Latina is a town built by Mussolini in 1932 on the old Pontine Marshes, where Il Duce is not only considered a “founding father” but is also the subject of guided tours aimed at showing tourists the “good things” done by Fascism. One sunny Saturday morning I decide to embark on one.
di Silvia Marchetti da Newsweek del 16 aprile 2015
People here still call Latina by its original Fascist name: Littoria, referring to the “lictors”, the Roman troops who carried the bundles of rods, or fasces, that gave the party its name. The town was re-christened by law post-war.
“Littoria is a living Fascist monument,” says Riccardo Pece, the head of the tourist office who gives me the grand tour. “One of the good things Mussolini did was drain the swamps, get rid of malaria and distribute land to peasants and settlers. He gave them a house in exchange for their labour and sweat. That’s why people still nourish affection for him”.
Fascism tourism is on trend in Italy. There are thrice–yearly pilgrimages to Mussolini’s tomb in Predappio on the anniversaries of his birth, death and the Fascists’ “March on Rome”. And the island of Ponza, where Mussolini was kept prisoner in 1943, now even hosts a summer festival where plays dramatise his stay there.
The centre of Latina has been preserved as it was. The Fascist buildings have been kept in place and its rationalist architecture is ornamented with pagan statues as well as military and rural bas-reliefs. There is even a gigantic statue of a Sower – hero of the land reclamation – holding a basket of seeds.
After an espresso at the former Fascist Party office – now turned into a bar with a 1930s radio and heater – I look up at the “Lictor Tower” that hosts the city council. Up there is a marble balcony featuring two massive imperial eagles with fiery eyes and open wings.This is where Mussolini gave the inaugural speech when Littoria – oops, Latina – was founded.
His words are still engraved below: “Peasants must look at this tower dominating the plains as a symbol of Fascist power, where they will find support and justice.” I can almost hear the hands clapping around me.
In front rises a fountain with a ball in the middle: Pece sees my lost expression and explains that “it’s the earth rising from the waters”. The new lands emerging from the marshes. Another fountain has water spouting out of a huge sculpture of the fasces themselves. Time here seems to have been frozen.
Next stop is a fascinating malaria lab. It is housed in the former headquarters of the Fascist Fighters’ Organisation (ONC) that led the drainage operation, now a museum.
On the roof lie pagan goddesses of abundance and harvest in sensual poses.
Malaria was finally eradicated only in 1947, in part thanks to DDT imported by the Americans, but on the way out I bump into director Manuela Francesconi, who tells me that, in reference to Fascism’s achievements, “history cannot be denied”.
By now I’m starving so Pece, who is from a pioneer family, takes me to another historical monument: Restaurant Impero (Empire), as old as Latina. Nothing has changed: the same marble mosaic floor, open-view kitchen and name. The founder refused to change it at the end of the war, saying it would have been like changing the names of his children.
Now it is run by his daughter, Iris Silvestri. She’s a bright old lady, almost 80. She tells me: “Fascist generals were frequent clients. Even Mussolini came here. Apart from the war, he did many good things for Italy, more than the politicians since the birth of the Italian republic.” She quickly adds: “But please don’t give a bad impression of me. It’s just a matter of being realistic on the good done by Mussolini here.”
His legacy is certainly widespread. Latina is just one of dozens of towns founded on the former marshes. Farmhouses in the area still display the ONC sign and in the town of Sabaudia, the church façade even has a coloured mosaic of Il Duce arranging wheat sheaves behind the Virgin Mary. An inscription on the tower praises “this land that Mussolini redeemed from deadly sterility”.