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Mussolini's modern Rome

Most Italians would rather forget 'Il Duce's' place in its history, but his imprint can be found around the city if you know where to look.

October 11, 2009|Susan Spano

ROME — Along the wide, straight Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum, sightseers often stop to look at a series of maps showing the growth of the Roman Empire: just a dot on the west coast of the Italian peninsula in the 8th century BC, larger in the next two panels, then at its most expansive in the fourth tablet when the Roman world stretched from Spain to Mesopotamia.

Nothing remains of the fifth map placed here in 1936 to commemorate Italy's conquest of Ethiopia under the direction of Benito Mussolini.

Like so many other emblems of Italy's Fascist era, the plaque disappeared shortly after Allied troops liberated Rome in 1944, consigned to the scrap heap of a discredited time most people would rather forget. Only historical scavengers seek the remaining Fascist icons, such as the obelisk, still bearing the inscription "Mussolini Dux" (Latin for "leader"), leading to Il Duce's Foro Italico sports complex north of the historic city center.

But after living in Rome the last 18 months, I've realized that the city outside my window bears the clear imprint of the Fascist dictator, who rose to power in 1922 backed by squads of black-shirted vigilantes. He dissolved parliament in 1925, forged the Pact of Steel with Nazi Germany in 1939, and fled Rome when the Allies began their drive up the Italian peninsula.

Il Duce left ugly black marks on the modern history of Italy. But he was, nonetheless, a visionary builder who sought to imbue Italians with a sense of patriotism by reconfiguring their ancient imperial capital.

"In five years' time," he proclaimed in 1925, "Rome must astonish the peoples of the world. It must appear vast, orderly and powerful as it was in the days of Augustus."

After the crowds of tourists have left for the summer is a good time to see a different Rome, one that many people don't know or choose to ignore, the one Il Duce created.

So lately when I cross Piazza Venezia, the city's traffic-clogged aorta underneath the grandiose Vittoriano monument, I don't think of King Vittorio Emanuele II, who ruled newly united Italy from 1861 to 1878. I think of Il Duce, who cleared out the area below the Vittoriano, creating an open space where crowds gathered to hear speeches from this squat, florid man who held his finger on the pulse of discontent.

Stray cats padding through the four ancient temples at Largo Argentina, a square just west of Piazza Venezia, inhabit another frame of Il Duce's dream: archaeological Rome. The Largo Argentina site was discovered when Mussolini ordered the clearing of what was then a slum as part of a wide-ranging project to facilitate traffic and improve hygiene.

But after visiting the square in 1928, he vowed that new construction would never obscure the truncated columns and scattered capitals of the Republican-era temples. Largo Argentina remains a time-warping, mind-bending place where the modern and ancient worlds collide.

Excavating and opening access to ruins -- especially those from the age of Il Duce's hero Emperor Caesar Augustus -- became a Fascist fundamental. Mussolini cared little for the art and architecture of subsequent, decadent periods, resulting in the now-lamented demolition of Baroque churches and whole medieval districts, including the winding lanes on the west side of the Tiber River that took pilgrims to St. Peter's Basilica. In 1936, these were eradicated to make room for the soullessly broad and straight Via della Conciliazione.

Archaeological site "liberation," as it was called, peaked in the Roman Forum area, which looks as it does because of Il Duce. The legions of city planners, engineers and architects he commanded flattened a densely populated district around a saddle of land between the Palatine and Quirinale hills, then drove the Via dei Fori Imperiali through it.

As a result, the ruins take center stage, but as I walk along the boulevard, I often wonder how the neighborhood looked before the Velian Hill was obliterated by Mussolini's pickax and the denizens who lived on its flanks were moved to apartments in the suburbs.

And I think of how our judgments change through time. Many people now rue Mussolini's blunt stamp, but some welcomed his building scheme. A 1937 article in National Geographic magazine acclaimed Fascist urban renewal as "Imperial Rome Reborn."

Meanwhile, Il Duce was making the trains run on time, exhorting Italians to have big families, censoring the press, eyeing potential Italian colonies in the Balkans and North Africa, mounting colossal Fascist exhibitions and welcoming Adolf Hitler to Rome in 1938.

At the same time, Mussolini was constructing harbors, railways, aqueducts, roads, schools, stadiums, hospitals and post offices, often in a cutting-edge, modernist style that makes many visitors cringe. Buildings such as Rome's Fascist-era Termini train station "stand out like monsters people strenuously try to ignore," said Terry Kirk, author of "The Architecture of Modern Italy."

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