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 Ventennio still shape the Italian urban landscape and, in particular, as part of the complex historical stratification of Rome they constitute the most significant modern layer.
The reasons for this choice are multiple and complex, and I shall here focus on the most significant ones. 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 to not destroy fascist-era modernist art and architecture, recognizing their aesthetic and historical value, despite their political charge.
However, their presence and preservation has not always remained unquestioned. Ruptures and discontinuities emerge from the biography of buildings and artefacts. 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; then during the process of defascistization authorities ordered to remove or cover the most visible symbols, images, and inscriptions of fascist ideology in the public arena. In most cases, the works of art were covered or manipulated but not destroyed, and several buildings realized under the Regime were adapted to new, and different functions (MALONE 2017, p. 450).
After a few decades, a paradigm shift took place in Italy in the reception of fascist heritage (BELMONTE 2020), since during the Eighties, 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 remains have once again entered an international debate that involves institutions, scholars, artists, and activists, since many of these architectural and artistic legacies blatantly reveal ideological messages, disturbing symbols, and mottos of fascist and colonialist propaganda, that contrast with the transcultural society of a contemporary democratic state.
During his residency in Villa Romana, in Florence, as an Artistic Research Fellow of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut, Esper Postma has critically engaged in the ongoing debate on legacies of the Regime, focusing on the agency of fascist art in public space.
In the Foro Italico in Rome, the artist explores the strategic triangulation between art, sport, and fascist propaganda.
Originally named Foro Mussolini, the sport 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), planned since 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 legitimize the Fascist empire, mosaics tesserae in the Piazzale depict, among other themes, black and white figures engaged in athletic activities. Their interaction with aggressive inscriptions and fascist mottos 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 of 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 privatization of the site, today it is still the most important center for Sport and athletic activities in Rome. Palazzo H hosts the Italian National Olympic Committee, other structures serve as headquarters for university and sport faculties, and, not least, external spaces like the Stadio dei Marmi and the Piazzale are used by professional athletes as well as by amateurs and school classes for sport activities.
Esper Postma explores the conflicting interplay of controversy and functionality providing new perspectives on contemporary use and reception of this fascist-era site. Memory Games materialises snapshots 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 and continuity between the shadows of present people and the silhouettes of athletic bodies eternalized 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 skater aware that he is walking over the Mussolinian motto «Molti nemici molto onore» (Many enemies much honor) asserted through repetition in mosaic tesserae?
The EUR urban complex in Rome was planned to host the Esposizione Universale di Roma in 1942 and was intended to remain as a fascist utopian 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 Fifties, and today the EUR appears as a multilayered modern business district of Rome. Here the artist faces a bronze sculpture on a cylindrical pedestal (Fig.1). It depicts an athletic young man: a laurel wreath on his head, a fig leaf on his genitals. The right hand raised in the gesture of the Roman salute, the other along his side. The inscription on the basement entitles the work Genio dello Sport. But close observation reveals that some of the letters have been replaced: it had been originally entitled Genio del Fascismo. The materiality of the sculpture maintains traces of historical and political shifts. In the process of defascistization, the work by Italo Griselli was renamed and turned into a symbol of the universal value of sport, by adding a pair of boxing gloves to cover the hands. That was a strategic intervention to preserve the sculpture by undermining its ideological value. Esper Postma intervenes on this camouflage; ideally slipping off the boxer’s gloves. The iconographical attributes of the Genius of Sport are now displaced and displayed in Villa Romana. They are empty and in disuse on the floor; however, they maintain the memory of the sculpture’s pose: one hand upwards embodying the Roman salute, while the other falls downwards.
The artist again crosses paths with a boxer celebrating fascism in Florence. It 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 neighborhood of San Frediano (Fig. 2). The boxer is seated and shaped through a rigorous heavy mass. His arms, wrapped in boxing bandages, rest heavily on his knees. Realized 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 Romano’s works — one of the most celebrated artists under the Regime. With sketches and models from his monumental public commissions under the Regime, the Gallery provides a repertoire of themes and iconographies of fascist propaganda. This is the case with the plaster monumental figure of the Ascaro (an Eritrean soldier enrolled in the Italian army during the colonial occupation in East Africa) realized as part of the colonialist Monumento al Legionario, planned for Addis Abeba, Ethiopia and then erected in Siracusa, Sicily in the Sixties, with the ambiguous effort of converting it into a Monumento al Soldato e all’Operaio (Monument to the Soldier and Workman) (IMBELLONE 2018).
Despite that the Boxer at Rest was not related to any external commission, the work had a great public visibility during the Thirties, since the artist exhibited both the plaster and the bronze versions in several exhibitions, including the Quadriennale di Roma in 1931 and the XVIII Biennale di Venezia in 1932. Subsequently, the final bronze statue was located at Palazzo H, the main representative building of the Foro Italico in Rome.
Esper Postma retraces the different stages of Romanelli’s creative process through the collections of the Photo Library of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, where he retrieves 1938 photographs by the Florentine photography studio Brogi reproducing a bronze model of the head, the plaster sculpture now exhibited in Villa Romana, and the bronze sculpture located in Palazzo H. In the bronze head (Fig. 3) Mussolini’s physiognomy is patently recognizable. The deep wound on the left cheek, which later disappears 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 in statues the features of the Duce (FERGONZI 2005). This contributed to the popularity of the Duce’s public image. In Postma’s exhibition Mussolini’s face reappears on the Boxer at Rest as an uncomfortable anachronic image.
The exhibition recalls the attention on the ambiguous strategies of fascist propaganda and on its longue durée, despite the effort of defascistizing the nation. In a disorienting interplay between mutable titles and characters, controversy and reuse, fascist images still survive in Contemporary Italy (DIDI-HUBERMAN 2002).
Hökerberg, H. (Ed.), Architecture as propaganda in Twentieth-century Totalitarian Regimes, Firenze, Edizioni polistampa, 2018.
 Ibid., p. 322.
 Sergei Eisenstein, Montaž [Montage], ed. Naum Kleiman (Moscow: Muzei Kino, 2000) p. 223.