Fascism in Florence

Traces of a controversial past

Samantha Vaughn
September 5, 2017 - 14:19

Not long ago, news was abound about a proposed museum of Fascism in Benito Mussolini’s hometown, Predappio, just across the border with Emilia-Romagna. The outcry was immediate, with concerns of Fascist pilgrimage and opponents of dark tourism calling for the plan to be scrapped. Indeed, the museum has yet to get off the ground, but in the midst of the controversy, the greater question has arisen about should we and how do we present Italy’s Fascist past.

 

It’s an understandably touchy subject, and as one friend of mine likes to joke, “there were no Fascists in Italy,” so what is there to remember? His joke refers to story that when Italians were questioned by American troops in the wake of World War II about their ties with Fascism, each one solemnly swore that they were not Fascist and took no part in such activities. Jokes aside, what rings clear is the almost urgent need of Italians to distance themselves from their recent history. So, should we be able to discuss this now, with nearly 80 years of retrospect at our backs?

 

Though controversial Fascism may be, its traces remain, even in Florence, whose Medieval and Renaissance past dominates the city’s landscape. Here is a look at some Florentine monuments and traditions that found their origins in the Fascist era:

 

Stadio Artemio Franchi

 

 

Florence’s famed football stadium is named after the ex-president of both the Italian Football Federation and the Union of European Football Associations, but this has only been its name since the 1990s. When it opened in 1931, the stadium was named after Giovanni Berta, a young Florentine Fascist who was killed in the aftermath of the assassination of Spartaco Lavagnini, a communist activist who was shot by a group of Blackshirts in his office in Via Taddea. The next day, February 28, 1921, Berta was ambushed on Ponte Sospeso by militant communists, who beat and stabbed him before throwing his body into the river to drown.

 

Berta became a Fascist martyr and throughout the Regime, he was remembered with a series of monuments, streets, buildings and even a farming village in Libya named after him. Following the war, his status as a martyr was all but wiped out and his name disappeared from many memorials, Florence’s football stadium included.

 

Sewer Covers

 

 

Speaking of Berta, there are still some places in Florence where his name has not been erased. Berta’s father was the owner of the Fonderia delle Cure, who produced, among other things, many of the sewer covers throughout Florence and Rome. After his son’s death, the elder Berta had his logo changed to say “Fonderia delle Cure – Giovanni Berta”. Still today, these covers can be found around the city, like this one in Borgo Santi Apostoli:

 

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Calcio Storico

 

Ph. Rachael Harper

 

Two of Florence’s most popular annual events, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Calcio Storico, can be traced back to the early 1930s, when Fascism was in full swing. Of course, the Calcio Storicio has much older roots, but after falling out of fashion in the mid-1700s, the sporting event was revived under Fascist rule. The man behind bringing both to prominence is Alessandro Pavolini, a decidedly unpleasant member of the Fascist party, known for his cruelty towards anyone who opposed Mussolini and for being killed and hanged upside down next to Il Duce.

 

During his time as the leader of Florence’s branch of the National Fascist Party, he aimed to present Fascism as every bit as cultural in mission as political. Pavolini encouraged the creation of sporting, cultural and touristic events that the community could center their lives around. To this end, he officially revived the Calcio Storico, its first modern-day match being played in May 1930, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Siege of Florence, which saw the famous Florentine family, the Medici, retake power from the Florentine Republic. Similarly, Pavolini oversaw the establishment of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Italy’s first and most prominent music festival. The festival was established by the politician and businessman Luigi Ridolfi Vay da Verrazzano and the conductor Vittorio Gui as part of their desire to stage operas by famed Italian composers as well as contemporary operas, both of which fell in line with Pavolini’s policies of improving cultural offerings in Florence.

 

While these two events have long outlived their political foundations, they stand as examples of Fascist policies regarding the promotion of cultural initiatives, when Italian identity and community life meant everything.

 

Famedio di Santa Croce

 

Ph. Archivio dell'Opera di Santa Croce (Foto Zepstudio)

 

This basement space in the Basilica of Santa Croce has had a fairly normal history from the time it was built in the late 13th century, housing tombs and acting as a meeting space for the various confraternities that came together over the centuries. By the 20th century, the space was more or less unused, having been hit hard by Grand Duke of Tuscany Peter Leopold’s suppression of religious societies and the 1844 flood, ultimately becoming a simple storage space. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the space would be opened again. The ruling Fascists wanted to create within the basement a war memorial commemorating the fallen of World War I. Simultaneously, they decided, the space could be used to create a national pantheon, legitimizing Fascism through the use of a space that was already known worldwide as the Temple of the Italian Glories.

 

Thirty-seven arches were installed to hold the remains of those who had died for their support of Fascist ideals and the walls were adorned with the word “Presente! (Present), intended as the deceased’s response to the roll call that had been, for some time, a Fascist practice.

 

The inauguration took place on October 27, 1934, on the 12th anniversary of the March on Rome. Changes were added over the years and in anticipation of Hitler’s visit to Florence in 1938, two more memorials were added to honour soldiers who had fallen in the name of the Empire (in Africa) and the legionnaires who fought in Spain.

 

The Famedio was transformed after the end of Fascism, though its inscriptions honouring the WWI dead and the original 1930s structure and décor still remain.

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