Games of Memory: Fascist Legacies in Contemporary Italy
Among the different approaches to cultural heritage in countries that faced dictatorship, such as neglect, demolition, or desacralization, Italy has mainly adopted reuse and conservation (Hökerberg, 2018). As a consequence, material legacies of the fascist era still shape the Italian urban landscape and, in Rome in particular, they constitute the modern layer of the city’s historical stratification.
The reasons for this choice are multiple and complex, and here I shall focus on the most significant. On the one hand, during the country’s reconstruction after the Second World War it was crucial to reuse buildings and infrastructure. On the other hand, due to the predominant culture and tradition of preservation, authorities and intellectuals preferred not to destroy fascist-era modernist art and architecture, recognizing its aesthetic and historical value despite its political charge.
Nevertheless, such preservation has not always gone unquestioned, and the biographies of buildings and artefacts reveal interruptions and inconsistencies. After the fall of the regime, a wave of iconoclasm surged against images and symbols related to the figure of Mussolini and to the fascist party. Later, during the process of defascistisation, authorities ordered the most visible symbols, images, and inscriptions of fascist ideology in the public arena to be removed or concealed. In most cases the works of art were covered or altered but not destroyed, and several buildings constructed under the regime were adapted to new and different functions (Malone 2017, p. 450).
A few decades later, a paradigm shift took place in Italy in the reception of fascist heritage (Belmonte 2020). In the 1980s Italian preservation laws recognized fascist-era monuments, works of art and architecture – such as those of the Foro Italico and the EUR in Rome – as national cultural patrimony. As a result, restoration and management projects gave them new visibility.
In recent years, these architectural and artistic legacies are once again at the centre of an international debate involving institutions, scholars, artists, and activists. This is because many of them contain explicit ideological messages, disturbing symbols, and slogans of fascist and colonialist propaganda that conflict with the transcultural society of a contemporary democratic state.
During his residency at Villa Romana in Florence, as an Artistic Research Fellow of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut, Esper Postma engaged critically in the ongoing debate on legacies of the regime, focusing on the agency of fascist art in the public space.
In the Foro Italico in Rome the artist explored the strategic triangulation between art, sport, and fascist propaganda. Originally named Foro Mussolini, the sports complex was one of the main fascist propaganda projects and included athletic training facilities for the fascist youth organization Opera Nazionale Balilla (ONB), stadiums for sporting events and rallies, and an academy of physical education. The Piazzale dell’Impero (Square of the Empire), designed from 1936 by the architect Luigi Moretti, was meant to celebrate fascist Italy as an empire after the colonial conquest of Ethiopia (May 5, 1936). Drawing on the Imperial Roman mosaic tradition to legitimise the fascist empire, mosaics in the Piazzale depict, among other subjects, black and white figures engaged in athletic activities. Their interaction with aggressive inscriptions and fascist slogans conveyed the message that sport would not merely strengthen bodies but would also prepare them for military conquest (Tymkiw 2019, p. 119). The site was renamed Foro Italico after the fall of the regime in 1943 and remained largely untouched until 1960, when minimal interventions were made in preparation for the Summer Olympics with the aim of enhancing a historical distance from fascist Italy (Vidotto 2004). After years of partial neglect and controversies about the privatisation of the site, today it is still the most important centre for sports and athletic activities in Rome. Palazzo H hosts the Italian National Olympic Committee, other structures serve as headquarters for university and sports faculties and external spaces such as the Stadio dei Marmi and the Piazzale are used by professional and amateur athletes and by schoolchildren for physical exercise.
Esper Postma's exhibition Face Fear at Villa Romana explores the conflicting interplay between representation and functionality. It provides new perspectives on the contemporary use and reception of fascist-era sites.
Memory Games materialises aerial photographs of a sunny day in everyday life at the Foro Italico. Clusters of teenagers are playing volleyball. Nearby a frisbee flies from one player to another. Someone is stretching his muscles after a run, another is skating. The gaze soars, like a frisbee, looking at everything from above. An uncomfortable ambivalence between real and representational space emerges through the visual overlap between the shadows of present people and the silhouettes of athletic bodies eternalised in the fascist mosaics.
Frictions between different temporalities and ideologies seem to vanish in the name of the universality of sport. In the meantime, however, the Fountain of the Sphere, erected under fascism as a monument to this universal value, assumes a new function: it is now a support for post-run stretching. Moreover, is the young boy aware that he is skating over Mussolini’s slogan ‘Molti nemici molto onore’ (Many enemies, much honour) asserted through repetition in the tesserae of the mosaic?
The EUR urban complex in Rome was designed to host the Esposizione Universale di Roma in 1942 and was intended to remain as a utopian fascist city. The project was interrupted by the Second World War when the site was still under construction. After years of abandonment, building restarted during the 1950s and today the EUR appears like a modern multilevel business district of Rome. Here the artist addresses a bronze sculpture on a cylindrical pedestal. It depicts an athletic young man with a laurel wreath on his head and a fig leaf on his genitals. His right arm is raised in the gesture of the Roman salute, the other is by his side. The inscription on the base gives the title as Genio dello Sport. But close observation shows that some of the letters have been replaced: it had originally been titled Genio del Fascismo. The materiality of the sculpture retains traces of historical and political shifts. In the process of defascistisation, the work by Italo Griselli was renamed and transformed into a symbol of the universal value of sport by adding a pair of ancient Roman boxing gloves to cover the hands. This was a strategic intervention to preserve the sculpture by undermining its ideological value. With the work Genius of Fascism Sport, Esper Postma intervenes on this camouflage by virtually removing the boxer’s gloves. The iconographical attributes of the Genius of Sport are now displaced in Villa Romana. They lie empty and unused on the floor but still maintain the memory of the sculpture’s pose: the right glove standing upright embodying the Roman salute, the left glove lying on its side.
In Florence the artist again crosses paths with a boxer celebrating fascism. This is a Pugilatore in riposo, (Boxer at Rest), known also as Pugile Ferito (Wounded Boxer), a plaster sculpture by Romano Romanelli displayed in the Romanelli Gallery in the San Frediano district. The boxer, whose face is modelled after Mussolini, is seated and shaped massively with powerful limbs; his arms, wrapped in boxing bandages, rest heavily on his knees. Realised between 1929 and 1931, the work is inspired by the Hellenistic statue of the Boxer at Rest (Museo Nazionale delle Terme di Roma) (Campana 1991).
Among many other works by members of this six-generation family of sculptors, the Romanelli Gallery displays several bronze and plaster models of works by Romano, one of the most celebrated artists under the regime. With sketches and models from his monumental public commissions, the Gallery provides a repertoire of subjects and iconographies of fascist propaganda. For instance, the monumental plaster figure of the Ascaro (an Eritrean soldier enrolled in the Italian army during the colonial occupation in East Africa) produced as part of the colonialist Monumento al Legionario, planned for Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. The monument was eventually erected in Siracusa, Sicily with the ambiguous attempt to convert it into a Monumento al Soldato e all’Operaio (Monument to the Soldier and Workman) (Imbellone 2018).
Although the Boxer at Rest was not related to any external commission, it enjoyed great public visibility during the 1930s, both the plaster and the bronze versions being displayed at several exhibitions, including the Rome Quadriennale in 1931 and the XVIII Venice Biennale in 1932. Subsequently, the definitive bronze statue was placed at Palazzo H, the main representative building of the Foro Italico in Rome.
Esper Postma retraced the different stages of Romanelli’s creative process in the collections of the Photo Library of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, where he retrieved photographs from 1938 taken by the Florentine Brogi photography studio reproducing a bronze model of the head, and both the plaster and the bronze versions of the sculpture. In the bronze head Mussolini’s physiognomy is clearly recognizable. The deep wound on the left cheek, which later disappeared in the execution of both the plaster statue and the bronze version, probably provided one of the titles attributed to the work. It was common practice among sculptors under fascism to reproduce the features of the Duce in statues (Fergonzi 2005). This contributed to the popularity of Mussolini’s public image. In Postma’s exhibition Mussolini’s face reappears on the Boxer at Rest as an awkward anachronic image.
The exhibition Face Fear draws attention to the ambiguous strategies of fascist propaganda and to its persistence despite efforts to defascistise the nation. In a disorienting interplay of shifting titles and characters, controversy and reuse, fascist images still survive in contemporary Italy (Didi-Huberman 2002).
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