The Claiming of Modern Milan and what to do with the legacy of a difficult heritage

A regime at the mercy of international and private interests with the persistence of social structures forged in the pre-fascist period. In discourse with Professor Lucy Maulsby

Fascism, Architecture and the Claiming of Modern Milan book

«A building, however humble or however grand, one is forced to confront», begins Professor Lucy Maulsby. As a current Professor of Architectural History at Northeastern University and interim chair at the School of Architecture, Prof. Maulsby exudes a lifelong fascination with buildings and spaces. In part because they are that which none of us can avoid. After earning a B.A. in History of Art and spending a year in Florence, Prof. Maulsby went on to study for an M.Phil. in the History and Theory of Architecture at the University of Cambridge.

«Not that far – all things being equal – from Italy». This allowed her to immerse herself in an environment that continued to fascinate her, but one to which she wouldn’t have access from her native U.S. Her research paid attention to the relationship between architecture and politics in interwar Italy. «This historical moment little talked about. Yet it was everywhere»

Fascism, Architecture and the Claiming of Modern Milan

Honing in on Milan – «its scale, its texture, its rhythm of life»; her research continued while studying for a PhD at Columbia University, where her objective metamorphosed. «From research paper, to doctorate dissertation, to book». Culminating in Fascism, Architecture and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922-1943, published by University of Toronto Press in 2014. In the first chapter of the book – Milan In Context – Prof. Maulsby seeks to contextualize how the peculiar cultural, economic and political character of Milan ‘presented a substantially different example’.

Located in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, Prof. Maulsby sets forth the history of Milan from 1796, when Napoleon aware of her strategic value as the primary gateway between Northern Europe and the Italian peninsula made Milan the capital of the Regno Italico. In 1814, Milan passed from French to Austrian hands until, in 1859. The struggle for Italian unification brought independence from Austria; placing the regional capital under the authority of the nascent Italian state, centered first in Turin (1861–65), then Florence (186570), and finally Rome (1870). 

Milan – the city’s cosmopolitan aspirations

As a city geographically and historically tied to Northern Europe, Prof. Maulsby explores how Milan emerges out of «a tapestry» of Europe. An influence «in a way that is quite distinctive and will mean that, when Mussolini seeks to remake the city as a modern fascist Italian city, these are things he is going to have to negotiate». While moving through Milan – whose major monument remains the Duomo (1386), a soaring pink Candoglia marble Gothic cathedral in the European tradition – one cannot help but be aware of the city’s cosmopolitan aspirations.

The Risorgimento – the movement that resulted in Italian unification in 1870 – advanced the idea that the key to the city’s success lay in the economic and intellectual expansion that had already begun to transform other European centers. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (1862-1878), a covered arcade with a glass-and-iron double-vaulted roof, exemplified the city’s early enthusiasm for unification and the increased influence of its emergent bourgeoise.

‘Unabashedly celebrating commerce’, public and private partnerships – which relied on foreign capital and tech- nical expertize – contributed to further civic initiatives, including the establishment of the city’s first university. The Milan Polytechnic, in 1863, and the Esposizione Nazionale of 1881 which, modelled on the nineteenth-century World Fairs of Paris and London, showcased «objects of considerable fascination» that captured the city’s confidence. 

The social and spatial transformation in Milan 

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Milan underwent social and spatial transformation, expanding from a traditional base of textile production – most notably in silk – and luxury goods to include mechanical and chemical industries, establishing itself as the leading commercial, financial and industrial center of Italy. It had just begun this expansion when, unable to provide public services and infrastructure that by now were common in Europe; Milan’s municipal government intensified its partnerships with private investment, many of which were in foreign hands.

At the same time, the opening of the Saint Gotthard Tunnel – which connected Lucerne with Milan – in 1882, and the Simplon Tunnel – which connected Brig with Domodossola – in 1906, cut through the Swiss Alps to solidify the city as a gateway between Northern European and Italian markets. In the early twentieth century the local elite, by now disillusioned and frustrated by policies formed in Rome, began to feel that Milan had paid a high price for unification and suffered from unnecessary government regulation.

No longer a city defined by bourgeois optimism, Milan had failed to achieve the social and economic harmony of which it had boasted at the Esposizione Nazionale of 1881. Prof. Maulsby heeds, «the vision of Italy as a unified country is never complete. The project of the Risorgimento, in some ways unfinished and so as fascism is seeking to make Italians, it is trying to complete a project begun in the nineteenth century». 

Lampoon, Giovanni Muzio, Palazzo del Popolo d’Italia, Milan
Giovanni Muzio, Palazzo del Popolo d’Italia, Milan, 1938. From Edilizia Moderna, 37 39 (1942)

Mussolini’s early years

«We tend to think of fascism as defined and embodied by Rome – and in many ways it was. Yet at the same time, Milan is a point of reference for Mussolini, complicated and personal, as well as strategic
and calculated»
, presupposes Prof. Maulsby. Born in 1883 in the small hamlet of Dovia di Predappio in Emilia Romagna, in 1911 Benito Mussolini moved to Milan with his wife and young daughter. In 1912, he assumed lead- ership of the Socialist Party’s national daily Avanti!, which was based in Milan. However, after becoming angered by the Socialist Party’s refusal to support Italy’s participation in the First World War, in 1914 he broke ties with both the party and the paper.

That same year, he launched his own paper, Il Popolo d’Italia. In March 1919 he announced the founding of the urban political movement, Fasci di Combattimento. The fascist leader’s early supporters – most of whom were young disenfranchised men, students, war veterans, and former revolutionaries and socialists – were drawn to Mussolini’s fiery rhetoric and promise of action. In the general election of November 1919, the movement suffered a crushing defeat. Fascist candidates received 5,000 of the 275,000 votes in Milan, and by the end of the year had fewer than 800 members. Undeterred, Mussolini pushed his politics to the right in search of middle-class support. In the following year, effectively expanded his base among an upwardly mobile elite; eager to claim their position within Milanese society. 

The formation of the Partito Nazionale Fascista

‘A party that directs public affairs must have a line of high distinction and refinement – signorilità – in its appearance’, writes Prof. Maulsby, citing a commentator. While «fascism in its origins is rough and messy, it’s loutish young men who are brawling outside bars», Prof. Maulsby concedes, «as Mussolini begins to re-craft his image, he understands that, while he is benefitting from the threat of violence that this cohort is able to impose or even suggest, to be in a position of power and to negotiate with government and business leaders, he needs to make himself and his organization more respectable».

The formation of the Partito Nazionale Fascista – a reflection of the party’s need to bring order, discipline and legitimacy to the movement bore fruit in the general elections of 1921, in which Mussolini received nearly 200,000 votes in Milan and thirty-eight fascists won parliamentary seats giving them a minority of seven percent. In 1922, fascist sympathizer, Luigi Mangiagalli, was elected as podestà of Milan; giving the newly formed party its first official access to the municipal government. At a national level, sustained government crises and depleted municipal budgets, still crippled from military engagement in the First World War, resulted in an invitation issued by King Vittorio Emanuele III for Mussolini to serve as prime minister of Italy; thus beginning the ventennio nero

The fascist party’s efforts «to use architecture to insinuate itself into the urban fabric

In the second and fifth chapters of the book – Respectable Fascism: Fascist Party Headquarters, 1922–1931 and Urban Networks: Fascist Party Headquarters, 1931–1940 – Prof. Maulsby looks at the fascist party’s efforts «to use architecture to insinuate itself into the urban fabric». While the black shirts of Mussolini’s paramilitary Squadre d’azione were once the most prominent and ubiquitous presence of the regime in the city; in the months following the election, the fascist party orchestrated the strategic placement of provincial headquarters to become «the most visible manifestation of party activity».

A casa del fascio – also sede federale or palazzo del littorio – proposed to house the offices of the highest-ranking local officials and serve as a direct link to the central administration in Rome. Then case del fascio or gruppi rionali proposed to function as the primary points of contact among the party, its institutions, and ordinary citizens; giving a new energy and permanence to fascism’s presence in the city and intending «to shape the character, habits, and attitudes of Italian citizens». 

Merging the modern political movement with an architectural language of prestige

Like most groups in the early period, Mussolini first directed his movement, as well as the offices of Il Popolo d’Italia. From a rented space in an existing building on Via Paolo da Cannobio. A minor street in a working-class residential district South of the Duomo, and later on Via Monte Pietà. A street in a more reputable district just North of the Duomo, revealing the party’s interest in taking advantage of existing urban conditions.

Merging the modern political movement with an architectural, but also spatial, language of prestige «to begin to confer a sense of legitimacy and respectability on his movement, then party, and by extension himself». Prof. Maulsby writes how even Mussolini ‘adopted new modes of dress and social connections to obscure his provincial origins and to increase his chances of fulfilling his political aspirations’. In 1922, the party set up a larger base on Via San Marco. Then in 1923 purchased an eighteenth-century palzzo on Corso Venezia for its provincial headquarters.

An acquisition financed by the party’s connections to business and industry leaders. The remodeling of the 125-room palazzo included plans to create a hall for concerts and lectures, a restaurant with a veranda, a library, and a space for the Istituto di Alta Cultura fascista – the fascist Institute of High Culture. An automobile parked in the courtyard served as a reminder of fascism’s claim to represent a new order of modernity, even as it relied on conventional signs of power and prestige. 

Lampoon, Eugenio Faludi, Fabio Filzi headquarters, Via Filzi, Milan
Eugenio Faludi, Fabio Filzi headquarters, Via Filzi, Milan, 1936 38. From Edilizia Moderna 29 (October December 1938)

Casa del fascio on Corso Venezia

As the movement gained momentum, Prof. Maulsby describes «a sense of confidence that would eventually result in the construction of new, purpose-built buildings». In 1925, the Baracca Group a party-controlled neighbourhood group which served a significant working-class population – engaged the services of Paolo Mezzanotte. A Milanese architect, engineer and lecturer at the Milan Polytechnic, and his brother Vittorio, to design its headquarters on Via Boninsegna; the first purpose built casa del fascio.

In contrast to the ornate architectural and decorative flourishes that predominated at the party’s provincial head- quarters on Corso Venezia, the casa del fascio on Via Boninsegna represented a restrained classicism that recalled a «modern architecture in the classical tradition». Having outgrown the casa del fascio in Corso Venezia, the provin- cial party headquarters were relocated to Via Nirone. Here a new, purpose-built headquarters was designed by Mezzanotte (1926-1927). 

The adoption of an architectural vocabulary

Constructed in brick and travertine, a long central balcony provided a necessary platform from which party officials could address crowds gathered in the street below. On the other hand the fasces on each of the obelisks, set between lateral pairs of composite pilasters, made explicit the political function of the building. The adoption of an architectural vocabulary that borrowed elements from local neoclassical examples, paired with the extensive use of reinforced concrete, glass, and symbols of the new political order; presented fascism as both part of a continuous Milanese tradition and a modern force for change that was engaged with the European Modern Movement in architecture.

From the grandeur of the casa del fascio in Corso Venezia, and the «simple and severe» architecture of Mezzanotte purpose-built casa del fascio on Via Nirone. To the «high modernism» of later examples, such as Giuseppe Tirani’s glass-and-stone casa del fascio in Como (19321936), which directed the modernist interest in glass towards transpar- ency, efficiency and the fascist commitment to service, Prof. Maulsby offers: «One thing about interwar Italian architecture is that it defies a singular example. That is a characteristic of the fascist support of the arts for much of the inter-war period. There isn’t a style, rather there are a series of architectural ambitions that can also change over time»

City planning and major civic institution

Pulling the lens back to give a more comprehensive view of Milan; later chapters of the book explore city planning and major civic institutions, such as Mezzanotte’s Palazzo delle Borse – or Trading Exchange (1928–1931), and Marcello Piacentini’s Palazzo di Giustizia – or Palace of Justice (1932–1940), in granular detail. Municipal leaders, concerned about competing with European centers of commerce and industry, sought to bring order and discipline to the medieval tangle of central Milan and to provide a coherent model for the enlargement of the city, of which these civic institutions were exemplars.

To establish criteria for a new master plan, Mangiagalli appointed a twelve person planning commission led by Cesare Chiodi, Milanese engineer. Still an emerging field in Italy, city planning was primarily the domain of engineers in the municipal technical office, who understood it as ‘a means of improving the moral and physical health of a population through the imposition of order, control, and technological innovation’. This began the initial phase of a comprehensive endeavor «to fashion a new Italian city». Establishing a dictatorship in 1925 and eliminating local elections in 1926; Mussolini designated Ernesto Belloni, a wealthy industrialist, as Milan’s first fascist-appointed podestà

Ciò per amor prize

Continuing the work begun under Mangiagalli, Belloni sponsored a national competition for a new master plan. The piano regolatore e di ampliamento to meet the needs of a projected population of two million inhabitants. Belloni’s brief, in keeping with European trends, emphasized improved public services, traffic circulation, and public transportation. The twenty-four person competition jury met in June 1927 to review the entries and to award three prizes.

The jury awarded first prize to Ciò per amor – or For the sake of love – a plan by Piero Portaluppi and Marco Semenza. While lauded for its efficiency and technical skill, Prof. Maulsby critiques Ciò per amor as «an example of a back room dealing. At least in part, and very much about connections and business interests carrying the day». Both Portaluppi, a well-connected architect, and Semanza, an engineer, were members of the Milan Rotary Club; the Italian chapter of Rotary International, whose exclusive membership included Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo.

Their plan which «unquestionably privileged an engineers vision of the modern city» – proposed eliminating much of its medieval fabric with broad new streets. A system of large piazzas, and new residential quarters on the periphery. Prof. Maulsby explains how this looked «to the notion of modernity as it was being talked about in international circles», in which modernists were suggesting a complete erasure of historical cities. «In a sense, it captured the boldness of some aspects of the modernist vision and then tempered it with an historical sensitivity»

Lampoon, Casa del Fascio in Como by Giuseppe Terragni
Casa del Fascio in Como by Giuseppe Terragni

The Italian city most marked by the fascist scalpel’

In 1927, podestà Belloni charged Cesare Albertini, secretary of the commission and head of the municipal technical offices; leading the newly created Ufficio Urbanistico, or city planning office, and refining the Portaluppi-Semenza plan. ‘Evocative of modernist fantasies of total renewal’, Albertini’s plan helped to establish a structure for growth in which the urban core would become the exclusive domain of the middle and upper classes and the institutions they operated and patronized.

Although the controversial plan which required the sventramenti (a word meaning clearing or disemboweling) of approximately fifty percent of the city’s center, including 60,000 rooms in central Milan and displacing 100,000 people of disproportionally working class; to make a significant quantity of land in the city’s center available for redevelopment only met Mussolini’s approval in 1934, Albertini’s proposals for the reconfiguration of the city center were being executed well before then.

To fund this ambitious public-works program, podestà Belloni negotiated a contentious loan of 30 million U.S. dollars from the American bank, Dillon Read & Co. It was not until 1928, when credible accusations of gross mismanagement of city funds were leveled against Belloni, that Mussolini dismissed him and in his place appointed marquis Giuseppe de Capitani d’Arzago. The first of a series of podestà from Milan’s noble families. In addition to a number of other factors, the scandal forced the city to set aside its plans for a new network of roads and other civic interventions. 

The intertwining of Milan’s image with the modern metropolis

With the collapse of the American stock market in October 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression; the city’s rapid accumulation of debt put further economic limitations on Albertini’s scheme. As a result of the given scale and organizational demands of the project, Prof. Maulsby explains how the plan was executed «in a piecemeal fashion». In which one can see «fragments» of this vision in buildings across the city. «Envisioned as an element in a much larger urban ensemble that was never completed».

The sale of land to speculators, intended to help offset costs, only fortified the social structures forged in the pre-fascist period. The regime’s financial and political dependence on Milan’s powerful business community and the multiple, and often contradictory, forces. From government officials, party leaders, urban planners and local administrators to international and private landowners, speculative developers, and cultural critics, each with their own set of priorities limited the regimes execution of Albertini’s plan in a city whose image was intertwined with the modern metropolis. 

What happens to the buildings and spaces that were designed to support a set of political ideals

Although still ‘the Italian city most marked by the fascist scalpel’; Milan’s architecture and organization was often determined by rather prosaic concerns, including banal debts and disputes over practicalities with contractors. Attempting to address the paradox that this presented, Arnaldo Mussolini as the director of Il Popolo d’Italia from 1922 to 1931 diverted attention away from Milan’s metropolitan associations.

Milan’s image wasThis occurred by explaining that cities like it ‘are important for their efficiency and their work’. Employing words, such as ‘efficient’ and ‘fertile’, to frame the city’s energy in «gloriously fascist terms». Echoing Benito Mussolini’s sentiment – that ‘in a totalitarian regime…the press is an element of the regime’ – Prof. Maulsby concurs «much of it is verbiage»

Prof. Maulsby asserts that the fascist regime sought to advance the city within contemporary European debates and laid the foundations for post-war Milan. Becoming «the conversation that any architect or planner must have before building». Her continued research looks at the legacy of this inter-war period.

The legacy of what to do with a difficult heritage

Asking «what happens to the buildings and spaces that were designed to support a set of political ideals, when those political ideals have been set aside or discarded?». While «the complexity of their making is not necessarily part of their current story», Prof. Maulsby explores how «these buildings and spaces continue to function at a number of different registers. They continue to define the city, to shape your experience of the city, and to provide the context against which the life of the city is played out».

Due to be published later this year, her upcoming book project not only interrogates fascist party headquarters in Milan, but throughout Italy and her colonies. Including contested territories in Trieste and North and East Africa. In closing, Prof. Mauls- by contemplates, «this legacy of what to do with a difficult heritage is compelling. Not just in the Italian context but in the U.S. With the legacy of confederate monuments, statues and spaces. As in each country which has their own to varying degrees». A story that, while to Italy, holds timely resonance in post-colonial contexts today. 

Fascism, Architecture, and the Claiming of Modern Milan 1922–1943

Published by University of Toronto Press. Lucy Maulsby is currently Professor of Architectural History at Northeastern University and interim chair at the School of Architecture.

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]