• More Men Than Columbus

    On 2nd July 1933 the city of Derry greeted the arrival of General Italo Balbo and his Italian Air Armada of 98 men. Balbo had been one of Mussolini’s most prominent Blackshirt supporters in the early days and was appointed Minister of the Air Force in 1929. One of the greatest feats of aviation in its early days, the Armada consisted of 24 seaplanes flying in a V-formation across the Atlantic from Italy to Chicago. In an era of pioneering solitary flights around the globe that relied largely on fate and individual bravery, Balbo devised a very ambitious plan: a series of spectacular voyages supported by a methodical and rigorous preparation and combining sporting enterprise with war efficiency, thus creating a highly advertised display of a military power that in reality didn’t exist. Balbo’s venture started off in Orbetello, near Rome, with subsequent stopovers in Amsterdam, Derry, Reykjavik, Cartwright, Shediac, Montreal, Chicago and finally New York, where they dined with President Roosevelt and a parade was organised in their honour. Everywhere the Italian aviators were given a rapturous welcome by the local dignitaries and the general public through parades, public speeches and exhibitions. Only in Montreal and Chicago the local Italian anti fascists succeeded in partly disrupting the warm reception.   On their arrival in Derry, the Armada was received enthusiastically by both citizens and notables. It was reported that thousands of citizens abandoned the Sunday services and lined the shores of the River Foyle in order to see the Armada, whilst members of the Italian consulate gave the fascist salute and a group of young Blackshirts from the city showered Balbo with rose petals. George V and Eamon De Valera sent their congratulations and the Air Minister Lord Londonderry flew from England in an RAF seaplane to meet Balbo.This rapturous welcoming was echoed in the local papers, where the journalists competed in praising the bravery of Balbo and his men and elevating them to the status of heroes.   The official receptions were replicated everywhere along their route, but in Chicago the Italian anti-fascist movement effectively disrupted the celebration. Egidio Clemente, editor of an Italian socialist magazine in the city hired a plane and showered the crowd waiting for Balbo’s arrival with flyers headed “Who is Balbo?”, accusing Balbo of having commissioned the killing of an Italian anti-fascist priest in northern Italy.   After accomplishing the venture, a number of locations along the transatlantic route were named after Balbo, although at present only a Balbo Avenue and a celebratory monument sent by Mussolini still exist, both of them in Chicago and both quite controversial. The monument consists of an original ancient Roman column that was taken from the Portico of the Eight Columns in Ostia Antica, near Rome, one of the biggest and best preserved Roman sites in Italy.   Far from being a celebration of Italy’s fascist past, this project aims to investigate one of the many dark and unsung histories of a city that are often conveniently forgotten in whatever historical/political narrative currently holding sway. The intention is to consider our willingness/ability to question our concepts of history and our willingness to redact or reimagine our past.