The Arc of Memory: The Legacies of Mussolini and Fascism
“Every force evolves a form,” goes the Shaker proverb. My work has been about how economic, political, cultural and social forces “take shape,” are inscribed in our physical environment. I also trace the return trip – “every form evolves a force” – to show how our built environment itself shapes our lives. I have written and edited books about the destruction and rebuilding of New York City – in reality and in the imagination; the history of the preservation movement; the ideas of urbanist Jane Jacobs; the geography of terror of the 1970s dictatorship in Argentina.
A thread that ties these books together is a confrontation with the fact that all people in all places face the dilemma of what of their physical landscape should be brought from the past into the future, and what stories they will tell about those places. How different nations, communities, and individuals answer respond to that dilemma, according to a contest of ideas, values, and economic and social systems, constitutes what I like to call a politics of the past.
In 2016 the United States will mark the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, which established the laws and policies that shape every aspect of preservation work in the United States. This anniversary gives us an opportunity to reconsider how we think about preservation so that the historic preservation movement contributes to building more sustainable, meaningful, and just communities.
One way in which historic preservation can contribute to a better society is to help reveal the physical manifestations of our history, including events and episodes and structures that go against contemporary values. Through historic preservation, we can literally “see what we have wrought.” This, to my mind, most interesting effort within historic preservation, is often called the movement for “sites of conscience.” I find that name too limited. I prefer the broader and more blunt term “difficult places.”
The question I have been asking in recent years is: Can we infuse new life into the preservation movement by creatively preserving and interpreting sites connected with our difficult pasts? My Rome Prize project has been to ask: How has Italy, in its capital city, preserved and interpreted sites related to its fascist past? What places have leaders and citizens consciously or unconsciously forgotten? What innovative efforts have been made, in art and politics, to remember? And, finally, what lessons might we in the United States learn from this ongoing debate?
If Germany’s memorial efforts can be called the “art of never forgetting” and Buenos Aires efforts to bring the perpetrators of state terror to justice “the art of memory for legal justice,” Italy’s engagement with its fascist past in the city might best be called “the art of forgetting.” While there is much that has been written by Italian scholars about the rise of fascism, there is a disturbing lack of effort by the city and nation to confront – with the help of artists and architects -- Mussolini’s legacy in the urban environment.
So much of contemporary Rome was shaped by Mussolini. He made massive changes, including laying down roads, such as the Via Imperiali, which slices right through the Roman Forums, and the Via della Conciliazione, which created a wide axial road to the Vatican and necessitated the demolition of hundreds of homes). He also tore down countless buildings to expose the Roman past. The intervening two millennia held little interest; embracing “Romanità” was Mussolini’s goal. Finally, we still have several overtly propagandistic sites, the Foro Italico (once the Foro Mussolini) and the EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), the former used as originally intended – a sports complex – and the latter repurposed as a center for business and residences.
There are numerous reasons for Italy and Rome’s recalcitrance in dealing forthrightly in the urban environment with the Mussolini legacy. Others suggest that there is a commitment to the notion of Italians as “brava gente,” good people, and therefore hardly to blame for Mussolini’s “excesses,” and certainly in comparison to the Nazi’s. There is no need for ongoing reflection, they argue. Silvio Berlusconi’s regime implicitly and explicitly encouraged a positive re-evaluation of Mussolini and has helped lead to an open celebration of Mussolini and his buildings. And, finally, there are many who decry the fact that despite their long history, Romans simply have little interest in reflecting on their history.
There are many reasons for the apparent blind eye given to a twenty-year period of Mussolini’s rule in Rome and Italy. But the end result is that there is a huge and disturbing problem: one of the central movements shaping Rome, and one that ultimately was closely tied to the fascist regime to the north, is represented in buildings and spaces all across this capital city, but without commentary or interpretation. Seen and used by millions, from Italy and around the world, a controversial urban landscape is left mute.
The following photographs document a few of the diverse sites of memory of fascism in the urban landscape.