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Detail of map of Rome showing Mussolini's obelisk

Out and About in a Provincial Empire of Fascism

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Map of Rome
Roma. Ente Nazionale Industrie Turitiche. Geography and Map Division. Filed under Italy — Rome — 1933 — ENIT

It is only natural that Rome, by reputation being the “Eternal City,” has evolved over its roughly twenty-seven-hundred-year existence. Even the briefest visitor would be hard-pressed to overlook the glut of imperial detritus, some ancient, most merely old, and some modern. All the relics from the latest phase seemingly appertain to the ill-fated regime of Benito Mussolini, whose Fascists ruled Italy from 1923 until 1943. [1]

View of the city of Littoria
Veduta della citta di Littoria. Antonio Munoz, Roma di Mussolini (Milano: Fratelli Treves, [1935]). General Collections, Library of Congress.
Il Duce, like his classical and renaissance predecessors, was eager to memorialize his legacy throughout his empire in art, architecture, and public works. Some projects, for better and for worse, proved less perishable than others. He transformed Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, into an urban model of Fascist architecture [2]; he created vast new cities, such as Littoria and Sabaudia, out of the reclaimed swamplands of the Agro Pontino with a view to transforming the region into a showcase for the Italian style of urban Fascism; he inaugurated excavation and restoration projects of archeologically significant sites; he reorganized the national railway system; and he created a host of social and cultural institutions to service Italian citizenry. [3]

His cultural bequest is apparent at the local level, as well, for it was in Rome that he availed himself of the myth of “The Eternal City” to impose his own signature style upon the existing urban matrix. New restorations, monumental constructions, demolitions, expansive thoroughfares, celebrations, and exhibitions constituted Mussolini’s efforts to create “a Fascist cloak of universality” within the city. Among Mussolini’s most notable achievements were the development of the Fascist model suburb of EUR on Rome’s southern periphery and his major redesign of the area surrounding Il Vittoriano, the national monument built in honor of Italy’s unifier, Vittorio Emanuele II, and the completion of the monument itself. All of his projects were set forth in an effort to invent connections between the ancient city, the medieval and Renaissance city, and the modern conurbation, and to propel the much broader idea of what has been called a “re-signification of the city as the spiritual cradle of a new global order and ‘civilization.’” [4] The regime employed artifacts, mostly architectural, to connect visually and spatially the spirit of Fascism.

View of the four marble maps of the Roman Empire
La carte marmoree di Via dell’ Impero. Antonio Munoz, Roma di Mussolini (Milano: Fratelli Treves, [1935]) General Collections, Library of Congress.
Maps to some degree also served his purpose. Consider the series of four large marble maps of Rome, the Urbs (Great City), set on the outer wall of the Basilica of Maxentius on the Via Dei Fori Imperiali in 1934, two years after Mussolini’s completion of the great thoroughfare. Beginning with the founding of Rome, the maps chronicle the growth of the Roman Empire up until the attainment of its maximum extent in the Second Century AD. A fifth map, depicting the proclamation of Mussolini’s Fascist Empire in the Mediterranean and northern Africa, was added in 1936, but cut out after Italy’s ill-fated performance in World War II. [5] Notwithstanding the diminished legacy and truncated purpose of the original set of maps, their conception was monumental:  in both scope and materials, they equated the Roman and Fascist empires.

Map, recto of Roma.


Less majestic but just as persuasive are the many generic maps of Fascist Italy and its small empire also issued during their brief lives. Those maps, though varying in coverage, function, size, and scale, still inform us of Mussolini’s intended contributions to western civilization relative to those of his predecessors.

This portable tourist map was published in Spanish by Fascist Italy’s National Body of Tourism Industries in 1933 (the twelfth year of Fascist rule). It attempts to lure visitors, ostensibly Spanish, to the “Eternal City” by favorably comparing Mussolini’s architectural accomplishments with those of the ancient Romans and the popes of the Renaissance.

Text on the verso of the map advertises “new works made with incessant fervor during these first eleven years of the Fascist regime: these are the essential reasons that attract all peoples to Rome.” Potential visitors could expect to be treated to visual delights spanning the city’s mythical millennia.

Verso of map
Verso of Roma.
Image of column
Trajan’s Column, one of the signature monuments of Rome.

The map itself is small, perfect for wandering the city’s narrow streets, and pictorial in fashion: the usual tourist sites are illustrated and named, along with the major thoroughfares. Two small insets indicate distances between Rome and points north and south for brief excursions into the country. It could have guided the typical day tripper of its era.

A composite of signature pieces above the map’s title incorporate within one view the city’s three major eras: Trajan’s Column (the city of the Caesars), the Senatorial Palace (the city of the Popes), and Il Vittoriano (the capital of the modern nation).

Cartography and architecture are only two components of a multi-faceted system of propaganda. Both are media that functioned to propel the Fascist narrative of Italian national identity. Their roles are combined on the main object of our examination, the map’s verso.

Situated amid the text are illustrations of some of Rome’s greatest architectural treasures, including Saint Peter’s Square (including the Basilica, Bernini’s Fountain and the Colonnades), the Pantheon, and the Palazzo Venezia (from which balcony Il Duce announced the invasion of Ethiopia and Italy’s entry into World War II).

St. Peter’s Square.


Palazzo Venezia.
Foro Mussolini.

Displayed in the same venue is a portion of one of Mussolini’s greatest triumphs in urban planning, the Foro Mussolini (1928-38).  Somewhat symbolically, the four images can be read from left to right, from Saint Peter’s to the Foro, suggesting an evolutionary progression from old to modern, each stage different, but each politically comparable.

The Foro Mussolini, i.e., “Mussolini’s Forum,” was renamed the Foro Italico in homage to the first anniversary of his Ethiopian conquest. For its construction, it drew widely on Carrara marble, echoing Michelangelo’s monument to Pope Julius II which was excavated from the same quarries. One of the most significant and monumental public works in Rome that attempted to immortalize the memory of Fascist civilization for centuries, the Foro Mussolini was a single urban complex of different buildings that was viewed as a continuation or further development of ancient Roman planning. [6]

Stadio dei Marmi
Foro Italico, Roma, Italia. Photo by Antmoose. Retrieved with permission from Wikimedia Commons on 1/27/2022.

Situated prominently within the Foro Mussolini are the Stadio dei Marmi (1928) and the imposing Obelisco di Mussolini (1932). Our map regales us with descriptions of “long and wide roads ennobled by large public buildings, among which stands the great Mussolini Stadium.” The Stadio dei Marmi, or “Stadium of the Marbles,” testifies to the significant role of athleticism in the Fascist state. Essentially a running track, ringing it are sixty robust male nude statues disported in the classical Roman style, each representing a distinct discipline of athletics, but clearly illustrating the conception of Fascism’s New Man, with a view to refashioning humankind based on the collective ideals of the state. Along an avenue headed towards the stadium are concrete blocks with Roman-like mosaics commemorating Fascist victories, both domestic and foreign.

Image of obelisk.
Obelisco de Mussolini. Retrieved with permission from Wikimedia Commons on 1/28/2022.
Obelisco di Mussolini, verso of Roma.

Apparently ancient Rome was not ancient enough for Mussolini’s vision. Just six hundred feet to the south of the Stadio dei Marmii is an Egyptian monumental innovation, one originally identified for us by Herodotus as an obeliskos. Our next stop, then, on this yellow brick road of Fascism is the Obelisco di Mussolini, or “Mussolini’s Obelisk.” Weighing thirty tons, it, too, was quarried out of marble from Carrara, whence it was transported to the heart of the Foro. It stands between the Ponte Duca D’Aosta and the Viale del Foro Italico, and serves as guidepost for the traveler crossing the Tiber towards the Foro. According to one author, its insertion changed the spatial balance of the zone, in effect “creating a new monumental axis marked by the obelisk on the river side and the Fontana della Sfera at the other end.” [7] The obelisk, obviously intended to exude the power of the Fascist state, is inscribed in Latin with the title MVSSOLINI DVX, or “Mussolini, Leader,” a reference to his role as savior of the Italian nation and people.

With ruling his empire and waging war against liberal democratic states, as well as overseeing so many innovative building projects throughout Italy and in Africa, Mussolini must have been a weary man. The map tells us that beyond the city’s attractions of the forum, the temples, the mausoleums, and the massive monument to Victor Emmanuel, there is the Rome “where Mussolini works with inexhaustible fatigue for the sake of Italy and peace in the world.” And, for travelers on a tight itinerary, it admonishes as unforgivable “to contemplate only the works of antiquity and the Rome of the Popes, because, by Mussolini’s will, another city has been built very quickly, beyond the old walls,” probably where the tourist industry’s grandparents spent pleasant Sunday afternoons.

Image of Franco and Mussolini.
In this political cartoon, Mussolini shows Franco who’s boss. After the Spanish war? Herbert L. Block collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Our curiosity is piqued by the map’s publication in Spanish. Is Rome being posed as model of urban development for Italy’s Latin cousin? More likely, it reflects Mussolini’s political hopes for Spain. He had been an early supporter of right-wing groups that opposed Spain’s leftist government. A sizable expeditionary corps of Italian volunteers sent to Spain after Franco’s Nationalist uprising was defeated in battle in 1937. Mussolini’s continued assistance of materiel and money was essential for Franco’s eventual victory but proved costly to Italy, as it was never really compensated for its investment. [8]

In spite of the post-Fascist utilitarian urban development of the 1950s and 1960s, Rome remains a very walkable city still committed to preserving the appearance of the successive stages of its major historical styles. A stroll today imbues the visitor with the feeling of being in a cemetery, but a very nice cemetery. Death infuses many of its most striking monuments:  the Vatican, with its collection of popes in funerary panoply; cathedrals and churches with their marble chapels devoted to the memories of long-gone patrons; the catacombs, ossuaries for thousands of anonymities of the faith; and many solemn memorials in stone extoling the might of vanished rulers and their imperial visions.

Capuchin cemetery.
Lending the color of their habits to the name of the espresso-based coffee drink, these Capuchin monks seemingly have been caffeine-deprived for centuries. Capuchin church, cemetery of the friars, Rome, Italy. 1900. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

This map, then, can serve as a sort of spiritual guide for Italian Fascism. But, unlike the “Eternal City,” Il Duce himself never really evolved, having gone from birth in a small town to a banal, albeit grisly, death by execution. In the between years he indulged in socialism, radicalism, exile, journalism, rebellion, dictatorship, opportunism, totalitarianism, serving as a model for other rightists, masking social divisions by professing Italian national unity, exterminating Africans, and conducting war. And, of course, the building of his legacy. Assassinated by partisans in 1945 at the end of the brief, second phase of his rule, Mussolini has at least left us with a travel brochure highlighting a few monumental aspects of his own political graveyard.


[1] Thrown out of office in 1943, he was briefly re-instated by Hitler, only to be deposed again in 1945.

[2] Today Asmara is a UNESCO world heritage site.

[3] Many of his projects are discussed in R. J. B. Bosworth, Mussolini’s Italy; life under the dictatorship, 1915-1945 (New York:  Penguin Press, 2006).

[4] Aristotle Kallis, The Third Rome, 1922-1943: The Making of the Fascist Capital (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 11-12.

[5] Kallis, The Third Rome, pp. 259-60.

[6] Valentina Follo, The Power of Images in the Age of Mussolini.  Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2013.  Accessed via Scholarly Commons on 14 February 2018.

[7] Kallis, The Third Rome, p. 167.

[8] Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini’s Roman Empire (London:  Longman, c1976), pp. 99-106.

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