I was lucky enough to be in Rome this past summer. I had never been to Europe before. I’m not exactly sure what I expected to find or see in Rome. I knew that the city was essentially a hypercollage of time and material. While that is certainly true, what I found was a completely dystopian setting that has set off many questions for me regarding scale in relation to Western history. This old city is in many ways a carcass, the slowly collapsing Western world putting on display the ruins of its predecessor, the Roman Empire.
I stayed in a residential neighborhood in Rome, a place outside the tourist zones, where I thought perhaps I could see how people who live in Rome go about their day and how the city affects their lives. What does a commute look like if you live in Rome? Does the city do a good job picking up garbage outside of the tourist areas? I was able to answer these questions early on during my trip. But what ended up surprising me more was the amount of fascism still prevalent. On my corner, in the Re di Roma neighborhood, stood a 6’5’’ tall skinhead with S.S. badges on his black clothes. He seemed to be “on patrol.” A thirty-minute walk around the neighborhood revealed a striking amount of swastikas spray painted all over. The city seems to fully tolerate these symbols. After all, today’s Romans preserve what is left of their ancient empire; the ruins are the city’s golden egg. Benito Mussolini’s program was to “Make Rome Great Again.” Archaeology and preservation of what was left of ancient Rome were key components of building Italian national pride and identity in Italy’s fascist era. From the framework of ancient Rome came Italy’s attempt at taking North Africa to continue where the Roman Empire left off before its downfall – pillage over land and people. Throughout my stay, I couldn’t shake this pressing question: Do Westerners inadvertently come to Rome to enact a type of pilgrimage that celebrates empire-building and racial hierarchy? Why do people visit Rome if it’s full of skinheads and swastikas? I tried to imagine and think of anyone like me coming to this city; I looked up Rome’s ethnic breakdown (only 10% non-Italian and 5% non-European – not diverse at all). If my mother visited, would she be able to find the arepa she eats for breakfast every morning? My father didn’t grow up eating pasta. Would he be able to eat a pupusa instead?
In many ways, Rome is stuck in time. The day after Benito Mussolini and his government fell feels like just yesterday in a city so old. The fascist government attempted to pick up the relatively new and unified Italy from the doldrums of the ancient empire’s ruins, not to mention World War I. This era meant modernizing Italy and Rome. Mussolini wanted to build an image of superiority and strength, so his plan included the building of world-class sports facilities and filmmaking studios. The Foro Mussolini (now known as Foro Italico) is a sports complex built by Mussolini to host the 1940 Olympics in Rome. Today, the complex is largely intact. It was built in the imposing style of the Roman forums and is riddled with fascist propaganda, including a stadium surrounded by large, white marble statues of idealized young men. All along the complex’s 200-meter-long grand entrance pathway, Viale del Foro [fig. 2], there are countless mosaics depicting fascist propaganda — including upwards of 240 mentions of “DUCE” and a vignette celebrating the taking of Ethiopia in 1936. At the very entrance to the complex, and perhaps the most jarring material form of fascism, is the Mussolini Obelisk [fig. 1]. The large white marble obelisk stands 17 meters tall (around 55’) and is simply unmissable as you enter the Foro. This monolith is said to be the largest single piece of marble ever cut at the famous marble quarry of Carrara in central Italy. On the front of the Mussolini Obelisk, from the golden pointed tip of the Obelisk to the ground, an inscription reads in large carved letters “MVSSOLINI DUX” (Mussolini the Leader). The monument I propose to dismantle and transform would be this obelisk. My proposal would destroy this obelisk and transform the marble into public seating to be placed around the city of Rome. The project would extend towards creating a large public seating program made from cut sections of other fascist era monuments and architecture.
In my experience of visiting Rome, I found public seating hard to come by. For example, if one wanted to have a coffee and sit, one would have to pay an extra euro or sometimes double the price of your coffee. Otherwise, you may stand at the bar and drink your coffee. Many of the famous plazas did not have seats, and I did not find the city accommodating — What does a common good look like in Rome? In fact, I found the seating situation to be similar to New York City, where benches on city streets are hard to come by, and one often finds oneself entering an establishment in order to have a seat. I wondered if the Catholic Church perhaps had something to do with this lack of seating in Rome. If the Church made it hard to rest in front of a church with a lack of public seating and no shade, the public would likely be encouraged to enter the cooler and shaded churches. One would be able to find a seat inside: cleverly engineered divine intervention.
My project of taking down the Mussolini Obelisk would have to include the burnishing of its current inscriptions, including the fasce symbol underneath the “MVSSOLINI” inscription. After World War II ,the fasce symbol (it looks like a bundle of rods, bound together around an axe; it is supposed to depict “unity”) was banned in Italy, but it did not leave the city. There are fasces inconspicuously circling the Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) by Bernini at the Piazza Navona which depicts an African figure at the center of a nautical scene. During my stay, I found fasces in many places. For example, fascist era manhole covers are distinctly inscribed with the fasce symbol. Some are dated with a “new era” style of calendar starting in 1922, marking the official start of the fascist Mussolini regime. I began looking for manhole covers with a fasce or perhaps a fascist era date inscription. Interestingly enough, my research informed me that manhole covers with an inscription “Anno X: EF” denoted “Year 10: Fascist Era” — meaning 1932. I also noticed several of these covers had their inscriptions burnished while looking for these fascist era manhole covers along the city [fig. 4]. Someone had burnished and ground out the fasces and the dates from these metal sewer caps. What was left was a kind of gaping erasure, a very small ghost on the sidewalk.
I propose to rid the Mussolini Obelisk of the Fascist era inscriptions in the same way these manhole covers were rid of their inscriptions. I imagine the Obelisk cut into rectangular slabs roughly the size of a city bench. The hard, carved-out inscriptions of “MVSSOLINI” and the fasce effaced and later burnished and blunted by seated people’s backsides. Apart from the initial excision of the inscriptions, I would stipulate that these new seats never be sandblasted or in any way cleaned (the Obelisk was renovated and cleaned in 2006. That’s enough), left to serve the public until they are worn away entirely. I would also never allow for any barrier to be attached to the seating in order to never impede any person from lying on the marble.
Dismantling the Mussolini Obelisk, one of the most blatant monuments to white supremacist imperialism anywhere in the world, and repurposing its marble into public seating would make a scattered, decentralized monument to the public good and civility rather than tainted ideals of Roman civilization.