The New York Times

July 11, 1999, The New York Times

Walking Mussolini’s Fascist Utopia

Classical Rome reinterpreted for another imperial era

Five miles south of the center of Rome is a would-be fascist theme park bearing an eerie resemblance to a de Chirico painting come to life. The most ambitious of Benito Mussolini’s building plans, the 420-acre EUR was to be an entirely new city rivaling in scale and grandeur the capital of his imperial predecessors.

The acronym stands for Esposizione Universale di Roma, planned as an international exposition to open in 1942, showcasing the glories of imperial Rome’s past and future. This adventurous urban experiment, completed a decade later, is vast, with the most significant buildings situated at opposite ends of axial boulevards nearly a mile long. Fortunately for the pedestrian, EUR’s broad avenues, squares and semicircular plazas are far less clogged by cars and noisy Vespa motor bikes than the narrow streets of Rome’s historic core.

But the wide open spaces of EUR (pronounced AY-oor) have the chilly sterility of an empty stage set. Not surprisingly, the district has turned up in movies like Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.” Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange came to EUR last fall when the director Julie Taymor filmed them in a screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” Just before visiting it myself on a sunny day in January, I turned on the television in my Rome hotel room to see EUR’s classically inspired buildings as the backdrop in a dog-filled commercial for a new Italian telephone company.

Mussolini certainly had something else in mind when, as Il Duce, he ordered EUR’s creation. Curious to experience the place firsthand, I took the subway from a station just outside the Colosseum and arrived at EUR 15 minutes later. Soon after leaving the train, I found myself amid a fascinating mix of theatrical structures that is perhaps the inevitable product of a society that gave birth to Michelangelo and Gianni Versace.

The complex encompasses both palatial behemoths and buildings of architectural distinction. Its chief architect, Marcello Piacentini, aimed to build a modern utopia filled with 20th-century equivalents of the fabled antiquities that make up the Rome of the popular imagination. New Yorkers may experience deja vu: Philip Johnson was accused of drawing upon Mussolini-era design after his New York State Theater opened at Lincoln Center in 1964.

The grandeur belies the current use of most of the buildings. An odd and for the most part uninspiring array of half a dozen museums are housed in some of them, with collections that range from Arctic artifacts to the history of telecommunications. Office workers frequent the coffee bars and restaurants sprinkled around the district, but for an Italian urban setting, activity along the gaping streetscape is unusually sparse and unhurried. Italian banks and ENI, the Italian petroleum group, now have corporate headquarters here; executives live in postwar villas and apartment houses that line the avenues. Italy’s Central State Archive stands at one end of EUR, while at the other, atop a lengthy ramp of geometrically patterned marble, looms the austere Church of SS. Peter and Paul, begun in 1938. The prominence accorded this domed church, its blank travertine facade devoid of detail, recalls the Vatican’s accommodation with Mussolini in the 1929 Lateran Treaty.

EUR was never fully realized as originally envisioned, since the exposition was delayed first by World War II and then canceled altogether after the collapse of Mussolini’s regime in 1943. Cut stone and unused columns littered the site in the immediate postwar period. The propaganda spectacle gone awry became a marble ghost town, sealed off with a barbed wire fence. It stood largely abandoned until the early 1950’s when the Republic of Italy completed the district to house Government and commercial offices as well as museums.

The 1942 exposition would have enabled Mussolini to mark the 20th anniversary of his fascist rule and trumpet its achievements at what he termed an Olympic Games of Civilization. EUR aspired to surpass all previous world’s fairs. At its close, the terrain was to become the new monumental heart of the revived Roman empire’s capital, and a step toward realizing the fascist leader’s dream of extending Rome southward to the Mediterranean.

The planning of EUR began soon after Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, and many of the stone-clad buildings still echo with imperial bombast. The link between EUR and the fascist empire was to be made explicit by placing the 1,000-year-old Obelisk of Axum, hauled off to Rome after Addis Ababa’s conquest, in the exhibition’s central square. In the end, the 170-ton monument, a treasured relic of Abyssinian grandeur, wound up just north of the complex in front of the building Mussolini intended as his ministry for African colonies, and the central square was dedicated instead to Gug lielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph, a move aimed at stressing Italian primacy in telecommunications. A modern obelisk, completed in the 1950’s, was erected, carved not with hieroglyphs but with reliefs of Marconi and his inventions. Surrounding this square, Piacentini strove to create an urban setting that would “express in daring and grandiose masses and lines the essential characteristics of Roman architecture.”

Because official cultural policy under Italian fascism was relatively relaxed compared with that of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period, Italy’s totalitarian-era architecture was characterized by stylistic diversity and often contradictory impulses. But in the late 1930’s when EUR planners prepared to break ground, Piacentini pitted himself against a vibrant tradition of Italian modernism. Calling for cultural expressions that were “more our own,” he imposed a durable classically oriented monumentality on EUR. Giuseppe Pagano, at that time the editor of the design magazine Casabella, angrily charged that at EUR, Piacentini showed himself to be a “jumped-up Vetruvius” who forced good taste and moderation to “commit hara-kiri on the altar of the most grotesque exhibitionism.”

Standing outside EUR’s Museum of Roman Civilization, I could well understand Pagano’s diatribe. Its two buildings are joined by a portico with a stolid double row of 40-foot-high travertine columns. Inside, it has soaring ceilings and 59 skylit galleries. The museum is worth visiting if only for a glimpse of its expansive model of Rome in the age of Emperor Constantine. Other exhibitions trace the city’s history from its earliest days, with plaster casts of Roman artifacts and mini-replicas of monuments. Most were displayed as props at the 1937 Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution.

A short walk from the museum is the Congress Palace, a convention and reception hall designed by Adalberto Libera, a striking building with a sleek interior that, outside of convention sessions, can be viewed by appointment. Its design bears vivid testimony to the struggle over EUR’s architectural direction. Libera clearly fought to avoid total capitulation to Piacentini’s classicizing strictures. The front of the hall features a glass curtain wall behind a rank of vaguely Doric columns. A cross-vaulted roof tops the marble facade, from which protrudes a mysterious white stone platform. This was to have held a sculpture of a Roman charioteer driving four horses, but the work was never completed, leaving behind what looks like a diving board or a futurist balcony, ideally suited for a demagogue exhorting a throng below.

Libera proposed a gargantuan parabolic arch to anchor the southern end of EUR’s central axis, but the space was ultimately filled by a huge circular stadium built for the 1960 Olympic Games. According to the architectural historian Thomas Schumacher, Libera threatened to sue Eero Saarinen when he picked up the idea after the war and used it in his Gateway Arch that now graces St. Louis. Libera had hoped that his streamlined arch would symbolize EUR, much as the Eiffel Tower became an icon for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris or the Trylon and Perisphere for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Instead EUR’s emblem became what the Italians call the square Colosseum. This six-story cube, perforated by 216 arches, is on the Viale della Civilta del Lavoro, the thoroughfare running west from the convention hall. It sits atop a heavy pedestal reached by broad flights of steps. Towering statues of muscled men alongside stallions are posted at the corners of the building, originally known as the Palace of Italian Civilization and now called the Palace of Labor Civilization. The interior, housing labor union offices, can be visited by appointment only. But visitors can amble through the vaulted ground-floor arcade. Under each of its arches stand allegorical stone statues, meant to recall the sculptures in the arches of the original Colosseum. As at that ancient building, the travertine of the square Colosseum is blackened by air pollution and acid rain. A wooden brace held up one dilapidated corner when I visited.

In the face of this decay, several corporations have recently formed a consortium to refurbish EUR and relaunch it as an international commercial center so that it can better compete with such rival European business districts as the Docklands area in London. Plans call for restoring the square Colosseum, and other buildings, including several of the museums, as well as constructing a major new convention complex.

A new brochure about the planned revitalization of EUR notes that the architecture’s ideological message prompted calls for the entire quarter to be razed after the war. In the meantime, the brochure speaks of “any disputes about its monumental role having long been resolved” as a result of a “more objective and rational” evaluation.

Nearly 60 years after the demise of the dictatorship that erected EUR, there is a remarkable lack of information at the site itself about its history. Aside from a small guide (available in Italian only) on sale at the Museum of Roman Civilization, I found little to document the origins of the district. Nonetheless, the aborted world’s fair lives on as an unmistakable reminder of a vainglorious tyranny.