Friday, August 15, 2008

Il Vittoriano: An Exercise in Hubris

Kevin Fernando
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

What is That Thing?

Very rarely does a building generate as much controversy and outrage as Rome’s Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. Upon observing it, it is easy to see why: it is obviously the sort of building that was meant to inspire our more visceral emotions. There is absolutely nothing subtle about it: the monument is an enormous structure, looming over Rome’s elegant cityscape like a Cthulhic monster. It is flanked by some of Rome’s most lovely trophies, (such as Trajan’s Forum and the Campidoglio), but its colossal size and flamboyant design dwarfs even these landmarks.

What function could a building so self-important possibly serve? The answer to this question, in short, is that the structure serves no practical function at all; it is merely a monument. When the building (known colloquially as “Il Vittoriano”) was first commissioned in 1885, the Italian government had lofty ambitions for the site. At its most superficial level, it was meant to be a memorial of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. But even a cursory glance at Il Vittoriano will reveal that it was intended to be more than just a simple memorial sculpture. The true reason behind its construction was to give the newly-united Italy an icon to rally around. Its architect, Giuseppe Sacconi, envisioned the site as a sort of cultural hub – something that would at once embody Italian identity and flaunt the power of the state. To this end, he did not desire something graceful and understated; such an aesthetic would not suit the government’s agenda. No: Sacconi wanted to create something that was monolithic, brazen, huge. In this respect, at least, he succeeded stupendously.

In others, however, he did not. Perhaps the grandest failure of Il Vittoriano is the unenthusiastic reaction it has received from the Italian populace since its creation. At best, it has been treated with a sense of dismissive endearment, viewed by Romans as the city’s ugly stepchild. At worst, it has been the target of endless mockery. Over the years, it has acquired a whole slew of humorous, derisive nicknames. Probably the most popular is “La Torta Nuziale” (the Wedding Cake), which is particularly appropriate, given the structure’s multi-tiered design and stark white color. “The Typewriter” is another popular epithet; it was first coined by American soldiers marching through Rome in 1944.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, all of this lampoonery is probably well-earned. With its grand staircases and soaring colonnades, Il Vittoriano may appear impressive to some. To others, it is an atrocity – an affront to good taste, and a brash contradiction of every architectural lesson that Rome ever taught. Art historians and scholars, in particular, have approached the monument with varying degrees of hate. To them, it represents everything that was wrong with late-19th century memorial architecture, which was typified by showiness and pretension – two things that Il Vittoriano possesses in excess. The monument’s most detestable trait is its gleaming white color: unlike most of Rome’s great buildings, which were constructed with soothing travertine, the monument was heft from pure-white marble from Brescia. Not only is this unforgivably gaudy, but it also causes the building to clash drastically with the earthy hues of Rome’s cityscape. In fact, only the direct intervention of Mussolini halted a plan to paint the structure yellow, in order to make it more congruous with its surroundings. This is only compounded by the clumsiness of the building’s architecture – “histrionic, monstrous and gross,” as critic Peter Davies describes it.

But never mind its artistic vulgarities: Il Vittoriano’s greatest offense, in the eyes of art historians, is what was demolished to build it. An entire slope of the Capitoline Hill was razed in order to accommodate its massive frame, and in the process, an immense wealth of art and history was lost. A medieval village, which had thitherto been very well preserved, was reduced to dust. Maybe the most regrettable casualty was Pope Paul III’s villa and fortification tower – a crucial piece of the Farnese family’s history, now lost forever.

Thus, Il Vittoriano is generally treated by art critics with contempt – and perhaps for good reason. Because of this, not many serious scholarly studies have been conducted on it, with most writers choosing instead to focus on monument’s various artistic evils. However, this paper will attempt to find a more intellectually-productive way of interpreting the monument. Il Vittoriano tells a story: the story of the Italian State, and its vain struggle to forge a national identity for its citizens. The following sections will recount this story, first by examining how the designers of the monument intended for it to inspire a sense of national fervor and solidarity. Second, we will consider the monument’s significance in the context of Italian imperialism and irredentism. We will then explore Il Vittoriano’s role as a “shrine to the state” and an icon of Liberal secularism. Finally, we will consider the role of Il Vittoriano in the context of Mussolini’s Italy, when it became an important convening point for Fascist rallies.

As a Symbol of Italian Unity and Identity:

As should be evident from its name, Il Vittoriano was erected to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy, who had died only seven years prior to the monument’s commissioning in 1885. By most accounts, he had a flamboyant personality – a trait that is echoed very clearly in Sacconi’s architecture. He was also a well-loved ruler, which is perhaps the only reason that the public did not balk at the exorbitant cost of his memorial.

However, Il Vittoriano was intended to be far more than just an empty remembrance of the dead king. To understand some of the other motivations behind the monument, let us consider the state of Italy at the time of its commissioning. In 1885, Italy was still a fledgling nation. Only 15 years earlier, Victor Emmanuel had seized Rome from the French and Papal Armies, thus unifying the Italian Peninsula under a single banner for the first time since antiquity.

But even though it had been united geographically, the country was almost completely bereft of a national identity. This was the fundamental problem of Risorgimento: it had united a group of people far too diverse to be subsumed into a single, collective identity. The regions that Emmanuel and his cohort had struggled so fiercely to unite were, in many respects, indisposed to unity. For centuries, they had operated independently from one another, each polity having its own unique culture, commerce, and form of governance. To complicate things, there was no such thing as an Italian “mother tongue;” there were eight major dialects spoken in Italy at the time of Risorgimento, with many other minor dialects also in circulation. The fact that these dialects were frequently incomprehensible to one another only broadened the gap between regions. The state, in essence, was trying to impose itself on a diverse body of people that were fundamentally indisposed to the concept of “nationality.”

In spite of these barriers, the need to define a national identity was absolutely crucial to the State’s survival, especially in the context of 19th Century European nationalism. Il Vittoriano arose from this need: its architects intended for it to be a cultural icon that the still-fractured people of Italy could unite around. In many ways, the monument can be seen as the ultimate expression of the State’s frustrations – yet another bold attempt to force italianit√† upon the people of United Italy, this time in the form of a giant marble monument.

The ways in which Il Vittoriano strives to exemplify italianit√† are varied and intellectually-complex. The basic way that Sacconi hoped to accomplish this was by alluding to the past glories of Classical Rome. This, he hoped, would tap into the collective memory of the Italian people, and inspire a pride in their heritage. He visualized the monument as a “three-tiered acropolis,” meant to recall the temples of antiquity. Its neoclassical style also alludes to Ancient Rome: the building’s terraced structure, elaborate reliefs and Corinthian columns all attempt to imitate Classical architectural conventions (albeit in a very melodramatic manner.) The reliefs, in fact, are a blatant visual allusion to the Ara Pacis, which was constructed during the zenith of the Roman Empire. In this way, the monument lays claim to the glorious heritage of the Italian people, functioning as a monolithic reminder of what they once were and what they should aspire to become.

Most of the Il Vittoriano’s themes, however, stretch beyond what superficial architectural trappings are able to communicate. From top to bottom, the monument is stacked with all sorts of symbolic figures that, when taken as a whole, weave together a highly-romanticized narrative of Italian history. Especially central to this symbolic narrative is the figure of Dea Roma – the goddess who, in ancient times, personified the Roman State. The entire bottom level of the monument is dedicated to her, and functions as a sort of pagan altar to the goddess. She appears at the very center of the bottom tier, clad in a toga and superimposed against a wall of golden tesserae. Flanking her on either side are two marble reliefs, which depict a procession of working-class Italian citizens, all dressed in Classical garb. They gather around the figure of Roma with an almost-filial submission, thus casting Roma – and by extension, the state – as a maternal figure who is to be respected and obeyed. It is a very communal image, one that was likely meant to inspire a sense of solidarity and civic pride in the viewer.

On the second level of the monument, the symbolic narrative continues. Much like the first tier functions as an altar to Roma, the second tier is dedicated exclusively to the deceased king, Victor Emmanuel. His enormous bronze equestrian statue, set atop a decorated plinth, dominates the platform. The scale of the statue is huge to the point of being oppressive. It was consciously designed to rival Trajan’s mythic equestrian, thereby making explicit the link between Victor Emmanuel and the emperors of old. In doing this, Il Vittoriano’s architects sought to transform the king into a sort of national hero – the very personification of Risorgimento, and an enduring symbol of Italian unity.

Elsewhere, the theme of Italian unity is celebrated in even more explicit fashion. On the structures topmost frieze, for instance, sixteen toga-clad figures stand, representing the sixteen disparate nations that Risorgimento had fused together. The theme is revisited once again on the pedestal that upholds the equestrian statue. Here, the great cities of Italy are also depicted as human figures, each dressed in medieval outfits suitable to each city’s respective region.

As a Herald of the New Empire

The fledgling Italian State wasn’t content with merely recalling the Roman Empire, however; they actively sought to emulate it. At the time of the monument’s construction, there was a belief among Italian nationalists that Italy was to be the successor of the Roman Empire. Using the phrase mare nostrum (“Our Sea” – the Roman name for the Mediterranean) as their mantra, they felt that Italy should reclaim the legacy of the Roman Empire by seeking to annex former Roman territories. The Italian State was also profoundly insecure over its lack of colonial possessions, and felt the need to assert itself among the other powers of Europe. Il Vittoriano dovetailed with this agenda perfectly: it was meant to be the vanguard of a new empire – one that nationalists hoped would equal or even surpass the Roman Empire.

This neo-imperialistic agenda most clearly manifests itself when we consider Il Vittoriano’s placement in Rome’s urban space. It was erected on the north slope of the Capitoline Hill, at the very nucleus of the city and directly adjacent to the capital of Classical Rome. The site was chosen carefully by the monument’s architects; it faces outwards towards the Via Flaminia, which had functioned as the main causeway for triumphal marches in ancient times. These geographical associations were by no means unintended: the government wanted to characterize Il Vittoriano as the epicenter of the New Empire. By physically usurping the old capital’s geographic space, Il Vittoriano further solidified link between the Italian State and ancient/Classical Rome.

Other features on Il Vittoriano help promote this imperialistic agenda, as well. The vertical axis of the monument, in particular, is rich with imperial symbolism. Here lie the two central figures of the monument: Roma and the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel. The two figures are a direct mirroring of Michelangelo’s Capitoline Square, which similarly hosts a statue of Roma and an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Again, we can see the link between Classical Rome and the new Italian State being made explicit. It is also no accident that Victor Emmanuel’s statue is positioned higher than the shrine to Roma. This was, again, a deliberate design choice by the architects, in order to demonstrate the succession of the old empire by the new. By placing Victor Emmanuel in a place of precedence over Roma, the monument is essentially trying to usher in the new era of imperialism.

This message is only further promoted by the prevalence of militant imagery, which is found scattered about the monument. Nearly every single prominent figure on the monument is portrayed in military uniform. Evidently, “peace” wasn’t something the architects were trying to channel with Il Vittoriano; they meant it to be a brash demonstration of the State’s military might. For the next few decades, the Italian government would use such military might to seize a handful of territories abroad, such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and Somalia. But the hubris of the monument would go largely unjustified, as Italy’s imperial strivings would turn out to be largely a failure.

As a Shrine of Secularism:

We have already touched briefly upon the pseudo-religious connotations of Il Vittoriano. Its temple-like configuration and use of iconography endow it with an almost sacred quality. Even its alternate name, Altare della Patria (“Altar of the Fatherland”) frames the monument as a place of reverence and ritual.

These religious overtones were no accident: by construing the monument as a “secular altar,” the State hoped to enshrine itself as an object of devotion and worship. Il Vittoriano contains all sorts of imagery promoting this quasi-religious dedication to the State and Italian unity. Through symbolism and icons, it establishes several cult figures. Victor Emmanuel, of course, is chief among these, as his statue is raised on a pedestal in an almost deific manner. However, other important figures of the Risorgimento are also present at the monument, albeit in more subtle and figurative ways. Specifically, the general Giuseppe Garabaldi and the radical philosopher Giuseppe Mazzini are both symbolically represented on the first terrace, by statues representing Action and Thought. In this way, the monument develops a sort of secular “Cult of the State,” complete with its own temple and iconic figures.

However, all of this intricate symbolism was meant to be more than just a bland reassertion of the state’s power; it was also meant to challenge the authority of the Vatican, which resided only a few miles away. At the time of Il Vittoriano’s construction, the Liberal Italian state was viciously anticlerical. They viewed the Church with great suspicion, fearing that it could exert a poisonous influence on Italian unity and national solidarity. Furthermore, during Risorgimento, the French papal armies had been one of the main obstacles to Rome’s reclamation. The Holy See had vehemently opposed Italian unification, for fear that it might lose control of the Papal States. Victor Emmanuel, in fact, was excommunicated not once but twice when he was attempting to seize the Papal States. This anti-papal sentiment manifests itself in several other monuments constructed around the time of Il Vittoriano, including a bronze statue of the accused heretic Giordano Bruno. It was erected in the Campo di Fiori, where he was burned for heresy in 1600.

Il Vittoriano makes several similar confrontational gestures against the Church. First is its location: the fact that it was built atop a former papal stronghold was a deliberate snub of the papacy. The Capitoline Hill was also the site of a short-lived Roman Republic that opposed the Church during the 16th Century – yet another correlation that was intended by the designers. Most important, however, is the building’s sheer scale. It was consciously designed to challenge St. Peter’s cupola on the urban skyline, thereby demonstrating the superiority of the State. Indeed, the monument may have well been regarded as blasphemous: it represented the systematic replacement of God and Church with State.

As an Icon of the “Monolithic State”:

Of course, no discussion of Il Vittoriano would be complete without considering the role it played in the context of Mussolini’s Italy. With the rise of Fascism, Il Vittoriano acquired an entirely new set of meanings. In many ways, it meshed perfectly with Fascist doctrines. It was, after all, an edifice wholly dedicated to the state, and Fascism is built upon the idea of a “monolithic,” intensely-nationalistic State. It also corresponded perfectly with the Fascist imperial agenda; under Fascism, the state became more obsessed than ever with claiming the legacy of Ancient Rome and forging a “New Empire.” Il Vittoriano was the perfect symbolic vanguard for this new empire, for reasons stated earlier.

Mussolini realized all of this: he was absolutely infatuated with the monument, and appreciated its propagandistic worth greatly. He selected the site as the staging ground for many Fascist rallies, and frequently gave speeches against the monument’s grandiose backdrop. The dictator was also obsessed with the monument’s upkeep, and would order large-scale cleaning operations so that the monument’s Brescian marble could glisten at its brightest. Il Vittoriano became, perhaps for the first time, what its designers had always intended it to be: the heart of the Italian State.

Mussolini made only one crucial modification to the structure, and that was the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It takes the form of a simple sepulcher, adorned only by a wreath and placed right beneath Dea Roma’s shrine. In constructing the tomb, Mussolini hoped to advertise Fascist ideals of manliness and virility. The tomb further promoted the paradigm of youthful males, surrendering their lives for the good of the state. This effectively turned the “Altar of the Fatherland” into an altar of sacrifice, where young men would be figuratively sacrificed to the Monolithic State (as represented by the monument itself.) In this way, Il Vittoriano found its most cruel and barbaric function, as it was manipulated into a piece of propaganda for the Fascist war machine. Nonetheless, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands to this day, and is likely the monument’s most revered area, as two guards constantly stand watch over it.


As we have seen, Il Vittoriano has served a multitude of different propagandistic functions since its creation. Even today, the Italian State tries to pass off Il Vittoriano as a site of immense cultural significance. The government regularly renovates the site, perhaps more so than it does any of Rome’s more beloved landmarks. Banners are often flown from the quadrigae, proclaiming the monument the “Altar of the Fatherland” and the “Center of Rome,” and so on.

However, in spite of its builders’ pompous intentions, Il Vittoriano has become little more than a target of public mockery – more of an embarrassment than a revered national icon. Notice the prevalence of phrases such as “sought to” and “strived to” in this paper, and you will realize that this has been a chronicle of attempts rather than successes. The overarching theme of Il Vittoriano is one of overwhelming folly and hubris; it is a reminder of the Italian government’s historic impotence, and its inability to sow together the hearts of a fractured, confused people into one cohesive identity. And this is the great irony of Il Vittoriano: it is ultimately a celebration of Italy’s disunity rather than its unity.


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