At the end of the 19th century, a Prussian officer had an idea to build a water collection system beneath the mountains in modern-day Latina Province, very close to Rome, Italy. The idea was to collect the water before this settles down and prevent it from stagnating in what are known as the Pontine Marshes, with the collected water being then pumped into the Mediterranean. Major Fedor Maria von Donat filed a patent with the German Patent Office and tried to attract financial and political interest in such a project in both Germany and Italy. After moving to Italy, Major von Donat implemented a pilot project based on his plan by leasing marshland near the mountains, draining the land, and using it for farming. In the process, he managed to eradicate malaria from the land that was infamous for being inhabitable due to this disease. This was also one of his key selling points to the Italian Government. The latter became interested in implementing a similar idea, however, internal politics ultimately proved to be the downfall of von Donat’s aim to create new arable farmland for Italian settlers.
Before von Donat’s experiment, many thought about how the marshes could be reclaimed; Napoleon and Pope Pius XI both had their own ideas. Even Goethe was bothered with the swamp taking up valuable land. However, after von Donat, it was only in the 1920s when Benito Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister by the King, that Italy began to develop a serious plan to drain the swamps and eradicate malaria. Mussolini wanted to make this a central pillar of his Fascist regime and today, the draining of the marshes in Italy is closely associated with this period, just as the building of the sprawling autobahn network in Germany is closely associated with the Nazi regime.
In total, the Fascist regime in Italy built some 147 new towns between 1922 and 1943, including several built on land reclaimed from marshes through massive public investment and internal migration – which was mostly non-voluntary. Several new towns built on drained swampland can be found on the Pontine Marshes such as Littoria (now Latina, completed in 1932), Sabaudia (1934), Pontinia (1935), Aprilia (1937), and Pomezia (1939), as well as on the island of Sardinia, such as the towns of Mussolinia (now Arborea), Carbonia, and Fertilia.
Indeed, the draining of marshes in Sardinia started earlier than the Fascist regime, with the creation of the Sardinian Reclamation Corporation, which was already in operation back in 1918. The company was created to generate electricity through water management for the island, and by building several dams to generate this electricity, it helped to drain the marshes on the plains of Terralba, on the west coast of Sardinia. Between 1928 and 1938, the Fascist government built the towns of Mussolinia, Carbonia, and Fertilia and moved thousands of families here from the north of Italy. With land reclamation, came a chance for the Fascist regime to start from scratch, and build these towns to elicit the revolution that many Italian architects thought Fascism was.
In reality, there was no single type of architecture devoted to this political ideology, contrary to what other totalitarian regimes espoused. Mussolini allowed “aesthetic pluralism“; oscillating between a more modern, rationalist architecture in the early years of the regime, to a more vast, imperial style, evoking the grandeur of the Roman Empire. The new towns built from reclaimed land show these competing styles of architectural design, sometimes even between buildings within the same towns.
Architects in the two different camps had different ideas about how and what Fascist architecture should really portray. While some thought that this architecture should emphasize functionality, uniformity and rationality, others were against what they considered a ‘globalised’ style and argued that this new era for architecture should look back to the roots of Italian history for inspiration, including the Roman era.
In the very first new town built by the new Fascist government, Mussolinia, completed in 1928, one can notice this clash of architectural styles with both a Gothic church and a modernist building reserved for the Fascist Youth being built within minutes of each other. Many of the important buildings such as the local school and the hospital bear little resemblance to the local Sardinian architecture. While the buildings in the main square have a more neo-classical style, the buildings on the outskirts of the small town, including one of the highest buildings in the town, the Casa del Fascio (the local quarters of the Fascist Party), feature a rationalist design.
Italian Rationalism focuses on the symmetry of classical Roman buildings without the decoration normally associated with ‘classicalism’. This style was associated with the Italian Fascist regime in the 1920s and early 1930s after several large projects were built using this design, most famously with the construction of the EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma) district in Rome, which was to be the site of the 1942 World Fair were it not for World War II.
The same took place in the towns built on the more-known reclaimed Pontine Marshes near Rome. Here, the Italian Fascist government managed to build five new towns and several other smaller villages between 1932 and 1939, including Littoria, Sabaudia, Pontinia, Aprilia, and Pomezia.
In Sabaudia, one cannot miss the Fascist influence on the planning and the design of the town. From the shape of the tower of the municipal house built to represent the fasces – the symbol of Fascism, to the same symbol emblazoned on manhole covers, and the figure of Mussolini himself on the church facade. The architectural design for Sabaudia was created by members of the Italian Rationalist architecture movement, the Movimento Italiano per l’Architettura Razionale, following a national competition.
The creation of these new towns served only one purpose for the Fascist government – showing that Fascism works. The planning of the towns, where, very often, the quarters of the Fascist Party were given a more prominent place than the traditional church, as well as the architectural design of the buildings, and the constant reminder that both ‘Il Duce‘ and Fascism were present, was there to remind the new locals that someone is looking after them. This was not a new thing. Many totalitarian regimes use urban planning to control populations; the Soviet Union did this with communal apartments and collective farms, while a few years later, Nazi Germany also used urban planning and architecture to align the citizens with its ideology.
Lasting political legacy
Through new towns like these in Sardinia and Latina, the Fascist regime was assured a certain level of support throughout the remaining years of the regime. However, more interestingly, a study by Mario F. Carillo from the Centre for Studies in Economics and Finance and the University of Naples Federico II has found that even in post-war Italy, these same towns gave rise to the strongest neo-fascist party in the West at the time, the Movimento Sociale Italiano, while their populations continue to be the most fervent supporters of nationalist and fascist-leaning political parties up until today.
According to the author, these results suggests that public spending, in this case, the building of new towns that gave people houses to live in and places to work at, may have an even longer effect on the cultural and political preferences of the population than previously thought. He comments on how this impact even remains relevant after major institutional changes such as the overhauling of political systems – in this case, the change from the Fascist era to democracy.
Despite this tendency, in 2017, the town of Sabaudia elected Giada Gervasi as Mayor with the support of three citizen groups, running against nationalist parties. The new administration immediately changed the name of a local park from ‘Parco Arnaldo Mussolini’ to ‘Parco Falcone-Borsellino’, to commemorate the two anti-mafia heroes rather than Benito Mussolini’s brother and fellow Fascist, despite protests from local nationalist and fascist political parties, with the controversy still ongoing in 2021.