Some countries are better than others at acknowledging troubling aspects of their pasts. Others pretend those things never happened. Most end up somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, not exactly hiding from their sordid histories, but also not really promoting that those things happened. Italy sits toward the “head in the sand” side of the scale as it pertains to fascism and Benito Mussolini. While they don’t claim that period didn’t exist, neither do they have much in the way of acknowledgment that it did, and that much of the country was complicit in the terrors of it.
(On the flip side of the spectrum is Germany, where monuments to victims of Nazi terror are everywhere, and where that period is owned up to in an effort to never allow it to happen again. For more on Nazism remnants in Berlin, click here.)
For the purposes of this article, we don’t need to recount the horrors of the Italian fascist period of 1922-1945, with its secret police, persecution of minorities, removal of basic freedoms, support of Nazi Germany, and pursuit of wars as a means of empire-building. Those things are documented in history. Rather, I want to devote some time and space to how one can, if one knows where to look, find traces of Mussolini here in Rome, and a discussion as to the repercussions of not doing more to remember this period in Italian history.
My flat in Rome is east of the city center, near the Policlinico stop of the B Metro. Just around the corner is a large park, constructed around the Villa Torlonia, a mansion built in 1806 by the Torlonia family. The house is lovely, with rooms decorated in mainly classical styles, and a museum’s worth of priceless art on display. (Some of the outbuildings on the grounds are also really awesome, headlined by the stained glass of the Moorish Greenhouse.)
But I’m not here for the house itself; indeed, I could visit any number of similar palaces all over Rome. I am here because, while in power, this is where Benito Mussolini lived, paying the Torlonia family a single Italian lira as rent. Most of the signage in the villa pertains to the building of it, and the decoration inside. However, some small mentions of Mussolini exist, especially in the bedrooms, which are still decorated with his furnishings.
Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922 in what was the Kingdom of Italy. Over the next two plus decades, he would consolidate power, wage a series of wars, and ultimately see the country cease to exist following defeat in World War Two, to be reborn as a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy. His time in power would be remembered as one of the low points in the brief history of Italy as a unified nation. (Click here to read more about Italian unification and the Kingdom of Italy.)
But here at Villa Torlonia, the life of Il Duce is only referred to through his decoration of the house, highlighted by the construction of a bunker below the pond in front. No mention of fascism is in evidence, nor is the mere fact of the Torlonia family being so supportive of it as to give their home to Mussolini. Yes, his era is acknowledged, but not the terrors produced or the complicity of those who allowed it to happen and even actively supported it.
This is a common theme here in Rome. It isn’t exactly that Italy has refused to own that fascism happened. It is just that they don’t really promote it, either. Yes, there is an obelisk to Mussolini on the outskirts of Rome (that I didn’t get a chance to visit), and certainly there are things built by the fascist regime. But nowhere that I have found talks about the truly disgusting things done by Mussolini and the fascists on behalf of – and to – the Italian people.
South of the city center sits Rome’s EUR district. Standing for Universal Exposition Rome, EUR was the crowning building project of Mussolini and the fascists. It was built as the grounds for the 1942 World’s Fair, a fair that never happened due to World War Two. But many of the buildings are still there, and a walk through is a lesson in both history and brutalist architecture.
Today, EUR is home to convention centers, hotels, government buildings, and the largest museum cluster outside the city center. But the concrete palaces here were originally built to form a connection between the fascist regime and Ancient Rome, a sort of modern take on Roman temple architecture, with columns and porticos all over the place. (Mussolini spoke regularly about Italy being heir to the Roman Empire and his desire to rebuild it for himself.)
At the center of the district stands a large obelisk dedicated to Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, and the noted fascist supporter (though again this fact isn’t talked about regularly). Marconi was part of the Fascist Grand Council from 1923 until his death in 1937, and supported his country’s invasion of Ethiopia publicly. As President of the Royal Academy of Italy, he also prevented Jews from joining, years before Hitler took power in Germany, and almost a decade before Mussolini passed his own anti-Semitic laws. And yet here in Rome, Marconi is honored not only by this fascist monument, but with a neighborhood named for him.
It is impossible to look at Italy today and not make a connection with the lack of open acknowledgment of the fascist past. The current Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, is the head of the Brothers of Italy, a populist right-wing political party that is the first such to gain power since the fall of fascism. Some party members have publicly praised Mussolini and his time in power, and policy pursuits include anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ agendas, as well as an ultra-nationalism that would seek to at least adjust – if not end – Italy’s place in the European Union. She and her party are openly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, but also anti-authoritarian (especially when it comes to their critique of Turkey and President Erdogan, although they are fans of Victor Orban in Hungary, so go figure) and anti-colonialism. But her open support of Mussolini, calling him “a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy,” has certainly called her stances into question.
Would such a party have the same support if Italy chose to publicly discuss the fascist period? I’d like to think not. Twenty or thirty years ago, when more people who lived through fascism and its remnants were alive, a party like this – and a person like Meloni – would never have been elected. But subsequent generations have forgotten that fascism led to the near complete distruction of the country, choosing instead to “remember” through rose-colored lenses. It is not dissimilar to Trumpism in the United States, led by those who declare the horrors of slavery and segregation to not be so bad. (While the US has gotten better at acknowledging those periods, it is still on the poor end of the spectrum.)
I certainly understand the reluctance to openly talk about such a painful period in Italian history. It is a difficult thing to come to terms with, as a large percentage of Italians have not-so-distant relatives who would have been members of the fascist party, and at least passive supporters of the Mussolini regime. But failure to do so can trace directly to the current political situation, and a government that would seem to want some policy positions of fascism – if not the authoritarian aspects – to be reinstated. That is pretty scary.
Wandering around Rome, some remnants of Mussolini and fascism can be seen. But even those are simply things that he and they built, rather than tools to be used for public education on the dangers of that terrible period and the lessons that can be learned from it. I can only hope that this is something that changes, and that Italy can one day fully “own” its history, both the good and the bad.
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