Benito Mussolini is ubiquitous in the Italian city of Latina. Its stamp is printed on all the buildings in the center of the municipality, on the urban plan, on its monumental sculptures, in the Post Office or in the Cathedral of San Marcos.
Even the building that today houses the police headquarters with an aerial view is shaped like an M. It is said that the Italian fascist dictator wanted to continue building buildings so that, in the end, his last name will be read from the sky.
Latina, a municipality of 130,000 inhabitants seventy kilometers south of Rome, did not exist until 1932, when fascism founded under the name of Littoria a city where before there was only a quagmire.
There were many popes who since the Middle Ages They tried to turn the marshes in this area of present-day Lazio into habitable and to lengthen the Papal States, but it was not until the fascist ventennial that the marshes were drained.
In a great success of his propaganda, the Duce would sell that he had ruled nature for the service of Rome.
Littoria in the time of Mussolini.
Before there was nothing. The localities in the area were called Swamp of Hell, Swamp of Death, Charon or Pool of the Grave. In the late 1920s, the dictatorship led thousands of men and women to convert an inhospitable 134,000-hectare piece of land into arable land.
As in Libya, fascism promoted the policy of the “colonists”, the transfer of 60,000 peasants from Veneto, Friuli and Emilia Romagna. They were given a house and a plot of about twenty hectares per family, while at the same time schools were opened and centers were created to combat the plague of mosquitoes that spread malaria in the area.
“Only my mother had malaria. The rest of us are saved “recalls Iris Silvestri, after eating a plate of pasta at the Impero restaurant, the oldest in Latina. It was founded by his father, Virgilio, decorated with medals during the First World War.
They were a family with a trattoria in Rome who received a call from an engineer friend saying that in Littoria – Latina’s name came when fascism fell – there were new opportunities. So when she was only ten years old, they moved to the new city, where the father first established a food stall attended by engineers, architects and other foundation workers.
They then obtained a license and, on the same site in the now Plaza de la Libertad, he opened the restaurant in 1934 under a name that evoked Mussolini’s will to emulate the greatness of the Roman Empire. They decided to keep the name in democracy. The place is full of black and white photographs that portray the early years of the Mussolini town.
Latina, when she was Littoria.
“I don’t know anything about politics. I am in favor of everyone taking care of their own things, period ”, says Silvestri, asked about fascism, which despite being 99 years old preserves a prodigious memory.
He remembers when Mussolini once came to eat at the restaurant – he had a simple plate of Roman cuisine, precise – and how much he liked going to school at that time with children from all over Italy. “We lived well, we lived well”, he insists on those black years.
Historian Emilio Gentile, one of the people who has studied Mussolini’s fascism the most in Italy, explains how Mussolini She used to sneak out to Littoria with her motorcycle, to talk to people and show himself as a simple man.
“It was an act of propaganda, but he loved to display the behaviors of ordinary people. It served him to escape from the atmosphere of the capital, which he detested ”, says the expert. The peasants were fascinated seeing that gigantic man working the land, like one of them.
Although the results were not as good as what the apparatus promised, the settlers were bound by force to this new city. Not only did it represent the opportunity for a better life, but to feel at the center of a new political experience.
They arrived with trains and trucks, and today there are still neighborhoods associated with each community. “What was tried in vain for twenty-five centuries today we translate into a living reality, would this be the moment to be proudWe are not just a little excited, ”the dictator claimed in his inauguration speech.
Latina is just one of many Italian cities founded by Mussolini. Among them, the famous Mussolinia (now Arborea) inaugurated in Sardinia in 1929, which was also built on a marsh territory where malaria was still raging in those years. The Rockefeller Foundation built the city after the war.
Carbonia was born in the same Sardinia –Which has not changed its name– to accommodate the labor force that worked in the extraction of coal to supply national needs at the time of autarky. Or Tirrenia, another city founded on difficult terrain in Tuscany, dedicated to vacationers.
Littoria – 1944 – Photo: usis / Leemage via AFP
After the Second World War it was necessary to erase the traces of the fascist period and Littoria became a Latina. The names of squares and avenues were changed to turn the page. But its inhabitants do not omit that period.
“Why deny history? Mussolini did very well here. He built a city out of nothing, and it should be called Littoria, ”says Vittorio, a 77-year-old retiree in the main square, who has voted for post-fascist parties all his life. First, the Italian Social Movement (MSI), then the National Alliance (AN) and now, the Brothers of Italy.
“I am 75 years old. It is ridiculous because, since I can remember, I always remember hearing the controversy of whether fascism returns in a country that has neo-fascist parties in Parliament – Gentile considers. Brothers of Italy, AN, the MSI … Fascism has never left as a political party, is now in the opposition and can return to the Government ”, he warns, speaking of the polls that place Giorgia Meloni’s far-right party as the first formation in voting intention.
Latina appeared in the national news in August, when Claudio Durigon, a member of the Matteo Salvini League and then under-secretary for the Economy of Mario Draghi’s Government, proposed that a park now named by judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, brutally murdered by the Cosa Nostra in 1992, recover the name it had during that time, that of Arnaldo Mussolini, brother and right hand of the dictator, an agronomist to whom Mussolini wanted to dedicate a park in every Italian city.
Durigon, who was forced to resign, pitched the idea during a rally for local elections.
“If they wanted to dedicate a park to Falcone and Borsellino, let them dedicate it to them in Sicily. The city was founded by Mussolini, not them “, reproaches Mariella, another retiree. “Mussolini appeared from this City Council, he must be called like him,” says Mario, a businessman who has always voted for parties born from the MSI.
The current mayor of Latina, Damiano Coletta, former soccer player and doctor, is the first non-right wing since the fall of the Christian Democrats (DC), and he is also the person who named the park with the nickname of the Italian anti-mafia heroes, which since the fall of fascism was only called the municipal park.
He did it on the 25th anniversary of the murder of the magistrates, in a symbolic tribute to the path of legality that Latina should follow after a few years of murky entanglements between politicians and local mafia bosses.
“It is an objective fact that Mussolini is part of our history and with history it is necessary to pacify oneself. There are those who praise it in a nostalgic way and those who try to deny it. I believe that it is our history, it should be respected, but now Latina is something else “He maintains, recalling that it is the second chemical pole in Italy, and that Holocaust survivors Liliana Segre and Sami Modiano were granted honorary citizenship of the city.
Mussolini also keeps this decoration. They do not consider withdrawing it because, according to the mayor, it is part of a period “That is over.”
“Fascist nostalgia in Latina is real, you can feel it, you breathe it”, keeps sipping an espresso retired reporter Gaetano Coppola, who covered the city for many years for the Roman newspaper The messenger.
During the DC years, Latina was a city loyal to Giulio Andreotti, but “its soul was black,” believes Coppola. Then they have always voted to the right, until Coletta arrived. The journalist is blunt: “What about Arnaldo Mussolini is an excuse to call him Mussolini. They care about the last name. If not?”.
Through a glass in the prefecture you can see, from the street, the huge painting by Duilio Cambellotti, the greatest exponent of local painting during the years of fascism, which explains the domination of the land by the settlers. Mussolini also used to loom on that same balcony. Latina does not forget the shadow of fascism.