Mussolini’s World’s Fair

With the Summer Olympics about to start, there’s been some attention paid to the last Olympiad hosted by London: the 1948 summer games, which took place in a country still subject to rationing and other austerity measures, experiencing the beginning of the end of history’s greatest empire, and nervously watching Cold War tensions heat up in Berlin. (A New Yorker correspondent described those London Olympics as “Spartan as well as Greek.” In view of the exorbitant expenses associated with the 2012 iteration, I can’t help but wonder if the ’48 games, by economic necessity, got it closer to right.)

You may know that London (previously host of the 1908 Olympics) had originally been awarded the 1944 Summer Olympics, in a vote taken just a few months before a world war broke out that caused the 1940 and 1944 games to be cancelled. Second place in that voting: Rome, the capital of Fascist Italy.

(Third place was… Detroit! Amazingly, Motor City also finished second behind Tokyo, Mexico City, and Munich for the 1964, 1968, and 1972 games before dropping off the ballot altogether in subsequent years, not yet to return…)

While Rome would have to wait until 1960 for its turn in the Olympic sun, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini made plans for his capital to host a different kind of international spectacle: the 1942 World’s Fair, marking the twentieth anniversary of Mussolini’s rise to power. Formally the Universal Exposition of Rome, “E42” (as it’s known) is the subject of a fascinating two-part post by Art Molella, director of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. (Here’s part one and part two.)

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, 1940
Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, 1940 – U.S. National Archives

Much in the way that the 1936 Summer Olympics were used by Adolf Hitler as an airbrushed (e.g., anti-Semitism was temporarily toned down) showcase for the splendors of Nazified Germany, Mussolini intended E42 “to celebrate twenty years of Fascism and the revival of the Roman Empire.” Its centerpiece was a new suburb called EUR (the Italian acronym for the fair’s formal title) that would “showcase Fascist buildings and an elaborate system of lakes, parks, and gardens, extending Rome toward the sea, a long-cherished dream of Mussolini.”

If, like me, you’d never heard of E42 (which, of course, was postponed by World War II), I’d strongly encourage you to read both halves of Molella’s piece, sparked by his recent research in the Italian State Archives (housed in the partial version of EUR that exists to this day). It’s easy for us today to focus on Hitler as the epitome of Fascism and forget that Mussolini and his Fascists had been in power for over a decade before Hitler’s ascent, not only inspiring a wide array of little-f fascist movements across Europe but drawing interest from intellectuals who found liberalism-capitalism and its Marxist-Leninist alternative equally unappealing.

The sense that Fascism was the wave of the future is certainly a key theme of E42 as Molella describes it, but Fascism also looked backwards: its economic philosophy of corporatism meant to revive the pre-capitalist system of the Middle Ages, and (as an Italian movement, at least — other European fascists looked to their own imagined pasts) its nationalism rooted in the revival of Rome rather than a shared Catholic faith or Mazzini’s liberal conception of the nation. For example, E42 was going to include an archeological exhibition originally sponsored by Mussolini’s government in honor of the 2000th birthday of Caesar Augustus (in 1937).

The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana
The most famous example of Fascist architecture in EUR: the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana – Creative Commons (Lafit86)

Molella finds this tension amply evident in the forgotten blueprints of a world’s fair that never happened:

Beneath the surface of E42 was an internal tension between the glories of ancient Rome, which Mussolini famously attempted to recapture, and his modern Fascist revolution, which he claimed would eclipse even the Caesars. The attempt to merge past, present, and future was a core dynamic of E42. Foremost on the Fair’s agenda was the patriotic display of science, technology, and invention. Fascist ideologues believed that Italy’s time had come, that it had a special advantage in its union of art, technology, and science. And, though it had not done much so far in the 20th century (too bad the great atomic physicist Enrico Fermi had gone to America to work on the Manhattan Project) historically speaking , it still had an unbeatable team with the likes of Leonardo, Galileo, and Marconi. According to E42′s planners, the Arch and the Fair would “be of vast proportions…of the highest Technical Italian Art…the grandest conception in the field of Technique and Mechanical Art.”

He explores this tension in greater detail in the second partof the post, where he discusses an obelisk to be dedicated to Marconi and the architectural style known as Fascist rationalism, “a futuristic interpretation of Roman classical architecture.”

EUR Today
EUR today – Wikimedia

One other theme that struck me… While Molella notes that EUR flourishes today (“somehow still ‘fulfilling’ Mussolini’s dream of a futuristic green utopia”), he observes that it was the setting for Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 film Eclipse, “where it is virtually a character in itself, but of an ominous sort. Far from signifying utopia, it serves as a sterile symbol of post-war alienation and anxiety. It is a utopia gone sour.”

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