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Excavating Modernity - Joshua Arthurs

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Ithaca and London



List of Illustrations


List of Abbreviations


1. The Third Rome and Its Discontents, 1848–1922

2. Science and Faith: The Istituto di Studi Romani, 1922–1929

3. History and Hygiene in Mussolini’s Rome, 1925–1938

4. The Totalitarian Museum: The Mostra Augustea della Romanità, 1937–1938

5. Empire, Race, and the Decline of Romanità, 1936–1945





1. Editorial cartoon from Roma futurista, 1918

2. Inauguration of the 1930 academic year at the Istituto di Studi Roman

3. The Augusteo symphony hall in the early stages of demolitions, 1937

4. Mussolini inaugurates the demolitions for Piazzale Augusto Imperatore, 1934

5. The Mausoleum of Augustus after excavations

6. The Theater of Marcellus, 1925

7. Via del Mare and the Theater of Marcellus, 1933

8. Inauguration of the Mostra Augustea della Romanità, 1937

9. Mostra Augustea della Romanità, façade of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni

10. Mostra Augustea della Romanità, room III

11. Mostra Augustea della Romanità, Temple of Augustus at Ancyra

12. Front cover of La Difesa della Razza, 1939

13. Propaganda leaflet from the Italian Social Republic


Like Rome, this book was not built in a day; it is also not the work of the author alone. It was only made possible by support from mentors, colleagues, friends, and loved ones too numerous to name here.

My first mentor on this project was Andrew Szegedy-Maszak of the Classics Department at Wesleyan University. Thanks to him, I embarked on the long and rewarding journey of studying the classical tradition. This path took me to graduate study in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. I would like to thank Michael Geyer for his indefatigable curiosity and his desire to challenge me constantly. He has defined the way I think about history. I am hugely indebted to Anthony Cardoza, who not only provided expertise in Italian Fascism but gave me a tremendous amount of moral support. I also appreciate the help of Victoria De Grazia and Richard Saller, who despite their many commitments contributed greatly to this work. John Ackerman and Cornell University Press have been wonderful to work with throughout the publication process.

I would like to thank many colleagues for their encouragement and input over the years. At the University of Chicago, this included Alan Baren- berg, Naomi Davidson, John Deak, Kathy Levitan, Greg Malandrucco, Tania Maync, Ben Nickels, and the other members of the Modern Europe workshop. I also thank the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University, where I spent two productive years as a postdoctoral fellow alongside the likes of Laura Kalba, Charles Lipp, Tom Rushford, Claire Salinas, Rebecca Scales, and Matt Specter. I am indebted to my colleagues in the Department of History at West Virginia University, who made the completion of this manuscript possible. I am incredibly fortunate to have found such a welcoming community, including Katherine Aaslestad, Nate Andrade, Robert Blobaum, Tyler Boulware, Peter Carmichael, Ryan Clay- comb, Liz and Ken Fones-Wolf, Brian Luskey, Kate Staples, and Matt Vester.

Along the way, I have benefited from the input of many helpful scholars. The following list is far from exhaustive: Nadia Abu El-Haj, Leora Aus- lander, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Richard Bosworth, Alexander De Grand, Michael Dietler, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Claudio Fogu, Mia Fuller, Aaron Gillette, Jan Goldstein, Roger Griffin, Michael Herzfeld, Andrea Mammone, Elizabeth Marlowe, Cristina Mazzoni, Borden Painter Jr., Stanislao Pugliese, Molly Tambor, and Nadia Zonis.

This book would not have been possible without the cooperation of many librarians, archivists, curators, and directors. In Rome, I would like to thank the Museo della Civiltà Romana, and above all Dr. Clotilde D’Amato, for their assistance, interest, and patience as I worked through the records of the Mostra Augustea della Romanità. I also appreciate the cooperation of Dr. Eugenio La Rocca, superintendent of cultural patrimony for the city of Rome. Thanks also to the Istituto Nazionale di Studi Romani, and especially to librarian Laura Bertolaccini. I also benefited from the expertise of personnel at the Archivio Centrale dello Stato, the Archivio Storico Capito- lino, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, and the Biblioteca di Storia Moderna e Contemporanea. In Chicago, thanks to the libraries of the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the Newberry. In Miami, I worked with the collections of the Wolfsonian and Florida International University, with the special assistance of Frank Luca, Nicholas Blaga, Jon Mogul, and Silvia Ros. The staff of the European Reading Room at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, were also very helpful. Thanks also to Alba Hernandez and Alinari Archives for their assistance with acquiring images.

Research for this book was made possible by the generous support of the Department of History and the Division of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago; the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Fondazione Lem- mermann in Rome; the Wolfsonian Research Fellowship program; and the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University

I thank my family, for so long a source of insight, encouragement, and love. My father, to whom this book is dedicated, was my first faculty advisor, and throughout this process served as both thoughtful interlocutor and eagle-eyed copy editor. While I will never equal my mother’s aesthetic sensibility, I have little doubt that her eye for landscape and architecture had a formative influence on this work—that and her perfectionism. I was also fortunate enough to grow up with a brother whose brilliance and ingenuity inspires me in my own creative enterprises.

Scholarship is an emotional roller-coaster, and my wife, Malayna, has been on board from the beginning of the ride. This book is inconceivable without her. Together we have built a life of love, learning, and purpose. I cannot wait to see what we achieve next—both individually and together. And while Iam proud of this work, it pales in comparison to the pride I have in our greatest creations, Eli and Carlo. Their joy, humor, and intelligence are the fuel that sustains me every day.



On April 21, 1922, Benito Mussolini marked the 2,675th anniversary of the legendary founding of Rome. The Eternal City, he announced, was Fascism’s

point of departure and our point of reference; it is our symbol or, if you prefer, our myth. We dream of a Roman Italy, wise and strong, disciplined and imperial. Much of what was once the immortal spirit of Rome has risen again in Fascism: our Littorio is Roman, our military organization is Roman, our pride and our courage are Roman. Civis Romanus Sum.¹

Six months later, this dream was realized as legions of blackshirted squad- risti marched on the capital, marking Mussolini’s ascent to power. Over the next two decades, the Fascist regime tried to refashion the nation into a new body politic guided by the immortal spirit of Rome. Mussolini’s New Italy, though resolutely an expression of twentieth-century modernity, would be guided by the moral, political, and aesthetic values of classical antiquity.

To this day, Fascism’s appropriation of the Roman past remains one of the most familiar and enduring aspects of Mussolini’s regime. When students encounter Fascist Italy in their surveys of European history, it is often in reference to Il Duce’s grandiose fantasies of Mare Nostrum and the resurrection of the Roman Empire. Romanità—translated variously as Romanness, Romanity the idea of Rome, or the Roman spirit—was indeed a key feature of Fascism’s self-representation, from its origins in the aftermath of the First World War to its demise in the Second.² The Italian military was reorganized into maniples, centuries, and cohorts, each with its own battle standard; imperial eagles and she-wolves adorned lapel pins, postage stamps, and sewer grates. The regime built neoclassical monuments in white marble and excavated ancient ruins across the peninsula. And of course there is the term fascismo itself, derived from the Roman fasces, the bundle of rods bound to an ax.³ Once carried by the ancient lictors, they represented strength in unity and the state’s power of capital punishment. The etymological connection was reinforced by the adoption of the fasces as the fascio littorio, the official symbol of the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF, the National Fascist Party), found in every corner of public and private life.

And yet, precisely because of its ubiquity, romanità has often been a source of derision, dismissed as the necromantic cult of an entombed civilization and macabre Roman masquerades.⁴ It has been cast as the ultimate manifestation of Fascism’s absurdity and pomposity, a theatrical regime for a theatrical race, directed by a buffoonish Sawdust Caesar.⁵ To many, the idea of Rome masked a lack of ideological coherence and rational policy, and seduced Italy into foreign escapades for which it was unprepared.

This book challenges the notion that romanità amounted to little more than bombast, and emphasizes its centrality to the political culture of Italian Fascism. It argues that Fascism’s appropriation of the Roman past should be understood not as empty posturing, or even nostalgia for a distant golden age, but as a revolutionary project for modernity, a coherent language with which to articulate aspirations for the contemporary world. For Giuseppe Bottai, one of the regime’s most influential leaders, Fascism represented not a restoration but a renovation, a revolution in the idea of Rome;⁶ to the interwar archaeologist Carlo Cecchelli, "the vestiges of romanità are, above all else, ferment for life. They bear witness to a great past that does not just resolve itself in the present; they are signs of a millennial nobility that has become current again, and will develop itself further in the future."⁷ Projected through scientific practices like archaeology and museum display, inscribed in the city’s physical fabric, and buttressed by scholarly authority and state patronage, romanità was an important part of the regime’s broader project of refashioning Italy and Italians. Directed internally, it was the source for the core Fascist virtues of authority, discipline, and hierarchy. Rome provided a model of cultural homogeneity and political unity that would bind together the peninsula’s disparate identities; it offered precedents for the totalitarian state, the organization of mass culture, and the role of the transformative leader. The "new man"—homo fascistus—to be engineered by Fascism was a modern incarnation of the Roman legionary, the epitome of the virile citizen-soldier. This historical vision was also crucial for articulating Fascism’s place in the wider world. The classical past bolstered claims of civilizational primacy, and was used to justify Italy’s position alongside the great powers of Europe; it inspired fantasies of colonial empire and a postwar New Order. At the same time, romanità served as a vocabulary of anxiety. Fears about population decline, revolution, and social hygiene were mapped onto the barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome. Solutions to these problems were similarly echoed in ancient citizenship laws, marriage legislation, and classical aesthetics.

Within the ideological nexus of Italian Fascism, romanità was thus an expansive concept that straddled time and space, past and present, the realm of ideas and material culture. Rome was conceived simultaneously as a timeless, immutable set of spiritual values and as a plastic space to be molded through modern technology; as thousands of years old yet providing a blueprint for contemporary life. Enacting this revolution in the idea of Rome not only involved the aesthetic invocation of classical antiquity. It required an excavation, an active intervention that redeemed the past for the present. This process could be literal, as with the reconstruction of buildings and monuments; however, it also functioned as a key rhetorical strategy. The topography of the ancient city was approached as a living organism to be revived, consonant with the exigencies of the modern metropolis. Invigorated by Fascist ideology and the financial support of the regime, historians and classicists would assert their primacy in the study of antiquity, revising centuries of foreign distortions. Instead of remaining ensconced in the ivory tower, they would serve as foot soldiers in the struggle to mobilize hearts and minds. Through the application of new techniques and technologies, museums would be transformed from inaccessible repositories of dusty artifacts into instruments of mass education and social control. Through such exca- vatory interventions, the Roman spirit would be liberated from the vagaries of time and actualized in a new type of modern society.

Fascism, Modernity, History

In making these claims, I am engaging with ongoing debates over the nature of Fascist ideology and its relationship to modernity and history. During Mussolini’s years in power, many critics saw Fascism as a form of authoritarian reaction and imperial militarism. Replicating the Duce’s own insistence on the supremacy of actions over words, they were largely unwilling to approach Fascism in intellectual terms and dismissed its cultural expressions as vacuous propaganda. This stance continued in the decades after the Second World War. The dominant anti-Fascist view, coined by Norberto Bobbio, was that where there was culture there wasn’t fascism, where there was fascism there wasn’t culture. There never was a fascist culture.Romanità was often identified as the quintessence of the regime’s irrationality and artifice. Writing in 1945, Paolo Nalli condemned the idea of Rome as an incurable syphilis…a cancer; it appealed only to those whose intellectual level is exactly equal to that of a Negro who runs to the village witch-doctor to cure sleeping sickness.⁹ To the postwar architecture critic Bruno Zevi, classicism was the façade of sham power trying to appear invulnerable.¹⁰ No less than Benedetto Croce described romanità as words whose virtue lay in their very vacuity.¹¹

In recent years, however, scholars have problematized this rejection of Fascist political culture qua culture, and have emphasized its revolutionary and modernist orientation. Ruth Ben-Ghiat has convincingly shown that the concept of bonifica—reclamation or regeneration—was central to Fascism’s vision of modernity, and underpinned initiatives ranging from the draining of malarial marshlands to colonial conquest. These measures were all expressions of a ‘therapeutic’ approach to governance…an array of social, scientific, and cultural policies designed to encourage the ‘regeneration’ of the national body.¹² Roger Griffin similarly argues that both Italian Fascism and German Nazism were political variant[s] of modernism;¹³ he highlights their shared sense of Aufbruch—a breaking open, a transcendent new beginning—that would overcome the malaise of European society. Fascism would inaugurate a New Era, establish a New Order, and create a New Man. Emilio Gentile and Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi approach Mussolini’s regime as an expression of a new politics, respectively arguing that it effected a sacralization or an aestheticization of public life through myth, ritual, and spectacle.¹⁴

Hand in hand with this new emphasis on Fascism’s modernity has been a revised understanding of its conceptions of history and temporality. Claudio Fogu in particular has explored its historic imaginary…the ensemble of mental icons in which the historic essence of fascism was imagined and from which it was projected into visual and ritual representations that aimed at making the past present.¹⁵ This vision championed the historic over the historical; that is, it celebrated Fascism as a self-actualizing maker of history, rather than the product of diachronic historical development.¹⁶ Mabel Berezin makes a related point when she describes a ritual colonization of time, whereby the regime punctuated the rhythm of daily life through mass ceremony and spectacular events.¹⁷ Mark Antliff argues that Fascism opposed the secular ‘clock time’ of capitalism, and posited in its stead an alternative time scale that was epic and transcendent.¹⁸ Despite their different emphases, these analyses share the view that Fascism was indeed a revolutionary ideology. While it rejected Enlightenment ideals of human equality and universal reason, it both responded to and proposed a radical alternative for the modern world. Even as it rejected the degeneracy of contemporary society, it expressed the modernist drive to implement a project, to shape and dominate space, time, and bodies.

My work shares these fundamental premises, and—seemingly paradoxically—seeks to extend them to the problem of Fascism’s relationship to the ancient past. To date, the study of romanità has yet to benefit fully from the sophisticated cultural engagement of recent literature. In making the case for Fascist modernism, scholars tend to stress the regime’s support of avant-garde movements like Futurism or its embrace of modern technologies like aviation and cinema. By contrast, the cult of Rome is still seen as bombastic and backward-looking, an expression of the regime’s lurch to the right in the late thirties.¹⁹ It remains the irrational, retrograde side of Fascism’s Janus face, or alternatively a concession to conservatives brought into the fold of the regime.²⁰ At best, romanità was the exploitation of obvious historical symbols, a sea in which anyone could go fishing, for any occasion. A reference, a justification, some noble title: Rome was there, like an inexhaustible hunting ground.²¹

My goal is therefore to integrate romanità into current discussions about Fascist culture and its relationship to modernity. Rome was a central component of Fascist self-representation at all points in its development, and cannot solely be understood in terms of Axis militarism or imperialist posturing. More than window dressing or reactionary atavism, romanità was an essential aspect of the regime’s program of revolutionary modernization. This insight, however, should not be confused with any form of apologia or valorization.²² The Fascist project was profoundly repressive and brutal. In the name of imposing a Roman modernity, many historic neighborhoods were demolished, and thousands of residents displaced; Libyans and Ethiopians were slaughtered, and the Mediterranean turned into a stage for global conflict; Italian Jews were stigmatized and excluded from public life. In short, a better understanding of romanità can facilitate a better understanding of Fascism in all its complexity—its worldview, its aspirations, its actions, and its contradictions.

Historicizing the Historical

Alongside the hermeneutic task of reading this important facet of Fascist ideology, the present work also seeks to understand the contexts, processes, and actors that produced it, or in the words of Edward Said, to treat romanità (like Orientalism) as a kind of willed human work…in all its historical complexity, detail and worth without at the same time losing sight of the alliance between cultural work, political tendencies, the state, and the specific realities of domination.²³ This work is therefore also an investigation into the institutional production of ideology. Following recent analyses of commemorative practices like archaeology, folkloric studies, and archival science, it assumes that the recovery of antiquity is an act of textual production bound to a specific historical moment; it reveals as much about the present than it does about the past.²⁴

This perspective facilitates a more nuanced assessment of romanità. The idea of Rome was not born in the mind of Benito Mussolini, or disseminated from above by the regime’s political and ideological elite.²⁵ Instead, it was articulated, elaborated, and promoted primarily from below by a dedicated group of historians, classicists, archaeologists, and other cultural producers.²⁶ Rather than a directive issued by a monolithic totalitarian state, the Fascist idea of Rome should be seen as the product of complex negotiations: between the regime and the academy, between competing factions and agendas within both the political leadership and the scholarly community, and between intellectual currents that ranged from anticlericalism to Catholicism, modernism to historicism, nationalism, and universalism. Romanità was neither static nor univocal, but rather subject to a process of contestation and elaboration; just like the physical act of excavation, the excavation of modernity required an engagement with many layers of historical significance. How, then, did scholars of antiquity mediate between disciplinary imperatives and the exigencies of official political culture? What impact did the regime’s support of academics have on the production of facts about Rome? And, conversely, how did the regime use the fruits of scholars’ intellectual labor? In other words, I am interested not only in what Fascism said about Rome (and Rome about Fascism), but in how, in the ways in which various modes of historical representation shaped romanità and vice versa.

The Layers of Romanità

This book is organized chronologically and thematically, offering both a diachronic assessment of romanità’s development and case studies of the individuals, institutions, and initiatives through which it was promulgated. The first chapter offers a prehistory of the Fascist idea of Rome. I examine aspirations for a Third Rome during the struggle for national unification in the nineteenth century, as well as debates over whether the city should be designated the national capital. I then assess the frustrations that followed the proclamation of Roma capitale in 1871, and the critique of Rome by modernist and nationalist groups in the early twentieth century. I conclude by looking at how Mussolini and the nascent Fascist movement negotiated these divergent discourses. This synthesis was most fully expressed in the March on Rome, an event that was represented simultaneously as a revolutionary usurpation and a restoration of the Eternal City.

Chapter 2 focuses on the Istituto di Studi Romani (Institute of Roman Studies, or ISR), a research center founded during the early years of Mussolini’s regime. The ISR was the most important point of intersection for the scholars, archaeologists, architects, and political leaders whose work defined and promoted romanità. Through an examination of its structure, initiatives, and publications, I consider the institute’s attempts to articulate a coherent Fascist discourse on Rome; its role in mediating between the academy, the regime, and the Catholic Church; and its efforts to mobilize scholarly and public opinion. The ISR and its collaborators are the principal actors in subsequent chapters.

In chapter 3, I offer an interpretation of Fascism’s archaeological interventions in the capital from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s. Looking at a number of excavations and urban planning projects, I consider the ways in which scholars, city planners, and the political leadership envisioned the spatial relationship between antiquity and modernity in the Eternal City. In particular, I examine the regime’s attempts to recast archaeology from an instrument for recovering the past to a vehicle of urban modernization, a remedy for crises in social hygiene, unemployment, and demography. In this context, the excavation of ancient Roman sites was an integral ingredient in the creation of a modern capital for Fascist Italy. I also look at the regime’s attitude toward the spaces of old Rome, the parochial city that would be cleared to make way for Roma Mussolinea.

The fourth chapter examines the apex of romanità in Fascist political culture. The principal case study here is the Mostra Augustea della Romanità, an archaeological exhibition that marked the bimillenary in 1937 of the birth of the emperor Augustus. Comprising over three thousand objects, the exhibition painted a picture of the Roman world that was totalitarian, technological, militarized, and hierarchical. Augustus stood at the center of this system, the archetypical transformative leader whose achievements anticipated the Duce’s renewal of the Italian people. In tandem with this representational analysis, I look at ways in which the exhibition was conceived as a museological project. Employing the latest in display techniques and advertising, the organizers of the Mostra Augustea tried to create a new medium for the presentation of archaeological artifacts that rejected the sterility of traditional museums. I conclude the chapter by considering both scholarly and popular receptions of the exhibition, both in Italy and internationally.

In chapter 5, I trace shifts in romanità during the latter years of Mussolini’s regime. Fascism’s identification with Rome reached its peak in the mid- to late 1930s, following the conquest of Ethiopia and the proclamation of the new Italian empire; accordingly, I look at the ways in which the ISR and others responded to the legacy of Roman imperialism. At the same time, romanità faced new challenges in this period, particularly as a result of the Rome-Berlin Axis and the adoption of racist ideology in 1938. These developments forced a reorientation of the dominant narrative of the Roman past, in order to address issues like ethnogenesis, racial purity and degeneration, and anti-Semitism. Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943 meant the end of Fascism in Rome, and the chapter closes with an assessment of the Republic of Salò’s ambivalence toward romanità.

In the conclusion, I follow the careers of many producers of Fascist romanità after World War II, as well as the fate of institutions like the ISR and the Mostra Augustea. More profoundly, I reflect upon the postwar significance of Rome and romanità for Italian and European culture.

As the site of almost three millennia of human history, Rome is commonly known as the Eternal City Its artistic and architectural patrimony is unrivaled; its legacies—from literature to law to language—endure to the present day Too often, however, this inheritance leads one to see Rome as static and antique, existing only in the past and insulated from the transformations of the modern world. This book aims to revise this perception, and argues that as both place and idea, Rome has been strongly shaped by modernity—a radical vision of modernity imposed by