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Architecture and ideology: modernity as a Fascist endeavour in Il Foro Mussolini

Written by: Thomas Bouzereau and Pauline Darrieus

In recent years, Fascist architecture has taken an increasingly important place among the Italian public debate, for being omnipresent yet unnoticed. It is all the more surprising when one knows that the architectural characteristics of that time were very tied to the political program of the Duce. Italian fascism, as opposed to other nationalisms such as that of Nazi Germany, undertook the particular task of appropriating the use and views of modern art. At its core lies the cult of Ancient Rome in parallel with a political program turned towards modernity and a new fascist order. Thus, this article will investigate how il Foro Mussolini evidenced the use of Ancient Roman aesthetics to incarnate the  Fascist concept of modernity of the ‘Novecento Italiano’.   

The architectural complex now known as the Foro Italico, in Rome, was built between 1928 and  1938 and was originally named the Foro Mussolini. Still in use today, it is a very good example of the role of architecture in the grounding of Fascism both in space and time. The different complexes that make the site materialise the different purposes of the place as both a political and a cultural centre.  Indeed, it was intended to host impressive ceremonies and competitions. More importantly,  everything about the structure and history of this place is significant for the Fascist ideology. For instance, Mussolini destroyed previous buildings to construct the Foro, underlying how Fascism was determined to mark the space and select its historical lineage. Thus, the omnipresent references to Ancient Rome, the Risorgimento and the Italian 18th century were purposeful, as they are considered very rich periods of Italian history. This comes in opposition with the Medieval period, which was voluntarily overlooked. Indeed, the plaza dell’Impero, at the centre of the Foro, is covered with black and white tiled mosaics reminiscent of classical Roman imagery. And yet, the Foro also displays many Modernist Rationalist features, which underline the desire of Fascist ideology to create a new political order. 

Photos by: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The Foro Mussolini is more than a mere re-construction of Roman circuses, it is a central component  of what Mussolini described as modern ‘rational and functional architecture.’ Mussolini thus subdues architecture to ideology. In this way, the Foro Mussolini pictures a rational, unitary Italian soul inherited from the wise Romans, and functions as an instigator of Fascist values of strength, virility,  obedience, and discipline. This is what modernity is all about for the Duce: Re-modelling a Roman past to suit the political endeavours of an all-prevailing Italy. To this end, a return to classical forms in art was imposed in Italy from 1922 onwards. The Novecento Italiano reinvented simplicity, massive designs, Roman columns, and rectangular shapes. Reinvented, not copied, for fascism paradoxically harboured both concepts of tradition and revolution at its core. Therefore, the essence of those beauty standards was Fascist, not Roman. The project of the ‘Renovatio Romanorum’, the Roman  Renovation initiated by Antonio Muñoz, strikingly shows how the recovery of body and spirit became a necessity to build Fascist Italy. Here lies the purpose of the Foro Mussolini: To build, in the most literal sense, that is physical, a new, modern order. It is therefore a political statement, one which asserts the absolute superiority of an eternal Italian nation and justifies combative force as a natural outgrowth of its nature in a period of colonisation.  

Architecture has been a tool of ideology in many fascist regimes because both share the desire to make a lasting impact on time and space. Mussolini did not build his Foro because it was pleasant, but because Fascism needed to last eternally: The struggle for survival was literally carved in stone throughout Italy in the 1920s. It is in this context that Fascist modernity must be understood -it is the crucible of a sacred civilisation renewed by Fascism. Fascist architecture therefore rests on a threefold mission: Functional, rational, and metaphysical. Pre-dating but largely influencing the Novecento 

Italiano, the artistic movement of the Pittura Metafisica (1919-1920) made no distinction between aesthetic, ethical, and political values. It rejected the so-called decadence of the futuristic vanguard in an attempt to espouse the purity of shapes and order of conception. Its metaphysical enterprise,  found in claims of eternal beauty standards, permeated the neo-classicism of Fascist Italy. Mussolini was similarly obsessed by the metaphysical nature of the Foro: It was the promise of a Fascist order whose hegemony was to last forever.  

Featured image by Passaggi Lenti

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