Music Matters
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Italy has kept its fascist monuments and buildings. The reasons are complex

The fascist origins of this Roman sports center can be seen in its monumental sculpture and architecture.
Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
The fascist origins of this Roman sports center can be seen in its monumental sculpture and architecture.

ROME — Cinema Troisi is an art movie house in central Rome. Its stark, white, minimalist façade contrasts with the ornate 19th-century buildings nearby.

It was built in the 1930s as the headquarters of the Fascist Youth Organization — the GIL.

But there is no plaque explaining its link to the dictatorship.

Italian rap music plays in the background as young people mill around the lobby café.

They seem indifferent to the building's fascist origins, including 20-year-old Christian Carere, who works here.

"It's evolution," he says. "A building is born as a structure. But inside, its purpose can change. For example, first it's a butcher shop and two years later it becomes a discotheque."

Across town, a fascist-era sports center has become a skate-boarder's paradise.

The sound of young men swooshing and twirling echoes on long slabs of marble and mosaic pavement that glorify the fascist regime. The intricate designs spell out late dictator Benito Mussolini's slogan, "many enemies, much honor," and include large Ms for his name.

Looming over the mosaics is a 57-foot-tall obelisk. Built in 1932 to mark the regime's 10th anniversary, the inscription is "Mussolini Dux" — Latin for Leader Mussolini.

Nelly Porcu, an athlete from the island of Sardinia who has been training for a marathon in the sports center, seems annoyed more by the obelisk's design than its historical meaning.

"I think it's really tacky, so kitsch, cheesy," she laughs.

In fact, most Italians ignore the history of the obelisk, the mosaics and the bigger-than-life male nude statues encircling the sports center, says historian Lucia Ceci.

"It's as if they've become part of the landscape, while they're very shocking — and rightly so — for foreigners, tourists, journalists and diplomats," she says.

Italy never fully reckoned with its fascist past.

After World War II, prompted by the Allies, Germany underwent an intense de-Nazification program.

Not so Italythere was no equivalent de-fascistization. The country is still filled with buildings and street names that evoke its 20-year dictatorship.

A mosaic pays tribute to Mussolini with a large M, left. Nearby, a 57-foot obelisk is inscribed "Mussolini Dux," Latin for Leader Mussolini.
/ Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
/
Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
A mosaic pays tribute to Mussolini with a large M, left. Nearby, a 57-foot obelisk is inscribed "Mussolini Dux," Latin for Leader Mussolini.

A century after Mussolini took power with the March on Rome, there finally is a new website that maps monuments and plaques commemorating the regime.

Historian Ceci, one of the website's coordinators, says the project started seven years ago. It is backed by the Ferruccio Parri National Institute in Milan, named after an anti-fascist partisan who went on to become the first prime minister of postwar, newly democratic Italy in 1945.

Ceci says the mapping project was inspired by debates in other countries —including the United States — over how to treat monuments glorifying colonialism and slave owners.

Ceci and her fellow researchers do not call for the destruction of fascist-era monuments. But they want to add explanatory plaques that contextualize their origins. The aim is to promote a reckoning of the legacy of the regime.

"Otherwise," she says, "the message continues to be that fascism brought modernity to the city, hiding the dictatorship, the persecutions, the discriminations and the war."

Fascist buildings are still in use, their origins little noticed

In 1935, standing before a crowd of thousands, his jaw jutting forward, Mussolini announced the invasion of Ethiopia and heralded Italians as a nation of "heroes, saints, poets, artists, navigators, colonizers and travelers."

Nearly 90 years later, those words remain inscribed on a building halfway between Rome and the sea.

At the top of a long flight of steps, stands what was once known as the Palace of Italian Civilization. It was built to celebrate Italy's conquest of Ethiopia, says historian of fascism Marla Stone.

"It's very much a celebration of war, conquest and empire," says Stone, "and the idea that fascism was going to expand and spread its message of nationalism, of strength, of masculinity. It's a very heavy, masculine building."

Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, known as Square Colosseum, has 416 arches and statues celebrating heroism, philosophy and political genius. It's also the global headquarters of the Fendi fashion house.
Pino Pacifico / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, known as Square Colosseum, has 416 arches and statues celebrating heroism, philosophy and political genius. It's also the global headquarters of the Fendi fashion house.

With 416 arches and statues celebrating heroism, philosophy and political genius, today it's known as the Square Colosseum and, since 2015, it's been global headquarters of the Fendi fashion house.

This is EUR, the neighborhood Mussolini had built from scratch in imitation of ancient Roman urban planning — an attempt to link his regime directly to the Roman Empire. A few blocks from the Square Colosseum is Palazzo degli Uffici, completed in 1939.

Its main entrance is flanked by a gigantic bas-relief in travertine marble. It starts at the top with the Romulus and Remus founding myth of Rome, winds down from the ancient empire and the Renaissance to Giuseppe Garibaldi and the creation of the Italian state, ending at the bottom with Mussolini, standing like a Roman general on a horse, surrounded by his legionnaires and supplicating women.

Historian Stone points out that the head of the dictator had been chopped off after World War II. But at some point it was put back, restored or replaced by a new one.

In front of the building there's a statue of a young man giving the fascist salute, left in place after the war. Rather, bronze straps were added to his hands, turning him into a boxer ostensibly hailing a victory. The original name, Genius of Fascism, was changed to Genius of Sport.

A sports center built under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini remains in use in modern Rome. From left: A bas-relief features an image of Mussolini. A statue of an athlete has its hand raised in the fascist salute.
/ Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
/
Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
A sports center built under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini remains in use in modern Rome. From left: A bas-relief features an image of Mussolini. A statue of an athlete has its hand raised in the fascist salute.

Stone laments that by not challenging the history of these monuments, the memory of fascism has been smoothly integrated into the Italian present.

"They're now seen as part of the Italian heritage," Stone says. "There are the ancient Roman monuments, there are the Renaissance monuments, the Baroque palaces. And then we have the heritage of fascism."

The victorious Allies chose not to confront Italy over its fascist legacy

One reason why post-fascist Italy did not remove its monuments of the dictatorship might be there were simply too many buildings and the country too poor to rebuild them.

In 2017, American historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote a piece for The New Yorker asking, "Why are so many fascist monuments still standing in Italy?"

She received sacks of hate mail from Italians accusing her of ignorance — unable to appreciate what they claimed was the aesthetic value of fascist architecture —and which many now call rationalist architecture.

Many Italians feel disconnected to fascism, says Ben-Ghiat, and the Allies — the United States and Britain mainly — are the reason.

"They were very worried about social unrest if they pursued very harsh amnesties or purges," she says.

Ben-Ghiat says the Allies sometimes covered up fascist paintings with cloth rather than destroy them.

Many Italians had joined the anti-fascist resistance during the war, and the postwar Communist Party was one of the strongest in Europe.

"It was the Cold War," she says, "and they decided to treat Italians as a good people who were led astray by a bad man."

While it was widely criticized in Italy, Ben-Ghiat's article also inspired historian Ceci and her fellow researchers to pursue the project of mapping fascist monuments.

When the website went public in November, it had identified 1,400 of them.

Ceci believes that's about half the monuments existing throughout the country.

In fact, visitors to the website are asked to suggest additional listings.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Statues of nude male athletes in classic fascist pose adorn this sports center in Rome.
/ Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
/
Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
Statues of nude male athletes in classic fascist pose adorn this sports center in Rome.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.