How did the general public respond to those pioneering aerial displays that began to take place at the end of the first decade of the 20th century? Franz Kafka summed up the mood of those occasions - a mixture of awe, wonder and fearful apprehension - in this fragment of a sketch of 1909 called "The Aeroplanes of Brescia": "Over our heads, 20 metres above the earth, is a man entangled in a wooden frame, defending himself against an invisible danger that he has freely taken on. But we stand down below, quite left behind and insignificant as we watch this man..."
This collection of rare Italian aviation posters, all borrowed from the Massimo and Cirulli Archive of New York, sweeps us from those earliest pleasure flights of 1910 - the moment when Italy was first beginning to build its own aircraft (during the First World War its production would outstrip that of Austria, Russia and the United States combined) - through the heady years of Fascist domination and triumphalism (when the idea of air power seemed to compliment very well Mussolini's belief in the Fascist superman), to the disastrous and humiliating defeats of the Second World War, when Italy's greatest pilots were killed in combat and its air force decimated.
Between those years there is the fascinating story of the growth and brief flowering of a remarkable sub-genre of artistic activity, one which managed to combine often brutish propaganda with considerable technical innovation - the Italian aviation poster. There is a huge range of styles here, too, from the art nouveau influenced works with a backward-looking, almost belle-epoque atmosphere, to the bright, brash, colourful manner of Futurism.
The first posters in the show are celebrations of the surprisingly awkward beauty of some of those early Italian flying machines. Aviation displays were all the rage circa 1910 in fields outside Florence, Turin and Milan. In a twilit scene above the Campo di Marte just outside Florence (the cityscape is visible in the distance, as are the blue hills), two bi-planes stutter here and there like a pair of elegant moths, while a car-load of rich and delighted onlookers gawp from the road.
In another, this time in celebration of the Aero Club of Naples, the biplane resembles nothing so much as a jumped-up pram on wheels. Aldo Mazza's poster for the Paris-Rome-Turin Rally adopts a more calculatedly interesting perspective altogether: the plane is glimpsed through Classical ruins, as if to point out a link between the triumphs of the past and the technological achievements of the present.
By 1922 Mussolini was in power, and the drive to create the illusion of a dynamic, forward-looking, indestructible society was on. …