After 30 years abroad I am back in Rome where I grew up. I was always aware of the traces of the twenty years of fascist regime. Maybe because of the distance, maybe because of my experience filming in Asmara, now in the city fabric I read more layers of history’s palimpsest and I see how former colonial enterprises are embedded in the urban environment. These presences clash with the mainstream perception toward immigrants, even those coming from the nations our former regime declared parts of the empire. Our cities feature plenty of commemorating sites of colonial enterprises. At the same time, we do not acknowledge that people from our former colonies are part of our history as much as we are part of theirs. I think the issue here is: shouldn’t cities represent the collectivity and its history as a community? And what happens when the signifiers the city is disseminated with do not represent any longer most of its collective thinking? Or are they offensive to a part of the citizens?
We need to have these sites emerge into public awareness and have a discussion about them and their original intents and about what happened after the fall of the fascist regime: why the newly-born republic chose not to open the public forum to a discussion that would question not only the regime’s actions, but citizens’ individual roles in it? I guess we Italians, as a society, never had an exhaustive collective discussion about that part of our history – it is about time. When you have no (critical) consciousness of history you fail to see it embedded in the environment that surrounds you – the more you know the more you see. Knowledge can unveil what has been veiled by our lack of proper confrontation with our own history. The more you know the more the city as a palimpsest opens to you.
This is the origin of Memoria necessaria/Memory Amiss which I started in the spring of 2019 . The project encompasses a series of interventions that address Rome and the memory of the nation’s colonial past. I want to inscribe the city with text, these sites with language, in different forms and formats – as inscriptions, plates, signs or written text. The words create a circuit break that aims at sparking a re-reading and a re-contextualization of the events being commemorated and could bring into question the commemoration itself. Words are sharp weapons: words can be the instrument that lets the submerged meaning of the site emerge and exposes it. Once exposed, it opens to questioning and dialogue. That would mark a re-birth for a public space and it would contribute to re-connect it to the people.
To identify the colonial lexicon hidden in the city I conceived a guidebook of twelve sites that will be published later this year by ViaIndustriae as part of a project in collaboration with the Ilaria Alpi Italian African Museum at MUCIV in Rome. Each site was chosen for its association to a specific aspect of Italian colonization – the use of indigenous soldiers and of forbidden chemical agents; the role of explorers and commercial companies to secure territories; individual responsibilities; historical amnesia; the loss of lives; the creation of heroes; the theft of cultural objects; the colonies in current language; the construction of the myth of the Roman empire; the expropriation of the idea of nation. In each site I place a plate with information that contributes to a “re-reading” of the specific historical event being represented. Beside myself, I have asked twelve people  to dig in their memories from their professional disciplines or life experiences and write about their relation to these sites, thus reconnecting personal experiences to sites of memories embedded in the city.
If the guidebook directs our individual attention to sites whose origin and meaning most people have no knowledge of, on the macro scale of our colonial amnesia – or, better, suppression? – stands an entire city section, the Quartiere Africano, “African Neighborhood”, an “African” neighborhood where only Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and Somalia exist. Why are all other African nations represented in another neighborhood with the rest of the world’s nations, at the opposite end of the city? In fact the name itself immediately reveals what it is concealing: that the de-facto name of the place should be Quartiere delle Colonie Africane (Italy’s African Colonies Neighborhood.) In Quartiere Africano I envision a neon store-like sign to be placed on a building at the neighborhood entrance on viale Eritrea. The sign would read restituire (restitution) to symbolically “give back” to their lawful “owners” – i.e. the inhabitants of the cities, nations and sites that give the name to the neighborhood‘s streets and squares – the places represented in the neighborhood’s toponimy. The gesture is to “liberate” them from their association with the Italian colonial enterprise that has haphazardly clustered them together, thus not recognizing their individual nations’ identity or their status as independent nations.
Of all the places in the city where the colonial footprint is most hidden and insidious, Foro Italico stands at the top. The “Italian Forum” is the city’s largest sport complex, inaugurated in 1932 but completed after WWII. Here was where, as a kid, I trained at the swimming pools; this is the place I rather avoided as a teenager, because unsafe; here is where I shot “The Date” (1984), my first video, a reconciliation with the place I came from – at the time I was already living abroad – in the form of a love story with one of the sixty marble statues of men representing individual sports in the Stadio dei Marmi’s (Stadium of the Marbles).
I focus on viale del Foro Italico (boulevard of the Italian Forum), formerly named Piazzale dell’Impero (Empire Square). The viale is the 280 mt. “line” that connects the entrance to the sports’ complex – marked by an obelisk that still bears the name of Mussolini – to the main stadium. The pavement is covered with black and white mosaics, recalling ancient Roman ordinary interior pavements. As the entire Foro Italico is dedicated to youth, the mosaics depict arts, sports activities and training, as well as slogans and Mussolini’s name. As I see it today, it glorifies virility, race and sports as preparation for war – no women depicted with the exception of the muses surrounding victory at the end of the walk. At the sides, eleven blocks of marble arranged orthogonally to the path accompany the walk from the obelisk to the stadium. On each of them, inscribed texts describe the rise of the fascist regime from the end of WWI up to the proclamation of the empire in 1936. On the left side, toward the end of the path, three blocks commemorate the fall of the fascist regime (1943), the referendum with which Italians chose the Republic over monarchy (1946), and the writing of the Italian Constitution (1948). The last two are empty.
At the very end and the beginning of the path another four blocks are placed perpendicularly to the rest. Of those, the first two are now caged by the gates placed to control the entrance of people to the stadium – this is still the main way to the stadium, a major site in the life of the city given the role that soccer plays in the lives of Italians and also often the site of hooligans’ violence. Of the last two perpendicular blocks, one bears the transcript of Mussolini speech when he proclaimed the Empire in 1936. The one facing it on the opposite side is empty. The place resonates, exudes and transpires so much fascist culture that even those three blocks that describe the passage from fascism to democracy cannot bring it up to speed. At the same time, it reveals an ambiguous side. The events related to the colonial enterprise are so embedded in and interspersed with what looks like a chronology of fascism rise and fall, that at a first look they might not be so evident. And that is exactly the point: the colonial expansion and the concept of empire building were an integral part of fascist rhetoric. Again, it is insidious.
While I was doing research for the project I discovered that what is there now is not the original version of Viale dell’Impero. Clearly the fact that the last three blocks acknowledge the fall of fascism and the birth of the republic are evident proofs that the site’s existence was questioned after 1943. In fact sixty-one years ago the place was re-arranged to remove its fascist overtones. «The controversy had remained latent until the eve of the 1960 Olympics in Rome. It was in fact paradoxical that one of the central places of the sports facilities and the main pedestrian access path to the Olympic stadium was marked by the Dux obelisk and flanked by marble stones with the most significant dates of fascism. Twenty days before the inauguration of the Olympics, scheduled for August 25, 1960, the controversy resumed. Amid new contrasts and pro-fascist demonstrations, Minister for Tourism Folchi had the fascist oath erased from the mosaic floor and covered the writing that deprecated the sanctions against fascist Italy put in place by 52 nations at the time of the Ethiopian war (all of them ED.) now guests of the Olympic games.
In reality at that time the square no longer appeared in its original layout. Three new writings had been added to three left-wing blocks (furthermore) three blocks of the chronological sequence had been moved, putting Italy’s entry in WWI in first place, the battle of Vittorio Veneto in the second and the foundation of the “Popolo d’Italia” in the third, with the clear aim of reducing Mussolini’s characterization by insisting on the objectivity (my underlining ED.) of dates and events. After all, the Minister of Tourism and Sport Umberto Tupini, in April 1959 had argued that those inscriptions recalled “facts and events that actually occurred, whatever the judgment that of them can be given in historical and political terms” (sic! ED.); and that others “more directly linked to a political ideology, recall maxims that experience has shown absolutely fallacious and by now they constitute precisely the testimony of that fallacy” almost indicating the program of subsequent interventions. Thus, at the end of this transformative operation, inspired by a casual historical relativism, the square could present itself as a place of national memories (my underlining ED.). In 1990 in an official publication dedicated to the Foro Italico, published after the restorations carried out on the occasion of the world football championships, we find the 1960 choices certified and justified: “The salient dates of Italian history up to the constitution of the Republic and two of them are still free” (my translation ED.)»
I guess enough time has passed so that we can conceive a more thorough re-thinking of the place and its meaning in the contemporary. I plan to place a word that starts with the prefix RI or RE on the back of each inscribed block. I am using these prefixes because their very nature suggests a reflexive attitude, although at the same time they are pro-active and in many languages help define an action. The words’ presence, in contrast with the site’s content, creates a dissonance and invites to question the concept of empire building and the legacies that fascism has left us and are still embedded in our surroundings. In the last two blocks – the ones still empty – the words will be placed in the front, marking a shift in our consciousness of history and its processes. These are the words:
ricordare rivedere riflettere
ripensare rileggere ridefinire
riconnettere riformulare riesaminare
risvegliare respingere rifiutare
ribellare riemergere rinnegare
reagire risignificare riparare
rendere risarcire restituire
ricostruire rivendicare riconoscere
At the site’s entrance the two facing blocks will read: riflettere (to reflect) and at the opposite side, reagire (to react). The final block that stands perpendicularly to the rest and faces the text of the discourse Mussolini read to declare the birth of the empire, will bear again: reagire (to react).
The words will be in red. The character used will not be the same as the existing inscriptions and the words will be written but not inscribed, to mark their impermanence. In the future we might choose to change them again.
Prologue and Epilogue
In 1999 after a trip to East Africa, I started working on a film about Asmara. I wanted to investigate why everybody defined the city “Italian.” In some places I could see the connections. Some buildings were clear signifiers and reconnected me to Italy’s history – the Fascist party Headquarters, built as a reclining F, the “Umbertino” theatre and main catholic church, “the cinemas”. The signs were often subtle and woven in the city texture. If I recognize part of Italy’s history in this place, what do the Asmarinos see? How do they relate to Asmara’s built environment? What memories does it trigger in them? What does this urban environment reflect and represent? These are some of the questions upon which I built Asmara, Eritrea the film I completed in 2007. In fact those initial questions were totally “deactivated” by the Asmarinos’ narrations that structure the movie.
It was their use of those public spaces and buildings that subverted the intended meaning of the Italian colonizers. Furthermore, it was clear that the meaning was not fixed but in constant flux. If a private villa built in the 1930’s was initially known because it was a doctor’s dwelling and practice, it was now known because later, under the vicious Ethiopian DERG regime, became a site where many Eritreans were tortured. And now it had become the Dept. of Waters, where people went to address problems with their service. The use of a place disarticulates and subverts the original “meanings” attached to it. Later, in a trip to Libya in 2004, I found that simple gestures as well could have similar effects. In Tripoli it was the use of color: painting some of the places related to the Italian colonization in green – the color of Islam and of the Libyan flag – deflated their original meaning. When talking about the city and its sites of memory, the first element that is called into question is the immovability, the static nature of things in the urban context, while we know that the city is not a static body but a living being in constant change.
Monuments, buildings and places are the expressions of our shared history and culture. They do not maintain the fixed meaning that was assigned to them at the time of construction: the meaning changes according to the use we citizens make of them. In my opinion it is important we don’t erase these sites or behave as if their content was invisible. I guess we should acknowledge that, as citizens of the nation, we are part of that event and understand and assume our responsibilities for the consequences it created. It is by letting the content and its consequences emerge into public consciousness that we can transform their place in history. Our – as citizens – use of public space redefines its meaning. It is by use that we “open/clear” its original meaning and let history move on. But it has to be an active use, a conscious use, a “taking charge” of the history represented, of the way history is represented and of the way we do not identify with it. I feel, as an artist, I can contribute to this process by introducing elements in the urban context that trigger reactions and open the sites to questions.
 Memoria necessaria/Memory amiss began in the Spring of 2019 with the proposal for two interventions: a plate at the September 11 memorial where the Axum obelisk stood; and a store sign to be placed at Quartiere Africano. These two projects where presented at the exhibit Archivos, registros necesario curated by artist Estibaliz Sadaba Murguia at the Universidad del Pais Vasco (EHU/UPV Bilbao, Jan 14 – Feb 20, 2020.) I then expanded Memoria necessaria/Memory amiss to transform it into an “umbrella name” for a series of projects that include the above-mentioned two, a guidebook and the intervention at Foro Italico this article describes. The guidebook – still to be printed – will be presented in the late Spring with a panel discussion at Ilaria Alpi Italian African Museum at MUCIV – Museum of civilizations.
 The twelve people I invited to contribute have approached the city, memory in the urban environment, colonialism, and migration from the perspective of their different disciplines of work. They include historians of: Africa, art and architecture, and oral history; urban planners; writers; organizers and activists.
 The Date 10 min. 1984 streaming at VIDEO
 From the site of Treccani vocabulary: «Prefix present in many verbs, and their derivatives, which generally has iterative value, that is, it expresses duplication or repetition; […] Among other functions, frequent is the one that indicates the return to an earlier phase, after the completion of an action opposite to that indicated by the simple verb; […] Especially intensive value (with regard to the original verb) has in the verbs seek, fill, clean up, warm up, awaken, return, etc.; emphatic in repeating, turning, etc.…. (my translation ED.)
 In the same order: to remember; to review; to reflect; to re-think; to re-read; to redefine; to reconnect; to re-formulate; to re-examine; to awaken; to reject; to refuse; to rebel; to re-emerge; to deny; to react; to re-signify; to repair; to return; to compensate; to give back; to rebuild; to re-claim; to acknowledge.
 “Umbertino” currently refers to the architecture style of the period when the Savoy king Umberto I reigned in Italy (1878-1900).
 Asmara, Eritrea 62 min. 2007, produced by anonymous productions Distributed by DER-Documentary Educational Resources. VIDEO (both Italian and English versions)
ITALY Comeback, Foreign News, Time magazine, October 11, 1948, pag. 17
López Cuenca R., De la decadencia del monumento público, in El País, January 2, 2021
Paniconi M., Criteri informatori e dati sul Foro Mussolini , in Architettura, fasc. II, February 1933: pp. 76-90
Piacentini M., Il Foro Mussolini in Roma. Arch. Enrico Del Debbio, in Architettura, fasc. II February 1933: pp. 65-75
Vidotti V., Luoghi del fascismo a Roma (Rome’s Fascist sites); lecture at the conference Urbs: Concepts and realities of public space; Dutch Institute, Rome, April 2-4, 2003.
Using tools from anthropology, history and media, Caterina Borelli’s work focuses on the interaction of people with the built environment. Between 1997 and 2007 she worked extensively in Eritrea and Yemen. Currently she is developing a documentary on oil and African nations’ independence. Since 2009 she has been in-charge of the MoroRoma archive, a collection of social and political images that covers the 20th century. In 2014 she was a recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Award.