The city of Forlì in north-east Italy is best known as the hometown of Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party and ruler of Italy from 1922 until the end of WWII. During his two decades as Fascist ruler of Italy Mussolini transformed Forlì, which came to be known as “Città del Duce” or City of the Leader, into a representation of the fascist regime and its political aspirations. Another more recent resident of Forlì, Barbara Bravi, returns to her city to trace how the function of its fascist architecture has changed from a means of celebrating the old regime to understanding the city’s totalitarian past.
The most striking example of Mussolini’s transformation of Forlì was the construction of an entire addition to the city on what used to be swamplands. Including the “Viale Benito Mussolini” (renamed “Viale della Libertà” or “Freedom Avenue” after 1945), the architecture in this new part of the city was designed in the so-called “rational style” or “simplified neoclassicism” which was favoured by the fascist architects. This style is characterized by symmetric and regular shapes, essential and geometric lines, monumental facades decorated with classic elements such as columns and arches, and the use of marble as the main material.
The “Viale Benito Mussolini” was planned to function as the main route to the Forlì railway station (opened in 1926) and also to reproduce on a smaller scale the monumental perspective of the Champs Élysées in Paris – with the “Piazzale della Vittoria” or “Victory Square” (a WWI memorial) emulating the Arc de Triomphe. Fascist architecture systematically incorporated classical art and mythology as a propaganda tool to root Italian patriotism and national pride in the grandeur of the Roman Empire. One example is a landmark statue in “Piazzale della Vittoria” of Icaro (or Icarus): the famous mythical character who flew to the sun with wax wings.
The Icarus statue also has a second meaning: as a classical representation of Mussolini’s second son Bruno. Bruno Mussolini became a pilot in the Regia Aeronautica Italiana (Royal Italian Air Force) in 1935, and flew in both the Spanish Civil War and WWII. In 1938, he was part of a team who set a new air speed record in a flight to Brazil. This and more of Bruno’s achievements are celebrated in a series of mosaics decorating the interior of the Collegio Aeronautico, the Aeronautical College.
My father used to walk along the corridors of the building as a student and he remembers the scenes portrayed on the walls celebrating flights, military actions and other great results achieved in the sky by fascist party officials: “I remember in particular the ‘Primato di Agello’ (Francesco Agello was an italian pilot, who set in 1934 a world speed record for hydroplanes). My teacher used to make jokes, saying that the airplanes behind his desk were ready to shoot us if we didn’t study properly,” he tells me. “New episodes were added each year, until the very end, so that Italian bombardments against enemy countries during World War II were represented alongside the flight competitions in which Bruno Mussolini took part.”
The reconstruction of Forlì consisted of several more additions between 1933 and 1941, including the Istituto Tecnico Industriale, a technical school designed with an “M” shaped planimetry, as well as Casa del Balilla “Arnaldo Mussolini,” a multifunctional recreational centre named after Mussolini’s brother and designed for members of the Opera Nazionale Balilla (a fascist youth organization). Honouring close relatives was a practice maintained under the Fascist regime, and served as a propaganda tool to emphasize traditional family values. Mussolini also had a primary school named after his mother, Rosa Mussolini.
Architecture and communal urban spaces such as those described acted to celebrate Mussolini as a “good dictator” and “protector of the nation.” The provision of education institutions, spaces for entertainment, green areas, and sports facilities was to suggest that Mussolini was directly responding to the needs of the citizenry in all aspects of life, including leisure time. This is consistent with totalitarian regimes, which sought to involve the citizenry in all aspects of society through rituals and duties in order to form a disciplined mentality. In such states, as can be seen by the Forlì example, urban space becomes a medium for identity construction.
Just half an hour by car from Forlì is Predappio, Mussolini’s birth town and burial place. Every year, on the anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome (by which he came to power), thousands of people travel here to visit his grave. Understandably, the majority of Predappio’s residents feel ashamed and are uncomfortable even talking about this nostalgic pilgrimage. Nevertheless, Predappio welcomes its many tourists every year with kitschy and nostalgic souvenirs such as fascism-inspired ice-cream flavours (for example, dark chocolate is named “Camicia nera” after the armed squads or “black shirts” organised by the fascist party).
Originally a mountain village, Predappio only became a “sacred” place in the 30s and can be regarded as an “urban museum” with its rich repository of rational architecture such as the “Casa del Fascio”. Built in the mid-1930s, the house previously hosted a tourism and propaganda office, a recreational centre, halls for visitors, an elegant restaurant, a hotel and conference facilities. As such, the building was conceived as a place to welcome “tourists of the Fascist regime” who were keen to see Mussolini’s native land. Today, after years of abandonment, it is under restoration to be converted into a space for public activities, possibly including a museum.
In recent years, school programmes have provided students with a historical overview of the origin and meaning of fascist celebrative architecture in Forlì. Since 2009, an extensive restoration programme known as ATRIUM (Architecture of Totalitarian Regimes in Urban Managements) has been run as part of a joint effort at an European level to regenerate the architectural heritage of totalitarian regimes.
While the example of “Casa del Fascio” shows how some of these buildings can be converted to suit new purposes or preserved as part of a town’s cultural heritage, many other buildings simply return to their original function. A number of schools continue to exist under new names and, in the case of the Casa del Balilla, the cinema and sport facilities are still functioning. As my father tells me, in the past decades their history and ideological content has been largely neglected.
In my personal view and experience, these buildings still retain some ideological, or at least symbolic, value. They can still play a role in shaping collective memory, but in a completely different way: as reminders of a not-too-distant past that we rejected. In fact the foundations of the Italian Republic were laid by antifascist movements during WWII and were meant as a negation, or refusal, of the ideology embodied by such celebrative architecture.
Images: Barbara Bravi
To find out more about the legacy of totalitarian leaders across regions, take a look at our article on Gori, the hometown of Stalin, and its famously bizarre Stalin Museum.