In Europe, the period designated as the age of mass tourism has mainly developed along the coasts starting from the second half of the 20th century. Beach mass tourism, with its inclusive and democratic character, is therefore a relatively recent phenomenon and its invention has caused a revolution in the geography of the coastlines that were once marginal places, abandoned and degraded.
At least until the mid 18th century, while cities were flourishing in the hinterland, European coasts were considered wild and harsh territories, left almost deserted for both hygienic and military reasons: vast swamp areas were dominated by fortified ports, forced passage for flows of men and goods.

“Over the years, seas and oceans started to be considered for their healing and recreational potential, as they were no longer associated with stormy waters, but rather with the beneficial qualities of fresh and unpolluted air.
A century-long process of building architecture and infrastructures for tourism commenced.”

The positivist social hygiene movement that flourished in Italy in the second half of the 19th century arose as a refusal of the degenerative aspects of the modern industrial cities. Many undeveloped, abandoned and degraded coastal areas gradually became the destination of the so-called ‘colonie marine’, a sort of holiday camp for children with health purposes, as well as an attraction for the national upper middle-class tourism.
The first Italian seaside colonies were established by charitable Christian organizations and later became the place of public assistance services and private philanthropy, dedicated to the treatment of children’s diseases caused by the poverty of the urban environment.
In the 1920s, during the Fascist regime, when the myths of hygiene and order ruled in triumph, the construction of the Colonies received a new boost. Considered a mass formative model for children, they constituted an important factor in the social policy of a regime bent on building consensus.

“The Fascist regime showed that it had fully grasped the propagandistic potential and value of the ‘colonia’ to the government’s campaign for the improvement of the physical, intellectual and moral development of pupils.”
Fulvio Irace, “Building for a new era: health services in the ’30s”, Domus 656, March 1985, pp. 8-9

Additionally, major private Italian corporations like Montecatini, Agip, Piaggio and Fiat saw in the colonies the potential for shaping their future workforce by instilling discipline and a bond with the company in their workers’ children.
Particular importance was given to the colonies design which “constituted a laboratory of experimentation for those young architects eager to test in a real project the effectiveness of their ethical and aesthetic ideals”. [1] Among the institutes that arose along the Adriatic coast, the Agip colony in Cesenatico, designed by the architect Giuseppe Vaccaro, stands out for its architectural qualities, one of the most achieved expressions of the Italian Rationalist movement. In the 90s, the building became Gabriele Basilico’s subject in a photographic series which shows its relevance in the contemporary architecture scenario. The photographs enhance the complex’s monumental importance as a reference in space and time, as well as the paradox of a high-quality ‘architecture of leisure’ commissioned by Italy’s most influential oil company of the 20th century.

The Fascist Colonies, unlike those of the 19th century, were no longer episodic elements, but rather the product of organic and territorial planning, promoted by the central public organization. The process of the consolidation of the Fascist empire involved the re-appropriation of marginal lands and their economic development through interventions such as the reclamation of marsh areas and the construction of new infrastructures. Thus, the presence of the seaside colonies became a fundamental element in the social and touristic development of the lesser-known and marginal areas.
For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century the Apuan coast of Marina di Massa in Tuscany still lacked the necessary accommodation facilities to be considered a full-fledged tourist seatown. In the 1920s the waterfront avenue consisted of a shapeless unpaved strip and the town was still involved in the local extractive industry.

Fascism intended to make seaside tourism a strong point of the economic development of the Italian coasts, recognizing its ability to contribute to the development of geographically peripheral areas, far from the industrial and financial centers of the time. Hence, starting from 1918, 22 Heliotherapeutic Colonies were erected on the coast of Marina di Massa, including the FIAT tower, built in 1933, and the linear complex of Colonia Torino, built in 1938. [2] The infrastructural works aimed at encouraging the private motorization represented the first major step in the seaside renewal process and were crucial for the definition of the future structure of the Italian coasts.

The so-called ‘colonie marine’ became a point of union between the hinterland and the coast, fostering the urbanization of the Italian north-central seaside landscapes and playing a decisive role in the development of coastal tourism, which evolved throughout the years from an elitist practice to a mass phenomenon.

Hordes of people started to populate Italian beaches in the second half of the 20th century, becoming the main subject of Massimo Vitali’s photographic work. In Marina di Massa Vitali shows the imposing architecture of the last century’s seaside colonies, now stripped of their original function and political meaning, playing the role of backdrop to the profusion of individuals, as if to recall the influence that these structures had in transforming the coasts to a mass tourism destination. The landscape that is represented is a portrait of modern life both in terms of space and social rituals, which has nothing to do with idealized beach paradises or idyllic settings; what emerges, instead, is a comment on mass society and on the beach as the space of the illusion of free time and free self-expression.

  1. For more information about the aesthetic and political ideals embodied in the Colonies’ design during Fascism: Fulvio Irace, “Building for a New Era: Health Services in the ’30s”, Domus n. 659, March 1985.
  2. For more information about the impact of the seaside colonies on the development of the coastal landscape of Marina di Massa: Gaia Vivaldi, “L’ex colonia Fiat ‘Edoardo Agnelli’ a Marina di Massa”, Architecture dissertation, Università degli Studi di Firenze, 2006-2007.
Flora Del Debbio, 4th of February 2021