Time has its way with buildings. It can topple the tallest, make the trendiest look dated, and attach a sentimental value to the ugliest. With others, it can change the meaning entirely. I’ve been thinking about the latter phenomenon this week while watching tennis from the Foro Italico in Rome.
You only have to know the original name of this sports complex—Foro Mussolini, i.e., "Mussolini's Forum"—to understand how much its meaning has changed, or been lost, since it was constructed 80 years ago. In 1925, Italy’s fascist leader declared himself a dictator and created a police state; in 1928, he began a self-glorifying public works program that included, most prominently, the Foro.
This was his monument to his nation’s athletic prowess, and it would become what one historian called a “supreme example of fascist architecture.” The facility took 10 years to complete, and included a track, a soccer stadium, a swimming center, and the tennis courts now used by the pros each spring. The statue-lined amphitheater we know today as Stadio Pietrangeli was called the Pallacorda, a word that came from an ancient game, “string ball.” This was what Mussolini, who hated using English or French terms, insisted on calling tennis. (See Il Duce play some doubles at the 1:25 mark in the video at the bottom of this post. It seems he also insisted that the ball come to his forehand.)
Mussolini saw the structure as a 20th-century version of an ancient imperial plaza. He wanted, according to one historian, “to create a forum that would surpass those of Caesar and Augustus”—history would be the justification for his drive for empire. At one entrance a marble obelisk was erected, with the words "Mussolini Dux" inscribed down the front; it still stands today. In a nearby piazza, you can walk across mosaics that spell out “Duce” over and over; it was opened in 1937 to commemorate Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia, Mussolini’s one and only colony. Most famous are the towering nude marble statues, done in a style that might be called “fascist kitsch,” that surround both the Foro’s track, called the Stadio die Manni (seen in the video below), and the Pallacorda. Most Duce-approved sports are represented by these blank-gazed behemoths; there’s even a naked skier. I would never want them taken down, but you don’t have to know the history of the Foro to find their blind gazes a little creepy.
The Foro’s track is attached to a building that once housed the Fascist Male Academy of Education. Its students were brought to the arena to perform for visiting leaders, including Hitler. Sport for Mussolini was “one branch of army training,” according to American sportswriter John Tunis, and an “integral part of government.” Its nation’s athletes were used as propaganda for his regime. In 1936, Tunis wrote, “Italian triumphs in football, cycling, and tennis...are seized upon, written up, and paraded as proof positive of the superiority of the race and its governing principles.”
In 1934, the budding Italian empire achieved its ultimate triumph when it hosted and won the World Cup—to the chants, naturally, of “Duce!” Soccer was at the core of Mussolini’s grand PR plans, and his government supported and rapidly expanded the sport around the country. Stadiums were built in Bologna, Florence, Livorno, and Rome that stand today. The “Mussolini” arena in Turin hosted the World University Games in 1933.
The Foro Italico was expanded after Mussolini’s death in 1945, and was the central location for the 1960 Olympics. Most impressive of all may be the 50-meter Olympic swimming pool; its walls are adorned with fantastical, faux-ancient mosaics. Mussolini, of course, swam in his own, column-lined pool on the premises. In 1990, the Foro’s soccer stadium was reconstructed and renovated for the World Cup.
That expansion continues today at the tennis center. The new main stadium, added in 2010, may be the most impressive of all, and the place has been significantly upgraded since I was there in 2007. While Rome has chosen to expand, rather than erase, this monument to its dark pre-war past, it would hardly be surprising if Italians had mixed feelings about it. According to a Roman swimmer named Novella Calligaris, though, the Eternal City is a repository for all kinds of history.
“Inside the Colosseum, the Romans gave Christians to the lions," she told Deutsche Welle in 2009, "but we’d never cover up the Colosseum.”
Looked at in that light, with every tennis match played in the Foro Italico today, and with every arena that’s built there, a new history is being written on those grounds. The place is a reminder of all the ways, good and evil, in which athletics can be used, and it makes me wonder what people might someday make of our current mania for professional sports.
Are today’s athletes our version of the mythical gods that keep guard over the courts at the Foro, distant figures we invest with our own meanings, but who never look at us? Is the one-on-one competition of tennis an unconscious form of propaganda for the survival-of-the-fittest ideology of capitalism? (The sport was invented and popularized at a moment when Social Darwinism was a reigning philosophy in the West.)
Either way, it’s more pleasant to contemplate the Foro’s current meanings than its past ones. Sometimes the best thing time can do to buildings is just let them be buildings, and, in the case of Mussolini's former house, a place to play.