"Ghosts of Rome": The Haunting of Fascist Efforts at Remaking Rome as Italy's Capital City

By Agnew, John | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

"Ghosts of Rome": The Haunting of Fascist Efforts at Remaking Rome as Italy's Capital City


Agnew, John, Annali d'Italianistica


It is now a commonplace that at the time Rome finally became the capital of a newly united Italy in 1871, it was widely seen by the new political elite as not up to the job of representing the new state. Leading politicians looked to Paris' recently imposed new street plan, and to Vienna's similarly draconian innovation in the form of the Ringstrasse, as inspirations for a "new" Rome. Arguably, both Liberal and Fascist regimes in the years from 1870-1943 shared the desire to make over the city in their own self-images as, respectively, a newly emergent nation-state and a resurgent Italian empire (Agnew). Although some specific interventions during the years 1870-1920 have attracted interest --the building of the Vittoriano and the construction of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II to name two--the Fascist period has been the greatest focus for those investigating the redevelopment of Rome as crucial to the political-cultural changes associated with the "new" Italy. This is not hard to understand. Because of its overtly ideological cast, Fascism has come to hold a fascination that the previous regime could not. Its recent rehabilitation (if still incomplete) in contemporary Italian politics, and self-conscious manipulation of the physical landscape of Rome and other cities to express its political intentions, have deepened the interest in Fascism. Ultimately, however, though "the ghosts of Italies past and especially those of the all-conquering Roman empire were welcome in the new nation," they were not readily conjoined in a renewed city that would do credit to the ambitions of its Fascist rulers (Bosworth, Mussolini's Italy 13).

While the continuity across regimes perhaps can be overstated, the danger in much recent writing about Italian Fascism in general, and its impact on Rome in particular, is to take at face value the claims of its proponents that Fascism was truly effective in translating its plans into practice (for this critique see, e.g., Bosworth, "Benito Mussolini"; Cardoza; Mammone). Perhaps the best way of putting this argument in the present context is to say that Fascist manipulation of the physical fabric of Rome failed to achieve what it most intended: the reconfiguration and monumentalization of the city singularly to represent the political breach with the past that was the aim of its revolution. The question is why this was so spectacularly the case, given how successful in terms of their goals other dramatic city makeovers--such as those of Paris and Vienna--had been. Ironically, the very totalizing hubris of Fascism now taken so seriously is probably the main culprit. As Scott has pointed out with respect to a range of self-defined revolutionary regimes, the rhetorical claims of "high modernism" (to overcome national "backwardness" by concentrated power, to create a "new man," etc.) become lethally self-defeating when combined with an authoritarian state without the capacity to incorporate local knowledge, and a weakened civil society that cannot provide reliable critical feedback on the dreamlike projects of authoritarian rulers.

I focus on two specific efforts that have long been associated with particular aspects of Fascist plans for Rome: the construction of the Via della Conciliazione through the rione Borgo between St. Peter's and the River Tiber, and the clearance of a new space around the ruined mausoleum of the Emperor Augustus (Piazza Augusto Imperatore) just to the north of the previous intervention, but on the opposite side of the river. If the first can be seen as an attempt at not only reconciling, but somehow capturing the Vatican for the makeover of the city, the second is usually considered a major example of the cult of romanita. Romanita celebrates the ancient Roman past as a key to creating present-day Italy, and is closely associated with what turned out to be the later years of Fascism. I have chosen them precisely for these specific features rather than, say, for their persisting association with Fascism.

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