H-Net Review | Arthurs, Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy

Joshua Arthurs.  Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist
Italy.  Ithaca  Cornell University Press, 2012.  Illustrations. 232
pp.  $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-4998-7.

Reviewed by Eleanor Chiari (University College London)
Published on H-SAE (June, 2013)
Commissioned by Michael B. Munnik

Excavating a Fascist Future: A New Study of the Fascist Idea of

Joshua Arthurs presents an ambitious argument on the tensions between
Rome’s burdensome past and Fascism’s modernist take on the idea of
“_romanità_” (literally: roman-ness)_ _as played out on the Roman
landscape, in classicist institutions and in Fascist exhibitions. The
main argument of the book is that the idea of _romanità _was central
to the political culture of Fascism, that_ romanità_ was a modernist
rather than conservative concept, and that it was also a model for
solving anxieties about modernity. Although the originality of these
claims is sometimes overstressed, _Excavating Modernity _explores the
theme of _romanità_ more comprehensively than has been done before
while elegantly outlining the tensions between ideas of Rome and
their physical as well as symbolic incarnations over time.[1]

Through in-depth micro-historical analyses, Arthurs successfully
describes the ways in which the Fascist idea of _romanità _was
produced from below as the product of complex negotiations between
different social agents working against Rome’s other powerful
symbolic meanings. During Fascism, an idealized Rome was to be
“liberated,” either from the physical presence of centuries of papal
rule embodied in architecture or from the very corruption of its
people. Rome was to be “excavated” to reveal the “new Rome” of the
Fascist future, which, Arthurs shows, had to contend as much with the
“old Rome” still existing in the present as with shifts in the
political present of the regime, most notably, with the Racial Laws
of 1938.

The book is divided into five chapters, which partially follow a
chronological order. Chapter 1 looks at the “pre-history” of the
Fascist idea of Rome. It presents a fascinating description of
nineteenth-century ideas of Rome as a utopian site for projecting
hopes for the new Italian nation as well as a vehicle for expressing
disappointment around the failures of the Risorgimento. In clear and
sophisticated language, Arthurs shows how the Fascists negotiated the
complex dynamics between modernist condemnations of the capital and
its antiquities and the need to connect to visions of the capital as
the moral heart of the nation. Arthurs focuses particularly on the
March on Rome as a key symbolic moment in which Fascism at once
embodied revolutionary usurpation alongside a restoration of the true
Roman spirit. He shows how Benito Mussolini’s march _against_ the
capital but also_ for_ the capital managed at once to contain and to
give voice to the remnants of Risorgimento patriotism, futurist
anti-_passatismo _(a complex concept, roughly summarized as a
rejection of ‘pastism,’ i.e., an excessive dwelling on the past, or
antiquated thinking); elitist modernism; and expansionist

Chapter 2 focuses in depth on the Istituto di Studi Romani (Institute
for Roman Studies) and its work during the 1920s and 1930s. It
discusses the role that the institute played in attempting to create
a coherent Fascist discourse on Rome, both in the academy and in
relation to the public at large. The institute aimed to bring Roman
studies to the forefront of modern Italian culture by encouraging the
use of Latin among schoolchildren, organizing large-scale
exhibitions, and developing bibliographic projects on Rome, and
promoting such activities as creating a colossal photographic archive
of Roman monuments. Arthurs brings examples of the institute’s
conception of an engaged and “virile” scholarship: he describes an
“epigraphic census” of northern Italian gravestones, aimed at showing
that the Po Valley was Roman; the production of a thirty-volume
history of Rome; courses and field trips for the upper bourgeoisie;
and radio transmissions and popular booklets distributed through the
Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (p. 36)_. _One of the institute’s most
challenging tasks consisted of reconciling the Fascist vision of
_romanità _with the history of Roma Sacra_ _(Christian Rome). Rather
than privileging Rome’s ancient history over the history of the
Catholic Church, or arguing for the church’s role as heir to the
ancient empire, the institute focused on establishing the concept of
_romanità_ as central to both ancient and Christian Rome. By
insisting on the link between _romanità _and faith, the institute
satisfied sections of Catholic opinion threatened by Fascism’s
anticlerical and antipapal historical revisionism while still
asserting a clear supremacy of the new regime over its predecessors.

Chapter 3 looks at Fascist archaeological interventions in the 1920s
and 1930s, and considers how the regime used archaeology as a tool
for urban modernization. It highlights the imagined construction of a
“Roma Nuova”_ _(the new Rome designed by Fascism) set against a “Roma
Antica” (Rome of classical antiquity) to be extricated and liberated
from the corrupt clutches of an unsanitary “Roma Vecchia”_ _(from the
fall of the Roman Empire to 1922). The chapter shows how the
transformations of the Roma Nuova were integrated into the cult of
Mussolini, in which the city was shown to bend to the will of the
Duce, who was renewing the soul of the nation alongside its capital.
It convincingly demonstrates how the remains of the Roman past came
to challenge the regime’s desire to build a monumental city and
highlights how much easier it was for the regime to destroy rather
than to build. In its effort at linking the present directly to the
Roman past, the regime presented an anti-temporal and ahistorical
conception of time and history which was played out aggressively in
the surgical “regeneration” of the modern city.

Chapter 4 focuses on the Mostra Augustea della Romanità (Augustan
Exhibition of “Roman-ness”), which celebrated the bi-millennium of
emperor Augustus in 1937, and relates it both to the successful
Fascist Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista (Exhibition of the Fascist
Revolution) of 1932 and to the Mostra Archeologica (archaeological
exhibition) set up during the liberal period in 1911. The chapter
highlights some of the continuities with earlier exhibitions set to
link the Roman present with the past. It discusses the predictable
symbolic links drawn between Augustus and Mussolini and describes the
Fascist efforts at producing a modernist version of Rome’s triumphal
past. Arthurs describes the content of the themes and presentations
of the exhibition as “totalitarian” and notes how the replicas and
reconstructions of Roman objects that visitors were allowed to handle
reflected a modernist curatorial approach (pp. 103-104). Much like in
Marla Stone’s discussion of the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista,_
_Arthurs confronts the ambiguities in the general public’s reception
of the exhibition and the methodological difficulties linked to
assessing visitor numbers and reception given the mandatory group
visits; the visits by military personnel; and the use of _treni
popolari _(popular trains), which encouraged visits to such
exhibitions in exchange for significant train fare discounts.[2]_ _

Chapter 5 focuses on the crisis that shifts in Fascist foreign policy
bring to the idea of _romanità_, particularly relating to racial
questions. It highlights the problems involved in reconciling the
image of a universal, inclusive, and imperial Rome with ideas of
ethnic exclusivism. It also dissects some of the academic debates
relating to Germanic tribes, to relations between Rome and Judea, and
to the problem of _romanità _as a legal rather than biological
concept. As _romanità _comes to be seen as a form of “civilization”
in opposition to the supposedly superior Nazi notion of “_Kultur_,”
it also takes a secondary role in the Fascist propaganda project. The
second part of the chapter focuses on the ambivalent relationship
that the Republic of Salò had with _romanità _and with Rome itself,
and it looks specifically at anti-Allied racist imagery and at the
view of the fall of Fascism as symptomatic of the innate failures of
the Italian race. From this theme of crisis, Arthurs concludes by
focusing on the reassertion of Rome’s Catholic character after the
war and the reemergence of the dominance of the idea of Roma Sacra_
_over the Fascist reimagined Roma Antica. By looking into the careers
of the scholars involved in the Istituto di Studi Romani, Arthurs
argues that most of them turned from Fascism to conservative
Catholicism and that the institute continued its work, shifting its
attention, however, to the importance of Rome during the papal era.
Continuity is also found in museum practices, as the new Museo della
Civiltà Romana, inaugurated in 1952, maintained many of the features
and displays of its Fascist predecessor. The continued presence of
the Fascist intervention on the Roman landscape is also discussed,
particularly the completion of some of the major urban projects begun
during the Fascist era, such as the neighborhood around the EUR
(Esposizione Universale Roma, the 1942 world fair, which never took
place due to Italy’s involvement in the Second World War).

Arthurs ends his work with the claim that “arguably the most enduring
legacy of _romanità _stems from the failure of the Fascist project”
and that “Fascism’s revolutionary attempt to excavate Roman modernity
represents not so much the culmination of this trajectory as its
bankrupting” since classicism after the Second World War came to be
equated with the “excesses of totalitarianism, militarism and
imperialism” (p. 155). A whole new chapter of this book could be
written examining the renewed construction of a glorious idea of
_romanità _by the ultra-right in Silvio Berlusconi’s governments
over the past decade and particularly on the uses of Roman spaces in
state commemorations organized by the current mayor of Rome, Gianni
Alemanno (such as the celebration of the anniversary of the Roman
Republic at the Gianicolo in 2013 or the attempted uses of the
Colosseum in Christmas festivities). Some of the most interesting
sections of _Excavating Modernity_ are those dedicated to the ways in
which the city of Rome resisted the efforts of various regimes to
transform it into the idealized city they wished it to be. Rome as a
symbol of the failures of the Italian state and its political class,
as well as of its very people, remains a theme prevalent today in
both the discourses of the Northern League and of antipolitical
movements, such as Beppe Grillo’s Movimento a Cinque Stelle (Five
Star Movement). A serious study of the continuities in the images and
the rhetoric around Rome’s failures would be an important addition to
Arthurs’s work.

_Excavating Modernity_ is a useful addition to a large academic body
of works focused on Fascism and the Roman past. The book’s main focus
on _romanità_ gives it breadth of analysis and depth of focus,
although Rome itself often takes Arthurs on tangents that are much
more exciting than this primary concern. Although the book is clear
and beautifully written, and covers a wide range of topics, it feels
at times conspicuously like a PhD dissertation converted into a book
(particularly chapters 3 and 4), and it feels constrained by its own
methodological confines. That said, it undoubtedly presents a good
summary of the highly complex and fascinating transformations of the
concept of _romanità _and of shifts and continuities in the social
imaginary of Rome over time, making it both an interesting read and a
good place to direct students wishing to gain a greater understanding
of the construction and invention of the Roman past in Fascist Italy.


[1]. See, for example, Marla Stone, “A Flexible Rome: Fascism and the
Cult of Romanità,” in _Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in
European Culture 1789-1945_, ed. Catherine Edwards (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1999), 205-220; and Flavia Marcello,
“Mussolini and the Idealisation of Empire: The Augustan Exhibition of
Romanità,” _Modern Italy _16, no. 3 (2011): 223-247.

[2]. Marla Stone, “Staging Fascism: The Exhibition of the Fascist
Revolution,” _Journal of Contemporary History_ 28, no. 2 (1993):

Citation: Eleanor Chiari. Review of Arthurs, Joshua, _Excavating
Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy_. H-SAE, H-Net Reviews.
June, 2013.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37077

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

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