Mid-20th century Italian philately - Setting the stage

The first two articles I wrote on countries focused on Bangladesh and Laos. It's certainly true that there are differences between these three countries and their level of external philatelic awareness. A quick Google search titled "Italy Philately Society" will reveal multiple study circles in this branch. However, when I perused my collection recently, I found four stamps (scattered throughout my albums) pictured below that made me pause. Whatever the case, these stamps are part of a 1950 definitive series of 19 stamps, each depicting a noteworthy occupation in a specific region of Italy. Though the set I'm presenting on isn't complete (I only have 4 out of the 19 stamps), I still think it's a fascinating introduction to the regional diversity of Italy as well as the industries selected in this series as most important to highlight.


This time, I'm making things a little different. Before I go deep into discussing each of these four stamps, I am devoting this introductory article to Italian philately and history leading up to 1950. In this manner, I hope to set the stage for appreciating the context behind these stamps more.

The Italian Republic, 1950, Michel 810, 811, 818, 820

A brief primer on Italy and its stamps:

Leading up to Unification:

Like my previous country-focused articles, I will stick to history in the last century or two. This is particularly fitting for Italy, where the concept of one unified state largely emerged in the mid-19th century. Prior to that, Italy was fragmented into multiple independent states, with France and Austria conquering various parts of them from the 1790s onward (1). This is reflected in Italian postal history as well, with the Austrian Lombardy-

Lombardy-Venetia stamp, 1850 (2)

Venetia state releasing its first stamps for Italy in 1850 and other states following soon after (3). While the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 largely reverted the region back into the Italian states, the push for "Risorgimento" (Italian nationalism and unification) emerged within decades. This was largely orchestrated by or on behalf of the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia. Through diplomacy and military ventures, the Kingdom incorporated smaller Italian States as well as French and Austrian holdings, leading to formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, ruling over the overall peninsula (1). This in turn led to issuance of

Kingdom of Italy, 1936 (6)

uniform postage that would eventually be used across all newly incorporated regions (3). The Kingdom of Italy postage stamps exclusively depicted the ruling monarch until 1910, when the first commemorative issue was released, honoring Sicilian efforts in the Italian unification (4). The various political, social, and economic upheavals during the rule of the Kingdom of Italy are thoroughly documented as well (5).


Italy in the 20th century and World War 2

Among the many challenges faced in Italy during the early 20th century, regional economic differences between Northern and Southern Italy were especially notable. Comparatively, the Northern region was more industrialized and prosperous. This inequality was exacerbated by crises like the World Wars and rooted in multiple causes, including socio-institutional differences and varying capacities to industrialize (7).


After the first World War, the Fascist movement spearheaded by Benito Mussolini rose to

political supremacy with severe consequences, including institutionalized anti-semitism and eventual cooperation in the Holocaust (5). Many scholars argue that Mussolini's

Kingdom of Italy, Lupa, 1937 (10)

selling pitch for fascism invoked nostalgia for the grandeur of the Ancient Roman empire. Known as Romanitá, this manifested in exhibits like Mostra Augustea della Romanitá which was opened in 1938 to commemorate Augustus Caesar's 2000th birthday (8). A parallel can easily be drawn to philately, where Fascist period definitives depicted Julius Caesar, Augustus, and the she-wolf Lupa. Complete with the 'fasces' logo that would symbolize Italian Fascism, these stamps added to the narrative that Mussolini would succeed the Roman Empire and justified endeavors like colonization of Ethiopia (9).

World War 2 was an absolute disaster for Italy. By 1943, Italy's footprint in Africa was obliterated, its northern industrial cities were being destroyed by bombing, thousands

Italian Social Republic, 1944

of soldiers and civilians had died, and there were massive food shortages (5). While Mussolini was removed from power initially, Germany invaded Northern Italy and propped him back up as the leader of the puppet regime Italian Social Republic (5). The regime issued propaganda stamps like the one shown on the left, which depicts a Drummer Boy urging the troops to pick up weapons. It also established a tyranny of horrific proportions, with thousands of Jewish Italians killed in the Holocaust and thousands of Italians in general otherwise massacred or sent to forced labor camps by the occupying

Milan, Italy after 1943 bombings

German forces (5). All in all, by the time World War 2 ended in 1945, around half a million Italians had died (national museum), 60,000 tons of bombs were dropped on just the city of Rome (discover walks), 2.5 millions housing units were destroyed, and grain production was down 50% (11).


Italy after World War 2

Following the end of the war, Italians voted in a 1946 referendum to adopt a Republic political system, for which the constitution was devised in 1948 (12). As noted by Mario Einaudi, acclaimed 20th century Italian political theorist, the newly proposed system reflected aspects of various different nations, such as a bicameral legislation representative of the American system. Einaudi was so impressed with the apparent attempts to learn from previous mistakes and provide adequate political safeguards and balance that he said the following (13):


The Marshall Plan will presumably place at the disposal of the Italian government means of unprecedented size which-if wisely used-should guarantee the creation of a more sound and just economic system. Looking at the problem purely within its national boundaries, one must conclude that if the cumulative result of these forces shall not be such as to lead to the gradual establishment of a free and advancing political and economic society, the folly of man must indeed be adjudged immeasurable.


The general sentiment of post-war Italy can be gauged through the initial stamps issued by the Italian Republic. The first definitive series, titled "Democratica" (14), intentionally depicted themes of freedom, regeneration, family and justice. Looking across these stamps, one of them pictured below, perhaps those sending or receiving letters would feel a sense of

Democratica definitive series stamp, 1947 (15)

optimism in their capacity to rebuild society. Echoing Einaudi's sentiments, stamps of the late 1940s espoused the Republican system, which would seem an explicit refutation of fascism and the accompanying idea of Romanitá. Thus, instead of commemorating Julius Caesar, a 1949 release highlighted the Roman Republic (14).


Along with political change, Italian society faced a pressing need for equitable and sustained economic reconstruction. As alluded to by Einaudi, the Marshall plan played a crucial role in this. Proposed by General George Marshall in 1948, this program was predicated on the idea that the United States would fund Western European reconstruction and development (16). The Marshall plan played a large role in Italian post-war ambitions to increase agricultural production as well as to modernize and bolster industrial capabilities. The agricultural aspect was especially relevant to Southern Italy, which lagged behind Northern Italy and was alienated due to disparate geographical concentration of power (17).


Putting it all together


In this context, I can see the 1950 definitive series on different regional industries having two roles. First, it could have outwardly demonstrated pride in Italian industries which were to be bolstered by the Marshall plan. Second, representation of different Italian regions could have been at attempt to "[bring the South] back into the mainstream of Italian life" by highlighting its unique contributions (17). Third, it promoted the idea of one unified Italy. In regards to this point, Vittorio Ivella explained that regions like Sicily requested greater administrative autonomy as a reaction to Fascist excessive central consolidation of power, but this in turn raised the risk of overcorrection (17). Thus, it makes sense that the new government would have wanted to express appreciation of each Italian region while still conveying an image of unity in the series.


An introduction to Corrado Mezzana - The man behind Italy's stamps

Stamp honoring Corrado Mezzana, 1997 (19)

If you zoom into the four stamp images we will discuss, you may notice the name "Mezzana" written on the bottom right. Corrado Mezzana was born in Rome in 1890 and trained as an artist at the University of Rome. As a student of the legacy of Renaissance artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Mezzana used classical styles and methods in his stamp designs (18). Deservedly considered a genius and artist in his own right, he passed away in 1952 but continues to be a reminder that stamps are so much more than pieces of paper.


The final word

Well, I didn't think I would end up writing a treatise on 20th century Italian politics or Corrado Mezzana, but that's what you have to do sometimes. The sources I cited provide the history in much greater detail, but I intentionally gave a 20,000-foot summary so that we could build enough of a platform to fully appreciate these stamps. To not overwhelm readers (and myself!) I've decided to release smaller articles on each stamp, at least once a week, so that I can really do them justice as sociocultural ambassadors. Stay tuned!


Note: The cover image for this article is from Encyclopædia Britannica and cited as source #20.


Works Cited

  1. “Issues Relevant to U.S. Foreign Diplomacy: Unification of Italian States.” U.S. Department of State - Office of The Historian, U.S. Department of State, history.state.gov/countries/issues/italian-unification.

  2. Jacquesverlaeken. Stamp of the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia, 1850. 1 June 1850.

  3. Brief Postal History of Italy, Australasian Philatelic Traders' Association Inc., www.apta.com.au/SubMenu/Brief_Postal_History_of_Italy.aspx?id=120.

  4. “1945, Postage Due 13v.” Postbeeld, PostBeeld, www.freestampcatalogue.com/stamps/country/italy/page/3/show/100.

  5. Larner, John, et al. “Italy.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 16 June 2021, www.britannica.com/place/Italy.

  6. TRAJAN 117. The Kingdom of Italy in 1936. 24 May 2013.

  7. Asso, Pier Francesco. “New Perspectives on Old Inequalities: Italy’s North–South Divide.” Territory, Politics, Governance, vol. 9, no. 3, 2020, pp. 346–364., doi:10.1080/21622671.2020.1805354.

  8. Lewine, Annie Esmé. “Ancient Rome in Modern Italy: Mussolini’s Manipulation of Roman History in the Mostra Augustea Della Romanitá .” Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity and Classics, vol. 2, no. 1, June 2008.

  9. Aeschliman, David H. “Stamps of Italy - Definitives of 1929-1942.” Stamp Collecting World, www.stamp-collecting-world.com/stampsofitaly_1929d.html.

  10. Rowe, Isabella. Capitoline Wolf (Lupa Capitolina), Rome, Italy.

  11. Fenoaltea, Sergio. “Italy at Work: Achievements and Needs.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 24, no. 4, July 1946, p. 715., doi:10.2307/20030006.

  12. “Italy Profile - Timeline.” BBC News, BBC, 7 Feb. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17435616.

  13. Einaudi, Mario. “The Constitution of the Italian Republic.” American Political Science Review, vol. 42, no. 4, Aug. 1948, pp. 661–676., doi:10.2307/1950923.

  14. Clayton, Tony. “Stamps of Italy and Italian Colonies.” Stamps of Italy, Tony Clayton, 25 Mar. 2017, www.italianstamps.co.uk/.

  15. Nurra, Antonio. A 1946 Italian Stamp in the "Serie Democratica". 7 June 2012.

  16. “Marshall Plan, 1948.” Office Of The Historian, United States Department of State, history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/marshall-plan.

  17. Ivella, Vittorio. “Favorable Omens in Italy.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 26, no. 4, July 1948, pp. 701–708., doi:10.2307/20030148.

  18. Ltd, Arrival Design. “Corrado Mezzana, Back to the Drawing Board.” Warwick and Warwick, Warwick & Warwick, 18 Apr. 2019, www.warwickandwarwick.com/latest-news/corrado-mezzana-back-to-the-drawing-board.

  19. Penny. Corradomezzana.jpg. 14 Dec. 2020.

  20. “Italy.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica.



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