Dealing with difficult heritage: interdisciplinarity and the afterlife of fascist architecture in Italy

by Simona Storchi

The definition of difficult heritage I use here is indebted to Sharon Macdonald’s important study of the heritage of Nazi Germany, according to which difficult heritage is ‘a past that is recognised as meaningful in the present, but that is also contested and awkward for public reconciliation with a positive, self-affirming contemporary identity’ (2009:1). Difficult heritage, Macdonald argues, may be troublesome because it ‘threatens to break through into the present in disruptive ways, opening up social divisions, perhaps by playing into imagined, even nightmarish futures’ (2009:1). What counts as ‘difficult heritage’ – or indeed ‘worthy heritage’ – according to Macdonald, may change. However, the idea that places should seek to inscribe what is significant in their histories, and especially their past achievements, on the cityscape is a longstanding and widespread notion. Heritage is considered by Macdonald an essential component of identity, particularly with reference to European nation-making: the identification of ‘a distinctive and preferably long history’ and its substantiation through material culture ‘has become the dominant mode of performing identity-legitimacy’ (2009: 2):

Within the framework of difficult heritage, it is worth reflecting on the debate surrounding the architectural heritage of Italian Fascism and in particular how the media have been displaying and reconfiguring the cultural legacy of the fascist regime, by igniting a debate that has forced alliances between disciplines in the attempt to deal with some of Italy’s most problematic heritage. A recent example has been the debate surrounding plans to restore and reuse the Casa del fascio in Predappio, Mussolini’s birthplace. In April 2014, the newspaper Il Giornale reported an interview in which the Mayor of Predappio announced the town’s administration’s intention to turn the Casa del Fascio into a museum of Fascism. The news immediately unleashed a barrage of contrasting reactions in the national press and online media, sparking a debate that is still going on, with a number of high-profile contributions, particularly by prominent historians, in an attempt to provide intellectual legitimation to the different positions expressed and almost to reclaim such a difficult subject from the realm of shouted headlines and oversimplified interpretations. The issues tackled in the responses to the idea of a museum of Fascism have been multiple: from the risks of the monumentalisation of Fascism through its museification, to the need to move beyond the notion of Fascism as a historiographic taboo, to whether Predappio would be an appropriate site for such a project and the differences between temporary exhibitions and a permanent museum. The debate mobilised concepts pertaining not only to history and politics, but also identity, memory, the shape of knowledge and the definition and management of collective heritage.

Beside an obvious sense of anxiety surrounding the history of Fascism and how it is transmitted, these interventions have highlighted a number of uncertainties regarding a perceived weak sense of national identity, which might come under threat by the creation of a museum devoted to Fascism, leading to further divisions. They underscore a lack of confidence in the role of the museum interpreted as “celebratory” rather than informative, a subsequent anxiety regarding the place of the historian as the gatekeeper of national identity, and a sense of threat coming from a popularised and hypertrophic memorial culture crystallised by musealization.

The town of Predappio has attempted to address and disperse these anxieties by re-elaborating and rephrasing the purpose of the building’s restoration and re-use. Subsequent announcements and press releases regarding the project have been downplaying the idea of the museum of Fascism, stressing instead the intention to create a study centre, featuring libraries and exhibition spaces and, more recently, stating that the restoration of the Casa del fascio would be framed within a larger European project aimed at assessing the legacy of totalitarian regimes, which would analyse the relationship between history, memory and museal representation.

While at this stage it is not possible to draw any conclusion on the discussions and activities surrounding the Casa del Fascio in Predappio, the case is evidence of the current debate on the difficult heritage of fascist Italy. This involves a reflection on unresolved memory, on heritage and identity, on the coexistence of different memory cultures and historical narratives and on the role of museums, in the awareness that the way we negotiate our relationship with our contested past is crucial in shaping notions of citizenship in 21st-century Italy and Europe.

 

 

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