Episode 29: Mussolini’s Gutting of Rome in Search of its “Romanness”
Mussolini represented a revolutionary change in Italian government, and he sought to transform the look of Rome as well. He did this partly by the structures added but also by what he stripped away. We consider today two of his main “eviscerations” of Rome, which added roads and made ancient monuments more visible but also displaced thousands of Romans.
I have so far identified Modern Rome with the principles of modern liberalism in general, which stress the protection of the individual and his rights against the threatening actions of other people and of the government itself. In this view, human beings are naturally free and equal, and governments are created to protect them. Since governments exist for their citizens, it often seems to follow that they should be democracies or at least include important component parts that are democratic. In Italy, as we have seen, the movement to empower these modern opinions was known as the Risorgimento, and it was advanced especially by the very different contributions of Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, and King Victor Emmanuel II.
But as obvious, inspiring, and imperative as it may seem to many that all people are endowed with equal rights and should participate in government, three powerful European leaders challenged these views in the period following World War I. Mussolini did so first in Italy, then Hitler followed in Germany, and finally Franco led Spain in the same direction. Although these three leaders had their differences, they were all called Fascists, all ruled as dictators, and all were on the political right. In addition to the Fascist critique of liberalism, a powerful Communist critique attacked liberalism from the left. Not only did Russia go Red, but the New Soviet Union actively supported revolution throughout Europe. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Italy was pulled both left and right. The Risorgimento had been victorious, but just a half century after liberal Italy took Rome from the Popes, the Fascist Party took liberal Rome for itself.
Mussolini’s official date for his Fascists’ seizure power is October 28, 1922, the date of the March on Rome. To increase the momentousness of this event, Mussolini started dating subsequent history from it, so the tenth year of the Fascist Era was 1932, for example. Mussolini may also have exaggerated the violence of the insurrection, for in fact the King had capitulated to Mussolini even before the March reached Rome, so I doubt the claims that the March resulted in 3,000 Fascist martyrs. In fact, it was only in 1926 that Mussolini was able to complete Italy’s turn into a one-party dictatorship, but this still put him well ahead of Hitler in this dishonorable race. The twenty years Mussolini ruled Italy, from 1922 to 1943 are referred to by Italians as the Ventennio Fascista. Or, more simply, il Ventennio, “the twenty years.”
Il Ventennio raises all sorts of important questions about Mussolini, imperialism, and World War II. In my mind, the most important of these is what it may show about the vulnerabilities of liberal democracy: Do the Fascist regimes of the last century show weaknesses of which we should be aware? My subject is a lesser one. I’ll examine in two or three podcasts the changes that Mussolini brought to Rome’s cityscape, but these do help to show what he thought was wrong with democracy and how he thought he could win favor even while attacking modern liberal principles.
How much, then, did Mussolini change Rome during his Ventennio? The answer is “much more than you might think.” When we walk in Rome, we see the city as it is today, and do not see when or how much it has changed or, as Ovid might put it, metamorphosized. Mussolini’s Fascists built several new and prominent roads that cut their way right through old neighborhoods, they lined some of these roads with new buildings, they crossed the Tiber with four new bridges, they plastered the city with Fascist symbols, and they added several large complexes of buildings on the city’s periphery. They also built parks, excavated monuments, and built new housing for a rapidly growing city. Many or most of the Fascist symbols have since been removed or given new and less offensive identities, and two of the bridges have had their names changed, but Mussolini’s other modifications form part of Rome’s character today.
Mussolini took city planning in Rome seriously, and he and his lead architects acted not haphazardly but in accord with a plan. Perhaps the most important of their general goals was to help Rome display better its “romanità,” its “Roman-ness.” Romanità seemed to require highlighting whatever bespoke Roman greatness, especially under the ancient emperors, and suppressing or eliminating whatever suggested backwardness, crowdedness, unhealthiness, or the charm of old neighborhoods with short and narrow labyrinthine streets.
One of many watercolors by Ettore Esler Franz capturing a glimpse of “Vecchia Roma.” This shows houses leaning on the ancient Portico of Octavia
For this to make sense, it helps if you have experienced some of the local color that survived Mussolini’s version of romanità, for example at Porta Portese or Trastevere. Picture little shops with confused piles of wares, milling crowds of ordinary folks, overflowing trash bins, and lots of street vendors. Then use your imagination to add some flimsier shacks that support themselves by leaning on adjacent structures, and imagine the faint smell of sewage as well. Romanità required getting rid of such scenes as this, especially if they were in the neighborhood of a famous monument illustrative of Roman greatness. The aggressiveness of such projects was implied in a word commonly used to describe them, “eviscerations,” or sventramenti.
The goal was generally not to replace these scenes reminiscent of Old Rome with more modern architecture or high-rise buildings but to create more open space, to let the city’s great monuments “breathe,” as Mussolini put it. This was deemed to be healthier in a literal sense, but more importantly, I suspect, it opened lines of sight that would make Rome’s great monuments stand out more majestically. We have already seen an example of this opening up of sight lines back in Episode 3 on the Street of Reconciliation. It’s the broad boulevard that allows you to see St. Peter’s from the Tiber, and it was Mussolini’s idea to put it there. You may recall that it required destroying a neighborhood, including its church.
Several restaurants today call themselves Vecchia Roma, “Old Rome,” to suggest they value the charm of days gone by, but this was a term of reproach for the Fascists. The Circus Maximus, which under the Caesars had permanent seating for five or six times as many people as the Colosseum, has mostly vanished, and its place has been taken by a huge field of mostly parched grass. Before Mussolini’s regime got to work, however, it was a good example of Vecchia Roma: Here is how Mussolini’s chief architect described it in the 1930’s:
[The Circus Maximus] a receptacle for the worst eyesores: crumbling hovels, propped-up walls, squares reduced to puddles, unpaved roads, gardens, factories for small industry, rubbish-heaps, and piles of every kind of garbage. A truly miserable sight for anyone looking down from the Palatine.
So this little town got stripped away and replaced by today’s empty field.
That’s the negative side of things: get rid of messy, dirty, old-fashioned Rome, whatever its charm. Don’t allow Rome to keep its old reputation as a picturesque medieval town with sheep grazing among the romantic ruins of former greatness. The positive goal was to “liberate” Rome’s historic monuments and show them off, not because they were old, but because they suggested the never-ending vitality of the Eternal City. So romanità required an assault on Roma Vecchia partly in order to make Rome’s most impressive architecture stand out and to incorporate it into what would become a vibrant modern city. In the language of those executing the plan, this required gutting, evisceration, liberation, and creating breathing space.
If the Street of Reconciliation is one good example of how to make a great monument more widely visible, Mussolini’s Street of the Empire and Street of the Sea are two other examples. Both streets have since been renamed to cleanse them of their past association with a discredited regime: one is now the Street of the Imperial Forums, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and the other is the Street of the Theater of Marcellus, the Via del Teatro Marcello. Both required extensive destruction of old neighborhoods, and both enhanced the visibility of ancient monuments.
“Guttings” to “Liberate” the Theater of Marcellus and Make “the Street to the Sea”
Both also begin at the base of the Vittoriano, the Wedding Cake. The Via dei Fori Imperiali turns sharply to the southeast and heads straight to the Colosseum. The Via del Teatro Marcello turns sharply to the southwest and heads straight for the Theater of Marcellus and the banks of the Tiber. They both allow traffic to flow toward the Capitoline Hill and then to either side of it, which made the most memorable hill of Ancient Rome more prominent. Eviscerations cleared away stacked tenements that had grown up on the sides of the hill, and these had the effect of opening it to easier viewing.
The Via del Teatro Marcello required the destruction of a neighborhood, a piazza, and a large market, where day laborers used to congregate while looking for work or a place to linger in the absence of it. It also entailed the dismantling and rebuilding in a new location of the fine baroque church of Santa Rita. Nearby, the lowest arches in the Theater of Marcellus had been converted into stalls for small shops. As one memorable simile put it, shacks clung like scabs on the ancient monument.
Temple of Hercules Victor in the Forum Boarium after Restoration
From Mussolini’s point of view, Roma Vecchia was crowding out Roma Antica and obstructing romanità. The piazza, homes, hovels, and shops were destroyed, the broad road was built, and the Theater was liberated from its obstructing surroundings. So were the remaining columns of a temple to Apollo built, like the Theater, under Augustus. Further downhill, the renovators cleared away the accretions that had obscured the Arch of Janus and the Republican-era temples in the Forum Boarium.
Temple of Hercules and Temple of Portunus as Churches prior to Deconsecration and “Liberation” and Restoration
Separate from the road project but related to it is this remarkable fact: these two ancient temples, the Temple of Portunus and the Temple of Hercules Victor, were both converted into Christian churches ages ago, which surely accounts for their survival. But unlike the Pantheon, which remains a church, they were deconsecrated under Mussolini and their Christian features were eviscerated, so they could be returned as much as possible to their appearance as pagan temples. In these and other cases, at least, the cult of romanità led to dechristianization as well. I’ll return to this theme in another podcast, when we have the time to consider the approximately ten Roman temples that were converted to churches.
Via dei Fori Imperiali today (Photo by Rabax63, CC BY SA 4.0 creativecommons.org)
Mussolini’s new boulevard on the other side of the Vittoriano, today’s Via dei Fori Imperiali, entailed the destruction of 138 buildings over ten acres. The road is less than a kilometer long, but it is four lanes wide and has broad sidewalks as well. It also occupies some of Rome’s prime real estate, at least from a historical point of view. It heads straight for the Colosseum, flanks the Roman Forum, and provides our best view of four Imperial Forums and the Markets of Trajan. From the point of view of romanità, it’s a clear winner. Beyond showing off this romanità on a daily basis, it served Mussolini’s regime by providing a great backdrop for Fascist spectacles, which were staged to exploit its dramatic views. One end targeted the Colosseum, and the other headed for Piazza Venezia, where Mussolini had his offices and liked to harangue the sea of people that could squeeze into the piazza.
One example of this use of the boulevard was its inauguration on October 28, 1932. Since the ancient Romans celebrated the tenth-year anniversary of an important event, its Decennalia, Mussolini pushed hard to finish the building of this new
Mussolini on Horseback amidst his “Romanita'”
road in time for the Decennailia of the March on Rome. On that day, some 17,000 veterans of the March paraded down the new road in their Fascist finery, and there was a large military presence. With the Colosseum and the Forums as a backdrop, it could seem that the military virtue of the Ancient Romans had been recovered. This was the suggestion Mussolini wanted to make also in May of 1938, when he gave Hitler a whirlwind tour of the Eternal City.
The first time I walked down it, I had no idea that Mussolini had built this road, but I did notice the statues of four Emperors, each in front of his associated Forum. I rather thought that they were there to add to the atmosphere that we tourists were soaking up. Only later did I notice the Latin inscriptions, which dated the statues from the tenth or, in some cases, the eleventh year of the Fascist Era. The four large maps on the retaining wall near the Basilica of Maxentius were also put in place not for tourists but to claim romanità. They show stages in the growth of the Ancient Roman Empire. To tie this Empire to his own regime, Mussolini added a fifth map showing the Italian empire in Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, but the map has long since been removed.
Mussolini’s Five Maps, trying hard to link his Empire with that of Ancient Rome
So far, we have discussed three of Mussolini’s road projects, two today and one earlier on the Street of Reconciliation. The goals of these projects were to claim a dramatic connection to a great Roman past, while also allowing freer movement within the city. Beyond this, they showed that the new Fascist regime was always busy and “getting things done,” in contrast to the deadlocks of the old liberal democracy Mussolini wanted to discredit.
A Roman Borgata (photo by Luigi Crocenzi)
But the destruction of crowded neighborhoods requires the dislocation of thousands of people, and this at a time when Rome’s population was growing. To soften the blow of kicking people out of their homes, the Fascist regime promised new and more sanitary housing on the perimeter of the city. These new neighborhoods were called borgate, and twelve of them encircled the city. They proved a bitter disappointment but continued to be a way for Rome to address its housing shortage even after Mussolini’s regime was overthrown. The grim life lived in these borgate became a frequent subject for the cold gaze of the neorealist films made just after World War II. Two films that give an especially good look at the borgate are “The Bicycle Thieves” and “The Honorable Angelina” with Anna Magnani. The director Pier Pasolini made the borgate a major subject in several of his films, most clearly in his “Ragazzi di Vita,” or “Street Kids.” One value of these films is to show something of the price paid for Mussolini’s “eviscerations” of the city center, though I would not say these eviscerations are the sole cause of the grimness of Rome’s borgate.
I hope this episode gives a sense of how Mussolini sought to win support for his regime by “liberating” the monuments of Ancient Rome. In our next episode on Mussolini we will examine other demolitions and then turn to his building of several new projects around Rome, including especially a new Forum he named after himself.