Built to oppress: fascist architecture in Italy

While wandering about Naples, we took a detour from munching street food and dodging vespas to oggle fascist architecture.  HOB and I groaned and giggled at the aggressively symmetrical fascist post office and then decided to go in–why not?  We really did need stamps.  On entry a machine instructed us to take a number.  We sat with our number on benches across from a row of post office employees behind a glass partition.  Numbers would light up above a window from time to time (seemingly in random order) instructing the waiting customers to step forward.  We waited an uncomfortably long time considering there were few customers and many employees.  We watched a delivery of sandwiches slide through a wood trap hole in a partition, and several confused–and likely illiterate–customers approach the post office clerks, only to be turned away.  Finally our number flashed and we moved forward and had the following conversion (translated from Italian for your convenience).

ME: I would like to buy some postcard stamps.

CLERK (looking incredulous): We don’t sell stamps here.

ME: Is this a post office?

CLERK (not hiding his irritation): Certainly it is!

ME: Okay then, so where do I buy postcard stamps?

CLERK: (speaking to me as if I were an imbecile) You buy them at the tobacco shop!

And off we went to find a tobacco shop, delighted with our appropriately fascist experience inside a prime example of fascist architecture.

They’re all over Italy, these looming, cold, unadorned monuments to the infamous dictatorship of Mussolini.  While I can’t say I enjoy fascist architecture, I do often find myself thinking about it.  What I find fascinating is how closely architecture follows political ideology.  The majority of fascist buildings are banks, post offices, and the like: institutions of the state.   There are no fascist churches (and indeed the dominating totalitarian regimes of the 20th century–of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Mao–were all atheist).  Fascist architecture is meant to overwhelm the individual and underscore the authority of the state.  As a true believer in the power of art and architecture, I would go as far as to say that fascist buildings can by themselves lead to human oppression and despair.  The dehumanizing buildings replace the church, making the state itself the divine authority, with complete submission to the divine state becoming the only source of salvation.  The dictators running the state and building it’s architecture grow more and more greedy and oppressive.  Oppressed people are fearful, envious and disposed to violent uprising, and violence, always and forever breeds human misery.

Although these brutally cold buildings distract from the beauty and friendliness of Italy and it’s people, I wouldn’t advocate for their destruction.  Fascist buildings are an important reminder of the ugliness of totalitarianism, the psychological power of architecture, and hopefully a warning for all of us about the dangers of nationalism and political ideology gone horribly wrong.

fascistnaples

The convex facade of Naples fascist post office, Palazzo delle Poste in Naples, completed in 1936. with it’s center doors like razor-wire teeth.  WARNING: do not try to buy stamps here!

fascistgraffiti

Pleasing graffiti on the fascist post office of Naples.

fascisttext

What is the official fascist font, I wonder?

fascistentrynapoli

The appropriately named Palazzo della Casa del Mutilato (Palace of the House of the Mutilated) across the street from the fascist post office in Naples, built 1938 – 1940.  The entry is like a medieval hell mouth–enter and suffer for an eternity.

fascistnapoli

Provincial Administrative Building, Naples, c. 1936

fascistpalermo

Il Palazzo di Giustizia di Palermo (Palermo’s palace of justice) c. 1938.

fasicstpalermowindow

Security guard, dehumanized by the mighty authority of the fascist infrastructure.

 

 

 

18 comments

  1. Thank you for such a thought provocing post…..I started to think about public housing architecture in the U.K. in the sixties and seventies…also says a great deal about the society which produced it.

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  2. I think about that sometimes too. In Chicago we had public housing called projects, which have all been ripped down. The projects were high rises and people blamed the problems of public housing on the highrises, which is strange, because plenty of wealthy and middle class people live in high rises and that is not considered a problem….

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  3. Excellent post. Official fascist font made me laugh and laugh!

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    1. Thanks–I actually do enjoy the fascist font. Some hipster is probably out there trying to revive it right now. It will be the new Helvetica.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Really interesting post, thank you! I didn’t know Naples had this kind of architecture. I’m planning to go there next year so will definitely look out for it 🙂

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    1. Thanks ifollowislands–I hope you have a good time in Naples. Eat some pizza for me!

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  5. I, too, enjoyed your post. Thanks for the history lesson and for the reminder about the danger of governments becoming too big and too powerful.

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  6. Thank you Cheryl!

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  7. Wow, they are really intimidating buildings. They look almost as though they were built for a bigger species than us. All those straight up and down lines… It is really emotive architecture.

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    1. The one in Palermo had a super-intimidating plaza too. We didn’t get a picture of it though (perhaps too intimidated?)

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  8. I still cannot get over the fact that they do not sell stamps at the post office?!! So what exactly do they do there? If I wanted to send out mail they wouldn’t provided me with a stamp? Makes no sense!

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    1. I know! We decided it was the will of the almighty State, who of course would know better where mere citizens like us could or could not buy stamps….

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  9. St.Vitus · · Reply

    When I was in Rome, I was profoundly impressed by these buildings, particularly the EUR district (where I was staying). I happen to be of the opposite political persuasion to the constructors of these things, but they understood something: geometry and scale can symbolize power. One has to acknowledge they accomplished their aims (terrible as they may have been).

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    1. You are right about the fascist’s understanding about geometry and scale to symbolize power. I still haven’t been to the EUR district in Rome but I’m quite curious about that Square Colosseum building.

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      1. St.Vitus · ·

        It was a strange happenstance that led me to EUR- I’m not sure I’d make a special trip there, but I was staying there in an apartment for a few weeks. I recall Romans my age (23 at the time) intimated it was decidedly not-posh to be staying in EUR.

        But, if you’re on a real fascist-architecture kick, it is worth going there. It was quite a construction. Locals still condemn Mussolini for leveling the old village that was there before the fascist construction projects. My impression was an uncanny (yes, that intense) sensation of having stepped into a de Chirico painting when I was alone there at sunset. That was quite memorable.

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  10. I will visit on my next trip to Rome, hopefully at dusk to get the full de Chirico effect.

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  11. Next time I try to explain fascist architecture to someone (which has happened several times in the past few months?!), I’ll have to point them to this post because these are some great/horrible examples of the form 🙂

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    1. Thanks whereszoeno–you must live an interesting life if you find yourself having to explain fascist architecture several times a month! ; )

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