The mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, made a splash when he first took office last August: He proposed to tear down the Via dei Fori Imperiale, the four-lane boulevard that cuts right through the heart of the city’s most prominent ancient excavations.
Nearly all visitors know the road, and most have likely walked on it. One of the few long, straight arteries in a city of tangled lanes and alleys, it’s something of a monument itself, running from Piazza Venezia and its “wedding cake”-like Victor Emmanuel Monument to the ancient Colosseum.
But to anyone familiar with the history of the city, this road is more than just a central thoroughfare: It is one of the ways Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, signed his name across the city. In one grand destructive act, he connected himself to the ancient Roman emperors, modernized the city for the automobile, and created a huge open-air space for his frenzied balcony speeches. Hitler would be given a hero’s welcome along the avenue in 1938, celebrating the newfound alliance between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
To outside observers, it’s easy to imagine that the argument over the road would really be an argument about the legacy of a dictator: Mayor Marino, at long last, removing a garish and offensive symbol of Fascist ambition and Italy’s dismal history in WWII. But this is not how Romans are discussing it. Marino bills the closing as an environmental and quality-of-life move for Romans, clearing the polluted air while making space for civic events. The vitriol of the debate arises not over the road’s political meanings, but from drivers, who wonder how the heck they are going to get to work.
Via dei Fori Imperiale is but one of the dozens of Fascist legacies hiding in plain sight here. Though Mussolini came from the north and had once disdained the Eternal City, after his 1922 coup he remade the urban landscape as only a few before him had. Today he might be surprised, and pleased, by how little of his legacy has been erased. Public reckonings are a big part of how other nations have moved forward from morally repugnant pasts. Not so in Italy. Today a handful of people are trying, openly, to confront Mussolini’s architectural imprint on Rome, but they’re a small minority. In an Italy and Europe rumbling with the newfound power of the right wing, the more typical response is a deafening—and troubling—silence.
From atop the Janiculum, a hill where Giuseppe Garibaldi fought unsuccessfully for the independence of the city in 1849, visitors can look out at centuries of ambitious visions for the city. Squint a little and you can make out the monuments of Roman emperors: the Baths of Diocletian, the Pantheon, Palatine Hill. Later the planners were popes, usually scions of wealthy Roman families, who gave rise to the city so recognizable today, of palazzi and church domes and grand squares anchored by obelisks.
With virtually no modern buildings added to the city’s historic center since the 1950s, one might easily get the sense that Rome has been largely unchanged for centuries. There was, however, one last great builder. Benito Mussolini and his stable of architects and planners built post offices, sports facilities for youth, apartments and schools, public markets. They remade the road system, not only with the massive Via dei Fori Imperiale, but also the Via della Conciliazione, the equally famous boulevard leading to St. Peter’s Square. They built entire new towns in agricultural lands south of Rome, made possible by massive draining and reclaiming of the Pontine marshes.
Some of the most surreal sights in modern Rome are Mussolini’s surviving spectacles of propaganda. To the south of the city is the EUR, a necropolis of white neo-classical forms, including an abstracted, cube-like homage to the Colosseum, all part of an unfinished plan for a 1942 world’s fair—the Esposizione Universale Roma—that would celebrate 20 years of Fascism. The Foro Mussolini (now Foro Italico), a large sports facility north of the Vatican, features a mosaic plaza—the largest built here since the fall of Rome—celebrating the colonial conquest of Ethiopia in 1936. The mosaic includes 248 crumbling but still-visible repetitions of the favorite roar at Fascist rallies: “Il DUCE.”
Mussolini’s own image rarely makes an appearance, but throughout the city you can spot hundreds of copies of the ancient Roman military emblem that gave Fascism its name. The “fasces”—a bundle of sticks with an axe—was affixed to public buildings, fountains, manhole covers, even doorstops during Mussolini’s dictatorship. Many were removed after the war, but, as is typical here, the removal was inconsistent, and dependent on the politics of neighborhoods. In Germany, the swastika is outlawed, and you will find no examples in public spaces. But in Italy, the fasces remain sprinkled throughout the urban landscape.
Erasing the past is hardly the answer to confronting the past, but when it comes to Mussolini’s legacy, one of the world’s great cities has simply looked the other way. Serious critical reflection on Fascism here is relegated to history books and outliers on the political left. What remains in popular discourse is a hazy understanding of the period, which has provided an opening for disturbing revisionist sentiments about a leader who tied his future to Hitler.
If it is unfair to equate Mussolini with Hitler, it is also disdainful of the past not to recognize the brutality of his regime—the dictatorial takeover of government, the murder and bullying of the opposition, the suppression of free speech and press, a brutal invasion of Ethiopia marked by the use of poison gas and concentration camps, and race laws which paved the way, after the Nazi takeover of Italy in 1943, to the deportations of thousands of Jews and others, usually to their deaths in German concentration camps.
To be sure, there are many who continue to rally against Fascism, past and present, invisible and visible. “When I walk across the bridge to go to the soccer stadium and I see ‘Mussolini Dux’ on that obelisk, I want to blow it up,” a famed historian of the resistance to Fascism, told me. At a recent Liberation Day, or Festa della Liberazione, a national holiday to mark the end of Nazi occupation of Italy, a World War II partisan, now well into his 80s, declared it “a shame” that Fascist buildings at Foro Italico still stand. The T-shirts sold at the Liberation Day rally capture the sentiment of those on the left: “Yesterday, partisans, today, anti-fascists.”
But a far more common response to the debate about Mussolini’s Fascism is the one described by Rosalia Vittorini, the head of the Italian chapter of DOCOMOMO, the organization that fights to preserve modern architecture around the world. In a café in the Piazza Augosto Imperatore, I asked her what Romans think when they walk by a Fascist building, or sit, as we were, in a building built expressly to proclaim his vision for a “Third Roman Empire.” She responded simply: “Why do you think they think anything at all?”
To understand why Italians don’t actively discuss Mussolini and the era of Italian Fascism is to enter the stew of Italian politics, bubbling with half-truths and rationalizations, nostalgia and guilt, and a jockeying for position in a sharply divided country. Italy never repudiated Mussolini the way German repudiated Hitler and the Nazis. Many Italians, under the influence of post-war efforts (supported by the United States) to purge the far left from political life, argued that it was possible to separate out all that was good about Mussolini in his first decade or so from his “mistakes” later in the 1930s. This oversimplified history was a convenient consensus that allowed Italians to avoid the political discord of real debate about the lasting legacy of Fascism.
The buildings, the most visible aspect of Mussolini’s legacy, have undergone a bit of intellectual laundering: A growing number of people argue that Fascist-era architecture—especially with a modernist, or “rationalist” aesthetic—stands on its own, and, except for the overtly propagandistic buildings, should not be linked to the values of the regime that built them. Especially loved are the works of Luigi Moretti, who built sleek modernist buildings for the regime in Rome. His GIL building, a former sports center named for the Gioventu’ Italiana del Littorio—the organization of the Italian Fascist youth—has been lovingly restored, down to the bronze eagles over the front entrance. Although Moretti was a true believer in Mussolini, he was rehabilitated and continued his career after the war, including building a dramatic apartment complex in our own capital: The Watergate. Paolo Nicoloso, a leading historian of Mussolini’s architecture, argues that the renewed, and sometimes nostalgic, appreciation of Mussolini’s buildings of stone and marble is understandable, given the background of Italy’s long economic decline: “When Italian people see a monumental building they are grateful to Mussolini. They believe he did well for the people. They forget the dictatorship, the racial laws, the war.”
All this might be important only to debates about Rome’s cultural heritage, except that Fascism is quite alive in Italy. Mussolini still has a constituency, and a growing one, despite the recent victory of the centrist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. While a small band of anti-Fascists gathered on Liberation Day this past April to remember the few living partisans who fought Mussolini and the Nazis 75 years ago, neo-Fascists were hiking up a flag on the obelisk outside the Foro Italico. Mussolini’s granddaughter holds a Senate seat; Rome’s previous mayor, Giovanni Alemanno, was closely identified with the Fascist movement. Italian Fascists gather in growing numbers in Mussolini’s hometown of Predappio three times a year; there you can find bottles of Nostalgia Cologne for Men, with Mussolini on the label giving his right-arm-raised salute. Swastikas, too, are common graffiti around Rome, to attack rival sports teams and politicians, as well as Jewish leaders. The popularity of Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is due in part to the ways in which he invoked the personality and imagined accomplishments of Mussolini.
In a country—and a continent—faced with long-term economic weakness and with an influx of immigrants from throughout the Mediterranean, the silent witness of Fascist buildings gives a perch for a resurgent right, something we might have naively thought would be swept away forever.
If Germany’s memorial efforts have been in the service of never forgetting and Buenos Aires’s efforts to bring the perpetrators of state terror from the 1970s to justice have sought to use memory to achieve legal justice, Italy’s engagement with its Fascist past in the city might best be called a policy of organized forgetting. While much has been written by Italian scholars about the rise of Fascism, there has been little effort by the city and nation to confront the physical propagandistic legacy that Mussolini left one of the world’s great cities.
To confront does not mean to erase. What countries like Germany and, more recently, Argentina and South Africa, and even the United States, have done is to make public interpretation—monuments, memorials, innovative public art—an ongoing commitment, as if to say: We have to keep talking about our difficult pasts, here, where the past took place, where it was built.
Nearly a year later, Mayor Marino’s plans to eliminate the Via dei Fori Imperiale have gotten little traction, though he has managed to close off the street on weekends and holidays. Others are busy trying to deal more explicitly with the legacy of Mussolini, with a nervous intensity borne of concern about the rise of right-wing movements across Europe.
Siblings Adachiara and Luca Zevi, children of the Jewish modern architectural historian and critic Bruno Zevi, have separately taken on projects to remind Romans of the dark side of Fascism. Adachiara and her Arte in Memoria Foundation have brought German activist Gunter Demnig to install some of his stolpersteine, “stumble stones”—small brass cobblestones, with the names of victims of Fascism—in front of the homes of Romans (largely Jews, but not exclusively) who were persecuted and then, starting in October of 1943, deported to Nazi death camps.
Luca has designed a Holocaust memorial museum which will be built, starting in 2015, in a park adjacent to Villa Torlonia, an 18th-century country estate just a mile beyond the walls of ancient Rome. The villa itself is already a museum, though one that glosses over its many layers—especially the one involving Mussolini. The Villa, where he lived, often with his mistress, during much of the 1920s and 1930s, sits atop his personal bunker and a Roman-era Jewish catacomb system; nearby is the private English school that now educates Mussolini’s great-grandson.
Finally, the South African artist William Kentridge was recently in town to advance his project for drawing 90 huge figures of “victory and lament” in Roman history along the high walls that channel the Tiber river near the Vatican. One of those will be an image drawn from a Naples mural that still stands, shot through with World War II bullet holes, of Mussolini on a horse, like so many previous Roman leaders, giving his infamous salute.
Who knows? In a few years, the thousands who walk along the Lungotevere, on their way to work, or on their way to a soccer game at the Foro Italico, might pause for a moment to take in a dramatic public art installation, and start to consider again Mussolini, Italian Fascism, the danger of empires, and regimes—then and now—that traffic in brutality. Inch by inch, project by project, perhaps the arc of memory in the Eternal City can be bent.
Max Page is professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, and editor of “Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina” (UMass Press).