One

MUSSOLINI’S OBSESSION WITH ROME

On October 28, 1922, King Victor Emmanuel III invited Benito Mussolini, leader of the Fascist Party, to form a government. It was a triumphant moment for Mussolini, who had founded the fascist movement only three and a half years before with a few hundred followers in Milan. The movement had taken off by 1920, attracting thousands of adherents, especially veterans of the Great War. Mussolini transformed the movement into a political party that offered Italians a hypernationalism and promised to give Italy new life through a program of internal unity and external strength. Fascism promised its own revolution, but one that would produce a new Italy and new Italians while saving the nation from class warfare and a bloody Bolshevik-style revolution.

Italy’s postwar liberal, democratically elected governments seemed paralyzed in the face of internal unrest, unemployment, strikes, factory occupations, peasant seizure of lands, and political divisions. The Catholic Popular Party would not cooperate with the larger Socialist Party which, in turn, suffered a schism when a minority of its members founded the Italian Communist Party in January 1921. Fascism represented itself as a new, fresh, and energetic movement that would tame the socialists and communists, protect property, and bring about change without the trauma of armed revolution. Fascists gained local power in areas of central and northern Italy through the raids of their blackshirted squads, who used intimidation and violence to gain the upper hand. In the face of a paralyzed national government, the fascists threatened to seize power in October 1922, when columns of black shirts began marching on Rome from areas of fascist strength. Rather than risk armed conflict between the marchers and the army, the king asked the fascists to form a government.

At the age of thirty-nine, Mussolini became Italy’s youngest prime minister. The fascist anthem, “Giovinezza” (“Youth”), conveyed the message that fascism brought youth, energy, and new ideas to Italy. The fascist party, however, still had a relatively small number of members in the Italian Parliament, so Mussolini formed a coalition government with the immediate aim of bringing the country a measure of stability. At first the new government did well enough, but in 1924 a socialist member of Parliament and most outspoken critic of the regime, Giacomo Matteotti, died at the hands of fascist thugs with at least the tacit approval of Mussolini. Following the arrest of the assassins, the government seemed hesitant and on the verge of collapse, but Mussolini, always the opportunist and skillful political tactician, used the crisis to defy his critics to transform Italy into a one-party dictatorship by 1926.

Italy had become fascist Italy. Prime Minister Mussolini now became the Duce, the leader of fascism and fascist Italy. His civilian, often formal, diplomatic dress gave way to a uniform of the fascist militia. The Duce used his considerable oratorical skills to galvanize popular opinion behind his movement and his regime. Mussolini knew how to play to the crowd, to court and seduce the throngs who gathered to hear him. In 1929, he moved his office from the Palazzo Chigi to the Palazzo Venezia on the piazza adjacent to the national Victor Emmanuel II monument, symbol of Italian unity and the resting place of Italy’s Unknown Soldier. The balcony of the Palazzo Venezia provided him with his most famous podium from which to harangue the crowds who filled the vast space of the Piazza Venezia for the “oceanic” rallies that were the icon of Mussolini’s Rome. Mussolini had declared the center of Rome, this sacred space of the nation, to be the “heart” of the new fascist Italy. “Guides to the city, which formerly began their descriptions of the city with the Campidoglio or the Vatican, now began with Piazza Venezia.”1

Mussolini brought to his office a fascination—even an obsession—with Rome. It is true that as a socialist he had denounced Rome as a “parasitic city of landladies, shoeshine boys, prostitutes and bureaucrats,” but as a fascist he understood the importance of Rome and its history in the formation of a new ideology that would wed past and present.2 He now saw it as his mission to make the city once more a place of greatness and grandeur worthy of Rome’s imperial past. The city’s rich history, monuments, and sites could now be used and re-fashioned by the regime to define and display the new fascist Italy. Fascism prided itself on being modern, dynamic, and progressive, and Mussolini saw no contradiction in using Rome’s history to define its mission and point toward the future. “The idea of Rome obsessed Mussolini’s mind since the end of World War I, not only because it was the seat of government he sought to capture but also because of its mystic power around which the new order could be forged.”3

Some months before the March on Rome, Mussolini declared on April 22, 1922:

Rome is our point of departure and reference. It is our symbol or, if you wish, our myth. We dream of a Roman Italy, that is to say wise, strong, disciplined, and imperial. Much of that which was the immortal spirit of Rome rises again in Fascism: the Fasces are Roman; our organization of combat is Roman, our pride and our courage is Roman: Civis romanus sum. It is necessary, now, that the history of tomorrow, the history we fervently wish to create, not be a contrast or a parody of the history of yesterday. The Romans were not only warriors, but formidable builders who could challenge, as they did challenge, their time.

Italy has been Roman for the first time in fifteen centuries, in war and in victory. Now it must be Roman in peacetime: and this renewed and revived romanità bears these names: discipline and work.4

Mussolini’s historical memories of Rome were highly selective. Most important to his sense of Romanness, or romanità, was the Rome of the emperors, especially the first emperor, Augustus. Least important was the Rome of unified Italy from 1870 to 1922. Fascism regarded that period as a failure, a time of decadence, when the interests of political parties and politicians had failed to fulfill the dreams and hopes of Italy’s nineteenth-century drive for unity known as the Risorgimento. Fascism would change all that and fulfill the Risorgimento, using Rome’s past greatness as a standard for the new Italy. The period between the Roman Empire and modern unification—the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and Baroque periods—ended up somewhere between, often deserving of fascist respect, but sometimes Rome’s buildings and churches would have to fall to thepiccone, or pickax, of progress as the regime destroyed the old to create the new and uncover the glories of the imperial past.

The fascist regime offered a number of reasons for changing Rome’s urban landscape. Clearing away old and often decrepit buildings opened spaces around imperial sites, such as the Theater of Marcellus, for display, making contemporary Italians proud and inspiring the awe of tourists. The space gained allowed the construction of new, wider streets to accommodate modern traffic. The lost housing, usually characterized by the regime as unsanitary slums, would lead to a healthier Rome. The government moved displaced citizens to new areas outside the city center that provided less crowded living conditions with new housing and state-sponsored social services. An unspoken motive of the regime was to move these working-class populations to areas where they could be more easily watched and controlled. Mussolini’s Rome would exploit Rome’s past in constructing a new, modern city worthy of its new leader. No resident or visitor could fail to be impressed by the changes taking place, for fascist Rome was one big construction site until war and defeat brought a halt to the ongoing transformation of the city.

Mussolini made his intentions about changing Rome clear in word and deed soon after assuming office. Rome’s traditional birthday, April 21, became a fascist holiday and the occasion for speeches, ceremonies, and, as the years moved along, the opening of new streets, buildings, and monuments. Mussolini also made it the Fascist Day of Labor, thus discarding May 1, May Day, which had been identified with socialism. On April 21, 1924, Mussolini, having had himself declared a “citizen of Rome,”5 spoke at the Capitoline, the Campidoglio, the city’s historic and civic center:

I like to divide the problems of Rome, the Rome of this 20th century, into two categories: the problems of necessity and the problems of grandeur (grandezza). The second cannot be faced without resolving the first. The problems of necessity flow from the development of Rome and are enclosed in this duality: housing and communications. The problems of greatness are of another type: it is necessary to liberate from the mediocre disfigurements of the old Rome, but next to the ancient and medieval it is necessary to create the monumental Rome of the 20th century. Rome cannot, must not be only a modern city, in the by now banal sense of the word, it must be a city worthy of its glory and this glory must unceasingly renovate in order to hand down, as a heritage of the fascist era, to the generations to come.6

At the same site on December 31, 1925, the Duce expanded on his plans for Rome with more details of what he had in mind. He would build great new avenues while opening up space around the great monuments of Rome: the imperial forums, Augustus’s Tomb, the Theater of Marcellus, the Capitoline, and the Pantheon. Thus would emerge the new fascist Rome, the Third Rome that would “spread over other hills, along the banks of the sacred river, even to the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea.”7

Mussolini moved quickly to change the Roman city government from an elected to an appointed one. He established the Governatorato, with a governor directly responsible to him, effective January 1, 1926. He thereby consolidated his control over the city and the work that he planned to accomplish there.8 The Governatorato then published a richly illustrated monthly magazine showing the changes taking place throughout the city. Capitolium quickly became the chronicle of Rome’s transformation, reporting on archaeological digs, construction, restoration, “liberation” of ancient structures, and the appearance of everything new: apartments, post offices, parks, government buildings, monuments, and more. Every year the December issue also included an extensive appendix of statistical reports on trade, commerce, building, health services, and demography. In 1926, Mussolini also established the Institute for Roman Studies, Istituto Nazionale di Studi Romani, “an academic organization devoted to the study of the Eternal City,”9 which also published articles in a journal three times a year.10

Mussolini thus took the steps necessary to make romanità an integral part of the fascist state and fascist ideology. His concept of romanità sought to combine fascism’s emphasis on youth, revolution, modernity, and the establishment of a new and vibrant Italy with the glories and achievements of ancient Rome. Historians tended in the immediate aftermath of fascism’s demise to dismiss the cult of Rome as propaganda and rhetoric, but more recently Emilio Gentile and other historians have argued that this attempt to reconcile the past with the present formed a powerful and useful ideology that could appeal both to intellectuals and the population at large. It was both as propaganda and ideology that romanità played a major role in Mussolini’s Rome.11 This use of antiquity in the service of modern politics expressed itself “in Mussolini’s interwar renovations of Rome, which stripped venerable edifices . . . of all later architectural excrescences and removed surrounding buildings, so that these ancient structures could exist as monumental exemplars of the new fascist Italy.”12

The first governor of Mussolini’s Rome was Ignazio Cremonesi, a fascist industrialist previously chosen as mayor in a coalition government following Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister. Cremonesi served as governor in 1926 and 1927. His successors were Prince Ludovico Spada Potenziani (1927-28), Prince Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi (1928-35), Giuseppe Bottai (1935-37), Prince Piero Colonna (1937-39), and Prince Gian Giacomo Borghese (1939-43). The only one not from the Roman aristocracy was Bottai, a native of Rome and leading fascist minister.13This association of Roman aristocrats with the new Rome gave added legitimacy to Mussolini’s efforts.

The Duce’s determination to transform the city caught the attention of foreign observers early on and throughout the 1930s. American newspaper correspondent Edwin Ware Hullinger wrote a number of newspaper articles that he then published as a book, The New Fascist State, in 1928. His chapter on “‘Remodeling’ Rome” outlined Mussolini’s ambitious plans to change the city. There would be new streets, the clearing of overcrowded areas to reveal historic “edifices and monuments,” the development of underground railways and subways, and the building of new areas to the south of the historic center. “It is a plan to redeem the old and remake the new Rome,” Hullinger wrote.14

In 1937 a National Geographic Magazine lead article presented “Imperial Rome Reborn.” The fifty-seven pages, richly illustrated with both black-and-white and color photographs, gave a glowing account of the major changes accomplished by the regime.15 The article conveyed a positive appraisal of Mussolini’s Rome. It noted, for example, the successful program of freeing ancient monuments through demolition, quoting one of the official guides: “Old ruins are more imposing if surrounded by parks and squares instead of slums. Il Duce may by inference point and say, ‘That’s what you once were; I’ll make you great again.’”16

Mussolini would employ dozens of architects, planners, engineers, historians, archaeologists, and traffic experts to accomplish his goals, but he alone provided the vision and the “master plan” for the new city.

“I consider myself without false modesty the spiritual father of the Master Plan of Rome,” he said in 1932; and he was right. It was his vision that was being concretized: the misery and mediocrity will be made to disappear from Rome, grandezza returned, Rome extended once more to the utmost limits of its physical size and imperial power. It was his decision to move his office . . . to Palazzo Venezia that made the urban space in front of the Vittoriano the indisputable heart of Fascist Rome, and diverted toward it the energies of all the major routes into the city. And it was his power, centralized and unequivocal, that made possible staggering urban operations concluded in a matter of a year or two, paths of glory cut through the most recalcitrant urban tissue according to schemes that previously would have languished in the familiar Roman thicket of special interests and involved legislation.17

Throughout his regime Mussolini poured considerable energy and resources into rebuilding Rome as a manifestation of the fascism and the revolution he claimed would transform Italy and Italians. The new fascist Rome, Mussolini’s Rome, would define fascism and embody fascist self-presentation and identity. The new Rome—its streets, buildings, exhibits, and spectacles—would proclaim all the essential messages of fascism. Typical of the regime’s proud pronouncements on Rome’s importance are these words from the government’s English-language monthly tourist publication, Travel in Italy:

Rome to-day [October 1935] represents the most perfect expression of Fascist Civilization as a monumental city in which, the remains of her glorious past, restored to their original splendour in an appropriate setting, are worthily continued in every aspect of modern life. In fact, as evidence of the continuity of Rome’s greatness, the Regime decreed that within the bounds of the most ancient monumental nucleus of the city, place should be found for the buildings, that following a Unitarian conception are destined to confer to the city, an aspect corresponding to the new position that Mussolini’s Italy now occupies in the world.18

FIRST PROJECTS

Mussolini’s plans to transform the city and make it a showplace of fascism began to take shape in several projects begun in the late 1920s. The opening up of the square we now know as the Largo Argentina and the construction of a new street, the Via del Mare, by the Capitoline, both demonstrated changes to historic areas that would now give older sites a new fascist imprint. The construction of a new “sports city,” the Foro Mussolini, represented a thoroughly new and thoroughly fascist site. Taken together, these early efforts set the direction and shape of the new Rome.

Work around the Largo Argentina began in 1926, and it was opened to the public on April 21, 1929, Rome’s traditional “birthday.” April 21 became second only to October 28, the anniversary of the March on Rome, as a day to dedicate completed works of the regime. It was “a red-letter day in the history of humanity. Fate decreed . . . on that day, Rome should be born and with it a type of civilization still forming the power and pride of every Nation in the world.”19 Plans to change the area predated the fascist regime, but it was only in 1926 and 1927 that the desired demolition of older buildings took place. Mussolini wanted to show in this and subsequent projects that fascism would deliver what previous governments had only promised.

The Largo di Torre Argentina and its historic eighteenth-century Teatro Argentina have nothing to do with the South American country of the same name. In the fifteenth century, the bishop of Strasbourg built its tower, or torre, which survives only in a truncated form, but the name remains, coming from the Latin name of the diocese: Argentoratum. In 1925 the area was a maze of alleys and decrepit housing.

Demolition work began in 1926, and a developer presented plans for new buildings, but Mussolini’s personal intervention would change the direction of the project. The destruction of the late sixteenth-century church of San Nicola ai Cesarini uncovered the first of four ancient temples. The exact dates of the temples remain unknown to this day, but archaeologists determined at the time that they dated from Republican Rome and were among the oldest buildings existing in the city.20

The Duce visited the site on October 22, 1928. One of the archaeologists, Corrado Ricci, pointed out the sorry legacy of post-1870 Rome in its rapid and careless development, which had not respected the ancient city. Ricci’s message impressed Mussolini. During his visit, the Duce announced: “I would feel myself dishonored if I allowed a new structure to rise even one meter here.”21 Today the ruins of the four ancient temples are visible, below street level, in this cleared area that had been, in fascist terms, a slum.

This pioneering project had all the elements that Mussolini subsequently emphasized in his projects for transforming Rome: improving the flow of traffic, preserving and “liberating” ancient monuments, tearing down buildings of little or no historical value, and above all, demonstrating the fascist ability to carry out projects that others had only talked about. Thus Mussolini’s Rome demonstrated to the world fascism’s leadership in urban planning by combining the practical needs of the city with the political goals of the regime.

The policy of transforming Rome that unfolded during the twenty-year regime sought to demonstrate fascism’s ability to achieve major change efficiently and dramatically. Remaking Rome in Mussolini’s image had far greater political and historical significance than making the trains run on time. The constant demolition and construction, the appearance of new buildings, streets, and neighborhoods persuaded both Italians and foreigners that fascism meant dynamism and durability. Ezra Pound’s characterization of Mussolini in 1935 reflected the image of the Duce as builder and artist: “I don’t believe any estimate of Mussolini will be valid unless it starts from his passion for construction. Treat him as artifex and all the details fall into place. Take him as anything save the artist and you will get muddled with the contradictions.”22

The project included a restoration and renovation of the Teatro Argentina’s interior by the architect Marcello Piacentini (1881-1960). A native of Rome, Piacentini emerged early as Mussolini’s favored architect. His many designs, his overseeing of several major projects, and his ideas on urban planning and architectural design would have a major impact on Mussolini’s Rome.23

To the south of the corner next to the theater, the Via del Plebiscito ran into the Piazza Venezia. The corner diagonally across the Largo Argentina led into the Via delle Botteghe Oscure and Via San Marco, which also connected to the Piazza Venezia. The regime widened both these streets in the 1930s as part of its plan to improve the flow of traffic across the city. Heavy traffic continues on these streets today, including the many buses that pass through the Piazza Venezia.

The opening of the Largo Argentina afforded Antonio Muñoz (1884-1960) an opportunity to emerge as Mussolini’s right-hand man in the future demolition of Rome’s historic center. He already had established a reputation as a restorer of ancient and medieval monuments.24 Initially he had vacillated in the debate over the Largo Argentina but ended by enthusiastically supporting Mussolini’s decision to preserve the ancient site. In his 1935 book, Roma di Mussolini, he trumpeted the Duce’s wisdom in setting a course that meant the “triumph of Archeology against the strong forces of economic interest.”25 In 1928, Mussolini appointed him director of antiquities and fine arts for the Governatorato, and for the next fifteen years he played a major role in transforming the city for the Duce. In his book, Muñoz rejoiced in the regime’s efforts to expose the great monuments of the past in the city’s historic center: the Roman Forum, the Imperial Forums, the Colosseum, the Theater of Marcellus, and more. The epoch of Mussolini, he declared, would take its place with great builders in Rome’s past: the Emperor Augustus, Pope Leo X, and Pope Sixtus V. “Only the energy of a great ruler could bring about in such a short time such a profound renovation.”26

1.1 The Site of Roman Temples in the Largo Argentina, 1929

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The Theater of Marcellus stood surrounded by tenements in one of Rome’s old working-class neighborhoods adjacent to the Capitoline Hill. The first blow of the pickax to “liberate” the theater fell on April 21, 1926. In the next four years, a whole neighborhood would disappear, including the picturesque Piazza Montanara next to the theater. The act of “liberating” an ancient monument went hand in glove with the construction of a broad new avenue, the Via del Mare, which would later link up with streets and boulevards leading to the Lido and the sea.

The work immediately in front of the medieval church of the Aracoeli to create the new street began with great fanfare on October 28, 1927. The regime dismissed the destroyed housing as an unhealthy slum. The only building thought worthy of preservation was the church of Santa Rita, tucked away by Michelangelo’s stairway to the Capitoline. Designed by Carlo Fontana and built in 1600, this fine example of baroque architecture was carefully disassembled for future reconstruction. The reconstruction began in 1938 next to the by-then liberated Theater of Marcellus at the entrance to the Piazza Campitelli. The church reopened on April 21, 1940.27 It is an art gallery and studio today.

The Theater of Marcellus had its origins under Julius Caesar and was completed by the Emperor Augustus in A.D. 13, dedicated to his nephew who had died at the age of 25. When work began in 1926, small shops filled its arches and the ground level was several feet above the original. It faced the Piazza Montanara, a busy market. It all stood on the same spot as the ancient olive oil market, the Foro Olitorio, next to the Tiber where ships deposited their cargo.28 Adjacent to it stood columns from the temple of Apollo built in 32 B.C. After Mussolini’s demolition, the neighborhood was gone and these monuments of imperial Rome stood free and open to view from the new Via del Mare.

Mussolini led a large entourage of officials, including Muñoz, to open this first piece of the Via del Mare on October 28, 1930. The wide new street opened both the view of and access to the Capitoline Hill. The work of clearing the south side of the Capitoline, just around the corner from the Via del Mare, continued for several more years, and eventually the result would make the Capitoline stand out with a new prominence. Down the street just past the Theater of Marcellus stood the church of Santa Nicola in Carcere, with ancient columns embedded in its walls. The area beyond would furnish space for large new fascist office buildings a few years later.

The Via del Mare culminated at the Piazza Bocca della Verità and the medieval church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. In the first phase of the project, from 1926 to 1930, several more ancient sites fronting the piazza were “liberated.” First was the fourth-century Arch of Janus, and just behind it the early medieval church of San Giorgio in Velabro, recently restored by Muñoz. Across the street, near the Tiber, stood two ancient temples. The circular one, known traditionally but erroneously as the Temple of Vesta, and the rectangular Temple of Fortuna Virilis date from about 100 B.C. or earlier. Work continued on the Via del Mare throughout the 1930s until its official completion on April 21, 1939.29 No visitor to Rome in the 1930s could fail to see this new fascist street in the heart of historic Rome. It remains today as a major example of the fascist urban landscape, unchanged except for the name. It now begins at the Capitoline as the Via del Teatro di Marcello and then becomes the Via Luigi Petroselli, named after Rome’s communist mayor from 1979 to 1981.

1.2 Work on the Via del Mare, Victor Emmanuel Monument in the background, 1929

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1.3 Clearing the Via del Mare, Capitoline on the left, Theater of Marcellus in the background, 1930

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The regime accomplished a number of other construction projects at this time. The first of the four bridges built during the fascist period opened in 1929.30 The Ponte Littorio crossed the Tiber from the area above the Piazza del Popolo and connected with the developing area around the Piazza Mazzini north of the Vatican. The name comes from the fascio littorio, the symbol of fascism. The fascio was a bundle of rods with a protruding ax blade. An official known as the lector, the littorio, carried this symbol of unity in ancient Roman processions.31

1.4 Mussolini opens the first part of the Via del Mare, Theater of Marcellus in the background, 1930

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1.5 Mussolini, Muñoz on his left, in the Piazza Bocca della Verità, Arch of Janus in the background, 1930

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After the war, the Ponte Littorio became the Ponte Matteotti, dedicated to the antifascist deputy murdered in 1924. A monument to Matteotti by the bridge arose on the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 1974, marking the spot of his abduction as he walked to Parliament on the morning of June 10. Thus a fascist name became overtly antifascist, and the place assumed the resonance of an antifascist shrine, illustrating the postwar effort to rename monuments in an attempt to rewrite history. (See Appendix II)

The new building for the Naval Ministry, Ministero della Marina, appeared just above the Ponte Littorio in 1928. Across town, near the site of the proposed new university campus, the Air Force Ministry, Ministero dell’Aeronautica, opened in 1931. Designed by Roberto Marino, this gave a home and headquarters for “the most modern means of transportation together with the boldest and most important arm of war in the future.”32 Another new structure in 1931 provided both residences and treatment facilities for blind veterans: the Work House for Blind War Veterans, the Casa di Lavoro per i Ciechi di Guerra, on Via Roveretto in the Nomentana district. The rationalist architect Pietro Aschieri used curved lines in the principal building as part of a strikingly modern design.33

More centrally located was the Casa Madre dei Mutilati, between the Castel Sant’ Angelo and the nineteenth-century Palace of Justice, on the Tiber just beyond St. Peter’s and the Vatican. Marcello Piacentini designed this facility dedicated to the victory achieved in the Great War and those veterans who had suffered wounds and disabilities, the mutilati.34 The modest-sized building opened in 1928 and underwent a major expansion by 1937. The paintings within celebrated the Libyan War, World War I, and the conquest of Ethiopia. Busts of the king and Mussolini stood outside the main auditorium. Sculpted bronze doors bore scenes of military engagements and war heroes. The list of artists executing the interior works read like a roll call of Italy’s best talent, now engaged in the twin tasks of exalting the nation and upholding fascism.35

The boldest new project announced by the regime dedicated a new site to a sports complex. The site, several miles up and across the Tiber, took years to develop as the Foro Mussolini. By unveiling the project in 1927, the regime made it clear that the work of transforming Rome amounted to more than projects in the historic center devoted primarily to recovering ancient monuments. The Foro Mussolini would give Rome a new, modern complex, or “city,” devoted to sports, physical fitness, and youth. The distinguished architect Enrico Del Debbio received the commission to design and develop a modern monument honoring the Duce and developing a new generation of Italians as part of the fascist revolution.

Marcello Piacentini declared that Italy had built for the first time a city of physical education in the tradition of the ancient gymnasium but in a modern form consistent with the regime’s program. The foro stood as a national center for physical culture dedicated to the character formation of new generations of Italians.36 While this sports complex was fascism’s most ambitious and prominent center for the physical education of young fascists, it did not stand alone. It was part of a network of facilities developed during the 1930s to implement the regime’s programs for the training and development of its youth.37

1.6 Casa Madre dei Mutilati, 2000

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1.7 Mussolini examines the model of the Foro Mussolini, 1929

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1.8 The Foro Mussolini during the construction of the Ponte Duca d’Aosta, 1939

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The first buildings in the Foro Mussolini opened in 1932, with the great marble obelisk dedicated to the Duce. The latter remains, to this day, as the most visible symbol of the foro. It overlooks the entrance, soars 60 feet into the air, and weighs 300 tons.38 The regime lost no opportunity to publicize the creation of this great monument, soon dubbed “the Monolith,” il Monolito. It offered a dramatic demonstration of Mussolini’s determination to make the city over in his own image.39

PIANO REGOLATORE OF 1931

By the early 1930s, Mussolini’s Rome was taking shape. In 1931, the Duce and his advisers approved a new city plan: the Piano Regolatore. Rome had produced earlier plans in 1873, 1883, and 1909, but this one provided the fascist blueprint for Rome’s development. The governor of Rome, Prince Francesco Boncampagni Ludovisi, appointed a commission in March 1930 “on directions from Mussolini, to consolidate the planning ideas of the period into a master plan for Fascist Rome.”40 Not surprisingly, the plan, officially adopted on July 6, 1931, differed from earlier ones in its obvious attempt to incorporate the regime’s messages throughout the city, especially “the parallelism between the deeds of the regime and its classical precedent.”41

The two principal features of the plan were the ordering of the old city and the creation of new zones for expansion. It looked to the future by providing for an expanding population. Improved traffic and provision of green spaces, new rail facilities, more schools, additional covered markets, and two large hospitals were among the services and benefits the plan aimed to provide for the city’s inhabitants.42

Although the plan pointed in new directions for Rome’s development, it would not interrupt the momentum of the work already under way, according to the regime. “While there has thus begun the realization of the new master plan, it does not slow down the rhythm of the works with regard to works of ordinary necessity such as schools, aqueducts, streets, sewers. These works should be intensified and modified in order to embody the grand lines of the new master plan.”43

The Piano Regolatore of 1931 foresaw Rome nearly doubling its population to 2 million inhabitants. There is a bit of irony here, as the regime in the 1930s would champion the values of “rurality” and place restrictions on migration from the farm to the city. Mussolini’s fascism was nothing if not eclectic and flexible, sometimes to the point of pursuing apparently contradictory policies. The rural-urban tension inherent in the policies of the 1930s reveals a common thread of social control by the regime. Cities always have the potential to spawn social unrest, and governments generally find it easier to keep rural populations quiet. Given the reality, however, of Rome’s continued growth, the fascist regime’s ambitious building programs had clear advantages: They supplied work for common laborers; they removed lower class populations from central parts of the city to the new, outlying sections, or borgate; and they included social service and welfare programs.

Rome did experience a high and rapid rate of population growth during the fascist period. When Mussolini took office in 1922, Rome’s inhabitants numbered about 700,000. A decade later the number had passed 1 million. In 1941 it reached 1.4 million.44 The 1931 plan would proceed uninterrupted to provide for the growing population and to bring about the great new “Roma di Mussolini” that was slated to emerge.45 Thanks to fascism and Mussolini, Rome now held the map of its future:

Today Rome has a city plan worthy of its greatness: among the magnificent accomplishments owed to the Duce’s will this undoubtedly can be counted among the greatest, both because it is the logical consequence of the spiritual valuation of Rome that synthesizes the unity of the fatherland, that only the Fascist Regime has known how to realize, and because it constitutes also the necessary basis that will allow the posterity of distant ages to identify along side the Rome of the Caesars, and the Rome of Sixtus V, the Rome of Mussolini renewed and surpassing ancient greatness.

The city plan of Rome is no more like the past a matter of ordinary administration, imposed by special contingent needs, but becomes a true and proper plan of battle, one of those bloodless battles that Fascism under the guidance of its Chief has known how to fight and win in order to start the Fatherland toward a brighter future.46

This statement in the Piano Regolatore fit clearly into the fascist military metaphor constantly employed to signify the major policies of the regime: the battle for the lira; the battle for self-sufficiency in grain; the battle of births to increase Italy’s population; and the battle to plan and construct a new city. Victories in all these individual battles would lead to the new Italy promised by the fascist revolution.

Postwar assessments of the plan’s effectiveness are more mixed. Robert Fried concluded: “Most of the goals of the plan were never achieved, even though it remained in force, legally speaking, until 1959.”47 Italo Insolera pointed to a lack of connection and coordination between various projects because city officials, not the authors of the plan, carried them out. He mentioned, as an example, making neighborhoods more densely populated than called for in the plan. The architecture critic Henry Hope Reed thought that “the Fascist plan for Rome was at bottom traffic planning, this time conditioned by the Dictator’s imperial ambitions.”48 Piero Rossi judged the plan as the “contradictory fruit of weighty political, economic and cultural compromises.” Its goal of developing the city toward the east collapsed due to the regime’s lack of political will.49 On the other hand, Diane Ghirardo’s more positive assessment of the regime’s plans and accomplishments is based less on the success or failure of the 1931 master plan and more on an evaluation of what the regime did compared with governments before and after fascism.50

Mussolini used the Piano Regolatore of 1931 as an instrument in his transformation of Rome, but he never allowed it to restrict his freedom to shape the city to his own vision and for his own political purposes. More important than any particular plan or project was Mussolini’s belief that architecture had the power to make Rome his city and the embodiment of his fascist revolution. In his conversations with the journalist Emil Ludwig between March 23 and April 4, 1932, the Duce declared that “architecture is the greatest of all the arts, for it is the epitome of all the others.” Ludwig responded, “Extremely Roman,” and Mussolini confirmed, “I, likewise, am Roman above all.”51

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