Mussolini and the Tomb of Augustus in the Spring of 1935

By John David Rhodes

Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo (1890–1966), Piazza Augusto Imperatore, before 6 May 1935. Overdrawn photograph on paper, 1105 × 1900 mm. DMC 7073.

Fascist urban planning was animated by the fear that one might be looking at the wrong thing. Too many buildings from too many periods stopped vision from apprehending what ought to have interested it most, the monuments bequeathed to posterity by the classical past. Phrased differently: these monuments, or their ruins, could not project themselves into the future while being crowded out or under the accretions of the intervening centuries.

The solution, for Fascism, was to dig up, to dig out, to disinter, and to disembowel. Sventraremeans to open the guts, to rip them out. This word, a term more commonly used in reference to the slaughter of animals, became the governing metaphor for an impressive set of practices that unmade Rome in the interwar period. The Roman forum, the area around the Coliseum, as well as the area that lay between it and the Piazza Venezia, the area between the latter and the Theatre of Marcellus, the neighbourhood around the Mausoleum of Augustus: these and many other sites were where the Fascist pickaxe (il piccone) fell. These are the charnel houses of Fascist urban planning—the sventramenti, the disembowellings of central Rome. Removing the guts of the city was undertaken in order to gratify the Fascist eye in its sovereign gaze at the past, or what it wanted the past to be, and to mean. Making visible the continuity—literal, spatial, historical, and metaphorical—between ancient (often imperial) Rome and modern Fascism—was a way of making citizens, and of making them see and navigate the city in ideologically and (it was hoped) sensually charged ways. If the eye could see straight from Piazza Venezia to the Coliseum, then the heart and mind would follow, would weld Mussolini permanently to a fantasy of what the nation might be or mean.

These sventramenti emptied out pockets and even entire tracts of densely edified and densely inhabited urban space in the late 1920s up until Italy’s entry into World War II. The last major project of disembowelling and re-edification was organised around the Mausoleum of Augustus, one of the great traces of Roman antiquity on the Roman cityscape. It was an imposing structure, built in 28 B.C.E. to be the grave for the Emperor Augustus. Over time at least fourteen other members of the extended imperial family would be buried inside the structure, with Nerva the last emperor to be interred there. This area of the Campo Marzio was much more sparsely settled at the time of the building’s construction, and the mausoleum would have loomed large, especially when seen from the Tiber. Like so many antique buildings, the mausoleum was put to many uses over time. It served variously as: a medieval fortress, a giardino pensile, a lime kiln, a bullfighting ring, and, following Italian unification and Rome’s creation as the capital of the infant nation state, as a musical auditorium. Around, next to, and on top of the mausoleum’s immensity had grown up in the intervening centuries a neighbourhood of tiny piazzas, narrow streets, noble palaces and nondescript houses of the urban poor. Rome, in other words.

Following Italy’s illegal and racist invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 and its new self-consciousness as an ‘imperial’ player, the mausoleum, itself, in a sense, the first memorial to ancient Roman imperialism, became, in the eyes of Mussolini, ripe for renovation. Plans had already been laid out for the ‘re-systemazition’ of the entire zone that lay between Via del Corso to the east, the Tiber to the west, Via della Frezza to the north and Via Tomacelli to the south in the Piano Regolatore Generale (PRG) of 1931, but these plans became more ideologically urgent after the invasion of Ethiopia and the exaltation of Mussolini as a new Caesar, a secular imperial deity. But at that time the mausoleum’s only really visibly remarkable feature would have been its large dome, given that its exterior walls were almost nearly entirely obscured by later constructions. Such obstacles offended the Fascist eye, which craved empty space as the proper setting for the monuments bequeathed by antiquity. The creation of voids was a way of weaponising antiquity.

The PRG was obsessed with the way in which, in the words of the statement signed by its Commission: ‘these cuts and thinning out of densely built up areas have given us the opportunity of putting into view suffocated monuments, of given to our citizens unsuspected pleasures and to the city a new form of greatness’. [1] Typically, indeed, obsessively, whatever needed to be torn down to ‘liberate’ an ancient monument was described in the most pejorative terms as baracche (shacks), casette (cottages), or casupole (hovels), while the process of sventramenti itself was proclaimed as risanamento (renewal, restoration) and bonifica (reclamation, improvement).

Vittorio Morpurgo was eventually entrusted with designing the piazza that would result from the clearance of the neighbourhood around the isolated hulk of the mausoleum, around which he built, on three sides, hypertrophied colonnaded office buildings. Morpurgo’s account of the project in Capitolium, a Fascist-era journal dedicated to architecture and planning, emphasised the ‘need for the renewal (risanamento) of this quarter of the city, where the little houses (casette) are bereft of any historical interest and are unhygienically huddled together’. [2]

There would be no huddling together in the piazza envisioned by Morpurgo, and the new sanitary aloofness of building from building, and building from human body is something we see in this drawing of the project. Curiously, in this drawing — and central to its archival ‘charm’ — is that we are looking at the wrong thing, in a sense, insofar as the mausoleum itself does not appear, but lies, instead, discreetly out of sight, on the other side of the drawing’s left-hand border (itself coterminous with the southern facade wall of the design for the building designed to house the newly discovered Ara Pacis). Although this drawing is only one view (the view from the southwest) of Morpurgo’s project, the absence of the mausoleum from this view fittingly accords with the visual disappointment that resulted from the isolation (and resulting monumentalisation, or re-monumentalisation) of the ruin, as well as from the urban clearances that were necessary in undertaking this isolation.

What we see in this drawing is the invention of Piazza Augusto Imperatore, a vast urban waste space that surrounds the hulk of the mausoleum, which, once it was denuded of every bit of architecture that did not date back to its original construction, was rather less impressive than Mussolini and his archaeologists and planners might have hoped. Long, long gone were the travertine and marble that had encased the remaining brick core. What remained was a large but rather homely mound. The architectural historian Antonio Cederna calls isolated ruins like this one that were the centrepieces of so many sventramenti ‘rotten teeth’. There is something profoundly impressive about the mausoleum’s unimpressiveness. Not seeing it at all in this drawing, thus, feels somehow right.

What we might notice first are the churches that survived the pick axe. The Palladian-esque facade of the Chiesa di San Rocco sits on the drawing’s left, and San Girolamo degli Schiavoni on the right. The apse of the Basilica of San Carlo al Corso looms in the background. The structures extending from the back of the Chiesa di San Rocco are part of the new Fascist constructions. An empty interval, indicated by a lack of shadow, between the first and second building, tells us that there we would find the descent to the mausoleum, our vision of which is made impossible by the presence of San Rocco. The drawing gives us the two church facades and the apse in quietly busy, cross-hatched detail. Stylistically it is similar to the drawings Morpurgo published in Capitolium in 1937 in an article announcing the new systematisation of the piazza. [3]

Most impressive, perhaps, are the great voids created around the excavated mausoleum, like the voids that yawn between the two churches facing us, and between the front of the drawing’s picture plane and the apse of San Carlo. Emptiness connects building to building. Emptiness is the story here, especially when the mausoleum is out of sight. The void is a medium for sight, for vision itself — a medium in which the (Fascist) eye extends its reach. The eye travels through the vanished guts of buildings that are no more.

The drawing, in fact, is emptier than what was actually created. Morpurgo worried that San Rocco would be ‘too isolated, almost stranded in the vast space’. [4] To cure this potential case of agoraphobia, he inserted a sort of ‘bridge’ (cavalcavia) connecting the two churches to one another, and thus creating a kind of boundary or limit to what might have felt to be a boundless space.

But the abandoned or incomplete project that is recorded in this drawing gives us a record of emptiness in full swing. The shadows cast by San Rocco and the planned new buildings extend to the south-east, suggesting a late afternoon sun. Their dark, sawtooth crenellation on the piazza’s pavement only begin to measure the void between the San Rocco and San Girolamo. The presence of the four, sketchily rendered human figures performs a similar function: to index vastness, to register scale. We think here, perhaps too easily, of De Chirico or Giacometti.

But with or without a consideration of these art-historical points of reference, what reigns is the sense of solitude among these four urban wanderers. Empty space separates them one from another, and yet empty space is also the medium of their dispersed relation to one another.

Perhaps this drawing was important for Morpurgo in finding his way towards the bridge between the two buildings — a feeble defence thrown up against the excessive dilation of space itself. Its architecture, which this drawing does not picture, would re-fill the void left by so much disembowelling and displacement. But the drawing, more perfectly than the finished piazza, gives evidence of the baleful fullness of period hell-bent on a practice of ideologised and aestheticised evacuation.


  1. Piano Regolatore di Roma (Milano-Roma: Treves-Treccani-Tumminelli, 1931), 22.
  2. Vittorio Morpurgo, “La sistemazione Augustea,” Capitolium 12 (1937), 147.
  3. Morpurgo, cf. 145-158.
  4. Morpurgo, 151.