Episode 32: Mussolini and the Piazza of Augustus the Emperor
Mussolini wanted to identify Fascist Rome with Ancient Rome, but more than this, he wanted to associate himself with Augustus, the first and founding emperor of the imperial period. To see how he did this in architecture, we today visit the Piazza of Augustus the Emperor.
We will pick up our discussion of Mussolini’s modern attack on modern Rome in just a moment, but let’s first wish Rome a happy birthday. This will not be too much of a distraction, for Mussolini was keen on finding occasions for parades, speeches, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and festivals. These would help to unite the Italian people and the supporters of his regime, he thought, and he never let October 28th pass without an event marking it as the anniversary of the Fascist March on Rome of 1922 and as the beginning of a new year of the Fascist Era.
Mussolini’s second most favorite celebration was Rome’s birthday, which someone with imagination had long ago decided was April 21, 753 BC. To honor this date, Mussolini gave an important speech in 1924, began the work to liberate the Theater of Marcellus in 1926, put up the four stone maps of the Roman Empire near the Colosseum in 1934, and either initiated or concluded other important projects that we have not yet mentioned. I will remind you shortly that he also celebrated the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus, so his policy of associating his regime with ancient Rome was ceremonial as well as architectural.
This podcast will issue on April 20, 2021, so the next day is Rome’s 2,774th birthday. For those inclined to celebrate, a socially distanced version of this year’s event is being transmitted, with information available on the Facebook page of the Gruppo Storico Romano. It appears that this group dedicates each such birthday to a particular ancient Roman, and this year they have chosen the Emperor Nero and the people around him. I don’t know what they have in mind, but this would be a good topic through which to show the lowest of several very low points of the dynasty Augustus founded. The people around Nero would include his mother, Agrippina, whom Tacitus reports as likely to have slept with her son and whom he later killed. He also had his first wife killed and kicked his second wife to death. He did not kill his third wife, but he did force her previous husband to commit suicide, which avoided the inconvenience of having them divorce. These are merely a few of his attention-grabbing domestic crimes: his neglect and folly when it came to political affairs had far more devastating consequences. Nero is a good reminder, if we need it, that we should not study Rome and western civilization in order to celebrate it blindly but, among other reasons, because it provides such a rich series of case studies of disappointed hopes and political pathologies. The rich abundance of the imagery on the Altar of Peace was only one way Augustus implied that he was introducing a new Golden Age. Then, after Augustus, came Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and a brutal civil war. Not an especially rich legacy.
But our subject today is Mussolini, not Nero, though the hopes he raised were also disappointed, especially with regard the Empire he promised. And his downfall, like Nero’s, was accompanied by civil war, though a briefer one.
Mussolini’s Via della Conciliazione, which opened up the visibility of St. Peter’s Basilica (Charlie’s photo)
Our previous episode on Mussolini stressed what he called his “eviscerations” of Rome, that is, what he destroyed in order to build roads and open up lines of sight so that Rome’s truly great structures would be more easily seen and could fill Italians with national pride. Using their current names, our three chief examples were the Street of Reconciliation (that is, the Via della Conciliazione), the Street of the Theater of Marcellus (or, the
Via del Teatro Marcello), and the Street of the Imperial Forums, the Via dei Fori Imperiali. The first of these made it possible to see St. Peter’s Basilica from the Tiber River and beyond; the other two enhanced the visual impact of the Theater of Marcellus, the Vittoriano, the Markets of Trajan, the Imperial Forums, and the Colosseum.
To put this in other words, when you visit Rome today, these and other historic sites pop out at you. Before Mussolini’s “eviscerations,” they did not do this nearly so much. They weren’t always invisible, of course, though the Mausoleum of Augustus was buried inside the walls of a music hall, but other structures made it harder to see them. There were even old tenements built on the Capitoline Hill, and shops glommed onto the Theater of Marcellus. By plowing through crowded old neighborhoods, Mussolini sought to promote “Romanness” or “Romanità,” first in architecture, but then in the hearts and minds of the Italian people. These eviscerating efforts earned him the nickname the “Pickax,” and Mussolini himself once referred to “His Majesty, the Pick.”
On a parenthetical point, I am impressed that Mussolini’s eviscerations were effected mostly with picks, shovels, ropes, and trucks, without explosives or much heavy equipment. You can watch them on YouTube, for they were recorded by Mussolini’s Istituto Luce, which filmed many of his activities. Search “il piccone Mussolini istituto Luce,” to see for yourself. I mention this partly so we can better understand the disappearance of ancient Rome: it’s remarkable what can be made to disappear with mere human labor using picks and ropes. We recently discussed the Forum of Augustus, although it is mostly gone, and we will soon take note of his Temple of Apollo, which has been even more completely demolished. Though his reasons for clearing away parts of Rome were unique to him, Mussolini was not Rome’s first and only pickaxe.
Today we will look at another example of Mussolini as the great eviscerator. It is the Piazza Augusto Imperatore, “the Piazza of Augustus the Emperor,” but in this case we will also note what new buildings he built, not only what old structures he wanted to show off. Then in a future episode we will look at his new construction that did not involve any great monument from the Roman past. These projects were located on the periphery of the city, or outside of Rome altogether, and hence could be larger: they did not need to tiptoe around time-honored sites. But first a quick return to the Piazza Augusto Imperatore, which did try desperately to show off structures from the ancient past.
We know of this piazza from our previous episodes on the Ara Pacis Augustae and the Mausoleum of Augustus. It did not exist until Mussolini had
Res Gestae Divi Augusti, posted in Latin by Mussolini
the remaining parts of the Ara Pacis pulled out from under a renaissance palace, where they had been buried for 1,500 years. After reassembling them in their new location, he had the altar put on display in time for the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’s birth in 1937. The same occasion
prompted his attempt to liberate the Mausoleum of Augustus from within the concert hall in which it had become encased. He then displayed what was left of it, which the city of Rome has just restored and reopened as a new museum in March 2021. In addition to the Altar of Peace and the Mausoleum from Augustus’s lifetime, Mussolini added a large, wall-sized stone inscription of Augustus’s highly selective autobiography, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, the “Things Done by the Divine Augustus.”
But Mussolini also wanted to show these structures off and add some associations with his own regime, so he began the project by tearing down about 120 buildings covering over 7 acres. This evisceration made it possible to create the piazza, which then put the ancient ruins at its center and allowed modern buildings to be built around them. It is especially obvious that the buildings on the north and east sides of the piazza are of recent vintage, and they have characteristics that often show up in the architecture of the Ventennio Fascista, “the Twenty Years,” as this period is referred to. They have flat, travertine facades, and the simplicity and symmetry favored by modernism, but they also have abstract imitations of ancient Roman columns and pilasters. Take a good look, and you will see other such buildings in Rome, many of which—like these—also bear inscriptions that honor the Italian people, Mussolini, or ancient Rome. A striking example is the building now known as the Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura on Piazza Independenza, which is just east of the Termini Train Station and Baths of
A Helmeted Mussolini peers out from above a window on Piazza dell’Independenza
Diocletian. What makes it especially striking is that it still has sculpted heads of Mussolini placed above each window.
Back at the Piazza dedicated to Augustus, I remember being struck by seeing Mussolini’s name in the middle of an inscription in Latin on the building on the northern flank of the piazza, and over the last thirty years I’ve been expecting to see that it has been scraped away like so many other references to the discredited Duce. In English, it goes like this:
This is the place where the spirit of Augustus flies through the breezes, because now the mausoleum of the emperor has been extracted from the darkness of the ages and the scattered pieces of the Ara Pacis have been restored.
Mussolini, the Duce ordered that the old narrow places be destroyed and the area be adorned with streets, buildings, and shrines fitting for the ways of humanity in the year 1940, the eighteenth year of the Fascist Era.
Latin Inscription crediting Mussolini with liberating the spirit of Augustus. The text is flanked by fasces. (My photo)
This quotation announces Mussolini’s readiness to destroy what he called Rome’s “old narrow places” in order to better highlight the monumental elements in Rome’s past, so they would then recall the spirits of Augustus and the other great ancient Romans. That is, they would then become more useful as symbols with which to build a proud national identity, something that the Risorgimento had not yet done. He also indicates that his Fascism is forward-looking too, and seeks to modernize Rome.
Above the inscription is a ceramic mosaic in three vertical columns. It represents the “Birth of Rome,” which shows Mussolini’s readiness to add modern contributions to the “Romanità” that the ruins themselves brought forth. Small labels help identify the large central figure as a personification of the Tiber River, who holds Romulus and Remus. The she-wolf looks up from below, ready to take the twins from the River and begin nursing them. Above the Tiber is the god Neptune, who guides his horses, and on each side is a flanking column divided into three mosaic panels, each representing a pagan deity.
Portion of the Frieze showing the Italian people hard at work (my photo)
Labels help with their identification, but I am not sure why these six gods were chosen to the exclusion of others unless perhaps they mean to link hard work with prosperity. Saturn is busily grafting a plant, Vulcan at work on his forge, Diana hunting with her dogs, and Ceres gathering grain. Juturna is a goddess of springs but also of prosperity. The relief of the adjoining building also honors hard work, this time with the Italian people doing it, not the Roman gods.
You will recall that the Vittoriano also is replete with references to ancient Rome. At the center is a tall statue of the Goddess Roma, there are multiple representations of the winged goddess Victory, there are Roman chariots on top of the monument, and many of the sculptures show figures in Roman garb. It’s thus not as though Mussolini were the first to hearken back to Ancient Roman themes: liberal Italy also did it. But a visit to the Piazza Augusto Imperatore can help cement the point that Mussolini focused attention on Augustus in particular, who founded the imperial period of Roman history in which republican and democratic institutions were completely gutted of their former authority. At a time when Italy had been becoming more and more democratic, this celebration of an autocratic leader was new and radical, and to force it into high relief, the Fascist regime reconfigured a big chunk of the city center to honor Rome’s first emperor.
The architectural link between Mussolini and Augustus was amplified in essays and books. One written by the Fascist Minister of Education was entitled “The Italy of Augustus and the Italy of Today.” Unsurprisingly, he found them similar, thanks to Mussolini’s similar qualities to those of Augustus. In his presentation, Mussolini’s transformation of the Fascist militia into a national guard was anticipated by Augustus’s development of the Praetorian Guard. Both leaders retained a parliament or Senate out of deference to the past, but neither allowed it to obstruct vigorous action from the center. Both attended to the formation of the young, and both supported traditional religion and morality. Hence, Mussolini’s ratification of the Lateran Pacts, our subject way back in episode 3, was akin to actions taken by Augustus. Other authors stressed the beneficence of public works undertaken by both leaders, the creation of jobs, and, again, the political importance strong families. I’m inclined to think that some of these similarities exist, and I can think of others. As Augustus filled his Forum with the Summi Viri, the statues of men who represented Roman virtue as he understood it, and gave himself a still larger statue in the center of the Forum, so Mussolini called attention to such Italian heroes as Dante, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and, of course, himself. But this exercise just reminds me of that wonderful maxim, that the disposition to detect similarities is a leading cause of error. To fill out the picture, we’d have to pause to list differences, which are substantial.
Sculpted representations of ancient Roman fasces on a building facing the Mausoleum of Augustus in Piazza Augusto Imperatore. (My photo)
Besides this piazza’s exaltation of Rome’s gods, its founding, and its first emperor, it also shows the Ancient Roman fasces on both sides of the inscription I quoted above. The fasces was a tightly bound bundle of rods, with an axe-head protruding from it. Roman officials called lictors carried them as symbols of authority, including the authority to punish, and the number of lictors accompanying a leader indicated his authority. A Roman Consul, for example, was assigned 12 lictors.
A great proponent of discipline and punishment, Mussolini used this symbol frequently, and he also was fond of using an Italian translation of the word “lictor.” The headquarters of the Fascist Party was called “Palazzo Littorio,” for example, and the main Fascist youth organization came to be called the Gioventù Italiana del Littorio, “The Italian Youth of the Lictor.”
Fasces also turn up in the United States. The pedimental sculpture of the US Supreme Court building includes a Roman Soldier holding a fasces with protruding axe-head. The winged liberty-head dime, minted from 1916 to 1945, also has a fasces, and fasces support the arms of Lincoln’s throne in the Lincoln Memorial, though in this case they have been defanged: they are rods only, without the threatening axe-heads. These uses of the fasces are a good reminder that the Mall in Washington DC includes many references back to the Ancient Romans, including an obelisk, a couple of Roman-style temples, and numerous other architectural echoes. Ancient Rome lasted long enough and was complex enough that conflicting interpretations of its legacy abound, and ties to Rome can be advanced—at least partially—both by countries that fought against Hitler and by those that fought with him.
As for a more general statement on Fascism’s understanding of its connection with Ancient Rome, here is how Mussolini put it on Rome’s Birthday in 1922:
Rome is our point of departure and reference; it is our symbol or, if you wish, our myth. We dream of a Roman Italy, that is wise and strong, disciplined and imperial. Much of what was the immortal spirit of Rome, resurges in Fascism: Roman is the Lictor, Roman is our organization of combat, Roman is our pride and courage: Civis Romanus sum. [“I am a Roman Citizen.”]
Not every reference to Rome carries the same message, and in fact my informal tally suggests that claiming the US to be like Ancient Rome is no longer a point of pride. It is more likely to be either a prediction of decline or part of an attack on imperialism.
I caution you not to blindly accept my judgment, but in the end, I’m unimpressed by the piazza and by the attempt to restore the Mausoleum. In the
Building of Fascist design with inscription paying tribute to the immortal Italian people (my photo)
case of the Mausoleum, so much disappeared over the ages that the attempt to liberate it from the music hall only established how little of the tomb had been preserved in the hall. As a good Fascist put it, “The idea of Augustus is alive, supreme and intangible: it is not a hole in the ground and not a ruin.”
There are more mosaics and reliefs on the buildings that surround the piazza than I have mentioned, but they don’t seem to me to be finer or fundamentally different from the sample I discuss above. The reliefs on the Altar of Peace are of a vastly superior quality. As for the buildings themselves, they are ordinary. They succeed in giving shape to the piazza and putting the mausoleum at the center, but none of them is eye-catching and none performs an important civic function, as a museum might have done. A parade down Mussolini’s Via del Impero might have made Italian hearts beat faster, as is suggested by the live footage in Una Giornata Particolare, A Special Day, a wonderful film with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, but I doubt his Piazza Augusto Imperatore had the same effect.