Honors in Rome - WInter 2007
Benito Mussolini was born in 1883, the son of a socialist party member who encouraged him to question authority from an early age. Even from the beginning, Mussolini’s life could be characterized by boisterous behavior leading in all accounts to agitation; be it revolutionary, or just in his personal life. This was true of his early years, represented by a series of expulsions from school and various fights. Ironically, he grew up to become a school teacher, but was not well received in this trade, and eventually was fired for his controversial ideas and teaching method. From early on, he exemplified impressive public speaking skills that he would continue to develop as his goals became clear, and his ambitions began to become reality.
Following his failure as a teacher, Mussolini got a job creating propaganda for a trade union, proposing strikes and advocating violence as a means to enforce demands. In 1902, Mussolini immigrated to Switzerland as an attempt to dodge the draft. There, he was arrested for vagrancy, and eventually deported for his political agitation. After he returned to Italy, he started to work as the editor of the socialist newspaper La Lotta di Classe, (The Class Struggle). Shortly after, he moved to Milan to become editor of the official Socialist newspaper of Italy, called Avanti!. He became a powerful labor leader there as well. As Italy approached entry into WWI , Mussolini refocused his political agenda into a widespread public outcry, calling for the working class to unite into “one formidable fascio”. He believed that only acceptable war was a class war, with the sole intention of overthrowing the government. Ultimately influenced by Marx’s idea that class revolution usually follows war, Mussolini abruptly reevaluated his stance and began to fervently advocate war. This prompted his almost immediate expulsion from his position as editor and ultimately from the socialist party. Mussolini’s background in mass media, combined with his persuasive personality and effective use of symbols contributed to his highly successful propagandistic campaigns.
After leaving the socialist party, Mussolini started his own newspaper in 1914, Il Popolo d’Italia. Il Popolo d’Italia was meant to convey the virtues of nationalism and militarism, but even more so, Mussolini the newspaper was intended to promote the pre-war cause. He believed, as Marx suggested, that war would lead to the collapse of society and government. Once this happened Mussolini believed he could take advantage of this struggle to take power for himself. In order to organize this ambition, he founded the political movement Fasci di Combattimento in March 1919. This is the point were Fascism became a true political movement. Formal and widespread organization began in the months to come, with Benito Mussolini at the helm. The fascists would not be elected into parliament until two years later, but their presence did not go unnoticed during this period leading up to formalized power within the legitimate government of Italy. Previous to 1921, the Fascist Party had used their influence and militaristic appeal to gain the support of the growing number of World War I veterans. Disillusioned with the current state of Italian government and its previous failures, this group of veterans’ discipline and militaristic organizational skills were an invaluable resource to the fledgling Fascist party. They formed into armed bands of Squadristi, who began a movement of terror and brutal attacks on anarchists, socialists and communists, crushing labor strikes as well as spreading revolutionary agitation.
After nationwide labor strike in 1922, it was time for Mussolini’s plan to be put into motion. In Naples, he assembled 40,000 of his fascist followers, known as the Blackshirts, with the intent of leading a March on Rome. With the rise of radical groups flying the flags of anarchism and communism, combined with the weakness and general failure of the liberal government, Mussolini knew it was time to take a calculated risk. He threatened a violent coup with the March on Rome. With his back against the wall, Vittorio Emanuele III couldn’t salvage the already failing existing government and face radical threats of anarchism and communism. Although Mussolini’s intention of violence through the March on Rome was to be mostly a bluff, by the time the Blackshirts dragged themselves into Rome they were cold and wet, armed with anything from pistols to table legs. The gesture was powerful enough however; it was too much for the current government. Vittorio Emanuele III invited the fascists to reorganize the government with Mussolini as acting prime minister. The March on Rome switched roles from a military action to a celebratory parade. This propagandistic display was not lost on the Romans; the March on Rome was to be likened again and again to the Roman triumph of the ancients and compared to Sulla and Julius Caesar’s coups d’etat more than 2000 years earlier.
Mussolini’s rise was the product of a social climate of disquiet and fear among the middle-class of postwar Italy. This general feeling of unrest among the people of Italy, with converging and interrelated economic, political, and cultural pressures was just the right scenario for Mussolini. He was an imposing, charismatic leader and a revolutionary agitator. For the disillusioned Italian people, these were necessary qualities to rally around. The Allied powers left Italy out of the cut with regards to the spoils of war in Treaty of Versailles. Despite Italy’s being on the winning side of WWI, they were left with a “mutilated victory” which created a political climate parallel with that of Germany. Charismatic, and radical, leaders like Mussolini and Hitler came to power in this climate; they could hypnotize a nation with their often violent promises of grandeur.
Grandeur for Mussolini meant empire building. In 1934 Mussolini said, “After the Rome of the Caesars, after that of the Popes, today there is a new Rome, Fascist Rome”(Tronzo 294). His dream was to be called Mare Nostrum or, “Our Mediterranean”, extending from Palestine to Egypt and throughout parts of Africa. The idea of empire building reawakened an aggressive sense of nationalism; inspiring Italy’s growth and attempt at restored dignity. Through the use of propaganda, Mussolini instilled the idea of nationalism so deeply that he was free to fashion himself in any way; creating his legend of Il Duce. Mussolini ha sempre ragione: a ubiquitously quoted and displayed slogan of Mussolini’s fascist regime stated simply thus: Mussolini is always right. This was to be the major theme of many of Mussolini’s architectural reconstruction movements in Rome. His background in media here was important. Mussolini was personally responsible for the absolute control over the media in Italy at the time. His secretive methods still gave the impression of a free press, however. His building plans, like the Master Plan of 1931, and economic revitalization were so successful at first that the US and Europe hailed him as a genius. This world opinion wouldn’t last, however. In 1935 Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. The League of Nations responded immediately with economic sanctions. This was eventually a major factor in Italy’s downfall as it was ill equipped and unprepared for a large-scale, modern war due to Italy’s lack of available natural resources. Mussolini’s recreation of a roman empire was commemorated by the monumental construction of the Via dell’Impero.
Mussolini began his architectural movement as a propagandistic tool very early on. Mussolini attempted to turn monuments of Augustan Rome into symbols of the fascist doctrine. His goals in doing so were to validate his role as the founder of a new Roman empire and to inspire a new sense of Italian pride, which would come to be known as romanita. He recognized in himself a parallel to the Roman emperors, Augustus in particular, as such strove to recreate a sense of imperial grandeur. Incredible power is reflected by incredible architecture, Mussolini had a supreme sense of this. Architecture provides for any ruler a stage set for intimidating rituals and propagandistic displays. This meant a lot of marching, and the Via dell’Impero was perfect for it. During the speech he delivered upon the installation of the first fascist governor of Rome on December 31st, 1925, he made his plans for a new Rome public:
“My ideas are clear, my orders are exact, and certain to become a concrete reality. Within five years Rome must strike all the nations of the world as a source of wonder: huge, well organized, powerful, as it was at the time of the Augustan Empire. You will continue to free the trunk of the great oak from everything that clutters it. You will create spaces around the Theater of Marcellus, the Capitol, the Pantheon. Everything that has grown up around these building during centuries of decadence must be removed. Within five years the mass of the Pantheon must be visible from the Piazza Colonna through a large space. You will also free from parasitic and profane architectural accretions the majestic temples of Christian Rome, The millenary monuments of our history must loom larger in requisite isolation.”
Before Mussolini opened up the zone north of the excavated forum, this was an area of narrow streets and densely packed buildings, with an occasional patch of rough ground or partly excavated ancient structure. The idea was to create a processional avenue. Building began in 1931, with Mussolini breaking ground: “Let the pickaxe speak!”
The Via dell’Impero was opened in 1932 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome. The overall point of the imperial boulevard was to establish and promote a relationship between the glory of ancient Rome and Mussolini’s Fascist Regime. The broad thoroughfare physically connects the most identifiable ancient symbol of the Coliseum with Mussolini’s Fascist headquarters in Piazza Venezia. More importantly it was a figurative symbol to seamlessly show the continuity of the Roman Empire. The October 28th opening ceremony was characterized by Mussolini’s usual theatrical display, featuring Mussolini riding on horseback in full military regalia down the new boulevard. During his dedication speech, delivered to a crowd of 400,000, Mussolini declared:
“A great event has taken place…the fate of Ethiopia has been sealed. Our gleaming sword has cut through all the knots, and our African victory now shines with a pure light…Italy at last has her Empire, the Fascist Empire.” Later on he said of the Via dell’Impero:
“Streets are also born under a sign of destiny. The Roman Via dell’impero could not more speedily affirm the fate implied by its name. No sooner born, it has become the true heart of Rome. And here beats the most ardent life of the capital city of Italy.”
A display of five maps showing the extent of the Roman Empire certain points, including the zenith of the empire, were installed on the outer wall of the Basilica of Maxentius, near the forum. The final marble tablet shows the additions to Italy that occurred during Mussolini’s reign, namely Ethiopia. It has since been stolen. These maps were part of the Fascist ritual performed here regularly. The contrast of the white marble on black stone was meant to demonstrate the empire as morally positive while other parts of the world seemed backward or evil. During ceremonies, one could liken the increasing might in the first four maps to the government’s ideological goals and dreams of empire. The tablets reflected the passage of time marked by the ritual. Fascist Youth battalions marched up the broad avenue. They moved up through increasingly important levels through the party, as the empire developed and flourished.
The construction of the Via dell’Impero was and still is, not without controversy. Mussolini’s propaganda machine had an affinity for inaugurating works on anniversaries made meaningful by Fascist doctrine. Dates of the March on Rome or Augustus’ birthday, as well as labor day and the supposed date of the founding of Rome were used frequently. In order to meet the deadline of the tenth anniversary of the march on Rome, the construction of Via dell’Impero was undertaken with general indifference, bordering on negligence, towards the ancient ruins uncovered there. Construction only took 11 months. The site was not handled as an archeological dig, and very little documentation came out of the freshly unearthed area of the ancient Forum. The initial preparation of the site disturbed and in most cases destroyed ruins and 8th century B.C. tombs underground, as well as completely demolishing medieval churches and renaissance gardens. Little attention was paid to the archeological information lost during the actual construction; to deem Mussolini’s plan as controversial would be completely unheard of. Now, of course, we are free to comment. Henry Hope Reed, urban planning citric, had this to say:
“As one of the most ambitious of Mussolini’s attempts to re-create in Rome the city of the ancients, it is only fair to the planners to say that the Dictator traced the line himself, and boasted that it was constructed at his will. The only comment worth making on this carefully and extensively laid out waste is that, with its concrete paths leading nowhere and its municipal lamp standards lighting nothing, it is the most symbolic and fitting memorial to a dictatorship in existence.”
Since the time of the Roman emperors, those attempting to maintain a relationship of power have used architecture as a vehicle of propaganda. Mussolini was very aware of the effect of urban planning on the people he meant to control. Fascist architecture was designed to be huge, cold, and uncaring; a physical representation of authority and an altar to the persona of a dictator.
Scobie, Alex. Hitler's State Architecture: the Impact of Classical Antiquity. London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.
Tronzo, William. St. Peter's in the Vatican. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 294-296.