Description: The Bruno statue in effect declared ongoing war against the Roman Catholic Church and thus represented the anticlerical sentiment that accompanied and partly fueled the revolution that created modern Italy; but the next sixty years brought new circumstances, interests, and ideas, and both Italy and the Church grew ready to settle their differences. They did so especially in the Lateran Pacts, which normalized relations. To celebrate this new state of affairs, Rome built a new boulevard the Via della Conciliazione or “Street of Reconciliation,” and its meaning and its architecture are both important for Rome.

Even a glance at Charlie Wheeler’s photo shows how the “Street of Reconciliation” put St. Peter’s Basilica on display, as Mussolini had wanted. If viewed carefully, it also shows how the architects “cropped” the view of the basilica. Perhaps you can even see that the obelisk and the dome are not in perfect alignment.


Show Notes:

Italy and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Lateran Pacts in 1929, 59 years after the New Italy took Rome from the papacy. The Pacts are complicated and did not immediately settle all issues, but they did establish that the two signatories recognized one another. Italy also agreed to pay a substantial indemnity for the lands and other property it had confiscated when depriving the Church of its rule. Perhaps more striking, Italy agreed that the Catholic religion was the official religion of Italy and that it would have increased influence in Italian society, as regarding marriage law and religious education, for example. This represented a clear retreat from the expectations of those who had erected the Bruno statue.

The government that signed the accords was headed by Mussolini’s Fascist Party, which had seized power in 1922 and would go on to rule Italy for twenty years. They rejected the core principles of the liberal and parliamentary government established by the Risorgimento and implicit in the Bruno statue. The Catholic Church was wary of the Fascists and became increasingly so when Mussolini cozied up to Hitler, but it too had doubts about the individual freedoms that were so dear to the liberals. The new allies were united much more because they agreed that Communism and Socialism were major threats (though they did so for different reasons). Mussolini was not a believing Christian and sometimes mocked priests and their faith, but he recognized that Catholicism remained a potent force both in Italy and around the world, so its support could be useful. Pope Pius XI and Mussolini did not agree on what to stand for, but they shared some agreement on what to stand against.

We will need at some point to mull over the consequences of this reconciliation for Italian society. Did it, for example, restore Catholicism in Italy? But for now it is best to turn to the way Mussolini’s regime celebrated the agreement in architecture.

Mussolini commissioned his chief architects to build a broad boulevard, the Street of the Reconciliation, that would link Rome and the Vatican and make St. Peter’s visible from the Tiber. This seemed an apt way to symbolize and celebrate the peaceful relations that would exist between Church and State in the future. Streets can also clear paths for our vision. For the Street of the Reconciliation to allow us to see St. Peter’s and aim our vision at it, a fair-sized chunk of a neighborhood had to be destroyed and rearranged so the street could frame the basilica and Michelangelo’s magnificent dome.

The primary purpose of the street was to mark the professed reconciliation between two previously hostile parties. But Mussolini also had a master building plan for the entire city. He wanted to bring Rome’s most magnificent and historic buildings into the public eye, and this required the demolition of cluttered buildings and neighborhoods that blocked the lines of sight that could allow Rome’s monumental architecture to stand out. He sought to “sanitize” the city, as he called it, by removing obstacles to seeing Rome’s past and present greatness, and so avid was he in such interventions that he came to be called “il piccone,” “the pickaxe.” The Via della Conciliazione fit this pattern, for it required the demolition of an entire neighborhood to focus attention on St. Peter’s and its dome.

For another Roman example of a street guiding our vision toward a target, consider the Via del Corso and the massive monument to modern Italy properly known as the Vittoriano but nicknamed “the Wedding Cake.” In this case, the street came first, and then the monument was built to be the focus of all those moving south on it. St. Peter’s, on the other hand, was a target waiting for a street, and Mussolini’s government gave it one.

Building a boulevard in a densely populated city is not easy. Destruction must precede construction, and in this case, residents had to be expelled and resettled.

As for the aesthetics, some even asked whether it was a good idea to build such a road in the first place. Could it be better to have the basilica pop suddenly into view from close range, as the Pantheon and Piazza Navona do, rather than to be seen from far off?

When the architects began their work in 1936, the path to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica was blocked by a so-called spina, a long and narrow island of buildings that extended essentially from the Tiber to the beginning of the Piazza in front of the basilica. Demolishing the spina would then open the path of the new road.

But was the spina the correct width for the desired road? Would it direct our gaze in the proper direction? Did it have the right shape? Did it successfully frame the object at its end? The answer to all these questions was “no,” so destroying the spina was just the beginning.

The architects made the road more regular in shape than the spina, even though this complicated the demolitions and the patching up of buildings that were partially destroyed. Their reasons for changing the shape are interesting. Apparently, our sense of distance is affected by whether we are looking out from between parallel walls, narrowing walls, or diverging walls. Mussolini’s architects did not want to shrink the Basilica and thus had to reconfigure the space left by the diverging lines of the spina.

This old photo shows a relatively early stage of the demolition of the spina to open the way for the Street of Reconciliation and a central view of St. Peter’s Basilica

A second reason for rebuilding concerned the framing of the vista at the terminus of the boulevard. I’ll leave it at saying that if you walk the street, you can see that Mussolini’s architects chose to “crop” what would be seen of the Basilica while walking up the boulevard. They did this by narrowing the road at one point, and this focuses our gaze on the center of the Basilica while cropping its flanks out of the picture.

The architects also had to consider the precise alignment of the street—there are some surprises on this point—and how to subdivide the large space left by the demolitions.

To return to my main theme, the relationship between Church and state, it’s not a bad exercise to look for signs or symbols of church and state together on the street that celebrates their reconciliation. I see none of the Church, several of the state, which may suggest that the latter is the dominant member in this new relationship.

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