On the periphery of Rome, not far from the Vatican, stands a towering obelisk named for Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator and ally of Adolf Hitler. On a recent visit to the city, my taxi driver knew exactly where it was and found nothing remarkable about a request to go there.
The Mussolini Obelisk, standing watch over the Foro Italico sports complex, served as the starting point for my atypical tour of the Eternal City’s “fascist architecture.” At the very outset, our tour group asked our guide: Why has the Mussolini Obelisk not been removed from what appears to be a place of honor?
For an American visitor, it was the obvious question. We have become accustomed to the removal of the likenesses of Confederate generals and even Christopher Columbus from public places. But it was not a difficult question for our guide to answer: “In Italy, we view it as history.” Efforts to remove it had fizzled.
The loss that comes from laundering the past was made clear to us in the historical lesson our tour group received that day a lesson that would have been impossible if cancel culture, American-style, had prevailed. Over more than four hours, the reminders and remainders of “Il Duce” served as a point of entry to a history that underscored why we view Mussolini as an historic villain. At the same time, they provided a series of clues to help answer the question that prompted me to book the tour in the first place: How was it that the country of the Renaissance, of great art and great literature, had veered so far off course as to help enable the Holocaust?
Bruno, our guide, took great pains to make it clear that he was there neither to denounce nor to celebrate Italian fascism. His fascination was with the ways in which Mussolini had transformed the face of Rome. That brought us to the “rationalist”-style modernism of Mussolini-era government buildings, private office complexes, and sports facilities all still in use and all more engaging than their brutalist successors. These buildings served as a prompt for an explanation of the popularity of a dictator in his time and his lasting impact. Bruno admitted that submerged nostalgia still exists for Mussolini in Italy, but the same structures that explain his rise also help explain his fall and infamy.
The man often referred to as the one who “made the trains run on time” was, we learned, a builder on a grand scale so grand that he dared to think of himself as an emperor and heir to Caesar. Indeed, he built what he understood to be his own version of a Roman Forum a stunning white-marble, campus-style complex of offices meant originally for the 1942 World’s Fair (which never happened). In Italian, this area of the city is known as the EUR the Exposizione Universale di Roma. It is the site of the building known colloquially as the Colosseo Quadrato, or “square Colosseum” for its levels of arches reminiscent of that ancient structure. It’s a masterpiece of white marble modernism that today serves as the headquarters of the Fendi fashion brand. It was designed by architects Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula, and Mario Romano, and built between 1938 and 1943. Those who can read the clues can spot the hubris here: its six arches across and nine down stand for the number of letters in Il Duce’s name, Benito Mussolini.
Just as striking is the Stadio dei Marmi (“Stadium of the Marbles”) in the Foro Italico a track surrounded by a circle of faux-Roman statues, each embodying a different sport, such as javelin or discus. Not coincidentally, at the same site stood a statue of a young, athletic Italian, the image of youth and strength that Mussolini had offered to an Italy that had stumbled not long after its 1876 unification. It was chilling to see the statue standing there, still giving the infamous fascist salute, though that gesture now seemed cautionary rather than celebratory at least for our group.
Also surprising (for its remaining extant) is a series of inscribed marble slabs, each telling the story of one of Mussolini’s triumphs, mainly from the 1920s. One commemorated the Lateran Treaty, the historic “reconciliation” with Pope Pius XI in 1929, which enabled Vatican City to remain a sovereign state. To commemorate the treaty, Mussolini, acting as a city builder, cleared many blocks of tenements to make way for the Via della Conciliazione, the road that today offers direct views of St. Peter’s Basilica and serving as a reminder that urban planning often has a decidedly authoritarian dimension.
Another marble slab commemorates the construction of a canal in southern Italy that helped irrigate wheat fields. It depicts a bare-chested, Putin-like Mussolini posing as a farmer. Another recognizes the government-led consolidation of the country’s steel industry, and yet another celebrates the brutal Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia, exemplifying the empire-building impulse that helped drive Mussolini into his disastrous alliance with Hitler’s Germany.
Each of the dozens of these inscribed stones stands as a symbol of the regime of an infamous dictator, who would ultimately be forced from power by his own fascist colleagues, later to be shot and hung by his ankles in the public square in Milan by partisans.
The statues, the buildings, the obelisk, and more even the Fascist Party’s symbol of intertwined “fasces,” harkening back to Rome (and, noted Bruno, to be found throughout Washington, D.C.) all still stand as points of entry to a complicated past. On that score, it’s worth noting that, throughout the 1920s, the Italian fascists were popular, even feted in the U.S., for their anti-Communism. A statue to one of Mussolini’s colleagues, the aviator Italo Balbo, still stands in Chicago. It was a gift of Mussolini himself, fashioned from a 2,000-year-old Roman column.
Ultimately, however, there was no physical representation of the historic tragedy of Mussolini in our tour: his alliance with Germany beginning in 1930, and his decision, allegedly under pressure from Hitler, to enact the “racial laws” of 1936, which would lead to the deportation of many of the Jews of Rome, Florence, and Turin (home to Primo Levi) to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Jews had lived continuously in Rome since before the time of Christ.
The Ethiopia-related marble slab provides an indirect explanation of Mussolini’s evil actions. In the wake of World War I, Italy then on the side of the Allies had hoped to be awarded territories on its northern borders, just as France and England had gained colonies in the Middle East. Empire envy, one might say, helped drive into Hitler’s arms a nation that had “emancipated” its Jews upon its 1876 unification and had sprung open the Jewish ghettoes of Venice.
It’s a history about which our fascist architecture tour provided hints. But clues to the past speak only to those who notice them. Perhaps that points to the best compromise regarding public iconography of a troubling past: let the statues and monuments stand, with explanations, for those who would learn from them.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise institute and the author of The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It