Roman Hero

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Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is depicted humorously in the Palazzo Massimo in a political cartoon by Paresh Nath, contrasted with prominent historical works of art: Augustus of Primaporta and The Lancellotti Discobolus.

In this political cartoon by Khaleej Times cartoonist Paresh Nath, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is illustrated alongside famous Roman sculptures of Augustus Caesar Octavianus and The Discobolus. The cartoon is an ironic depiction of the corrupt Italian politician juxtaposed against great figures in Italian historical culture, and references a larger historical context. In addition to the contrasts Nath attributes between the celebrated connotations of these prominent masterpieces and Silvio Berlusconi’s nefarious political career, wider connections can also be drawn among Berlusconi and another leader from Italy’s past: Benito Mussolini. Though far from identical leaders in practice, their respective rise and fall in political power share notable similarities. The egotistical demeanor with which both men governed Italy would indeed lead many to satirically label them as self-proclaimed Roman heroes.

The figures in Paresh Nath’s cartoon are depicted in the Palazzo Massimo, one of four parts of the National Roman Museum in Italy. This particular building holds “one of the world’s largest collections of ancient art” (National Roman Museum), featuring prominent Roman paintings, mosaics, and sculptures. The Discobolus, translated simply as “The Discus-thrower,” was originally produced by the 5th century Greek artist Myron (Sculpture of the Classical Period, 411). The Roman Empire adopted this masterpiece and reproduced countless copies, which were dispersed throughout villas as a symbol of cultured taste. “One of the most famous sculptures from ancient times” (Butler, 1), the Discus-thrower represents the perfect image of beauty, youth, athleticism, and balance, according to ancient Greek ideals. The specific Discobolus that is located in the National Museum of Rome today is the Lancellotti (or Palombara) Discobolus, which was “notoriously sold to Adolf Hitler in 1938 as a trophy of the Aryan race” (Butler, 1). The importance of this transaction will be revisited later in the analysis.

Even more intriguing is the inclusion of Augustus Caesar Octavian in the cartoon, wherein Berlusconi’s pose is notably identical to Octavian’s. This statue of the Roman Emperor is named Augustus of Primaporta, sans the small angel that accompanies him at his feet. There exist many different sculptures of the man, although this is certainly the most famed version. The decision to include this particular version is significant, because it was sculpted as an idealization after his death (Ford, 1). Throughout his life – and especially during his political career – Octavian only wanted himself depicted by others as humble and modest; thus, it is the only sculpture of him in military attire and with an allusion to the divine (although the angel is absent in Nath’s cartoon).

Successor to his great-uncle Julius Caesar, Octavian faced many adversaries at the inception of his rule, including those who murdered his great-uncle (“Augustus, Caesar Octavianus”, 88-89). The Battle of Actium concluded in his favor when his last rival, Marcus Antonius, was defeated (“Augustus Caesar Octavianus, 88-89). The sole remaining ruler of the Roman Empire, Octavian stabilized, expanded, colonized, and reformed the civilization, bringing about a golden age and a Pax Romana. During this time, Roman culture and commerce flourished under his reign and even well after his death (Augustus, Caesar Octavianus”, 89-90).

Over two millennia later, Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power began with his entry into the real estate market during the post-war development boom of the 1960s (Silvio Berlusconi, 48). He followed this success by building a media empire throughout the 1970s and 1980s, developing of a massive private network television market (Silvio Berlusconi, 48). His status as a prominent media mogul would eventually propel him to the seat of government power in 1994. Berlusconi utilized his expansive media holdings to campaign for the office of the Italian Prime Minister, and won the position on the promise that he would clear out the corruption that plagued the Italian government. Despite convictions of financial crimes and allegations of further corruption that temporarily forced him from the seat, he remained in Parliament as the opposition party leader until his re-election to premiership in 2001 (Silvio Berlusconi, 49-50).

By 2004, Berlusconi had been Prime Minister of the longest-lasting Italian government in the history of the country, gaining the respect of many Italians for years to come. In what was perhaps Berlusconi’s most dictatorial maneuver of his premiership, after his re-election in 2008 he prioritized his government’s legislation to pass a law that granted the Prime Minister immunity to prosecution (Hooper). Of course, this law was swiftly dismantled by Italy’s constitutional court.  Unfortunately for his image, by 2011, years of corruption and scandal finally caught up to the unethical politician. Berlusconi resigned from the position amidst allegations of abuse of office, child sexual abuse, and tax fraud (Giuffrida). After being convicted of the tax fraud charges in 2013, he was forcefully removed from Parliament as well and banned from office. However, he would remain the iconographical leader of the Forza Italia party, which would renew his political strength in only five years.

In Nath’s illustration, Berlusconi is facetiously being placed on the same degree as Octavian. By drawing Berlusconi imitating Octavian’s pose, Nath is humorizing Berlusconi’s consistent practice of idealizing himself as a great man and an experienced politician. Even though both rulers promoted economic growth under their authority, Octavian actively sought to root out corruption in his government, while Berlusconi only claimed to do so (Encyclopedia of World Biography). In fact, most of the moral degradation of Berlusconi’s government derived from his own premiership. Despite this, Berlusconi has repeatedly upheld that he is “the best political leader in Europe and in the world” (BBC News). This egotistical attitude is contrasted with irony in Nath’s cartoon. His pants, labeled “Morality,” are drawn at his ankles, and his heart-spotted underwear is a clear innuendo to the 2011 child sexual abuse case he was involved in with the underage prostitute, “Ruby the Heart Stealer” (Squires). The crowd surrounding him represents the massive publicity that his numerous scandals provoked.

Furthermore, Berlusconi is also contrasted with the Discus-thrower. The cartoonist Nath even characterized them with the same body type, a simple action that degrades The Discobolus from its status as one of the most prominent historical works of art. Again, Nath is utilizing irony to spuriously situate Berlusconi at the same level of prominence as a historical masterpiece; however, one subject is famous, while the other is infamous. As discussed previously, The Discobolus was crafted out of the ancient Greek notion of physical perfection and ideal form. It is now regarded as one of the greatest works of art ever created, which gives more power to Nath’s juxtaposition of the piece against the public humiliation and shame that riddled Berlusconi’s late political career.

The 1930’s era political cartoon, “Telling the World” by John Knott depicts the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini during his 1932 address to the citizens of Turin, Italy. Its accompanying editorial in the Dallas Morning News, “Mussolini and the Crisis,” provides more universal context referencing the content of the speech. A strong connection exists between the John Knott’s “Telling the World” and Paresh Nath’s “Roman Hero”. Mussolini’s Turin speech took place during the tenth anniversary of the Fascist Party’s political takeover of Italy. In an effort to legitimize his party’s political scheme as well as his dictatorship in the eyes of the citizens of Italy, Mussolini utilized ancient Roman architecture and art – such as the statues in Nath’s cartoon – heavily in his fascist propaganda (Brangers, 125). His goals were to cast the Fascist party as unifiers under a new Rome and to associate himself with the great Emperor Augustus Caesar Octavianus (Brangers, 125). “The State before the individual” was a belief that both the ancient Romans and the Fascists seemed to share. Mussolini promoted the construction of works of art glorifying the united Roman Empire under Octavian throughout Italy as part of his propaganda machine. He even initiated major archeological projects to uncover four ancient Roman buildings that he hoped would epitomize the magnificence of ancient Rome and of his own ruling. These projects also had a practical purpose other than ideological propaganda, however. The plans to clear old buildings and roads in order to uncover the ancient buildings also included arrangements to build wider roads and piazzas to better accommodate the rapidly growing population in the city of Rome (Brangers, 125). The demolition and construction of these locations also granted jobs to many laborers that were desperate for employment in a deteriorating economy.

In addition to this, the famous Lancellotti (or Palombara) Discobolus – as mentioned previously – was sold to Adolf Hitler in 1938 for five million lira (Italy’s currency at that time) by the struggling Italian Lancellotti family (Sooke, 1). It was placed in the Glyptothek museum in Munich for all Germans to view, however it was returned to Italy in 1948 after World War II’s conclusion. The Nazi leader had taken large interest in the marble sculpture as supremely representative of Germany’s then-visual ideology of the “master race” (Sooke, 1) due to its portrayal as a beautiful, ideal white male body in athletic form. Personally, Hitler wanted to be associated with the era that the original piece was built during: 5th Century BC, the golden age of Classical Greece (Sooke, 1). He also desired to bring with the sculpture the values it embodied: balance, athleticism, and of course, male beauty. Similarly to how Mussolini utilized archeological projects and ancient Roman architecture for fascist propaganda purposes, Hitler used this statue to propagandize the Nazis’ idealization of the perfect physical Aryan form.

Finally, direct ties can even be drawn between Silvio Berlusconi and Benito Mussolini. When initially forming his Forza Italia political party, Berlusconi allied himself with the leader of a disbanded neo-fascist group (Silvio Berlusconi, 49). This disrupted his 1992 campaign briefly when the leader of the group praised Mussolini as “the century’s finest statesman” (Silvio Berlusconi, 49). Berlusconi managed to overcome criticisms as a result of this comment and emerged as Italy’s Prime Minister; however, his charismatic influence could not shield him from scathing backlash when he himself praised Mussolini as a good leader on Holocaust Memorial Day in 2013 (BBC News).

Although enough differences exist between the two men to reject characterizing Berlusconi as a repetition of Mussolini, there are similarities between their efforts to gain initial political standing. The Italian public’s discontent with established institutions and the country’s poor economic standing offered both men the opportunity to gain power through promises of change and rectification. They utilized the media to establish political footing and to “cultivate a direct bond with Italians” (Ben-Ghiat), a bond that was severed when each was disgracefully forced from their respective positions of power.

Despite certain fundamental disparities between the two leaders – Mussolini was a socialist at his core, Berlusconi a self-made capitalist – they were both severely corrupt in their own ways. It’s no coincidence that the mockumentary film, “I’m Back”, which  portrays the late Italian dictator staging a modern comeback through a darkly humorous gradient, was released in the midst of Italy’s 2018 Parliamentary elections (Poggioli). The film firmly alludes to Silvio Berlusconi’s own surprising political resurgence through his Forza Italia party in the elections. This was highlighted by the film’s Mussolini opposing the 600,000 African immigrants seeking asylum in Italy, “…you won’t find it so funny when an African steals your job” (Poggioli). The comment bears marked resemblance to the intense anti-immigration rhetoric and policy proposals imposed by Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition during the Parliamentary elections.

Unlike the statues in the Palazzo Massimo, the legacies of Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi as leaders are permeated with dishonor and public reproach. Far from Roman heroes, their deeds and convictions are in stark contrast to the accomplishments of Octavian and the philosophies of Myron. Paresh Nath’s political cartoon focuses on the convoluted morality of one of Italy’s longest running leaders, while addressing the dilemmas of the country’s past that have resurfaced in the present.

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