Rome, “The Eternal City,” is oversaturated with legible layers of art and architecture, added upon for millennia. But some beloved features that are taken for granted as a part of the fabric of the city are actually scars left by some of the darker chapters of history.
The tile floors visible in the Roman Forum, romantic pops of color that stop tourists in their tracks, were the foundation for someone’s kitchen or dining room before fascist dictator Benito Mussolini lopped the buildings off to pave his Imperial Way. Similarly, the jagged edge of the crumbling Colosseo, a favorite to decorate postcards or souvenir limoncello, was a reinforcement project undertaken by the Vatican to preserve the landmark. They were using it to tug at the heartstrings of wandering followers by promoting the ancient site as a place where Christian martyrs were killed.
Fascist architecture has taken on a new life in the city, living on not only in the literal sense, but being reutilized and, it seems, almost accidentally reimagined. Peppered between crumbling Carrara marble washed in warm tones is the eternally black-and-white, crisp shadows instantly recognizable as the fascist aesthetic. Via del Corso is one of the most vibrant shopping districts in town, and it has swallowed up multiple fascist buildings, the ghosts of whom can still be recognized by an eye that searches for geometric columns and a pointed obsession with shadow and practicality.
On Via del Corso, there is a building that is deserving of special attention. The façade that faces the street does not stand out among the hundreds of nearby details that promise to reward the viewer with a hidden story or priceless artifact. But when a visitor walks to the backside, which faces away from the bustling shopping district and points instead to the block that houses the Ara Pacis, the juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity is quite jarring. This side features an inscription in Latin that bears Mussolini’s name, flanked by two angel figures carrying the fasces symbol of the party. On the ground floor, a Foot Locker shoe store.
There are many such monuments to choose from if one searches to blend antiquity and modernity in one confusing package. Many building projects in this city span decades or centuries, with stolen ephemera from Napoleon and patrons from the city’s elite or from the church. It is a true tapestry. However, this particular site is worth exploring as an example for two reasons. First, its location in one of the more “modern” (a relative term) parts of Rome, with outposts from all of the country’s most expensive luxury brands like Gucci and Prada make the historical tidbits less noticed. Second, this particular hard-to-swallow pill doesn’t come from the treasury of a corrupt Pope or from the private collection of Napoleon Bonaparte. The part that is shocking about this building is how recently it was built, how Il Duce’s dark chapter of history is much fresher in the memories of Italians than the reign of the Corsican Emperor.
Even untrained eyes in Rome become dabbling art historians, and more attention is paid to the art and architectures that provides the framework for daily life because, proportionally, more of it has been on postcards. So those untrained eyes that wander the shopping district, perhaps examining architecture in a way they have not before, might be quite shocked to see fascist works woven into the fabric of the city, but still a prominently displayed part of it. Though visiting the city to study this art and this architecture, I was one such surprised tourist. Acknowledgement and even memory of known dictators and muddied legacies are not the frequent subjects of public art in most parts of the world. Why here?
In some ways, the ignoring of the fascist imagery is the country’s way of accepting its complicated past and working reminders of its history into daily life, something that is, at least, quite Roman. It is a city that is saturated in art in a way almost nowhere else in the world can boast. And with a good portion of that art having been patronized by corrupt political officials, back-door church dealings, or otherwise unclean currencies, Roman culture is much more adapted to separating art and its aesthetic value from its twisted backstory. Both relevant, but neither cancels the other out.
The continued use of buildings like this one actually makes modern art truly contemporary again. The harsh and instantly-recognizable practicality of the Italian fascist aesthetic makes its architecture strangely appropriate for many of its modern uses within the city. The ominous façade of a bank, government building, or athletic facility. And here on Via del Corso, the minimalist approach that has become fashionable again in architecture but was coined in the regime of the 1930s is a strangely suitable framework for the capitalist philosophies at play in the rest of the architecture. And even within this building, it seems to work.
Foot Locker customers likely have other priorities above studying columns and lintels. And this place of commerce, this epitome of American capitalism, only emphasizes the formerly Italian politics of the shell it has assumed. Fascist bureaucracy took place in this building originally, as it was not one of the more famous monuments leftover but likely just an office building. But those uniquely Italian philosophies about economy and patriotism are now only whispers in the crevices of a building that is showing its age. No amount of paperwork in service of the great rebirth of Italy will overshadow the release of the next edition of Air Jordans.
Is it disrespectful to queue a line for a new pair of tennis shoes in front of the name of a man whose memory can be quite traumatic for many, especially given his connection to Hitler and to the hundreds of Roman Jews who were victims of the Holocaust? Are they separated entirely? The value judgment of if these buildings should be destroyed is beyond this point and is not our purpose here. There are some that will say that constant reminders of a regime responsible for widespread death and trauma have no place in the country’s capital. There are some that will argue in defense of remembering history and that retaining examples of this specific aesthetic is critical for the study of architecture. Perhaps both can be true.
The Italian political landscape is one of the oldest in documented history. Art criticism is a field that has always intersected with religion and economics, but only within recent centuries has art so vividly reflected the political climate of artists. In a place like Rome, the inseparability of these facts makes even a walk down the street or a trip to purchase shoes a true meditation on the aesthetics of political movements. Even, it seems, ones that most would like to forget.
The most noteworthy aspect of this building is the very fact that is not noteworthy at all, not to most Romans. There are many more like it. One does not have to be fluent in, or even interested in, the complex realm of art criticism, to understand the weight of the juxtaposition of the shopping district and the nearby site where Il Duce himself had hoped to be buried.
Though the way Italians reckon with their past is not something that everyone need or should have an opinion on, the way art moves and breathes is far more universal. Whether his name was on the side of this building or not, the fingerprints of Benito Mussolini will be found on all post-fascist architecture. That influence is an inseparable one for any body of work that contributes to an artistic dialogue — even more so for the aesthetics of the fascist movement, whose sharp angles, smooth marbles, and repetitive geometry linger longer than most.
If the ghost of the fascist aesthetic is to haunt the Eternal City indefinitely, growing comfortable with the reality of an afterlife for these buildings is an inevitable concession. The Romans understood this. The largely non-Italian tourist discomfort is one that remembers the actions of the fascists before understanding the cultural significance of the entire architectural movement.
Additionally, the blending of fascist architecture into a fondue-pot of thousands of years of style is even more logical for the legacy of Mussolini. That is, he was striving to take after previous emperors like Augustus in all aspects of his life. It explains his obsession with the fabled and long-lost Ara Pacis, the “Altar of Peace,” built by Augustus to commemorate a new age for the Roman Empire, which is within spitting distance of this inscription on Via del Corso. And that Altar of Peace, which itself seems to bloom in perfectly symmetrical and impossibly intricate organic materials, could not be further in tone or style from the neon lights of Foot Locker’s red block text. A sacrificial altar, standing alone in a field, could not be further in use than a place to amass more mass-produced commercial goods. And yet both find their home in the complicated story of Italian politics and economy, housed in the building projects of a starry-eyed military leader. That is why architecture should be studied.
Many of the most recognizable monuments in the Eternal City would dredge up the same ethical dilemmas if tourists had the same name associations with figures like Augustus as they do with Mussolini. Both controversial political figures in their day, both obsessively building a physical legacy for themselves. Both responsible for untold deaths, commemorated with marble archways and passed off to the populous as a call for celebration. This is not an Italian tradition, but an Imperial one. Regardless, this ancient tradition, which is certainly over-romanticized in the modern lens as more and more visitors are less familiar with the complicated and dark history many sites carry, is in this way quite revived by the fascist aesthetic. The two periods in history behave similarly in the present, at least in the way they interact with the modern landscape of the city. These two eras are visible, they are imposing. They are still used. And they should not, or cannot, be constantly revised.
For arguably the first time since the Renaissance, fascist Italy was a revolutionary in architectural style, not just doing things differently, but in a way that drew the attention of the world. Patron and product can never truly be separated. But in a city that can track its stylistic evolution from street to street, the theory that discomfort is a product of time is nearly proven. Most tourists are not uneasy climbing up the stadium stairs of the Colosseo, a site which bore witness to untold hundreds of violent deaths. That architecture has been preserved not to celebrate the Flavian dynasty who paid for it, but to recognize the Roman style of architecture in a particular moment of history — striking and innovative, a declaration on behalf of the people about the strength and attitude of Romans. Perhaps the surviving fascist monuments should be viewed the same way.
As a tourist, I am still jarred at the sight of Mussolini’s name on the street. But as an art historian, I am grateful that a sensitive and reproachful scouring of the dictator’s memory never stripped the world of valuable architectural sites to enter and study. And maybe leave with a new pair of shoes.