Tag Archive: Mussolini


It’s sounds cliché, but Italian culture really is like an onion with layers upon layers of history. It’s easy to forget when standing places like the perfectly preserved narrow baroque streets of Rome, or the medieval time capsules of San Gimignano or Sienna, that Italy really is unique in what has been preserved. The 20th century saw 2 horrific world wars centered in Europe,  a most hellish nightmare  for those countries involved. Today when you go to the great cities of Germany or the eastern European counties, specifically places like Berlin and Warsaw, you just don’t see centuries-old architecture. That’s because those places were leveled during WWII. They don’t exist anymore. They are gone, along with so much art and cultural heritage. WWII is a deep scar upon Europe that will be felt for a very long time. For those still around and only a few generations removed, the war remains a fresh wound.

So what was the effect on Italy during WWII? Italy escaped the destruction that came to Germany, but that doesn’t mean things weren’t bad. Italy was ruled by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who rose to power (as Adolf Hitler did in Germany) by exploiting the economic hardships that resulted from WWI. He spread a strong message of Nationalism, and while Fascist Italy never came to rival the evil giant that Nazi Germany became, Mussolini pulled Italy into the war by allying Italy with Germany. That decision would bring extreme destruction and hardship to Italy. Eventually, after many years of war, Mussolini was executed in Italy as a war criminal by his own people.

Before D-DAY and the Allied invasion of France, the allies invaded Sicily from North Africa and began a slow march northward up the boot of Italy. Eventually, they pushed the Nazis out of Italy all together, but at a horrible cost. 320,000 Allied troops died in Italy alone, and many more German/Italian troops and Italian civilians perished as well. Along the way, as the enemy retreated and the allies advanced from city to city, Italy posed a difficult problem. Everywhere you look in Italy you see history and culture, historic structures stretching back up to 3,000 years, priceless statues and art, and beautiful churches packed with artifacts. Fighting a war in the advanced age with machine guns, tanks, bombers and millions of tons of bombs really was like putting a bull in a china shop. Allied troops were instructed to preserve sites of cultural significance as much as they could, but this posed a  difficult dilemma: What is the value of a priceless work of art? Is it worth the cost of a life? To a soldier advancing through a shower of shrapnel and bullets, watching his friends die, these kinds of priorities become something very different. Even worse, the Germans were smart and often sheltered in historic sites for protection knowing they wouldn’t be bombed.

The worst battle in Italy and a tragic example of this dilemma was in Monte Cassino. Situated halfway between Rome and Naples in an area of tall rugged hills and deep valleys, Monte Cassino was a prefect fallback position for the Germans. The hills gave them many places to hide and an open view of the valley below. It was nearly impossible to take an enemy hill without near total casualties, as a few troop devisions found out. One advantage the allies had was air power, so they took to littering the hillsides with bombs in coordinated assaults with troops on the ground.

The greatest cultural landmark in Cassino, and indeed among the greatest in all of Italy, was the great Benedictine Abbey, a huge monastery atop the tallest hill overlooking the beautiful valley below. It was founded by St. Benedict in 529, the abbey was the oldest and grandest of the medieval monasteries, filled with priceless art and ancient manuscripts (a few fortunately taken to the Vatican during the war for safe-keeping.) Beyond that, the abbey was a symbol of Italian faith and devotion. It provided a perfect vantage point of the valley and allied commanders were certain that the Germans were using it as a fortress, so they made the decision to level it with bombs on Feb 15, 1944. As it turns out, there was not a single German in the abbey, only women and children. In one sad move, one of the grandest and most important Italian structures was wiped out, all for nothing. In fact, the Germans quickly took to the rubble of the abbey with their guns, and used the bombing as propaganda in Germany to show American evil.

Today, the abbey is rebuilt at Monte Cassino, but the wound remains. It’s hard to imagine that in a place so heavenly beautiful, hell was once unleashed in all its fury. In the next posts, I’ll explain more about WWII and its great effect on Italy. For now, here’s some rare color footage from Monte Cassino in 1944, including the bombing.

In the center of old Rome lies a jumbled mess of broken columns, foundation fragments and crumbled structures overgrown with earth. Occasionally, a row of columns or an arch remain where once the greatest complex of temples, palaces and government buildings stood. It’s called the Roman Forum, and understanding it in it’s present state takes quite a bit of imagination and understanding of what it once was. For centuries, it was the heart of the known world, the place where the greatest empire the world built grand monuments and conducted ceremonies.

It’s sometimes hard to tell now with so many buildings, but the landscape of Rome is hilly. There were 7 great hills within the city of ancient Rome, and others outside the city limits- such as the Vatican hill. The Roman Forum is situated between the Capitoline Hill on the West, the Palatine Hill on the south extends to the Colosseum on the West. Today, there is a large museum on the Capitoline Hill, with many artifacts from the ancient city and a plaza designed by Michelangelo. The Palatine Hill was important to ancient Romans. They believed it to be the spot were Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, eventually establishing Rome on the hill. Excavations continue in the Forum as they have for centuries, and digs on the Palatine have found ancient tools and evidence of an early civilization there. The Palatine is an enormous ruin today of the Imperial palaces built by Domitian and others.

The Forum is in bad shape. Workers are always trying to save what is little is left from further decay. It’s tough to fully understand all that the Forum was just by looking at it today. Even before the fall of Rome, there were earthquakes and fires that periodically leveled parts of the city. Over the centuries, the Emperors replaced decaying wooden structures with marble and other stone (Emperor Trajan), and occasionally leveled buildings built by their tyrant predecessors in order to discredit them (Emperor Vespasian). Each new building is a new layer, leaving traces of what was there first. After the fall of Rome, the city was sacked and plundered. There were more fires and earthquakes and what remained was seen as a total loss in the middles ages. Gradually, dirt filled many places in and farmers even used the area for pasture. Some of the buildings that remained were converted to churches (the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina), or used as a quarry for stone. Today, pieces of precious granite, marble, and carved columns from the forum can be found in other buildings scattered across the city. In more recent times, dictator Benito Mussolini had a huge highway built directly through the Forum called the Via del Fori Imperiali. It was built for big military parades in WWII. Today it’s the busiest road in Rome. It was built directly on top of the Forums of Augustus, Trajan and Nerva, and today archeologists continue to carefully dig under the street. For all these reasons, the Forum is like a scattered jigsaw puzzle, each piece representing a different moment in history and a specific original function. It would be almost impossible to learn everything about it, so I’ll touch on a few of the most important features of the Forum in this post and a few others.

The Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestals    

The most sacred of buildings to the Romans was the temple of Vesta. It was a small round temple in the forum dedicated the the goddess vesta. The priestesses of Vesta were the vestal virgins, who took a vow of celibacy and lived in seclusion at a huge 3 story 50-room complex called the house of the Vestals.They had one purpose- to keep the sacred fire of vesta burning inside the temple day and night, never to go out.

The fire represented Vesta’s protection of Rome, so it was hugely important to the Romans to keep it going. Being a Vestal meant a 30 year term of total dedication to the temple, with harsh punishments for breaking the rules. If a vestal was found to have broken her vow of celibacy, it was Roman law for her to be buried alive. Today, the you can see the foundation and column bases were the house of Vesta was, and a small section of the Temple of Vesta stands with a few columns. This however, is a modern reconstruction, also made under Mussolini.

Temple of Saturn

Another important structure was the Temple of Saturn. Today, it’s probably the most iconic image of the forum, with 8 huge columns from the original front still standing. It’s the first thing you see when you enter on the Capitoline Hill side, and it remains grand even as a shell of it’s former self. The Temple of Saturn was one of the oldest temples in Rome, dating back to 450 BC. That structure is long gone, rebuilt at least twice after fire. The ruins today are from the year 283, and you can still see the latin inscription on the top- “The Senate and People of Rome restored what fire had consumed”.

It’s hard to comprehend how grand the Forum must have looked in its heyday. There are many resources online, including an online database were researchers are attempting to digitally recreate the entire forum with all its buildings. You can even find reconstructions of the forum within google earth to better understand the Rome that the Romans saw. I’ll discuss other important features in later posts.