The so-called Plastico di Roma is one of Rome’s great attractions. The extraordinary detailed plaster reconstruction of fourth-century Rome monopolizes the image of the imperial city for scholars and visitors alike. Archaeology played an important but small part in the making of the model. The majority of buildings consist of volumetric modules, invented by the “architect” Italo Gismondi and his team, to mask and replace the missing architectural evidence. Victor Plahte Tschudi traces the impact of Gismondi’s invented antiques in Plaster Empires: Italo Gismondi’s Model of Rome. Completed in 1937, in time for the fascist exhibition (the Mostra Augustea), the model gave Fascist modernism a seeming imperial origin. It also legitimized, even inspired, the regime’s town planning policy and brutal overhaul to redeem Rome’s ancient monuments. Reconsidering the history and ideology of the model is crucial as Gismondi’s eighty-year-old inventions of the city reappear today in cutting-edge virtual reconstruction projects.

As virtual 3-D reconstructions of ancient Rome become increasingly refined, Rome’s great plaster model of the ancient city, begun in the 1930s, is about to become an antiquity. The so-called Plastico di Roma, displayed at the Museo della Civilità Romana (Museum of Roman civilization) in the EUR district, reconstructs the imperial city as it supposedly looked in the fourth century CE, on the impressive scale of 1:250. A combination of wood and clay, reinforced by metal, recreates the topography of plains and sloping hills, dotted with trees and intersected by the winding Tiber. But covering almost the entire undulating base is the city itself, gigantic even on its toy scale, differentiated in hundreds of plaster buildings. Not a single edifice within the ancient walls seems to be missing: famous monuments are articulated with columns, statues, and gilded parts, while other buildings are less elaborate, meant to produce the effect of a general urban fabric.1

The model draws no huge crowds, and somehow it does not need to, as the architectural reconstruction is reproduced in posters and books on sale at almost every news stand and souvenir shop in the city (Figure 1). Commercially at least, the model continues to monopolize the image of Rome’s imperial past. The series of miniature monuments, however, are much more than souvenir props. They are based on superior archaeological knowledge and executed with meticulous skill, offering instructive examples for students of antiquity and urban history. But looking at the model today a double historical panorama opens up. The miniature metropolis manifests the Roman past, certainly, but also the more recent past—the one reproducing the metropolis in plaster. Nearly eighty years on, the model reflects less the archaeology of Constantine’s Rome than the ideology of Benito Mussolini’s Italy. The aesthetic, archaeological, and political implications of the model’s mixed message are significant; the model continues to propagate the past, but in guises that are far from ancient. It is surprising, therefore, that this article offers the first analysis of the model’s architectural and political significance since the 1930s.

Figure 1

Poster reproducing Italo Gismondi’s plaster model of ancient Rome (author’s photo)

Figure 1

Poster reproducing Italo Gismondi’s plaster model of ancient Rome (author’s photo)

A History of Rome Models

The plaster city is constructed on a base of 142 interconnected frames of wood and metal, and covers a staggering 2,000 square feet. The model remains the biggest and most archaeologically accurate reconstruction of the ancient city to date. But it is by no means the first one. The history of Rome models starts in the late nineteenth century, although distant ancestors include Suetonius’s description of the dwarf cities surrounding the artificial lake in Nero’s Golden House in Rome and Pirro Ligorio’s sixteenth-century miniature Rome in the guise of a fountain in the celebrated Villa d’Este in Tivoli. A modern history began with Rodolfo Lanciani’s survey of ancient Rome, the Forma Urbis Romae, published between 1893 and 1901, and showing the dimensions and positions of the principal antique sites with an unprecedented archaeological accuracy.2 In 1906 Giuseppe Marcelliani completed the first three-dimensional model inspired by Lanciani, which was for some time displayed next to the entrance to the Forum Romanum.3 Marcelliani was a trained sculptor and furnished his imperial Rome with more than 200 individually executed terracotta monuments (Figure 2). This decorative model was thought lost until 1988, when Antonio Di Tanna, curator at the Museo della Civilità Romana, found it dismantled and stored in a communal warehouse about to be converted into a kindergarten. Transferred to the museum, the century-old miniature buildings currently lie helter-skelter on open shelves in the museum’s damp cellar.4

Figure 2

Giuseppe Marcelliani, photograph of terracotta model of ancient Rome, 1905–6, Museo della Civilità Romana, Rome (reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

Figure 2

Giuseppe Marcelliani, photograph of terracotta model of ancient Rome, 1905–6, Museo della Civilità Romana, Rome (reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

A much larger and more accurate realization of the ancient city appeared with the French Paul Bigot’s plaster model executed on a 1:400 scale and covering more than 750 square feet. It was commissioned for the archaeological exhibition in 1911, curated by Lanciani and staged in the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Italy’s unification.5 The transformation of the ancient baths into an exhibition hall in which the same baths in miniature were displayed, was one of the exhibition’s many intriguing architectural plots. Bigot’s model was re-exhibited in Paris in 1913 and installed in the Institute of Art and Archaeology at the Paris Sorbonne, where it was damaged during World War II and eventually lost. Several copies were also produced, including a replica executed in bronze in 1932 by the famous jeweler Christofle, and two versions made for the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris; one ended up at the University of Caen and the other at the Cinqantenaire Museum in Brussels where they still are on display. A copy was also exhibited at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art) until it was dismantled in the 1950s.6 Ancient Rome had become French and Belgian—even American—but not yet Roman.

The third model, which is the subject of this article, has a long history on its own. In 1932 Giulio Quirino Giglioli, an archaeologist and a Fascist deputy, presented to Mussolini the plans for an exhibition in Rome’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni to celebrate the bimillenary of Augustus, which at that time lay five years ahead. The pièce de résistance would be a model of Rome that was going to surpass both Marcelliani’s and Bigot’s versions, and re-appropriate Rome for Rome: it would reconstitute an image of the first imperial age as a new one was about to dawn. The man in charge of making the model, Italo Gismondi, combined what seemed to be two contradictory roles: archaeologist and architect. But this double expertise, resulting on one hand from surveying and drafting excavation sites in Ostia and on the other from designing (largely unbuilt) houses in a neo-Renaissance style, made him the ideal maker for the “new” ancient Rome.

By 1933 the construction of the model was well underway, headed by plaster caster Pierino Di Carlo and several assistants.7 The team occupied a studio in a former bakery in the Palazzo Pantanella, south of the Palatine hill, and work progressed rapidly. By May 1934 central areas had been built and in 1937 the entire city center was complete. The panorama unfolded in a slight semi-oval fashion, from Domitian’s stadium (Piazza Navona) in the east to the Aventine hill in the west, with some heights increased by up to 20 per cent in relation to the real topography so as to allow a better view of the carefully molded buildings. The model was then transported to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in time for the opening of the Mostra Augustea on 23 September (Figure 3). More than one million visitors came to see the model, along with the other exhibits, and its triumph was secured. When the doors closed in November 1938, the plaster urbs was brought back to Palazzo Pantanella, where Gismondi and Di Carlo continued to revise and enlarge it in preparation for its permanent display. Work was temporarily interrupted by World War II, but it resumed in 1946–47, and by April 1952 the model covered nearly 950 square feet.8 In 1955, when the Museo della Civilità Romana in EUR opened to the public, the plaster city occupied an entire room and reached almost all the way along the ancient Aurelian walls (Figure 4).9 Throughout the 1960s Gismondi and Di Carlo created new sections and revised old quarters, and until quite recently the plan was to add Rome’s 14th region, today known as Trastevere, which still remains “un-rebuilt.”

Figure 3

Gismondi, model of ancient Rome displayed at the Mostra Augustea, 1937–38. (from Mostra Augustea della Romanità, exh. cat., 4th ed. (Rome: C. Colombo, 1938), pls. 128, 129)

Figure 3

Gismondi, model of ancient Rome displayed at the Mostra Augustea, 1937–38. (from Mostra Augustea della Romanità, exh. cat., 4th ed. (Rome: C. Colombo, 1938), pls. 128, 129)

Figure 4

Gismondi, model of ancient Rome (Museo della Civilità Romana, Rome, author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

Figure 4

Gismondi, model of ancient Rome (Museo della Civilità Romana, Rome, author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

The model’s gradual growth over the years outlines an urban development paralleling, and—at some points even prefiguring—the growth of real Rome. The correspondence between the model and the intense rebuilding and expansion of the city under Mussolini is a significant and virtually ignored episode in existing literature on Fascist architecture. At a closer look it becomes obvious that the model reconstructs less ancient Rome than it creates a Fascist city all’antica. This essay argues that the model propagated and reinforced an official architecture by inventing its ancient pedigree. Antiquity itself, it seemed, sanctioned an architectural style and urban planning strategies that in reality were radically modern, even controversial.

A key to understand the model’s importance, and the politics shaping it, is the Mostra Augustea for which the model was produced. When the exhibition opened on Augustus’s birthday, the chief curator Giglioli proudly announced to Il Duce that the exhibition had been made with the “greatest scientific rigor and Fascist ardor.”10 As visitors proceeded from the specially designed entrance façade, in the form of an austere-looking triumphal arch, to rooms dedicated to themes such as the “Immortality of the idea of Rome,” and “The rebirth of the empire in Fascist Italy,” no one could doubt the exhibition’s true content: what in reality was on display was the culmination of the Roman imperial idea with Il Duce, who, as Giglioli put it at the opening, had come along to resurrect the empire itself.11

The exhibition’s obvious agenda was to celebrate not the imperial past, but its continuation in Fascist rule. Antiquity was summoned to evoke Eternal Rome rather than an historical epoch. Consequently, the recreation—not the transposition—of ancient artifacts was as important as it was impressive: three thousand casts and two hundred newly made plaster models were displayed, but not a single original ancient item, which raises one simple question: why did one produce, in the midst of the ancient capital, an exhibition entirely of copies? Imperial Rome was, of course, the source of inspiration for all modern empires, but in particular for the emerging totalitarian regimes in the 1930s, which used the myth of Rome actively in the construction of their ideologies, as Emilio Gentile pointed out.12 One could not build a Fascist Italy or a Nazi Germany with Roman originals. The display of real antiques would simply convey the imperial idea as aged and deteriorated, not as contemporary and whole. But on entering this exhibition—as indeed Adolf Hitler did in May 1938—gleaming reconstructions signaled not relics, but prototypes, inviting duplication, relocation, and enlargement of the casts into full-scale buildings. That explains why the various model makers were entitled architetti, as if the models were future projects, and also why a mostra of copies was the whole point. The 1930s idealization of technology and progress placed even the past on the production line, as it were, and the exhibition presented an industrialized and reproducible version of antiquity.13 The curators displayed the plaster monuments in an arrangement that was neither geographical nor chronological, but typological, so that similar buildings could be compared and possibly selected (Figure 5). Gismondi’s reconstructed city surpassed these other exhibits, but shared in this reinvention of functionalist antiques to present a jubilant crescendo aimed at convincing the public that the Fascist urban expansion may be traced back as far as ancient Rome.

Figure 5

Plaster casts of Roman monuments displayed at the Mostra Augustea, 1937–38 (from Mostra Augustea della Romanità, exh. cat., 4th ed. (Rome: C. Colombo, 1938), pl. 76)

Figure 5

Plaster casts of Roman monuments displayed at the Mostra Augustea, 1937–38 (from Mostra Augustea della Romanità, exh. cat., 4th ed. (Rome: C. Colombo, 1938), pl. 76)

Inventing the Ancient City

The archaeological alibi that had served Marcelliani and Bigot also served Gismondi—namely Rodolfo Lanciani’s Forma Urbis Romae. The ultimate source was the so-called Severan marble plan of Rome, executed in the third century CE and rediscovered in the sixteenth century. But in reality such surveys were of limited use to Gismondi because the buildings that they showed in plan, Gismondi would have to erect in three dimensions, and the hundreds of ordinary houses they excluded, he would have to invent from scratch.14 A crucial point is that most of the ancient capital had to be re-imagined on almost no evidence. The lacunae in archaeology persuaded Gismondi to invent “infill” buildings—indeed, entire quarters—to create the impression of a metropolis, not merely of a reconstructed archaeological park. In order to mass-produce faux-antique houses, Gismondi crossed the threshold from archaeologist to architect and established a method to generate architecture without actually articulating real sites. Two basic types lay at the origin of this studio-made architectural evolution: the insula and the domus. From each of these two Roman types he generated a catalog of subtypes, clinically named A, B and C, which together made up a repertory of six basic forms. These again were individually articulated and differentiated to produce the effect of a varied urban fabric.15

Culture was a laboratory, according to Jeffrey T. Schnapp’s view of Fascism—testing and producing artifacts for an ideal, future society.16 This utopianism, then, also embraced the past. With almost scientific precision Gismondi furnished Constantine’s Rome not only with appearances the city had lost, but with forms that the city never possessed. The team of model makers went beyond the limits of archaeology the moment they turned from reconstructing known buildings to constructing unknown ones. In the ex-bakery, now turned factory, an entire workforce toiled to standardize and multiply new housing units for ancient Rome. Whereas Bigot had distributed façade decoration evenly across the model’s assembly of buildings, Gismondi discriminated between buildings with no past, so to speak, which he made stand out as mere structural components, and buildings that he decorated based on actual evidence. In fact, these two different approaches to architectural “unknowns” may be seen to mark a transition from a historicist model of ancient Rome to a modernist one.17 The grid generated by Gismondi and his team turned individual properties and city blocks alike into abstract architectural patterns (Figures 6, 7).

Figure 6

Gismondi, model of ancient Rome, detail of a city quarter (author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

Figure 6

Gismondi, model of ancient Rome, detail of a city quarter (author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

Figure 7

Gismondi’s model of ancient Rome, detail of housing (author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

Figure 7

Gismondi’s model of ancient Rome, detail of housing (author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

The invented modules drastically reformulated the past on terms that invite analysis and reconsideration. Where on the timeline do these modules place Roman antiquity? What legitimacy does the model have, if any, when most buildings represented are neither ancient, nor even documented, but originated in Gismondi’s workshop? And it was not only on the drawing board that ancient Rome was invented, but also in the casting of models: usually, the plaster maker in charge, Pierino di Carlo, translated conscientiously Gismondi’s architectural drawings into three dimensional models, but he admitted that before the opening of the Mostra Augustea, and “from my own imagination, I created some houses on the Aventine.” The principal monuments were correct, he added, but “in the other parts, there is a bit of fantasy.”18

In other words, large areas of the Gismondi/Di Carlo model consist of unspecified volumes meant to represent houses in general without embodying any one in particular. They are not fakes, as we cannot point to any originals, nor are they reconstructions, as there are no remains. In the reception and restitution of the antique they fall into a limbo, but as building blocks they create the effect of urban density that may be broken down into particulars. These simple shapes sanction an aesthetic of volumes, a supra-historical fulfillment of form, which as we shall see is anything but ancient.

The model’s pseudo-antiques are actually and interestingly defined in the catalog to the Mostra Augustea, printed in four editions in 1937–38, and in the end amounting to more than 900 written pages and 160 photographic illustrations.19 The catalog served as the official explanation of the exhibits. The text on the Rome model, probably written by the archaeologist Antonio Maria Colini, identifies first the model’s conventional reconstruction of remains and then, intriguingly, the unorthodox construction of non-remains: “The reconstruction of the majority of monuments, and of many parts of the city, is based on known facts that can be confirmed with much certainty. For other monuments, and other parts, of which our knowledge is more scant, one has supplemented the evidence with elements of other monuments, but, by tracing them as large masses without particulars, these parts are held distinct.”20 The short text does no less than to coin an aesthetic of architectural absence with the definition of “large masses without particulars.” The formulation presents itself as an axiom to pin down the Fascist vision not only of past Rome, but also of Rome as it was about to be built. It is nothing short of extraordinary that seventy-five years on, in a surprisingly uncritical history, Gismondi’s method of invention is neither discussed nor questioned, but quietly acknowledged. Analyzing the technical execution of the model, the former director of the Museo della Civilità Romana, Giuseppina Pisani Sartorio, simply repeats the 1937 catalog as she points out that Gismondi chose to “draw the volumes in the form of big masses without going into details or particulars.”21 Likewise, the archaeologist Carioli Fulvio Giulaini saw in the model’s invented quarters a “continuum of the urban fabric of Rome,” distinguishing between Gismondi’s carefully detailed monuments and those that are “only volumes.”22 Both Sartorio and Giuliani, in short, adopt the term “volume” and speak of buildings “without details,” and by so doing ratify Gismondi’s faceless types as vehicles of a lost historical content. Obviously, they are unconcerned that this architectural ideal is as much historically conditioned as the classically articulated temples and theatres. Gismondi’s simplified, geometric forms respond above all to early twentieth-century modernism and in particular to the architectural ideal of the Fascist regime.

Modernism Unearthed

Alfredo Scalpelli’s specially designed entrance façade to the Mostra Augustea exhibition recreates not only a triumphal arch for the Fascist era but, to paraphrase the catalog description of Gismondi’s ruin-less reconstructions— “a large mass without particulars” (Figure 8). It does not resemble the arches on the Forum Romanum with all their fuzzy carvings, but rather an arch as a type, stripped down to its structural core. Antiquity reinterpreted as essence and volume is the axiom in the Fascist regime’s building program: this is, for example, formulated by Marcello Piacentini, the regime’s favored architect, in his description of the new classicism as a return to “the framework of the ancients and not to their appearances, to their thoughts, to their ideas, not to their vocabulary.”23 The model’s most significant contribution, then, was not to make invented quarters look modern, but to make modern housing seem ancient. It projects exemplary and pure forms onto the past with the consequence of synchronizing antiquity itself with ongoing urban projects.

Figure 8

Alfredo Scalpelli, temporary façade on Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, 1937, erected for the Mostra Augustea (from Mostra Augustea della Romanità, exh. cat., 4th ed. (Rome: C. Colombo, 1938), pl. 1

Figure 8

Alfredo Scalpelli, temporary façade on Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, 1937, erected for the Mostra Augustea (from Mostra Augustea della Romanità, exh. cat., 4th ed. (Rome: C. Colombo, 1938), pl. 1

Gismondi based his fabricated antiques on the conviction that simple forms are more honest than articulated ones: stripped-down surfaces expose a “true” architecture, common to all periods, free of “fictions and masquerading” as Piacentini put it. In retrospect, however, this ideal is not conditioned by antiquity at all, but by modernism, grounding the miniatures in the functionalist movement of the first decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, the miniatures are more at odds with actual antiques than even the most ornate Renaissance reconstruction. But fundamental to the “new” ancient Rome of the 1930s was an urge to convey not time, but timelessness—to articulate a city relieved of its historical camouflage. Gismondi’s modernist antiques seem to lift out from behind history’s changing styles and décor the essential, pure forms of architecture. In Gismondi’s monumental, abstracted classicism, Fascist Rome already seems to reside within the ancient imperial city.

This backdating of modernism was entertained broadly in these years. For example, the impression that the architect Giuseppe Pagano gathered during a visit to Pompeii was not one of ancient remains but of housing that seemed to have been left unfinished by Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe; Pagano published this impression in a 1931 article with the title “Modern Architecture Twenty Centuries Ago.”24 Endorsement for a functionalist past came even from scholars on antiquity who were associated with the Fascist-friendly Istituto di Studi Romani, and who readily confirmed the “Roman” character of state projects.25

The Plastico di Roma represents the flipside of Mussolini’s recurring but historically confused aim to create a “new imperial Rome” and a “monumental Rome of the twentieth century.”26 In a speech delivered on the Capitol on 21 April 1924, the Fascist leader declared that “Rome cannot, must not, be a modern city in the banal sense of the word; it must be a city that is worthy of its glory.”27 The invented quarters on the plaster model, masquerading as antiques, no doubt endorsed Mussolini’s urban projects: simultaneous to the making of miniature Rome, new Fascist towns popped up in the marshland south of the capital: Littoria was inaugurated in 1932, Sabaudia in 1934, Pontinia and Guidonia in 1935, Aprilia in 1936 and Pomezia in 1938. Of course, these shiny, highly regularized cities were not designed to look ancient, and neither did they have to, as Gismondi’s Constantinian Rome predated their functionalist look by nearly 1700 years.

Above all, Gismondi’s reconstruction mirrors the full-scale model city conceived for the Universal Exposition scheduled for 1942. On an area just south of Rome, work began to make E42, today known as EUR, outshine other nations’ pavilions with a permanent “new Rome” in a spectacle the organizers promised would be an “Olympiad of civilizations.” The planned EUR put the city itself on exhibition, aiming to demonstrate to the world the “full maturity of the political, social, economic and artistic structure” of Italy under Fascist rule.28 Rejecting the streamlined Italian Rationalism that for some time had been a dominant style, EUR’s neo-imperial monumentality, championed by Marcello Piacentini, expressed a “return to the essentials of classicism.”29 Although this urban showpiece was only partly realized, halted by World War II and the fall of the regime, one of the structures actually built according to plan was the museum that came to house Gismondi’s metropolis—a city model within a model city. Past and future utopias thus unite and interlock, and codify on different scales the return to “clear, large, functional compositions.”30 It is appropriate somehow that a reconstruction of an empire that was lost stands at the nucleus of one that was never built.

Indeed, Gismondi offered a master plan of the past, reflecting and endorsing Mussolini’s master plan for new Rome, the Piano Regolatore, approved in July 1931 and passed the following year. Mussolini’s plan, of which he considered himself the spiritual father, announced drastic interventions and formulated ambitiously, although vaguely, the objective to manifest “the parallelism between the deeds of the regime and its classical precedent.”31 But a “classical precedent” to Mussolini’s urban restructuring would itself have to be found, perhaps even fabricated. Whether by chance or by design, only within months of the ratification of the plan, Mussolini was presented with the idea of Gismondi’s model. The prospect of the reconstruction may have appealed to Il Duce as an authentication of his new “eternal” Rome, projecting the plan’s two principal features—the “ordering of the city and the creation of new zones”—onto antiquity.32 Rather than a vision of ancient Rome, the model propagates a vision of Rome as immutable—a Rome that would require the demolition of ruins to promote a pristine classicism that in reality was modern.

Gismondi’s vast tracks of nondescript housing established an alibi in antiquity for the regime’s translocation of Rome’s population from the center to brand-new housing areas outside the city walls. The years from 1931 saw the “forced exodus” of almost 150,000 inhabitants to rapidly and often badly built apartment blocks in new suburbs and borgate with names like Gordiani, Trullo, Tufello, and Primavalle.33 Mussolini’s idea behind the depopulation and demolition of picturesque Rome was to free, salvage, and reconnect the ancient monuments in imitation of Gismondi’s gleamingly united miniature city.

But the model did more than to reconstruct the center, as it equally invented the periphery, or more precisely, it anchored the construction of the new borgate, and its typology of housing, in antiquity. Rome’s rapidly expanding outskirts—per definition without ancestry—finds unexpected support in the miniature cubic forms and their “historicizing” of no-man’s land at the city borders. Gismondi’s housing grid never advances beyond the ancient Aurelian walls, a move the 1930s city planners by contrast were forced to make, but the model gives the idea and style of urban sprawl a fake history that goes back to the first Christian emperor. To the regime’s convenience, the imperial past itself seemed to sanction the brutal demographic shift.

The model’s powerful combination of reconstruction and visionary functionalism secured its influence, and connected on many points to the architectural discourse in Italy in the 1930s. Gismondi’s strangely abstracted types codified a stark simplicity that sharply contrasted with the archaeological classicism dominating the 1920s, such as in Adolfo Coppedè’s richly decorated neo-imperial fantasies and in the early projects of Alessandro Limongelli, Enrico Del Debbio, and Marcello Piacentini.34 Early Fascist architecture equally included elements of neo-baroque, Rationalism, and flowery Art Nouveau in a program that was anything but homogenous.35 Scholars have tended to (over-) emphasize a shift in architectural style from Rationalism to a neo-Roman monumentality after Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 and Mussolini’s proclamation of the new empire.36 But as Diane Ghirardo importantly points out, the various co-existing factions all evoked—or thought they did—the classical past, including the Rationalists.37 The organizers of the MIAR exhibition in Rome in 1928 (Movimento Italiano per l’Architettura Razionale) trumpeted the idea of Romanità —Romanness—and the leading architect, and member of the Rationalist Gruppo Sette, Carlo Enrico Rava, sought identification with the spirit of the Latin past.38 Of course, on the level of spirit, the classically eternal and fashionably purist easily coincided. Specifically related to Gismondi’s production of houses was the Gruppo Sette’s call to reduce the variety of building forms to a number that equaled the four or five basic types that they identified in imperial Rome: “No one seems to remember,” concludes the group’s manifesto published in 1926, that “Rome [was] constructed in series.”39 This insistence on a distinct typology combined with the movement’s interest in everyday, non-monumental housing provide the recipe for Gismondi’s model making, labeling his archaeological tour-de-force somewhat paradoxically as Rationalist.40

Gismondi’s model, then, materialized that elusive inner quality in ancient architecture that the progressive avant-garde seemed to glimpse, partaking, as it were, in a supra-historical exchange of architectural invisibles. The model’s more obvious role, perhaps, was to pave way for the architectural “grandeur and monumentality” that scholars such as Giorgio Ciucci and Emilio Gentile see as the late 1930s affirmation of a Roman imperial rhetoric.41 Although a particular “Fascist style” remains elusive, in spite of attempts to name one, official projects appeared to strike an equilibrium between functionalism and a severe neo-classicism.42 Such a compromise hinged above all on the increasingly powerful Marcello Piacentini and peaked in projects he designed, or decided on, such as EUR.43 Piacentini’s idealized classicism permitted an infinite variation and regeneration of antique forms, equally interchangeable, generalized and “eternal” as the volumetric modules in Gismondi’s model.

Indeed, the Rome model can be seen to authorize an emerging Roman modernism, anchoring it in antiquity. A comparison of dates makes clear that the last revisions of EUR coincided with the official debut of Gismondi’s plaster city at the Mostra Augustea. And since the model was well advanced already by 1934, it foreshadowed, possibly even inspired, the series of increasingly regularized and monochrome towns culminating with Mussolini’s exhibition city. Ghirardo convincingly argues that Roman colonial towns and military camps, rather than imperial Rome itself, were references for Mussolini’s Nuove Città, but nonetheless, the “classic symmetry” of Gismondi’s urban layout was particularly noted by contemporary reviewers of the Mostra Augustea.44 The model also offered a manual for architects wondering how to respond to the regime’s diffuse imperial rhetoric that permeated the many architectural commissions at the time. It is of course ironic that a reconstruction of ancient Rome should induce a reorientation of architecture away from an archaeological classicism to a functionalist monumentality. Yet, to local architects, a past had materialized that merged old and new, marble solutions with plaster ones. In May 1938 Mussolini hailed the “anonymous architecture” of antiquity, celebrating the Pantheon, the imperial fora, and the ancient baths for transcending the personal style of individual architects, and although Mussolini had actual ancient Rome in mind, the words seem especially relevant for the newly unveiled model’s bare, cubic forms (Figure 9).45

Figure 9

Gismondi, model of ancient Rome, “modern” city quarters to the north of the imperial fora, added after the 1937–38 exhibition (author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

Figure 9

Gismondi, model of ancient Rome, “modern” city quarters to the north of the imperial fora, added after the 1937–38 exhibition (author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

To this day, curators and visitors perceive Gismondi’s unspecified monuments as “timeless” even when they in reality are the very syllables that formulated Fascist Italy as a new empire. With time, timelessness too becomes dated, and timelessness as an ideal corresponds perhaps in particular to the totalitarian architecture of the 1930s. In this way, Gismondi ended as the architetto not of real ancient Rome, but of ancient Rome as it was reborn under Mussolini.

The Non-ruins of Rome

Mussolini showed no interest in Roman antiquity until the early 1920s, when he began to glimpse an Eternal Rome hidden under and behind what he perceived as piles of architectural rubble accumulated over the centuries. The rhetoric that started permeating his public speeches from this point onward centered on an imperial architecture encroached by parasitic structures from which it should be “disinfected” and “purified.”46 He spoke of an architectural purge as if antiquity constituted a rare, contaminated specimen. The city that Mussolini dismissed as “picturesque”—of ballad singers, innkeepers, street vendors—was “destined to crumble in the name of decency, of hygiene,” he told the senate in 1932.47 And on 31 December 1925 he presented to the newly appointed governor of Rome, Filippo Cremonesi, his vision and his timetable of a transformed Rome, a city of grand classical monuments, complemented by Fascist ones, and re-choreographed in a new layout: “my ideas are clear, my orders are precise … . Five years from now Rome must appear wonderful to all people in the world: vast, ordered and powerful, as it was at the time of the first empire of Augustus.”48He gave specific orders to clear the area around the Mausoleum of Augustus, the theatre of Marcellus, the Capitol and the Pantheon. But the paradox of the unrelenting “liberation” of ancient Rome was of course also that ancient Rome on occasions had to go: in the grand, scenic antiquity that the Fascists cherished as backdrop for their parades and mass-events, actual ruins, such as the fountain of Meta Sudans, easily came in the way and were removed.49

A clash between two pasts seemed inevitable, between the new antiquity of the future and the romantic cult of ruins. An example is the construction of Via dell’Impero, now Via dei Fori Imperiali, inaugurated on 28 October 1932. The 3,000-foot-wide avenue connecting Piazza Venezia (where Mussolini held office) with the Coliseum required the destruction of about 5500 housing units, some of Renaissance and Baroque origin, and ultimately exposes the Fascists’ ambivalence toward classical architecture.50 The destruction of buildings and removal of earth brought the city down to the level of the ancient imperial fora. Large-scale excavations were then commenced, laying bare hundreds of thousands of square feet. As the building of the new avenue advanced on top of the required base of broad, solid substructures, around 85 per cent of the excavated zone was again buried, leaving a mere 15 per cent exposed, or rather displayed, as decorative partitions along the new Fascist triumphal route.51 Ancient Rome was reduced to ruins for a second time. And as Fabio Gentile notes, to Mussolini and to the Fascist movement at large, archaeology had a mere symbolic function.52

Gismondi’s model, commissioned within months of the inauguration of Via dell’Impero, mediates between two versions of ancient Rome: the archaeological city and the rebuilt one. The desire to demolish the ancient city in order to recreate it, idealized the tabula rasa—the model maker’s privileged starting point. Based on the same conception that also governed the Mostra Augustea, it was not the Rome of ruins—of original, deteriorated parts—that interested Mussolini, but a past that was ordered and complete. He wanted a past from which his own vision of a city would seem to be a continuation—a past like the one Gismondi and his team of plaster artisans was designing. In a period of tough urban transition the model negotiated the terms of a truce. Making former ruins splendidly premodern, Gismondi’s ahistorical plaster utopia fixed the ancient metropolis in a form that Il Duce wanted to have existed and which his new Rome would appear to reconstruct. Precariously balancing historical accuracy and architectural invention, the model substituted the vanished city with an ideal version of contemporary Rome. In other words, the only past that would seem to survive the Fascist urban transformation was not a “past” at all, nor even ancient, but a modernist recreation.

In the course of the 1930s, the making of the model and the re-making of Rome progressed simultaneously, interconnecting the city and the miniature. The model’s fusion of rationalism and classicism established the ancient city as contemporary, but it did not resolve the paradox that Fascist Rome imposed on the practice and thinking of archaeology. Spectators of the model at the Mostra Augustea would note the striking omission of the city quarters north of the imperial fora. The omitted part corresponded to an area in the real city recently bulldozed by Fascist town planners. Now it was banned from ancient Rome itself. Why Gismondi and his team initially left this part un-built—a mere vacuum—may have had political reasons. Significantly, the area behind the fora included the site on which the new Fascist headquarters, the Palazzo del Littorio, was being planned.53 A political shrine looming on this spot in the future was a sufficiently powerful prospect to induce Gismondi to reshape the spot in the past, or rather, not to shape it at all: a classical site that had first been excavated then reburied before it was to be rebuilt, became too complicated for a reconstruction to embody. Even though political pressure seems unlikely, Gismondi, by his choices, all the same contributed to censor antiquity, not only by adding invented blocks to the city, but also by pretending parts of it had never existed.

A reconstruction secretly nourishes itself on a city’s destruction in order to recover it all the more splendidly. That said, Gismondi’s model also conscientiously reflected recent discoveries by archaeologists such as Antonio Maria Colini and Guglielmo Gatti.54 Still, the model’s idealized order fueled the regime’s selection and isolation of ancient monuments. The ultimate model, however, was Rome itself, composed of modules that were moved, and also removed, to form Mussolini’s antiquity of the future.

Ideologies in Plaster

In January 1937 the architects in charge of EUR began building a plaster model of the small city in their provisional studio in Rome’s Via Veneto.55 In the same month, Albert Speer started planning the immense model of the new Third Reich capital Germania, and simultaneously, at the Bakery of Pantanella, Gismondi and his team applied the finishing touches on the model of ancient Rome, which had been under construction for five years.56 Although Gismondi’s model may have inspired real architecture, its greatest influence was no doubt on other models.

Architectural plaster casts of Roman monuments proliferated since the eighteenth century in a history of models that arguably peaked in the projection of modern, interwar architecture.57 Across the industrial world, a spectrum of publications, from home décor magazines to exhibition posters, pictured houses as models and propagated new, shiny environs that occasionally would remain as utopian as the time’s lofty political visions.58 Totalitarian leaders of the 1930s pursued with almost equal intensity the construction of cities and the construction of their models in plaster. Models make cities small, but they also turn the onlookers into giants, offering leaders that irresistible godlike perspective and power. Speer, for instance, recalled how models of the future Berlin completely transfixed the German leader:

Hitler was particularly excited over a large model of the grand boulevard on a scale of 1:1000. He loved to “enter his avenue” at various points and take measure of the future effect. For example, he assumed the point of view of a traveler emerging from the south station or admired the great hall as it looked from the heart of the avenue. To do so, he bent down, almost kneeling, his eye an inch or so above the level of the model, in order to have the right perspective, and while looking he spoke with unusual vivacity. These were the rare times when he relinquished his usual stiffness. In no other situation did I see him so lively, so spontaneous, so relaxed.59

Mussolini, too, enjoyed surveying models and visited the plaster layouts of EUR in 1938 and the model of the so-called Foro Mussolini in 1941 (Figure 10). Il Duce’s fondness for miniatures becomes obvious at the time the Mostra Augustea was being prepared; the standing order was to have Gismondi’s architectural models shipped as soon as they were made to the first floor of his office in Palazzo Venezia.60

Figure 10

Benito Mussolini surveying the plaster model of E’42 (EUR), July 1938 (Istituto Luce, Rome)

Figure 10

Benito Mussolini surveying the plaster model of E’42 (EUR), July 1938 (Istituto Luce, Rome)

Rome reappeared in the guise of cities elsewhere as well. Speer’s model of future Berlin restated familiar Roman types, although grotesquely inflated, such as the Pantheon-like Volkshalle and a triumphal arch (apparently sketched by Hitler himself) planned to soar 400 feet above street level, all combined to “make the new world capital, Germania, outshine its only avowed rival, Rome.”61 Indeed, size was a monument’s most important attribute, according to Hitler, who imagined an indoor swimming pool as large as the baths of imperial Rome, and admired the Coliseum and Castel San Angelo for dimensions that had “ceased to be on the scale of the individual.”62

In the final instance, such sky-high aspirations rarely advanced beyond toy scale. The only Rome that Hitler’s hallucinatory capital Germania challenged, and in the end would outrival—existed as a model. It is a highly interesting chapter in the history of urbanism that Hitler not only knew of Gismondi’s gigantic city cast but also arranged to visit the Mostra Augustea, where it was exhibited twice. The occasion came on the Führer’s state visit to Rome in May 1938. The afternoon program on 6 May included a visit to the exhibition where their guide, Giulio Quirino Giglioli, kept him and Mussolini occupied for a whole hour (Figure 11).63 On this occasion, according to witnesses, Hitler showed a particular interest in triumphal arches and in objects that had been found in Germany. But he wished to see the exhibition again and, quite outside the official program, Hitler returned the following morning with Hess, Himmler, Goebbels, and Ribbentrop, again led by Giglioli. Gismondi’s 860-square-foot model of Constantinian Rome impressed Hitler: “It is very interesting,” he philosophized, recollecting seeing the exhibition a few years later: “The Roman Empire never had its like … and no empire has spread its civilisation as Rome did.”64

Figure 11

Mussolini, Hitler, and chief curator Giulio Quirino Giglioli visit the Mostra Augustea, 6 May 1938 (Istituto Luce, Rome)

Figure 11

Mussolini, Hitler, and chief curator Giulio Quirino Giglioli visit the Mostra Augustea, 6 May 1938 (Istituto Luce, Rome)

The immediate result of Hitler’s Rome visit, according to Goebbels, was Der Führer’s determination to enlarge all his architectural projects.65 Having peeked over the Alps at what his neighbor down south was up to, he geared up his own city constructions. But for the most part, the rivalry was going to remain a battle fought out in wood and plaster.

By July 1938, a couple of months after Hitler’s return from Rome, Speer’s model of Germania had reached a level of completion that was impressive enough for Goebbels to call it “something extraordinary.”66 Speer himself had visited Italy and Rome twice while he worked on it. Having toured various Italian cities in October 1938, the German architect returned to Rome in March 1939, at which point he is reported to have been at a reception hosted by Piacentini, who introduced him to the most important Italian and Roman architects working in the city at the time, perhaps also Gismondi. No evidence of a visit to the Mostra Augustea exists, but Speer certainly would have wanted to study the model of the imperial capital, now that he was working on his own.67

The seduction of model panoramas very much involved the white homogenous quality of plaster itself. Miniature cities constituted far more than mere aids in the construction process. On the contrary, real cities aimed to manifest the monochrome monumentality only found in models and to realize on a gigantic scale their plaster cast perfection. The 1930s idealization of progress and factory-chic made models popular, even indispensable, in the business of building, from everyday real-estate transactions to the planning of millennial cities. In totalitarian regimes’ uncompromising advance toward order, the casts substituted an incomplete and fragmented reality. Taken to the extreme, the Fascist and Nazi regimes did not—and indeed, could not—evolve beyond the plaster model visions; only sporadically were projects actually realized. Only on the model board did urban reality appear “clear, simple and eternal,” to paraphrase one of Mussolini’s favored architects, Giuseppe Pagano.68

Rome’s Ancient Model

The Rome model is only one of many architectural casts on display at the Museo della Civilità Romana. The earliest models go back to the archaeological exhibition in 1911, whereas the majority dates from the Mostra Augustea in 1937. A few casts have been added to the collection in the years following the museum’s inauguration in 1952. Together these models constitute a century-long building history on their own. In consequence, new hierarchies have emerged to govern displays that, for example, allocate a selection of models in glass cases, while others are left in the open to collect dust (Figure 12). In parallel to the real-world prototypes, the plaster copies have over the course of time become historical, producing their own elite of originals. But overall, the architectural history of models is still virgin territory and has so far generated little scholarly attention.69

Figure 12

Plaster casts of Roman monuments in their current display at the Museo della Civilità Romana (author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

Figure 12

Plaster casts of Roman monuments in their current display at the Museo della Civilità Romana (author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Sovraintendenza di Roma Capitale)

The uncertain status of architectural plaster casts in modern museum displays threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the Gismondi model. An industry of photographic reproductions has so far managed to give the model in EUR extended life support. Photos bypass the plaster reality and purport to offer a direct view of the ancient city, announced on tourist posters with the simple “Ancient Rome.” Photography’s traditional claim to reproduce an exact image of reality seems to have benefited Constantine’s Rome more than Gismondi’s cast. One attempt to secure the model’s survival is the plan to reconstruct it three-dimensionally, not in plaster, but digitally, translating the vintage panorama, bit by bit, into a software program. Using a technique called stereophotogrammetry, the museum has long planned to send an expedition of miniature robot-cameras to probe the remote past of the model and to scan, transfer, and ultimately convert the chalky buildings and glass lakes into a virtual experience.70 If the project comes to fruition, the plaster city will act as an oddly anachronistic stand-in for digital technology’s endless possibilities and capacity for refinement. In an almost touchingly misunderstood approach, the dusty edifices are summoned to simulate virtual ones: the Rome model, as an image of the past, is dragged backward into the digital age.

Another ongoing digital reconstruction of the ancient city, the ambitious Rome Reborn project, also seems unable to leave the past behind. This international initiative headed by the University of Virginia, and consisting of a scientific team of renowned scholars and archaeologist, aims to transfer Gismondi’s invented antiquities to a cutting-edge virtual landscape. Faced by the extensively analyzed problem of how to visualize the thousands of undocumented buildings, which the Rome Reborn project categorizes as “Class II,” Gismondi’s 1930s neoantiques still offer the best solution. This prewar celebration of modernism still guarantees the authenticity of antiquity, as virtual model makers continue to rebuild the ancient city based on the distinction between “geometrically simplified forms” and monuments based on “reliable archaeological evidence.”71 In their approach, Gismondi’s method of archaeological fabrication remains valid; it is simply the medium that has shifted. The model in EUR is not even the earliest Rome model destined for rebirth in the virtual universe. Bigot’s 1911 model, owned by the University of Caen, has triumphantly progressed from a successful restoration in the 1990s to impending digitalization. The antique miniature capital is now on the brink—according the university’s homepage—to “cross the walls to become accessible to the entire world.”72 The ancient Roman dictum urbs et orbis, signaling the city’s world dominion, seems strangely re-actualized.

In retrospect, each new city reconstruction builds on previous ones, creating a stratification that in itself requires excavation. That is to say, the history, or rather historicity, of representations of Rome exists in parallel to the development of archaeology. The visual idea, to which Gismondi’s plaster reconstruction in its current setting corresponds, derives from cartography. In the room at the Museo della Civiltà Romana specifically designed for the model, a gallery runs along the four walls allowing the visitor to look down on the model, one floor below, and from all possible angles. Establishing a viewpoint at an ideal height realizes the birds-eye view of the city in cartography, not in archaeology, in a visual tradition of restoring Rome’s image that goes back to the fifteenth century. To put it simply, Renaissance maps relied on ancient coins and reliefs, just as the plaster model relied on maps, and digital software relies on plaster models. Knowledge of the past may increase, but the representation of that knowledge constitutes a history of materiality of fragile and often dated media from paper to plaster.

Ironic as it may be, Gismondi’s reconstruction of ancient Rome is deteriorating rapidly and currently faces the threat of becoming itself a ruin. In 1985 termites invaded the museum and fed on the wood and organic fibers of the plaster exhibits, including the model of Rome. In an act of protection, each of the model’s 142 canvases had their undersides covered with tar. Another problem of conservation results from the combination of oxygen and dust, which creates a thick coating on the exposed miniature buildings that is extremely difficult to remove. Waxing and repainting remain a constant challenge for the crew assigned by the city of Rome to oversee the model’s upkeep.73

Paradoxically, the upkeep’s greatest hindrance is the model’s recently declared status as a historical monument, its inclusion in Italian architectural patrimony, and the consequent freeze on any kind of intervention on grounds of preservation. The model now joins the same elite corps as the ancient edifices it portrays, due to the intervention of the influential archaeologist Eugenio la Rocca. The historicizing not only of real ancient Rome, but also of its model, creates some striking “urban” challenges in the miniature metropolis. For example, the planned expansion of the model to include the region of Trastevere is put on hold, and archaeological updates and substantial repairs have likewise become impossible. Any undertaking to salvage and gently upgrade the model needs now to take the clue from the real city’s constant negotiation between preservation and progress.

However, the single most perilous scenario is the planned translocation of the model from its present display to a yet-to-be-realized Museo della Città, meant to occupy a building complex in the center of Rome between the Circus Maximus and the river. It is a hazardous experiment, physically and conceptually, to detach the model from the utopian architectural environment of the EUR for which it was made and where it makes sense. With the trendy Progettomillennium, the city of Rome made plans to secure the Olympic Games in 2020 by sweetening the bid with the prospect of a city rebuilt on ideas of “sustainable environment” and “social integration.”74 To create a “city of culture and entertainment” is another goal, and the recurring slogan is “together we shall construct the new capital.” For all its unquestionably good sides, the project’s “millennium city” is probably as utopian as any other past or future “eternal cities,” with the difference that it promotes Rome by mastering not the confectionery of plaster but the online rhetoric of seductive graphics and soundtracks.75 However, if the translocation of the Plastico di Roma against all odds were to happen, the irony is that it would end up in the same ex-bakery where it once was made.

The paradox of Gismondi’s model is twofold: it may have been the first model to make ancient Rome modern, but it is also the last of the twentieth-century Rome reconstructions to end up as an antique. It is not “ruined,” like Marcelliani’s model, nor is it “restored” like Bigot’s. The Plastico di Roma has ended up in history’s most ingenious trap: it has become historicized. For decades the model metropolis has challenged conventional epochal distinctions, modernizing ancient Rome as well as making Mussolini’s utopian vision classical; even the future has found its past, so to speak, in Gismondi’s invented miniatures, in ongoing digital adoptions. But reconstructions are, of course, exposed to the changing tastes of history, even more so than the ruins they portray, which may always hide their true aspect behind forms that have vanished. And with hard-core modernism itself in decline, the model is about to become doubly ancient. Time has finally caught up with the plaster metropolis.



For literature on the model, see Mostra Augustea della Romanità, exh. cat., 4th (definitive) ed. (Rome: C. Colombo, 1938), 726–29; Giulio Quirino Giglioli and Gustavo Giovannoni, “La Mostra Augustea della Romanità, ” Palladio 1 (1937), 201–40; Giuseppina Pisani Sartorio, “La plan-relief d’Italo Gismondi: Méthodes, techniques de realization et perspectives futures,” trans. Manuel Royo, in Rome: L’espace urbain & ses représentations, compiled and presented by François Hinard and Manuel Royo (Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris–Sorbonne, 1991), 257–77; Pisani Sartorio, “Il plastico di Italo Gismondi,” in Roma antica com’era: Storia e tecnica costruttiva del grande plastico dell’Urbe nel Museo della Civiltà Romana, ed. Carlo Pavia (Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2006), 208–18; Cairoli Fulvio Giuliani, “Il rilievo dei monumenti, l’immaginario collettivo e il dato di fatto,” in Ricostruire l’Antico prima del virtuale: Italo Gismondi un architetto per l’archeologia, 1887–1974, ed. Fedora Filippi (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 2007), 63–73; Giuliani, “Piani di lavoro per il Plastico di Roma,” in Ricostruire l’Antico, 261–65; Antonio Di Tanna, Il Plastico di Roma Antica, pamphlet (Rome: Museo della Civiltà Romana, n.d., post 1985).


The work consists of 46 detailed graphic plans and is republished in Rodolfo Lanciani, Forma Urbis Romae (Rome: Quasar, 1988).


On Marcelliani’s model, see Paola Ciancio Rossetto, “La ‘Roma di Coccio’ di Giuseppe Marcelliani,” in Bollettino dei Musei Comunali di Roma, 4 (Rome: Bretschneider, 1991), 11–16.


I am grateful to Antonio Di Tanna for taking me to see Marcelliani’s model.


On the 1911 exhibition, see Catalogo della Mostra archeologica nelle Terme di Diocleziane, exh. cat. (Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d’arti grafiche, 1911); Daniela Mancioli, “La Mostra archeologica,” in Dalla mostra al museo: dalla Mostra archeologica de 1911 al Museo della civiltà romana, exh. cat. (Vicenza: Marsilio Editori, 1983), 52–61; Joshua W. Arthurs, “(Re)Presenting Roman History in Italy, 1911–55,” in Nationalism, Historiography and the (Re)Construction of the Past, ed. Claire Norton (Washington D.C.: New Academia Press, 2007), 27–41.


There is some confusion concerning the number and whereabouts of the replicas of Bigot’s model. It appears that after the 1911 exhibition, Bigot transferred the model to Paris and showed it at the Grand Palais in 1913 before it was installed at the Institute of Art and Archaeology (designed by Bigot) at the Sorbonne. It was damaged during World War II and by the end of the 1960s it had disappeared. In preparation for the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Bigot began working on an updated plaster cast based on new discoveries (and possibly fueled by the success of Gismondi’s model). After Bigot’s death in 1942 this model and its twin version were bequeathed to the University of Caen and to the Cinqantenaire Museum in Brussels. In 1912 a campaign was launched in Le Figaro to finance a replica in metal, which, thanks to French government money, was realized in part (by Christofle) in 1932 and deposited at the Sorbonne. After World War I, the Rockefeller Foundation raised money for two additional replicas: One was possibly the Brussels version; the other belonged to the city of Philadelphia and was displayed in the Memorial Hall in the former Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art until at least 1953, when it was donated to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania (I am grateful to Dr. Ann Brownlee for this information). Cf. Manuel Royo, “La Pianta Monumentale di Roma,” in Roma Antiqua: Grandi Edifici Pubblici, exh. cat. (Rome: Edizioni Carte Segrete, 1992), 280–86; Henry Bernard, “Paul Bigot mon patron,” in Rome: L’espace urbain, 168–69; Manuel Royo, “La memoir de l’architecte,” in Rome: L’espace urbain, 201–21; Ciancio Rossetto, “La reconstitution de Rome Antique: Du plan-relief de Bigot à celui de Gismondi,” in Rome: L’espace urbain, 237–47; K. G. Saur, Allgemeine Künstler-Lexicon: Die Bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, vol. 10 (Munich-Leipzig: K. G. Saur Verlag, 1995), 267; Lothar Haselberger, “Imagining Augustan Rome,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 13 (2000), 519, note 13.


On Pierino Di Carlo, see James E. Packer, “Pierino Di Carlo: Master Model Builder,” Curator: The Museum Journal 22, no. 3 (1979), 185–98; Pavia, Roma antica, 63–88; Packer, “Italo Gismondi and Pierino Di Carlo: ‘Virtualizing’ Imperial Rome for 20th-Century Italy,” American Journal of Archaeology 112, no. 3 (2008), 1–6.


The model’s state of progress by 1952 is recorded in three folios preserved at the Archivio Storico Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma (ASSAR) at the Palazzo Altemps (invs. 1934, 1935, and 1950). See Giuliani, “Piani di lavoro,” 261–65.


The team of architects consisted of Piero Aschieri, Domenico Bernardini, Gino Peressutti and Cesare Pascoletti. Construction of the museum began in 1939 but was interrupted by the war. The museum was inaugurated in April 1952, with the opening of ten rooms, and completed in 1955.


Giulio Quirino Giglioli, preface to Mostra Augustea, 1938, v. On the 1937 exhibition, see also the pamphlet Mostra Augustea della Romanità: Bimillenary of the Birth of the Emperor Augustus (Rome: Museum of Roman Civilization, 1937); Arthurs, “(Re)Presenting Roman History,” 33–35; Anna Maria Liberati Silverio, “La Mostra Augustea della Romanità, ” in Dalla mostra al museo, 77–90.


Giglioli’s words from the opening speech reads: “l’altra [sezione] è quella che ricorda il tramandarsi dell’idea imperiale romana attraverso gli spiriti magni, fino alla risurrezione dell’Italia come Nazione unita e indipendente e alla risurrezione, dopo quindici secoli, dell’impero stesso di Roma, per opera Vostra, o Duce.” Giglioli, preface, vii.


Emilio Gentile, “Fascism as Political Religion,” Journal of Contemporary History 25, nos. 2/3 (May–June 1990), 229–51.


The plaster reproductions in the Mostra Augustea can be seen to alter the past, for propaganda purposes, much in the same way that Brian MacLaren discusses the impact of photographs on the mounting of the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista in 1932 (also held in the Palazzo delle Esposizione). He evokes Walter Benjamin’s theory that reproduction “reactivates the object reproduced,” changing the status of the object. See Brian MacLaren, “Under the Sign of the Reproduction,” Journal of Architectural Education 45, no. 2 (Feb. 1992), 98–106.


In his reconstructions, Gismondi drew on visual sources that spanned from German historical painting to sixteenth-century printed reconstructions. Valentin Kockel, for example, has showed how Gismondi’s drawing of the reconstructed Capitol (ASSAR, Palazzo Altemps, inv. 1931) is based on a painting by Joseph Bühlmann and Alexander von Wagner of Constantine’s entry from 1887 (Valentin Kockel, “Gismondi panoramista?,” in Ricostruire l’Antico, 271–73). Renaissance reconstructions inspiring Gismondi and his circle is the subject in Clementina Panella, “La Meta Sudans e le ricostruzioni grafiche di Italo Gismondi,” in Ricostruire l’Antico, 151–59.


Pisani Sartorio, “Le plan de Gismondi,” 263.


Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Staging Fascism: 18 BL and the Theater of Masses for Masses (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996), 2.


Bigot’s inventions differ from Gismondi’s on the crucial point that he—as Bigot himself explains—articulates each monument individually in order to create a city that is “vivante.” See Ciancio Rossetto, “De Bigot à Gismondi,” 244.


Packer, “Italo Gismondi,” 5. The quote is based on an interview Packer did with Di Carlo in 1979 as preparation for his article on Di Carlo for the Curator. Here the claim is reaffirmed that Di Carlo “personally designed a number of buildings to fill in the empty spaces on the Aventine Hill.” Packer, “Pierino Di Carlo,” 188.


See Mostra Augustea della Romanità, exh. cat., 4th(definitive) ed. (Rome: C. Colombo, 1938).


“La ricostruzione della maggior parte dei monumenti e di molte parti della città in base a tali dati può dirsi abbastanza sicura. Per gli altri monumenti e le altri parti dove le nostre conoscenze sono più scarse, hanno supplito i confronti con altri monumenti, ma, nella trattazione a larghe masse senza particolari, tali parti sono state tenute distinte.” Colini[?], Mostra Augustea, 726.


“Gismondi ricorse ad edifici analoghi e preferì trattare i volumi sotto forma di grandi masse, senza entrare nei dettagli o nei particolari.” Pisani Sartorio, “Il Plastico di Italo Gismondi,” 216.


“Paradossalmente la cosa che desta più meraviglia è la grande capacità dell’autore di legare le ampie zone monumentali con un tessuto edilizio abitativo, in gran parte da inventare, in cui egli ha proceduto per soli volume, mentre per i monumenti noti scende nel particolare minuto. Tale risultato, che ripropone il continuum del tessuto urbano di Roma, conferisce al plastico l’aspetto di un agglomerato urbano verosimile e vivo.” Giuliani, “Il rilievo dei monumenti,” 71.


“Questo nostro neo-rinascimento invece, ritorna all’essenziale del classicismo, alle composizioni chiare, larghe, funzionali (che cosa c’è di piu funzionali delle antiche Terme?), direi delle ossature murali degli antichi, e non alla loro veste apparente; ai loro pensieri, alle loro concezioni, non al loro vocabolario.” Marcello Piacentini, “Per l’autarchia: Politica dell’architettura” (first published in Il giornale d’Italia, 15 July 1938), in Marcello Piacentini, Architettura moderna, ed. Mario Pisani (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1996), 222–23.


Pagano’s article was published in Casa Bella 3 (1931), and is discussed by Diane Ghirardo in “Italian Architects and Fascist Politics: An Evaluation of the Rationalist’s Role in Regime Building,” JSAH 39, no. 2 (May 1980), 109–27.


On the activities of the Istituto (Nazionale) di Studi Romani, founded in 1925, see Romke Visser, “Fascist Doctrine and the Cult of the Romanità, ” Journal of Contemporary History 27, no. 1 (Jan. 1992), 5–22.


See Paolo Nicoloso, Mussolini architetto: Propaganda e paesaggio urbano nell’Italia fascista (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 2008), 35.


The speech to Cremonesi is reprinted in Italo Insolera and Francesco Perego, Archeologia e città: Storia moderna dei Fori di Roma (Rome: Editori Laterza, 1983), 37–39.


On the program and competition for EUR, see Carlo Cresti, Architettura e Fascismo (Florence: Vallecchi Editore,1986), 192–309, and Nicoloso, Mussolini architetto, 203–26. Emilio Gentile (among others) argues that EUR was built as a visible expression of a new Fascist empire in Fascismo di pietra (Rome: Editori Laterza, 2010), 159–96. A different perspective is offered by Diane Ghirardo who considers EUR as the third and final manifestation of the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista (which premiered in 1932) in “Architects, Exhibitions, and the Politics of Culture in Fascist Italy,” Journal of Architectural Education 45, no. 2 (Feb. 1992), 67–75. EUR also fits the scheme of a fascist colonial city, discussed by Mia Fuller, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Fascist Plans for the Colonial City of Addis Ababa and the Colonizing Suburb of EUR ’42,” Journal of Contemporary History 31, no. 1 (April 1996), 397–418.


Piacentini, “Per l’autarchia,” 222.




The phrase belongs to Spiro Kostof and is quoted in Borden W. Painter, Jr., Mussolini’s Rome: Rebuilding the Eternal City (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 17. On the Regulatory Plan of 1931, see Insolera and Perego, Archeologia e città, 130–48.


Painter, Mussolini’s Rome, 17.


On the borgate and types of Fascist housing, see Italo Insolera, Roma Moderna: Un secolo di storia urbanistica (Turin: Giulio Einaudi editore, 1971), 145–51 and Painter, Mussolini’s Rome, 91–105.


Piacentini’s classicizing triumphal arch in Genoa was erected as late as 1931.


Several factions rivaled for attention in interwar Italy; to one end were the Accademici who championed a close imitation of historical models, and to the other were the Razionalisti, fronted by the northern-based Gruppo Sette, who propagated a strict expression of function in architecture, inspired by Le Corbusier and international modernism. A middle position was held by the Novecento group, branching into a Roman faction of moderates led by Marcello Piacentini, which looked for a compromise between modernism and the classical legacy.


Henry Millon, for example, stressed the “changing official policy” after 1936, dramatizing a shift where Piacentini “convinced” Mussolini of his approach and where the Rationalists “were wiped out.” Millon based his reading on the editorial policies of the journals Palladio and Le Arti from 1937 onward, in “The Role of History of Architecture in Fascist Italy,” JSAH 24, no. 1 (March 1965), 53–59. A return to classical ideals after 1936 is also emphasized by Italian scholars, such as Giorgio Ciucci and Emilio Gentile, motivated by the attempt to find ways to separate a fascist style from Italian modernism at large.


Ghirardo, “Italian Architects and Fascist Politics,” 111–16.


Ibid., 115. Romanità was a flexible notion, used differently by various movements, and also by the regime, to further respective goals. See Visser, “Fascist Doctrine and the Cult of the Romanità, ” 5–22. The Gruppo Sette was based in Milan and counted initially (apart from Rava) Ubaldo Castagnoli, Luigi Figini, Guido Frette, Sebastiano Larco, Gino Pollini and Giuseppe Terragni. Silvia Danesi discusses Rava in particular in “Aporie dell’architettura Italiana in periodo fascista—mediterraneità e prurismo,” in Il razionalismo e l’architettura in Italia durante il Fascismo, ed. Silvia Danesi and Luciano Patetta (Milan: Electa 1988), 21–28.


“But as we look back, the architecture that has rendered Rome’s name glorious around the world is based on four or five types: the temple, the basilica, the circus, the rotunda and the dome, the Baths. Rome’s strength lies in having maintained these schemes, repeating them as in its most distant provinces and perfecting them by precise selection. All this is known, but no one seems to remember it: Rome built in series” (my translation). The manifesto of Gruppo Sette was published in La Rassegna Italiana from December 1926 to May 1927, then reprinted in Quadrante in March and April 1935. The texts are collected in Enrico Mantero, Giuseppe Terragni e la città del razionalismo italiano (Como: Dedalo libri, 1969), 57–88.


The Rationalists’ focus on ordinary housing and building techniques is emphasized by Mia Fuller, Moderns Abroad: Architecture, Cities and Italian Imperialism (London: Routledge, 2007), 100–03.


“Grandeur and monumentality” was as near Vittorio Cini (general commissioner of the building of EUR) came to define a Fascist “style” in a report from 1937. See Giorgio Ciucci and Jessica Levine, “The Classicism of the E 42: Between Modernity and Tradition,” Assemblage 8 (Feb. 1989), 78–87, and Gentile, Fascismo di pietra, 159–96.


Adrian Lyttleton advocates the idea of a Fascist style in architecture with the notion of a “Stile Littorio” in The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919–1929 (1973; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987). The notion is repeated, though not explained, by Fuller, Moderns Abroad, 96.


Piacentini did not officially design any buildings for EUR, but he headed the board of architects that developed the overall scheme, and sat in committees that decided on the major projects. See for example Gentile, Fascismo di pietra, 159–95.


Roman colonial towns as models for the new Fascist cities is discussed by Diane Ghirardo, Building New Communities: New Deal America and Fascist Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 64–68. The review of the 1937 exhibition appeared in Palladio 1 (1937), 203–40, and was written by Gustavo Giovannoni, one of the most important architectural historians in Italy in the 1930s. On Giovannoni and the Mostra Augustea, see also Millon, “The Role of History of Architecture,” 53–59.


“L’architettura è sempre anonima: Terme di Diocleziano, Terme di Caracalla, Pantheon di Agrippa, Foro di Cesare, Foro di Augusto,” quoted from Nicoloso, Mussolini architetto, 230.


“pensiamo di fare di Roma la città del nostro spirito, una città, cioè, depurata, disinfettata da tutti gli elementi che la corrompono e la infangono, pensiamo di fare di Roma il cuore pulsante, lo spirito alacre dell’Italia imperiale che noi sogniamo.” Mussolini’s speech of 20 Sept. 1922 is quoted in Gentile, Fascismo di pietra, 64.


Insolera and Perego, Archeologia e Città, 142–44.


Ibid., 37–39.


The remains of the ancient Meta Sudans stood on the east side of the Coliseum and were demolished in 1936 as part of the Facist re-systematization of the area.


Antonio Muñoz, Roma di Mussolini (Milan: S. A. Fratelli Treves Editori, 1935–38), 194.


Insolera, Roma Moderna, 142.


Gentile, Fascismo di pietra, 81.


The competition for the Palazzo del Littorio was announced in 1934, and 70 finalists were selected. Debate flared up on the difficult location between the Coliseum and Maxentius’s Basilica, and on the question of style, resulting in a second competition in July 1937, but now on a different location. On the competition, see Giorgio Ciucci, Gli Architetti e il Fascismo: Architettura e città 1922–1944 (Turin: Einaudi, 1989), 139–46 and Paul Baxa, Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscapeof Fascist Rome (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2010), 101–20.


Giuliani, “Piani di lavoro,” 261.


Nicoloso, Mussolini architetto, 207.


In January 1937 Hitler appointed Speer General Building Inspector for the Transformation of the Capital of the Reich with the special task to provide plans and models of the new city.


Plaster models of Roman monuments were famously produced in the early nineteenth-century by Jean-Pierre Fouquet and his son François. On this subject, see Valentin Kockel, “Plaster Models and Plaster Casts of Classical Architecture and its Decoration,” in Plaster Casts, Making, Collecting and Displaying from Classical Antiquity to the Present, eds. Rune Frederiksen and Eckart Marchand (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), 419–33.


Photographs of architectural models, called photomaquette, were for example used to advertise unrealized housing in magazines such as the French L’architecture d’aujord’hui. I owe this information to Paolo Amaldi, “Representing Architecture: The Autonomy of the Medium in the Design Process of Mies van der Rohe,” paper presented at the conference The Model: a Tool in the Architectural Project, organized by the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine, Paris, 20–21 May 2011.


Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 132–36.


Liberati Silverio, “La Mostra Augustea,” 81.


Alex Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture: The Impact of Classical Antiquity (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 51.


Speer, Inside the Third Reich, 134. The conversation is recorded to have taken place on the night between 21 and 22 July 1941 and is printed in Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s Secret Conversations 1941–1944, trans. Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens (1953; New York: New American Library, 1961), 40. On this subject, see also Volker Loseman, “The Nazi Concept of Rome,” in Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789–1945, ed. Catharine Edwards (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 221–35.


On Hitler’s visit to Rome and to the Mostra Augustea, see Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture, 28–29.


Hitler, Hitler’s Secret Conversations, 130. The conversation took place on 2 November 1941.


Hitler’s admiration for what he saw in Rome and consequent desire to revise his own projects were noted by Goebbels in his diary on 12 and 13 May 1938, quoted in Nicoloso, Mussolini architetto, 68–69.


Nicoloso, Mussolini architetto, 247. The entry on the model is dated 8 July.


On Speer’s travels in Italy see, Sandro Scarrocchia, Albert Speer e Marcello Piacentini: L’architettura del totalitarismo negli anni trenta (Milan: Skira, 1999), 163–86.


Quoted from Gentile, Fascismo di pietra, 88.


During the 20th century important collections of architectural casts have been painfully neglected, even dismantled, in European and American museums. The production and display of such casts make for an amusingly contraire history brought to light and analyzed in Mari Lending, “Spøkelsesmuseer: Arkitektonisk gipsskulptur,” in Agora: Journal for metafysisk spekulasjon 3 (2010), 36–55.


For a description of the process, see Pisani Sartorio, “Il plastico di Italo Gismondi,” 15–16.


“Rome Reborn: A Digital Model of Ancient Rome,” (accessed 8 Feb. 2012).


“Historie de la maquette,” (last modified July 2011).


I am grateful to Antonio Di Tanna, at the Museo della Civilità Romana, for the information of the present state of the model.


In February 2012 Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Monti, withdrew Rome’s bid for the 2020 Olympics in the attempt to confront the crisis of the country’s national debt.


“Progettomillennium: Roma 2010–2020,” (last modified 8 Feb. 2012).