In this paper I argue that an all but forgotten Latin text from the 1930s which lies entombed in the base of a marble obelisk in Rome significantly advances our understanding of the ways in which Italian fascism appropriated Roman antiquity in order to manage its own future reception.
In 1932, a Carrara marble obelisk, inscribed with the words MUSSOLINI DUX, was erected at the entrance of the Foro Mussolini, today’s Foro Italico, in the north of Rome (D’Amelio). Three gold coins and a piece of parchment were buried under the obelisk, following the Renaissance practice of placing portrait medals in the foundations of new constructions (Schraven). The parchment bears a Latin text, composed by the classical scholar Aurelio Giuseppe Amatucci (1867-1960), which offers a eulogistic description of the rise of fascism, the achievements of its leader Mussolini (portrayed as a saviour of Messianic proportions), the fascist programmes of youth education, and finally the construction of the Foro Mussolini and erection of its obelisk. Despite its position under a monument that served as a concentrated statement of fascism’s power and dominance, the Codex Fori Mussolini has never been re-published, translated or studied in any detail, except for one brief mention by Aicher (130-2).
I argue that unlike fascist exhibitions, mass media, or public spectacle, the Codex was not intended for a contemporary audience. The Latin text was published in print in the 1930s (Amatucci), but neither widely publicised nor ever translated into Italian. I argue that the most important projected audience of this text was not the contemporary Italian public but posterity – a readership in the remote future. The Codex was intended to provide an authorised version of fascist history for a future (re-)discovery of the forum complex, the fascist ‘empire’ and its founder Mussolini. Contemporary archaeological discoveries in the 1920 and 30s relating to Roman antiquity and especially imperial building projects (Schieder) appear to have inspired the fascist leaders to consider their own future rediscovery. The location of the text, inaccessible until the 300-ton obelisk should fall down or be moved, supports this thesis; I will show that its content does as well.
Studies of the (ab-)use and appropriation of ancient Rome in Italy during the 1920s and 30s have especially stressed the ways in which (a particular construction of) the Roman past provided a means of justifying and feeding Italy’s claims to new greatness and imperialistic ambitions (e.g. Stone, Nelis, Arthurs). In the Codex, ancient Rome is instrumentalised for the forging of a prospective memory (Assmann 1992, 61-2) of the rise of fascism. For example, Amatucci opens with the First World War, providing a host of (tendentious) information which a contemporary audience would not require, such as the duration of or the participants in the war. He does so, however, with a direct quotation from Livy 21.1: bellum maxime omnium memorabile quae umquam gesta sint … Livy’s famous description of the Second Punic War is used to suggest to the future readership a parallel between the rise to greatness of two Roman ‘empires’.
Peoples in all eras have erected monuments such as obelisks to reach out to future viewers, possibly centuries away (Assmann 1991, 13-14). Amatucci himself says that the obelisk res per Fasces praeclare gestas in perpetuum consecrabit. However, his textual glorification of fascism and the obelisk was meant to go beyond even this form of enduring monumentality, superseding the monument at the moment of its destruction.