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Tresigallo: The Rationalist City of Dreams

“Will this town have a second life or will it remain a ghost of the 1930s?”

A few kilometers from Ferrara sits politician Edmondo Rossoni’s dream: a metaphysical city that, more than 70 years later, looks more like a project of exile than the utopia imagined by its founders. 

To reach Rossoni’s Tressigallo, you must cross fords and plains, up and down through the valleys of Comacchio. As soon as you park and step out of the car, there is absolute silence. You walk through the deserted streets and wonder: will this town have a second life or will it remain a ghost of the 1930s? So static. So perfect. So unreal.

Born in Tresigallo in 1884, Rossoni was a revolutionary syndicalist. After working as a labor activist (for the Industrial Workers of the World union) and a journalist (he edited the IWW’s Italian-language newspaper Il Proletario, or The Proletariat) in the United States from 1910 until the outbreak of WWI, Rossoni returned to Italy with the dream of merging socialism and nationalism. He ultimately joined Mussolini’s Fascist party in 1921 and soon became one of the most influential members of the party, serving various roles in Mussolini’s administration. Most notably, Mussolini appointed Rossoni Minister of Agriculture and Forests in 1935 and tasked him with increasing Italy’s food production; instead, behind Mussolini’s back, Rossoni ordered the reconstruction of his hometown under a new urban, industrial and architectural layout according to rationalism.

In order to understand Tresigallo’s forms, it’s necessary to unpack the instrumentalization of architecture by Mussolini’s regime. In Italy, during the twenty-year Fascist period, many structures were destroyed, modified and rebuilt according to the projects of Il Duce and with the intention of creating new streets, buildings and squares that could become models of a new imperial civilization, one that proclaimed itself as universal, powerful and influential as the Roman Empire had been. But while most of the “città di fondazione”, or “new cities”, were the propagandistic will of a political idea, built to glorify Mussolini, Rossoni envisioned a people-centered utopia, a city that offered a better life. 

Rossoni’s dream was for Tresigallo to be autonomous, independent of political parties and the Fascist state, a city based on peaceful cooperation between employer and worker, united by common visions and goals. Workers’ and industrialists’ houses had to stand shoulder to shoulder in order to generate a positive social and cultural impact. 

Rossoni fully and secretly devoted himself to his utopian city with engineer Carlo Frighi–together, they planned and drew every single street. Previously a swampland with little to no access to roads, Tresigallo’s development began quickly with the cooperation of local people, convinced of Rossoni’s passionate dream, despite the shortage of materials (Italy was in the midst of autarky after all). Rossoni and Frighi built highways, schools, parks and a sanatorium (for those with tuberculosis) and installed the first system for running water. He built a hotel and hundreds of factories–for everything from cellulose to hemp. The city experienced unprecedented population growth: in a matter of years, population rose from 500 to 9,000.

Of course, it was impossible to pull all this off without catching the attention of Mussolini. After Rossoni’s schemes were discovered (thanks to a spy), he convinced the dictator that Tresigallo was a “fascist” project, built to be replicated across the peninsula, and continued developing the city until the onset of WWII put an end to his plans. By the 1970s, most factories were shuttered and the population quickly dropped–though not as quickly as it had once risen.

Today, Tresigallo is architecture in its purest state: a town, seemingly empty (just 4,000 souls remain), where rationalist forms and old signs reign like a Hollywood movie set left to itself. Little known, but an outstanding example, Tresigallo represents a unique specimen of Italian rationalism, which, mixed with some metaphysical design, creates a peculiar combination and an enigmatic effect. 

Architectural rationalism is inspired by symmetry, mathematics and geometry and is usually embodied by imposing, large stone buildings with straight lines and absolutely no ornamentation; every design feature is built for optimal functionality. This style can be seen throughout Tresigallo and in its most iconic buildings, whose structures and fontal signs have remained the same since the 1930s: Bar Roma, Campo Sportivo (a sports field), the public bathhouses, the Casa del Fascio, the Casa della Cultura. The latter, formerly a propagandistic gymnasium for young boys, is now a library and a space for art exhibits, movie screenings and other cultural events. Perhaps Tresigallo will have a second life after all. 

The large, central piazza’s fountain is marked by four gazelle, one for each of Fascist Italy’s colonies in Africa. This piazza and the surrounding streets are often thought to have inspired Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, founder of the metaphysical art movement, though this is a myth. However, the dizzying similarity between the magical, geometrical squares of some of his most famous paintings and the architecture of Tresigallo is unarguable.

In winter, the fog is thick. The city turns into a ghost, somehow as eerie as the historical period of which it is a product. In summer, on the other hand, the city is colorful. And the heat has a tendency to unmold everything to its liking. The sun tries to melt the asphalt, and the rays hit the marble almost like lasers. In this weather, all noise is muffled and the contours of objects, which have suddenly become more curved and blurred, are softened. Light comes in and out of holes in the walls and mirrors itself on the austere facades, on the twisted stairs. 

The word “sogni” (“dreams”) has been recently surmounted on the soft blue building of the former bathhouses. The lettering blends with the blue of the sky and the white of the clouds. A reminder not to give up, perhaps, to persevere in one’s dreams until they come true. But can dreams stand still? Or must they mutate to be worthy of being called such–always new, always unattainable?

The first half of the 20th century was deeply complex in Italy, the result of ideological contradictions, with no balance at all between democracy and dictatorship, progress and war. It was a time that swept away all the certainties of a peaceful future, of human rights. Italy felt more like a nightmare, and although it’s impossible to condone fascist Rossoni’s own contributions to said nightmare, it’s fascinating to imagine what may have come from his dream of a truly party-less city. 

The search for meaning that pervades the life of every human being becomes stronger in Tresigallo. And so I too find myself taking note of every moment of life I encounter: a rusty bicycle in a courtyard, the pastel-dyed sheets that rise in the light wind and then immediately fall motionless on their axis of gravity as if waiting for the storm to arrive.

“In the square, people circulate with slow movements like life on vacation, and here, too, one can hear a radio advertisement spread through the air. The same life-on-holiday attitude is held by young men in shorts and flip-flops, gathered to discuss sports under the loggia of a hotel. At the end of the widening an alley of geometric buildings in acrylic colors, and that’s where I go,” wrote Gianni Celati in his book Verso la Foce after passing through the city of dreams.