The Nightmare
of Villa Maria

Saul Steinberg: Architecture, Fascism, and the OSS

Nightmares come in different shapes and colors. Saul Steinberg’s nightmares — at least some of them — came in the form of modernist buildings. A trained architect who never built a single house, the celebrated artist of New Yorker fame, drew for many years, indeed decades, fantasy buildings big and small that made fun of the so called International Style — a style he loathed as a symbol of a world that lured him when he was young, then let him down badly. That’s the world of Italy between the wars, specifically Milan, where he was officialy studying architecture but actually enjoying his first successes as a cartoonist with the humor newspaper Bertoldo— until he was forced out of the country by Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws.

Steinberg eventually received his useless degree in 1940 from the Politecnico di Milano before he was forced to “accept the reality, the betrayal — the way dearest Italy turned into Romania, hellish homeland” and flee to America. Now the Politecnico celebrates its former student with “Saul Steinberg in Milan,” an exhibition and a seminar that tell the story of a complicated relationship between the artist, the city and ultimately a culture to which he was not allowed to belong.

Via Ampere, 1936, pencil and colored pencil on paper, 46.7 x 61.9 cm. The Saul Steinberg Foundation, New York. Originally published in The New Yorker, October 7, 1974.

Steinberg never drew Milan when he lived there between 1933 and 1941, but he did so many years later, and with a vengeance. In 1974 he published a portfolio in The New Yorker aptly named “Italy 1938,” all drawings “from memory”. Take the Via Ampere, a street where he actually lived when he first arrived in the city (and where today’s exhibition is held): a nondescript building is upstaged by a modernist church, with the unmistakable traits of the Italian “Rational” school of architecture pushed to the extreme and vulgarized. It was to be the symbol of all he despised of the period, but to drive home the point that a 1970s observer might miss, he populated the scene with cartoon-like figures of saluting Fascists.

“I saw, when I visited Asmara in 1965, the architect’s nightmare: his student’s projects built in concrete”, he would note a few years later: “What I saw in Asmara were more or less our student works of Milanese and Neapolitan Bauhaus buil[t] during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia”.

There are many examples of “Milanese Bauhaus” send ups in Steinberg’s work, such as Via Ampere, but what about the “Neapolitan” kind?

Villa Maria, 1972. Ink and colored pencil on paper, 49.5 x 64.8 cm

I found just one, and it’s one where an artist’s personal story actually meets history — and may be worth telling.

It was drawn in 1972, and exhibited at the Galerie Maeght in Paris the following year: a large, partly colored caricature of a rationalist villa, full of telling black-shirted cartoonish figures. So, that must be Italy under Fascism, right? And it should be Naples, since it overlooks a gulf with a smoking volcano in the background.

Villa Maria No. 1, 1969, ink, pencil, and crayon on paper, 49.8 x 64.8 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.

But this was not just another fantasy building. It must have had some importance for Steinberg, since three years before he had sketched another version of it. In this one, the words “Villa Maria”, prominently displayed on the front of the building, reveal a clue worth further investigation.

After he fled Italy, and arrived in the US by the way of Dominican Republic, Steinberg in 1943 became a citizen and, with the help of The New Yorker, received a commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve. He was assigned to Naval Intelligence, which sent him first to China, then to Mediterranean theater as an artist with the Morale Operations unit of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA). As such he landed back in Italy in March 1944, where he stayed and worked for seven months. On his return to headquarters in Washington D.C., the OSS asked him — like all other returning agents — to write a report. Well, Steinberg didn’t write a report — he drew one.

Steinberg’s “report”of 1945. (NARA, RGG 226, Entry 99, Box 40, folder 6).

You can find it in the US National Archives (NARA) among the declassifed papers of the CIA. It’s a thick folder with a manila cover, and two very scary “Secret” stamps over the bureaucratic label from the Reports Office: “Collection of Cartoons Produced by MO Artist, Lt. (jg) Saul Steinberg — Target Germany for OWI, PWB, and MO/US, MTO & ETO”. Under it Steinberg glued some colored labels of his own making, one a black hand with the acronym MO. That’s Morale Operations, the unit producing “black propaganda”, designed to sap the enemy’s morale with fake messages and communications.

Steinberg’s “report”of 1945. (NARA, RGG 226, Entry 99, Box 40, folder 6).

In the folder, together with specimens of anti-Nazi cartoons, Steinberg inserted three pages describing the locations of his MO fieldwork: Algiers, Naples and Rome. They are reduced photographic reproductions of collages of postcards, and other memorabilia of the places, plus an original drawing. The one about Naples explicitly shows Villa Maria, as a matter of fact one of the OSS centers in the city after the Allies occupied it in October 1943.

The delightful little sketch by Steinberg shows the MO people writing, cutting, and pasting propaganda material, while the Gulf full of ships and barrage balloons can be seen through the open window, complete with its view of Vesuvio (the volcano actually erupted in 1944).

Steinberg’s “report”of 1945, detail, picture by the author. (NARA, RGG 226, Entry 99, Box 40, folder 6).

Very similar to the scene he would show in his later “Villa Maria” drawings — with one important exception: the room’s door are ornate, not at all similar to the straight lines of any International, or “Rationalist” architecture.

Villa Maria was actually built at the beginning of the 20th century in a bland Neoclassical style by Italian diplomat Giulio Cesare Montagna on the Posillipo Hill, then a location on the outskirts of the city. The villa is still standing, used as a venue for weddings and other ceremonies. The beautiful view is still there (minus the barrage balloons), as well as the ornate interiors as seen in the 1945 drawing. But no “Fascist architecture” in sight.

Villa Maria in May 2009, pictures by the author

Still, thirty years later, Steinberg would turn this building into another caricature of the architectural style that he saw as a symbol of boastful suppression, full of ugly cartoonish figures hanging from balconies and floors like decorations on a Christmas tree.

“Neapolitan Bauhaus” indeed, even more than one could think.

“Bau als Bühne” or “Building as a stage” , photo by T. Lux Feininger, 1927, The J. Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles. Copyright © Estate of T. Lux Feininger

Decades before, when Steinberg was just entering high school, the actual Bauhaus in Dessau organized a theatrical performance, where six actors “pose in masks and costumes.” It’s the “Building as a stage” concept, as the Bauhaus Foundation websites explains: “Instead of acting in an unforced and free manner, they follow a strict choreography that emphasises verticals and diagonals. This allows the actors to appear almost as architectural elements”. Masks, people in costumes on various floors as part of an actual Bauhaus building — as a matter of fact the Bauhaus building, designed by no other than Walter Gropius. Not much different from what Steinberg would so often do: using the buildings he learned to draw, as stages for the send ups of people he learned to hate, and those abstract figures as integral parts of the buildings.

Cartoons and Architecture, or Bertoldo and the Politecnico: the two institutions that encompassed his first forays into adulthood, and art.

All Steinberg works Copyright © The Saul Steinberg Foundation.

The author is indebted to Sheila Schwartz, the foundation’s Director of Research and Archives, for her constant help, and to Conrad Feiniger for allowing the reproduction of the “Building as a stage” picture.

An Italian version of this article is available here