In the late nineteen-thirties, as Benito Mussolini was preparing to host the 1942 World’s Fair, in Rome, he oversaw the construction of a new neighborhood, Esposizione Universale Roma, in the southwest of the city, to showcase Italy’s renewed imperial grandeur. The centerpiece of the district was the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a sleek rectangular marvel with a façade of abstract arches and rows of neoclassical statues lining its base. In the end, the fair was cancelled because of the war, but the palazzo, known as the Square Colosseum, still stands in Rome today, its exterior engraved with a phrase from Mussolini’s speech, in 1935, announcing the invasion of Ethiopia, in which he described Italians as “a people of poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, scientists, navigators, and transmigrants.” The invasion, and the bloody occupation that followed, would later lead to war-crimes charges against the Italian government. The building is, in other words, a relic of abhorrent Fascist aggression. Yet, far from being shunned, it is celebrated in Italy as a modernist icon. In 2004, the state recognized the palazzo as a site of “cultural interest.” In 2010, a partial restoration was completed, and five years later the fashion house Fendi moved its global headquarters there.
Italy, the first Fascist state, has had a long relationship with right-wing politics; with the election of Silvio Berlusconi, in 1994, the country also became the first to bring a neo-Fascist party to power, as part of Berlusconi’s center-right coalition.* But this alone is not enough to explain Italians’ comfort with living amid Fascist symbols. Italy was, after all, home to Western Europe’s biggest anti-Fascist resistance and its most robust postwar Communist Party. Until 2008, center-left coalitions maintained that legacy, often getting more than forty per cent of the vote in elections. So why is it that, as the United States has engaged in a contentious process of dismantling monuments to its Confederate past, and France has rid itself of all streets named after the Nazi collaborationist leader Marshall Pétain, Italy has allowed its Fascist monuments to survive unquestioned?
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