- Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy by Joshua Arthurs
Excavating Modernity deals with the ideological development and deployment of the idea of “Romanness” (romanità) in fascist Italy. The book is the result of a line of interpretation that [End Page 137] reads fascist ideology and culture as a manifestation of modernity and explores the complex interrelations between fascism and the modern. The concept underpinning the book is “excavation,” which refers both to the physical act and to the ideology behind it; it is a concept that functions much like the idea of bonifica (“reclamation”), which was at the center of Ruth Ben Ghiat’s widely-referenced book Fascist Modernities (2001). In Joshua Arthurs’s study, “excavation” combines (a) the actual fascist excavations that unearthed ancient monuments in Rome, and (b) how fascism shaped the idea of romanità by engaging with the many layers of historical significance associated with the concept.
Arthurs’s book is divided into five chapters, each of which deals with a different facet of romanità during the regime. The first chapter focuses on the history of “Romanness” from the nineteenth century to Italian unification and through the fascist regime; it points out how the concept became central to the idea of the Italian nation as a historical entity. The second chapter follows the activities of the Istituto di studi romani (ISR), a research center founded in the early years of fascism that brought together scholars, architects, ideologues, and urban planners in order to promote and support the study of romanità and to contribute to projects concerning the city of Rome. By exploring the activities of the ISR, this chapter tracks how the concept of romanità was institutionalized. The ISR also positioned itself as an interlocutor between the regime and the Catholic Church; it is presented as a typical example of an institution that was not an extension of the state but that colluded with the regime in the production of fascist ideology. It worked, as Arthurs puts it, “from below”; it elaborated and publicized the idea of Romanness in the public sphere.
The third chapter, which is the longest and arguably the most interesting and densely argued, deals with the program of archeological intervention carried out in central Rome between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s. The chapter deals in particular with the debates surrounding the program and with the ideology-production that accompanied physical excavations. What emerges from the debates is a fundamental anti-historicism that pervades the concept. The excavations were not meant to expose layer upon layer of Rome’s continuous history; rather, the city’s architectonic heritage was conceived as raw material to be valorized and molded. Arthurs points out that the reclaimed sites of antiquity provided a blueprint for the modern city in aesthetic, administrative, and ideological terms. Reference to ancient Rome constituted an example of moral, social, and hygienic “sanitization.” Together with excavation and “liberation,” this concept features prominently throughout the book; to sanitize the city meant to reclaim it from backwardness, poverty, and picturesque nostalgia in order to consign it to a dynamic, healthy modernity. The result was an almost metonymic approach to historical sites. The reclaimed monument stood for the whole city and by extension for the entire nation; it was liberated, cleaned up, sanitized, and fully integrated within the landscape of modernity. Arthurs points out that it was clear to Mussolini and the regime that Rome could never become a modern metropolis in the conventional sense, but it could offer a new experience of modernity by juxtaposing past and present. Arthurs reveals the regime’s anti-nostalgic attitude as he examines the debates surrounding the excavations; he implies that the “real” Rome—that of the present, the recent past, and personal memories—was eradicated and replaced with the Rome of collective heritage. The regime effected an inverted process whereby monumental Rome, the ahistorical and anti-historical Rome envisaged by the fascists, became increasingly real; the “real” Rome, the Rome that was being destroyed by the excavations, became gradually museified...