Italy has only recently begun to fit comfortably into Europe. Unified in the 1860s, it vied for decades with Bismarck’s German Empire for the title of Europe’s most nervous, disruptive power. Too weak to impose its will on any other great power — but too grandiose to sit quietly among middling powers like Belgium or Sweden — Italy became the classic “jackal state,” hunting around the fringes of Europe for easy kills: conquests and annexations that would inflate the prestige of weak parliamentary governments and the irascible Italian royal house. Thus, Italy lurched into Eritrea and Somalia in the 1880s, invaded Ethiopia in 1881 and 1897, and then instigated a war for Ottoman Tripolitania in 1911, launching a vicious invasion of the interior from Tripoli, Tobruk, and Benghazi and rechristening the conquered land “Libya” — a name, like “Eritrea,” intended to suggest continuity with the Caesars.
The best place to savor this bygone braggadocio is on the steps of Il Vittoriano, Italy’s “Altar of the Fatherland,” which was begun on the slopes of Rome’s Capitoline Hill in 1885. Derided by Romans as the la grande macchina bianca — “the big white typewriter” — the altare towers grossly over the classical calm and symmetry of the Campidoglio, leaving Michelangelo’s tasteful piazza and the gilded bronze of Marcus Aurelius — miraculously spared by waves of barbarians — cheapened by the display. No matter: The great altar to King Vittorio Emanuele II, who unified the half-dozen states of Italy in 1861 and went on to reign until his death in 1878, was part of a much larger project. Ruled by the Popes, their Swiss guards, and a French garrison until 1870, the Rome inherited by Italy and Vittorio Emanuele’s House of Savoy was a filthy, cramped, backward place, a warren of unlighted, unsanitary streets crowded with churches, convents, and the high-walled palaces of Rome’s princely families. Beginning in the 1880s, King Umberto I ordered a clearing of the city. The entire rione (district) between the Colosseum and the Capitol was razed to make room for the Vittoriano and the arterial roads that were later widened by the Fascists: the Via dell’Impero (now called the Via dei Fori Imperiali) and the Via del Mare. Exquisite Baroque and Renaissance churches and palaces fell to the wrecking ball: The Church of Santa Rita, the Aracoeli Convent, the Salita di Marforio, all were torn down and crushed into paving stones as the price of modernization, urbanization, and great power. The fabled Via Veneto was a mere bridle path through the gardens of the Ludovisi family until 1889, when the Italian government finally secured the land, smashed through the old papal walls, and constructed the opulent boulevard and mansions we know today: the U.S. Embassy, the Hotel Majestic, the Excelsior, and Harry’s Bar.
This quest for status and power exacted a heavy price in World War I, when Italy, hewing to its policy of sacro egoismo — “sacred egoism” — withdrew abruptly from its 30-year alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary and thrust a half million troops across the Isonzo River into what is today Slovenia and was then Austrian Krain. War takes the measure of a nation more quickly than anything else, and Italy failed wretchedly. Indeed, the Great War showed just what an artificial, oppressive creation “Italy” was. Of the 6 million Italians drafted after 1914, more than half were illiterate peasants, most of them from the impoverished Mezzogiorno — the southern wastes of Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily. Six hundred thousand of them would die in the war; one million more would be wounded. To fully grasp numbers like these, one must travel to the Isonzo front and visit the war monuments in Gorizia and Redipuglia. At one, the names of the dead are etched into vast terraces that stretch for miles. At another, one descends deep underground; here the names are carved into a wall along the circular stairway. You begin with “Abate,” and by the time you reach “Zurighese” you have descended so far from the hot surface that you’re shivering, and the marble steps are slippery with mold and damp. The better-educated northerners, many of whom were exempted from service to toil in the munitions factories, were worked to the bone in 16-hour days at low wages that actually fell 30 percent in the course of the war — the state and the industrialists making clever use of “patriotic” wage and price controls to fatten their own accounts.
What a relief Fascism was to these weary proletarians and demobilized veterans! Benito Mussolini was one of their own: a hard-bitten provincial from Romagna, a card-carrying socialist and wounded veteran who had served stoically in the ranks. Walking around Rome (or any other Italian city) today, one can feel the hope and optimism, the promise of change that pulsed from the Fascist movement. The buildings are clean, grand, and have nothing to do with the historicist past conjured by the Savoyard kings and their “Piedmontese camorra” — the clique of northern aristocrats that had predominated until the Fascist takeover in 1922. Fascist architecture is determinedly modern, as befitted a leader — Duce — who described himself as a “futurist.”
But the Fascists proved worse than the men they replaced. Indeed their ideology of struggle ought to have put Italians on their guard, for it betokened the futile battles of World War II in the service of Nazi Germany. Walking toward the Vatican, I stopped to admire the National Association for War Invalids building inaugurated by Mussolini in 1936. Carved above its six doorways are six bombastic phrases that expose the false bravado of Fascism: Citra cruorem — “without regard for bloodshed.” Micat in vertice — “shining in the vortex.” Percussa vivit — “he lives even if pummeled.” Gemendo germinat — “it flowers while moaning.” Ardeo nam credo — “I burn because I believe.” Concussus surgo — “when struck I rise.” And this was a place for the wounded (mutilati), a place built by combat veterans. What barefaced cynicism — no wonder the Italian military has fallen on hard times. The stagnation of the Italian birth rate over the last 20 years has drained the pools of conscripts and volunteers, to the point where Defense Minister Antonio Martino is now seriously contemplating a “Foreign Brigade”: an Italian equivalent of the French Foreign Legion, this one to be manned by cheap, ardent Albanians.
None of this history seems to register with the legions of mostly American tourists who mug for photographs on the lower steps of the Vittoriano, or tramp along the Via dei Fori Imperiali to gaze into the Forum and see the Colosseum. For them, Rome is a folkloric place of gladiators and organ grinders. Although the city is filled with restaurants, most Americans congregate at the dinner hour in Trastevere, the most atmospheric — but also most fake — quarter of Rome. Dressed in oversized T-shirts and cargo pants (which never fail to draw disapproving glances from Europeans), they tuck into heaping plates of spaghetti and ravioli and look around benevolently at the hordes of other Americans seated to right and left. Passing by, I believed for the first time Filippo Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” of 1930, which famously proclaimed: “Pasta is obsolete; it is a cruel and brutalizing food that makes you lazy and sentimental.” More bracing would be Marinetti’s proffered alternative, “salami sautéed in espresso and eau de cologne.”
The walls in Trastevere and elsewhere in Rome were daubed with anti-American graffiti, all of which had been hastily but imperfectly painted over by the municipality. A common phrase, dating from the Kosovo air campaign, was Avanti Serbia! — “Go Serbia!” More recent is: Israel boia, USA cumplici — “Israel the murderer, USA the accomplice.” Another graffito expressed fatigue with the whole escalating clash of civilizations: Né USA, né Islam! — “Neither USA, nor Islam.” Again it is strange to see crowds of American tourists surging impassively past these exhortations. I asked an Italian bureaucrat about them; he assured me that they in no way reflect public opinion, but are the work of the Italian Communists — who, despite their waning popularity (they get five percent of the votes at election), have never forgotten the Bolshevik technique of magnifying small numbers of adherents through intense propaganda attacks.
The next morning I was conducted Italian-style on the back of a motor scooter to the air ministry, which, at its completion in 1931, had stood as one of Fascism’s grandest buildings and a physical reminder of Mussolini’s 1925 pledge “to dominate the skies.” With over ten percent of the GDP spent on defense through the 1930s (Italy spends one percent today), luxuries like this one were affordable, and perhaps necessary, since Mussolini himself was air minister from 1923-43. (He stepped down briefly in 1929-33 to make room for Italy’s Lindbergh, Italo Balbo, a charismatic Fascist whom Il Duce tolerated for four years before packing him off to be governor of Libya — a “horizontal promotion” that removed a threat to the régime.) Built around the famed “three arches” — tre archi — that list the names of every Italian air crew killed in action since the dawn of flight, the air ministry sprawls on four floors along miles of corridors. A bronze bust of Balbo adorns the principal courtyard, and his name is etched among the fallen — caduti — of the year 1940, when he was shot down and killed by his own troops while coasting in to land at Tobruk. Many assumed that Mussolini had ordered the shoot-down to dispatch a rival.
The air ministry opens majestically round a scala d’onore — stairway of honor — that ascends to the heroic painting of Balbo’s record-breaking transatlantic flight of 1930, when he flew from Rome to Rio de Janeiro in an Italian seaplane. The ministry building was regarded as a marvel when opened, in part thanks to its ingenious compressed-air communications system, which fired message-bearing cylinders floor-to-floor and room-to-room. Every officer I spoke with mentioned this detail, perhaps not realizing that we Americans are so accustomed to the technology in our bank drive-through windows that only an ancient, housebound denizen of Pinkham Notch, N.H., might still be impressed. “The English stole the technology from us,” each officer sniffed — for the historian a delicious reminder of Italy’s 100-year-old resentment of the British, who once held the “gates of the Mediterranean” at Gibraltar and Suez and its best ports at Malta, Cyprus, and Alexandria.
Every office door in the air ministry — there are hundreds of them — is surmounted by both a green light and a red one. When the officer inside is busy, he flicks on the red light. When he is free, he switches it off and puts on the green. This Fascist invention reminded me of the classic put-down in Mussolini’s military: “He is an office colonel.” I imagined hundreds of “office colonels” hidden behind frosted glass, red lights on, leafing through the Gazetta dello Sport for the latest exploits of Fausto Coppi or Juventus.
A senior Italian air-force planner’s light shone green, and I was taken inside to meet him. His various aides sat clustered at desks in the anteroom. Each kept track of time with Pirelli’s legendary calendar of topless women. Indeed, Pirelli’s buxom girls were everywhere in the air ministry: in the offices, in the cafeteria, in the café, and in the copy rooms. For an American — who cannot even view the Pirelli calendar on his straitlaced government computer — it all had a delightfully retro feel, like the 1940s pin-up girls in Henry Stimson’s war department.
The office was large and cool. With their thick, travertine walls and narrow windows, Fascist buildings were designed not only to evoke ancient Roman architecture, but to ward off the blast-furnace heat of Italian summers. We talked politics at first. “Italy is in transition,” he said. “Silvio Berlusconi is trying to change everything. It’s a new spirit; he wants to modernize, streamline, open to the world, and liberalize.” Italy’s constitution is “that of a country that fell into totalitarianism and then lost a war. Everyone had a hand in the resulting republic: the Soviets, the Americans, the Roman Catholic church; we therefore swung from one extreme, Fascism, to the other, republican anarchy. We are finally moving back to the center.”
The move is not going entirely smoothly. Berlusconi represents the center-right Polo, or Freedom Pole, but his government was preceded by three governments (Prodi, d’Alema, Amato) of the Ulivo — the center-left Olive Tree alliance. Prior to their removal, the leftists packed the ministries and secretariats with Ulivo appointees. Partisan jostling in both the ministries and the chamber of deputies has complicated policy and economic decisions ever since. Still, Italy does have a government with a mandate for change and a clear majority: It holds 60 percent of the seats in parliament. This is a first. “At last, we can plan ahead five years, not five days,” the officer told me.
In the basement café where we adjourned for espresso, a number of officers expressed doubts about the efforts in Brussels to create an independent European military. They noted other changes in the political transition from Prodi to Berlusconi: “Under Ulivo, Italy mimicked French rhetoric, but that is over. This government believes that Europe can only advance if there is a transatlantic link to the Americans.” To them, Romano Prodi’s America-bashing reflects the European Left’s desire to establish the EU as a counterweight to Washington. “Prodi and Ulivo always wanted a European command, as did the French and Germans, but Italy under Berlusconi is increasingly like Britain. We are seeking to create alternatives to Franco-German plans, and to keep the U.S. engaged in Europe.”
Even with America engaged, European muscle is needed. “Without force in this world, you are nothing,” a civilian analyst interjected. “The American approach may be heavy-handed, but no one doubts it, and the U.S. gets its way. Europe has no force, and therefore no voice. And look at the leverage Great Britain has with the U.S. because of its small but effective military. That’s the kind of leverage and influence Italy wants.” He then made a historical analogy: “We must be more like [the first Italian foreign minister Camillo] Cavour. In the Crimean War, Cavour sent a division of infantry — a small, token force — to the Black Sea to aid the French and British against the Russians. The political goodwill generated by that act was out of all proportion to the actual force donated.” The senior air planner nodded eagerly, setting his coffee cup down with a crash: “That is precisely right: This is an example of Lorenzo di Medici’s ago di la bilancia! The needle on the scale. Even a small force, when shrewdly inserted, can tilt the balance.”
Talk of needles, tokens, and asymmetry turned my thoughts to the British in the Gulf and around Basra — to the way a single naval and amphibious task group and an armored division had given crucial support to the American war effort, securing Iraq’s second city and principal oil fields against stiff opposition. If the Italians continue to evolve in this direction, I reflected, we can truly move the world.
— Geoffrey Wawro is professor of Strategic Studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and anchor of the History Channel’s hardcover History.