This book is about a Rome often seen but not noticed: the Rome of fascism, or “Mussolini’s Rome.” Fascism transformed Rome. The city has a fascist imprint that has changed the way we experience the city today. Many of Rome’s monuments, from the Colosseum to Saint Peter’s, have fascist settings. Beyond the historic center, there stand whole areas or “cities” constructed by the fascists, such as the Foro Mussolini, now Foro Italico; the city for sports and physical education; the Città Universitaria, or university city, for Rome; the Cinecittà for producing films; and EUR, the Esposizione Universale di Roma, the fascist city of the future.
Mussolini’s Rome gives us a picture of Italian fascism that puts into sharp relief fascism’s character and identity. Mussolini sought to rebuild the city in his own image as the centerpiece of his “fascist revolution.” It thus embodied the values of the regime and its goal to change Italy through producing a new generation of Italians. Fascism’s definition of itself and its historic role were nowhere more clearly seen than in Rome. The purpose of this book is to bring together for the first time a comprehensive history of Rome during the fascist period, showing how and why Mussolini transformed the city. It offers a perspective on the regime that has significance for any definition of Italian fascism. Mussolini’s Rome—its streets, buildings, stadiums, and what took place in them—embodied the fascism that ruled Italy for twenty years.
Something of what Mussolini sought to achieve in those twenty years can be captured by looking at his activities on one particular day, a day typical for him. On February 28, 1938, the Duce made a triumphal trip through the city of Rome to visit the sites of public works that were transforming the city. Much had already been accomplished in the sixteen years of his regime, but the work never let up. The story that appeared the next day on the front page of the Fascist Party daily, Il Popolo d’Italia, followed the Duce’s rapid progress from one site to another in a way that summarized what had changed and what was changing. Here was a new Rome for all Italy and the world to see.
Mussolini’s visit on that day took him first to places near the Piazza Venezia: the Victor Emmanuel Monument, the Capitoline Hill, the Palatine Hill, and the Circus Maximus. The wide, new, fascist Via del Mare, running from the Piazza Venezia to the Circus Maximus, exposed ancient buildings such as the Theater of Marcellus, the Arch of Janus, and the Temples of Vesta and Fortuna Virilis. The regime had cleared the Circus Maximus of buildings and shacks several years before and made it the site of fascist exhibitions and demonstrations. On this particular day, it was the site of the Exhibition on National Textiles that had opened in November for five months. Mussolini moved on to the far end of the Circus, where his new Africa building (today the Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO, of the United Nations) was under construction next to the ancient Obelisk of Axum, brought from Ethiopia the year before as a symbol of fascism’s new empire. Not far away, the new Ostiense train station, near the Porta San Paolo, was nearing completion in time for Adolf Hitler’s arrival in early May. Mussolini visited the partially completed Via Imperiale, the grand boulevard that would eventually link the historic center of Rome with the Lido and the site of the planned Universal Exposition of Rome (EUR) scheduled for 1942, the twentieth anniversary of the March on Rome. As Il Popolo d’Italia proclaimed, Mussolini’s Rome would achieve a new grandezza, or grandeur, for the present and the future.
Mussolini fell from power just five years later in July 1943, and in April 1945 partisans executed him and strung his body up in a gas station in Milan. War and defeat stalled and then ended Italian fascism’s transformation of Rome. The new postwar Italy identified itself as “antifascist” and set about erasing the memory of fascism and its leader. In Rome the names of fascist streets and sites changed so that there was no more Via del Mare, no more Foro Mussolini, no more Viale Adolfo Hitler. Statues of Mussolini and other remnants of fascism, especially the omnipresent fascist symbol, the fasces (a bundle of rods with a protruding ax blade), were destroyed. In a modern version of ancient Rome’s damnatio memoriae, the present sought to rewrite the past to suit present needs. The results in Rome, however, could be only partial. The Via del Mare became the Via del Teatro di Marcello, but the fascist street remains, as do the imposing fascist office buildings lining it. The sports complex known as the Foro Mussolini became the Foro Italico, but the obelisk with Mussolini’s name on it remains, as do the fascist mosaics, commemoratory tablets, and buildings from the 1930s. The Viale Adolfo Hitler became the Viale delle Cave Ardeatine, commemorating victims of the Nazi occupation, but the street still leads to the fascist Ostiense Station, where Mussolini greeted Hitler on May 3, 1938.
Architectural historian Spiro Kostof got it right when he concluded thirty years ago that “the Duce’s damnatio memoriae was halfhearted. His name disappeared from most inscriptions, and the fasces chiseled or painted out. But his imprint upon the Eternal City was ineradicable.”1 And so it remains today that throughout Rome are streets, stadiums, railroad stations, schools, post offices, apartment complexes, and structures of all kinds from the fascist period. Mussolini’s Rome shaped the way we see Rome today, and it gives us an invaluable perspective on the history and nature of Italian fascism.
Interest in Mussolini’s Rome has emerged in the past several decades after its neglect in the postwar years. Most Italians wanted to forget about the Duce and twenty years of fascism. Intellectuals adopted a firmly antifascist stance, and historians concentrated great energy on antifascist themes and the armed resistance. These interests and attitudes rejected any notion that fascist art, architecture, and culture were subjects worthy of study. As the Italian intellectual Norberto Bobbio put it, “Where there was culture it was not fascist and where there was fascism it was not culture. There never was a fascist culture.”2
In a 1950 article, architectural critic Henry Hope Reed depicted the fascist imprint on the city as the “third sack” of Rome since unification in 1870. The speculators came first, then the traffic planners, and then the “Fascist imperialists.” Mussolini sought to re-create ancient Rome and to expand the city’s population at all costs. The results were, first, the “destruction of a great deal of the baroque city, to reveal endless vistas of historic rubble,” and second, “the extension of [the city’s] boundaries and the building up of innumerable acres of modern apartment buildings.”3
Italo Insolera’s Roma moderno, un secolo di storia urbanistica (1962) contained valuable information on the fascist period, but the dominant opinions dismissed or ignored the fascist imprint on Rome. The situation changed dramatically in the 1970s and early 1980s as scholars began to reassess the fascist period with respect to the regime’s cultural policies and patronage. Urbanists and architectural historians in this country and Italy led the way. Spiro Kostof wrote the catalog for the 1973 exhibit on modern Rome that remains a landmark for the study of fascist Rome: The Third Rome, 1870—1950: Traffic and Glory (1973).4 Antonio Cederna’s Mussolini Urbanista: lo sventramento di Roma negli anni del consenso appeared in 1979. A 1982 exhibit in Milan and its catalog, Anni Trenta (1982), encouraged a wider interest in objects and artifacts of the 1930s.
The Italian architectural historian Giorgio Ciucci led the way in the study and reassessment of the fascist regime’s relationship to architecture and architects in the 1980s. His book Gli architetti e il fascismo: Architettura e città 1922-1944 (1989) provided a compact and comprehensive guide to urban architecture during fascism. Ciucci’s visits to American universities and participation in international conferences and symposia sparked new interest in the United States.5
Among American architectural historians, Diane Ghirardo emerged as the major advocate for a new look at the fascist period. In her path-breaking 1980 article, “Italian Architects and Fascist Politics: An Evaluation of the Rationalist’s Role in Regime Building,”6she argued that many of Italy’s leading modern architects, such as Giuseppe Pagano and Giuseppe Terragni, were “ardent Fascists” in the 1930s who willingly and enthusiastically accepted commissions from the regime. She subsequently declared that she wished to contest “the prevailing impression in most histories that Mussolini oversaw uniquely negative architectural and urban transformations unusually responsible for the degradation of the twentieth-century city.”7 Other American architectural historians have made notable additions to the growing body of scholarly work on the fascist period.8
By the 1990s the historiography of Italian fascism included work by a host of historians eager to explore the culture of the fascist period. The regime’s cultural policies and its efforts to mobilize the Italian people through those policies gained a place in the mainstream of scholarship. The American historian Philip Cannistraro’s La Fabbrica del Consenso paved the way in 1975 by examining the regime’s attempt to control cultural life through its Ministry of Popular Culture, nicknamed “Minculpop.”9 Marla Stone, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Jeffrey Schnapp, Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi,10 and other historians have advanced our knowledge and understanding of fascism’s mix of art, architecture, culture, and propaganda in pursuing its revolution to transform Italy and Italians. This body of work has sparked new debate on Italian fascism’s cultural policies and practices. The study of Mussolini’s Rome illustrates the definition of history as an ongoing debate among historians about the meaning of the past.11
This book focuses on the transformation of Rome as a central and revealing part of fascist policy and goals. It is a textbook of the fascist regime and what it sought to do and be throughout all the changes, contradictions, successes, and failures of its two decades. Mussolini’s Rome reveals fascism as it presented itself through its policies, programs, and practices. Fascist Rome would be modern while basking in the glory of imperial Rome. It would transform youth through education, sports, and physical training. It would build a new social and economic order through corporatism and social welfare, from maternity benefits to housing for all classes of society. All these themes and more make up the story of Mussolini’s Rome.
The ultimate failure and defeat of fascist Italy is clear enough today, but at the time, fascism appeared to be strong, resolute, and successful. Many observers viewed it as a legitimate, durable ideology and government. In the context of the 1930s, Mussolini’s new Rome stood as a manifestation of fascism’s energy and modernity. Rome demonstrated that the Duce could do much more than just make the trains run on time.
The story concludes with the birth in Rome of militant antifascism and the armed resistance in September 1943, the liberation by Allied forces on June 4, 1944, and the postwar efforts to remove as much as possible of Rome’s fascist layer. Those efforts proved to be largely cosmetic, for so thoroughly had Mussolini changed the city that, given only minor damage during the war, most of what he wrought remains today. For better or worse, the Rome of today is not only the city of Roman emperors, Catholic popes, and Italian kings; it is also the “Roma di Mussolini.”