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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Fasces, Fasci: Trolling Rome for the Politics of the Past--and Present

Yes, that's the United States House of Representatives, and, on each side of the central podium, fasces, complete with the wreath that symbolizes victory.  Fasces (that's the English word, "usually construed as singular," according to my dictionary) also appear on the reverse side of the Mercury dime, on the doorways of the Oval Office, on the US Capitol Building, on the Supreme Court Building, on Lincoln's chair at the Lincoln memorial (surprise!) and (a more personal reference here), on the entrance to Buffalo, New York's Art Deco City Hall.  Fasces grace the cover of French passports and have served as national symbols for Ecuador, Cameroon, and Cuba.  Police forces in Norway, Sweden, and Romania use fasces to represent their orders.  I had no idea.

Nasone, Grottaferrata, in the Colli Albani
outside Rome.  Fasces beneath
the gold nozzle
The origins of the symbol are Italian, using that designation broadly.  The bundle of wooden sticks, bound together, and sometimes including the axe blade, has Etruscan beginnings but became prominent with its adoption by the Kingdom of Rome, then the Republic, then Imperial Rome.

The fasces were carried by Lictors (attendants), and their presence signified the power of the magistrate being attended.  Added in Republican Rome, the axe meant that the power of that particular magistrate included capital punishment.  When the fasces were brought into Rome's center the axe was removed, a sign that power resided with the people, rather than with an arbitrary and capricious magistrate.

Flagpole base, inside Cinecitta', Rome.  Naval
motifs, including fish

Millenia later, Mussolini's Fascism took its name from fasces. And that's the problem.  For a long time fasces connoted collective power, strength through unity, one out of many, e pluribus unum. Just the right symbol for an American nation constructed from a wide variety of religions and immigrants groups and states with different interests.  Then the Italian Fascists appropriated the symbol, signed a deal with the Nazis, and went to war.  They did badly, and the damage was done. The fasces symbol had been corrupted.

Fasces with modern flair, abandoned 1930s
water fountain, Colle Oppio, Rome

Doorway, somewhere in Rome
Fasces pattern in small stones.  A sidewalk in Piazza
Damiano Sauli, Garbatella (on one of Modern Rome's walks),

Intact inverted fasces, school, Centocelle, Rome

Trashing fasces in Milan, probably 1945

Plaque on wall, Garbatella.  Here, fasces are linked to the Case Popolari (public housing) built after the Great War.
The plaque (and its fasces) have been intentionally preserved.  Dated 1920, 2 years before the March on Rome.  
Underside of a marble table, Naval Ministry, Rome

High up on an industrial water tower, on the Tevere near the Industrial Bridge, Rome...

....fasces, carefully preserved
The Italian experience with a Fascist government ended in 1943, when Mussolini was deposed and, some time later, executed.  It would be comfortable to believe that Italians were united in celebrating an end to Fascism, but that's not the case.  Many Italians had deep personal (or political) investments in the regime--they had participated in it in some way, and were proud of its accomplishments--and for them Fascism's demise was unfortunate, sad, or threatening. Others, of course, were overjoyed that Mussolini's authoritarian government was gone and looked forward to living in a democracy. Still others no doubt had mixed emotions.

At upper right, this building on viale XXI Aprile, Rome, is marked with an E and F (Era Fascista)
and the date (XI, or 1933).  On the rounded pillars, fasces have been removed.
The building was the setting for Ettore Scola's 1977 film with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroanni,
 "Una Giornata Particolare" (A Special Day).

Chipped off fasces, Rome school, San Giovanni area
Three chipped away fasces, dating to 1934.  Near Castel S. Angelo, Rome
Also note upper left "A-XII" (year 12, 1934) and what looks like a chiseled off  "EF"
 (Era Fascista)  on the upper right.
That mix of perspectives can be revisited by noting how 20th-century Romans have dealt with the fasces in their midst.  Some have been chiseled off public and private buildings.  Others remain, reminders of Italy's 20th-century fascination with its Roman origins, and of the country's 20-year flirtation with Fascism.

For Americans who grew up with the fasces on the back of the Mercury dime, these Rome
remnants of Italy's disagreeable past might offer a lesson, or lessons, on our own past: was American use of fasces different from the Italian Fascist use--that is, more innocent, more positive, essentially benign?  Or was there more to the Mercury dime (1916-1945, roughly corresponding to the Fascist era, and featuring the axe), and to the fasces in the US House of Representatives? Something unsettling?


In Piazza Augusto Imperatore (in RST's Top 40).  Perhaps Rome's best known fasces.

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