Urbi et Orbi


The funeral of John Paul II was, according to Timothy Garton Ash, "the first time Christian Rome has been at the heart of a united Europe." Well, as a native son of the Eternal City, I protest. The Jubilee of 1300—only 700 years ago, a blink in Roman time—is celebrated specifically for placing Rome at the center of the continent. Moreover, it was declared by a pope, Boniface VIII, who regarded Europe as perfectly "united" under his own universal (and quite delusional) imperium. Boniface seems hard to overlook; among the most notorious of popes, he is also a villain of The Divine Comedy. In fact, Dante hated Boniface so much that he denounced the pope in all three of the Comedia's books.

Garton Ash is on safer ground when he qualifies his claim, and observes that the funeral was "the first time in history that people from every corner of the continent—when they heard the pope died—could just take their passport out of the drawer, Google a cheap airfare and fly to Rome." They certainly couldn't do that under Boniface. Of course, Garton Ash is offering his encomia to the late pope as a liberator of Eastern Europe. I want to add a footnote to the "liberator" theme: I think John Paul II has helped strike a notable blow on behalf of Rome against Mussolini, and that he has done so in death.

For weeks, St. Peter's Square and the Via della Conciliazione, Mussolini's relatively broad avenue that leads into the square from the Tiber, have been packed with people: those holding vigil, those waiting to file past the pope's body, and finally those attending his Funeral Mass. Television imagery (especially aerial images) of the huge crowds spilling out of the Vatican grounds has made these two places, the Baroque square and the modern avenue, seemingly of a piece. Not so. The square takes its shape from Bernini, who surrounded the space with his graceful colonnades in the mid-1600s. As for the fascists' avenue, construction began in 1936 to mark the treaty of conciliation between the Papacy and Italy. (The rise of modern Italy in the late 19th century cost the Papacy its temporal power; until the treaty, popes regarded themselves as "prisoners" of the secular state.)

But Via della Conciliazione, finally finished in 1950, has been one of the most criticized—and by many regretted—developments of the modernized city. Its construction is said to have reduced the impact of Bernini's square and even to have diminished the drama of encountering St. Peter's itself. That was because building it required destroying a substantial portion of the old area known as the Borgo, with its accretion of medieval and Renaissance structures, lowly and palatial. To emerge from the Borgo's ancient, narrow, and crowded streets into Bernini's gracefully embraced open space was, reportedly, to experience a sense of churchly grandeur and serenity, even as one was still approaching the basilica. Entering the square via a modern, traffic-choked street lined with mediocre mid-century buildings was, by comparison, at best merely forgettable and at worst an infuriating reminder of irredeemable loss.

However, that very diminution of St. Peter's would have delighted Mussolini. Il Duce despised Papal Rome. He regarded the medieval and Renaissance areas of the city as so much "picturesque filth," and he intended to destroy them to undercover vestiges of the imperial capital. You can see his handiwork in various parts of town, such as the area around the "restored" Trajan's Forum, where an ancient convent was removed, and in Largo di Torre Argentina, where a group of medieval churches was razed to reveal the remains of early Roman temples.

Of course, in some instances the Church was being repaid for its 1500 years of dismantling ancient Rome, and burning its marble statues for lime. (Pope Sixtus V intended to wipe Rome clean of its classical remains entirely.) The destruction of such ancient streets as the Borgo Vecchio and the Borgo Nuovo, however, had no payoff at all, except to leave a residue of failed fascist pomp.

Unless one considers the remarkable occasions of St. Peter's, such as John Paul II's funeral. The vast crowds overflowing the Vatican grounds did seem to append Via della Conciliazione to Bernini's square, giving the modern space a purpose that was, for a change, appropriate to a broad avenue. Thus, Mussolini may have intended to build a grand route reflecting fascist modernization, but what he actually created works only as an occasional anteroom to the heart of the Papal Rome he so hated. Not much of fascist-built Rome is part of the living city, and this part lives only in Bernini's extended embrace.

NEXT: No Nosebleeds for Blue-bloods

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  1. We did the same thing in the United States.

    Except instead of the huge urban roadways leading to cultural/spiritual sites, they led to office buildings.

  2. Still can’t think of one, joe. Interstates highways do not fit the description. Those are another problem altogether, and certainly were never built solely for the glory of “The State” as was Mussolini’s roads.

    What “cultural/spiritual sites” in the US need grand boulevards anyways? The US Capitol? The NY Public Library? Statue of Liberty? Alamo? Graumann’s Chinese?

    Another bad analogy.

  3. Actually, I have a friend who tells me that the interstates were built partly to ensure that our warplanes would always have somewhere to land, even if our airbases get bombed out, and so one mile out of every five has to be straight. Can anyone confirm or deny?

  4. VoiceOver, I’m not recommendeding a new set of urban highways. Just pointing out the similarities, and the differences.

    Of course our urban highways weren’t built for a symbolic, cultural purpose. They were build for a pragmatic, economic one. Which, again, goes back to the difference between an American mid-century urban highway project and an Italian one.

    And the Capitol DOES have grand boulevards – North Capitol Street, South Capitol Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, Constitution, Independence…

    Now THERE’S your American Vatican City, centered on our Temple of Democracy.

  5. Jadagul

    No interstate highway project that I have ever worked on has ever had such a provision. And that’s going back over 30 yrs.

    Nevertheless there is a strong defense component built in. The word Defense even occurs somewhere in the original law. All bridges are designed to withstand “Military Loading”. Tanks and trailers loaded with tanks put a hell of lot more load on facilities than any civilian application.

    In Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia you’d be lucky to find a straight mile in a hundred. In Kansas and the Dakotas they build ’em straight, ’cause, well, they can.

  6. I like the Largo di Torre Argentina. Rome has more than enough medieval churches. It doesn’t have nearly enough interesting ruins with hundreds of cats lounging placidly among them.

  7. Hate to change the subject, but I gotta respond ot CP Freund’s subject that Via della Conciliazione was supposed to overshadow St. Peter’s.
    I’ve been to Rome, and I don’t remember a damn thing about the Via della Conciliazione or Mussolini. On the other hand, I definitely remember St. Peter’s. For all of the Reformation criticism of the Pope’s for building it out of the money from indulgences, it did it’s purpose and it stunned this foreign traveler (and ranks up there with the Colloseum and the Roman ruins as the coolest things in Rome). So anything that was supposed to diminish the Pope seemingly didn’t work on this American.
    Of course my tour guide was a Laborite Brit, so he might have skipped it in deference to Americans (it was 1999 so we weren’t Europe’s evil empire yet) or just didn’t like showing Fascist things, but as I think this clearly shows the failure of Mussolini that his large project didn’t even make notice to tourists 60 after his reign. What a douche.

  8. Jadagul,

    I think Isaac is right; It’s just an urban (or rural as it were) myth. Here is an “unofficial” FHA historian’s debunking.

  9. Thank you for that article, Brian.

    I was fairly sure that if it was true sometime in the last 30+ yrs I would have had someone say “and by the way, you need to put at least one mile of of tangent (that’s what we call straight sections of alignments) in every five miles”. Either that or I’d calculated an awful lot of sub-standard alignments :).

    Interstates like any highway are designed to conform to terrain and existing development patterns among other things.

  10. If I recall correctly, in his 1970s book, A Step Farther Out, Jerry Pournelle says that one of the justifications for the 1950s interstate highway program was a proposal to build fallout shelters into highway overpasses — a justification that was ignored after the money had been appropriated.

    I am unable to find any corroboration of this on the Internet. There is a bomb shelter builter under I-5 in Washington State, and I saw some allegations that Eisenhower thought more highways would make it easier to evacuate cities in case of nuclear attack, but that’s as close as I’ve got.

  11. Thanks, guys. It sounded fishy to me, but I didn’t know anything one way or the other (this is one of the few guys around here who can catch me out on random trivia).

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