As historians continue to probe the recesses of the totalitarian politics of the interwar years in Italy, it seems that we are gaining a more complex and variegated view of the fascist regime and its cultural legacy. These studies lead one to reflect on the disparity between the rhetorical assertions of Mussolini, particularly as conveyed in the many instruments of propaganda that were under state control, and the expression of political ideals and implementation of political policies through the arts and architecture. While the gap between art and architecture and the reactionary politics of the fascist era was used in the immediate post–World War II period as a way to save certain individuals and their work from the stain of negative political associations, for some time now that gap has allowed a deep and productive questioning of this cultural legacy and its relationship to an intransigent and highly conflicted political movement. As much as this has been a constructive and useful development in the history of the arts and architecture of the modern period, quite rightly one can ask in each specific case to what end this kind of critical inquiry is moving. In short, how can we understand the artistic and architectural legacy of Italian fascism, and what picture does it create of the political ideals and initiatives of the regime?
In tackling these and other difficult questions, Lucy M. Maulsby’s Fascism, Architecture, and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922–1943 provides some important insights into the kinds of urban negotiations in which the Fascist Party was involved regarding some of its most significant symbolic projects in this important northern Italian city. The basic assertions of the book are quite clear, the most important of these being that almost all of the scholarship concerning urban transformations during the interwar period has focused on Rome. Quite naturally this has led to the assumption that fascism’s urban ambitions were almost exclusively directed toward the legacy of ancient Rome and Italy’s Mediterranean origins, though with some references to the practical problems of the modern city. Two recent, and quite compelling, books support Maulsby’s contention of a Rome-centric scholarly focus on Italian fascism: Paul Baxa’s Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome and Joshua Arthurs’s Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy.1 In concentrating on the city of Milan, Maulsby offers a different understanding of the relationship between architecture and politics during the fascist era—one that more clearly acknowledges the highly disputed agenda of the regime. Indeed, as she recognizes, Milan was not only the most important industrial, commercial, and financial center in Italy but also the city in which fascism was born and one that eventually came into conflict with fascism’s antibourgeois and antiurban agenda. Maulsby’s broad framing of her project in relation to the changing politics of the fascist regime as well as the evolving panorama of the city of Milan has produced a work of vital scholarship that, without question, makes a significant contribution to the literature.
A concentration on the urban implications of the built environment is a significant feature that separates this volume from other recent scholarship on the architecture of the fascist era in Italy. In recounting the urban transformation of Milan during the fascist ventennio, Maulsby consults a wide range of actors, from urban planners and city officials to national political figures and prominent industrialists. What emerges is a complex picture in which the Fascist Party is only one of a series of powerful influences shaping the city. This urban focus is supported by the structure and organization of the book, which begins with a chapter (“Milan in Context”) that, in relating a concise urban history of this quintessentially modern Italian city, provides the narrative backbone for the work. The remaining five chapters offer a series of individual case studies of buildings and associated urban spaces that follow a rough chronology beginning with the early Fascist Party Headquarters (1922–31) and ending with the Palazzo del Popolo d’Italia (1938–42) and adjacent Piazza Cavour. Notably, these case studies include commercial spaces (the Trading Exchange and Piazza degli Affari, 1928–39) and institutional spaces (the Palace of Justice, 1932–40) while continuing the examination of the Fascist Party Headquarters (1931–40) into the wartime period. Read together, these chapters provide a detailed and well-researched account of the manner in which individual buildings in Milan and their related urban spaces became contested sites, torn between competing political, economic, and cultural interests.
Among the significant strengths of the book, perhaps the most compelling is the picture it conveys of the seemingly intractable conflicts between national and local interests as they played out over the course of a turbulent twenty-year period in Milan’s history. While the entire book has considerable value, the most focused discussions are in the two chapters that, through concentrating on single buildings and their associated urban spaces, are likely to have the greatest appeal to architectural historians. The first of these examines Marcello Piacentini’s Palace of Justice, a massive freestanding building with a fascinating backstory that has rarely been discussed, let alone in the considerable detail offered in this volume. Of equal interest is the final chapter, on Giovanni Muzio’s Palazzo del Popolo d’Italia and nearby Piazza Cavour, which provides the book its most concrete example of how urban and architectural space were shaped by the interaction between fascist political ideals and the civic and cultural context of the time. By comparison, the other chapters, and particularly those on the Fascist Party Headquarters, offer a more diffuse picture of the urban and architectural negotiations in interwar Milan. This may in part be a result of the lack of compelling examples of Party Headquarters in the city, but it may also point to one of the most important issues raised by the book. In Maulsby’s fairly explicit effort to undermine the idea that fascist authorities had complete control over the face of Milan, and to instead convey a legacy of conflict between competing interests and shifting opinions, she leaves the reader with the kinds of questions with which this review began. If fascist architecture and the fascist city in Italy were not direct products of the antagonistic and offensive political ideals that the regime espoused in the late 1930s, then what kind of politics can be inferred from the architectural and urban negotiations that actually took place? While Maulsby provides us with a fascinating picture that disrupts any reading of architecture and urban space as an unmediated expression of fascist politics, that picture leaves us with a rather messy reality that begs further scholarly attention.
Paul Baxa, Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010); Joshua Arthurs, Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2012).