Mussolini’s Planned Cities, on the Example of Sabaudia

/ by Sabine Gruber

Someone should do a study on the effects of monumental architecture on children. I was in Rome when I was only four years old, and then again at age ten. The second time, my parents, my younger sister and I visited the Coliseum and the triple-gated Arch of Constantine next to it, which the people and senate of Rome had erected in gratitude to their emperor for victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge. 

Back in Bolzano, I saw the white victory monument near the Talfer River with new eyes. I drew a youthful analogy and believed I was seeing a triumphal arch from Roman antiquity in the similarly constructed Fascist memorial. Impressed by the many famous palaces and monuments in Rome, I was pleased that ‘we in South Tyrol also have something so beautiful’. When more and more I heard people talking disparagingly about the Bolzano memorial, I was puzzled. 

What I, as an elementary school pupil, had made out to be a South-Tyrolian landmark proved to be a stain on Bolzano’s reputation, a new take on ancient triumphal architecture, a recycled bit of ‘romanità’ to accentuate Fascist greatness. Marcello Piacentini, Benito Mussolini’s most influential architect, designed the marble monument, which was dedicated in 1928. In contrast to the ancient Arch of Constantine, it was a provocative edifice furnished with ancient, Fascist, and Christian symbolism. Its Latin inscription was meant to remind viewers that the Fascists had taught the backward residents of South Tyrol ‘language, laws, and arts’. 

From then on, I no longer trusted my childish architectural taste. My disappointment had led me instead to give the eagle-eye to anything that didn’t have a pitched roof or red blinds. Where there was no wooden balcony and no gable, I feared more ‘blots’ on the homeland that used an ancient disguise to abet the Italianization of Tyrolian architecture, and hence of the people who lived in it. 

In high school, for the first time, I saw illustrations of Adolf Loos’s architecture and heard about the design vocabulary of the Bauhaus style, as well as Dessau modernism and Russian constructivism. I didn’t get around to asking the question about Italian or South-Tyrolian Modernism, because I moved away. The ethnic struggle – German-speaking South Tyrolians versus Italians – had poisoned so many aspects of life in the seventies and eighties that I thought of architecture too as a schism between rural alpine traditions and modern fascistic buildings. The fact that I liked many of the houses in Bolzano’s Italian quarter, and that I liked travertine, that porous limestone from Tivoli, and marble, whether from Laas or Carrara, stayed my secret. 

Years later, I read an article in the arts section of a German newspaper about the Fascist planned city Sabaudia and cut it out. The first thing that had piqued my curiosity was the sound of the name. Sabaudia, which is derived etymologically from the royal house of Savoia, is one of the most recently founded cities in Europe. This small town, which today has around 20,000 residents, was built between August 1933 and April 1934, in only eight months, after Benito Mussolini had ordered the Paludi Pontine, the swamplands southeast of Rome, to be drained. 

If Pliny is to be believed, this region had once been a blossoming land of culture; the sophisticated drainage system then broke down with the arrival of new settlers who were ignorant of it. Besides, the Romans had deforested the hills to the east, which led to soil erosion and subsequently to flooding on the Pontine Plain. For centuries, the area remained for the most part uninhabitable, and malaria proliferated. 

Various emperors and popes – Napoleon, for example, or most recently Pius IX – gave some thought to how the land could be drained. Even Goethe reflected on the problem, seeing in the reclamation of the swamps ‘a great and extensive undertaking’. But a Prussian officer named Major Fedor Maria von Donat was the first to develop a concrete plan. A project to build a ring canal for collecting the water from the hills before it reached the Pontine Plain, and the construction of a system of canals, which was supposed to use a pump system to convey the water from the swamplands to the sea, were never realized, because in 1914, the drainage of the Po Plain was first in line for financing. 

It was Mussolini who finally put the German officer’s intelligent concept to good use. Between 1927 and 1939, 840 square kilometres of swamp land were drained and made accessible for urban construction and agriculture. The Agro Pontino was for the Duce more or less what the autobahns were for Hitler: a vanity project par excellence that earned him recognition – and still does. 

Besides Sabaudia, Littoria (now Latina), Pontinia, Aprilia, and lastly Pomezia, were built according to the concepts of urban planning – all by the end of the 1930s. The competition for building Sabaudia was won by four architects, Luigi Piccinato, Gino Cancellotti, Eugenio Montuori, and Alfredo Scalpelli, all from the group around Marcello Piacentini, who had designed the victory arch in Bolzano. 

On my first visit to Sabaudia I felt like I’d been transported into one of Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings. On an afternoon of intense light – it was a July day in 2011 – the geometric shapes, the low, unadorned houses, and the façades free of decoration were made even more striking by the shadows. My fascination was certainly curbed by my historical background knowledge, but when straying through the town, I came to a stop in front of the former post and telegraph office designed by Angiolo Mazzoni and could no longer conceal my enthusiasm. I was convinced this was not Fascist architecture, but Italian Modernism. Here someone had used a variety of materials, cladded the façade with small, light-blue, square tiles, made the window frames out of red Siena stone, installed fine screens to keep out flies, and included a broad ledge between the screens and the glass for plants. An exterior staircase enticed you to gaze from above across the city, the surrounding green spaces, and the stands of holm oak and avenues of stone pine, and to inhale the fresh air that wafted over from the sea. 

I shot some photos, but didn’t stay long, for the sea was calling. Located right nearby is the Monte Circeo National Park, named after the Greek sorceress Circe, who is said to have held her beloved Odysseus captive here. Near her hill, affluent Romans, artists, and intellectuals had always resided. The Italian writers Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini shared a duplex in the dunes on the Riviera d’Ulisse. I recalled having seen photos showing the two of them together with Maria Callas. 

Now, seven years later, I was recently in Latium. My first outing took me back to Sabaudia, and then to Latina, Pontinia, and Pomezia. 

Le Corbusier, possibly disappointed that he had not been entrusted to design Pontinia, called Sabaudia too dreamy and romantic. I still couldn’t detect anything of the sort. The city looked bright and austere, free of all the historical ballast that makes other cities seem dark or overfraught. 

Even though restoration measures were being put in place fifteen years ago, criticized as architectural revisionism, especially from the left, Sabaudia was nothing like a spruced-up tourist city. In the tobacco shops there were neither postcards nor city guides, at most hiking maps for the nearby national park. And the pertinent websites mainly recommended visiting the Roman Villa Domiziano and the medieval Torre Paola. 

The architecture of Italian Modernism from the Mussolini era still seemed not to be a tourist attraction – or do people back off from offensive advertising in the age of political correctness? 

Angiolo Mazzoni’s former post office had now become a ‘centro di documentazione della città’, with a library where I holed up and hoarded a pile of literature.  

The author of the ‘Futurist Manifesto’, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, had taken note of the architect Mazzoni at the dedication of Littoria in December 1932. In the Gazzetta del Popolo di Torino, he composed a hymn of praise to his ‘heroic rhythm’ after he had admired the post and telegraph office there, which was realized according to Mazzoni’s plans. Marinetti established Mazzoni’s status as a Futurist architect and in 1934 he published the ‘Manifesto Futurista dell’Architettura Aerea’, together with Mazzoni and Mino Somenzi. 

Now, was Mazzoni an architect of Italian Modernism, or was I being taken in by another error? If nothing else, his closeness to that Futurist, militarist and glorifier of violence Marinetti, whose party was absorbed into Mussolini’s Fascist movement, and whom the Duce had made his minister of culture – wasn’t all this occasion enough for distrust? 

The example of Mazzoni’s career can be used to best elucidate the contradictions of his architecture. He knew the work of Otto Wagner, Joseph Hoffmann, and the Wiener Werkstätten; he was familiar with Czech cubism and Hungarian modernism; looking at his Roman buildings, one can see the borrowings. His Roman teachers were Giovanni Battista Milani and Gustavo Giovannoni, but also and above all Marcello Piacentini, in whose office Mazzoni worked for over a year in 1920. This Fascist influence is unmistakable, especially in view of buildings like the Bolzano railway station or the post office in Palermo. How devoted Mazzoni was to his teacher can probably be seen as well in the name of his son Marcello, who died young in an automobile accident. 

In 1921 Mazzoni received an appointment to the state railway company in Milan, and in 1922 in Bologna, where he completed his degree at the academy of fine arts. In 1924, he was called to Rome to join the general directorate of the state railway company, which also operated the state post and telegraph company. This explains why Angiolo Mazzoni built almost nothing but railway stations and post-office buildings. In 1926, he became ‘ispettore di prima classe’ and joined the Duce’s party. 

If his early buildings were still based on the monumental style, in the 1930s he took the leap to Futurismo and Razionalismo and thus brought Italian Modernism to public attention. 

In the former post office of Sabaudia, he united new technologies with the traditional materials at hand, like marble, red brick, and tiles, and integrated the fly screen into the construction for protection against mosquitos, and as an architectonic element. Mazzoni not only succeeded in responding to the special geographic and climatic situation, he also did justice to his high artistic aspirations. Mazzoni’s former post and telegraph office is an important benchmark for Italian Modernism. 

What about Sabaudia as a whole? Even if the city fits harmoniously into nature, we cannot forget the ideological origins of the architects. In Sabaudia, one is not reminded of the monumental style of a Marcello Piacentini, but the traces of the totalitarian regime are not hidden. The fasces on the manhole covers have never gone away. Whereas in South Tyrol the controversial Fascist memorials have long been furnished with critical historical plaques, in Sabaudia the Duce, portrayed as a simple farm worker, is still taken for granted as part of the mosaic on a church façade, and on the town hall tower he is praised as the one who brought Sabaudia to life. And in gratitude for that as well, for decades the majority of the population voted for the right wing. 

But things are changing politically: in June 2017, after 22 years of a right-wing city administration, the lawyer Giada Gervasi, supported by three citizens’ groups, was elected mayor of Sabaudia. And in the same summer in Latina, the Parco Arnaldo Mussolini was renamed Parco Falcone-Borsellino – albeit with protests from the neofascists. People would rather memorialize the two Sicilian Mafia victims than hold on to a reminder of Mussolini’s brother. 


Translated from the German by Geoffrey C. Howes. The original German version was published by Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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Sabine Gruber

, born 1963 in Meran (South Tyrol, Italy), grew up in Lana. After teaching German in Venice she became an acclaimed writer. Her work includes novels, poems, and essays. In 2016 her latest novel, Daldossi oder Das Leben des Augenblicks, was published by C.H. Beck and shortlisted for the Austrian Book Prize. Sabine Gruber lives in Vienna.

Photo (c) Peter Eickhoff