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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Rome's E-Prix and the Ghosts of Fascism

We are pleased to welcome back guest-blogger Paul Baxa, writing here on an all-electric (Formula E) car race to be held in EUR, a Fascist/modernist suburb to the south of Rome, on April 14.  Car racing is all about speed and roads, and Baxa, author of Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (University of Toronto Press, 2010), knows more about Fascism's enchantment with both than anyone else, as well as being an expert on Fascist architecture.  He teaches history at Ave Maria University, Florida. [A walk through EUR is one of the itineraries in our more recent book:  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.]

Looks like a test run for the race.  The cars are on Viale
Cristoforo Colombo.  The Marconi Obelisk, the starting line for the race,
 is at right.  
On April 14, 2018, Rome will host a round of the all-electric racing car series, Formula E.  Created in 2014, the series is designed to promote the automobile’s supposed electric future.  In order to do this effectively, the series’ creators have sought venues in the world’s capitals and major cities.  The inaugural race was held in Beijing, and since then electric races have been run in London, Berlin, Paris, Mexico City, and Moscow, among others.  It was only logical that Rome would be the next desired site for an E-Prix and this came about in October 2017 when the Eternal City’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, announced that Rome would host an event in 2018.  Although the photo-ops of the announcement showed some of Rome’s familiar landmarks like the Coliseum and the Campidoglio, the race will be run in Rome’s “modernist” suburb, EUR [the letters stand for Esposizione Universale di Roma--more on that below], southwest of the city on the road to Ostia.

E42 (EUR) as it was imagined in the late 1930s.  It looks very much like
this, today.  The arch was never built.  
            That EUR was chosen as the site of the temporary, 21-turn, 1.77-mile street course came as no surprise.  When the possibility of a Roman Formula 1 race was floated back in 2009, EUR was tapped as the desired location for the event.  La Repubblica, one of Italy’s leading national newspapers, declared the choice as a natural given the wide streets, the “rationalist architecture,” and futurist atmosphere of the place.[1 - footnotes at end of post]  Since the 1950s, EUR has been Rome’s most concentrated area of steel and glass architecture, providing a home for some of Italy’s largest multinationals like ENI, and several government ministries.  Its public spaces and patrimony are managed by a corporation called EUR S.p.A which, since 2000, has attempted to make EUR a center of innovation as well as environmental stewardship.  One of its initiatives, Smart City Lab Eur, aims to implement European Union goals of sustainability in energy, which happens to fit in neatly with the aims of the Formula Electric series.  

           The chairman of EUR S.p.A, Roberto Diacetti, recently lauded the Rome E-Prix as part of the district’s goal to become Rome’s capital for conferences, leisure, and tourism exemplified by the long-awaited opening of Massimiliano Fuksas’ new conference center, La Nuvola ("The Cloud"), in 2016.[2]  All of this comes in the year that EUR celebrates its 80th anniversary, as demonstrated by a slick video presentation on the corporation’s website.

            It is precisely this anniversary that raises questions about EUR’s past—specifically its Fascist origins.  In the midst of all this innovation and future-oriented work, EUR remains one of Italy’s most emblematic centers of Fascist-era architecture.  The “rationalist architecture” celebrated by the Repubblica article is, to be more precise, the Stile Littorio, a combination of modernist, classicist, and monumentalist architecture associated with Marcello Piacentini, Mussolini’s favorite architect and the
Under construction.  Top, the Square Coliseum.  Top right, Palazzo
Ufficci (see text below)
man in charge of overseeing what was, at the time, called the E42.  

          What is now EUR was the brainchild of Giuseppe Bottai, Fascist of the First Hour and Governor of Rome who, in 1935, suggested to Mussolini that Rome host the 1942 World’s Fair.[3]  The architecture and the overall design of the complex was informed by a desire to exalt the achievements of the Fascist regime and of Italian civilization.  First among these “achievements” was the recent acquisition of Ethiopia and the extension of Italy’s Empire in Africa.  As Richard Etlin has pointed out, this celebration of empire became the leitmotif of the project.[4]  Fascist ideology and pomposity informed every street and building in the original plan of the E42.  By the time World War II interrupted the work, several buildings were left in various stages of completion. 
Pier Lugi Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport 
          When the new Italian Republic again began working on the project, the Fascist buildings were joined by modernist skyscrapers, residential apartments, parks, a picturesque lake, and sports complexes to host the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.  

Originally conceived as a Fascist showcase, the newly-named EUR became, instead, a site to celebrate the Italy of the Economic Miracle in the 1950s.  Some famous celebrities and cultural figures like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Giuseppe Ungaretti took up residence there.  Muore recently it has been the home of one of Rome’s most celebrated football icons, Francesco Totti.  EUR has also served as the setting of classic Italian films directed by Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni among others.  [Clips from their films are in the video on the EUR S.p.A. site linked above.]
EUR as seen from the roof of the Square Coliseum.  The white building with the rounded top (center left) is Libera's
Palazzo dei Congressi--the pit stop area for the race.  The street in front of it, leading back toward the Square
Coliseum, is part of the race course.  The Marconi Obelisk is at center right.  

          The Stile Littorio buildings have become “heritage sites” blended into the landscape of EUR’s modernism.  Only days before the E-Prix announcement last October, a leading expert on Italian Fascism, Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat of NYU, published an article in New Yorker Magazine asking why Fascist landmarks remain standing.  On the article’s front page was a photograph of EUR’s “Square Coliseum”, the Palazzo della Civiltà, probably Fascism’s most distinctive architectural landmark.[5]  After standing vacant for many years, the building is now the headquarters of one of Italy’s leading fashion houses, Fendi.  The flood of condemnation for Ben-Ghiat’s article in Italy reflects the unwillingness or inability of some Italians to think critically about the Fascist heritage that surrounds them.[6]  Whereas Americans are tearing down Confederate-era statues—the context of Ben-Ghiat’s article—Italy seems content to keep its Fascist landmarks up and even use them as contemporary symbols of the new Italy.  

The Square Coliseum, c. 1950

Dianne and Bill at the race starting line (the obelisk is behind
the camera.  The foot was part of a temporary public sculpture.
Looking north, toward the city center.  2010.  
The design for the Rome E-Prix’s course seems to confirm this desire to use the Fascist buildings in such a manner. Despite Diacetti’s desire to promote EUR’s future-oriented vision, the course is almost entirely located in the “Pentagon” section of the district, which is where the highest concentration of Fascist architecture is located.  The course’s starting line is on the Viale Cristoforo Colombo (formerly the Via Imperiale) under the shadow of Arturo Dazzi’s Marconi Obelisk, dedicated to the pioneer of modern communications.  Although the obelisk was inaugurated on the occasion of the 1960 Olympic Games, it was conceived in 1939 to honor the celebrated inventor and Fascist fellow traveler who died in 1937.  

Fuksas' Cloud, nearing completion, 2016
The course then goes past Fuksas’ La  Nuvola and snakes its way past the museums built by the Fascist regime to celebrate Italy’s heritage. Here, the drivers slow down to negotiate a chicane (a sharp double-bend) directly in front of the prominent colonnaded portico that links the museums.  

1957.  These famous folks (sorry, Bill and Dianne can't recall
their names; perhaps some of you recognize some of them) appear
to be crossing Viale Cristoforo Colombo, walking away from the
 Square Coliseum and toward the Palazzo dei Congressi.  

The pit stop area, meanwhile, goes around Adalberto Libera’s celebrated Palazzo dei Congressi, a good example of a structure that attempts to harmonize classicism and modernism in the Stile Littorio.  In recent years, the building has become a prime night spot with a rooftop theater.  

The paving of the beveled stones (sanpietrini) outside the building to accommodate the E-Prix pit lane, has sparked outrage from those concerned with the site’s heritage.[7]  Libera’s building was central to the Fascist vision of the E42.  It was placed at one end of an axis opposite the “Square Coliseum” with two esedra (semi-circular)-like structures on the Viale Cristofero Colombo in the center of the axis.  In what is now the Piazza United Nations the two main axial roads of the E42 project intersect in a manner that echoes Ancient Roman urban planning.  Fans of the E-Prix, sitting in the grandstands or atop Libera’s Palazzo in the hospitality area of the race will thus have an unobstructed view of the E42’s original plan.  The circuit, meanwhile, on its return leg to the start/finish line will use the opposite side of the axial road showcasing the “Square Coliseum”. 

The Fascist salute, it seems, on display at the Palazzo
Uffici.  The mosaic is at right.  
But it doesn’t end there.  As the cars snake through the back end of the course through turns 8 and 9, they will pass in front of Minicucci’s Palazzo Uffici, designed to house the administrative offices of the Ente E42, the forerunner of today’s EUR S.p.A.  This building, whose main hall is today rented out for luxury banquets, includes a large, stone mosaic dedicated to Eternal Rome which boasts a prominent image of Mussolini on horseback giving the Fascist salute.  Near this mosaic is a bronze statue of a young athlete giving a similar salute.[8]  

Thus, the course seems to be designed to exalt the “heritage” section of the EUR, and this means the Fascist-era sites.  Mussolini’s E42 lives on in the design of the Rome E-Prix, which is fitting considering the Fascist regime’s strong support of motorsport in the 1930s.  The ghosts of Fascism are everywhere, including the promo video of the race which shows the series’ leading drivers walking down the Via dei Fori Imperiali ("Way of the Imperial Forums") in the center of Rome.  This road, once called the Via dell’Impero ("Empire Way"), was inaugurated by the Fascist regime in 1932 on the occasion of the its 10th anniversary.  After their short walk, the drivers then get into their cars and make their way to EU,  past the ruins of the Roman Forum.[9]  Unbeknownst to them, they have taken the Fascist itinerary to the New Rome. 
Paul Baxa

P.S.  Dianne has an upcoming post that features both the Palazzo della Civiltà and the Palazzo degli Uffici, which we toured last year.  We will cross-link these posts when the second one is published.

[1] Marco Mensurati and Eduardo Lubrano, “Formula 1 Roma. Ecco il circuito,” La Repubblica, 5 febbraio 2009:
[2] Askanews, “Formula E: Diacetti (Eur Spa), accende i riflettori sull’Eur,” 23 marzo 2018:
[3] Luigi Di Majo and Italo Insolera, L’Eur e Roma dagli anni Trenta al Duemila (Laterza, 1986), 11.
[4] Richard A. Etlin, Modernism in Italian Architecture, 1890-1940 (MIT Press, 1991), 483-85.
[5] Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Why are so many Fascist Monuments in Italy still standing in Italy?” The New Yorker, October 5, 2017:
[6] “Perchè l’Italia ha ancora così tanti monumenti fascisti? Il New Yorker provoca, la rete lo stronca,” Il Sole 24 Ore, 8 ottobre 2017:
[8] Borden Painter, Jr., Mussolini’s Rome: Rebuilding the Eternal City (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 130, 160.
[9] The promo video can be viewed on the Rome E-Prix’s homepage: and on YouTube.

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