The transformation of Rome into Mussolini’s Rome required countless contracts for projects large and small. The regime, through the Governatorato, supervised building patronage on a grand scale. Indeed, Mussolini’s government acted in the same way throughout Italy. Much was at stake, both in terms of money and architectural style. A central question was: What style would win official recognition as the true “fascist” style?

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mussolini often favored a modernist style and gave some encouragement to the rationalist architects. His mistress and cultural adviser, Margherita Sarfatti, supported the so-called Novecento school, which sought to combine traditional motifs with modern ones. With conquest and the declaration of empire having come about by 1936, support grew for projects and buildings on a huge, imperial scale to evoke the grandeur of ancient Rome.

Ultimately, of course, only Mussolini could decide. On the issue of architectural style, he managed to straddle fences, first leaning toward one side and then toward the other, without ever insisting, in any definitive way, on a specifically “fascist style.” In this respect, he was quite different form Hitler and Stalin, whose policies sanctioned only one politically correct style in art and architecture. Mussolini’s attitude allowed the regime to pursue a policy of “aesthetic pluralism,” in the words of historian Marla Stone.1

Throughout the regime’s history, therefore, a debate took place: a competition among architects championing various styles. What all the architects had in common was a willingness, often an eagerness, to work for the regime and thus participate in constructing the new fascist Italy. Fascist patronage meant both money and prestige. After World War II, the architect Ernesto Rogers commented on the dilemma and ultimate confusion facing artists and architects who sought to work with the government in the 1930s. He admitted that he and many architects readily worked out of a conviction he now saw as an error based on a false syllogism: “Fascism is a revolution; modern architecture is revolutionary, therefore it should be the architecture of fascism. As you saw, the first proposition was wrong, and the consequence could only be disastrous; fascism was not a revolution.”2

There is some truth to the notion that Mussolini and his regime opened the way for avowedly modern styles initially and then with the advent of empire moved toward a more monumental style, but the pluralism and the eclecticism went on until the fall of fascism. The debate and competition among architects continued as well.

The architect most consistently favored by the regime was Marcello Piacentini. Before the advent of the fascist regime, Piacentini favored a modest approach to historic Rome that would preserve its picturesque qualities, but he reversed his opinions after 1922 and supported the transformation of Rome consistent with Mussolini’s vision of “grandeur and necessity.”3 He went on to design a number of buildings for Mussolini’s Rome as well as to supervise large projects, including a new campus for the university and the exposition planned for 1942 in an area initially known as E’42 and now called EUR, Esposizione Universale di Roma. He acted as a broker among architects and architectural styles. Beginning in 1932, he edited the new monthly journal Architettura, the publication of the National Syndicate of Fascist Architects, and continued to do so until its demise in 1942. Piacentini searched for an architectural style appropriate to fascism that would draw upon Italian traditions while incorporating modern trends.

Piacentini’s influence on the shaping of Mussolini’s Rome was on a par with that of Antonio Muñoz. They were not rivals, for Muñoz worked primarily on restorations and innovations in the historic center while Piacentini led the architects who designed new buildings, new centers, and new fascist “cities.” Although Piacentini accomplished a number of projects throughout Mussolini’s Italy, he lived and worked in Rome. He designed and built his own apartment and studio there. Completed in 1932, overlooking the Tiber on the Lungotevere Tor di Nona, the complex combined Roman elements with a “modern sensibility” that used the red brick and travertine framed windows characteristic of new construction in Mussolini’s Rome.4

Architects such as Giuseppe Terragni, Enrico Del Debbio, Adalberto Libera, Mario De Renzi, and Luigi Moretti continued to execute projects in a distinctly modern style, and Piacentini regularly called on them and others to work in Rome. The one architect who argued most vociferously and most publicly for modern architecture and against any trend toward monumental architecture was Giuseppe Pagano. Pagano had both a clarity of vision and his own architectural journal, Casabella, in which to express that vision. By the mid-1930s, Casabella carried out a polemic against monumentalism that, in retrospect, sheds light on work taking place in Mussolini’s Rome.

Pagano had associated himself with a group of rationalist architects who formed an International Movement for Rational Architecture, the Movimento Internazionale d’Architettura Razionale, or MIAR, in 1931. Mussolini showed some interest and support, but a controversy erupted, as critics saw rational architecture as subversive of national values. Piacentini charged that rationalism smacked of bolshevism.5 The movement collapsed in 1931, but that did not prevent important commissions for work in Rome going to some of its members such as Pagano, Pietro Aschieri, Giuseppe Capponi, Giovanni Michelucci, Adalberto Libera, and Mario De Renzi.

Pagano, based in Milan, consistently fought for modern architecture as the most appropriate form for a regime that wanted to show that it was dynamic, modern, and revolutionary. He used the pages of Casabella to present his views and to contest the tilt toward monumentality after 1936. Piacentini just as consistently used the pages of Architettura to support the more eclectic approach that in the late 1930s increasingly went along with the monumentality abhorred by Pagano. Despite their differences, the two never formally broke, and Piancentini “maintained open communications with those of the Modernists who would accept him.”6

Pagano’s campaign in favor of modern architecture raised profound questions about the relationship of architecture and politics. He took the position that architecture best served politics by concentrating on the core values of art and architecture, especially as expressed by current trends that emphasized rationality, simplicity, and functionality. Opponents condemned this “international style” and argued for forms with roots in Italian history, including the Roman Empire. Pagano thought such imperial monumentality risked losing contact with reality. It would play into the hands of narrow-minded and uncultivated careerists in the regime. By contrast, modern architects sought a monumentality that did not depend on “archaeological forms.”7

The disagreement did not prevent Piacentini and Pagano from working together on some projects. The debate and competition took place among architects who were all believers in fascism. In the 1930s, the argument was over what style or styles would best serve fascism and the new Italy. Only later, during the war, did some of them break with the regime and, in some cases, go into opposition or even join the resistance movements. Giuseppe Pagano was one of these dissidents; he ended up in Mauthausen concentration camp, where he died just before the war ended. As Diane Ghirardo has pointed out, however, all the major architects joined the fascist party before membership became a requirement for work in October 1932.8 Hence, as fascist architects they had to advocate positions in the hope that they could convince Mussolini to support them. After all, the Duce devoted vast amounts of time and energy to the transformation of Rome, and Italians heard every day that “Mussolini ha sempre ragione,” “Mussolini is always right!”

When an acrimonious public debate erupted in 1934 over modern architecture, Pagano agreed that indeed Mussolini was right. Conservative fascists denounced three designs as so modern as to be subversive of Italian and fascist values. Pagano praised Mussolini for speaking out in favor of the role of modern architects in the fascist revolution. The three new project designs

were not born in an environment of confident expectation, but in the acid poisonousness of an opposition always alert with its nineteenth-century melancholy. The history of Sabaudia [one of the new towns outside Rome], the history of the Florence station and of Rome’s university city are three dramas of modern Italian architecture that have reached a victorious conclusion only because, at a certain moment, the Man who creates our history has openly defended the Italian and artistic faith of modern architects and has silenced the croaking of the frogs. Now those frogs applaud and write articles of praise.9

Pagano’s dream of receiving Mussolini’s definitive support for the modern style never became a reality. His own statement showed his realization that only the Duce had the authority to make the decisions with regard to projects and their style. On the other hand, Mussolini never definitively rejected modern styles, so that the eclecticism and ambiguity concerning architectural design remained until the end of the regime.

In 1936, American political scientist Herbert Schneider published an introductory text on the fascist government of Italy. He expressed skepticism about the degree of change the fascist revolution had achieved. All kinds of people now joined the party for reasons of expediency, and so fascism was losing any distinctive meaning. “Fascism has become Italian, not Italy fascist.” The one exception Schneider noted was architecture. Initially fascist architecture meant little more than attaching fascist symbols to conventional structures. Then the regime began to favor younger artists and to support styles inspired more by the modern architecture of northern Europe than by models taken from ancient Rome. Schneider witnessed the controversy we have just examined and commented as follows: “Of the many examples of this revolution in architecture three might be mentioned as outstanding: the railroad station at Florence, the severe beauty of which is certainly not Florentine; the new plant of the University of Rome, affording a daring exhibition of the difference between fascist Rome and the Romes of the Coliseum, of St. Peter’s, and of the Victor Emmanuel monument; and the town of Sabaudia, erected on the land reclaimed from the Pontine Marshes, one of the finest expressions of fascist genius not only as architecture, but as a social ideal in general.”10 Schneider’s comments gave fascist architecture just the kind of foreign recognition Mussolini wanted to achieve.


Pagano’s dream gained partial fulfillment in the design of the new university campus developed in the early 1930s as one of the biggest and most important projects for the regime. Before the fascist era, Rome’s university, La Sapienza, had its headquarters near the Piazza Navona, with the buildings of its various faculties scattered around the city. That all changed with the plan to construct a university city, a città universitaria, in an area beyond Termini, the main train station. Land had been set aside for this purpose in 1907, but the fascist state would now see that it got done!11Construction began in 1932 and went on for three years, with the opening ceremony taking place on October 28, 1935. The complex of buildings constituted a true campus in the American sense of a cluster of university buildings set apart from the surrounding neighborhood, a city within the city. It did for higher education what the Foro Mussolini did for sports.

The regime boasted that this university would be “both the most modern in Europe and the most beautiful in the world.”12 Furthermore, it took only three years to complete the huge project, a speed that only fascism could accomplish: “The miracle has happened and everyone watches amazed at this enormous complex of buildings destined to welcome the student youth of Italy.”13

Piacentini acted as chief planner and architectural broker in bringing together a talented, mostly young, and stylistically diverse group of architects for the university. The overall result was a campus with a certain symmetry and coherence despite the individual design of each building. Mussolini told Piacentini to bring together architects who would represent and could create a national university. As one architectural historian puts it:

Since all [the architects] were eager to build for the Fascist state, he did not co-opt them; they were willing participants in what they anticipated would be a truly national university. Piacentini’s decision to engage these architects was a bold one: the University would long be a highly visible testament to the Regime. To his credit, given the significance of the project, he chose several architects whose talents had yet to be confirmed: Giuseppe Pagano, Gio Ponti, Pietro Aschieri, Gaetano Minnucci, Giuseppe Capponi and Giovanni Michelucci. The buildings share materials (travertine, brick and stucco) and relatively low-rise profiles, but individual architects experimented with courtyards, portals, porticoes and massing and, in the case of Capponi’s Botany School, extensive glazing, or broad curved surfaces as in Ponti’s Mathematics School.14

The monumental colonnaded entrance designed by Arnaldo Foschini faced the Street of the Sciences, the Viale delle Scienze. Beyond the entrance lay the axes that define the campus plan. The main one ran straight ahead past buildings on either side to the main administration building, the Rettorato designed by Piacentini himself. A statue of Minerva by Arturo Martini stood before it, and a bas-relief decorated the building’s façade. The Rettorato included the library, the Great Hall, or Aula Magna, and had, on its flanks, the Faculty of Letters and the Faculty of Jurisprudence. The size and centrality of the Rettorato and its imposing stairs and columns provided a perfect location for special ceremonies such as awarding Gold Ms (M for Mussolini) as scholastic prizes. “Piacentini’s Administration Building is the epitome of the popular notion of Fascist architecture: a stripped neo-Classical architecture, sheathed in marble and travertine, sited at the dominant point of an axial composition.”15

The first buildings inside the entrance housed some of the sciences, emphasizing the regime’s commitment to the modern world of science and technology. Among them were Foschini’s Istituto d’Igiene e Batteriologia and his Clinica Ortopedica, Aschieri’s Istituto Chimica, and Pagano’s Istituto di Fisica. The diversity of style was well illustrated in these major science buildings. Michelucci’s Institute of Minerology, Geology, and Paleontology had simple severe lines that recapture “the classic line of imposing structures of romanità.16

Pagano’s Institute of Physics represented his vision of a modern, rational building. He based his design on the three major functions of the building: offices for faculty with various specialties, classrooms and auditoriums for students attending lectures, and laboratories for professors and graduate students. He included separate entrances to each of these areas of activity in a manner similar to that of Moretti’s Gioventù Italiana del Littorio (GIL) complex in Trastevere. Pagano’s goal was to “reach the maximum functionality, respecting the needs of the school,” and so he sought to bring together the internal elements with the external design of the building “in a unitary way.”17

4.1 Rome University, Administration Building, 1999


The School of Mathematics by Gio Ponti had a semicircular shape. The center of the curve in the rear was broken up by a curved extension housing two auditoriums. The front section of the building was rectangular in shape with an imposing entrance. Giuseppe Capponi’s Institute of Botany and Pharmacological Chemistry took its design cues from a more industrial form of architecture that “certainly constituted a novel element in the Roman architectonic panorama.”18 It featured an extended curved vertical line with two central towers and ample use of glass. Both buildings offered a sharp contrast with the “neo-Classical severity of Piacentini’s building,” and “the contrast between Piacentini’s and Capponi’s contributions to the University of Rome campus demonstrates the difficulty of defining a particular set of formal elements as typical of fascist building programs.”19

The most celebrated interior space was the Great Hall, the Aula Magna, whose entrance was at the rear of the Rettorato. (The Rettorato contained the library, with its collection of more than 600,000 volumes.) Its vast space could host large lectures or ceremonial gatherings and provided seating for three thousand people. Particular attention was given to its acoustics, which were seen as a vital function. The audience faced a large fresco by Mario Sironi, the regime’s preeminent artist, whose theme was “Italy among the Arts and Sciences.” It featured a central figure, representing Italy, in front of a fascio. Sironi executed a number of large mural paintings like this one at other venues in Rome, such as at the Ministry of Corporations, a building also designed by Piacentini.20

The regime lauded the University City as a major example of a fascist style of architecture that revived “the taste for the monumental character of edifices, without, however, excessive ornament and external decoration.” The university served as the best example of this fascist ideal: “In the University City, Fascist architecture will show that only that art that serves the great ideas can accomplish great undertakings.”21

Mussolini opened the new campus on October 31, 1935, in the company of fascist officials and the university faculty. In his speech he noted that it was at this very moment that “our soldiers [in Ethiopia], bearers of civilization, advance with their courage, with their sacrifice, without asking anything of anyone.” He could not ignore the fact they witnessed the rebirth of the university “while in Geneva the coalition of egoism and plutocracy tries in vain to stop the march of youthful Italy of the Black Shirts.”22

The American ambassador, Breckinridge Long, attended and noted that Mussolini had indeed railed against the League of Nations and swore that the Italian people would never surrender to this pressure. Apparently the Duce’s language had to be toned down for diplomatic reasons before appearing in Il Popolo d’Italia.23


Architecture, by definition, has visibility. The fascist regime’s constant tearing down and building up of Rome hardly went unnoticed by residents and visitors throughout this period. In addition, many of the new structures and new spaces offered public functions that pulled people into them. Schools, train stations, ancient monuments, and sports facilities attracted the public, be they students, athletes, or tourists.

Post offices offered another example of public buildings that the citizens of Rome used regularly. Post offices in Italy not only took care of the mail but were also centers for payment of taxes and bills, and other transactions, which made them an integral part of Italian life. The Ministry of Transportation and Communication sponsored a contest for the design of four new post offices in outlying neighborhoods undergoing significant growth in the 1930s. The four were on the Via Marmorata, the Via Taranto, Piazza Bologna, and Viale Mazzini.

Mario De Renzi and Adalberto Libera won the competition for the Aventine /Testaccio neighborhood. On October 28, 1935, Mussolini presided at the opening of the new post office on the Via Marmorata, facing the Pyramid of Cestius and the Porta San Paolo. These same architects had designed the bold façade of the Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution that opened in 1932. The Aventine post office demonstrated that modern architecture still found favor in the Duce’s eyes. The U-shaped building had a columned portico on the front. In the eyes of architectural historians, it has maintained its place as an example of a “rationalist masterpiece.”24 A renovation completed several years ago restored the portico, which stretches seventy-eight meters and leads into the large concourse that one critic called “one of the most original spaces constructed in Rome in the 1930s.”25

The Piazza Bologna and the Nomentana neighborhood emerged as a newly developed area northwest of the Termini train station and the new university campus.26 Mario Ridolfi and Mario Fagiolo won the competition to design thispost office. The freestanding building had curved surfaces with a large overhanging roof to mark the main entrance. Its modern, rationalist elements underscored the regime’s desire to display its own modernity as well as those of the postal and telegraphic communications functions of the building.27

4.2 Mussolini Opens the Aventine Post Office, Via Marmorata, 1935


Giuseppe Samonà designed the post office at the corner of the Via Taranto and the Via Pozzuoli in the Appio neighborhood southeast of the Lateran and the Porta San Giovanni al Laterano, near the Piazza Re di Roma. Samonà had a more restricted site with which to work. He used a compact design with a curved surface at the main entrance facing the corner and with a liberal use of glass on the lateral sides of the building. The fourth new post office arose on the Viale Mazzini in the new and rapidly developing Milvio neighborhood around the Piazza Mazzini. Designed by Armando Titta, it had a curved shape to conform to the corner space it occupied. It also opened in 1935.28

Although not a product of this competition, Angiolo Mazzoni’s 1934 post office at Ostia Lido is another example of strikingly modern design. Mazzoni came to Rome in 1924 and worked for a time in Piacentini’s studio. In his subsequent career he came under a number of influences, from neofuturism to the monumental style of the late 1930s. The post office at Ostia Lido featured a round, colonnaded portico with a fountain at the center that led into the curved public space. The building took the shape of a question mark, with a tower at the base.29


When the new post offices opened in October 1935, Italy had just invaded Ethiopia. Mussolini had gone against the advice of his generals and other advisors in his insistence on war. Initially the campaign did not fare particularly well, but with more troops, airplanes, and the secret use of poison gas plus a new commander, General Badoglio, Italy prevailed. Addis Abeba fell and Mussolini declared that “Ethiopia is Italian!” Then on the evening of May 9, 1936, Mussolini declared to the “oceanic” throng in the Piazza Venezia that Italy again had an empire: “Italy finally has its empire. A fascist empire. . . . An empire of civilization and of humanity for all the populations of Ethiopia. This is in the tradition of Rome, that, after having conquered, it associates the people with its destiny. . . . The Italian people have created with its blood the empire. Make it fruitful with your labor and defend it against anyone with your arms.”30 It would not be long before the fifth map went up on the Via dell’Impero showing the new fascist empire, next to the four depicting the growth of the Roman Empire.

Despite the cost of the war and the cost of intervention in Spain over the next three years, the fascist transformation of Rome continued. The messages in exhibits, demolition, and construction now had more overtly imperial themes, linking fascism’s domestic revolution to its emergence as a major European power. The sanctions imposed by the League of Nations during the Ethiopian conflict caused resentment in Italy that Mussolini exploited by portraying Italy as a victim of hypocritical foreign powers led by England. He looked to Hitler’s Germany for support. In 1936, Mussolini coined the phrase that Rome and Berlin had formed a new “axis” around which Europe would revolve. Italy would subsequently withdraw from the League in 1937.

Mussolini, an avowed atheist and anticleric in his earlier socialist days, recognized the importance of Rome as the center of Catholicism. The Rome of the emperors and then of the popes represented “civilization,” and fascism now shared in that legacy. The conquest of Ethiopia would bring civilization to a barbaric land—despite that land’s significance as one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

In practical terms, Mussolini had come to power in part because he promised to help rather than hinder the church. The Vatican had refused to recognize the new state of Italy when it seized the papal states and then took Rome from the pope in 1870. One of Mussolini’s greatest achievements, and one he took full advantage of for the prestige it brought his regime, was reconciliation with the papacy. Soon after becoming prime minister in 1922, Mussolini began overtures to the Vatican. Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) was receptive. The upshot was the Lateran Accords in 1929, in which Mussolini’s government made a financial settlement with the church, recognized the Vatican as an independent state, and signed a concordat spelling out the special place of the Catholic Church in Italian life. Italians welcomed the reconciliation. Internationally, the agreements gave great prestige to Mussolini and his government. Here was another example of fascism’s ability to solve even the most difficult issues facing Italy.

In 1936, Mussolini announced plans for a new street to commemorate the Lateran Accords of 1929. The fascist government was not the first to consider a new approach to St. Peter’s, but once again it got the credit for accomplishing the task. The plan called for the demolition of the neighborhood immediately in front of the basilica and the construction of a broad avenue running from the Tiber to Bernini’s colonnaded piazza in front of Christendom’s largest church. Although generally a supporter of the regime’s demolitions, Gustavo Giovannoni (1853-1947), the distinguished architectural historian, opposed the project, but he did not stop Mussolini from going ahead with it.31

4.3 Mussolini and Giuseppe Bottai at inauguration of the project for the Via della Conciliazione, 1936


The Duce did the honors on October 28, 1936, as he wielded the ax, the piccone, which launched the project. His entourage that day included Giuseppe Bottai, the only major fascist party official to serve as governor of Rome, a post he held from 1935 to 1937. The major portion of the work was completed by 1938, and the broad new Via della Conciliazione appeared in the official guide-books. There were finishing touches after the war in time for the Holy Year of 1950, and the new street served the fascist regime well as a symbol of its new relationship with the Vatican.

Another project begun during Bottai’s time as governor was the construction of the new Corso Risorgimento, initiated on April 21, 1936. It ran from the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in front of the Church of San Andrea della Valle to the side of the Piazza Navona. It replaced the Via Sediari and the Via Sapienza, site of the older university building. The widening and straightening of this street meant the demolition of a number of buildings and the construction of several new ones. The most prominent of the latter sat directly across from the church and had a small piazza in front of it. The building housed insurance offices and apartments, and the project had the backing of the National Insurance Association, or INA. The fountain that graces this space today was added in 1958 and came from the area demolished to open up the construction of the Via della Conciliazione. The building’s Latin phrases speak of the glory of the new fascist empire.32

4.4 Mussolini visits workers on the Via della Conciliazione, 1937


This project included the one fascist incursion into the Piazza Navona. At the north end at the curve, a new building went in that retained the façade on the piazza side but was a new presence on the outside facing the widened Via Zanardelli. The new fascist building exposed remnants of the original stadium of Domitian and is today open for tourists to descend to the original level.33


When Mussolini spoke from his balcony on the Palazzo Venezia and declared the new fascist empire on May 9, 1936, he shouted to the crowd, “Are you worthy of it?” The crowd, of course, roared back “Yes!” Clearly the Duce enjoyed his imperial role, but it was King Victor Emmanuel III, as head of the Italian state, who assumed the title Emperor of Ethiopia. Nevertheless, no one present for that speech and those that followed could miss the point that Mussolini played the role of the new Augustus. The next phase of Mussolini’s Rome saw the emergence of a self-consciously imperial city.

4.5 Demolition of the north curve on the Piazza Navona, 1937


Mussolini had already set in motion two new projects to glorify Augustus: the “liberation” of the mausoleum of Augustus through demolition and construction, and the exhibit to celebrate the two-thousandth anniversary of Augustus’s birth, to take place in 1937. He launched the first project on October 22, 1934, just a week before closing the Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution. Surrounded by officials and photographers, the Duce swung the now-familiar piccone to begin demolition of the buildings that penned in the circular tomb of Augustus. He declared: “The work of isolating the Augusteo, which today I initiate and that must be finished within three years for the bimillenium of Augustus, has a triple utility: that of history and beauty, that of traffic, that of hygiene. . . . A fourth and not final use: with these works of demolition and of construction of new buildings gives work for three years to numerous workers of every sort. And now I give the word to the pickax.”34

The pickax, the piccone, symbolized Mussolini’s efforts to lead “this new political risorgimento.”35 Every blow of the pickax was a blow against the errors, abuses, inertia, and passivity of the past. With every swing of the piccone Mussolini demonstrated to Italians that work was honorable and necessary. The beginning of this new project in 1934 came just at the closing of the highly successful Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution and the opening up of the Circus Maximus, all part of twelve years of dynamic development under fascism and its leader.

The ambitious project to open up Augustus’s tomb resulted in the creation of the vast Piazza Augusto Imperatore adjacent to the Tiber. The architect Vittorio Morpurgo designed the buildings, with their massive façades and Latin inscriptions, for the piazza. Antonio Muñoz supervised the restoration of the mausoleum, and the work proceeded rapidly in time for the September 1937 celebration of Augustus’s birth, although the construction of the new buildings was not completed until 1941. The west end of the piazza, close to the Tiber, was the spot chosen for the Altar of Peace, the Ara Pacis. It was housed in a simple glass rectangle, and completed in 1938.36

One commentator believes that “the Piazza Augusto Imperatore has proved both an aesthetic and urbanistic failure.”37 Notwithstanding that opinion, shared by other architectural and urban historians, the piazza embodied fascist messages in the imperial, warlike style of the late 1930s. It included a mix of Roman, Christian, and fascist themes. The largest building on the north side provided office space for the national social security administration, which financed the project. The Latin inscription at the far end of the building referred to the “extraction of the mausoleum from the shadow of the centuries,” the reconstruction of the Ara Pacis, and the emergence of new streets, buildings, and churches in place of the former congestion. Two winged victories holding the fasces flanked the inscription. Above were depictions of various kinds of work on either side of the central panel, which featured the river Tiber holding up Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf beneath. The same façade included further illustrations of Roman and fascist military prowess. At one end were depictions of ancient military artifacts such as helmets, shields, bows, and arrows. At the opposite end were modern weapons and motifs.38

The frieze over the long building on the east side of the piazza depicted scenes of work and family. “Motifs of the Tellus relief—the goddess with the full breasts holding healthy babies in her lap, the grazing sheep and lazing cow, the plans and fruits and flowers—are given here a contemporary reading, interspersed with related neo-Augustan concerns, in forty-two near life-size figures on either side of the Mussolini aphorism on the immortality of the Italian people.”39

Ironically, the message of peace permeated the piazza. The Emperor Augustus established the Pax Romana, and his Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, would be the chief attraction along with the mausoleum. The building containing the Illyrian College, Collegio degli Illirici, housed a seminary for Croats and had mosaic panels on the top story celebrating Christ as Prince of Peace, PRINCIPIS PACIS. Mussolini continued to claim that he sought peace, yet as the piazza neared completion in 1940, he would take Italy into the war on the side of Hitler’s Germany.

Another figure of peace in this piazza was Pope Pius XI, who had signed the Lateran Accords with Mussolini’s government and died during the construction of the piazza. One of the plaques on the piazza’s church of San Carlo commemorated Pius, who, as Achille Ratti, celebrated his first mass in this church in 1879. Another plaque recorded the 1929 agreement between Italy and the Vatican, describing Pius as an “advocate of concord among peoples,” who restored Italy to God and God to Italy.40 Two life-sized statues of Saints Carlo and Ambrogio were erected in 1940.

The Piazza Augusto Imperatore exuded fascist propaganda. It served no other purposes, unlike other regime-sponsored complexes: sports at the Foro Mussolini, education at the Città Universitaria, or the international exhibition planned for 1942. It was bound to the politics of its day in a way that makes it something of a historical relic today: interesting but distant. Spiro Kostof came to this conclusion in his study of the piazza: “Its aim as political art had been to use relics of the Augustan age to lend authority to Fascist achievement. The contest, at least in the visual sense, was never really joined. The Fascist side of the balance is too weak: what we are conscious of is the Augustan substance. Our opinion of Augustus is not affected by the association with Mussolini, and our opinion of Mussolini is not enhanced. The Duce yields to the emperor and is lost. The Piazzale, in the end remains a colossal mistake.”41

4.6 Piazza Augusto Imperatore, Mausoleum of Augustus on the right, 2000


Nevertheless, at the time, the regime claimed credit for again accomplishing a project that “liberated” the mausoleum, demolished unhealthy housing, improved traffic, and provided jobs. The immediate benefits for Mussolini’s and fascism’s image were clear enough, and if anyone missed them, the regime never hesitated to issue reminders. The transformation of Rome fit into the regime’s desire to “go toward the people” and to forge a consensus among Italians to support fascist Italy.

Mussolini opened the second Augustan project on September 23, 1937: the Exhibition of Augustus and Romanness, the Mostra Augustea della Romanità. This exhibit took advantage of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni on the Via Nazionale, which had worked so well for the Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution from 1932 to 1934. The Palazzo once again had a new façade for the occasion. The exhibit consisted of reproductions and models of imperial Roman artifacts, and proved popular in attracting visitors. A centerpiece was the large model of imperial Rome at the time of Constantine’s reign, built on a scale of 1:250. Subsequent to the closing of the exhibit, this model, or plastico, along with all the artifacts of the exhibit, went to the new area of Rome called EUR and the Museum of Roman Civilization, where they reside to this day.

Professor Giulio Giglio of the University of Rome organized the exhibit. This glorification of imperial Rome featured the life and conquests of Augustus, the Roman army, law, and other institutions. It also contained a section titled “Fascismo e Romanità.” The regime devoted great energy to advertising the exhibit, organizing group visits, and offering reduced train fares to Rome, all efforts used for the first Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution from 1932 to 1934. Over the entrance to the exhibit were inscribed Mussolini’s words: “Italians, you must ensure that the glories of the past are surpassed by the glories of the future.” At the opening, a symbolic gesture: the presentation of a live eagle to Mussolini, underscored the passing on of the imperial tradition.42

Romantic notions of romanità abounded. An ideal fatherland brought equality for all peoples and a sense of social community based on Roman thought, politics, art, law, language, and religion. Christianity was the spiritual force that also represented romanità. A universal culture and civilization permeated romanità, so that the exhibit conveyed a message for all humanity.43

4.7 Mostra Augustea della Romanità, Via Nazionale, 1937


The Augustan Exhibit also clearly bore an imperial stamp in its conception and execution, in contrast with the dynamism and innovation evident in the 1932 Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution. In Marla Stone’s judgment, its inauguration “offered clues to the regime’s new cultural tastes and priorities.”44 The government required party members to attend, and members of youth organizations were to appear in uniform. The opening events emphasized the heroic early days of the fascist movement: “The highly choreographed inauguration stressed hierarchy and militarism, as opposed to the earlier exhibition’s emphasis upon a broad cross section of the nation and its use of the inauguration to depict the exhibition as a pan-Italian event. In contrast to the festive, almost carnivalesque, atmosphere of the opening day of the 1932 Mostra [della Rivoluzione Fascista], the 1937 exhibition revolved around regimentation and military choreography.”45

The fascist presentation of the new Mostra Augustea emphasized the direct connection between Rome’s glorious past and the possibilities of the present. The parallel between the Roman Empire of antiquity and the modern Italian Empire created by fascism was obvious. The glorification of Augustus as the founder of the ancient empire pointed the audience toward Mussolini as the founder of the new empire. However, the model of ancient Rome re-created the Rome of Constantine, not Augustus. It showed Rome at its imperial height and opened the way to include Roman Christianity as part of the Roman legacy.46

The exhibit provided a tour through the history of Rome from its origins to its fall. It featured both the physical monuments of Rome and its empire, and the cultural achievements of art, letters, music, medicine, and more. Economic life, fashions, sports, and religion all had their place. The main floor traced the physical expansion of Rome from its early days to the height of the empire under Caesar and Augustus. Adjacent rooms were dedicated to the army, the navy, the magistracy, and the law. Next came the advent of Christianity, followed by the legacy of the Roman imperial ideal, and finally the resurgence of empire in a “united and victorious Italy, through the work of the Duce and Fascism.” 47 Mussolini had decided that this great exhibition in honor of Augustus would be in the same location as the triumphant Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution of 1932 to 1934.


On the same September day, Mussolini also opened a new version of the Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution. This second version appeared in the National Gallery of Modern Art in the large Villa Borghese park. The Duce intended to make the exhibit, along with an archive containing documents and artifacts of fascist history, permanent. It would be a shrine dedicated to the fascist movement and party. The architect Cesare Bazzani designed a new façade for the gallery, and Mussolini led the entourage of party officials and members of the youth organizations.

This second version of the exhibit reproduced much of the first version, but within a rather sterile design, compared with the dynamic style of the original. Evident was the didacticism of the rooms, with their flat surfaces and many documents and photographs in panels that required visitors to read and view them at close range. One fascist account noted that the new version had abandoned the more “decorative” approach of the original in favor of a certain “austerity and simplicity of lines.”48 The same account stated that the heart of the exhibit was the heroic period of arditismo andsquadrismo, when the squads of fascists evoked the shock troops of World War I, the arditi, and made fascism a mass movement that ultimately propelled it into power.49

This exhibit attracted far fewer visitors than had the first version. The relatively remote location in the Villa Borghese made it difficult to find, as various officials complained. In addition, the regime had other showpieces, such as the Augustan Exhibit and several exhibits in the Circus Maximus, which it featured and fully supported. The Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution was only one of many exhibits, but it is important in demonstrating basic messages of fascism of the late 1930s.

The layout of the rooms initially copied the first version.50 Officials then decided to revise and update the exhibit, closing it for that purpose on November 20, 1938. When it reopened on March 23, 1939, the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the fascist movement, the sequence of rooms was rearranged and new rooms with new subjects had been added.51

The room, for example, dedicated to the fascist organizations for Italians living abroad, the Fasci all’Estero, moved from the end of the exhibit to the front. The new rooms found space for the accomplishments of the regime since 1922: the reconciliation with the Vatican in 1929, the conquest of Ethiopia and the declaration of the fascist empire, the struggle of Italian “volunteers” fighting for Franco and against Bolshevism in the Spanish Civil War, the Duce’s words and deeds, and the scientific achievements of Guglielmo Marconi.

A more ominous theme was the threat of the Masons and the Jews. Italian fascism, unlike German Nazism, had no racial doctrines or anti-Semitism before 1938, and many Italian Jews supported the regime as a part of their support for the Italian nationalism that had given them citizenship and civil rights when Italy was unified. Mussolini changed all that in 1938 with new racial laws that put Jews at a severe disadvantage. Hence the revised exhibit now showed the Jews as a threat to Italy. There is no evidence that these changes attracted any more visitors. One report at the end of 1939 indicated that attendance had dwindled to eighty a day, sometimes as few as ten. The report urged rerouting bus lines, making a greater effort to advertise the exhibit, bringing all party groups visiting Rome to the exhibit, and making annual visits of school groups obligatory.52 The exhibit finally closed in April 1941.

Immediately after opening the Augustan Exhibit and the second Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution, Mussolini further cemented his relationship with Hitler by visiting the Führer in Berlin from September 25 to 29, 1937, with a stop in Munich on the way. Banner headlines in the fascist press hailed this historic visit both before and during its unfolding. The first announcement portrayed the planned visit as a “decisive event for the history of Europe.”53 Hitler would reciprocate with his visit to Rome the following May.


Prominent among Rome’s fascist spectacles in the late 1930s were the exhibits placed in the Circus Maximus from 1937 to 1939. They combined an outdoor-indoor presentation; the ample space of the Circus Maximus invited visitors to stroll throughout the grounds and then enter specific buildings in order to view the exhibits inside. The buildings, temporary by definition, provided the designers both employment and an opportunity for some experimentation. The central location gave visitors easy access. “The government newsreels, produced by the Istituto Luce, emphasized the exhibitions, the preparations surrounding them, their inauguration, the visits of prominent guests, and other aspects of interest. By law these newsreels were shown before and after feature films.”54

The regime thus had an excellent location to present some of its major political, social, and economic policies and practices to the public in what has been called “a fascist theme park.”55 The first exhibit ran from June 20 to September 1937. The Exhibit of Summer Camps and Assistance to Children, Mostra delle Colonie Estive e dell’Assistenza all’Infanzia, featured aspects of the regime’s program for raising a healthy and thoroughly fascist youth. The architectural team of Adalberto Libera and Mario De Renzi supervised the exhibit’s overall design as well as some of the major buildings. The artist Giovanni Guerrini produced the paintings. Giuseppe Pagano praised the results as proof that such exhibitions could be done with style and art. The project had “unity of style, great clarity, and expository liveliness.”56

To participate in the opening of the exhibition, sixty thousand of the Donne fasciste, members of the fascist organization for women, converged on Rome. They came in special trains on the weekend of the opening and were accommodated in schools fitted out with beds and cots for the occasion. In addition, members of the fascist youth organization for girls, le Giovani fasciste, and of the rural housewives, le Massaie rurale, joined in the festivities.57 The women were thus out in force for the first show in the Circus Maximus and they would be there for the last, when seventy thousand rallied at the closing of the fourth and final one in 1939.58 These displays of fascist women underscored the fact that although women in fascist Italy were primarily wives and mothers, they also participated in mass organizations, contributing to a totalitarian mobilization of the entire population. There may have lurked here a contradiction or incoherence in trying both to domesticate and mobilize women at the same time, as historian Victoria De Grazia suggests in her study of women in fascist Italy.59

The stated purposes of the exhibition were to present every important aspect of the government’s programs for mothers, infants, and youth. Every point of view gained expression, from “the more generally human to the social, from the artistic to the educational, from hygienic to sporting and military.”60 Throughout the summer of 1937 it would serve as a center to draw in large crowds of citizens, especially women and young people, giving them a sense of the lively topics so important to Italy’s present and future and in preparing the fathers and mothers of tomorrow. One fascist source claimed that 2 million visitors saw the exhibition.61 Recently Marla Stone concluded, “attendance at the Fascist Party exhibition remained high through the end of the 1930s: the Mostra delle colonie estive attracted over 500,000 visitors, the Mostra tessile nazionale had an audience of 600,000, and the Mostra autarchica del minerale brought in 1,091,435 people.”62

To make the site attractive, gardens were planted with thousands of flowers and plants. The twelve pavilions occupied about half the space of 56,000 square meters that stretched the length of the Circus Maximus, 600 meters. The pavilions featured various programs and policies of the regime including summer camps, sun-therapy camps, the Italian youth groups abroad (Italiani all’Estero), commercial technology and training (Mercelogia), welfare for children (Assistenza all’Infanzia), a model school, the youth organization (Opera Balilla), the fascist university organization, the Gruppo Universitario Fascista (GUF), and the major state agency of maternity and children’s benefits, the Opera Nazionale Maternità ed Infanzia (ONMI). The result was another fascist city, in this case one that would prove ephemeral: “The entire organization of the exhibition followed the life-path of the individual taken care of by the Fascist regime, from birth (OMNI . . .) to the completion of schooling (GUF . . .). Libera and De Renzi planned the pavilions for child welfare, the schools, the summer camps, and ones at the end—the Merchandizing Pavilion, the convention hall, and the offices—alternating their designs with contributions of other architects.”63

4.8 Mostra delle Colonie Estive, Circus Maximus, 1937


In addition to Libera and De Renzi, three other architects contributed to the exhibition. Ettore Rossi designed the second pavilion, the large ONMI building. Franco Petrucci did the Fasci all’Estero building, which was the seventh pavilion, and Luigi Moretti the eighth pavilion for the Balilla. The overall effect carried the eye along an extended horizontal line of buildings of the same height, punctuated by recesses and towers. The fascist party presented the whole as architecture in the proper service of politics, for the “goal of this show is . . . to present to the genuine people, and not to the intellectual classes, the results of the work of Fascism in some important sectors of the national life: an exposition then of ideas, statistical data, of results reached and by methods employed to reach them.”64

It was no wonder that the use of modern and rationalist design in this highly visible exhibition won Pagano’s enthusiastic endorsement. He saw this exhibit as in the spirit of the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista and a series of exhibits in other major cities that “represented the art of our time” and educated the aesthetic sense of the masses. He optimistically concluded, incorrectly, as it would turn out, that “there exists a generation of Italian artists who have entered, by the direct will of the Duce, into the representative life of fascist art.”65

The second show was the Exhibition of National Textiles, which featured the economic importance of Italy’s textile industry. It took place from November 1937 to March 1938. The opening day on November 18 marked the anniversary of the League of Nations sanctions during the Ethiopian war. A major theme of the exhibit was Italy’s ability to attain self-sufficiency in the production of textiles.66 One of the messages inscribed in the exhibit declared that “We have realized the imperative of the Duce toward the people [verso il popolo]. Our fibers have given to the Italian people the opportunity to be clothed in dignity at modest cost.”67

The Dopolavoro Exhibition, Mostra dell’Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (OND), occupied the Circus Maximus during the summer of 1938, from May to August. The Dopolovoro (literally “after work”) provided leisure-time activities such as sports, travel, theater, cinema, festivals, and other entertainment. Its political aim was to draw workers, peasants, and salaried employees closer to the fascist regime.68 It had a popular quality in two senses: 1) it provided popular entertainment and activity, and 2) it aimed to win over thepopolo to fascism and away from any lingering attachment to other now-forbidden political persuasions, be they socialist, communist, or liberal. “The Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro has been among the primary fascist institutions in favor of that popular education that is one of the strongholds of the regime’s policies. . . . That the Dopolavoro is a political institution is, fascistically speaking, not only conceivable but logical; everything that has its origin in the Regime has ‘political’ content in how it enters into the larger picture of a national purpose; and, so, it appears exquisitely political today, after more than ten years of existence.”69

The exhibit featured the full range of activities provided by the Dopolavoro: sports, radio, cinema, theater, music, popular festivals, and traditions. The fascist party ran these programs for “educational and moral purpose.”70 One pavilion, devoted to “Popolaresca,” contained a full range of popular Italian festivals. Indeed, the exhibit included an entire “rustic village.” There was an outdoor swimming pool and a pavilion dedicated to sporting activities. A group of artists, including the futurist painter Enrico Prampolini, contributed the paintings and murals. Another pavilion showed the OND social and hygienic services. The “Organization” pavilion gave statistics and photographic documentation of the Dopolavoro “of the Empire, Libya, the Armed Forces and Abroad.”71 Overall this exhibition illustrated the combination of entertainment and propaganda evident in each of the four shows in the Circus Maximus, as Marla Stone has noted: “At the exhibitions, the spectator could be simultaneously fun-loving, traveling, patriotic, and Fascist.”72

On November 18, 1938, again using the anniversary of the League of Nations sanctions, Mussolini inaugurated the fourth exhibit in the Circus Maximus, the Autarchic Exhibition of Italian Minerals, the Mostra Autarchica del Minerale Italiano. It remained open until May 1939 and attracted a million visitors. 73 In the narrow sense, it celebrated the economic self-sufficiency sought and achieved by fascist Italy, but in a wider sense it “represented a history of Italy armed in order to indicate the ineluctability of wars. This was the direct and disquieting message of the exhibition.”74Indeed this show glorified the imperialism and militarism meant to convince Italians that Italy was now a great nation destined for war and conquest.

The show was composed of twenty-three pavilions that covered a surface of 35,000 square meters. Another 24,000 meters contained piazzas, streets, and gardens. The directors and designers included Cipriano Efisio Oppo for artistic direction, Luigi Mancini for technical direction, with Mario De Renzi, Giovanni Guerrini, Mario Paniconi, and Giulio Pediconi in charge of artistic and architectural planning.75

A major message of this exhibit argued that Italy had no choice but to pursue economic autarchy if it wished to be a great and respected power pursuing an independent foreign policy. The sanctions imposed on Italy during the Ethiopian war “with brutality and cynicism without equal” demonstrated vividly the way in which other powers had and could victimize Italy. Mussolini had won the “Battle for Grain” to gain self-sufficiency in wheat production, and now he would lead the nation into a more comprehensive battle to obtain as much self-sufficiency as possible in materials such as gas, coal, steel, and other metals needed in a modern economy and for modern warfare. “The Regime has put [autarchy] on the front line among the most urgent solutions to face when it has proclaimed Italian independence in foreign policy. Because an independent foreign policy, a prime element of greatness, becomes almost impossible when there exists economic dependence of raw materials.”76

The twenty-three pavilions contained thirty-nine sections that covered a wide range of materials and products. Metals and minerals were prominent, but building materials, such as marble, granite, and other stones, mineral water, salt, ingredients for cement, and sulfur had their places. One section reproduced a marble quarry and another, appropriately underground, a coal mine. And there was a photograph of the Duce in miner’s garb.

The buildings flanked the grand Boulevard of Pavilions (Viale Padiglioni), which ran the full length of the Circus Maximus. From the entrance at the foot of this street, the visitor saw at the far end the square tower rising forty-one meters with a huge imperial eagle affixed to the façade with “AUTARCHIA” emblazoned across the top. A little farther along he or she could read the phrase beneath the eagle’s talons: “MUSSOLINI HA SEMPRE RAGIONI” (“MUSSOLINI IS ALWAYS RIGHT”).

The meaning of pursuing an independent foreign policy to achieve “greatness” found ample illustration in the Pavilion of Arms, the Padiglione delle Armi, designed by Mario De Renzi. It was one of the largest pavilions, located at the far end of the exhibit next to the tower with its eagle. In other words, it brought the visitor to the culmination of the exhibit and its ultimate meaning. The building had displays of arms from the past, but they gave pride of place to modern arms for the army, navy, and air force.77

The four exhibits in the Circus Maximus had their origins and inspiration in the highly successful Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution in 1932. As Herman Finer pointed out (see chapter 2), this exhibit brought thousands of Italians to Rome to witness the wonderful works of fascism and the newly emerging Mussolini’s Rome. The Circus Maximus exhibits differed, however, from that dynamic and innovative show celebrating the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome. These large, open-air exhibits celebrated the accomplishments and policies of fascist Italy. They presented ideal “cities” that all Italians regardless of class or regional background could enjoy while experiencing pride and a sense of national unity.

Held in Rome, the shows drew crowds to the national capital. The Roman location played a critical ideological role in reinforcing the idea of a Fascist-enabled national unity—a national unity grounded both in the present and in the historic past. For many of those whom the regime bused, trained, or trucked to Rome, these events represented their first introduction to the Italian nation. The regime used the Roman location “at the heart of the nation” to stress Fascism’s connection to ancient Rome and to elevate Rome as the spiritual, national home of all Italians.78


Outside of Rome, but very much part of Mussolini’s Rome in fascist planning and propaganda, were the Pontine Marshes. Writer and art critic Ugo Ojetti declared in 1941 that one could not write about Mussolini’s Rome without speaking of the redemption of the Agro Pontino.79 Early in his rule of Italy, Mussolini made the reclamation of this area a top priority. Here the regime would redeem thousands of acres for use as farmland and as the site of new towns. Ultimately five new towns appeared in the 1930s: Littoria (today’s Latina), Sabaudia, Pomezia, Pontinia, and Aprilia. These towns offered examples of fascist architecture and town planning that the regime presented reflective of the changes taking place within the city proper.

The Pontine Marshes lay south and southwest of Rome, in the area stretching down to Anzio. For centuries, various schemes promised to drain this unhealthy wasteland and turn it to productive uses, but the fascist regime made it a priority and began work in the 1920s. Once it accomplished the major work of draining and controlling the water, it took the next step of turning the area into farmland. Then came the new towns. In the 1930s, government propaganda used the area to show fascism’s achievements. Mussolini visited numerous times, always being mindful of what we today call “photo ops.” On several occasions the Duce joined peasants at harvest time to thresh wheat. Here was the man of the people, tanned and stripped to the waist, participating in the “Battle of Grain” to make Italy self-sufficient in wheat.

The transformation of the Agro Pontino through reclamation, or bonifica, became a metaphor for the fascist transformation and redemption of the nation:

Initially, the term [bonifica] referred to the conversion of swampland into arable soil and New Towns along the Latium coast and in Sicily and Sardegna. Yet land reclamation merely constituted the most concrete manifestation of the fascists’ desire to purify the nation of all social and cultural pathology. The campaigns for agricultural reclamation (bonifica agricola), human reclamation (bonifica umana), and cultural reclamation (bonifica della cultura) together with the anti-Jewish laws, are seen here as different facets and phases of a comprehensive project to combat degeneration and radically renew Italian society by “pulling up the bad weeds and cleaning up the soil.”80

4.9 Mussolini visits the work in the Agro Pontino, 1931


Mussolini reminded Italians repeatedly that the fascist revolution aimed to reclaim, redeem, transform, improve, modernize, and strengthen Italy. He had promised in 1928 to “redeem the earth; and with the earth man; and with men, the race.”81 This idea came to permeate fascist efforts at change, including the transformation of Rome. As Mussolini’s Rome emerged in the 1930s, it too qualified as bonifica, consistent with the dramatic reclamation of the Pontine Marshes.

The vast project of reclaiming the marshes served important propaganda purposes for the regime at home and abroad. It gave the impression of embarking on a “revolutionary project, a project in keeping with both the Fascist creation of a new civilization and a revolt against urban society.”82The August 1934 issue of the National Geographic Magazine carried a flattering presentation of the work to date written by Italian Senator Gelasio Caetani. Caetani reported that 14,000 men were at work in the region and that by October 28, 1935, “all the stagnant waters of this region should be drained off to the sea, malaria should be eradicated, 4,000 farmhouses built and populated with as many peasant families drawn from the crowded agricultural provinces of the north.”83

The regime used the National Institution for Combatants, the Opera Nazionale per I Combattenti (ONC), as the agency for the work in the Agro Pontino. Founded in 1917 to assist veterans, it “floundered along for several years until under the aegis of the Fascist party in 1926 it changed from an agency that gave modest assistance to the immediate claims of the demobilized soldiers to the first large state structure for the agrarian transformation undertaken by the Fascist regime.”84 The ONC financed the work through loans from Italy’s oldest bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, and funds from the Consorzio delle Opere Pubblico, a state agency.

Five new towns came out of the Pontine project. From Rome, moving south and southwest, the towns and their inaugural dates were: Pomezia (October 28, 1939), Aprilia (October 29, 1937), Littoria (December 18, 1932), Pontinia (December 18, 1935) and Sabaudia (April 15, 1934). From the smallest, Pontinia, to the largest, Littoria, each one manifested in its plan and organization the regime’s ideas and ideals. All the essential buildings appeared: the town hall, the church, the post office, the fascist party headquarters, the youth building, and other government and party facilities. The new towns of the Agro Pontino departed from the more traditional Italian pattern of a main piazza with both the major civic and religious buildings, in establishing the main piazza for civic and party buildings and the church in a secondary piazza, “a telling indication of the PNF’s [Partito Nazionale Fascista] expectations about the role the church should play in Italy’s future.”85

In addition to but smaller than the towns were the villages or borghi. Each borgo contained a chapel, medical dispensary, general store, offices, an elementary school, and a post office. In one of the first built, Borgo Vodice, a monument to the war dead related to the new colonists from northern Italy stood behind the church. Beyond the borghi were the individual farms.86

Construction on the largest of the new towns, Littoria (now Latina) began in April 1932, and Mussolini attended the official groundbreaking in June.87 He returned to preside over the inauguration of Littoria on December 18, 1932. The Duce proclaimed to the crowd assembled for the occasion: “Today is a great day for the Revolution of the Black Shirts, it is a happy day for the Agro Pontino, a glorious day in the history of the Nation. What was in vain attempted during 25 centuries, today we have translated into a living reality.” Furthermore, he declared that Italians no longer had to seek work and land beyond the Alps or beyond the ocean, for opportunities here were less than half an hour from Rome. “It is here that we have conquered a new province. It is here that we have conducted and will conduct true and proper operations of war. This is the war that we prefer.”88

Mussolini made subsequent visits at the annual celebration of the city’s anniversary, when he could also present awards to local officials and farmers for their accomplishments. On December 18, 1934, Littoria became the capital city for the new province of Littoria. By 1941, the city had a population of 19,500 and the province 30,000.89 Today’s Latina has approximately 100,000 inhabitants.90

As a new place arising on new ground, Littoria manifested fascist ideas of town planning carried out de novo without any physical or historical barriers or obstructions. The main Piazza Littorio was located on the main axis running through the town. The town hall, the palazzo municipio,dominated this square, and Mussolini addressed the crowds from its balcony. Streets then radiated out from the piazza, today the Piazza del Popolo, to other centers of activity. The Piazza XXIII Marzo, Piazza March 23, commemorated the founding of the fascist movement on March 23, 1919, and is today the Piazza della Libertà. Two blocks away was the Piazza San Marco, with the town’s main church. Two blocks beyond the church there arose the massive Palazzo M built in the shape of an M to honor Mussolini. A few steps away lay the Viale XXI Aprile, part of a ring road around the city.

4.10 Town Hall, Littoria (now Latina), 2003


This Viale XXI Aprile defined the core of the fascist city. Within or on it stood all the principal buildings mentioned previously. By the late 1930s, the core also included a train station, post office, palace of justice, police station, and various buildings for state and party agencies such as the ONC, the ONMI, the fascist militia, the fascist youth, and the sports stadium. “As the capital of the new province, Littoria was completely outfitted with the national and local institutions necessary for the administration of the town and the province—town hall and municipal offices, or commune; Casa del Fascio; post office; carabinieri headquarters; Dopolavoro; GIL; militia barracks; as well as churches, schools, hospital, cinema, and sports facilities.”91

Sabaudia had a plan similar to Littoria’s but on a smaller scale. It was surrounded on three sides by water and quickly developed as both a center for local agricultural life and for vacationers. The road to Rome and Littoria formed the major axis in the town, culminating in the Piazza della Rivoluzione, today the Piazza di Comune. This major piazza was just south of the intersection with the other axial road that went west to Terracina. The fascist party’s Casa del Fascio shared the space on the Piazza della Rivoluzione, along with the movie theater, market, and hotel. A short distance away and clearly visible from the main piazza was the secondary piazza, which was dominated by the church of the Annunciation.

Diane Ghirardo has noted that in Sabaudia, as in most of the other new towns, there was a striking absence of “one of the most cherished institutions of Italian life—the osteria, or bar. The omission of a place for casual group gatherings could only be deliberate.”92 The regime did not want to encourage informal meetings that might turn political in nature.

Sabaudia’s name derived from the Savoyard dynasty of Piedmont, which became the ruling dynasty of the newly unified kingdom of Italy in 1861. Hence, King Victor Emmanuel III and Queen Elena inaugurated the new city on April 15, 1934, as the inscription on the town hall still notes. Mussolini made his first visit later that year on September 22, speaking from the balcony overlooking the Piazza della Rivoluzione.

Then, as now, Sabaudia gained considerable recognition for the modern style of its architecture. Giuseppe Pagano held it up as a favorable example of modern architecture at work for the fascist state. Its design and construction coincided with the period in the early 1930s when Mussolini still favored those architects who could design buildings to show that fascist Italy was modern and revolutionary. As a fascist publication put it, “Mussolini himself opportunely intervened in the debate [over style] in favor of modern rationalism, especially [regarding] those buildings which reflected the new social functions of the Fascist state, such as youth clubs, health centers and Fascist organizations.”93 The debate had erupted in 1934 when conservative fascists criticized the plans for Sabaudia, the new university, and the Florence train station as in an international style and even “bolshevik” in conception, but Mussolini defended, for the moment, “rational and functional architecture” as in keeping with the spirit of ancient Rome’s greatest monuments.94

The regime opened Pontinia, Aprilia, and Pomezia with similar fanfare. Every new town demonstrated, in Mussolini’s words, that “our will is methodical, tenacious, indomitable.” Of the five towns, Littoria and Sabaudia figured most prominently in propaganda. Littoria’s size and status as a provincial capital gave it prominence of place. Sabaudia’s population of five thousand made it a distant second to Littoria, but the town attracted great attention for its architectural importance and its potential as a seaside resort town, functions beyond its original purpose as a center for agriculture, which was the basic purpose of all the new towns. Diane Ghirardo noted that “in urban arrangement, the subsequent New Towns are patterned more after Sabaudia than after Littoria, so its urban arrangements warrant a closer look.”95

The bold effort of reclamation, bonifica, was not without problems—problems not reported by the regime to the public. The majority of early colonists came from the Venetian countryside, and some came either unwillingly or enticed by promises they later saw as unfulfilled. Farmers worked as sharecroppers without title to the land. The quality, furnishings, and sanitation of the farmhouses brought complaints, and there were even work stoppages in a country where strikes were now illegal. “Mussolini saw the dismal state into which many farms and even the canals and infrastructure had fallen by 1938,” and when his prefect from Rome visited Pomezia in 1940, he “noted a heavy feeling of misery everywhere; some houses lacked furniture, including beds, and everywhere colonists complained that they lacked shoes, clothes, or linens.”96

The Agro Pontino lay in the path of bitter fighting during World War II as the Allies fought to break out from the Anzio beachhead in 1944 and move toward Rome. Littoria suffered some damage from aerial bombardment before the Anzio landing and more damage during the fighting until the Germans abandoned the city on May 25. Aprilia stood in a direct line with Anzio and thus suffered some of the heaviest fighting. The town passed back and forth between German and Allied control, as the opposing forces struggled for domination of the area and the adjacent Mussolini Canal. When the Allies finally occupied the town on June 2, it was completely destroyed. The Allied armies at Anzio and Monte Cassino made their breakout at the end of May and early June, occupying all of the Agro Pontino before pushing on to liberate Rome on June 4, 1944. Both Aprilia and Littoria, now Latina, underwent rebuilding after the war, but only Latina still has its principal buildings from the 1930s.97

The fascist regime waged a largely successful campaign during the 1930s against the malaria that had constantly plagued the area. Although the fascists never eliminated malaria, they succeeded in drastically cutting the number of cases to a fraction of what they had been before the reclamation of the marshes began. During the war, the Germans tried their hand at biological warfare by destroying the pumping stations and flooding the area before their retreat, hoping that the consequent increase in malaria would cause confusion and delay among the Allied troops. The military results were inconsequential, but this unfortunate tactic did bring about a dramatic increase in malaria from 1944 to 1946.98 Thus one of the positive achievements of Mussolini’s government disappeared with the national disaster that overtook Italy as a result of joining forces with Nazi Germany.

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