The grand opening of the Via del Mare, the Via dell’Impero (both 1932), and the Via dei Trionfi (1934) created a triumphal tetragon at the heart of the ancient city. Piazza Venezia, the Colosseo, the Circo Massimo, and the Piazza Bocca della Verità became nodes, each with a very special function, that connected the spaces and monuments along the way and consecrated the powerful ideological myth of Fascism’s privileged relation with
There was a problem, however, that both urban planners and regime officials at the time recognised: however powerful the imagery and the vistas, the opened spaces lacked a ‘Fascist’ legibility. This is why in 1933-34 the Fascist regime decided to use the plot opposite the Basilica of Maxentius for its own sacred space, the Palazzo del Littorio – national party headquarters, Mussolini’s office, museum of the Fascist Revolution, Sanctuary of the Fascist ‘martyrs’.
The plan was abandoned in 1936, in spite of the most exciting competition with over a hundred submissions. It would be impossible, it seemed at that point, to build such an important modern building among so many fateful cadavers of the glorious past. The Palazzo del Littorio began its anti-climactic exile further and further away from the historic centre.
Still, the desire to anchor the Fascist era on the space of the ancient city never ceased to produce new ideas. As the focus of the Fascist regime’s transformative energy moved towards the Circo Massimo (excavations started in 1934), the plot of land between its easternmost tip and the Baths of Caracalla seemed equally privileged and far less problematic.
In 1935 a competition was announced for a new auditorium. Since the beginning of the century Rome had the most bizarre music hall, built atop the ruins of the Mausoleum of Augustus. However, the approaching celebrations of the Bimillenario Augusteo (in 1937-38, marking 2000 years from the birth of the emperor that transformed Rome and the Roman Empire) meant that the Mausoleum woulld be restored at the heart of a new piazza. The old auditorium was to be demolished, along withH hundreds of houses surrounding the mausoleum.
The area opposite the tip of the Circo Massimo, across the Torre di Frangipane, was chosen as the location for the new building. The competition, overshadowed by that of the Palazzo del Littorio (both the first in 1934 and the second-degree in 1936) and the invasion of Ethiopia, produced a series of prizes but no winning project; shortly afterwards the whole idea was abandoned.
It is true that, after the competition frenzy of the of the early 1930s, the format of the official competition started to run out of creative juice. In hindsight, the 1935 concorso for the auditorium marked the beginning of a downward spiral that was littered either by abandoned ideas or competition fields increasingly short of inspiration and high on sycophantic uniformity. But the 1935 competition for the auditorium attracted a distinguished field of architects and above all produced a rich register of extraordinary designs. Along the established names of Libera and De Renzi (riding the wave of success after the facade of the 1932 Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution and their post office on Via Marmorata), there were designs by teams that would play a more prominent role in the architectural history of the 1930s in Italy – Nervi, Vietti, the Farielo-Muratori-Quaroni and the Cancelotti-Scalpelli teams.
The abandoned plot of land initially destined for the auditorium did not remain empty for long, however. In 1937 it received the most symbolic trophy of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, the obelisk of Axum. A few years later, a new competition, this time for the ministry of East Africa, produced a collaborative winning project by Cafiero and Ridoldi that would be completed after the Second World War. By that time, the destructive illusion of an Italian East Africa had perished, along with the Fascist regime. The building was given to the UN and became the headquarters of the Food Agency. But the stolen obelisk remained there until 2005, when it was finally returned, after decades of lengthy negotiations, to its original location in Ethiopia.