A red, 1930s fighter plane hangs in the center of the Galleria, the busy and elegant glass-domed colonnade often called Milan's drawing room because of its expensive restaurants and shops. Boys in jeans and running shoes lean over a barricade and giggle about the simplicity of the machine, much like kids viewing the Wright brothers' plane at the Air and Space Museum in Washington. The plane is part of a massive exhibit of fascist art called "Gli Anni Trenta: Arte e Cultura in Italia" ("The '30s--Art and Culture in Italy").

The relaxed response is typical of many viewing "Annitrenta," the adopted name for the show sponsored by the municipality of Milan and featuring more than 2,500 objects from Italian life in the 1930s. But the exhibit also is the subject of great controversy. Heated discussions are being held around the city--in offices, at dinner parties, in restaurants--over the selection of the art and what some call a whitewash--even glorification--of the fascist period.

The exhibition is the most expensive (at $1.5 million) ever held in Italy, and is believed to occupy more space than any ever held in Europe. It is spread over four locations, all near the piazza del Duomo in the center of the city. In a former bomb shelter, painting and sculpture from the period is exhibited and propoganda films of Mussolini are shown continuously.

In the old royal palace is an urbanistic exhibit which includes Mussolini's grandiose plan for marble cities and a better life for slaves in Africa. The carved pillars from the original palace structure can be seen, as well as tapestries honoring workers. Also included are furniture, bicycles, typewriters, clothes highly derivative of French designs and uniforms students had to wear when Mussolini visited schools.

A tubular stylized plane in the Galleria, where it was first displayed at the air show of 1934, is now used to support exhibits and posters. "He who eats too much robs the nation," reads a poster which pictures a man feasting on pasta with a soldier standing behind him. Another says, "Mussolini is always right," and a third depicts jobs that the Jews could not hold and warnings to Jews that they could not attend Italian schools, join the military, own land or have Aryan servants.

Two cars of a brown train, the kind that Mussolini made run on time, are "parked" alongside the royal palace across from the cathedral. The Fascia Littoria, the fascist symbol of a bundle of wheat that normally would have been on the front of the train, has been painted out for the exhibit to curb political protests.

Three years ago a group of art critics proposed that Milan hold an exhibit setting forth its artistic record of the 1930s. There had been a successful 1930s show in London, and the Paris-Berlin and Paris-Moscow shows were attracting huge crowds and acclaim at the Beaubourg Museum in Paris. Two years ago, 18 curators were appointed to "point out the cultural way of the 1930s, not the political," said Alessandra Gnecchi-Ruscone, an art historian and coordinator of the exhibit. "The best artists of the period are well-known. The goal was to see the broad range of what was produced."

The show opened in January to mixed reviews. But that has not slowed the crowds. In fact, attendance so far of 300,000, high by Milan standards, has prompted a decision to extend the show until the end of May. Attendance and brisk poster sales are expected to help defray the costs. So will sales of the $25 telephone-book-size catalogue which can be bought in bookstores all over Italy.

"It is very nostalgic and gives me the creeps," says Nora Alhadeff, wife of a leading Italian industrialist. "It shows that we were so clever and we did this and we did that. But it does not show what else we did."

"Of course we are proud of the architectural schemes for Ethiopia," says a Milanese business executive. "But where are the reminders of the poison gases sprayed on the Ethiopians?"

"It is too important an exhibit to be so superficially done," says Piero Pinto, an architect and interior designer. "The exhibit doesn't represent the real sense of what was happening at the time. And the danger is that the young can confuse it with a nostalgic idea of fascism."

As if anticipating such criticism, Guido Aghina, Milan's cultural officer, in the introduction to the show's catalogue, writes: "It is too easy just to go on recording only the violence and boorish aspect of those times. In order to reach a balanced evaluation and a reasoned condemnation of fascism, it is necessary to show what was done by our artists under the regime or in spite of it."

"Condemnation of fascism on moral and political grounds for its repressive nature should not go hand in hand with the social and cultural life of the time," says Mayor Tognoli of Milan.

Gustavo Selva, chairman of the board of RAI Corp., Italy's national public radio and TV network, agrees. "I think it must be recognized that something good--obviously not anything political, but social and artistic and even agricultural--these were good things that happened at that time. And young people who wish to know the reality have many possibilities to learn a just opinion."

The 1930s were a highly productive period for Italian artists who were encouraged by Benito Mussolini, who had artistic pretentions himself and who set up annual art competitions. He set aside 2 percent of building costs for decoration, which endeared him to many artists.

But for Bruno Zevi, an Italian journalist and architect, that raises a comparison between Mussolini and Hitler. "Hitler tried to destroy the artists; Mussolini corrupted them," Zevi said.

The selection of art also has been heavily criticized. "There is no Savinio, de Chirico is badly represented and the choices of Carra from the metaphysical period are simply not good enough," says Ottavio Missoni, a respected artist who is the artistic director of Missoni Knitwear.

Ariel Soule, a young artist whose paintings are currently being shown in a gallery on the Via Bagutta, is not surprised. "In Italy, no show gets the best of everything. In Italy," says the Argentinian-born artist, "everything is politicized."

There is little attention to Mussolini himself in the show, save the propaganda films, a couple of portraits in the photography section and a bronze sculpture in the Galleria, a scale model of a larger work. Only at the last minute did Alberto Marangoni, the artist for the exhibit's poster, decide to include Mussolini in the poster montage. And then he added a pink wash over the photograph, which makes Mussolini almost impossible to spot unless you know where to look.

But there are no highly critical cartoons of him in the show, no devastating art of the likes of Picasso's "Guernica"; rather the show reflects the consensus Mussolini enjoyed in Italy until his pact with Hitler in 1939.

"Five years ago there would have been a huge outcry," says young novelist Andrea de Callo, whose "Trenno di Panna" is being made into a movie in Hollywood. "Young people today simply are not interested in politics."

There is graffiti scratched on a poster that touts the increasing good health and wealth of Italian families. And a window on the train in the square and one in an Alpha Romeo parked as part of the exhibit in the Galleria were broken (and repaired overnight). But for the most part the reaction of the viewers is totally blase'. "See the tubular lamp behind the table?" a grandmother asks a 4-year-old. "It's just like the lamp your grandfather bought me when we got married."

Gnecchi-Ruscone, whose job beyond coordinating the show was organizing the exhibit of fashion and furnishings, is disappointed in the range of personal and household items she could find. She was hampered, she said, by the lack of any official collection of such artifacts. "We searched through private collections and in the grandmothers' trunks in some attics," she said.

Lectures by the show's curators are held regularly and television specials call attention to areas of the exhibit. But there appears to be little spinoff from the show into the cultural activity in Milan today. An exception is a furniture exhibit on the Via Montenapoleone featuring Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's chrome-and-black leather furniture in a salute to "Annitrenta." The number of "lookers," according to a sales representative, is very great, and there have been some sales.

But the fashion industry, which just completed its fall collections, is far less smitten and offers no reflection of "Annitrenta" through its designs. "This was one of the really bad periods for Italy," says Gianfranco Ferre, the rising star of the Italian fashion scene. "It was fashion with no creativity."

Adds Piero Pinto, as a parting shot, "The truth is, the real creativity was in the 1920s, not the 1930s at all."