Travel + Leisure

March 2001, Travel + Leisure

Dictator by Design

More than 50 years after Mussolini's fall from power, Italians can't agree on what to do with the monumental buildings he left behind.

Inside the high-ceilinged chambers that were built as Benito Mussolini's personal gymnasium, the marble walls glisten as they did when Il Duce flexed his muscles, lifted weights, and swam in the colonnaded pool. Half a century after the Fascist leader was deposed, all of the oversized doors are still marked with a mammoth M.

“The quality of this space is incredible," says Francesco Dal Co, editor of Italy's leading architectural journal, Casabella. Designed by the Modernist architect Luigi Moretti and completed in 1937, the gym is part of a sprawling sports complex originally called the Foro Mussolini, on the northern bank of the Tiber River, a 15-minute taxi ride from central Rome.

Recently, Dal Co and other design aficionados gathered in the gym for a symposium on the fate of the complex, now officially called the Foro Italico. Its future was thrown into question last summer, when the Italian government proposed selling off the property to private investors. Posters and leaflets that read HANDS OFF THE FORO MUSSOLINI were put up all over Rome by a small neo-Fascist party, Social Movement for the Tricolor Flag. Preservationists such as architectural historian Giorgio Muratore, of the University of Rome, also oppose the move. "Next we'll be trying to sell off the Piazza Navona."

Coinciding with the tempest about the Foro's privatization is the controversy surrounding a new design by New York—based architect Richard Meier, who plans to redo one side of an imposing but neglected Mussolini-era square in the capital's center. Italian authorities are also refurbishing a 420-acre complex on the southern edge of Rome, known as the Esposizione Universale di Roma, or EUR, where Mussolini planned a 1942 world's fair celebrating his totalitarian regime.

Most visitors to Rome are drawn to the Colosseum, the Forum, Saint Peter's Basilica. They are usually unaware that much of the city bears the imprint not just of emperors and popes but of Mussolini as well. "In five years," Mussolini proclaimed in 1925, "Rome must appear marvelous to all the people of the world: vast, ordered, as powerful as it was in the time of the first emperor, Augustus."

The Foro Mussolini was one of the dictator's earliest efforts to surpass the architectural glories of his imperial predecessors. Now that enough time has passed for structures like the Foro to need restoration—Mussolini's regime was toppled in 1943, and he was executed two years later—Italians are avidly debating the merits of the designs he favored and whether they should be preserved.

"There's a rediscovery of this kind of architecture," says architect Chiara Tonelli, who works for the city of Rome. "Before, anyone who showed appreciation for it would be called a Fascist. Now we no longer have the weight of Fascism on our shoulders. The war is something far away." Leading foreign architects—including Americans Robert Venturi, Peter Eisenman, and Richard Meier—have long been interested in Italian architecture of the Fascist period. "A lot of it was overpowering and scaleless," says Venturi, "but good things did emerge." In contrast to Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, many innovative architectural works were built in Fascist Italy.

The Foro aimed to give Italians hard bodies and at the same time strengthen the body politic. It was a Blackshirt playground, home to the Fascist Academy of Physical Education. By 1936, when Mussolini conquered Ethiopia and declared a new Roman empire, the academy's emphasis on fitness had come to imply battle-readiness. In 1938 he staged an operatic spectacle for Adolf Hitler at the Foro's stadium, with torch-bearing youths forming a huge swastika and the words Heil Hitler in flickering flames. Mussolini's bid to build on the model of ancient architecture so impressed the Führer that he told his host he had witnessed "the Roman state resurrected from remote tradition to new life."

Prime examples of Mussolini's exploitation of architecture as propaganda still stand at the Foro Italico. A 55-foot-high obelisk, the largest single piece of marble ever quarried at Carrara, towers over the entrance. It is inscribed Mussolini Dux (Mussolini leader). Behind this monolith stretches a huge piazza paved with mosaics of muscled athletes, fierce eagles, and odes to the dictator spelled out in black-and-white tiles. The complex itself consists of open-air and enclosed swimming pools, tennis courts, and running tracks, as well as an Olympic stadium built for the 1960 Games and renovated for the 1990 World Cup.

Many of the Foro's buildings are currently occupied by the Italian National Olympic Committee and a television network. But it was another occupant, Biancamaria Tedeschini Lalli, rector of the state-run University for Sport & Human Movement, who went to court to block the government's privatization plan. She won an injunction against it in October. The government had hoped that investors would see the Foro as a ready-made sports and entertainment complex and that its sale would reduce Italy's debt, a crucial step in meeting European Union budget criteria. Lalli argued that the sale would imperil the university's contract for free and permanent access to the site. Now she is seeking to form a coalition of public and private institutions to help restore the Foro and rededicate it entirely to sports. "Let's put it to proper use," she says, adding that its architecture can no longer be regarded as ideologically loaded. "At this point, I don't think a young person gets a political message from the architecture."

Some young people aren't so sure. Take 24-year-old Micaela Fagiolo, who's training to become a gym teacher in the Foro's Stadio dei Marmi. The 20,000-seat marble-and-travertine track stadium, built in 1933, is ringed by 60 colossal marble statues of nude males—many wielding clubs, swords, or slings, others posing languidly. "They're horrible," Fagiolo remarked, as her classmates threw discuses and javelins nearby. Eyeing the stony representations of virility, she added, "For me it's not art. I don't like the ideas they stand for; I'm not proud of this history."

Though the Foro’s chief planner, Enrico del Debbio, favored ornamented buildings that harked back to the triumphs of ancient Rome, the Foro Italico also includes a luminous example of Italian Modernism, a sleek fencing academy in shimmering white marble by Luigi Moretti, the same architect responsible for Mussolini's gym. (Moretti, a fervid Fascist, later drew up the curvilinear Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.)

The fencing pavilion was taken over in 1981 by the Italian Justice Ministry and used as a holding cell for members of the radical left-wing group known as the Red Brigade; it remains in use as a high-security courthouse for terrorist and Mafia trials. The proposed sale of the property brought calls for the ministry to vacate the premises so it could be restored to its earlier grandeur.

At EUR, the huge tract where Mussolini had aspired to trumpet his rule by staging a world's fair (before World War II intervened), authorities are preparing to convert an eye-catching Fascist-era building into a new museum of audiovisual technology. The six-story cube perforated by 216 arches was originally called the Palace of Italian Civilization, but until recently it served as a labor union office. Nowadays Italians call it "the square Colosseum."

In the postwar period, most of EUR was remade into a business center. It bears an eerie resemblance to a de Chirico painting, with its grandiose structures set along axial boulevards nearly a mile long. Several of the buildings intended as exposition pavilions are now corporate and government offices as well as quarters for half a dozen museums. A major new convention hall is being planned in a bid to burnish EUR's allure as an international commercial center.

At the Piazza Augusto Imperatore in central Rome, less consensus surrounds the value of another Modernist building of the Fascist period, a 1938 pavilion sheltering the Ara Pacis, a monumental Roman altar dedicated in 9 b.c. to the peace established by Augustus. It is to be replaced with a new museum by Richard Meier, which will house the altar. “The ruination of the Ara Pacis!” warn posters put up near the site by right-wing activists. University art students have also demonstrated, distributing leaflets that superimposed the face of then-Mayor Francesco Rutelli, the leading advocate of Meier's design, on the body of Mussolini.

Some Roman detractors irreverently compare Meier's design to a gas station, while one of Italy's most prominent art historians and critics, the late Federico Zeri, lambasted Meier as "an architect who knows ancient Rome as I know Tibet." But other Italians deem Meier, the Pritzker Prize— winning architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a fitting choice for the sensitive commission. "Meier's architectural language is explicitly inspired by Italian rationalism of the 1920's," said Mario Manieri Elia, a historian advising the city of Rome on the project. "One sees this in its light color, large surfaces, the purity of line, the rigid and cold geometry."

Meier's design has touched a raw nerve for two reasons. It poses the vexed question of whether it is acceptable to remove a Fascist-era landmark, and it represents the first major new architecture to rise in Rome's historic center in some 60 years. The city official in charge of historic monuments, Eugenio La Rocca, hopes that it will be the first step in redesigning the entire piazza, located between the Neoclassical Piazza del Popolo and the domed Pantheon.

Whereas the Foro Italico is by and large a design success—thousands come to use its sporting facilities—the Piazza Augusto Imperatore has proved both an aesthetic and urbanistic failure. At its core stands the mausoleum of Emperor Augustus, now desolate and closed to the public. Mussolini had envisioned the circular tomb as his own final resting place, and in planning the piazza he had hoped to draw parallels between the Augustan Age and his own epoch. Now pedestrians regularly shun the square.

In 1937 Mussolini ordered the Ara Pacis moved from another site in Rome. Reliefs on the altar's side portray the emperor Augustus and his children, while Fascist iconography around the piazza echoes this glorification of family, fecundity, and agrarian life. Mussolini also tapped into the martial aspect of the Augustan Age; another set of friezes on the square depicts Roman armaments alongside more modern gear like gas masks and pistols. The bellicose imagery and the Fascist architectural ensemble of drab stone and red brick add up to a decidedly inhospitable public space.

Meier's elegant solution could go some way toward improving the awkward site. He sees the museum, due to open in 2002, as a foretaste of further changes. In his view, the piazza's remaining Fascist-era buildings are not worth preserving. "It's great to have a city frozen in time," Meier says, "but to keep it viable some aspect has to move it along."

Next year, an international architectural competition is expected to be held to enliven the square. Several prominent architects have already come up with proposals for the site. In the meantime, the controversies may lead to a more nuanced understanding of Rome's Fascist architectural legacy and the circumstances that created it. "With the increasing distance between us and Fascism, this architecture has become part of our heritage," says architectural historian Giorgio Ciucci. "Rather than dividing ourselves into pro- or anti-Mussolini, today it's more useful for us to understand that we have a history of light and shadow."