Mussolini's monsters: Should the Modernist holiday camps of Fascist Italy be saved?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

They are some of the weirdest monsters the Modernist century left behind: a pencil-thin tower with long balconies sticking out like tongues from every floor, giving it the look of a diving apparatus for the suicidal; a white concrete complex, solid and technocratic like a government ministry but dumped in virgin Alpine countryside; white concrete centipedes crawling over a beach on the Adriatic coast; ruinous structures of crumbling cement and smashed glass, graffiti and refuse, spouting broken water pipes which still bring to mind locomotives or battleships or submarines, just as they must have done for the children who came here for "holidays" 70 and 80 years ago.

For these are the "colonie", the holiday camps built by Italy's Fascist regime between the wars to give the nation's young people, and particularly those from deprived parts of the cities or the backward, swampy, malarial countryside, a character-forming taste of something completely different from home – a taste of the Fascist future for which the regime was striving. And it was those young people who were destined to become the regime's labourers and foot soldiers.

"Having come from poor or very modest homes," explains a contemporary magazine article about the colonie, "the majority of these boys and girls will feel disposed here, for the first time, to accept the influence of taste; they will be stimulated, for the first time, to appreciate architectural form..."

In the event, of course, Mussolini's dreams of a new Italian empire that would out-colonise and out-massacre its ancient Roman inspiration were shot to pieces in Greece, buried alive in Libya's desert sands. They were betrayed by a fatal disconnection between vainglorious rhetoric on the one hand, and banal industrial and economic reality on the other.

Under Il Duce – and even before, in the paintings of the Futurists and the rhapsodic prose of Gabriele D'Annunzio – Italy found soaring imagery to exalt the mechanical brutality of the modern age; but unlike Germany, it never had the stolid patience to bring the project to fruition. So the young graduates of the colonie turned into the cannon fodder of the war and then the radically disillusioned citizens of the occupied and defeated nation in the war's aftermath. And the buildings where they had learnt to march, wrestle, box, shoot and swim have been left to moulder and fall to pieces ever since, like mad, ancient relatives, forgotten and abandoned.

Not everything built to Mussolini's orders suffered such a fate. Post-war Italians have been understandably reluctant to admit the fact, given the nightmarish manner in which the era ended, but in many ways the Mussolini years were a golden age for Italian architecture.

In any period, architecture needs strong patronage and Mussolini, passionately committed to remaking his nation and transforming its image, was quite some patron. Unlike both Stalin and Hitler, who suppressed Modernism in favour of kitsch pseudo-period styles, Mussolini had sufficient taste to see the beauty of the modern style, and he gave his chosen architects colossal challenges. "In five years," he declared in 1930, for example, "Rome must appear as vast, ordered, powerful as it was at the time of the first empire of Augustus." That goal may have eluded them, but they drastically remodelled the centre of the capital, and their work has stood the test of time.

"The Fascist government was indeed the most prolific Western state in its support of modern architecture," writes Terry Kirk in The Architecture of Modern Italy. "In sharp contrast to Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, Modernism in Fascist Italy was never perceived as unsuitable as an architectural idiom." Nor did Mussolini impose the straitjacket of a single style. Under his fierce stare, the playful picturesque of Garbatella, Italy's first garden suburb in southern Rome, coexisted with the Rationalism of Florence's magnificent railway station and the Pantheon- and Colosseum-inspired masterpieces of EUR. This was the area south of the capital chosen for a great expo planned for Fascism's 20th anniversary in 1942, but cancelled on account of the war. Little changed since their completion; all of them are still in use today.

The colonie, most of them scattered around the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coasts, were not so lucky: once the Opera Nazionale Balilla, the Fascist boy scouts and the other organisations that used them were dissolved, they lost their function. So entirely have many of these institutions been forgotten that it has taken photographer Dan Dubowitz and architect Patrick Duerden years to track them all down for their book Fascismo Abbandonato.

A few have found new uses: the Colonia Elioterapica, or Sun Therapy colony, near the town of Vercelli, between Turin and Milan, for example, is now used as an archery and gymnastics club, and some of the centipedes of Colonia Marina 'XXVIII Ottobre' at Cattolica on the Adriatic, where Italo-Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi remembers enjoying wonderful holidays and which at ground level look like friendly three-eyed trains, have been turned into aquariums. Many others, however, though still owned by their local authorities and occupying strategic seaside sites potentially worth millions of euros, are merely disintegrating. No one can summon the political will either to tear them down or to rehabilitate them.

The most extraordinary of them all, in the view of Duerden and Dubowitz, is also the one clinging most precariously to life. The vast Colonia Costanza in Milano Marittima, a resort on the Adriatic coast, is the last, delirious expression of Fascist formalism, its enormous concrete frame holding intersecting ramps whose only purpose was for synchronised exhibitions of marching. Completed in 1939, it was only used for a single season before the war made it redundant; in 1945 it was blown up – in disgust, one imagines – by the Nazis as they retreated up the peninsula.

In 2005, when Duerden and Dubowitz explored it, "homeless people were living in the lower parts of the building," they report, "whilst on the flat roofs, orchids and other wild flowers were in bloom. The building is in a state of collapse; while we were there a section of the floor caved in without warning... the folly of the Fascist utopia revealed by the intervention of reality, time, dereliction and decay."

'Fascismo Abbandonato' by Dan Dubowitz, Patrick Duerden and Penny Lewis is published by Dewi Lewis, priced £35

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power