To wind up 2014, I’m reposting 14 articles I liked from this past season. I’ll put up one each day until January 5, when the new season begins. Today, a look back at the secret, not so savory, history of the Foro Italico.
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.