Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy. By Joshua Arthurs. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 216. $45.00.)
Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 161–162, Spring 2014
How to Cite
De Grand, A. (2014), Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy. By Joshua Arthurs. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 216. $45.00.). Historian, 76: 161–162. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_49
- Issue online: 4 MAR 2014
- Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
That Italian fascism would adopt Rome as a fundamental part of its ideology, though it seems obvious now, was not a given at the start of the movement. As Joshua Arthurs notes, Rome was associated with the decadent liberal state and with the Catholic Church. Fascism, in contrast, meant modernity and dynamism. Early allies of Mussolini from the Voce movement to the Futurists scorned retrograde Rome. Only the Italian Nationalist Association, an authoritarian, right-wing party, made the myth of Rome central to its call for an aggressive imperialist foreign policy. Nationalists like Enrico Corradini, Luigi Federzoni, and Alfredo Rocco saw immediately that a refashioned myth of Rome could be shaped into a justification for industrial imperialism and a disciplined, authoritarian domestic order.
The appeal of these ideas to Mussolini was compelling. But the symbolism of Rome had to be reclaimed from the Catholic Church and reimagined to suit the needs of the Fascist regime. Pagan Rome would dominate, and the Catholic Church's legacy would become merely an extension of imperial power and organization. Education and propaganda were called upon to make a secular vision of Rome triumph over Rome as a religious center. This transformation was complicated by Mussolini's need for papal support to consolidate power; in the process, he gave up much contested ground to the Church in the Lateran Treaty and Concordat of 1929.
The most visible aspect of the struggle over the idea of Rome came with fascism's decision to remake the capital by highlighting the city's imperial past at the expense of medieval and liberal Rome. A new Rome, Roma fascista, would emerge. The Fascists never quite found a balance between their desire to glorify the Roman past and the modernist impulse of the regime's own monumental architecture. Thus, it was possible, Arthurs argues, to demolish whole neighborhoods in order to build the Via dell'Impero, but, once cleared, the regime was never comfortable competing against imperial Rome with its own architecture. The major projects of fascism were, with some notable exceptions, located on the periphery of the city. One of those exceptions was the ghastly Piazzale Augusto Imperatore, a square that highlighted the newly discovered Tomb of Augustus. Demolition meant valorizing Rome of the emperors. No interest was expressed in saving any remnants of Rome's ordinary life from any period. The result is a series of monuments standing in isolation in central Rome and a Museo di Roma, which collected pictures and artifacts from the Rome that had been demolished.
Arthurs shows that though the myth of Rome was a major component of Fascist imperial expansion, it was fraught with contradictions. Rome extended citizenship not on the basis of race, as fascism did after 1938, but on a legal identification with the state. More dangerously, the Fascist interpretation of imperial Rome fed illusions of Fascist Italy as a great power.
Arthurs has given us an excellent, concise summary of what Rome meant to fascism. It is a valuable guide to scholars and to general readers.