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Diving with the Duce

The World Championships for swimming, diving and other water sports have transformed Rome into Waterworld. The ancient city's major sports venue is sparkling after an extensive upgrade.

The Stadio Olimpico del Nuoto in Rome

Colourful mosaics decorate the walls of the 50 metre pool


The Foro Italico is lauded as a masterpiece of 1930s architecture. However, the sports venue generates mixed feelings among Italians. The Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, was the visionary behind the art and architecture.

Athletes and spectators entering the venue of this year's swimming World Championships walk right by Italy's dark past. Poking into the sky is a restored, blindingly white marble monument that rises to a gold point.

Obelisk with Mussolini's name carved into it

The Fascist dictator wanted to create a forum that would surpass those of Caesar and Augustus

"This is the obelisk, Mussolini's obelisk," said Context Travel docent Sarah Morgan with a nervous laugh, knowing she's stating the obvious. "Mussolini Dux," or Mussolini Leader, is carved into the marble in gigantic letters.

"They haven't made any attempt to erase his name," said the fascist era scholar.

Mussolini's Forum

The obelisk fronts the sprawling sporting center built mostly in the 1930s. Originally called Foro Mussolini, or Mussolini's Forum, the center was renamed Foro Italico after the regime's fall.

Il Duce wanted to create a forum that would surpass those of Caesar and Augustus. He enlisted the help of the architect Enrico Del Debbio, who used the same building materials as the ancient Romans. The marble came from Carrara, a Tuscan town famous for providing the pristine marble in many of the eternal city's monuments. The Roman Empire influenced nearly every aspect of Mussolini's forum.

"It was really the era that they could hark back to show Rome's greatness and also when Rome had this empire," said Morgan, who wrote her doctoral thesis on gender and sport in fascist Italy.

She said Mussolini tapped into the symbolism to create national pride among modern Italians. But he also wanted to use history for "justifying what they were doing."

Spelling it out

A stark, rectangular piazza stretches from Mussolini's obelisk to the stadium. The fascist leader took advantage of this space to spread his message through black and white mosaics. Louder than any fan, the artwork screams that sports and fascism are linked.

The word Duce in a mosaic

Duce, or leader, Mussolini's self-given title, is everywhere

"Duce, Duce, Duce" is spelled out along the piazza's edge. Also written is "Molti Nemici, Molto Onore," which translates into "Many Enemies, Much Honor."

Alongside the propaganda, the mosaics show athletes in action. A muscular man hurls the discus. Swimmers churn through the water. An ice hockey player shoots at the goal. Nearly all are male and they're competing in Mussolini-approved sports. Cycling, for instance, isn't depicted. Why? Il Duce considered it a communist sport. The fascists ran their own sports leagues and banned all others.

"The Fascists wanted to use sport to make Italians fitter," Morgan said. Athletics were a pillar in the party's platform that projected "an image of a stronger, more virile Italy, as well as preparing them for war."

The piazza was inaugurated in 1937 to celebrate the conquest of Ethiopia, Il Duce's first - and only - colony in his attempt to create a new Roman Empire. Morgan points to the mosaics that she considers the most revealing: 20th century tanks, airplanes and soldiers decorate a mosaic done in an ancient Roman style. The past and the present meet with a message written in the mosaics.

"It's saying, 'Finally, Italy has its empire,'" Morgan said.

Fascism falls, Foro stands

In Rome's Stadio dei Marmi, Italians sing the national anthem during the swimming championships' opening ceremonies. The Allies liberated Rome in 1944, yet the city was left with this reminder. The track is rimmed with 60 white marble statues of sportsmen, from boxers to basketball players. They look like Roman or Greek gods with the buffed bodies of gladiators. All are naked, a little odd for the statue depicting a skier.

Different artists created the sculptures, each of which represents an Italian province. Sports fans usually have a favorite.

Statue of boxer

A boxer sculpture from Rome's Stadio dei Marmi. The Fascist era stadium only features athletes Mussolini approved of

"It's Hercules at the entrance, the symbol of Rome," said Valerio Raschiatore. "It's the most handsome of all," the Roman added, chuckling. It's an unconventional choice. His statue sits apart from the other 60.

During the Fascist regime, young men about Raschiatore's age attended the attached Fascist Party-run physical education academy. They marched on this field for visiting dignitaries, including Hitler. It's a history that the city may want to hide but can't.

"Rome and its people are linked more than other Italians to fascism because the city was its power center," Raschiatore said. He says this stadium is beautiful but it isn't a place that Romans are proud of. Fascism colored it.

"The regime is looked at on one hand for the positive things accomplished but above all for its negatives," Raschiatore said.

Dive with the Duce

Foro Italico's 50-meter indoor pool is awash with fascist art and architecture, even though it was completed decades after the dictator's execution in 1945.

The neoclassical wonder was built in preparation for the 1960 Olympics, using designs created during the years of fascism and by the same architect. During the World Championships, swimmers warm up in this pool, which resembles an ancient Roman bath. Mosaics of seahorses and lobsters cover the deck and the walls explode with blue prancing horses and tanned runners.

Retired Italian swimmer Novella Calligaris trained in the pool en route to Olympic medals at the 1972 Olympics. This Fascist facility leaves her conflicted.

"I don't justify the period – I want to be very clear about that," Calligaris said. "But I think for the history and the art, it is a very good example."

Cyclist at Foro Italico

Italians would not have been able to go cycling at Foro Italico during Mussolini's rule

Novella Calligaris is now a painter with a keen understanding of art. Yet she was a teenager when she was churning up and down the pool and far more interested in swimming fast than taking a museum tour. She adds that the pool wasn't well suited for her discipline.

"It's very dark. It's very deep," Calligaris said. "We used to say it's like a tomb."

She admits that the shimmering mosaics didn't color her workouts. "When you swim, your head is in the water and you can't look around."

Mussolini put particular emphasis on the sport of swimming. But much to his dismay, Italians didn't take the plunge. It's still not a nation of swimmers. Some scholars say Italians remain wary of the sport because of its ties to fascism.

Mussolini considered himself a swimmer, even though he wasn't particularly talented. A barrel-chested, short man, he put in his laps in his own column-lined pool at Foro Italico, which was recently opened for a rare tour. The brutal dictator swam near whimsical mosaics of dancing bears and walruses.

Mosaic of athletes

Mussolini used designs that evoked the Roman Empire period to make Italians proud

"Fortunately, it's now a swimming school for kids," said Piero Mei of the World Championships' organizing committee. "The world has changed, thank God."

The pool won't be used during the championships. Mei says for years this pool and the other facilities were neglected and threatened with destruction due to their symbolism of Mussolini's Fascist regime.

"Then the Foro Italico was rediscovered apart from its ideology, the beauty of its architecture and its modernity, apart from the era in which it was constructed," Mei said. "There's no other sporting complex in the world like Foro Italico."

Former swimmer Novella Calligaris says 70 years is enough time for Rome to separate the Foro Italico from its dark history. The Eternal City has done it before with the Colosseum.

"Inside the Colosseum, the Romans gave Christians to the lions," Calligaris said. "But we'd never cover up the Colosseum."

The World Swimming Championships won't wash away Foro Italico's history but may provide some new, positive memories for this sporting and art wonder.

Author: Nancy Greenleese in Rome (hs)

Editor: Rob Turner

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