The Fascism Among Us

Mussolini’s portrait on the Fascist Party’s Roman headquarter, 1934

This term was used by Umberto Eco for those still flourishing nationalist authoritarian regimes, whose distinguishing characteristics were summarized by him in fourteen points. I, however, use it now more specifically for the visual legacy of the Italian fascist ideology of 1922 to 1945, which is still visible in the public spaces of Italy.

Sicily is a graffiti paradise. Movements, religions, ideologies both generously and creatively use this medium to promote their messages. Walking the narrow streets of Palermo, Siracusa or Catania, you have the feeling of attending an endless poster exhibition.

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Among the contemporary messages, ghost signs also appear here and there, whose sell-by date – theoretically – has long since expired. In the main square of Monreale near Palermo, in front of the Romanesque cathedral, a neatly framed, carefully typographed inscription can be read on the firewall. The left side is still relatively legible, while the right side has already faded into the background. However, the existing fragments allow the whole text to be googled:

«L’Italia è un’isola che si immerge nel Mediterraneo. Se per gli altri il Mediterraneo è una strada, per noi italiani è la vita.»

“Italy is an island embraced by the Mediterranean Sea. While for others, the Mediterranean Sea is a route, for us Italians, it is life itself.”

This quote is from Mussolini’s Milan speech of 1 November 1936, one of those “great historic speeches”, which, writes Eco, “marked all my childhood, and whose most significant passages we memorized in schools.” This is just one of those passages.

Detail from Mussolini’s Milan speech

This quote delivered a well-calculated message of foreign and domestic policy. On the foreign front, it reflected on Foreign Minister Ciano’s visit to Germany a few weeks earlier, where Ciano and Hitler had agreed on the joint struggle against the Spanish Republic and Bolshevism, and Hitler pledged support to Italy against British ambitions in the Mediterranean Sea, declaring that “the Mediterranean is an Italian sea”; and Hitler also recognized the conquest of Ethiopia by Italy in the spring of that year. Mussolini, in his speech, echoes Hitler’s formula, and introduces for the first time the concept of a “Berlin-Rome axis”, which was also sketched for the simple folk on the front page of the published speech. On the other hand, he still seeks some compromise with the British, for whom, he admits, the Mediterranean “is a route, or rather a kind of shortcut” to their Far Eastern colonial empire through the Suez Canal (“the idea of which, I note only in parenthesis, was first raised by an Italian, Negrelli, who was at that time called insane by the English”). However, the Monreale inscription emphasizes two phrases that are digestible for the domestic public (and which originally stood far apart from each other, in different contexts), thus reinforcing in them the imperialistic idea of Mare Nostrum and nationalistic pride. The festive podium stood obviously here, in the main square, facing the cathedral, and the message of the respective speakers was raised high and woven into a national-imperial context by the quote of the Duce hovering above them.

One hundred fifty kilometers to the east, in the main square of Nicosia, on the wall of Bar Antica Gelateria, are the remains of a similar inscription. The central part of the five-line inscription painted on the plaster has been cut off. It does not look as if it was done with the purpose of destroying it, but rather that something was mounted there, and its straight contours cut out the center of the text. I can reconstruct the top line for a while from the top of the letters: “Il popolo italiano ha…”.

I go in Diana Bar, and while asking for a coffee, I ask the barista whether he knows what was written there. “The professore knows it for sure”, he leads me enthusiastically and respectfully to one of the small, round marble tables, where a small, round gentleman is reading his newspaper. The professore puts on his glasses, looks far into the deep well of the past, and dictates:

«Il popolo italiano ha creato col suo sangue l’impero. Lo feconderà col suo lavoro e lo difenderà contro chiunque con le sue armi.»

The Italian people created the empire with his blood. He will fertilize it with his work, and will protect it against anyone with his weapons.

This famous passage, frase celebre, is from Mussolini’s Victory Day speech of 9 May 1936 in Rome, where he announced the end of the Ethiopian War and the birth of the Italian Impero. Once again, this is a speech of major foreign political importance, demanding a place for Italy alongside the great powers, while, on the other hand, it also sends a message to the people concerning what the empire expects of them. In its time, the passage was popularized by many public works and inscriptions throughout Italy, including this mural still standing today in via Roma in Trento, from which Mussolini’s name was later carved off (by leaving its outlines):

Apropos of the Nicosia text, I cannot help but mention that a few meters away we can also read a molto più celebre inscription. If you ascend the steep steps between the two bars to the “hill of the twenty-four barons”, the nest of the noble palaces of Nicosia, the text on the south wall of the tower of the hilltop Church of the Savior, enlarged each year from the early 1700s on, perpetuate the day and month of the arrival of the first swallows to Nicosia. During our recent visit, the church was closed, so I cannot attach a picture of the inscription, just the view of the old town from the church square, with Etna in the distance. Down there, to the left of the Norman Romanesque church of St. Nicholas, converted from an Arab mosque, is the main square with the inscription of 1936. The other church in the background, on the top of the other hill, was the church of St. Nicholas of the pre-Norman Greek population, which gave the name Nicosia to the town. As in the St. Nicholas Day processions the Greek and Catholic believers regularly clashed with each other, this church was renamed the Church of the Assumption, to celebrate its feast and procession in the summer, on 15 August instead of 6 December.

A third memorial helps us to understand why post-war systems have left the public decorations of fascism more or less untouched. Thirty kilometers to the west, at the foot of the Madonia Mountains, a marble sign on the town hall of the mountain town of Gangi announces:

«18 Novembre 1935 XIV. A ricordo dell’assedio perché resti documentata nei secoli l’enorme ingiustizia consumata contro l’Italia, alla quale tanto deve la civiltà di tutti i continenti.»

18 November 1935, XIV[th year of fascism]. In eternal memory for centuries of the attacks and of the terrible injustice against Italy, to which the civilization of all continents owes so much.

The attacks and the terrible injustice were the sanctions of the League of Nations against Italy for invading Ethiopia. These sanctions, by the way, were diluted by Britain and France, the leading powers of the League, for the sake of good relations with Italy, and thus Mussolini was able to occupy Ethiopia without any problems. However, the incident provided an opportunity to blackmail Brussels the League of Nations to the people of Italy, which, despite being the eastern bastion of Europe for centuries the torch of civilization for Europe (and other continents, including Africa) for thousands of years, was neglected and humiliated by the new nations that grew fat at the cost of his sweat.

The key to the survival of these inscriptions is offered by the small copper plate that was placed underneath the marble plaque obviously long after the end of the war:

A marble plaque reminiscent of the historic era of fascism and a related event, the sanctions against Italy. It was exhibited in November 1935, and it was removed immediately after the end of the war (1945). Its restoration to the original place serves reflection and the civil confrontation of ideas. «FACTS DO NOT CEASE TO EXIST BECAUSE THEY ARE IGNORED.» (A. Huxley)

This latter frase celebre could also stand in the place of the often renamed, demolished, destroyed, relocated Eastern European memorials, plaques, street signs. Although it would be much better if it stood underneath the originals left in place.

Fascism-period athlete statues in the Foro Italico in Rome. From The New Yorker’s article “Why are so many Fascist monuments still standing in Italy?”

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