Report from Rome

Editor’s Note: History Department professor Paul Arpaia is only the second IUP faculty member to win the Rome Prize. (Daniel Perlongo of the Music Department was a Rome Prize winner in both 1970 and 1971 in musical composition. He took leave from IUP and was resident at the American Academy in Rome from 1970 to 1972.) Arpaia is filing dispatches to IUP Magazine throughout his year at the Academy. He sent this one in February.

The World Expo of 1942, Federzoni, and the Demise of Liberalism in Italy

Paul Arpaia

I am currently working in the Central State Archive (ACS). It contains documents relating to the national governments of Italy from the nineteenth century onward.

So, as a modern historian (that is, a specialist in Italian history post 1789), one usually works for long periods of time at the ACS. The archive is located in EUR, an area on the periphery of Rome and about ninety minutes by bus and subway from the center of Rome. 

EUR is an incredible place to work. EUR stands for Esposizioni Universale Romana or Roman Universal Exposition (or World Exposition, as we say in the U.S.). EUR has its roots in Fascism. In 1935, Giuseppe Bottai, the governor of Rome and a would-be Fascist intellectual, came up with the idea of using Italy’s role as host of the planned Expo for 1942 to add a new area to Rome that would showcase the Italian genius with, of course, Fascism at its pinnacle. Nineteen-forty-two was supposed to be a banner year. It would mark the twentieth anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome, when King Victor Emanuel III had called upon the Duce of Fascism to form his first government. Another element in Bottai’s plan was to make the Expo’s site a permanent part of the urban landscape of Rome. (As a point of comparison, only two of the more than two hundred buildings remain from the World Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.) 

Encyclopedias commonly call the architectural and artistic styles dating from the 1930s, which are found at EUR, “Fascist” architecture and “Fascist” art. But, Fascist architecture and art have as much to do with Fascism as, say, Victorian architecture does with Queen Victoria. Instead, the culture during the Fascist years (1922-1945) is much more nuanced. The main architect, Marcello Piacentini, aspired to a conception of modernity that left greater room for tradition. Admittedly, this definition is not very helpful unless one understands, along with the historian Eric Hobsbawm (The Invention of Tradition, 1983), that tradition is invented in the present and not bequeathed from the past. 

Piacentini envisioned EUR as a seamless extension of Rome towards the south. The inspiration for the layout and buildings drew from ancient Roman and Renaissance ideas of architectural proportion and purpose. The new area was laid out along rational lines and geometric figures, punctuated by colossal buildings that imparted modern Italian greatness to the viewer. It was as if the planners of EUR wanted viewers to see, through the materiality of EUR, how Fascist Italy had become the legitimate heir to Renaissance Italy and ancient Rome. EUR was also planned to celebrate the greatness of the Italian Renaissance through which many Italian intellectuals at the time hoped to assert Italian claims as the cradle of modern European civilization. There was an ulterior motive to the architecture and artistry of EUR. The Fascist government had geopolitical aspirations in the Mediterranean Sea and in Africa. During the first ten years of Fascist rule, the government had finally put down a twenty-year Arab insurgency in Libya. In 1935 and 1936, the Fascist government had led a brutal conquest of Ethiopia, and now many Fascists set their sights on French and even British holdings in the Mediterranean. 

Rome

Marcello Piacentini aspired to a conception of modernity that left greater room for tradition.

 Given this historical context, it is certainly understandable why most see EUR today solely as a Fascist celebration and evocation of the Roman Empire and an embarrassing example of Italian delusions of grandeur. Indeed, the association of ancient and modern Rome played a central part in the project, and it was made explicit in the inscription that still appears on the Hall of the Fountains: “The third Rome will expand beyond other hills and along the banks of the sacred river up to the Tyrrhenian shores” (that is, unified Italy as the “third Rome” and successor to ancient Rome—the “first Rome”—and Papal Rome—the “second Rome”). Some of the area’s most important buildings date from the pre-World War II period, including the building that houses the ACS.  Inscription notwithstanding, neither Fascist Italy nor EUR lived up to expectations. Defeat and Allied occupation in World War II saw to that! During the postwar period, building began again on EUR. But the inspiration for the new buildings was quite different, resulting in a curious hybrid urban landscape.

When you write on a topic long enough, it seems to pop up in uncanny ways. The same is true for EUR. Federzoni was the honorary president of Expo 1942. At the present stage of my research, I have not yet figured out his part in the planning of the area and the staging of the World Expo that never happened. Instead, I am working on Federzoni’s tenure as Interior Minister from 1924 to 1926, a crucial period in Fascist history when Mussolini and his cabinet crushed liberal freedoms and created an authoritarian state, all behind a façade of constitutional legality. Indeed, after World War II, Federzoni’s defense lawyers would make the valid argument before the High Court of Justice that tried him for his role in Fascism that he had never broken a single law!

Research is arduous work, and I am slowly working my way through boxes (literally) that contain thousands of memos, phonograms, telegrams, letters, and reports, trying to understand what Federzoni was up to. I have completed much of the work for 1924, and I am anxiously looking at the calendar, realizing that if I do not pick up my pace, I could run out of time.

Given the early stage in my research, it is impossible to make any conclusions. However, patterns do emerge. In 1924, Federzoni seems to have concentrated on two undertakings.  Stopping Fascist violence and placing the disciplining of antifascists solely in the hands of the Italian police was Federzoni’s first task. Muzzling the press was his second. As I continue to find out more, it becomes increasingly clear that there was not so much a Fascist seizure of power as a collapse of liberalism. The freedom of speech was the first liberal freedom that fell victim. With Federzoni’s use of existing press laws and the creation of new ones, those who knew what the Fascists were up to found fewer and fewer people who would, or could, listen to them. Federzoni thus played a crucial role in the creation of the first totalitarian regime.