Italy relives its old battles with new war of the street signs

In the sad, grey, industrial town of Latina, some 40 miles south of Rome, the clocks are being turned back in drastic fashion. All the way back to 1932, in fact, when the town was just rising above the newly- drained Pontine marshes and the Fascists ruled.

Latina's 75-year-old mayor, an unreconstructed old blackshirt called Ajmone Finestra, has decided that it is time to remind the townsfolk of the glories of the dictatorship. Thus the municipal park now bears the name of Arnaldo Mussolini, the Duce's brother, who died the same year that Latina was founded. The cedars of Lebanon that once graced one of the main squares have been chopped down and replaced with a copy of the Italianate garden that was first constructed in 1932.

Mr Finestra has also just proposed changing the names of most of the streets in the town centre in honour of the Fascist heroes who drained the marshes (and, in many cases, were responsible for less commendable acts too). And he wants to adorn the pathways of the park with such names as Pola, Fiume and Zara - Balkan towns conquered by the Fascists and still hankered after by some die-hard nostalgics.

Most controversial of all, he wants to return the town centre to its original name, Littoria, which was expunged at the end of the war to eradicate the memory of Fascism. "Nothing to do with nostalgia," he says, "just a way of redressing the historical balance."

That historical balance has been the focus of much revisionist debate in Italy, ever since the re-emergence of the far right under Gianfranco Fini. Officially, the National Alliance party has shed its neo-fascist roots and now sells itself as a mainstream conservative group. But it has also done everything it can to encourage a more sympathetic rethink of Mussolini's dictatorship, and has happily held on to old-timers such as Mr Finestra who bring in the residual Fascist vote.

Mr Finestra has provoked howls of protest from the left-wing opposition, and may not have won the approval of the Alliance's leadership with his street-name plan, but he has undoubtedly touched a raw nerve. Half a century after Italy returned to democracy, street names are becoming a battleground across the country for various ideological arguments about the past.

There is conflict dating from the Mussolini era between Italian speakers and the German-speaking majority in the South Tyrol. In the Milanese suburb of Opera, the argument has skipped forward a generation to the Cold War. There, the conservative local council decided a week ago to drop the Viale Berlinguer, named after the moderate Italian Communist Party leader of the 1970s and 1980s, and rechristen it Viale Italia.

Occasionally, the name game transcends ideological boundaries, with explosive results. Last year, the left-wing mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, wanted to honour the wartime resistance figure, Giuseppe Bottai, who rather inconveniently had previously been a minister under Mussolini and a signatory to the notorious racial laws of 1938. Mr Rutelli argued that Bottai had been compromised rather than tarnished by his earlier role, but to no avail - the entire Rome establishment, not to mention the Jewish community, rose against him and he was forced to back down.