October 30: l’architettura del duce

2012/10/30 § 5 Comments

On this day in 1922 Benito Mussolini was made Prime Minister of Italy.

In his role as Il Duce (first as prime minister, later dictator), Mussolini drew from various cultural sources to foster national pride and the strength of his Fascist party.  Among them, architecture was primary.  Mussolini’s architects had a rich store of precedents from which to draw, as even in their ruined state the buildings of the Roman Empire communicated crushing might and cultural solidarity.  His favorite architect was Marcello Piacentini (1881-1960), planner of the EUR and Via della Conciliazione.  Both of these vast urban projects revisited the ancient Roman preference for sweeping axes, dominant symmetries and massive monumental structures to formalize the urban environment and direct attention to specific symbols of power.  As an architect, Piacentini’s monument to the “martyrs” of the Great War in Bolzano is a triumph of Neo-Classicism on behalf of Fascism:  an imperially-scaled triumphal arch sparsely ornamented with simple figural sculpture and for which the decorative applied and structural columns are replaced by the fasces.

Piacentini was to Mussolini as Speer was to Hitler, but was not his only architect.  Il Duce required a phalanx of designers to complete his many projects throughout Italy, most of them in the stripped Neo-Classical form identified with not only Mussolini but Hitler as well.  Before one rules against the buildings as inherently evil, one must consider how fair the judgement–guilt by association.  Indeed, other governments were using the same language of architecture to express their own strengths, value for the Classical world, and aspirations for global dominance.

Image: Mussolini speaking from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia (from this source)

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§ 5 Responses to October 30: l’architettura del duce

  • Arnold Berke says:

    Is there an inventory somewhere of all of the buildings commissioned by Mussolini?

    • Clio says:

      books by Paolo Nicoloso are probably the best place to start; also “Agro Pontino : Urbanism and Regional Development in Lazio Under Benito Mussolini” by Tvinnereim

  • Susan Barsy says:

    A fine post on an obscure but important topic.

    The Anglican-turned-Catholic John Henry Newman was an advocate of “the beauty of holiness”; sadly there is a “beauty of unholiness,” too. No doubt many of us have had the experience of being drawn to something beautiful that its latent sinister meaning (whether political or otherwise) later prompted us to disavow. This is a theme of much great literature, for example.

    Even the beauty of the photographs illustrating your post suggest what a slippery slope the aesthetics of fascism, which seem to be receiving renewed attention, can be.
    SB

    • Clio says:

      Witnessing aesthetically similar buildings in Mussolini’s Rome, Hitler’s plans for Berlin, parts of Beijing, and all over Washington DC (and plenty of other places, of course), does raise the challenging question: how much symbolic meaning does/can architecture really carry, with and/or without historical/physical context?

      • Clio says:

        (likewise for the concrete boxes that stood for socialist triumph in Europe in the 1930s yet turned into symbols of capitalist glory in the US in the 1950s)

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