Every time I go for a walk in the EUR district in Rome, I pass by a bronze sculpture of a young athlete. He has boxing straps around his hands and wrists. He stands naked, perfectly conscious of his beauty, while lifting his right arm to thank his audience.
The sculpture is set on a high pillar; its stern isolation turns into a melancholic mood.
I like it for several reasons: the body is finely modelled, following the canons of Italian sculpture in the 1930s and 1940s. And I enjoy the contrast between the deep greens of the bronze and the honey-coloured travertine of the building in the background.
The work, by artist Italo Griselli, is titled “Genio dello Sport” (“Spirit of Sport”), as the inscription in capital letters on its base reiterates. But it hasn’t always been known as such.
When it was originally installed there in 1939, its subject didn’t have straps around his fingers, and the arm gesture was unequivocally meant to be a Roman salute.
Back then, the sculpture was known as “Genio del Fascismo” (“Spirit of Fascism”), and served the grandiloquent agenda of Mussolini’s regime. Only at the beginning of the 1950s, years after the dictator had fallen and Italy had become a republic, the sculpture was turned into an athlete.
In the aftermath of WWII, Italy was in a peculiar situation. During the twenty years of the regime, Mussolini had built far and wide, often commissioning mosaics, paintings, and sculptures depicting fascist symbols to decorate the architecture.
Far too many and far too spread out, most buildings were re-appropriated, reassigned to different use or abandoned. The majority of the insignia was either destroyed or removed and hidden away in attics and basements.
Look carefully, and you’ll see some traces of them everywhere, in every Italian city: a plethora of eagles, fascist emblems and writings, partially deleted or chiselled away.
Some of those monuments avoided demolition, remaining virtually untouched.
Since I moved to Rome I’ve started paying more attention to them, finding signs of our fascist past at every corner. The capital, in particular, has kept striking examples.
Coming from the airport towards the center of the city, the first thing one still notices today is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a fascist building also known as Colosseo Quadrato (Squared Colosseum) for its reiteration of arches that remind of the ancient amphitheater.
Its iconic architecture has been fascinating people since its completion, not least film director Federico Fellini. The inscription on top of each side of the palazzo describes Italians as “a nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of colonizers”. Nowadays, few remember that the naive self-congratulation is in fact a quote from a speech Mussolini gave in 1935 to announce the invasion of Ethiopia, one the most shameful chapters in Italian history.
At the opposite side of the city, at the Foro Italico sport complex, an almost 40 meters tall obelisk inscribed “Mussolini Dux” is still standing, the same way it has been since its erection in 1932.
Decade after decade, such buildings have become historic, so much so that Italians have grown used to them.
On the contrary, most of my foreign friends, especially from the United States, are shocked that they are still in place. To those that ask me why, I usually tell there isn’t just one simple answer, and that it would be very complicated to explain the reasons in a few words. Attempting to reply means looking back at a very dark time in our history, which most Italians have decided to leave behind.
Contrary to Germany and Austria, Italy never went through a process of collective guilt for the crimes committed during the Fascist regime. We started WWII with an enemy, and ended it with another.
Following the allied invasion of Sicily and the arrest of Mussolini – on 3 September 1943 Italy signed an armistice with the Allies. Its announcement five days later threw the nation into chaos. Mussolini, freed by the Germans, was put in charge of a new fascist state that was in fact a puppet state controlled by Hitler.
Italians were pressed between the Anglo-Americans coming from the South and the Reich’s troops, which had invaded the North and had pushed through the peninsula, all the way to Rome. With the help of the fascists, the Germans attacked Italian civilians and military forces. Partisans groups were formed in many towns and villages. Civil war had started: anarchy and disorder took over the country.
By that time, most Italians that had supported Mussolini’s regime – and there had been many – had turned their back to it. Many families suffered terrible losses.
It was a truly dark moment, in which the roles of victim, executioner and saviour were constantly shifting, being re-written almost day by day.
At the end of the war, Italy must have found coping with the psychological consequences of the conflict almost impossible.
In 1946 the new democratic government declared an amnesty that mainly pardoned former fascists and collaborationists, avoiding a trial of the fascist regime like that of Nuremberg for Nazism.
Consciously or not, we did what usually happens when confronting traumas: we preferred to forget. To forget the disasters and the sorrow, but also to forget collective faults and responsibilities. After all, “amnesty” shares with “amnesia” the same etymology: oblivion.
Today, the generation that lived through that crucial time has almost entirely passed away, which makes remembering even more difficult. But some memories have been passed on, even if with difficulties.
It proved very challenging for my nonna to talk about what had happened to her during that time, even sixty years later. When she finally did, one afternoon we were alone, she shared a disturbing story of personal abuse.
My other grandma, although she was just a child in the early 1940s vividly remembered suffering from hunger pangs, was more open.
She would tell me, half-jokingly, how her family had been a perfect example of pluralism during the civil war. Her father, a railway employee, had been a convinced fascist. On the other hand, her uncle had never hidden his socialist beliefs. Because of them he was sent to Mauthausen, never to come back.
Every family in Italy shares similar stories.
It is one of the paradoxes of modern Italian identity that the most important event shaping it is also the one we’ve been trying to forget with the most intensity.
Thinking again at the monuments commissioned by Fascism still standing today, I wonder if what had been left behind then can turn into something useful now.
Those buildings have now become part of the cultural heritage of the country. It’s a heavy heritage, but it’s the heritage on which our recent history and identity is based.
And this young athlete in bronze, in front of which I often stop, once exalting a dictatorship, now turned into a handsome boxeur, seems to have been left there to remind us what past generations have tried to clean forget.
A living contradiction between Italy’s rich legacy and its darkest past.