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Michael Z. Wise: Mussolini’s New Town

January 31, 2013

Some 40 miles from Rome stands one of the best-preserved examples of fascist architecture in Europe—a town built at lightning speed on Mussolini’s orders and admired by Le Corbusier.


Photos courtesy of Michael Z. Wise

By Michael Z. Wise

Though not as much of a draw as picturesque tourist magnets like Ravenna or San Gimignano, Sabaudia, nestled on the Italian coastline, offers not only charm but insight into the aesthetic and political ambitions of the early 20th century. The town was established as part of Mussolini’s effort to reclaim for agriculture desolate, malaria-infested swampland south of the national capital. Farming still endures in the surrounding countryside, and Sabaudia, with its beautiful beaches and luxury villas, has passed the years since Il Duce’s downfall as a fashionable Mediterranean resort.

Sabaudia began drawing the likes of artists Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Bernardo Bertolucci in the 1960s and 70s, and it remains popular today with Roman film stars, media executives, Italian government ministers, and wealthy Russians. The oppressive political aspirations that were originally behind the town’s sleek architecture and axial layout seem largely forgotten. The preferred focus: its glamorous postwar allure. According to Canadian style guru Tyler Brûlé, Sabaudia “could be a European version of Palm Springs—only better.” Of course, to see Sabaudia simply as a chic holiday destination would require glossing over the very past that makes it so intriguing.

Drawn up by a group of modernist architects who won a design competition in 1933, Sabaudia was constructed entirely from scratch. Mussolini himself laid the foundation stone. It rose out of the drained Pontine Marshes—according to fascist lore—in a mere 253 days. Over six thousand laborers toiled night and day to finish in time for the dedication by King Vittorio Emanuele III.

God didn’t invent such a place; Mussolini did.

The reality is more complicated, since much of the village wasn’t actually completed at the time of the king’s visit. Sabaudia’s name, paying homage to the royal House of Savoy, still testifies to Mussolini’s desire to burnish his image with the past prestige of the Italian monarch. The town’s role as a political prop was underscored a few years later when, in 1936, some twelve thousand infantry and cavalry were housed there while filming Scipio the African, an epic film that heralded the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

Planned as the Arcadian home to five thousand, Sabaudia today has sixteen thousand residents living in and around a striking, harmonious ensemble of original fascist-era landmarks. There is a dynamically modern post office, a massive cinema, an imposing church with a cylindrical baptistery, a hospital, and military barracks.

Nowadays, when the weather’s warm, Sabaudia’s squares resound with the happy screams of children playing kickball while clumps of swimsuited teens gobble gelato against the graceful backdrop of bougainvillea and oleander bushes. The town hosts an annual cultural festival in July and August, with art exhibits, concerts, and literary presentations. Last summer I walked through a portal crowned by a sculpted relief depicting fascism’s victory and entered the courtyard of the town hall. There, in what was once the scene of frenzied blackshirt activity, I found a crowd listening attentively to Italian television actress Veronica Pivetti reading from her new self-help book, I Stopped Crying: My Odyssey to Emerge from Depression. Mussolini and his propaganda seem a distant memory.

The lofty vision that Sabuadia served under fascism—that of a resurgent, modernizing nation deeply rooted in the land—is gone, but town authorities today make no attempt to deny its origins. Although some fascist symbols have been removed, the church still features a mosaic of a burly Mussolini harvesting wheat sheaves, and the original architecture is remarkably unspoiled by newer construction.

Sabaudia and other new towns were intended as part of an Italian “New Deal” to provide employment for jobless veterans by moving them to farmsteads—somewhere to reconnect with traditional values and the soil.

The post office, a colorful masterpiece designed by futurist architect Angiolo Mazzioni and covered in shimmering blue tiles and red marble accents, has just undergone a meticulous $3.5 million restoration. It now serves as the city’s library and archives. Curious about Sabaudia’s history, I spent several hours there. Upon learning that I was a journalist, one of the helpful librarians rang up the town’s mayor and urged him to come say hello.

Within minutes, Mayor Maurizo Lucci had hurried over from his office at the nearby town hall. “God didn’t invent such a place; Mussolini did,” the mustachioed Lucci said of Sabaudia, expressing unabashed pride in its genesis and distinctive urban design.

With red brick, travertine, and yellow stucco facades lining the palm-studded streets, the low-rise townscape is humane in scale. The warm color palette and aura of tranquility echo a de Chirico painting, and the play of light and shadow on the buildings and squares while walking or bicycling around town is to be savored. It’s no surprise that in recent decades Sabaudia served as an inspiration to New Urbanist architects’ designs for walkable, compact towns like Seaside and Celebration in the United States.

In two days spent exploring the town and enjoying the beach, I found that Sabaudia rewards close attention to detail. Walking down a central boulevard on my second day, I almost missed a facade bearing faint but visible letters inscribed in the stucco. It was Mussolini’s bellicose slogan: VINCERE, which means to win. “It’s characteristic of this city, and a reminder,” Alessandra Rauti, a radio announcer from Rome who was walking her two terriers nearby, told me. “You don’t see this in Naples or Florence.”

The nearby forestry school, housed in an elegant pink-marble and travertine edifice, was originally home to the national fascist youth organization Opera Nazionale Balilla. Twenty-eight-year-old ranger Paolo Pozzi showed me around the imposing entry hall. “I am proud of this architecture,” he said. “Mussolini made mistakes by going to war, but he achieved great things for this country.”

At the base of the tower, I found an inscription in Italian declaring that Mussolini “wanted this land redeemed from the millennial lethargy of deadly sterility.”

Sabaudia, Pozzi explained, aimed to showcase fascism’s commitment to modernity in a rural setting. It and other new towns were intended as part of an Italian “New Deal” to provide employment for jobless veterans by moving them to farmsteads. The new towns offered an alternative to old and unhygienic cities—somewhere to reconnect with traditional values and the soil.

After Le Corbusier visited Sabaudia in 1934, he described it as “a sweet poem. Perhaps a little sentimental, but built of good taste, a true vision of love.” Yet the pioneering architect did not believe it fully matched his aspirations for modern living. “One has made a dream, a bucolic dream—like Marie-Antoinette’s bucolic dreams of the Petit Trianon.”

With its comfortable scale, pastel coloring, and unhurried feel, I sensed what Le Corbusier was getting at. Before leaving, I wanted to get an overview of how Mussolini’s endeavor had transformed the once swampy terrain. On the central square I took an elevator almost to the town hall tower’s summit. You have to walk a few flights of steps farther to reach the observation terrace, with panoramic views of the town and the surrounding landscape. There I could also scrutinize the tower’s massive cast iron bell, still emblazoned with a fierce eagle poised atop the thick bunch of rods that served as the fascism’s symbol. (The Latin word fascis means bundle.)

Back at the base of the tower, I found an inscription in Italian declaring that Mussolini “wanted this land redeemed from the millennial lethargy of deadly sterility.” The bombastic language invites incredulity, but Sabaudia survives as a fascinating reminder of a despotic ideology, and of its innovative experiment in architecture and town planning.

Michael Z. Wise writes about architecture, culture and foreign affairs. He is the author of Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy (Princeton Architectural Press) and a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine. His writing has appeared in many publications including The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Policy, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and ARTnews. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in Vienna, Prague, and London, reporting for Reuters and the Washington Post.

Now an independent journalist based in New York, Wise is co-founder of New Vessel Press, a new ebook publishing company specializing in translations of foreign literature and literary non-fiction into English.

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