ROME—Benito Mussolini was just 39 years old when he conquered Rome as Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister. What started as a desire to leave his mark on the eternal city metastasized into full blown dictatorial egomania and soon he was bulldozing ancient Roman ruins tearing down centuries-old fortification walls to create what he dreamed would be the terza Roma or third Rome.
While his name has been scratched out or sculpted over most of what he had hoped would be immortalized, there are still countless fascist remnants in the Italian capital today, from his former home in the Villa Torlonia to the United Nations headquarters for its Food and Agriculture Organization. Many blend in so seamlessly, it’s easy to forget what they once stood for. But Romans have no intention of erasing any aspect of their city’s past. Instead, the fascist era and its architecture have just become another layer in Rome’s multi-faceted history.
The best place to start for those who wish to see Mussolini’s legacy is Piazza Venezia, a giant traffic circle in the center of the city anchored by the monument to Italy’s first king Victor Emmanuel II. With the monument, which looks like a cross between a wedding cake and a white typewriter, to your back, look left to see Mussolini’s famous balcony on the side of the Palazzo Venezia, once the embassy to the republic of Venice and now a national museum. It was from this famed stoop that Il Duce, which Mussolini liked to be called, spewed his fascist propaganda to the assembled crowds below.
When Mussolini first came to power, the view from the balcony looked out across the expansive Roman forum with remnants of pillars and palaces built during the height of the Roman empire. On the far end, the famous broken facade of ancient colosseum towered over the important archeological park. But Mussolini thought the direct line between his balcony and the colosseum would make a great parade route, so he ordered his minions to bulldoze and bury a large swath of ruins and displace thousands of people to build what was then the Via Dell’Impero street. Few records were kept and most of the ruins remain interred below the asphalt. He lined the boulevard with statues of emperors and large marble maps outlining the territories of the Roman Empire by date. The maps, statues and boulevard are still there, though the street is now called the Via dei Fori Imperiali (Street of the Imperial Forums). Every few years, Roman mayors vow to tear up the street and reunite the forums, but the street has become a crucial thoroughfare for public transportation and is still used for all manner of parades, from Republic Day to Gay Pride.
A few miles from the Piazza Venezia is the working class neighborhood of Ostiense which has a major train station of the same name that Mussolini built in 1938 for the sole purpose of trying to impress Adolf Hitler. The station is largely unchanged, but the street leading up to it is no longer called Viale A. Hitler. The heavy columns on the portico made of Travertine marble give much more importance to what is largely used as a commuter station in modern times, but it’s still worth visiting for history buffs. The fascist symbols are easily visible in the mosaic tile floor even though many are hidden under the shelves in the station’s snack bar. Mussolini had envisioned this station to be a landing point for visiting dignitaries who would be whisked through an opening he created in the Aurelian wall near the adjacent San Paolo gate. There they would glide past the Palatine hill, around the Colosseum and down the parade route to his offices in the Palazzo Venezia.
Leading away from the balcony square towards Piazza Navona, famous for Bernini’s fountains and over-priced gelato, is the majestic Palazzo Braschi, now the Museum of Rome showcasing works from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. It was commissioned as a papal palace by Pope Pius VI, and eventually housed Italy’s interior ministry before becoming Mussolini’s personal political headquarters. Now, the ground floor of the museum has a posh cafe and wine bar and etchings on the walls clearly show where references to Il Duce have been removed or covered with ceramic plates.
Another major thoroughfare Mussolini created that has become instrumental in Rome today is the wide street called the Via Conciliazione leading up to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Before Mussolini tore down buildings, actually taking a pickaxe in his own hands to open the project, St. Peter’s Basilica was largely hidden from view behind medieval buildings until one came upon it. The wide boulevard now showcases the church, and is lined with obelisks from which lamps are hung—a feature Mussolini personally chose. It has become an extension of St. Peter’s Square for events like canonizations, papal funerals, and coronations. While it is hard to imagine how this area of Rome would be without this important street, all signs of Mussolini have been wiped clean.
One area in Rome where no one has even tried to hide Mussolini’s considerable influence is the Foro Italico, which was called Foro Mussolini when the dictator built it as an athletic field display for competition for the 1940 Olympic games that went to Japan instead. A more modern stadium and athletic fields were eventually built on the grounds for the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, but Mussolini’s original architecture is still intact and kept in pristine condition. The massive 50-foot white marble obelisk at the entrance of the grounds still has MUSSOLINI DUX carved in plain view. The plaza around it is filled with mosaics depicting fascist scenes with tanks and airplanes and one in which the words “Duce A Noi” which is the fascist salute Romans gave to Mussolini much like “Heil Hitler” was used in Germany, are written in row upon row. A homoerotic collection of incredibly buff carved male athletes playing various sports circles the main square, though somewhat awkward fig leaves placed on the nude men beg the question why someone thought male frontal nudity was more offensive than the words Mussolini and Il Duce, which aren’t covered up.
Easily Mussolini’s most impressive and well known architectural accomplishment is an entire neighborhood called EUR (Universal Exposition of Rome) he built on the southern outskirts of the city that was meant to commemorate 20 years of fascism at the World Fair in 1942. The event never happened, but the neighborhood is now one of Rome’s poshest districts with leafy residential grounds with luxury condos and sprawling villas, an artificial lake and a major shopping center. Mussolini had tried to recreate a modern version of ancient Rome here, complete with buildings mimicking those of the ancient forum that now house various museums and conference centers.
The district even has a square colosseum called the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana that has the exact number of arches as there are letters in Mussolini’s name. Now, the building houses the headquarters for the fashion giant Fendi, making fascism—or at least its remnant architecture—fashionable once again.