The ability of Ancient Rome to inspire was exploited by Mussolini throughout his reconstruction of Rome.
By Joe Inish
Americans seem to easily confuse Fascism with Nazism, and though there are parallels between them they are actually quite separate phenomena. Fascism (with a capital F) is a wholly Italian phenomenoninvention that developed a decade before Nazism. As brutal and violent as Fascism was, it pales in comparison to Nazism. This however, doesn’t changethe fact that Fascism is easy to demonize, as it takes at its core a rejection of many of the values that are at the core of our modern understanding of moral governance. Yet the Italians embraced Fascism and proceeded to tolerate it for more than two decades. What would compel Italians to do this?
In an attempt to answer this question we look at one of the leftovers of the Fascist regime, the road that now bears the harmless name, via dei Fori Imperiali (Road of the Imperial Forum), but was christened the via dell’Impero(Empire Street) in 1932 during the height of Italian Fascism. By exploring the fascist use and intention of the via dell’Impero we will explore the pathos behind the appeal of the Fascist movement and Fascism’s relationship with history. However, first it is important to see the context in which Fascist Italy arose.
It is impossible to separate Fascism from Benito Mussolini, who brought Fascism from obscurity to dominance in just a few years. In 1919 Fascists received less than 5000 votes in a nationwide election, yet by 1922 Benito Mussolini was prime minister. This incredibly rapid rise suggests that Fascism filled a significant political void.
Indeed one thing that Fascism offered was a strong national identity. If Fascism was anything it was nationalistic and this was something that Italy, a relatively young country, was particularly susceptible to. The unification of Italy or Risorgimento, occurred from 1848-1870 and was the first time Italy had been unified since the days of the Roman Empire. Then came World War One. Despite fighting on the victorious side, Italy was denied many of the gains that other allied powers received, emerging deeply indebted to America and Britain. Italy also lacked the collection of colonies that England and France had. Simply put, Italy was weak and its citizens knew it. Fascism was able to exploit this, claiming that Italy was weak because it had been ruled by a weak constitutional monarchy and promised to restore the strength and honor they felt was Rome’s birthright.
Yet a Fascist revolution was perhaps more due to the perceived communist threat. After the First World War violent Bolsheviks began attacking capitalist and government building with increasing frequency. The fear that this communist threat created in the rest of Italy is hard to underestimate. It was in this context that the Fascist movement really found their foothold, as extremely violent anti-Bolsheviks. Fascists would target labor unions, worker rallies, newspapers and anything else that seemed vaguely communist. Operating under the theory that violence must be met with greater violence the country devolved into a state of semi-chaos. Scared of the Bolsheviks the liberal government sided with Mussolini, continually compromising to his ever-greater demands and threats.
This culminated in the “March on Rome” where the Fascists supposedly grasped power on October 28th 1922. This event would become the founding myth of the Fascist regime, and myth truly is the right word. Fascists would remember this date as the day when Mussolini led 40,000 brave Fascists black shirts in a violent and brutal battle for the capital. During the fighting no less than 3,000 martyrs died in the name of Fascism. The actual history of the March on Rome though was far more spectacle than battle. Mussolini had mustered around 40,000 black shirt Fascists and declared he was going to take Rome. However, before committing the March Mussolini actually received a telegram sent by the King Vittorio Emanuele III asking him to form a new government. Mussolini then rode into Rome from Milan in a sleeper train and paraded his forces to the center of Rome. The police and the army stood aside while this happened but photographers and journalists were out in full force. In essence the myth was created to assure the people that Fascism was in power because it had the power and initiative to take it. After all the bravado the Fascists preached anything less than a violent revolution might have seemed a copout.
Politically, Fascism tried to portray itself as a “third way” that was neither capitalist nor communist. To many capitalism had proven itself ineffective, but to the middle and upper classes communism certainly wasn’t an option. Ideally, under Fascism elements from both capitalism and socialism would be combined to create a system in which all classes strived and competed for the glory of the state. Yet the key to understand Fascism is to understand the main shift from an emphasis on the individual to an emphasis on the glory and strength of the state. Once this shift is understood it tends to lead to a type of “ends justify means” type thought process. From this perspective the Fascist use of violence, the focus on imperialism, the lack of consistent doctrine and the militarism all make sense.
In order to justify this philosophical foundation of Fascism the Fascists instituted huge reconstructions of Rome and several major building programs. One of the key remnants of this is the via dei Fori Imperiali.
A large four lane Avenue with wide sidewalks the via dei Fori Imperiali begins at the Piazza Venezia and leads to the Colosseum. Along the way the via dei fori Imperiali cuts a large swath through the center of ancient Rome, dividing the Forums of Trajan and Augustus from the Roman Forum and Caesar’s Forum and covering the Forums of Nerva and Vespavian. This provides for an incredible view of the most important sights in ancient Rome. Not only are the forums clearly visible but the Palentine also rises in the distance, displaying the home of the Roman Emperors. Additionally the giant Basilica Constantine shadows the road. The road also is linked to Mussolini’s Fascist government because the road starts at the piazza Venezia, where Mussolini had his office moved to in 1929. In fact this piazza was the location of many of Mussolini’s most significant political speeches and was symbolically the center of Fascist power.
On the sides of the road stand large bronze statues of the most famous Roman emperors. The bases of these statues are inscribed with the names of the Emperors, the letters S.P.Q.R, and a declaration that they were produced during the tenth year of the Fascist rule. Further along the road there are a series of four large marble maps, displaying the expanse of the Roman Empire in white, un-Roman land as black, and the sea as grey. The first map displays a single white dot symbolizing the city of Rome before any expansion. The second map displays the size of the empire after the Punic wars, while the third and fourth maps are of the empire at Augustus’s death and during the reign of Trajan respectively. These maps were added in 1934, two years after the opening of the road. A fifth map was also added in 1935 but was later taken down after World War II. This map displayed the expanse of the Italian empire under Mussolini, highlighting the expansion into Ethiopia. The original location of this map is still evident though from the coloration of the brick that it originally covered.
The road was constructed in just eleven months, at breakneck speeds in order to be completed in time for the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome. The construction of this road was a major undertaking, as it demanded the destruction of much of the Pantani sector of the city. In many cases the tops of buildings were simply lopped off and the basements filled when the road was built. In total five ancient churches were dismantled and several large tenements were destroyed, displaying thousands.
To the modern visitor it is a frustrating contraption, providing an annoying artificial barrier that fills the air with soot and noise. The pure practicality of the road destroys whatever hopes there is of unifying ancient Rome into a single ancient park. In the words of the urban planning critic Henry Hope Reed:
As one of the most ambitious of Mussolini’s attempts to re-create in Rome the city of the ancients, it is only fair to the planners to say that the Dictator traced the line of it himself, and boasted that it was constructed at his will. The only comment worth making on this carefully and extensively laid-out waste is that, with its concrete paths leading nowhere and its municipal lamp standards lighting up nothing, it is the most symbolic and fitting memorial to a dictatorship in existence.
Yet during the Fascist regime the road held a deep symbolic meaning, physically linking Mussolini’s government with the ruins of ancient Rome. By exploring the fascist use and intention of the via dell’Impero we will in fact explore the pathos behind the appeal of the Fascist movement.
For the Fascists the construction of the via dell’Impero was always thought of in terms of ritual, the fact that the road would become a major thoroughfare was less important. The road provided an amazing venue on which to recreate the historic March on Rome and simultaneously link in space and ritual the government of Fascism to that of Imperial Rome.
The opening celebrations of the via dell’Impero occurred on October 28th 1932, the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome. The celebrations included a large march of 17,000 veterans of the March on Rome parading down the road in their black shirt Fascist uniforms marching in Italian goosestep. Additional soldiers where placed alongside the road. The whole event was to become an annual rebirth of the Fascist regime, reminding the world that Fascism ruled because it was powerful.
It is hard to underestimate the importance that ritual held in the Fascist regime. Ritual was the mechanism that reinforced the principles of Fascism and provided convenient platforms with which to frame future plans. The power of the ritual not only came from the strength and persuasiveness of the spectacle but also from the manner that the spectacle was continually reinforced through media and documentation.
Indeed Mussolini was a master of propaganda. Using a sort of “combined arms” approach he was able to create and control a message unlike anything the world had ever seen before. For example, Mussolini would give a speech on a historic date, which would be covered by state radio, reprinted in newspapers he controlled, turned into slogans by his party, which were then found on posters, graffiti, and repeated in chants.
Yet the setting for the via dell’Impero further increased the power of its spectacle. The veterans were parading through the ruins of Ancient Rome, prominently displaying the ruins and merging the idea of Ancient Rome with that of the Fascist regime. Indeed Fascists saw themselves as the natural heirs to the Roman Empire. Both Fascist Italy and Ancient Rome were militaristic, imperial authoritarian states. More importantly perhaps was the emphasis both placed on ideas of glory, honor, and strength. In essence Roman ruins were seen as the proof of Fascist doctrine, that ultimately it was power and strength that were remembered and worth celebrating. The offer to participate in Fascism was manipulated into an offer to participate in the next Roman Empire.
Several other aspects of the road contributed to this link between Fascism and ancient Rome. The statues of the Roman Emperors alongside the road where meant as a kind of validation of Mussolini’s dictatorial control, that Rome required an authoritarian dictator. The marble maps were designed to support Mussolini’s imperial ambitions, particularly his intended invasion of Ethiopia. In this way an aggressive war of expansion was put in the context of following Rome’s legacy. The stark contrast of white versus black echoed much of the rhetoric behind the justification of the invasion, that of civilizing the barbarous black hordes of Africa. This connection was made even clearer with the addition of the fifth map in 1935, which effectively declared the beginning of the new Roman Empire with Mussolini at its head.
We now see relatively clearly that the via dell’Impero provided a deep emotional message addressed to the Italian people, that through Fascism they were reviving the ancient Roman Empire. In essence the appeal was the recreation of grandeur, pride and stability—an understanding that through Fascism the individual would be able to transcend his meekness and participate in something that be as immortal as the ruins of the Roman Empire seem to be. This combined with the simple ability of Fascism to organize the country’s infrastructure provided much of the persuasion that allowed Fascism to become so notoriously popular.
The ability of Ancient Rome to inspire was exploited by Mussolini throughout his reconstruction of Rome. In regards to his reconstruction of Rome Mussolini declared that it had two goals, functional and grand. In regards to grandeur Mussolini said
We must liberate all of ancient Rome from disfigurements. Next to the ancient and the medieval we must create the monumental Rome of the twentieth century. Rome cannot, must not simply be a modern city in the banal sense of the word. It must be a city worthy of its glory and this glory must be continuously renewed in order to be handed down as the heritage of the Fascist era to future generations.
Over the subsequent years not only would many Roman ruins be excavated but many of the new buildings that where constructed where influenced by the symbols and styles of ancient Rome. The Fascists excavated Trajan’s Forum, Caesar’s Forum, and the Largo di Argentina and repaired the Curia for example. Building surrounding the pantheon and the theater Marcellus were destroyed in order to provide better views. The ruins of ancient Rome also provided great venues to perform various Fascist events in. The Basilica Constantine was used for concerts, the colosseum for rallies, the Circus Maximus for exhibitions and the arch of Constantine for triumphal parades. In fact much of Fascist building plans were thought of in terms of the types of Fascists events that could be held there.
This excavation though would not have been possible without another of Mussolini’s projects, that of the sventramenti. This called for the destruction of much of medieval Rome and its replacement with either new modern buildings or excavations. While this was planed on a grand scale it would only be partially carried out.
Many of the newer buildings that were constructed during Mussolini’s reign where at least partially influenced by ancient Roman ruins. One of the most recurrent symbols in these buildings was the fasces, the ancient symbol of Roman power that gives Fascism its name. The fasces were a collection of bound rods that were stronger together than apart. Many of the buildings that were built during the Fascist reconstruction had distinctly modern designs and are relatively easy to pick out in Rome. Some of the most famous of these buildings are Rome’s university complex, sports complex and also the Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) located outside the city.
The effect of this reconstruction was heightened by the fact that internal tourism only really began to flourish under Fascism. Not only did the expanding infrastructure of Fascism facilitate tourism but also the government actively presented tourism as a way of patriotic expression.
In many ways the method in which Fascism used construction and reconstruction to build consensus for their government followed in the tradition set up 2,000 years by the Ancient Romans. Construction is again married with propaganda, where monumental architecture and ritual are designed in order to humble the spectator to the ideas of power, strength and endurance. It is on these terms that both the Ancient Romans and the modern Fascists made their emotional pitch to the masses.
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