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History – Italy 

Living with your past

Lucy Maulsby on the complex inheritance of buildings erected during fascist-era Italy and their usage today.


People are often drawn to Milan by its role as a place of business and a centre of fashion and design. The city’s extraordinary economic and cultural transformation began in the 19th century and buildings such as the magnificent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II serve as potent markers of this shift. Milan’s huge importance in Italian life continued into the 20th century as the project of national modernisation progressed. Here, as elsewhere in the country, this was shaped by the imperatives of Benito Mussolini’s fascist government.

Many of Milan’s key public buildings – including the heroic Milan Centrale railway station, the remarkably contextual stock exchange building and the austere Palace of Justice, as well as the relatively understated brick-and-stone Triennale – were part of a sustained effort to make the Lombard capital a modern fascist city. Meanwhile, new roads and airports affirmed the technological capabilities of the fascist regime.

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In the aftermath of the Second World War, Milan, like many cities across Europe, struggled with the enormous task of meeting the needs of its residents while rebuilding a ravaged city. So major public buildings and strategic infrastructure were often simply repaired and continued to accommodate the kinds of activities and operations for which they were originally intended. In contrast, buildings whose functions were explicitly tied to the Fascist Party, such as its headquarters, were modified for new purposes. In the immediate postwar period they often accommodated refugees, served as improvised housing and, in many cases, hosted political organisations, especially the Communist Party.

Many Mussolini-era buildings have been quietly reabsorbed into the fabric of the city. Yet the fascist project still holds a political charge that can both fascinate and trouble us

Overt references to Mussolini and his regime (such as the axe-like fasces symbol and quotes from the dictator’s speeches) were usually removed but this was done haphazardly, left to the administrative and political vagaries of local authorities. As a result, fascist-era imagery persists in public spaces and buildings, often with little commentary. For example, in the Palace of Justice, the backdrop to criminal investigations into former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Arturo Martini’s bas-relief “Fascist Justice” (sometimes called “Corporative Justice”) still adorns the main hall, flanked on either side by “Biblical Justice” and “Roman Justice”. Place names, notably the Quartiere Harar and Piazza Axum, evoke the memory of Italy’s colonial activities in Ethiopia. In a different vein, the spare marble façades of Piazza San Babila and the arcade of Corso Matteotti (formerly Corso Littorio), which introduced a scale and aesthetic commensurate with fascism’s vision of the modern city, still serve as vital places of activity.

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Many Mussolini-era buildings and spaces have been quietly reabsorbed into the fabric of the city. Yet the fascist project still holds a political charge that can both fascinate and trouble us. Think of the growing numbers of “nostalgic tourists” to Predappio, the town in Emilia-Romagna associated with Mussolini’s birth; or fashion brand Fendi’s acquisition of the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, an iconic work of fascist architecture, in Rome’s eur district; or the efforts to engage critically with fascist-era monuments in Bolzano, where an inscription from Hannah Arendt is superimposed over a frieze from that time.

The growing involvement of preservationists and historians in recognising Italy’s modern architecture and global calls to address the legacy of difficult histories are raising new questions about the presence of these buildings and how and to what extent they serve as reminders of a discredited regime. For some Italians, however, they are, like monuments from the nation’s Roman or medieval past, a historically distant and neutral feature of the urban landscape. 


About the writer: Maulsby is associate professor of architectural history at Northeastern University in Boston, usa, and author of Fascism, Architecture and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922- 1943 and the forthcoming The Architectural Legacies of Italian Fascism.


Images: Alamy

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  • The Urbanist