Il Giallo dei Ragazzi, 1970 – 1984

Exhibit / October 24, 2017

Object Name: Il Giallo dei Ragazzi 
Maker and Year: Mondadori publishing, 1970-1984
Object Type: Magazine
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Italy’s shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy in the period following the Second World War brought with it transformative effects for the entire nation: there was a wave of migration from the poorer south of the country to the rapidly industrializing north, where much of the manufacturing base was located—particularly Turin, home to the vast Fiat factories—which brought with it an enduring exchange of traditions and habits, there was an economic boom, and there was the diffusion of mass-produced popular culture on a scale the country had never known before. Italy was suddenly awash with cars, clothes, popular music, toys, knick-knacks, and books, especially comics and the detective novels and thrillers known, due to their yellow covers, as gialli—“yellows.”

The first giallo—a translation of S.S. Van Dine‘s The Benson Murder Case—was published in 1929 by Mondadori, and others followed, initially on a monthly, and later on a fortnightly, basis. The country’s first mass-market publisher, Mondadori took its name from founder Arnoldo Mondadori, one of six children of a poor family from near Mantua who, after leaving school at 11, worked various jobs before taking up a post in a printer’s shop. Thanks to a loan from a benefactor, he eventually bought out the shop’s owners, and in 1912 created the La Scolastica imprint, his first step towards eventual domination of the highly lucrative school textbook market.

Mondadori (whose nickname in dialect was Incantabiss—“snake charmer”) launched the Mondadori publishing company in 1921, forging important friendships with members of the burgeoning National Socialism movement, and in 1923 he acquired the Milanese daily newspaper Il Secolo, which he turned into a virtual organ of the Fascist party. The same year, the company acquired rights to an English children’s encyclopedia that, once translated, would become the the hugely successful Enciclopedia dei Ragazzi, promoted as an essential possession for any family interested in the intellectual development of its offspring. In 1926, Mondadori published Dux, a bestselling biography of Mussolini (which took as its title his Latin nickname: “leader”). Written by Margherita Sarfatti, a wealthy Italian journalist, socialite, and patron of the arts who came from one of Venice’s most prominent Jewish families (she was also one of Mussolini’s mistresses), it had first appeared in Britain the previous year as The Life of Benito MussoliniIn 1935, Mondadori also signed an agreement with Disney to publish the company’s material in Italy, where Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck would go on to be vastly influential characters in the country over the next 60 years.

The giallo was hugely popular and many other publishers followed Mondadori’s lead, but the Fascist regime, in the form of the Minculpop, Mussolini’s ministry for popular culture, disapproved. The regime’s desire to suppress or control foreign cultural material had already led to such absurdities as the Italianization of the names of foreign artists, with Duke Ellington becoming Del Duca, Benny Goodman becoming Beniamino Bonomo, and Louis Armstrong becoming Luigi Braccioforte—Armstrong’s “St. Louis Blues” was rechristened “Le Tristezze di San Luigi” (“The Sorrows of Saint Louis”). News about domestic crime was repressed to give the impression of a virile country under total control, but, with their evocation of the seamier side of life, giallo books subverted this idea and were seen by the party’s gerarchi as a corrupting influence on the healthy, non-decadent youth of the new Italy. The MinCulPop followed up its 1931 directive, which stated that a certain percentage of gialli must be written by Italian authors, with another in 1937 ordering that murderers in gialli must not be Italian and must always be brought to justice, and the party also began funding its own “healthy” gialli, peopled with fascist policemen like Orazio Grifaci.

The 1941 murder of a maid by three middle-class teens during the bungled robbery of a Milanese villa provided the regime with a pretext for banning the publication and possession of all gialli, on pain of prison, and the Fascist secret police—the Ovra—searched homes and printing shops for copies. However, as soon as the regime collapsed in 1944, publication of gialli began again immediately, and the Giallo Mondadori returned to newsstands in 1946. In popular parlance, a giallo had come to mean any kind of mystery, and although outside of Italy it is perhaps now principally associated with the giallo all’italiana genre of film, with its connotations of the perverse and gothic, in its homeland it retains more homely associations—the long-running TV crime series Murder, She Wrote, for instance, is known here as La Signora in Giallo: “The Lady in Yellow.

Mondadori launched the Il Giallo dei Ragazzi—“The Youngster’s Giallo”–imprint in 1970. It featured both translations of innocuous foreign detective series for young people, such as Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Three Investigators, as well as Italian series like Enzo Russo’s Rossanna, based around the adventures of a police commissioner’s daughter.

The covers seen above are the work of Marco Rostagno, an illustrator from Turin who also produced covers for the cinema and comics magazine Horror and a serialized adaptation of the Bible in comics for Il Giornalino, a  comics weekly published by Catholic publishing house Edizioni San Paolo that over the years has also been home to the Hanna-Barbera characters, the Smurfs, and the comic adaptation of Star Wars.

Arnoldo Mondadori died in 1971, and in 1982 the company he had created moved into television with the launch of private channel Rete 4, soon afterwards sold to future Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was at the time constructing his Mediaset television empire. Seven years later, Berlusconi would also gain definitive control of Mondadori publishing and its chain of bookshops.

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