Day 81-VII, from Sezze to Pontinia, 14 km.
Pontinia, January 27
We have finally descended into the former Pontine swamps, and after a short stroll through the polder we arrived in the new town of Pontinia.
It’s interesting. For me it’s like walking through Pompeii. The fascist era has lasted little over twenty years and it has left various architectonical testimonies. The most famous are probably the railway station Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the Sapienza university in Rome, and most of all the E.U.R. quarter of the capital, built for the world exposition of 1942 which was supposed to celebrate 20 years of fascism, but which was never held because of the war. Many architectural remains are big neo-roman marbles, square and ugly. But here in Pontinia there is something more. This place gives you an idea of fascist city planning.
The town was founded in 1935, the third of the new towns in this area. Obviously it’s inspired by the straight city grids of the ancient Roman towns, but it has its own peculiarities.
There are two main roads. The North-South axis is the ‘civil’ road, dominated by the town hall on the south side. The East-West axis is the ‘religious’ road, dominated by the church on the west side. The two don’t cross in the middle. They cross on the central square in front of the town hall, and their angulations are exact. When I arrived today at noon, the sun was directly behind the tower of the town hall.
The marble sign on the façade is still the original one. It proudly tells how this town was founded when the country was under ‘economical siege’ by the rest of the world, which ‘owed so much to Italy’ in terms of civilization.
In 1935 Italy had invaded the ancient christian empire of Abessinia, modern day Ethiopia, one of only two independent nations in Africa. The fascists wanted their ‘rightful place under the sun’. So they came to bring ‘civilization to the negroes’, and they did so with bombers and poison gas. The League of Nations, whose member states had colonised almost the entire remainder of the continent at the time, hypocritically imposed economical sanctions on Italy. It was oil on the fire of Italian nationalism. Mussolini’s economical philosophy was based on national self sufficiency, and the economic sanctions would prove that Italy could do without the rest of the world.
In retrospect, it was the high point of Italian fascism. When Ethiopia was conquered the Italian king was proclaimed emperor of Abessinia, and Mussolini’s voice over the radio could proudly declare that the empire was restored an that Italians “from the Alps to the Indian Ocean” were united by a single battle cry. “Duce!”
After that, Mussolini came under increasing influence of Hitler, and in 1938 the axis Rome-Berlin was formed. When war broke out, fascism fell apart like a house of straw. The Italian war effort was a joke. Mussolini’s legions were beaten on all fronts, even by the Greeks.
What’s left are towns like this, where some of the very old people on the square still remember those days with a melancholic smile. But in the Italian psyche fascism is still alive. Not as a kind of hereditary sin, like nazism in Germany. It’s alive in the sense that many people still believe in it, and many more people still fear it and feel the need to fight it.
It’s crazy. Fascism, just like communism, was a product of its time. Now it’s dead and buried. It will never come back. But because people are still obsessed by it, they don’t see that there are different, but equally dangerous ideologies which have taken its place, and which need to be resisted, right here, right now. In particular berlusconism, the mixture of populism, disrespect for the rule of law, and the celebration of cultural trash, which has slowly poisoned Italian society for twenty years running.
Fascism ended with a country in ruins. Berlusconism on the other end didn’t end when Berlusconi (temporarily) stepped down. It has become part of Italian daily life, but as long as Italians are more concerned with the phantoms of their past, they won’t be able to address the phantoms of their present.