After two days in the Eternal City, the imprint of my footsteps would have drawn a map of Fascist Rome, sidestepping the obligatory classical tour. Researching a chapter on fascism and sport for my new book, I mostly stuck to my professional focus. As an Italophile, I felt it unnatural to bypass Bernini to spend more time in the 1930s. As a historian, I found the experience equally surprising and troubling.
The Foro Italico, formerly the Foro Mussolini, was one of the regime’s central architectural projects. Walking along the west bank of the Tiber, 40 minutes north of Vatican City, you arrive at a vast modernist obelisk carved with the words “Mussolini Dux”. Behind the obelisk, framed by the Monte Mario in the background, lies a set of athletics facilities that were ahead of their time in terms of sport, and very much of their time in terms of history.
The Foro Mussolini was partly a training ground, partly a metaphor. Alongside the state-of-the-art gyms, tracks, tennis courts and a swimming pool, Mussolini wanted the forum to send a message to the people: sport and physical strength would forge Italy’s military might and its place in the world. The entanglement of athletic and martial glory was central to fascist ideology.
Significantly unaltered today, Foro Italico remains the focus of sport in Rome. The two great football teams AS Roma and Lazio play home matches here. Thousands of fans stamp enthusiastically towards the football ground, walking along the Via dell’Impero (“Empire Way”), the thoroughfare linking the obelisk with the Stadio Olympico. Yet the road is paved with 1930s mosaics that promote the regime’s interpretation of Italian history: maps showing the acquisition of empire in Libya and Abyssinia; classical iconography juxtaposed with modern warfare; favourite slogans; and finally, of course, fasces and “Duces” everywhere.
It would feel less strange if there was an explanatory plaque of some kind. But no, it is just as it is, the road to the big match on Saturdays and a skateboard park on non-football days – an urban utility rather than an aspect of history.
The tennis club, also stamped with Mussolini’s imprint, still hosts the Rome Masters international tournament. When moving the event was mooted last year, Maria Sharapova spoke up for a venue where she feels “history all around you”. That’s true, though not exactly as she meant it.
One statue at the Foro Italico stands out: a boyish soldier-sportsman commands the scene by the baseline of a tennis court, right in front of the clubhouse. Muscled, athletic and dressed in a pair of gym shorts, he carries a rifle and a gas mask rather than a tennis racket. The boy is the idealised hero of the Fascist regime, the model for the dream Mussolini hoped to create at Foro Italico. A few feet in front of the statue, Rome’s current social elite drop off their kids for tennis class; a few yards behind it stands Mussolini’s personal gym (where apparently he never set foot).
Two years ago, when Rome launched its bid for the 2024 Olympics, it did so from inside the building that was originally the headquarters of the Fascist youth organisation – the Opera Nazionale Balilla (now the headquarters of the Italian Olympic Committee, CONI). It is impossible to imagine Berlin even contemplating standing on the shoulders of history so unapologetically – or so unthinkingly. The website for Rome’s bid uses a bold image of the Stadio dei Marmi, the 1930s athletics track. The classically inspired stadium is ringed with marble statues, celebrations of Italy’s 1930s sporting heroes. Here is Mussolini’s empire remaking the Roman empire.
There are several legitimate arguments for preserving the Foro Italico. Most obviously, it is a piece of cultural heritage, however problematic. This was one of the arguments that won the day during parliamentary debates about the site in 1959, as Rome prepared to host the 1960 Olympics there. It was a sign of confidence, the theory ran, to leave the marble monuments unaltered. In the end only the most highly offensive were modified. But it is remarkable, in retrospect, that the Foro Italico was the face that Italy presented to the world only 15 years after the Second World War.
There are also aesthetic arguments in favour of the Foro Italico. There are some gems amid the kitsch. The Fencing Academy, designed by Luigi Moretti in 1936, is an example of clean modernism on the perfect scale – cool but not cold, minimalist but inviting, with a welcoming lawn flanked by perfectly planted trees for the ideal post-workout laze.
None of these arguments, however, quite illuminates the overwhelming sense of unexplained continuity at the Foro Italico. History seems scarcely to have been addressed, let alone resolved. Perhaps it is indeed healthy confidence; perhaps worrying ambiguity. Or maybe Romans, long used to the complex layering of empires, have tired of disentangling the moral legacies of buildings and monuments.
There is one final explanation for the apparently casual endurance of the Foro Italico and the history it represents: inertia. I asked a highly intelligent Roman friend what he thought about Brexit and the risks it posed to the EU. There was a quizzical shrug. “The weather is getting warmer,” he explained, “and maybe we’ll even be going to the beach in a month or so.” Catastrophe would have to become much more imminent, he added, before Italians diverted themselves from real and serious pleasures in order to focus on unpleasant hypothetical questions.
In Rome, there is always something better to do than worrying about the future, let alone the past. What, I wonder, is the right response to such a sybaritic set of priorities: criticism or envy?
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war