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Mussolini’s Battle For The Roman Past: The Ancient Redesigned

Il Duce Parading Down the Via dei Fori Imperiali

By Duncan F. Grimm (History major, class of 2015)

Welcome to Rome, the Eternal City of many layers and rich history.  Despite ages of construction and destruction the city today appears ingeniously planned.  A lesser known, or discouraged fact, is that Mussolini and his vision for Rome created this city we experience today. On Thursday, November 1, Professor Borden W. Painter, Jr. (Trinity College ’58) enlightened an audience at the Center for Urban and Global Studies of Mussolini’s Rome, and how the self-proclaimed Marshal of Empire changed the city’s urban landscape.   In the 1920s and 1930s his dream of creating a new Imperial Rome completely redesigned the city that we enjoy today. “Mussolini fought many battles,” Painter said, and “he identified chiefly with Augustus.” From 1922 to 1943 Italy was a fascist state; understandably, immediately after the Second World War there was an immediate backlash against all things fascist.  In the 1970s and 1980s however, individuals began to adopt a more eclectic view of Il Duce’s Rome–it may be possible to have some good come out of a bad regime.

For Mussolini, everything was a battle in spirit.  His new Rome had to grow to surpass the city of Augustus.  The way in which his regime used Roman history to identify with the Roman past, Painter tells us, has become known as Romanita.  Mussolini used Romanita as a road to the future, connecting the tangible glory of the past, the ancient ruins, with his own achievements in the present, monumental construction.

In 1934, Mussolini salvaged the Circus Maximus, which was previously a neighborhood of slums.  He “relocated” the predominantly working class, left-leaning residents to the country side in new communities, claiming he was giving them a better life.  In reality however, conditions were far from ideal and it was a way he could watch and control potential dissidents.  He used this “reclaimed space” to great effect, holding rallies and exhibitions, glorifying his own accomplishments alongside ancient Rome.

Along with clearing and making accessible monuments and landmarks like the iconic Colosseum or the Mausoleum of Augustus, Mussolini also constructed major roads such as the present-day Via dei Fori Imperiali, Via del Mare, and the Via di San Gregorio.  Many of these fascist streets are today major arteries.  These roadways certainly made the city more accessible, however their construction was extremely destructive to inhibiting neighborhoods, which were leveled, and to Italian history that did not fall under the purview of Romanita.

The concept of open space for Mussolini was important not just to modernize the city, but use of these spaces meant the connection with and domination of the ancient city itself.  He created according to his doctrine a city of perfect balance between ancient appreciation alongside modern development.

In keeping with his ideology, Mussolini built the Esposizione Universale Roma–the EUR–meant to be the city of the future and commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 1922 fascist march on Rome.  Constructed of materials associated with the Roman Empire like travertine limestone and marble, the new city center broke ground in 1938, suspended in 1942, and resumed after the war.  Perhaps the most defining feature of the EUR however is the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana, what has colloquially become simply the Colosseo Quadrato, the Square Colosseum.  The true embodiment of Mussolini’s Romanita, the Square Colosseum has become an icon of fascist architecture.

Sharp, crisp, modern architecture like the Square Colosseum manifested itself across Italy as train stations, harbors, hospitals, post offices, schools, and stadiums.  Although Mussolini, a fascist dictator, caused much suffering and hardship under his rule, in Rome he ultimately achieved his dream of appreciating the ancient while promoting the modern.  Controversial politics aside, Romanita and Mussolini hold great responsibility for the Rome we experience today.

Colosseo Quadrato; The Square Colosseum

For those interested in further reading on Mussolini and Rome, Professor Painter has published a highly informative and captivating book on the subject.

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