Walking through the streets of Rome, visitors are reminded of Italy’s dark, fascist past in many places. I am talking about Italy in the twenties, thirties and forties of the previous century, Benito Mussolini’s Italy. Sometimes the visitor is hardly aware that he or she is near or even on a fascist monument. The latter is the case with the two major roads leading to the Piazza Venezia, known today as the Via dei Fori Imperiali (a low-traffic road nowadays) and the Via del Teatro di Marcello. Both were commissioned by Mussolini and were previously called the Via dell’Impero and the Via del Mare.
The roads converge at the Palazzo Venezia, where il Duce addressed large audiences from his balcony. Older parts of the city were demolished to make room for Mussolini’s grand boulevards. Houses and other buildings were simply wiped off the map. The same happened to the Circus Maximus. The Circus itself was long gone, but the area where it once stood had been built over over the centuries. Mussolini completely levelled the area. In the south-eastern corner, the Africa building was constructed, which is currently the seat of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The FAO is housed in offices, “whose Fascist architectural origins few remember” according to Australian art critic Robert Hughes in his Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History (2011).
Some fascist monuments are easy to spot. A good example is the EUR district, far from the city centre, which was constructed as the site for the 1942 World’s Fair (EUR is an abbreviation for Esposizione Universale Roma). Needless to say, the Fair was cancelled due to World War II. The square Colosseum, officially labelled the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is the district’s most famous building. EUR is miles away from the city centre. You can take the subway, but you can also see the square Colosseum in the distance from the ancient city walls of Rome near the Porta di San Sebastiano, or from the train to or from Fiumicino Airport.
Mussolini’s fascists also started major building activities in the north of Rome. A residential area and sports facilities arose near the Foro Mussolini. The Olympic Stadium – Stadio Olimpico, then called Stadio dei Cipressi – was constructed, and professional football clubs Lazio Roma and AS Roma still play their home games here. The Foro Mussolini was renamed Foro Italico after World War II, but Mussolini himself is still prominent here. A modern obelisk in front of the stadium is ‘marred’ by the text ‘Mussolini dux’. It is simply impossible to miss.
When democracy and the rule of law had been restored in post-war Italy, the authorities never tried to completely eradicate all memories of the country’s fascist past. They did rename streets and squares, like the Via dell’Impero, the Via del Mare and the Foro Mussolini mentioned above. The Via Adolf Hitler needed a new name as well for obvious reasons. It is now called the Via delle Cave Ardeatine, named after a massacre perpetrated by the Nazis in March 1944. There were probably many reasons not to wipe out altogether anything even vaguely reminiscent of Mussolini and his fascists. Fascist monuments serve as a grim, but useful warning for today’s generation. Monuments for members of the resistance who died fighting against the fascist oppressor and monuments in honour of the restoration of democracy have been placed in the city to complete that warning. Buildings like the Colosseo Quadrato in the EUR district are interesting from an architectonic point of view and are not a clear demonstration of fascist ideology, so why demolish them?
But perhaps there is another reason. Italian fascism, unlike the Nazi ideology, was originally not anti-Semitic in nature and did not become so until relatively late in the 1930s. Mussolini himself insisted in 1933:
“Race! It is a feeling, not a reality. Ninety-five per cent, at least, is a feeling. Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today.… National pride has no need of the delirium of race.” (cited by Hughes 2011)
Mussolini’s remarks were quite understandable. The Italian leader had a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, who served as a propaganda advisor for the Fascist Party. Jews were allowed as members of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, and Jewish banker Ettore Ovazza founded a fascist newspaper in the thirties. Things changed drastically in 1938, when Mussolini and his supporters, under pressure from Adolf Hitler, introduced anti-Semitic legislation, stripped Jews of their citizenship and banned them from certain professions.
From then on, it was irrelevant for Jews whether they lived in areas in Europe dominated by the Nazis or by the Italian fascists. Make no mistake: even before they became openly anti-Semitic, the fascists were certainly not model citizens. On the contrary, they had always been violent and intimidating and locked up their opponents as political prisoners. But the point is, anti-Semitism was originally wholly foreign to Italian fascism.
One of the most remarkable and subtle reminders of the fascist era is found near the Theatre of Marcellus on the old Via del Mare. It is easy to miss, and every day many Romans inadvertently turn their backs on the ‘thing’ while waiting for the bus. So what is this ‘thing’? Long ago, a plaque was fixed onto the facade of the Palazzo dell’Anagrafe, bearing the Latinised names of King Victor Emanuel III, Benito Mussolini and Piero Colonna, the former fascist governor of Rome. Originally, three bronze fasces – bundles of rods with axes, symbols of power of the Roman magistrates – were attached to the plaque below the text, but these were probably removed on purpose (the Theatre of Marcellus is still decorated with fasces in some places). The plaque itself – see the picture on the right – was left on the facade and can still be seen today, a rather inconspicuous reminder of one of the darkest periods in Italian history.