Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Untroubled by History, Rome's Sportsmen and Women Play Their Games in Mussolini's Stadiums

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Untroubled by History, Rome's Sportsmen and Women Play Their Games in Mussolini's Stadiums

Article excerpt

After two days in the Eternal City, the imprint of my footsteps would have drawn a map of Fascist Rome, sidestepping the obligatory classical tour. Researching a chapter on fascism and sport for my new book, I mostly stuck to my professional focus. Asan Italophile, I felt it unnatural to bypass Bernini to spend more time in the 1930s. As a historian, I found the experience equally surprising and troubling.

The Foro Italico, formerly the Foro Mussolini, was one of the regime's central architectural projects. Walking along the west bank of the Tiber, 40 minutes north of Vatican City, you arrive at a vast modernist obelisk carved with the words "Mussolini Dux". Behind the obelisk, framed by the Monte Mario in the background, lies a set of athletics facilities that were ahead of their time in terms of sport, and very much of their time in terms of history.

The Foro Mussolini was partly a training ground, partly a metaphor. Alongside the state-of-the-art gyms, tracks, tennis courts and a swimming pool, Mussolini wanted the forum to send a message to the people: sport and physical strength would forge Italy's military might and its place in the world. The entanglement of athletic and martial glory was central to fascist ideology.

Significantly unaltered today, Foro Italico remains the focus of sport in Rome. The two great football teams AS Roma and Lazio play home matches here. Thousands of fans stamp enthusiastically towards the football ground, walking along the Via dell'Impero ("Empire Way"), the thoroughfare linking the obelisk with the Stadio Olympico. Yet the road is paved with 1930s mosaics that promote the regime's interpretation of Italian history: maps showing the acquisition of empire in Libya and Abyssinia; classical iconography juxtaposed with modern warfare; favourite slogans; and finally, of course, fasces and "Duces" everywhere.

It would feel less strange if there was an explanatory plaque of some kind. But no, it is just as it is, the road to the big match on Saturdays and a skateboard park on non-football days--an urban utility rather than an aspect of history.

The tennis club, also stamped with Mussolini's imprint, still hosts the Rome Masters international tournament. When moving the event was mooted last year, Maria Sharapova spoke up for a venue where she feels "history all around you". That's true, though not exactly as she meant it.

One statue at the Foro Italico stands out: a boyish soldier-sportsman commands the scene by the baseline of a tennis court, right in front of the clubhouse. Muscled, athletic and dressed in a pair of gym shorts, he carries a rifle and a gas mask rather than a tennis racket. The boy is the idealised hero of the Fascist regime, the model for the dream Mussolini hoped to create at Foro Italico. A few feet in front of the statue, Rome's current social elite drop off their kids for tennis class; a few yards behind it stands Mussolini's personal gym (where apparently he never set foot). …

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