Fascist Archeology in Mussolini’s Rome

Mosaics at Foro Mussolini.

Christopher Siwicki
Mosaics at Foro Mussolini.
How Mussolini’s regime altered the ancient landscape of Rome to fit their agenda

How Mussolini’s regime altered the ancient landscape of Rome to fit their agenda

Christopher Siwicki

Obelisk at the entrance to Foro Mussolini.

Another new addition, this one dedicated to sport, was the Foro Mussolini—if the emperors had their forums, Mussolini would have his.

 

Between 1922 and 1943, Italy was ruled by the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini. Central to the regime’s ideology and imagery was the ancient Roman Empire, to which it looked for inspiration and legitimacy. During this time, the city of Rome underwent a dramatic transformation, with the regime imposing its view of antiquity on archaeological remains and new construction projects alike. The legacy of this period is everywhere today and shapes the appearance of the modern city, though it often goes unnoticed.

Many of the familiar monuments of ancient Rome were only partially visible 150 years ago. The structures were either still buried in meters of debris or had been absorbed into the medieval structures of the city, with temples remodeled as churches, theaters turned into fortifications, and colonnades taken over for housing. Much of this was reversed after Rome became the capital of a newly unified Italy in 1870. This new era was marked by immense efforts to uncover, study, and display the remains of ancient Rome. The result was that monuments were excavated and deliberately isolated from the fabric of the living city, like archaeological islands.

Upon gaining power, the Fascist regime took this practice to an extreme. Ancient Roman buildings were enthusiastically ‘liberated’ from the ‘parasitic’ accretions of later periods. In practice, this often meant the wholesale demolition of other structures around the ancient ones, regardless of whether they were occupied by people and irrespective of their own historical value. As pointed out by Dr. Martina Caruso, author of the book Italian Humanist Photography from Fascism to the Cold War, “huge swathes of medieval Rome were destroyed in the late 1920s and replaced with rationalist or imperialist-style buildings.” In part, these clearances were an attempt to address pressing issues such as traffic congestion and unsanitary housing conditions, but the solution of cutting multilane roads through the heart of neighborhoods entailed the forced eviction of thousands of residents and irrevocably changed the nature of the city.

The ancient monuments themselves were employed as showpieces in Fascist urban theatre. This can be seen at Piazza Augusto Imperatore, at the center of which is the vast circular Mausoleum of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD). As a ruler who established one-man control of the state and was hailed as a new founder of Rome, Augustus was of particular interest to Mussolini, who sought to draw parallels with his own reign. Since the fall of Rome, the ancient mausoleum had been reused as a garden, a bullfighting arena, and, in the early 20th century, was an opera house. In 1934 work began to rip out the opera house, exposing the bare, brick shell of Augustus’ tomb. The surrounding houses were flattened and in their place, a square of overbearing, modern buildings arose. Constructed using brick, travertine limestone, and white marble, it was adorned with murals and inscriptions that explicitly linked the new buildings of Fascist Rome to the ancient imperial capital.

It is a pattern that was repeated across the city and which shaped how many of Rome’s ancient monuments are experienced today. Traces of the Fascist regime’s involvement in the excavations are everywhere. Via dell’Imperio (the present-day Via dei Fori Imperiali) was planned as a traffic artery and parade route, providing military ceremonies with the Colosseum and the newly ‘liberated’ forums of the Roman emperors as a backdrop. Today, amid the street artists and musicians, bronze statues of Roman emperors can be found also lining the route. On the pedestals are inscriptions in Latin ‘ANNO XI · A FASCIBVS RENOVATIS’—Restored by the Fasces in the year 11. It refers to the Fascist regime’s resetting of the calendar to 1922, the year that Mussolini marched on Rome and took power; year 11 in Roman numerals thereby equivalent with 1933.

Christopher Siwicki

Inscription in Piazza Augusto with Mussolini's name and with winged victories carrying fasces on either side.

The Fasces, from which the Italian Fascist party derived its name, are thick bundles of rods tied together, in certain circumstances with an ax attached. These were the weapons carried by the bodyguards (lictors) of the magistrates in the Roman Republic. Martina Caruso highlights that “the bundle of sticks, which is meant to symbolize strength through unity, is perhaps one of the most obvious elements of ancient Rome that Fascism adopted.” These can still be seen throughout the city “in the form of stylized decorations on buildings, generally grouped in threes.” If the symbol appears familiar it is because other countries have similarly used this image as a representation of the authority of government, including the United States—look at what Lincoln’s hands are resting on in his memorial in Washington DC.

The Fascist regime also drew on the ancient Roman past in planning entirely new urban schemes. To show off the achievements of Italy to the world, it was decided that Rome would host a universal exposition of art, science, and work in 1942–the Esposizione Universale di Roma 42. The area chosen for the exposition is several miles outside of the city and today goes by the abbreviated title EUR. According to Martina Caruso, “the EUR was meant to be both the incarnation of a utopian city of the future as well as a nodal center to mark the expansion of Rome towards the port of Ostia, and therefore the Mediterranean, to re-establish the military and trade routes of the ancient Roman empire.”

Although World War II interrupted the plans for the exposition, many buildings had already gone up and their architecture, while rationalist, reflects the interest in Imperial Rome. The most striking is the Palazzo della Civiltá del Lavoro, commonly known as the “square Colosseum” because its repetitive pattern of arches refers to the design of the ancient amphitheater.

Statues at Foro Mussolini.
Christopher Siwicki

Statues at Foro Mussolini.

Mosaics at Foro Mussolini. The M, with a fasces through the center, symbolizes Mussolini's name.
Christopher Siwicki

Mosaics at Foro Mussolini. The M, with a fasces through the center, symbolizes Mussolini's name. 

Mosaics at Foro Mussolini.
Christopher Siwicki

Mosaics at Foro Mussolini.

The Square Colosseum at EUR.
Rebecca Salem

The Square Colosseum at EUR.

Museo della Civiltà Romana at EUR.
Rebecca Salem

Museo della Civiltà Romana at EUR.

The Square Colosseum at EUR.
Rebecca Salem

The Square Colosseum at EUR.

Inscription with Mussolini's name still visible. The image of a She-wolf with twins, the symbol of ancient Rome, is above, but the three fasces below have been removed.
Christopher Siwicki

Inscription with Mussolini's name still visible. The image of a She-wolf with twins, the symbol of ancient Rome, is above, but the three fasces below have been removed.

The Mausoleum of Augustus, 'liberated' from surrounding structures.
Christopher Siwicki

The Mausoleum of Augustus, 'liberated' from surrounding structures.

Year 19 in Roman numerals (Anno XIX) below the image of fasces in brick.
Christopher Siwicki

Year 19 in Roman numerals (Anno XIX) below the image of fasces in brick.

Another new addition, this one dedicated to sport, was the Foro Mussolini–if the emperors had their forums, Mussolini would have his. The complex (now renamed Foro Italico) is approached across a bridge decorated with battle scenes. At its entrance is an enormous obelisk, emulating those brought to ancient Rome from Egypt, but this one is carved from white Carrara marble and with MUSSOLINI DUX in large letters down the side. Beyond, classicizing statues representing different sports and regions of Italy stand around the athletics track, and the ground is paved with an extraordinary series of black and white mosaics. Again, the artistic medium borrows from ancient Rome, but here the scenes are of modern warfare and construction, work and sport, interspaced with Fascist emblems, and across which soccer, rugby, and athletics fans walk to matches.

The 1920s-40s remains a very difficult and controversial period in Italy’s history. Its legacy is everywhere in the city, but how to deal with it is complicated. Martina Caruso sees “one of the main challenges, which is not being met currently, is to achieve a modicum of historical transparency and communication with the public in terms of the ways in which these monuments are or may be being restored, how, why and to what end.” Many of the buildings are exceptional works of architecture, but they were built in service of a now-discredited ideology. In some places, fasces and inscriptions have been defaced or removed, but elsewhere Mussolini’s name and his regime’s imagery is very present. This is now part of Rome’s long history and cannot be ignored if the appearance of the city is to be understood.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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