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The eternal parasite: anti-Romanism in Italian politics and culture since 1860.

In his 1975 essay "Delusione di Roma" ("The Disappointment of Rome"), Alberto Moravia reflected on his native city and its role in Italian intellectual life. Unlike London and Paris, which were indisputably their nations' cultural epicenters, Rome was in his view

un elemento frenante e mortificante per la cultura italiana [...] una slabbrata e sgangherata cittadona mediterranea, sede di uno Stato che non e uno Stato, capitale di una nazione che non e una nazione. In altri termini, Roma e l'espressione, purtroppo perfetta, del fallimento dell'Unita Italiana.

(10, 14)

(a restraining and humiliating force in Italian culture [...] a frayed and ramshackle Mediterranean town, the seat of a State that is not a State, the capital of a nation that is not a nation. In other words, Rome is the expression--all too perfect--of the failure of Italian unity.)

Moravia's harsh appraisal points to an enduring disquiet over the capital's relationship to the rest of Italy and its significance to national identity. Many readers will be more familiar with the rhetorical celebration of the Eternal City, from Mazzini's messianic Terza Roma (Third Rome) to Mussolini's imperial delusions. (1) Republicans, liberals, monarchists, and Fascists alike have looked to the city as a symbol of unity and centralization, a historical and aesthetic model to emulate, and a canvas upon which to project their utopian visions of the body politic. Yet alongside the tradition of romanita (the invocation of a heroic "Romanness"), there stands an equally pronounced and long-lasting counter-discourse of anti-Romanism, of antipathy towards Rome as both a place and an idea. For its critics past and present, the Eternal City has been simultaneously a source and a reflection of Italian deficiencies. Rome has often been cast as a parasite, both literally, as an economic drain on the rest of the peninsula, and metaphorically, as a pathological presence that stifles progress and creativity. In many instances, the charges are contradictory: the city has been assailed for being too provincial and too universal, too petty and too monumental, too low-class but insufficiently proletarian. It has been blamed for ineffectual democracy and Fascist authoritarianism, for being burdened with historical memories and yet devoid of authentic culture.

The present contribution examines the persistence of anti-Roman sentiment across the development of modern Italy, from national unification in the nineteenth century to recent years. While this is by no means an exhaustive study, I hope to identify some key features of this discourse. First, anti-Romanism has remained remarkably consistent over time. Criticisms of the capital--and the language used to express them--have been continually recycled and re-appropriated over the past 150 years. Second, many of the charges leveled against Rome can be (and often are) applied to Italian society in general; in other words, anti-Romanism might fruitfully be approached as a kind of displacement, a deflection of Italian self-criticism. In particular, the capital has served as a mirror in which to contemplate the problem of modernity. More than any other city, Rome typifies the ubiquitous and insistent presence of the past in Italy, and the seemingly insurmountable challenge of freeing Italians from the constraints of tradition. Finally, debates over Roma capitale are inevitably colored by regionalism, resentment of the centralized state, and the deep divide between North and South. This is especially evident in the repeated contrast between Rome and the "moral capital" Milan. By exploring these (and other) themes in the longue duree, then, we might better understand not only Rome's contested role in the construction of national identity but also some of the tensions and contradictions that continue to permeate Italian politics and culture.

To understand the origins of anti-Romanism one must first consider the appeal that the city held for the architects of Italian unification. (2) In the early years of the Risorgimento, the principal devotees of the "myth of Rome" were radical republicans like Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Just as the Rome of the Caesars had unified the world under its civilization, and Catholic Rome had created a worldwide community of the faithful, Mazzini believed that the Third Rome--this time of the Italian people--would be a beacon of liberty to the rest of the world. Italian unity without Rome was inconceivable; and since the Eternal City was ruled by the Papacy and defended by French troops, these early patriots could portray theirs as a struggle against clerical anachronism and foreign occupation. These ideals were captured by Garibaldi's famous battle cry "O Roma o morte!" ("Rome or death!"), which rallied supporters across the peninsula and beyond. (3)

While they did not share Mazzini and Garibaldi's romantic vision, the Piedmontese who subsequently assumed leadership of national unification in the late 1850s recognized the city's affective potential. On March 27th 1861, the new Kingdom of Italy proclaimed Rome its capital. In his speech to parliament, Camillo di Cavour declared that

in Roma concorrono tutte le circostanze storiche, intellettuali, morali che devono determinare le condizioni della capitale di un grande Stato. Roma e la sola citta d'Italia che non abbia memorie esclusivamente municipali; tutta la storia di Roma dal tempo dei Cesari al giorno d'oggi e la storia di una citta la cui importanza si estende infinitamente al di la del suo territorio.

(Camera dei deputati italiana 19)

(in Rome, there are all the historical, intellectual and moral conditions that should determine the capital of a great state. Rome is the only city in Italy not to have exclusively local memories. The entire history of Rome, from the time of the Caesars to today, is the history of a city whose importance extends far beyond its territory.)

Although Cavour himself was not intoxicated by romanita, his justification reveals the fundamental motivations of the ruling elites. Unlike Turin or Florence (both of which would serve as capitals before 1871), Rome held a universal appeal. It was a neutral site, free of the municipal particularisms that divided the peninsula, and situated at the boundary between North and South; its past provided a historical precedent for Italian unity; and its inspirational power had the potential to reconcile the disparate elements within the nationalist cause.

Nevertheless, many within the Risorgimento leadership strenuously opposed establishing the capital in Rome. According to its critics, the city represented not Italy's future but its past. To those who yearned for a modern nation, the city of Caesars and Popes was antithetical to a liberal body politic founded on progress, reason, and individual rights. For the Turinese Massimo D'Azeglio, Rome was an unhealthy soil in which to plant the Risorgimento's fragile seedling:

Esistono le arie che danno forza ed energia, come quelle che inducono ignavia e fiacchezza. L'ambiente di Roma impregnato de' miasmi di 2,500 anni di violenze materiali o di pressioni morali [...] non pare il piu atto ad infonder salute e vita nel Governo d'un'Italia giovane, nuova.

(D'Azeglio 42)

(There are airs that give force and energy, and those that induce sloth and weakness. The environment of Rome, saturated with the miasmas of 2,500 years of physical violence and moral coercion [...] does not seem suited to instilling health and life in the government of a young and new Italy.)

In D'Azeglio's estimation, Rome's imperial memories were impossible to overcome. Given that the Italians were busy driving out the Habsburgs (not to mention the Papacy), it was essential that their leaders avoid resurrecting the ghosts of empire. This view was echoed by others who worried that Rome's chief appeal was more rhetorical than practical. To Edmondo De Gismondis, the notion of Roma capitale was "una idea retorica, abbagliante, di grandi rimembranze, nata da equivoci e da gare municipali ma non popolare" ("an idea that is rhetorical, dazzling, with great memories, born of municipal suspicious and competition, but not popular," qtd. in Caracciolo, Roma capitale 61). The vast majority of Italians were ignorant of this history and had more prosaic concerns. The Lombard Stefano Jacini similarly felt that it was "a product of rhetoric, of that rhetoric whose influence should be the first thing we get rid of, now that Italy has come into existence, if we really desire to take our place among the modern civilized nations" (qtd. in Chabod 262). If Italy was to become a dynamic, forward-looking European power, it could not be built on distant glories and illustrious stones. Even more than its imposing past, for many contemporaries Rome was tarnished by the temporal power still exercised by the Holy See. Aggressive moves against the Church risked inflaming Catholic opinion at home and controversy abroad. How could a secular political capital be established in the seat of the Holy See? How would the young nation assert its presence in a landscape filled with the monuments of Christianity? For anticlericals and Catholics alike, such a coexistence was unthinkable and risked reducing the urbs caput mundi to the undistinguished capital of a small state.

Such reservations notwithstanding, on the twentieth of September 1870 Rome "finally" became Italian. Although the breach of the Porta Pia was hailed as the heroic culmination of the Risorgimento, it was the result more of external forces than Italian initiative. Embroiled in the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III recalled the Vatican's garrison; the remaining Papal forces were only able to mount a token resistance before Piedmontese troops occupied the city. Rome had thus been won by default, not by glorious military endeavor. The ecstasy of victory was thus tinged with a dose of prosaic reality. Edmondo De Amicis lamented the state of the city's ruins and monuments, which under the Popes had been pillaged and left to crumble--"una stonatura che urta. Non si puo passar di la senza provare un moto d'indignazione" ("a jarring, clashing note. One cannot pass by without a tremor of indignation," 69). The native Romans did not seem overwhelmingly thrilled at their "liberation"; indeed, according to recent research, displays of patriotic fervor may have been engineered by the Piedmontese, who distributed banners and tricolor flags to the crowds. (4) Ugo Pesci resented that "li Romani de Roma" (indigenous Romans, in romanesco dialect) persisted in referring to the occupying forces as "the Piedmontese," "the Italians," or simply as "questi" ("those ones," Pesci 256-57). It would take years to make them feel like fellow countrymen; after all, argued Pesci, the development of their national sentiment had been stunted by centuries of Papal rule. Yet Romans were convinced of their own superiority, "derivante dall'antica, della quale rimaneva ormai la tradizione, non la ragione" ("derived from ancient times, which remained more in tradition than in reason," Pesci 256). Even those at the lower rungs of society--Pesci mentions the friggitore, the abbacchiaro, the bracciante (the street food vendor, the lamb butcher, and the laborer)--saw themselves as heirs to the Caesars, proudly reciting the poet Virgil's reminder tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento ("Remember, Roman, to rule the nations with power"). The characterization of native Romans as sardonic, sycophantic, and devious, as (in the words of Giosue Carducci) "the most impudently skeptical, the most exquisitely immoral society," would become a standard part of anti-Roman invective (qtd. in Chabod 259).

Italy had come to Rome, but the elation of the twentieth of September was quick to dissipate. Indeed, only a week later the Milanese newspaper La Lombardia opined that

a Roma tutti quanti, senza eccezione, si facciano enormi illusioni, cosi quelli che vedono il Tevere scorrer latte, o stillar miele i grami arbusti della campagna di Roma, e sognano in Campidoglio l' universale conciliazione degli animi, come gli altri che dalle catacombe di Roma presumono dissotterar non sappiamo quale Italia di lor fantasia e gia si camuffano da Cola di Rienzo.

(qtd. in Bonfanti 99)

(in Rome, everybody--without exception--is under an enormous illusion, from those who see the Tiber running with milk, or the wretched shrubs in the Roman countryside dripping with honey, and dream of a universal reconciliation of souls on the Capitoline, to those who somehow think that they can unearth the Italy of their fantasies from the Roman catacombs and are already dressing up like Cola di Rienzo.)

If anyone still shared such fantasies, they were soon disabused of them. Returning to the capital a decade after the breach of Porta Pia, the Garibaldian veteran Giuseppe Nuvolari lamented the city's squalid appearance and lack of development. The local population "non ha spirito d'operosita, non ha energia ne industriale, ne Agricola, ne commerciale" ("does not have a work ethic, nor energy for industry, agriculture, or commerce"), treated other Italians "come se fossero tanti invasori; infatti li chiamano, con parola sprezzante, buzzurri" ("as though they were invaders; in fact, they disdainfully call them buzzurri"), and refused to celebrate patriotic holidays (281-82). (5) Despite ten years of Italian rule, Rome seemed frozen in time, mired in the Middle Ages. Nuvolari declared that "se io [...] avessi conosciuto Roma come la cognosco oggi, v'assicuro che non mi sarei immischiato nel Roma oMorte!" ("if I [...] had known Rome like I do today, I assure you that I never would have become involved in all that 'Rome or Death' business!" 295).

Nuvolari's disappointment was shared by other "patriots" who increasingly saw the capital as a manifestation of the nation's failings and inadequacies, of the "rivoluzione mancata" ("failed revolution") of the Risorgimento. By the early 1880s, many concurred with Carducci's lament that "impronta Italia domandava Roma, Bisanzio essi le han dato" ("Italy, unready, demanded Rome; they gave her Byzantium"). (6) The worst fears of many critics seemed confirmed. A deep hostility remained between the secular state and the Church, which was still backed by the local "black" aristocracy--a divide that would not be overcome until Mussolini's Lateran Accords in 1929. The transfer of the capital from Florence resulted in major upheavals. (7) Within a decade of the breach of Porta Pia, native-born Romans had become a minority in their own city, displaced by a flood of civil servants from the North as well as southern laborers who had come to work on the state's massive new building projects. The influx of new arrivals heightened tensions between "li Romani de Roma" and "questi," and irrevocably transformed the city's demographic makeup. A concomitant development was the "febbre edilizia" (building fever) of the 1880s; Rome had become a massive construction site, fueled by a severe housing shortage and rampant property speculation. When the bubble burst at the end of the decade, many projects lay abandoned. The "incomplete" capital of the late nineteenth century had become an all too appropriate symbol of the nation's "rivoluzione mancata" ("failed revolution") and the shortcomings of the Italian state.

By the eve of World War One, anti-Romanism had been appropriated by voices that were increasingly hostile towards liberal democracy and the legacy of the Risorgimento. The most vociferous critics of the Eternal City in this period were not Piedmontese elites or disenchanted Garibaldini but a new generation of artists and intellectuals who rejected the sterility of tradition and bourgeois culture. The most notable (or at least the most notorious) among these were of course Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Futurists. (8) Celebrating speed, violence, and technology over the stasis of the past, they sought to rid Italy of "la sua fetida cancrena di professori, d'archeologhi, di ciceroni e d'antiquarii [...] gl'innumerevoli musei che la coprono tutta di cimiteri innumerevoli" ("her putrid gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tour-guides and antiquarians [...] the countless museums that cover her like so many cemeteries," qtd. in Scrivo 3). This endless obsession with the nation's historical and artistic patrimony made it chronically incapable of modern vitality. As the Futurist writer Emilio Settimelli put it,

il passatismo, ossia l'adorazione, lo sfruttamento del passato, ammala ogni cervello ed ogni iniziativa Italiana. L'Italiano a furia di stare inginocchiato dinanzi alla propria grandezza non ha piu i ginocchi saldi per conquistare una nuova. Tutte le iniziative artistiche, industriali, commerciali urtano piu o meno nei ricordi, inciampano nelle colonne e negli archi, attenuano la loro forza esplosiva attraverso mille preoccupazioni antiquarie.


(Past-ism, namely the adoration and exploitation of the past, infects every Italian mind, every Italian undertaking. The Italian, by kneeling before his own greatness, has no strong knees to go out and conquer a new one. All artistic, industrial, and commercial undertakings collide into memories, stumble among the columns and arches, and their explosive power dissipates among a thousand antiquarian pursuits.)

If Italy itself was a nazione passatista, then it was only fitting that its capital should be Rome. This view was most fully explored in Marinetti's 1910 essay Contro Firenze e Roma piaghe purulente della nostra penisola (Against Florence and Rome, Festering Sores on Our Peninsula). As the title suggests, the language of disease and infection predominated: Rome languished "sotto la sua lebbra di rovine" ("under its leprosy of ruins," qtd. in Scrivo 23), its only lifeblood, the money of foreign tourists. Marinetti fantasized about riding into the Eternal City "su una velocissima sessanta-cavalli [...] col volante rivolto direttamente verso l'Arco di Costantino" ("on a speeding sixty-horsepower [...] the steering wheel aimed directly at the Arch of Constantine," 23), pitting the destructive power of the automobile against the static remnants of the past. The violence reaches its peak as the car slams into some ancient stones, destroying the vehicle:

Fu come un simbolo, come un avvertimento, o, piuttosto, fu una vendetta venuta dalla lontananza delle secoli morti [....] Ed io gridai ai romani, con tutta la forza dei miei polmoni: "Si salvi chi puo! Voi dovete isolare i ruderi dell'antica Roma, piu epidemici e piu mortiferi della peste e del colera! Bisogna che voi scaviate un profondo fossato e innalziate un gran muro circolare per chiudere in un recinto impenetrabile tutti quei resti di mura romane, vendicativi e pieni di rancore."


(It was like a sign, like a warning, or rather, a vendetta from across the dead centuries [....] And I shouted to the Romans, with all my strength: "Save yourselves if you can! You must isolate the ruins of ancient Rome, more contagious and deadly than the plague or cholera! You must dig a deep pit, and surround it with a great wall, and seal off those

Roman walls, vengeful and full of anger.)

Conforming to their traditionally sardonic character, the Romans respond to Marinetti's warning with "un sorriso ironico, inzuccherato di polvere archeologica e di grossolana ghiottoniera. Essi continuano la loro vita di sorci polverosi" ("an ironic smile sprinkled with archaeological dust and vulgar gluttony. They continued on with their lives as dusty mice," 23). Like the Piedmontese before him, the Milanese writer came away disgusted by the corrupting morass of Roman memories and bemused by its inhabitants.

Another group that shared much of Marinetti's anti-Romanism were the Vociani, the intellectual circle behind the influential Florentine journal La Voce. (9) Whereas Futurism trumpeted the machine age and urban dynamism, the Vociani sought a spiritual alternative to the materialism of contemporary culture. The simplicity of their native Tuscany, and of Italy's regional traditions in general, would be a wellspring for the moral transformation of the nation. Rome, by contrast, was the locus of a stultifying, inauthentic, and "official" version of Italianness. According to one of La Voce's leading figures, Giuseppe Prezzolini, the absence of creative energy was felt in every aspect of national life, from art to politics to industry:

Roma e la sanguisuga centrale dell'Italia. Il paese meno produttivo, il ritrovo di tutti i fannulloni e gli sbafatori, il centro della corruzione e della meschineria di spirito, il punto neutro che attira gli imbroglioni e le mezze coscienze e i cavalocchi e gli azzeccagarbugli e i becchi pagati e gli sfruttatori di donne gli arrivisti politici e i giornalisti da appigionare e gli impiegati compiacenti; Roma rappresenta la causa fondamentale d'ogni nostra deficienza economica, morale e intellettuale, e rappresenta, nella sua stessa origine, il tributo d'imbecilita che noi paghiamo alla nostra tradizione retorica e bagalona. Non c'e in Roma e fuori di Roma nulla che provenga da Roma; non un pezzo da cinque lire circolante per il regno e prodotto di attivita romana.

(Prezzolini 376)

(Rome is the principal leech of Italy, the least productive region of the country, where one can find all the do-nothings and exploiters, the center of corruption and pettiness of character, the neutral point that attracts swindlers and unscrupulous types, quacks and fraudulent lawyers, paid off cuckolds and pimps, political climbers, journalists for hire and complacent officials. Rome represents the fundamental cause of our every deficiency

--economic, moral, and intellectual--and, at the same time, demonstrates the imbecilic tribute that we insist on paying to our traditions of rhetoric and hot air. There's nothing

--within the city or without--that comes from Rome; not a single five-lira coin circulating in the kingdom was ever produced by Roman activity.)

The theme of parasitism was expressed even more forcefully by Prezzolini's colleague Giovanni Papini in his 1913 address Contro Roma e contro Benedetto Croce (Against Rome and against Benedetto Croce). Declaring that he had never felt anything for Rome other than "una repulsione che in certi momenti arriva quasi all'odio" ("a repulsion that sometimes almost reaches hate"), Papini claimed that the achievements of the Eternal City had been built through the exploitation of other peoples (qtd. in Scrivo 65). Roman civilization was derived from the Etruscans, its art and culture from the Greeks, and with the advent of Christianity, even its religion had been borrowed from the Jews. The ancient Romans had excelled only in the more prosaic tasks of military conquest and bureaucratic administration. In the Renaissance, the glory of the Papal city had been created by artists from Tuscany, Umbria, and the Veneto. And, of course, this parasitism extended into the present. Rome had only been made capital because of the chronic "passatismo ed archeologismo storico, letterario e politico che ha sempre annacquato e acciaccato la vita piu originale d'Italia" ("historical, literary, and political 'past-ism' and 'archeology-ism' that have always watered down and crushed Italian originality," 65). Mired in nostalgia and a backwards mentality, contemporary Romans lacked the capacity for productive activity. In sum, Papini concluded, the city "attira come una puttana e attacca ai suoi amanti la sifilide dell'archeologismo cronico [...] [e] il simbolo sfacciato e pericoloso di tutto quello che ostacola in Italia il sorgere di una mentalita nuova, originale, rivolta innanzi e non sempre indietro" ("seduces, like a whore, and infects her lovers with the syphilis of chronic archaeology-ism [...] [Rome is] the shameless and dangerous symbol of all that blocks the growth of a new and original mentality in Italy, looking forwards instead of always backwards," 66).

If the nation was to move forwards instead of backwards, the Futurists and Vociani were both convinced that this transformation would be effected by Italian participation in the First World War. The government's prevarication in 1914-15 led to a new round of attacks on Rome; the city was now not only passatista and parasitic but the lair of the pancioni, the indecisive "big paunches" who occupied the seat of government. Earlier cultural and aesthetic criticisms were elided with anti-government rhetoric; the capital was assailed as "la massima cloaca di tutti gli intrigui politici [...] Preti, professori, parlamentari, pietre vecchie, muffa ed altro sterco, hanno purtroppo per la loro patria Roma" ("the great sewer of all political intrigues [...] the homeland of priests, professors, parliamentarians, old stones, mould, and dung," Roma futurista 3). This sentiment fed directly into the nascent Fascist movement that emerged in the aftermath of the Great War. As early as 1910, the young Benito Mussolini--then a journalist for the Socialist newspaper Avanti!--had voiced his antipathy towards Rome and its political establishment. His anti-Romanism combined the cultural critique of the Futurists and the Vociani with the Marxist language of class struggle. Unlike Milan or Turin, the engines of the Italian economy, Rome was devoid of industry and consequently lacked a revolutionary working class:

Roma, citta parassitaria di affittacamere, di lustrascarpe, di prostitute, di preti e di burocrati, Roma--citta senza proletariato degno di questo nome--non e il centro della vita politica nazionale, ma sebbene il centro e il focolare d'infezione della vita politica nazionale [...]. Basta, dunque, con lo stupido pregiudizio unitario per cui tutto, tutto, dev'essere concentrato in Roma--in questa enorme citta-vampiro che succhia il miglior sangue della nazione.

(3: 190-91)

(Rome, a parasitic city of landladies, shoeshine boys, prostitutes, priests and bureaucrats, Rome--a city without a genuine proletariat--is not the center of the nation's political life, but rather the center and source of its infection [...]. Enough, then, of this stupid desire for unity, the insistence that absolutely everything must be concentrated in Rome--in that enormous vampire-city that drains the best blood of the nation.)

Yet again, the familiar motifs--parasitism, backwardness and infection--come to the fore. Mussolini's attack adapted the cultural critique of the Futurists and Vociani to more expressly political and economic ends: the goal was not only the aesthetic or spiritual rejuvenation of the nation but an open challenge to parliamentarism, liberal democracy, and the central state.

How is one to reconcile this early disdain with the Duce's later obsession with imperial Rome? Seemingly paradoxically, I believe that a strain of anti-Romanism continued to inform subsequent articulations of Fascist romanita. The regime remained extremely hostile to what it saw as the "old" Rome--the ministerial city of the liberal state, the romantic city of moonlit ruins and the popular city of folkloric tradition." (10) Its appropriation of antiquity was therefore cast as an act of reclamation and valorization, a liberation of the Roman spirit from the pettiness and ignorance of the Eternal City's contemporary occupants. This effort was not merely rhetorical: during the Ventennio Nero, massive portions of the living city were plowed under to create vast new monumental spaces devoid of people, and "liberate" the buried monuments of classical antiquity. As Mussolini famously put it in April 1922, only a few months before his accession to power,

la Roma che noi onoriamo, non e soltanto la Roma dei monumenti e dei ruderi [...] la Roma che noi onoriamo non ha nulla a vedere con certa trionfante mediocrita modernistica e coi casermoni dai quali sciama l'esercito innumerevole della travetteria dicasteriale. Consideriamo tutto cio alla stregua di certi funghi che crescono ai piedi delle gigantesche quercie. La Roma che noi onoriamo, ma soprattutto la Roma che noi vagheggiamo e prepariamo, e un'altra: non si tratta di pietre insigni, ma di anime vive; non e contemplazione nostalgica del passato, ma dura preparazione dell'avvenire. Roma e il nostro punto di partenza e di riferimento; e il nostro simbolo o, se si vuole, il nostro mito.

(18: 160-61)

(The Rome we honor is not just the Rome of monuments and ruins [...] the Rome we honor has nothing to do with that triumphalist, modernist mediocrity and the barracks out of which swarm the massive army of ministerial functionaries. We consider all that to be like those mushrooms that grow at the foot of giant oaks. The Rome we honor, and above all the Rome we dream of and are preparing, is another: not one of famous stones, but of living souls; not the nostalgic contemplation of the past, but harsh preparation for the future. Rome is our point of departure and our point of reference; it is our symbol or, if you prefer, our myth.)

This "myth" was finally translated into reality during the March on Rome of October 1922. The Blackshirts' descent on the Eternal City was above all a ritual seizure of power, but it was also a symbolic attack on the mediocre capital of the liberal state. For Giuseppe Bottai (one of the few Romans among the early Fascists who would serve in a number of capacities in Mussolini's regime), Rome was "ad un tempo il bersaglio e la meta; era la citta vituperata e la citta agognata; era la citta contro cui si doveva combattere e la citta per cui si combatteva" ("at one and the same time the target and the destination; the city we despised and the city we longed for; the city against which we had to fight and the city for which we fought," 342). The March had been a struggle of "Rome against Rome," pitting the virtue and virility of the city's past (and Fascist future) against the degeneracy and impotence of its present. Just like the Italian forces in 1870, the Blackshirts promised to reinvigorate the moribund city. For the next twenty years, Fascism would work aggressively to remake "parasitic" Rome in its own image, replacing the inglorious capital of Italietta with a modern, monumental, and imperial metropolis. (11)

The Fascist era clearly represented the apex of the state's efforts to transform Rome into a worthy national capital, both physically and metaphorically. (12) Romanita became increasingly important to the regime's self-representation, particularly after its more radical early years; by the mid-1930s, it was arguably the dominant feature of Fascist political culture. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the demise of Mussolini's regime in 1943 and the defeat of the Axis prompted a vigorous reaction against Rome and its position in the national consciousness. While this wave of postwar anti-Romanism recycled many familiar criticisms, it was underpinned by new sensibilities and concerns.

First and foremost amongst these was the belief that Rome had in some way been responsible for the rise and consolidation of Fascism. Notwithstanding the fact that the Mussolini's movement had originated in Milan and derived much of its early support from northern and central Italy, many argued that the capital had provided the perfect setting for the regime's totalitarian theatrics. To the postwar satirist Giovanni Mosca, Rome was "una gloriosa palla" ("a glorious ball") chained to the leg of the nation, dragging it down with its ponderous rhetoric:

Sulla meravigliosa ribalta di Roma, che ha per fondale il Colosseo e per quinte la piu fitta selva d'archi, di colonne e di torri che si conosca, i comprimari spariscono, occorre il primo attore, il tenore di grido. A Roma ogni balcone e storico, ogni strada reca impronte di celebri passi, ogni edificio echeggia ancora di voci illustri, le piazze sono troppo vaste per ammettere discorsi sobri e sommessi: o si urla e si gesticola o si corre il rischio di non essere nemmeno notati [...]. La tradizione di Roma e tutta teatrale, fatta di gesti larghi e di ampi avvolgimenti di toga.


(On the marvelous stage of Rome, with the Colosseum as backdrop and the dense forest of arches, columns, and towers on the wings, all supporting actors disappear, and a lead actor is required, the most fashionable tenor. In Rome, every balcony is history, every road bears imprints of famous footsteps, every building still echoes with illustrious voices, the piazzas are too vast to allow subdued and humble speeches; one either yells and gesticulates or runs the risk of not even being noticed [...]. The tradition of Rome is completely theatrical, made of large gestures and wide rolls of the toga.)

If Italians had suffered a collective delusion or easily been seduced by Mussolinian histrionics, then the ghosts of the Eternal City were to blame. Its famous monuments had provided the backdrop, and its imperial legacy had lured the nation into military escapades for which it was unprepared. A related argument played yet again on the innate deficiencies of the Roman character, claiming that the traditional passivity of the city's inhabitants had allowed Fascism to flourish in the capital. For over two decades, wrote La Stampa, "arroganza, vanagloria, supponenza, arraffamento, fu la faccia che il buon popolo romano presento, suo malgrado" ("arrogance, vainglory, conceit, and avarice were the face that the good Roman people presented, despite themselves") to the rest of the country, through the regime's newsreels and propaganda films (Sacchi 3). Giovanni Mosca concurred that the Romans had always been "ammiratori della forza [...]; hanno bisogno d'essere posseduti da un governo dal pugno di ferro che dia loro, in cambio d'una liberta di cui, del resto, non hanno bisogno, sagre dell'uva, corse di bighe e 'Aida'" ("admirers of force [...]; they need to be taken up by an iron-fisted government that gives them wine festivals, chariot races, and performances of Aida in exchange for the liberty that they do not need," 31). Mussolini had only been the latest in a long line of authoritarian rulers. In a proposal reminiscent of Marinetti's call to seal off Roman ruins, Mosca suggested that the youth of Italy be prohibited from visiting the city's monuments so that they would not be seduced by a grandeur that they could never equal. The essayist Paolo Nalli similarly drew upon earlier metaphors of infection and pathology in his work Roma carcinoma (1945). The myth of Rome, he wrote, was an incurable cancer that could never be excised, as well as a kind of Italian psychosis. Those who still believed in romanita,

dovrebbero essere considerati semplicemente, ma inappellabilmente, come dei deficienti, come dei primitivi [...] come delle persone il cui livello intellettuale e perfettamente uguale a quello del negroide, che ricorre allo stregone del villaggio per guarire la malattia del sonno.


(should simply and undeniably be considered deficient, primitive [...] as people whose intellectual level is equal to a Negro's, who visits the village witchdoctor to cure sleeping sickness.)

Historical circumstances also played into this renewed hostility towards the capital. Rome was resented for its unusual experience in the Second World War. With the exception of a few peripheral areas, the city had been spared the horrors of aerial bombardment that had devastated northern industrial centers like Genoa, Milan, and Turin. German forces had encountered little opposition when they occupied the capital in September 1943, which yet again demonstrated the resignation and passivity of the local populace. Rome was not a major site of the anti-Fascist Resistance, and despite a few terrible atrocities--the clearing of the Jewish Ghetto and the massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine--many critics believed that it had escaped the worst of the strife that had wracked the rest of the peninsula. The German retreat from the capital in June 1944 and its designation as an open city bred further antagonism, since many believed that Rome had received preferential treatment because of its historical, religious and artistic significance. The city had never freed itself from Nazi-Fascist domination and had waited passively for liberation by the Allied troops. For a new republic founded on the myth of the Resistance, this lack of heroism once more made Rome problematic, a view reinforced by the proliferation of neo-Fascist movements in the capital in the late 1940s.

With the economic recovery of the late 1950s, driven especially by the industrial powerhouses of northern Italy, a new line of attack emerged. In this period, Milan had definitively re-emerged as the economic and "moral" capital of the nation; the "political" capital, on the other hand, remained destitute and depressed, as immortalized onscreen by the Neo-Realist films of Rossellini and De Sica. In a manner not dissimilar from the early twentieth-century modernists, northern newspapers regularly railed against "quel villaggio che si chiama Roma" ("that village called Rome," Cabrini 3). It was too petty, provincial and poor to represent an increasingly prosperous and dynamic Italy on the world stage. According to La Stampa's Paolo Monelli, "da Roma nessuna moda artistica e letteraria e nata, nessun moto politico, nessun partito; fuori di Roma e il centro ed il motore della vita intellettuale filosofica artistica musicale della Nazione" ("no artistic or literary trend has ever been born in Rome, no political movement, no party; the center and motor of the nation's intellectual, philosophical, artistic and musical life is outside of Rome," 3). Indro Montanelli of Il Corriere della Sera believed that Italy needed an international city to rival Paris, London or New York, but had instead been left with a capital that was sonnolento e metodico, del ceto impiegatizio [...] con i suoi magri stipendi, i suoi pregiudizi piccolo-borghesi, le sue gelosie e i suoi esclusivismi di casta, il suo costume importato dalla provincia meridionale [...]. Il loro tono di vita e rimasto, malgrado tutto, casalingo e cordiale, e le loro orge continuano tuttora a svolgersi a base di abbacchio e di fettuccine col condimento delle solite fojette.


(sleepy and plodding, that of the middling clerical worker [...] with his meager salary, petty-bourgeois prejudices, jealousies and caste distinctions, his habits imported from the South [...]. The feel of life [there] has remained, despite it all, homely and cordial, and orgies continue to revolve around abbacchio and fettuccine, as always served with the usual fojette.) (13)

In many respects, this account could have been written half a century earlier, with its dismissal of bureaucratic mediocrity, "southern" habits, and even local cuisine as cheap and heavy (a truly damning insult in Italy). To Montanelli, Rome's lack of cultural institutions, world-class restaurants, and high society relegated the city--and therefore all of Italy--to an embarrassing and marginal position in the international community.

Complaints about Rome's provincialism and cultural limitations in turn dovetailed with concerns about political corruption and wasteful spending, particularly in connection with the expansion of the city in the 1950s and preparations for the Olympic Games of 1960. A series of property speculation scandals in the mid-fifties prompted the Milanese newsmagazine L'Espresso to launch an investigative series titled Capitale corrotta=nazione infetta (Corrupt capital=infected nation), which probed bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption in the capital. (14) Article after article exposed empty offices and absent employees, falsified permits, abandoned building sites, and a populace seemingly indifferent to the corruption in its midst. The series culminated in 1957 with a national "referendum" on Rome, in which L'Espresso sent its readership a questionnaire on the city's significance to Italian politics and identity. Within three weeks, the magazine had received about 5,000 responses, with a clear majority from the North. While the poll was hardly scientific and should not be construed as an objective measure of general public opinion, its lopsided results speak volumes about the depth and virulence of regionalist and anti-Roman attitudes that persisted in the postwar period. (15) Eighty-two percent of respondents considered Rome "a southern city"; 65% rejected the notion that it was a European city; and the same number believed that it should not be the national capital. Over 90% saw Rome as "administratively corrupt" and 79% believed that the city's inhabitants were unrepresentative of the Italian people as a whole. Whether due to the longstanding tropes of provincialism and backwardness, charges of corruption and patronage, or the more recent taint of Fascism, after 1945 the capital remained as problematic as it had been to every ruling regime since 1870.

In the decades since the Second World War, Rome (like the rest of Italy) has undergone a dramatic transformation. What had been a relatively insular and homogenous society has become increasingly globalized and multicultural. Today, the Eternal City can no longer be considered "quel villaggio che si chiama Roma" ("That village called Rome"). Its population has doubled since 1945, a function of immigration not only from other Italian regions but increasingly from Africa and Asia. Once "unproductive" or economically "parasitic," Rome is more than ever a Mecca for global tourism and conspicuous consumption. In an era of globalization and cultural homogenization, the differences between Rome and rivals like Milan and Turin have become increasingly trivial. (16) In 1990, the city hosted the World Cup final, prompting at least one commentator to declare that the capital had begun to come into its own. In overcoming the national traumas of Fascism and the Nazi occupation and remaking itself into a global metropolis, wrote the sociologist Franco Ferrarotti, Rome had legitimately become "[il] teatro delle esperienze sociali italiane profonde, dei mutamenti di struttura" ("the theater of profound Italian social experiences, of structural changes," 9). Rome had succeeded in "shrinking the distance" between itself and the rest of the nation.

Of course, there is also considerable distance to go. In recent years, criticism of the capital has been the prerogative of Umberto Bossi's secessionist Lega Nord, with slogans like Roma ladrona, la Lega non perdona ("Thieving Rome, the League does not forgive you"). (17) For the Leghisti, as for so many before them, Rome serves as a watchword for the ineffectual central state, the corrupt party system, southern backwardness, and economic parasitism:

[...] contro la Roma capitale dello Stato centralistico, dove fisicamente e simbolicamente si annidano i politicanti corrotti, dove sorgono i palazzoni della burocrazia piu vasta e inefficiente d'Europa, il luogo in cui ogni giorno la politica depreda l'Italia che produce e ingrassa quella corrotta e dissipatrice. Sono i signori di Roma che hanno fatto a brandelli questo Paese: loro, che non hanno altro disegno "unitario" se non quello di restare il piu possibile dove sono, al potere, per continuare a spartirsi i soldi pubblici e fare in modo che nulla cambi. Usano un po' di retorica risorgimentale e se ne infischiano dei problemi seri.

(Bossi qtd. in Savelli 8-9)

(against Rome, capital of the centralizing State, where corrupt politicians burrow themselves, physically and symbolically, where the grand palaces of Europe's most vast and inefficient bureaucracy rise, the place where every day politics pillages productive Italy and fattens the corrupt and squandering Italy. It is the gentlemen in Rome who have torn this country to shreds; they, who have no other "unifying" plan but to stay where they are as long as possible, in power, to continue divvying up public funds and preventing anything from changing. They use a bit of Risorgimento rhetoric and take no notice of serious problems.)

As this most recent incarnation suggests, anti-Romanism still functions as a lightning rod in contemporary Italian politics. What, then, accounts for such persistence? Why has hostility towards Rome--and the language through which it has been expressed--remained so consistent over so many decades and across such diverse contexts?

In certain respects, one must understand criticism of Rome in terms of the dilemmas that are faced by every national capital. (18) Capital cities are accorded a privileged status in relation to other urban centers that often fosters resentment, not least because political power and economic resources are channeled from the periphery to the center (hence the common charges of "parasitism" or "vampirism"). While a few capitals (the classic examples are Paris and London) are their countries' economic and cultural powerhouses, many others--from Washington, D.C. and Ottawa to Ankara and Brasilia--were chosen precisely because of their secondary status or "neutrality." Lacking strong regional or particularist associations, such cities are often better suited to the "mediating" or "integrative" functions of a national capital. (19) However, this same neutrality also makes them vulnerable to the accusation that they are merely bureaucratic centers, provincial backwaters, or in some other way unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. Capital cities also face the challenge of mediating between local, national, and international levels. On the one hand, they are urban spaces in which inhabitants pursue their quotidian lives; on the other, they are official repositories of identity and the face that nations present to the rest of the world. The result of this tension is that capital cities are frequently derided for being "unproductive," "inauthentic," or "artificial," for being filled with monuments and museums instead of vital and genuine culture.

The case of Rome certainly fits this paradigm. As Alberto Caracciolo has noted, even before 1870 Rome was a place of "mediation and circulation," of services and consumption rather than industrial production; (20) yet it is precisely this function that has repeatedly come under attack in the 140 years since the breach of Porta Pia. Like Washington and Brasilia, Rome is a contrived capital, selected to paper over Italy's geographic and cultural divide (see Mazzonis). The idea that it is devoid of authenticity or the product of rhetoric, invoked by figures as diverse as D'Azeglio, Papini, Mosca and Montanelli, has its echoes elsewhere.

As we have seen, however, anti-Romanism also expresses distinctly Italian problems. Roma capitale was meant to bridge the many chasms dividing the peninsula--between North and South, center and regions, state and society--but the fissures between the various "two Italies" have yet to be overcome (see Pandolfi). It is unsurprising that the overwhelming majority of the Eternal City's critics have been Milanese or Turinese; (21) for these northerners, Rome has represented the loss of regional autonomy to the central state and, correspondingly, the diversion of economic resources to the underdeveloped Mezzogiorno. Southerners have rarely attacked the capital, in large part because of their dependence on state patronage. However, the issues involved are not only political or economic but psychological as well. The South has long served as a means of displacing anxieties over Italy's own marginality in relation to the rest of Europe; the same holds true for the national capital, which despite its central position on the peninsula has frequently been consigned to the periphery (captured, for example, in the racist slogan "Africa begins at Rome"). (22) The repeated derision of the Roman populace for its backwardness, the calls to inoculate Italians from the miasmas of the past, the desire to liberate Italian culture from the tyranny of historicism--all these speak to a general preoccupation with the country's tortuous path towards the ideal of Western modernity.

All capital cities are metonyms for the nation. Over the past two centuries, Rome, the eternal parasite, has functioned as an index or expression of failures and frustrations. Its future over the next two centuries will depend greatly on the health of the Italian body politic, a question that at present is far from resolved.

West Virginia University

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(1) For a long-term view of the "cult of Rome" in Italy and beyond, see Giardina & Vauchez.

(2) On Risorgimento-era debates over Rome, see Chabod 147-72; Caracciolo, Roma capitale 45-75; Vidotto 3-32.

(3) On Garibaldi's obsession with Rome, see Pick.

(4) For a detailed examination of the popular response to the twentieth of September, see Dumont.

(5) According to the Vocabolario etimologico della lingua italiana (1907), the derogatory Romanesco term buzzurro derives from the German Butzer or Putzer ("cleaner") and references Swiss migrants in Rome who would perform menial work like street cleaning; after unification, the term was applied to the Piedmontese and other northern Italians (Pianigiani).

(6) For a detailed discussion of Carducci's poem and its cultural milieu, see Drake.

(7) On demography and urban expansion in the years after 1870, see Bartolini, "Condizioni di vita"; Seronde-Babonaux, 37-89; Vidotto, 33-118.

(8) On the political engagement of the Futurists, see Berghaus as well as Gentile, The Struggle for Modernity.

(9) On the ideas and politics of the Vociani, see Adamson.

(10) I have addressed this issue in greater detail elsewhere in "Roma Sparita."

(11) On the Fascist transformation of Rome, see most recently Gentile, Fascismo di Pietra, as well as Painter.

(12) For my in-depth examination of Fascist romanita, see "A Revolution in the Idea of Rome."

(13) Abbacchio is suckling lamb, a Roman specialty; fojette are flasks of cheap Roman wine.

(14) The series began with the 11 November 1955 edition of L'Espresso 3.

(15) The results were printed in L'Espresso on 9 June 1957, 6.

(16) On the impact of globalization and multiculturalismi in Rome, see Vidotto 323-25.

(17) On the ideology and rhetoric of the Lega Nord, see Huysseune as well as Iacopini & Bianchi.

(18) A useful discussion of the role of capitals in national identity can be found in Daum.

(19) In addition to Daum, see Bowling and Gerhard, who focus on the cases of Berlin and Washington, D.C. Both cities are useful points of comparison for Rome in this regard.

(20) On Rome as a site of circulation and cosmopolitanism from the late Papal period onwards, see Caracciolo, "Rome in the Past Hundred Years."

(21) On the historical rivalry between Rome and Milan, see Bartolini, Rivali d'Italia.

(22) On the displacement of Italian "southernness" to the Mezzogiorno, see Moe 3-36.
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Date:Jan 1, 2010
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