Fascist Seduction

The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, each side with this inscription: “A nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of travelers.”

There was a bright side to Benito Mussolini’s iron-fisted Italian Fascist regime. Even Winston Churchill asserted in 1927, if he were an Italian he would have given Mussolini his “whole-hearted” support “from start to finish.” Mussolini made the trains run on time — and they still do more or less. But more important, as the supreme overseer of Italian culture, Il Duce was responsible for creating striking graphic design and startling architecture (including many railway stations). Yet the most notable “relic” of his regime is Esposizione Universale Roma, known as EUR, the white marble and limestone city-within-a-city in the south-western part of Rome, originally designed to be the new Fascist capital. Some critics say EUR is a blend of the classical and rational into a brutish kind of modernist kitsch. However on a recent visit there I experienced a curiously seductive beauty like that exuded by ruins of ancient imperial palaces. It arguably transcends its past ideology. EUR is anything but a ruin, today it is a functioning residential, governmental and cultural district. Nonetheless, enemies of totalitarian dictatorships — and I count myself as one — argue that such architecture will always be tainted. Maybe, but I believe one can be fervently anti-fascist and still admire — indeed savor — aesthetics for their own merits.

Writing this, I am haunted by a passage from George Orwell’s 1984 in which Big Brother chillingly asserts, “The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering — a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons — a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting — three hundred million people all with the same face.”

EUR was designed to tout that notion. And while dystopic art and design should not be celebrated, understanding the underlying motives for design is not celebration. Even being fetishistic about artifacts born of dubious movements and ideologies is acceptable when the overarching context is understood.

EUR, also known as E42, is a vivid example of how something designed to signify one charged entity (the dominance of the Fascist party over the individual) can be transformed into another benign one (a residential and working environment), if only by circumstance (loosing the war). Or stated another way, just because the Fascists conceived, designed and partially built it (it was only completed after the war) doesn’t mean that over time it cannot be neutralized, or even redeemed. Yet, to be honest, I realize that the plan, buildings and sculptures are imposing in a manner that only an adulation-addicted dictator with a Caesar-complex could conjure. Therein lies the paradox. Knowing the motivation yet still “appreciating” the outcome suggests a deeper psychological complexity rooted in how effectively stirring or soothing the power and impact of propaganda is — EUR is a great example of this: beautiful propaganda-architecture.

EUR was scheduled to open in 1942, initially as the Anno XX commemorative exposition. Longer-term, it was intended to expand the city limits of Rome, but more consequentially, it would be the symbolic capital of Mussolini’s new empire (shades of Nelson Rockefeller’s Capital Mall in Albany, New York). Designed to echo the grandeur of the Roman Forum, it would also situate the Fascist corporate state in a progressive spotlight. Fascist propaganda hinged on the ability of the party’s exhibition designers to engage public passions. They were brilliant. The Anno X anniversary exhibition, for instance, designed by the Futurist Enrico Prampolini, was a masterpiece of scale (large totems and typographic panels juxtaposed with the minutiae of power). Il Duce used art and design wedded to architecture and public spectacle to present his manufactured narrative — and it worked, at least in terms of his cult of personality. Yet whatever the motivation and long-term results, some unique design, notably typography and environmental display, existed under Fascist rule.

Mussolini’s embrace of Italian Futurism (albeit briefly) suggested a more progressive outlook than the aesthetically reactionary German Führer, Herr Hitler; Duce’s architectural preferences were certainly less gothic and less medieval. While Mussolini extolled the style and trappings of ancient Rome (i.e. the Roman salute and the fascist emblem), he allowed for crosscurrents of Classicism and Modernism to run through Fascism, which contributed a bit of Mediterranean flair. To this day, the remnant of Fascist style continues to be subtly evident in Rome. (Having just spent a week there with students, as part of a design workshop, I watched how seduced some where by the Fascist facades and block letter inscriptions. Indeed, some drew inspiration for making original typefaces through their own interpretation of classic and fascistic lettering.)

What surprised me, however, was how totally taken I was by EUR’s centerpiece, Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, with its precisely Roman-lettered inscription atop all four sides of the structure, a six-story white box evenly punctuated by eight arched openings across and six down (presumably symbolizing the name Benito (down) Mussolini (across). It is the image in so many di Chirico paintings of fascist town squares. While EUR is imposing both in its volume and mass, it is also curiously more manageable than Hitler’s un-built superannuated Germania in terms of the height and breadth of the structures. The Palazzo, which is also known as the “Colosseo Quadrato,” or Square Colosseum, because its arches echo the landmark Coliseum, is the tallest structure of the complex and sits impressively alone on a small hill, unencumbered by other structures, starkly graphic against the sky, surrounded by a base of white limestone stairs, grass and heroic marble sculptures. From a distance, on the way to the airport, it is the most impressive structure on the horizon.

The Palazzo is complimented by a number of other fascist buildings, including the Museum of Roman Civilzation, with its impressive colonnades, resembling centurions standing at rigid attention. Although the uninformed visitor might never know all these structures (most of it constructed on the original plan after the war, in the early 1950s) had any negative ideological connotations, one cannot help but feel a certain weight of oppressive architectural power. What’s more, unlike Germany where every trace of the Nazi era is destroyed, the signs of fascism (in the spirit of preservation) have not been entirely erased, and the epigraphic columns, freezes, manhole covers, and a pair of stunning mosaics by Fortunato Depero and Enrico Prampolini, full of signs and symbols, remain.

EUR is not the Roman Forum (in fact, today it is a very high rent district), but walking through it, is like being in Mussolini’s head. As a leader of a nation where architecture and design signified so much, his goal to create an environment that would inspire and overwhelm, rouse and dwarf, was up there with other leaders who envisioned the city as their personal monument of immortality. Of course, anyone who lives amid New York City’s power architecture may be blasé to this, but not this New Yorker. I admit I am in awe.

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