in Ethiopia was

centered on Fascist ideals of dominance and control of the people. Once again, a great display of

dominance came with built landscapes. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, architects stressed a

grand city center, with prominent government buildings displaying Italy’s imperial power. This

time around, the Italians took the idea of colonial architecture and used it in their plan of colonial

urbanism.

One aspect that differentiated the colonization of Ethiopia in comparison to Libya was

the attention to every detail, no matter how small, whether it had to do with the colonizers or the

colonized. In Libya, architects were implementing indigenous styles into the modern Italian

style, albeit using several different justifications instead of outright admitting what they were

doing. In Ethiopia, architects were only using indigenous ideas that were beneficial to the

colonizers. The rest of the native architecture was completely dismissed as unorganized and

primitive and was used to show the huge contrast with the modern Italian aesthetic. In Libya,

architects stuck to the idea of modernita, whereas in Ethiopia, the Italians followed the details of

the piano regolatore, or the regulating plan. Precision and detail was the power. By following

this plan, the Italian government could control all of its citizens, black or white. The goal here

was to separate blacks from whites. Furthermore, the colonizers wanted to make it so that the

white citizens rarely had to see black people. At the same time, they wanted to be sure that the

African citizens were always able to see, and therefore feel, the control that the whites had over

them.

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The use of control was displayed in many ways in Ethiopia. Ordinances regulating

construction in different zones kept races separate. The architects were even able to control the

flow of traffic, keeping the transportation of the natives out of sight for the whites. The goal here

was to funnel the traffic of indigenous people away from the Italian parts of Addis Ababa and

into the indigenous quarters. An important takeaway from the colonial experience in Ethiopia is

the control that the government presented over the colonizing people as well as the colonizers.

The Italian control of its own people was necessary to keep them away from the natives. This

control may have been seen as a necessary measure to keep Italians safe. One way the Italian

architects sought to keep its citizens safe was to keep indigenous quarters downwind from Italian

quarters. This was thought to prevent the spread of disease from the Africans, whom the whites

generally considered disease-ridden, to the Italians. Few indigenous structures, like the African

market, were still visible to Italians so as to entertain tourists.

The piano regolatore and the colonization of Ethiopia was a fascist operation that

perfectly aligned with Mussolini’s vision of Italian dominance. Aside from the grand

government buildings, Mussolini had stadiums, hospitals, and roads built with the idea being that

they were for the new Italian citizens of Ethiopia rather than the African natives. While the

colonization of Libya sought to bring some of the native (already colonial) styles together with

the modern Italian style, colonization in the Ethiopian context sought to show the great contrast

between the elegant, modern Italian architecture, and the basic, primordial structures that were

preexisting in Ethiopia. In Libya, Italians wanted to ease the tension by using the term

“Mediterranean” and putting the focus on the similarities, rather than the differences between the

Africans and the Italians. In Ethiopia the Italians wanted to show the huge disparities between

the indigenous quarters and the European city centers and beautiful piazzas. Make no mistake,

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both situations were about showing power, just in different ways, and to different groups of

people. The construction of huge government buildings in Libya was a call for the rest of

Europe to acknowledge what Italy was doing and to see it as a world power. In Ethiopia,

however, the Fascist Italian regime wanted to completely deflate the spirits of the Africans and

let them know that they were under the control of Italy now.

Every experience of colonialism probably falls somewhere in between these two

situations. Colonialism always has to do with power, and exerting dominance over another

being. That being can be the place one is colonizing, or it can be the rest of the world, to whom

one is revealing that they are capable of exerting dominance. In Libya, the architect’s creation of

their own “colonial architecture” is common in colonizer countries. The separation of races

through various control techniques is also common, though usually not as meticulously planned

as it was in Ethiopia. This separation can be achieved through the control of traffic, building and

zone ordinances, and the understanding that the race that holds the power simply does not want

to see the other race. The organization of human bodies, along with built and natural landscapes,

allows the colonizer to create the exact city or country that they want. Because of this, Italians in

Africa were able to stay away from the natives, while the natives were still very exposed to the

idea of white power and control.

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