Sunday, May 9, 2010


A permanent legacy of Italy’s fascist period is the destruction of large swaths of medieval Rome in the cause of modernization. The most famous such project is the urban highway today called Via dei Fori Imperiali (Avenue of the Imperial Fora). Also known as Via dei Monti (Avenue of the Mountains), it leads in the direction of the Alban Hills to the southeast of Rome. Its counterpart is Via del Mare (Avenue of the Sea), which leads towards the Mediterranean coast to the southwest. Both streets have their head at Piazza Venezia: there the ancient Via Flaminia, descending from the north of the peninsula, debouches at the feet of the monument to Victor Emanuel II, first king of a united Italy. (Question: How is it that Italy’s first king was called Victor Emanuel the Second? Answer: Among the kings of Piedmont-Sardinia, his ancestors, there had been a Victor Emanuel I – whence the unexpected numbering).

The initial tract of Via del Mare (today known as Via del Teatro di Marcello – Via Petroselli) was planned so as to connect Piazza Venezia with Piazza Bocca della Verità. That route was peculiarly disastrous, as it entailed the demolition of the dense and ancient quarter of houses, convents, churches and piazzas that had grown up over a thousand years on the southwestern slope of the Capitoline Hill. By a procedure vividly characterized in Italian as ‘disemboweling’ (sventramento), this quarter was ripped out in the years 1926–1941. The most prominent modern building to rise on its ruins is Palazzo dell’Anagrafe (state registry office), built in 1936–1937 to the design of Cesare Valle. On the façade, the following inscription occupies a plaque surmounted by the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus above the initials S P Q R (Senate and People of Rome). A large expanse below the text originally accommodated three bronze fasces – a frequent decorative motif on monuments of the fascist period:


In the year of the Lord 1938,
seventeenth after the renewal of the fasces,
in the time of Victor Emanuel III, King and Emperor,
Benito Mussolini, ‘il Duce’, Piero Colonna, Governor.

The Latin word fasces denotes a bundle of wooden rods enclosing an axe. In antiquity, this emblem of sovereignty was borne by attendants called ‘lictors’ who escorted magistrates endowed with imperium – the quasi-sacral right of military command. Under the Roman Republic, praetors were entitled to six fasces, consuls to twelve, and dictators to twenty-four. With shrewd political instinct, Mussolini named his political movement fasci di combattimento (loosely, ‘militant crews’). Derived from fasces, the Italian fascio (‘league’) had been used in preceding decades of agricultural and labor organizations. The choice of that term, and of the fasces as his symbol, enabled Mussolini both to evoke Rome’s imperial past and to draw a specious parallel between fascism and progressive movements of the recent past.

In conformity with other inscriptions of the period, the present specimen cites the date by reference to Mussolini’s ‘revival’ of the fasces. It begins conventionally enough with the citation of the Christian era: A(nno) D(omini) MCMXXXVIII. After that, however, appears a formula commencing with the Roman numeral XVII and continuing with a phrase to be completed thus: A FASC(ibus) R(enovatis). The formula refers to the fascist era, which was calculated from 29 October 1922 – the day on which Victor Emanuel III withdrew his support from the prime minister in office and invited Mussolini to form a cabinet. Not coincidentally, this was the day after the ‘March on Rome’, the crowning episode of Mussolini’s slow-motion coup d’état. Year seventeen of the fascist era accordingly began on 29 October 1938; it shared with the year of the Lord 1938 the 64 days from 29 October through 31 December. The reckoning ‘from the renewal of the fasces’ deliberately evokes the ancient reckoning of Rome’s age ab urbe condita (‘from the founding of the City’).

The bulk of the inscription is occupied by the Latinized names of the officials under whose auspices the works were carried out. The first is VICTOR(io) EMAN(uele) REGE IMP(eratore). The man in question is Vittorio Emanuele III, king of Italy from 29 July 1900 through 9 May 1946. In Latin, the most usual form of his name is Victorius Emmanuel (with doubled M). Here he is styled both REX (‘king’) and IMPERATOR (‘emperor’). The first of these titles he inherited from his father, King Umberto I, whose assassination in 1900 emboldened the American anarchist Leon Frank Czolgosz to murder President McKinley the following year. The second title – Emperor of Ethiopia – he assumed in 1938, after the Italian army overthrew Haile Selassie and annexed his dominions. That year would henceforth be reckoned by the fascists as ‘first of the empire’.

The second personage to figure in the text is Benito Mussolini, who in 1925 adopted the style il Duce (‘The Leader’). Although semantically equivalent to Hitler’s der Führer, the title was not borrowed from Mussolini’s more prestigious partner: it had been used previously not only of King Victor Emanuel III but also of Giuseppe Garibaldi, father of modern Italy. The phrase BENITO MVSSOLINI DVCE features a point of grammatical interest: because the names in the inscription are all cast in the Ablative case (indicating ‘in the time of …’), this phrase has almost exactly the same form in Latin as in modern Italian. The fortuitous coincidence between the form of many Italian names and the Dative or Ablative case of their Latin equivalents has led, I believe, to a deliberate effort in many Neo-Latin inscriptions to ensure that names appear in one or the other of those two grammatical cases. I say ‘fortuitous’ because (as we are informed by historical linguists) the Italian name Marco, for example, derives not from the Latin Ablative Marco, but from the Accusative Marcum – in the course of the Middle Ages the final M was lost and the U relaxed to an O.

Finally, there is Piero Colonna. Colonna was the scion of one of Rome’s great baronial families: as the leading Ghibelline (pro-imperial) clan of the thirteenth century, the Colonna vied with the Guelph (pro-papal) Orsini for the domination of Rome. In its heyday, the family produced several cardinals, a pope (Martin V, 1417–1431) and a military hero (Marcantonio Colonna, victor of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571). Son of a former two-time mayor of Rome, Piero Colonna joined Mussolini’s National Fascist Party (PNF) in 1921, eventually serving as fascist governor of Rome from 1936 until his death in 1939 at the age of forty-eight. In an unfortunate grammatical slip, Colonna’s name here appears not in the requisite Ablative case – Petro – but in the Nominative – Petrus. Alternatively, Colonna can be understood as the subject of an implied predicate: ‘Pietro Colonna (had this project implemented) in the time of Victor Emanuel III and Benito Mussolini’.

Mussolini had instituted the governatorato (‘governorate’) of Rome in 1926. A cabinet-level official, the governor was appointed – not elected – and reported directly to the minister of the interior. In the present inscription, Colonna’s Italian title governatore is rendered with fitting pomp by the Latin praefectus urbi. The latter was an official created by Augustus to oversee the city of Rome and its district. Colonna’s Augustan connection does not end there: in addition to Via del Mare, his tenure as governor saw the demolition of the neighborhood surrounding the first emperor’s mausoleum – but that is a theme for a future post.

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