Mussolini’s Rome to 2021

The 20th century was when Europeans and their difficulties sparked the most destructive wars the world has ever seen. The Old Regime kings were swept away, and totalitarian dictators took their place. 

Europe’s politicians proved unable to solve the continent’s problems without going to war with each other. Terrible were the outcomes for the ordinary people of Europe, bombed from the air, herded into concentration or labor camps, and divided by an ideological barrier that Churchill rightly termed an Iron Curtain.

The idea of a European Union wasn’t new: the Romans and Charlemagne had tried for it. The 20th century ended with a firm resolution to create a democratic, unified continent. 

WWI in Rome

After the First World War, everyone believed that the world was entering a new era of peace and prosperity. The economic fall of the 1930s knocked those dreams on the head. Many people in Europe gave up on conventional political parties. They turned towards some of the new, dynamic extremist political groups, like the communists, Hitler’s national socialists, or Mussolini’s futuristic fascists.

The new Italian government commanded before the First World War. After the war, it was the ambitions of one man, Benito Mussolini, whose march on Rome in 1922 had led to an unexpected collapse of the Italian government, which took their place.

Mussolini’s Fascism

In Italy, a violent, nationalistic, anti-intellectual movement called Fascism was born. “Fascism” comes from the Latin fascia bundles of rods: when fragile sticks are lashed together, they become unbreakable.

World War I had left 650.000 Italians dead. Post-war Italy was deeply divided, and many radical political parties rose.

Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), a famous writer for socialist and labor-union newspapers, led the Fascists, emphasizing unity and authority. 

Capitalizing on Italy’s corrupt government, low economy, and high unemployment, Mussolini gained an audience. He scared Italians with the specter of the rising tide of communism and won wealthy industrialists’ help. Though it was only a minority party, the Fascists scared the disorganized majority with organized violence by black-shirted gangs. 

In 1922, Mussolini marched on Rome’s capital, seized the government, and began his rule as dictator for the next two decades.

He ruthlessly crushed objection, expanded the army, and invaded Ethiopia, trying to realize Italy’s 19th-century dreams of a colonial empire.

Mussolini strengthened his position by building alliances with other dictators like Franco and Hitler.

He was calling himself “Il Duce” (The Duke.) Italy responded to the large worldwide Depression with big public works projects (including Rome’s subway) and government investment in the industry. As a tourist, you’ll ride on a system of super free-ways (autostradas) commissioned by Il Duce’s government. 

Rome’s Olympic Games complex and the futuristic suburb of EUR were built in fascist style. Central to his plans was to open Rome to the sea again. From the Piazza Venezia, the Via Dei Fori Imperiali was cut through the ancient Fora to destroy buildings and crucial archaeological evidence for the imperial Rome, which Mussolini idealized-towards the Via del Mare.

Fascist Architecture

Under the fascist regimes of Germany, Italy, and Spain, art was propaganda, used to control the crowds. Fascist art is on a monumental scale, to make the individual feel small and the state seem all-powerful.

The style follows the style of ancient Rome at the peak of its empire. They used Rome’s arches and political inscriptions. The Romans built more with marble, and fascists tended to use concrete. They renewed the style, making it sleeker, more streamlined, and less complicated. It’s also more severe and impersonal, a style that leaves today’s Europeans cold.

Fascists loved Roman symbols and spectacles. Mussolini’s army was divided into legions and run by centurions. Like the Romans, both Italians and Germans saluted each other with the right arm raised, palm down.

Mussolini’s EUR district

For Mussolini, Rome was there to be used as the backdrop for his imperialist visions. His desire to highlight the past Classical monuments by isolating them (the Mausoleum of Augustus is a good example) went hand in hand with his ambition to create the monumental Rome of the 20th century. 

Mussolini planned this concrete neighborhood of Rome as part of an international exhibition to show off fascist society’s wonders. But those wonders brought World War II instead, and Il Duce’s celebration never arrived. The raw mega-project was completed in the 1950s, and it houses government offices and prominent, hidden museums.

EUR is laced with wide boulevards. Patriotic decorations, blocky columns, and severe squares decorate the soulless, planned grid, and stark office blocks. EUR’s tallest building, The Palace of the Civilization of Labor, is the heart of fascist architecture. It’s a concrete block of arches and black-and-white simplicity, dotted with colossal patriotic statues. It’s reasonably nicknamed the “Square Colosseum.”

If Hitler and Mussolini had won the conflict, our world might look like EUR.

Pope and Mussolini

Mussolini did solve one significant problem: the uneasy relationship between the papacy and the Italian state. 

He hardened his reign among Catholics by striking an alliance with the pope. Italy was a nation mainly of Catholics whose spiritual head, the pope, refused to admit the very state to which they were supposed to give secular loyalty. 

Despite some tough-talking between Pius XI and Mussolini delegates, the Lateran Pacts of February 1929 produced a workable resolution. The Vatican City was recognized as an independent state whose citizens were exempt from Fascist law. 

In return, the pope accepted that the territorial losses of the 19th century were inevitable, with financial damages to be paid. Church authority over marriages and religious education within Italy was recognized. 

“Mussolini is the man whom Providence has sent us,” said Pius XI. 

It was undoubtedly that the Church won long-term benefit from the agreement.

WWII in Rome

In 1943, started the Allied attack on Hitler’s European stronghold. More than 150.000 Americans and British sailed from North Africa to Sicily. They met little resistance from the Italians, most of whom welcomed them as heroes. Italy’s toothless army had never been much of a factor in the war.

In World War II, the bombing of Rome took place on several occasions in 1943 and 1944, principally by Allied and to a smaller degree by Axis aircraft, before the Allies invaded the city on 4 June 1944. 

Many Americans were against the significant destruction of Rome.

Rome had been Italy’s capital city for around 70 years, but large parts of the town were more than 2.500 years old. The neutral Vatican City sat within Rome. The Vatican also maintained many churches and other structures outside its territory but within Rome city limits. Nevertheless, the British War Cabinet denied seeing bombing Rome as a crime against humanity. 

The first bombardment and one of the crucial moments of the war occurred on 19 July 1943 and was carried out by 500 American bombers, which dropped 1,168 tons of bombs. The Allies bombed the San Lorenzo district, hurrying up Mussolini’s fall, defeated a week later after a vote of no-confidence by the Great Council of Fascism and captured.

The entire working-class district of San Lorenzo was destroyed, and 3.000 Italian civilians were killed in the raids over five residential neighborhoods.  

The Roman population was not prepared for a sizeable aerial attack, and the psychological impact was significant. Rome was intact until that moment, and all of its inhabitants were assured it would have remained so.

The Allied bombing of San Lorenzo also had enormous consequences on the subsequent political decisions. In the aftermath of the bombing, King Vittorio Emanuele III was persuaded to get rid of Mussolini as he could not carry on a war that was already lost.

In the San Lorenzo neighborhood, the “Park of the Fallen on 19 July 1943” has a monument commemorating the names of the 1,492 victims. 

You can still see traces of the bombing’s drastic changes in buildings, interruptions, and empty spaces in the neighborhood. Pope Pio XII’s only appearance during the conflict was right after San Lorenzo’s bombardment to meet the citizens amid the ruins.

In the Tiburtino district, you can find lots of examples of Fascist architecture, such as the Sapienza University, just outside San Lorenzo.

During Rome’s liberation, 60.000 tons of bombs were dropped in the 78 days before Rome was captured by the Allies on 4 June 1944.

Rome After WWII

The papacy took the occasion to reassert itself as the real focus of civilization after the collapse of Fascism. Still, the image presented in films such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) is of a cheerful amorality. 

Deep-rooted problems were facing the city, not least in dealing with its future shape and identity. No city able to host the Olympics (1960), the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), and the World Cup (1990) could be considered dying. Still, there was a feeling in the 1970s of life in Rome becoming out of control, not least through the increase of traffic, which clogged the medieval streets and hurt its monuments. Piazzas pleasant to linger in the 1960s became forbidding at night in the 1970s as Italy’s political situation deteriorated. Perhaps the lowest point was discovering the murdered body of the prime minister, Aldo Moro, in the boot of a car in Via Caetani in 1978. 

In 1993 the mayor Francesco Rutelli (1993-2001) gave new energy to the city. Vigorous attempts to cut traffic and the opening up of pedestrian areas allowed the center to breathe again. Collections of the city’s Classical art, which had waited for decades in storerooms, were at last displayed. 

An attempt to sheath the old in the new, for instance, in Richard Meier’s museum for the Ara Pacis (2006), shows how challenging it is to preserve ancient buildings in ways that enhance them and the richly textured city that surrounds them. 

The complexity of Rome’s heritage is such that there is not enough money to sustain it. Hopes to create an archaeological park around the tomb of the 2nd-century CE general Marcus Nonius Macrinus on the Via Flaminia – one of the most important finds of the past 30 years, came to nothing funds, and the monument had to be reburied. 

The visitor to today’s Rome cannot ignore the many formidable challenges the city faces in finding a stable and effective government. Still, it remains ‘eternal’ in how its varied pasts are in continuous interplay with one another. This provides the great fascination of Rome.

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