Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Foro Italico, Roma - its fascist history

The venue for the recent World Swimming Championships, the Foro Italico has a fascinating history. The following article published on Deutsche Welle, tells the story.

" 27.07.2009
Diving with the Duce

The World Championships for swimming, diving and other water sports have transformed Rome into Waterworld. The ancient city's major sports venue is sparkling after an extensive upgrade.

The Foro Italico is lauded as a masterpiece of 1930s architecture. However, the sports venue generates mixed feelings among Italians. The Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, was the visionary behind the art and architecture.

Athletes and spectators entering the venue of this year's swimming World Championships walk right by Italy's dark past. Poking into the sky is a restored, blindingly white marble monument that rises to a gold point.

The Fascist dictator wanted to create a forum that would surpass those of Caesar and Augustus.

"This is the obelisk, Mussolini's obelisk," said Context Travel docent Sarah Morgan with a nervous laugh, knowing she's stating the obvious. "Mussolini Dux," or Mussolini Leader, is carved into the marble in gigantic letters.

"They haven't made any attempt to erase his name," said the fascist era scholar.

Mussolini's Forum

The obelisk fronts the sprawling sporting center built mostly in the 1930s. Originally called Foro Mussolini, or Mussolini's Forum, the center was renamed Foro Italico after the regime's fall.

Il Duce wanted to create a forum that would surpass those of Caesar and Augustus. He enlisted the help of the architect Enrico Del Debbio, who used the same building materials as the ancient Romans. The marble came from Carrara, a Tuscan town famous for providing the pristine marble in many of the eternal city's monuments. The Roman Empire influenced nearly every aspect of Mussolini's forum.

"It was really the era that they could hark back to show Rome's greatness and also when Rome had this empire," said Morgan, who wrote her doctoral thesis on gender and sport in fascist Italy.

She said Mussolini tapped into the symbolism to create national pride among modern Italians. But he also wanted to use history for "justifying what they were doing."

Spelling it out

A stark, rectangular piazza stretches from Mussolini's obelisk to the stadium. The fascist leader took advantage of this space to spread his message through black and white mosaics. Louder than any fan, the artwork screams that sports and fascism are linked.

"Duce, Duce, Duce" is spelled out along the piazza's edge. Also written is "Molti Nemici, Molto Onore," which translates into "Many Enemies, Much Honor."

Alongside the propaganda, the mosaics show athletes in action. A muscular man hurls the discus. Swimmers churn through the water. An ice hockey player shoots at the goal. Nearly all are male and they're competing in Mussolini-approved sports. Cycling, for instance, isn't depicted. Why? Il Duce considered it a communist sport. The fascists ran their own sports leagues and banned all others.

"The Fascists wanted to use sport to make Italians fitter," Morgan said. Athletics were a pillar in the party's platform that projected "an image of a stronger, more virile Italy, as well as preparing them for war."

The piazza was inaugurated in 1937 to celebrate the conquest of Ethiopia, Il Duce's first - and only - colony in his attempt to create a new Roman Empire. Morgan points to the mosaics that she considers the most revealing: 20th century tanks, airplanes and soldiers decorate a mosaic done in an ancient Roman style. The past and the present meet with a message written in the mosaics.

"It's saying, 'Finally, Italy has its empire,'" Morgan said.

Fascism falls, Foro stands

In Rome's Stadio dei Marmi, Italians sing the national anthem during the swimming championships' opening ceremonies. The Allies liberated Rome in 1944, yet the city was left with this reminder. The track is rimmed with 60 white marble statues of sportsmen, from boxers to basketball players. They look like Roman or Greek gods with the buffed bodies of gladiators. All are naked, a little odd for the statue depicting a skier.

Different artists created the sculptures, each of which represents an Italian province. Sports fans usually have a favorite.

The Fascist era stadium only features athletes Mussolini approved of .

"It's Hercules at the entrance, the symbol of Rome," said Valerio Raschiatore. "It's the most handsome of all," the Roman added, chuckling. It's an unconventional choice. His statue sits apart from the other 60.

During the Fascist regime, young men about Raschiatore's age attended the attached Fascist Party-run physical education academy. They marched on this field for visiting dignitaries, including Hitler. It's a history that the city may want to hide but can't.

"Rome and its people are linked more than other Italians to fascism because the city was its power center," Raschiatore said. He says this stadium is beautiful but it isn't a place that Romans are proud of. Fascism colored it.

"The regime is looked at on one hand for the positive things accomplished but above all for its negatives," Raschiatore said.

Dive with the Duce

Foro Italico's 50-meter indoor pool is awash with fascist art and architecture, even though it was completed decades after the dictator's execution in 1945.

The neoclassical wonder was built in preparation for the 1960 Olympics, using designs created during the years of fascism and by the same architect. During the World Championships, swimmers warm up in this pool, which resembles an ancient Roman bath. Mosaics of seahorses and lobsters cover the deck and the walls explode with blue prancing horses and tanned runners.

Retired Italian swimmer Novella Calligaris trained in the pool en route to Olympic medals at the 1972 Olympics. This Fascist facility leaves her conflicted.

"I don't justify the period – I want to be very clear about that," Calligaris said. "But I think for the history and the art, it is a very good example."

Novella Calligaris is now a painter with a keen understanding of art. Yet she was a teenager when she was churning up and down the pool and far more interested in swimming fast than taking a museum tour. She adds that the pool wasn't well suited for her discipline.

"It's very dark. It's very deep," Calligaris said. "We used to say it's like a tomb."

She admits that the shimmering mosaics didn't color her workouts. "When you swim, your head is in the water and you can't look around."

Mussolini put particular emphasis on the sport of swimming. But much to his dismay, Italians didn't take the plunge. It's still not a nation of swimmers. Some scholars say Italians remain wary of the sport because of its ties to fascism.

Mussolini considered himself a swimmer, even though he wasn't particularly talented. A barrel-chested, short man, he put in his laps in his own column-lined pool at Foro Italico, which was recently opened for a rare tour. The brutal dictator swam near whimsical mosaics of dancing bears and walruses.

"Fortunately, it's now a swimming school for kids," said Piero Mei of the World Championships' organizing committee. "The world has changed, thank God."

The pool won't be used during the championships. Mei says for years this pool and the other facilities were neglected and threatened with destruction due to their symbolism of Mussolini's Fascist regime.

"Then the Foro Italico was rediscovered apart from its ideology, the beauty of its architecture and its modernity, apart from the era in which it was constructed," Mei said. "There's no other sporting complex in the world like Foro Italico."

Former swimmer Novella Calligaris says 70 years is enough time for Rome to separate the Foro Italico from its dark history. The Eternal City has done it before with the Colosseum.

Right: Mussolini's private swimming pool inside Foro Italico

"Inside the Colosseum, the Romans gave Christians to the lions," Calligaris said. "But we'd never cover up the Colosseum."

The World Swimming Championships won't wash away Foro Italico's history but may provide some new, positive memories for this sporting and art wonder.

Author: Nancy Greenleese in Rome (hs)

Editor: Rob Turner


Anonymous said...

Hi Sally:
I was in Roma last month and just published some pics of the promo they did for the WSC on a new blog i have just started:

It is dedicated to all things Aquatic.

I found your excellent Swimming Blog a while back and have added it on mine as a great link. Interesting background to that stadium. You have done some terrific reporting on swimming, i am interested in the cultural / anthropological significance of swimming / keep up your great work !!! ciao Aquatico

John of Las Vegas Pool said...

I never had known the history of Rome and especially in relation to swimming. Well, you really put it all up here! Thumbs up! By the way, Rome is one of my top list which I want to visit and of course test my swimming skills.

Meng Woo said...

Hi Sally,
I just came across your blog by accident and it is fab. I am attempting to paint some beachscapes and rock pools etc. Have a look at my blog: I hope you don't mind if I link to your blog and if you like my art, I'd love it if you link to my site.

Kevin said...

Hello Sally,

Thanks for this, it has really helped with an essay that I'm writing, which I think you may be interested in. Well not in my essay (about Fascist aesthetics), but one I have read by Richard Dyer called The White Man's Muscles. It goes into some depth about the Fascism and it's adolation of the male physique, something that is embodied in the statues surrounding the Foro Italico.

Anyway, thought it be of interest to you, it's worth a read, I don't think it'll be that hard to find and if you're interested in Italian culture, it'll be a good read.


Kevin said...

This is a fantastic site and I love the pictures of swimming pools from all over the world.

Pools Expert said...

Wow! Great information and history about Rome and swimming pools. Never new that before but you have just enlight me on the subject. Although I have never reach a competition level on swimming but hope to encourage my kids to get to that level.

jgc said...

Just discovered your blog, Sally. From one hydrophile to another, thanks for this resource. Great stuff.

Ledgewater Pools said...

So pretty! Pool looks amazing and the history sounds so interesting!

- Jess

Hels said...

I was writing about the Australian Olympic pool, built for the Games (1956) immediately preceding Rome (1960). The outcome was different but the desire to excel was exactly the same.

I cannot believe my luck, finding your blog. Thank you so much for the link