In the early decades of auto racing, the number of deadly accidents raised debate not only about the sport’s safety but also about the reasons it attracted drivers and audiences in the first place. Was this a blood sport? After a particularly tragic race at the 1928 Italian Grand Prix, the Catholic Church and the Fascist government faced off over this question, and the role that men driving fast (and dangerously) had in the modern age. 

 

Emilio Materassi's Talbot after the deadly crash at the 1928 Italian Grand Prix (Wikipedia)

Emilio Materassi’s Talbot after the deadly crash at the 1928 Italian Grand Prix (Wikipedia)

 

On lap 18 of the 1928 Italian Grand Prix, a Talbot driven by the Italian ace Emilio Materassi attempted to pass a slower car on the start/finish line of the Monza Autodrome. Witnesses claimed to have seen the right front wheel of the Talbot touch the left rear of a Bugatti driven by Giulio Foresti. Materassi’s car veered sharply left, jumped over a short wall, and then over a trench separating the track from the tightly packed spectators. The Talbot cartwheeled into the crowd, killing 27 spectators before coming to rest in the trench. Materassi was thrown from the car and died later in hospital.

Despite the scale of the tragedy, the race continued and went the full distance. It ended in victory for Louis Chiron, in a Bugatti, who began to celebrate until he was informed of the accident. In fact, none of the drivers in the race knew about the tragedy until the race ended. Nor did the public know, as bulletins of the accident were not sent out until after the drop of the checkered flag. When the news did get out, the press dispatches sounded like war bulletins: “How many dead?” asked Italy’s leading daily newspaper Il Corriere della Sera.

At the time it happened, the crash at the Italian Grand Prix was the worst tragedy in motorsport, even surpassing the notorious Paris-Madrid Race of 1903, in which five drivers and three spectators were killed. That event had caused several European governments to ban open-road racing. Similar calls arose after the 1928 accident. The leading voice in this call was the Vatican’s newspaper, Osservatore Romano, which mounted a strident criticism of the sport, the regime’s support of motor racing, and, by implication, Fascism’s entire cultural project. What made these calls even more urgent was the fact that the tragedy occurred in a purpose-built autodrome, where spectators were meant to be safe from out-of-control racing cars.

Unlike in 1903, however, there was to be no government censure of motorsport. The Italian Fascist regime had directly promoted the race and made motorsport one of the pillars of its sporting propaganda. The Fascist-controlled newspapers deflected calls for sanctions against the sport, claiming that no one was to blame for the accident, that the autodrome was safe, and that the crash had been a freak event that could not be predicted. All of this, of course, was to protect the regime’s investment in motorsport and in the national Grand Prix event. In fact, the tragedy was turned into a story of sacrifice for the nation and for automotive progress. The dead spectators were treated as martyrs. The day after the race, their bodies were carried through the streets of Milan, followed by the body of Materassi, who was surrounded by his fellow drivers walking in procession. What might have been a disaster for the regime’s image became an opportunity to advance a discourse of sacrifice not only on the part of drivers, but also those of spectators enjoying a motor race on a Sunday afternoon.

Since its origins in the late nineteenth century, motorsport had always been surrounded by questions over its utility, especially if it entailed the death of drivers and spectators. Some even questioned its validity as a sport, since it seemed to privilege machine over man. The debate continues to this day. In his book on sport in Italian history, Simon Martin reluctantly included motor racing, but only after dismissing it as an “engineering contest.” These issues did not trouble the Fascist regime in 1928, however, as it embraced motorsport as one of the most important activities of the new Fascist era – a privileged sport that forged the Fascist New Man.

It was left to the Vatican’s newspaper, Osservatore Romano, to present the most vocal opposition to motorsport – a tradition that would continue to the late 1950s, when the same newspaper played an important part in having the Mille Miglia sports car race banned, after an accident killed two drivers and several spectators in 1957. At the time of the 1928 race, the Vatican was still in formal opposition to the Italian state; the Lateran Accords with the Fascist regime were still a few months in the future. The Monza tragedy afforded an opportunity for the Catholic Church to raise doubts about the culture of Fascism, a culture that uneasily combined conservatism with modernism, Futurism and Traditionalism. While the church could agree with many Fascist ideas such as anti-Communism, authoritarianism, and conservative social policies, other aspects of Fascism, like the exaltation of speed, youth, and violence, raised concerns.

All of these concerns were expressed in the Osservatore Romano in the days following the tragedy. Fascism’s close identification with motorsport was especially alarming. The day after the accident, the newspaper reprinted the official press release, but it could not resist mocking some of the government’s assertions, such as the “disciplined” nature of the crowds in the aftermath of the accident (the editorialist inserted three exclamation marks in parentheses after this statement). In a separate piece, the Osservatore Romano questioned the validity of motorsport, especially for those who claimed that the sport was necessary for progress: “The crazy speed of these cars tell us nothing,” observed the editorial. “If sport is to be a valorization of human progress then this result is the absolute antithesis of that progress.” Sport should not exalt what is “unreal and inhuman.”

Several days after this editorial, the Osservatore Romano presented an even stronger attack against motorsport and the culture that defended it. In a remarkable decision, the newspaper devoted part of its front page to the tragedy, using the word eccidio, which translates to “slaughter.” Virtually every other newspaper referred to the crash as a sciagura, or “disaster.” This was a key difference. A slaughter suggested that someone was to blame, whereas a disaster could simply be a misfortune with no particular culprit. For the Vatican, motorsport represented a “new religion” designed to sway young men into a culture that resembled a pagan blood sport, no different from the bloodlust exhibited by spectators at boxing matches. The autodrome at Monza was nothing less than a “pagan amphitheatre” where the victims were the youth of Italy. This point foreshadowed the very real conflicts between the Vatican and the Fascist state over the education of youth in the early 1930s.

The Vatican was reacting to the Italian newspapers, and the two inquests called into the crash, which argued that no one was to blame for the accident. The regime’s newspapers insisted that every precaution had been taken and nothing could have prevented such a freak crash. Reinforcing this point, the popular illustrated journal Illustrazione Italiana noted how on the same day as the Monza tragedy, in another part of Italy, several people had been killed in a religious procession due to a landslide.

But defenders of the regime and motorsport soon took the offensive to counter the church. In the pages of Lo Sport Fascista, a journal published by the Italian Olympic Committee, Renzo Castagneto, the chief steward of the Grand Prix, defended the Monza Autodrome and rejected what he called the “moralisms” thrown out by critics like the (un-named) Osservatore Romano. Racing was not the same as boxing, he argued, and the Monza Autodrome was the safest racing venue in the world – something he tried to prove by showing photographs of other racetracks where the crowds were much closer to the cars.

Castagneto defended motorsport in general and its place in the new Fascist order. He insisted that Monza was “an ideal theater” for the progress that motorsport represented in modern society. Racing enthusiasts did not go to see blood, yet there was a general acceptance of the sport as dangerous. One always had to “expect the unexpected” at such an event. If deaths did occur, Castagneto stated, then they had to be seen as sacrifices for progress – not just on an automotive level but also on a political level. “Here is the irrepressible disagreement between the modern, Fascist mentality, and the weepy mentality of yesteryear,” he claimed. Fascism, concluded Castagneto, “teaches us that we must live and win dangerously.”

Castagneto’s defense of the race and the autodrome seemed to confirm the Vatican’s fears, Fascism was ushering a new, modern culture built around speed and violence. Yet, just three weeks after the Monza tragedy, before the running of the motorcycle Grand Prix of Nations, a priest from Milan celebrated a Mass on the spot where the accident happened. The Mass was attended by regime dignitaries, including the Fascist Party secretary, Augusto Turati, who was a fervent racing fan and one of the architects of Fascism’s sporting policies. During the homily, the priest, who was the chaplain of the local Fascist youth group, called the victims martyrs to progress and placed them in the pantheon of heroes who gave their lives in First World War. In this way, on the start/finish line of the Monza Autodrome, church and state came to celebrate martyrdom on a Sunday afternoon.

 

Paul Baxa is chair of the History Department at Ave Maria University. He is author of Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome.