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A Difficult Heritage. The Afterlife of Fascist-Era Architecture, Monuments and Works of Art in Italy

In dialogue with Dell Upton

In the controversial article published in 2017 in “The New Yorker”, the American historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat poses a disquieting question“So why is it that, as the United States has engaged in a contentious process of dismantling monuments to its Confederate past, and France has rid itself of all streets named after the Nazi collaborationist leader Marshall Pétain, Italy has allowed its Fascist monuments to survive unquestioned?”[1] 
The reactions of the media have been brutal and aggressive; the writer has been considered a sort of Taleban ready to destroy the Bamyan’s Buddhas.  The truth is that Ben-Ghiat has rubbed salt in the wound: those arrogant monuments still stand untouched where they were built because Italy has never dealt thoroughly with its fascist past. As she reminds us, it was Silvio Berlusconi in 1994 who brought back to the government, and for the first time after the war, the Fascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano. Moreover, while in Germany a law enacted in 1949 against Nazi apologism banned Hitler salutes and other public rituals, facilitating the suppression of Third Reich symbols, Italy underwent no comparable program of re-education. After the war, the Allied Control Commission’s bulletins and reports recommended that only the most obvious and “unaesthetic” monuments and decorations, like busts of Mussolini, be destroyed; the rest could be moved to museums, or simply be covered up with cloth and plywood. They were more worried about the presence of the strongest Communist Party in Europe than about the ghosts of the near past. And we must not forget the responsibility of the left wing party: in 1996, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Walter Veltroni, decided to unveil the Apotheosis of Fascism, painted by Luigi Montanarini in 1928 in the Sala d’onore del Coni al Foro Italico, which had been covered since 1944. Why? “We turned the page of fascism without having understood it. Therefore we continue to hide the physical traces of the Fascist Era”![2].
This was Veltroni’s meaningless answer. In 2014, Prime-Minister Matteo Renzi announced Rome’s bid for the 2024 Olympics inside the complex, standing in front of that same painting.  Furthermore, in 1995, Francesco Rutelli, the Mayor of Rome, proposed that a street be dedicated to Giuseppe Bottai, Minister of National Education and among the writers of the Manifesto della Razza and of the Racial Laws. When, instead, President of the Senate Laura Boldrini proposed merely to cancel the writing DUX on the obelisk of Foro Italico…she was been violently insulted. (heavens above!)

I would answer Ben-Ghiat with three more questions:

First: Is there an architectonic style we can call “fascist”?

Second: Is it possible to interpret fascist art and architecture outside its ideological, political and cultural context?

Third: What can art do with the fascist heritage, reclaimed as an integral part of our national history and as such untouchable and unjudgeable?

Most Italians, whether they belong to the right, left or centre of the political spectrum, will answer no to the first question: Mussolini never defined a style, there is no specifically fascist architectural language but only buildings and monuments realized “under” the fascism, with no distinction between those which adopt a monumental and classicist language, and the functional, rationalist, human-scale ones. Worse still, they are all grouped under a vague rationalist-modernist-metaphysical label. In this way, they transform a political-cultural conflict into a chronological consideration. In absolving the regime and redeeming its cultural policy, an act of incalculably grave and significant historical revisionism is being committed. It is true that till 1936, when Mussolini founded the Empire, different, even antagonistic architectonic expressions were allowed to coexist. As at the University of Rome Campus designed in 1932 by Marcello Piacentini, Mussolini’s favourite architect, where, in a strictly rigid and symmetrical urban design, many different buildings find their place: the Propylaea by Arnaldo Foschini, the University Administrative Building by Piacentini, with the huge fresco by Mario Sironi, all inspired by the Roman lexicon, and, on the modernist side, the Chemistry Faculty by Pietro Aschieri, the Botany Faculty by Giuseppe Capponi, the Physics Faculty by Giuseppe Pagano, to name just a few. Another paradigm case is the EUR district, planned in 1935 to host the Universal Exhibition in Rome and scheduled for 1942 in order to celebrate, under the title the “Olympics of Civilization”, the supremacy of Fascism after twenty years of dictatorship. The area chosen was along the thoroughfare to Ostia to reconnect the city with its Mediterranean origins. The idea was to build an architectural complex with spectacular characteristics and permanent buildings located at the edge of the city. The conquest of Ethiopia and the founding of the Empire changed the terms of the question from being a pacific confrontation into a much more unsettling conflict, until the outbreak of the Second World War forced work to be suspended. In 1943, the construction sites were abandoned, with many buildings still unfinished. The first site plan was bipartisan, as in the University of Rome Campus: Piacentini, as well as Luigi Piccinato, Pagano and the young Luigi Vietti were commissioned. It was quite modern, with transparent skyscrapers elevated at the junction of a highway, and a large park at the sides of a lake organically filling the original natural relief of the land. But in 1938, the same year as the Racial Laws, Piacentini excluded his colleagues and drew up the final project on a strictly cruciform cardus and decumanus system that accentuated the main axis with scenographic successions of squares, envisaged as Forums. In “Classicità dell’E42”[3], Piacentini unequivocally explained how the point of reference for the “City of Mussolini” was no longer modern architecture but examples of historic architecture, from Priene to Miletus, from Pergamum to Assos, from the Imperial Forum in Rome to Versailles. Pagano and Piccinato, disgusted, withdrew. Throwing out the projects by Giuseppe Terragni, Pietro Lingeri, Cesare Cattaneo, Franco Albini, Ignazio Gardella and B.B.P.R. studio, Piacentini brought into the open the reason for the demise of Italian rationalist architecture. In the famous essay, “Lost Occasions”[4] published on “Casabella Costruzioni” in 1941, Pagano, the editor of the magazine, thus denounced the situation: “When the first project of the regulatory plan was assigned, we believed that in a group of four against one, the rights of art, imagination and life would still be sufficiently defended. Instead, we paid bitterly for our ingenuousness. One by one, we saw our much too bold and confident dreams falling into the mud of rhetoric or scholastic banality of vague stylistic internationalism. And when it was decided to give the victory to “sacred Roman tradition”, they turned to the democratic pretence of competitions. In that hypocrisy, all of the rights of new art were buried […] It may seem impossible that so many useless columns and tacked on arches were led to centre stage through the competition process. Even I myself, if I had not been a judge at one of these competitions, would not have believed that the decadent taste, the lack of imagination and the inability to architecturally judge of so many “authorities” was possible […] So the Academia won and on the levelled acropolis of TRE Fontane two and a half billion has been spent up to now in the monumentalization of emptiness. But the spirit has its revenge – possibly only on paper, maybe in the seat of controversy, or perhaps in the face of defeat. Due to this desire for revenge, we now publish some of the best projects rejected by the competitions at that time, so that it is possible to see the entire difference between our choices and those of the commissioners, so that it is possible to see that not all Italian architects have become daft, so that our positions are clearer and the responsibility for the megalomaniac squander of public money is also clearer, so that one may consider the occasions lost to Italian civilization, even in the field of architecture”. EUR, thus, as we see it today, and as many want us to believe, is not the result of an idyllic collaboration among different modernist tendencies, all encouraged by the regime, but the stage of a violent and incurable conflict between two opposing fronts: the academia and modernity, monumental rhetoric and rationalism. The first was victorious and the second defeated. EUR represents the biggest lost occasion for a modern and integrated urban proposition. So, as for the first question, not only does fascist architecture exist, and has spoiled with its arrogance whole urban landscapes, but not to distinguish it from modern architecture means to validate an homologation process which is the anti-chamber of revisionism and negationism.

Pagano, who had been a sincere fascist, and more than others had believed in the possibility of changing the regime, was deeply disappointed and desperate, and in 1942 joined the ranks of the Resistance. Arrested by the Germans in 1943, he was imprisoned first in Brescia then in Milan, before being deported to Melk, then to Mauthausen, where was killed in April 1945, on the eve of the Liberation. But “the spirit has its revenge”, he taught us. In 2008, as a homage to Pagano, Cattaneo and Terragni, the Bruno Zevi Foundation published A Guide to EUR’s modern architecture[5], introduced by Pagano’s“Lost Occasions”. It tells the story of the district from the point of view of those who were defeated, giving them back their voice against all attempts at conciliation and levelling. Along the route traced on the map, the visitor will find none of the glorifying and proud buildings of fascism, of Romanism, of the Italic spirit: from Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana to the exedrae that line the squares, from the INA buildings to that of the Christian Democratic Party. In addition to the modern, existing architecture, in place of the 1937 competition winners, the visitor will discover what would have existed “if Terragni had won”. Moreover, in 2017, the German artist Gunter Demnig, the inventor of the project Stolpersteine, did install, in front of the Bocconi University in Milan, designed by him, a 10×10 cm stone embedded into the ground, on whose lead surface Pagano’s name, date of birth, date of deportation, place and date of death have been engraved.  An anti-monument, as small as possible, sober, discreet, almost invisible, the best way to remember he who fought all his life against rhethoric and monumentalism.

Yet, people go crazy for fascist architecture, such as the Square Colosseum designed by Ernesto La Padula, Giovanni Guerrini and Mario Romano, a made in Italy brand, home for the fashion atelier Fendi sisters, great collectors of contemporary art. We are allowed to wonder how this can come to be. How a sleek rectangular marvel with a façade of abstract arches and rows of neoclassical statues lining its base, its exterior engraved with a phrase from Mussolini’s speech in 1935 announcing the invasion of Ethiopia, in which he described Italians as “a people of poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, scientists, navigators, and transmigrants”, can fascinate Italians and tourists from all over the world? Where are the spatial, functional, environmental values of that building, the main attributes of good architecture? How could we live in buildings so distant from the human scale? If we don’t bring back them to their political context, if we don’t understand that their monumental, rhethorical, unhuman, overwhelming, static, eternal nature is the architectonic implication of an oppressive and ferocious dictatorship, we detach them from space and time, idealize them and make them untouchable, impossible to be criticized. Only if we come to know the history of those buildings, the alternatives thrown out from the competitions, can we agree with Ben Ghiat that the Square Colosseum is a “a relic of abhorrent Fascist aggression, celebrated as a modernist icon”[6].

Predappio is an emblematic case as well. To dedicate a museum to the history of Fascism in Mussolini’s native city, where he is buried, in the Casa del Fascio, which is the opposite of the one designed by Terragni in Como, means that the place will become more and more a destination for pilgrimage of fanatics and those who are nostalgic about the fascist period, in search of gadgets and souvenirs. It’s quite unbelievable that one of the fans of the museum was a very distinguished historian such as Marcello Flores. The choice of a fascist building for the museum is very telling: why not choose a modern building as a sign of discontinuity and change from the past, as it happened in the “Topography of Terror” in Berlin, a transparent and neutral construction which contrasts with its ominous content? This is a very interesting point. As the Germans had the courage to deal with their past in political and cultural terms, they could imagine and design the most original and daring memorials ever: not only the counter-monuments which disappear, transforming the viewers into witnesses, but also the glass dome in the Reichstag by Norman Foster, the slanting grid of the Peter Eisenman’s memorial or the neurotic Museum by Daniel Libeskind, which is itself a device of memory.

“To treat the monuments as isolated objects or mere works of art is to miss much of their significance”[7], Upton affirms as regards the Confederate monuments. And adds: “The monuments were not intended as public art in the sense that we normally understand the phrase. They are political statements whose meaning was clearly understood by their targets. They were part of a campaign to reaffirm white supremacy […] they stood as affirmations that the American policy was a white policy”. Was and still is, if we consider what happened in Charlottesville in 2017. I could say that for Confederate monuments, white domination has been what fascism has been for fascist monuments and architecture in Italy. With a big difference: nobody would dare say that the Confederate monuments are icons of modern art. An awareness of their nature makes their demolition possible.

Fascist architecture is history. It is absurd to demolish masterpieces: this is the main argument against any proposition that fascist monuments should be demolished, changed, or even criticized. But what kind of history are these people invoking? I’ll answer with Upton’s words:

“This is not a question of preserving or erasing history […]. Public monuments point to some aspect of history that the public considers worthy of commemoration and they interpret that aspect of history from a particular point of view […]. The problem is which aspects of history ought to be celebrated in the civic realm”[8].

And it doesn’t mean cancelling or removing uncomfortable truths or past and present mistakes.

The last question, finally: What do we do with such a monumental heritage? After having taken into consideration a large spectrum of possibilities (to preserve in their grounds those with artistic qualities; to install some in art museums, others in History Museums, to gather others in a Dead Rebels’ Park, like the warriors in Xian or to contextualize them), Upton thus concludes: “For reasons of justice, equity and civic values, they must first of all be removed from civic space. Their white supremacist character is more important than their age, their aesthetic quality or any other attributes that are offered in their defence. After they are gone from the public sphere, then we can take time to discuss their fates on a case- by-case basis”[9].

I totally agree but, in the Italian case, we are dealing not so much with monuments but with architecture and urban districts. The solution of demolishing is thus not something that is easy to achieve, even if the images of pedestals without statues are very fascinating: they are the memory of what the monument has been but unable to harm. Alternatives? First of all, to prevent the construction of new monuments, as it is still happening. Second, to explain the history, the context and the mission of each of them, yesterday and today. Third, with the help of art, to make them harmless, vehicles for dissonant and not apologetic messages. A few examples.

The German artist Rudolf Herz, for instance, transformed the monument to Lenin in Dresden into a travelling monument: when, in 1991, the original was knocked down, sold to a firm producing tombstones and sculptures for cemeteries and gardens, Herz found the fragments, made casts, loaded them on a truck for a Lenin’s European Tour in major European cities such as Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Paris, Zurich and Turin. A travelling monument is obviously the opposite of a monument.

Another suggestion comes from Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projections on monuments to change their message: in Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, the Polish artist projected onto Lincoln’s statue in Union Square, NY, pictures and speeches of Vietnam War Veterans.

One interesting case in Italy is offered by the city of Bolzano, where Italian and German communities live a troubled life together. There are two paradigmatic fascist monuments there:  the Victory Monument, designed in 1928 by Piacentini as the gate to Bolzano, and the marble frieze The Triumph of Fascism by Hans Piffrader on the Palazzo degli Uffici Finanziari between 1942 and the following year. On the centre of the 200-metre long frieze, made with 57 tiles, Mussolini sits on his horse accompanied by the writing: “to believe, to obey, to fight”. With the fall of fascism on july 1943, Bolzano was occupied by German troops and the frieze remained unfinished till 1957. Against thousands of fascists who in 2011 had demonstrated for the fascist heritage of the city, some historians decided to give that heritage a historical and problematic meaning.  Two initiatives followed. the exhibition “BZ ’15-’45 one monument, one city, two dictatorships” in 2014, in the atrium and the crypt of the monument: two itineraries intertwine the history of the monument with the political context between the Two World Wars, while art works with light to oppose the magniloquence of the frieze and the columns. Concerning the frieze, two local artists Arnold Holzknecht and Michele Bernardi, won the competition. The glowing writing in three languages “Nobody has the right to obey” by Hannah Arendt makes the reading of the inscription problematic. An easy, simple, sober, conceptual solution and, therefore, highly disturbing: it discusses the content of the frieze and at the same time opposes the traditional rhetoric of marble with the modern technology of neon. Between demolition and status quo, this initiative is a valid alternative.

In conclusion, I’ll quote Upton again: “The political climate in the United States since the election of Barack Obama has brought to public view a virulent strain of white supremacy that is deeply embedded in American history and culture. The last presidential election seems to have given white supremacists permission to be more open”[10]. I totally agree: since last year, when a fascist and racist party won the political elections in Italy, monuments and whole cities like Predappio and Forlì are back to the top, object of symposiums and exhibitions like the very controversial and ambiguous one curated at the Fondazione Prada in Milan by Germano Celant. As the art historian Ester Coen has highlighted, “Art, Life and Politics in Italy from 1918 to 1943”[11] confirms a homologating attitude which displays an astonishing number of masterpieces, of different tendencies and languages, without any distinction, without any political and cultural background. I was personally shocked by two photographs, one on top of the other, without any comment: the slaughter of 17 partisans in Piazzale Loreto and the hanged bodies of Mussolini and Claretta Petacci in the same place. It is offensive and unbearable that, in 2018, two such different events could be shown as equivalent and connected, as if we continued to think that the anti-Nazi attack in via Rasella in 1944 had provoked the Fosse Ardeatine massacre. Again, if, as historians, art historians, architectural historians, democratic and antifascist citizens we don’t denounce the link between those monuments and the dictatorship which supported them, if we don’t take on a critical position against homologation, revisionism and negationism,those works and attitudes will continue to be propaganda for fascism, in the present and in the future.

[1] R. Ben-Ghiat, Why Are So Many Fascist Monuments Still Standing in Italy?, in “The New Yorker”, October 5, 2017.

[2] W. Veltroni, I luoghi del fascismo non siano più un tabù, interview, in “La Stampa”, March 23, 2013.

[3] M. Piacentini, Classicità dell’E42, in “Civiltà”, I, April 21, 1940.

[4] G. Pagano, Le occasioni perdute, in “Casabella”, n. 158, February 1941pp. 7-23.

[5] AA.VV, Una guida all’architettura moderna dell’Eur, Edizioni Fondazione Bruno Zevi, Rome 2008.

[6] R. Ben-Ghiat, Why Are So Many…, cit.

[7] D. Upton, “Confederate Monuments and Civic Values in the Wake of Charlottesville”in SAH Blog,, September 13, 2017.

[8] D. Upton, “Confederate Monuments andcit., p.1.

[9] D. Upton, “Confederate Monuments andcit., p.11.

[10] D. Upton, “Confederate Monuments and…”, cit., p.1.

[11] E.Coen, in

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