An Antifascist Topography?

[Part I of a Series of Blog Posts on Modern Epigraphic Problems, tangentially related to a book project on the Pyramid in Rome.]

I took this photo in Piazza Pascoli in Matera. For those who are not familiar with this kind of sight, the picture shows an intentionally destroyed fascist monumental plaque. The erasure is such that the original persists, ghost-like. The three vertical rectangles held three white fasces. Beneath the three ghost fasces three letters can be perceived, « A XIV », a date in Roman numerals, the 14th (XIV) year (Annum) of the Fascist regime.

For comparison, consider this similar addition to the restoration of the Teatro Marcello in Rome.

From beneath the spectral remains of such iconography in Matera you can look out onto one of the most beautiful views in Italy. The temptation to look up and fuss over the messy face of the wall is minimal.

The irony of the erased monument’s transparent persistence is that it speaks to a much more general problem. The overall effect of efforts to erase fascist symbols and iconology are much the same throughout the country. While the most offensive and clear-cut insignia may have been stripped from (some) monuments and facades, the contextual evidence (be it something like what is pictured above or the massive presence of rationalist super-structures such as Rome’s Ostiense Station) speak plainly to a period that cannot be forgotten, or repressed.

Further, for a nation apparently bent on erasure, some of the most pronounced monuments persist unaffected by the attempts to reframe historical memories. We need but recall the Mussolini Obelisk of the Foro Italico.

Persistent erasures, in addition to the remainders, provide a window into a subtler, more pernicious and messy relation to history. So much of the urban topography of the city of Rome, and of Italy more broadly, was designed in the period of the Fascist regime. The aesthetic priorities of the period continue to govern our lived experience of the urban landscape, whether from a look out point like that of Matera or even in a more quotidian sense, for instance walking along the raised banks of the Tiber near Testaccio where a similar monument announces the Fascist restoration of the walkway.

Personally, I grew up by the Ostiense Station and only learned by word of mouth that it was built for Hitler’s official state visit visit to Rome and marked the beginning of his parade route that would take him past the Piramide and into the heart of the ancient pomerium. I then learned a bit more about it when I chanced upon Ettore Scola’s Una Giornata Particolare. Many Romans with whom I talk about the area do not know that Piazzale dei Partigiani used to be called Piazzale Hitler, and that Viale delle Cave Ardeatine was similarly Viale Hitler. The spaces have been renamed after Partisans and victims of Fascism–but the fact they are a specific topographical marker of Fascist urbanism is forgotten. (See here for a blog post in Italian covering more examples of streets that changed named.)

Recently, I walked around the entire Ostiense neighborhood, Testaccio included, collecting notes for a book on the Piramide and documenting visible and legible traces of the transformation in the urban landscape.

I asked myself the following question: what can I learn about recent history from the streets themselves–without a history book or the internet, but looking to the signage, the plaques, the inscriptions?

I discovered that there is no explicit signage left that connects Ostiense to its origins, explaining the history. Plaques near the Pyramid help establish–in the vaguest terms–the importance of the area in World War II. As an example, The Battle of Porta San Paolo is memorialized with a date, but is not named as such nor its significance explained.

Overall, the sense is that history took place around these spaces rather than within them. Walking through them we enter into a vacuum of sorts, as if the ghost of Fascism could be remitted to a vague past before the city, a fabricated antiquity that comes dangerously close to some of the artificial constructs of Fascism itself.

In a seeming paradox, the dilapidated plaque in Matera speaks eloquently about the past and poses sets of questions that are as timely as they are difficult–questions about the way we occupy spaces and transform them, particularly in the conversion of inimical affective environments into ones that can become the stages for public education and sites of civic reflection.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

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