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  • Writer's pictureSofia Greaves

Can we talk about Fascism today?

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

There are problems with the Italian representation of the ancient Roman city in the public sphere. This was startlingly obvious at the recent Civis Civitas Civilitas exhibition held in Rome, which presented Fascist reconstructions of Roman monuments (plastici). In the background, an inscription commended Benito Mussolini for liberating Trajan’s Forum. The plastici were introduced by sentences which included ‘the penetration of Roman culture’. There was a map, showing the Roman empire in white. Several alarm bells should be ringing. [1]

"The exhibition is a journey into the spaces and buildings of the cities of the Empire, represented in the plaster models of the Museum of Roman Civilization, made by Italo Gismondi for the 1937 Augustan Exhibition of Romanity. (2020)"

The CCC exhibition (2020) was dedicated to the Roman city, citizenship and civilisation. This is an enormous topic, and complex - in antiquity, citizenship debates related to who could, and could not be recognised as members of the Roman world. Monuments spatialized these debates - aqueducts, arches et cetera formed a visual vocabulary, through which a city was recognisably 'Roman'. Thus CCC chose to explore this theme through the city and the built environment, using reconstructions which were produced by Italo Gismondi, for the Mostra Augustea della Romanità (1937).

The Mostra Augustea della Romanità (1937), was an exhibition staged during the Fascist regime to celebrate the bimillenary of Augustus’ birth. Consolidating an already pervasive narrative, this exhibition foregrounded the superiority of classical culture through its technological and military aspects. It showed over three thousand objects including the plastici: highly regularized, idealised reconstructions of Roman monuments which conveyed to the masses Rome's impressive monumentality.

The plastici also represented the Roman imperial reach - when the Romans colonized, their buildings symbolised and promoted what they considered a ‘civilised’ way of life. ‘The barbarians’ were the reverse side of this coin – this category was superimposed by ancient thinkers upon those who lived in different ways to them, and were therefore less civilised. Gradually, through the Roman presence, cultural change occurred. Roman authors believed that their form of urban life instilled greater civility amongst the barbarians. The Fascists, under Benito Mussolini, adapted this argument as their own.

In this context, the plastici cemented a link between the Roman Empire and the present, and projected Italy’s great destiny. The exhibition occurred during the colonisation of ‘barbarian’ Ethiopia, and immediately previous to the first racial laws. And so the Fascists linked themselves to antiquity and represented the ‘spread’ of a 'white Roman civility' into 'black barbarian territories', by mapping the ancient and modern Empire in monochrome - (See Fascist youth book, below).

Page from Fascist Youth Book (ONB) showing white map of the Empire, in the background. 'Rome must be appear marvellous to all the people in the world: vast, ordered and powerful as it was in the First Empire of Augustus'. Permission, Renato Ricci Archive.

Curators Claudio Parisi Presicce and Claudia Cecamore, have also chosen to explore the impact of the Roman city upon the Empire, ‘In the territories conquered by force of arms', through Roman buildings. The first, and fundamental problem with the CCC exhibition was its failure to acknowledge the ancient discourse on ‘civility’ and ‘barbarity’ and how it related to Fascism and the role of the plastici (at all). We are forever saying that objects are seen 'through frames'. You absolutely cannot explain the impact of the Roman city, ‘through’ its Fascist reconstructions, without referencing, extremely explicitly, these two points.

Plastico of the Mausoleum of Augustus, seen through Fascist reconstruction of Trajan's Forum.
Inscription crediting Benito Mussolini, Victor Emmanuel and Corrado Ricci with the liberation of Trajan's Forum.

"The models depict both the factual state of the monuments in the 1930s and their reconstructions. They also add the value of documentation of transformed or disappeared monuments to their intrinsic scientific value, especially in the territories where war events occurred."

It is also a little farcical to frame the plastici as apolitical and factual representations of an ‘intrinsically scientific’ nature. If they represent the monuments in the 1930s, one also has to understand, as Guglielmo Gatti said of Augustus' mausoleum in 1938, that its remains ‘do not give us any useful indications to answer [the original appearance]’. [4] The Roman monuments never looked like the plastici. Not even the Fascist monuments looked like them. They are aestheticized and white.

So, to present the plastici as 'factual' links to a lost world worryingly echoes a Fascist narrative. In the words of Giuseppe Bottai, one of Fascism’s most influential ministers, Fascism arrived ‘at the modernity of Augustus’, ‘through some elements of his policies, objectively illustrated and considered’. [5] Of course, the plastici should not be relegated to Fascist propaganda merely because they were produced in this context. It was not their display which was the problem, (indeed, it was fantastic to actually see them since they have been hidden away) but the complete failure to provide any accompanying narrative. They are of great value, but there needs to be a discussion about why - these objects are crucial to our understanding of Roman urbanism because they have altered it.

Map of the Roman Empire, in marble. Affixed to Basilica of Maxentius
Map of Roman monuments. 2020.

The Civilitas exhibition did not want to discuss Fascism, which is indissolubly linked to the legacy of the Roman city. Discussing this legacy is what makes the study of the ancient world particularly current and what prevents us from repeating outdated narratives. There is an active debate about de-colonising the classics which this exhibition has completely overlooked. The second section of the exhibition opens on the 29th June. ‘24 new models depict bridges, aqueducts, buildings related to water distribution and, finally, markets’. One can hope that these plastici are differentiated from their predecessors. What does this say about our ability to discuss things which are difficult and provocative? The most important argument here is that such objects and their contexts, both historic and physical, need to be overtly referenced rather than silenced and ignored. It is better to have a discussion than to minimize debate.

Sofia Greaves

For us modern Italians, our history suffuses our understanding of current problems…Behind the contemporary appearance of our political, social, and economic life, the same factors always loom in our consciousness and in our memory, however distant or remote in time. Bottai, 1937.

End notes

It is also my opinion that describing Roman citizenship by ‘combining buildings with similar functions’ seems misguided – the plastici were completely divorced from their contexts, represented in aesthetic sequences, as if to show their 'evolution' and variance, in the manner of Oswald Spengler.

[1] This project began in 1911 under Corrado Ricci. The inscription reads Benito Mussolini Strenuo Italiae Moderatore…Mercatum Traiani insidentibus antea domibus disiectis in liberum prospectum restituit. The exhibition, Civis Civitas Civilitas. Roma antica modello di città. was held at Trajan’s Forum, 21/12/2019 - 18/10/2020. The exhibition referenced ‘la penetrazione della cultura romana’. [2] For the exhibition, read Arthurs (2012). Available online: [3] During the Mussolini's Fascist regime in 1936, marble maps were added to the exterior wall of the Basilica of Maxentius alongside the four maps of the ancient Roman Empire. The map inscription showed part of the law signed in 1936 by Mussolini naming the Italian King, Victor Emmanuel, as Emperor of Ethiopia. After the death of Mussolini in 1945, this map was removed from the basilica wall. The best article is here: You can see the maps here: [4] Gismondi’s plastico of Augustus’ Mausoleum shows the mausoleum under Constantine. Giuglielmo Gatti (1938) ‘Nuove Osservazioni Sul Mausoleo di Augusto’, L’Urbe, 8. 14. Quoted in J. Arthurs (2012 Excavating modernity. 70. [5] Giuseppe Bottai, L’Italia di Augusto e l’Italia di oggi, 1937.

See also A. Kallis, The Third Rome, 2014.

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