Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fascism and the Reconstruction of Rome

What was the Via dell'Impero, from
Piazza Venezia, looking toward the Coliseum.
Vehicles were prohibited that day.
Via dell'Impero
Here at RST, we knew, or thought we knew, why Mussolini's Fascist regime of the 1920s and 1930s tore down thriving neighborhoods and moved thousands of families from the central city to its outskirts.  The Fascists did it, so the story goes, because they wanted to reveal and display the glorious monuments and remains of Roman antiquity, and to link that Roman heritage--a formidable lineage of empire and dominance--to Fascism.  Via dell' Impero ("Empire Street"; today, Via dei Fori Imperiali - "Street of the Imperial Forums") was carved from surrounding neighborhoods not only to reveal the Roman forums along its course, but to establish a powerful visual link between the Coliseum, at one end, and Mussolini's headquarters, at Piazza Venezia, at the other.  On the other side of the massive Vittoriano (the "typewriter" monument to the King Vittorio Emanuele II - photo below), Via del Mare ("Street of the Sea," today, Via del Teatro Marcello) proclaimed Rome's ties to the sea and reaffirmed Fascism's imperial vision and designs. 

That's all true.  But it's not enough, and it doesn't go to the heart of the matter.  Not according to historian Paul Baxa, whose exceptional new book, Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (University of Toronto Press, 2010), offers a complementary--and, in our view, wholly new, and somewhat controversial--interpretation of Fascism's interventions and urban planning.   

And, for more on Fascism and the construction of Rome, see our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler. More on the book is at the end of this post.

Trenches on the Carso
According to Baxa, the key to understanding Fascism's reconstruction of Rome lies in the Italian experience in the Great War, in which the Italian army faced the forces of Austria-Hungary, first in a grisly, violent and brutal trench-warfare standoff on the Carso, a massive plateau near Trieste; then, in a high-speed, helter-skelter Italian retreat across the plain of Friuli, north of Venice.  (Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is set in this warfare and retreat.)

Fascism's "new man," at what
was the Foro Mussolini
Embedded in the contrasting landscapes of the Carso and the Friuli plain, the trial of war was profoundly psychological.  Using a variety of sources, including postwar memoirs, poetry, and Fascist-oriented journals, Baxa argues that the Carso meant stasis, lack of movement, confinement, restriction and claustrophia, and it created Fascism's "new man," "savage" and "primordial" (in Fascist mythology, Mussolini's Blackshirts were Italian warriors--represented in the statues that line the Foro Mussolini--who had fought on the Carso).  Though encountered in retreat, the Friuli plain meant release, liberation, endless open space, the high speed movement of vehicles away from the trauma of the Carso.

The beginning of the Via Del Mare, 1930s.
Teatro di Marcello in the distance; the beginning of Michelangelo's stairs to the Campidoglio (the Capitoline Hill)  in the foreground. 
The Fascist reconstruction of Rome, accomplished under the Master Plan of 1931, was nothing less than the experiences on the Carso and the Friuli plain, inscribed on the map of Rome.  Reacting to the confinement and stasis of the Carso, Fascism detested urban elements that restricted movement, especially small piazzas, narrow streets and dense neighborhoods.  Hence the construction of the Via del Mare necessarily and deliberately involved the destruction of two piazzas: Michelangelo's Piazza Aracoeli at the foot of the Campidoglio, and Piazza Montanara, close by the Theatre of Marcellus.  Similarly, part of the dense neighborhood of San Lorenzo was razed to make way for the new, modernist University of Rome. 

The Vittoriano--detested by the Fascists (and
some others)
The flight across the Friuli plain was reflected in the Fascist mania for broad avenues capable of carrying vehicles at high speed; the Via dell' Impero and the Via del Mare were about speed and modernity and danger, values captured, according to Baxa, in Mussolini's motorcycle rides to his summer home in Ostia, on the sea.  When Hitler visited Rome in 1938, Baxa notes, his itinerary included only one church (the Pantheon), and he "spent most of his time in the car."

Although Rome's legendary traffic has commonly been understood as a city planning failure, Baxa argues that it was "the crowning achievement of fascist culture."  Indeed, at the south end of Piazza Venezia, Fascist street planning was designed to corrupt and degrade the Vittoriano, a monument that for Fascism was a symbol of a failed and decadent bourgeois liberalism.  The more cars, and the less attention to the monument glorifying Vittorio Emanuele and the liberal state, the better. 

For Baxa, the "new man" who had come down from the Corso was primordial, a throwback to imperial pagan Rome.  For Fascism and its archaeologists, this meant that pagan Rome and the present were everything that was good and valued, and whatever was in between--the apostles, the rise of Christian Rome, the hundreds of churches of medieval Rome and Renaissance Rome--was of little consequence.  For Mussolini, writes Baxa, "the grandeur of Rome was independent of Christianity."  As a result, the Fascist regime clashed with Catholic Church at every turn: over what should be revealed, what should be preserved, what should be valued. 

Similarly, Fascism's embrace of pagan Rome and the Fascist present involved a distaste for everything else, especially the 19th-century, the heyday of liberalism and the bourgeoisie; and areas that represented, or symbolized, the 19th-century received scant attention.  Case in point: Via Nazionale, with the Vittoriano at one end, the 19th-century Piazza Esedra at the other, and fancy shops serving the haut-bourgeoisie lining the avenue.  In 1932, when the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, at the heart of Via Nazionale, was selected to house a major exhibition on Fascism, the neo-classical facade of building was temporarily covered with a rationalist veneer. 

Much of Baxa's view of Fascism and its urban interventions depends on the battle on the Carso and the retreat across the Friuli plain, and what those events meant not only for participants, but for all Italians.  Baxa makes the case that the peculiar character of World War I in northeast Italy yielded a set of ideas and values--violence, brutality, speed, the need for space and openness, a fascination with the automobile--that would shape Fascism and with it, the face of Rome.  Yes, and bravo to Baxa for making the connection.  But it might make almost as much sense to argue that the horrific trench warfare on the Carso produced a deep pacifism, or that the retreat across Friuli left in its wake a consciousness of Italian weakness, including even the desire to retreat from future wars.  That said, this is a strikingly original book, and one likely to force a rethinking of how and why Mussolini's Fascist regime changed the look and feel of modern Rome.


For more on Fascist architecture, see the EUR and the Foro Italico itineraries in our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Modern Rome features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; and a stairways walk in Trastevere.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and other retailers; retail price $5.99.


Judith Works said...

Fascinating! I'll look at these areas with different eyes.

Faithful Green Truck said...

Thank you for this insightful look at my favorite city in the world.