New from 1929: Attempts to erase “subversive” graffiti in Mussolini’s Rome

An illustrated essay by Timothy J. Valente (Rutgers ’15)

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Excerpt from roster of “subversive” graffiti, reported in early May 1929 to the Governatorato di Roma. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

The many thousands of newly discovered documents in the Boncompagni Ludovisi family archive in the Villa Aurora cover the period from the earliest 1400s through the 1940s. Among these are various dossiers from the office of Prince Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi as Governor of Rome (1928-1935). One of these, dated to May of 1929, adds unusual insight both into the inner workings of his administration and modes of popular resistance to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

By spring of 1929, Mussolini had consolidated his dictatorship in political, aesthetic, and personal terms. Rival political parties had been outlawed, and the Public Safety Law of 6 November 1926 had banned dissent in any way damaging to order or the authorities. On 11 February 1929 the “Roman Question” had finally been solved with the Lateran Pacts signed between the Vatican and Italian state. From the cult of ‘Il Duce’ to the re-glorification of Ancient Rome, from architectural reorganization of the Eternal City to the takeover of Italian film production, the regime sought to inundate the masses with propaganda and also censor dissent.

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Essentially an example of a bureaucratic “check up,” our May 1929 dossier is focused on the removal of subversive graffiti in the city of Rome. It includes correspondence between the Governor’s chief of staff, Guglielmo Di Lullo, and Goffredo Barbantini, executive director of the municipal cleaning agency—known as the Nettezza Urbana, the predecessor of today’s Ama Roma S.p.A.

Also included in the dossier is an anonymous informant’s letter accusing Barbantini of severe corruption as the agency’s head, which probably started or expedited the creation of this dossier that was reviewed by Mussolini himself.

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Letter from anonymous informer (?early spring 1929), leveling charges of corruption against Nettezza Urbana head Goffredo Barbantini. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Although the anonymous letter dealt with financial corruption, the regime checked up on Barbantini’s handling of dissident graffiti that was reported on 1 May 1929, International Workers’ Day. An internal Nettezza Urbana memo produced by Barbantini for Di Lullo proves that Barbantini ordered his men to remove the graffiti.

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1 May 1929 report of G. Barbantini (director, Nettezza Urbana) to G. Di Lullo (chief of staff, Governatorato di Roma) regarding removal of graffiti from walls on the Lungotevere Tor di Nona and across the Tiber river at Lungotevere in Sassia. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Taken as a whole, the documents show that the Fascist government highly prioritized removal of subversive writing to maintain political, and—probably more importantly—moral hegemony. They also reveal ways in which the regime constantly investigated its own officials and evaluated the extent of party loyalty. Informants, such as the one who penned the anonymous letter, could have been motivated by personal gain. Yet the informant’s call for an investigation by, “a person of pure Fascist faith,” underscores the regime’s effective stress of faith over reason in political discourse.

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Employees of Rome’s Nettezza Urbana in January 1929. Credit: Archivio LUCE

Yet perhaps the most revealing document in the dossier is a roster of actual 1 May graffiti and the precise locations where these writing were found. In an ironic twist, bureaucratic reporting of their removal allowed what were otherwise ephemeral acts of protest to be preserved.

The content of the graffiti is overwhelmingly anti-Fascist and mainly socialist; “Long live Lenin,” “Long live Socialism,” “Hammer and Sickle,” “Long live Lenin and the 1st of May.”

Some read, “Long live Matteotti,” which referenced a notorious June 1924 assassination by PNF extremists that served to undermine Mussolini’s authority. A word of explanation. Giacomo Matteotti was the Secretary of the Unitary Socialist Party who on 30 May 1924 gave a bitter condemnation of the newly elected Fascist majority in Parliament. The subsequent conviction of an American-born Fascist activist, Amerigo Dumini, severely tested Mussolini’s resolve. Damning evidence of high level PNF involvement in the murder was published in newspapers and opposition parties walked out of Parliament in the “Aventine Secession.” Mussolini doubled down on 3 January 1925 stating, “If Fascism has been a criminal association … the responsibility is mine.” With the threat of civil war in the air, no one moved against Mussolini and in the next years any semblances of liberal democracy in Italy were shed.

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Page 1 (of 2) of roster of “subversive” graffiti registered in Rome 1 May 1929, with street location followed by content. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Other graffiti reported in May 1929 were threats to Il Duce such as, “Death to Mussolini,” or, “The Duce will get some lead.” Some however were not directly critical of the regime: for instance, “Long live Dumini” (Matteotti’s assassin) and, “Death to Zamboni” (i.e., Anteo Zamboni, a teenager who attempted to assassinate Mussolini in Bologna on 31 October 1926 and was lynched on the spot). Yet any unsanctioned act of expression challenged Fascist control, and the creators of the graffiti certainly risked imprisonment or worse for trying to sow dissent and counter the public displays of politics which were unequivocally controlled by the regime.

The placement and concentration of the graffiti suggests much about its possible authorship. We can visualize this by using the addresses in the roster which precede the graffiti content as location data on a digital map.

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Overview of the author’s interactive map showing locations of “subversive” graffiti reported for 1 May 1929

In terms of social rank, the neighborhoods of Testaccio, San Lorenzo, Trastevere, Borgo outlined in the map (particularly around ‘the spina’ area that was destroyed to construct Via della Conciliazione around 1936) contained many working-class Italians with anti-Fascist sympathies.

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The Borgo neighborhood in the area of the Vatican, as it appeared in a map of 1930. It includes the streets (Borgo Vecchio, Borgo Nuovo) that were soon to be destroyed to construct the Via della Conciliazione.

For instance, a L’Unita article from 11 July 1924 describes red flags hoisted on the monument to Giuseppe Gioachino Belli in Trastevere, as well as graffiti throughout these areas including writing of “Long Live Matteotti” and paintings of hammers and sickles. These were subtle yet important acts of resistance.

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Indeed Fascist authorities knew where to root out working-class opposition. They assaulted neighborhoods through surveillance, repression, and infiltration while conducting urban renewal projects that had the effect of removing the working class to distant suburbs.

So what makes the graffiti list found in the Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive so special? Not simply does it add to the body of evidence related to the period. It has intrinsic value which is magnified considering the extreme censorship of the regime. It also contributes to the debate on one of the most contentious historical questions in the historiography of Fascism and indeed the historiography of totalitarian states: was there a “consensus” or popular support that existed for the regime among the Italian people?

That popular support is seen as moral vindication in liberal democratic tradition underscores how the debate surrounding “consensus” creates polemics in the field. Much of the “consensus” debate revolves around the definition of consensus. Does it entail enthusiastic approval and was therefore politically legitimating? Or did a façade of enthusiasm merely mask apathy? Was popular participation coerced? Indeed is it more useful to speak about the uses of an apparent consensus, or debate the existence of a supposed consensus?

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1 May 1929 (10am): Internal memo by Nettezza Urbana director G. Barbantini ordering three men with a pail of paint and a small truck to report within 20 minutes to the political office of the Royal Police Headquarters in Rome, as a first step in removing political graffiti in the city.

Italian historian Renzo De Felice’s 1974 study Mussolini il duce. Gli anni del consenso 1929-36 has become a requisite secondary source in any scholars’ discussion of Fascism. Here he first argued that in the years 1929-1936, even the working class generally consented to the regime in that it brought materialistic security through real wages, social security, and jobs. However in 2014 a former student of De Felice, Emilio Gentile, called it impossible to sound out the feelings of Italians, and the debate of consensus a “badly posed question.”

Whether badly posed or not, scholars since the end of the War have argued for and against consensus, and every shade in between. Undoubtedly the Fascist state sought to mould the minds of Italians through propaganda: to create a consensus was its prescriptive vision. A good framework is to assess reception to that vision through personal sources, of which these graffiti is a very small, yet very telling piece of historical record.

Further reading:

Corner, P. “Italy” in S. Salter and J. Stevenson (eds.), The Working-Class Politics in Europe and America, 1929-1945. Longman: London and New York, 1990, 154-71 [challenges the materialistic basis of “consensus”]

De Felice, Renzo, Mussolini il duce. Gli anni del consenso 1929-36. Turin: Einaudi, 1974

Ebner, Michael R., Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011

Falasca-Zamponi, Simonetta, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997

Gentile, Emilio; Paul Corner; Christopher Duggan, “Two New Books on Fascism. A Review, the Author’s Responses and the Reviewer’s Comments,” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 19.5 (2014): 665-83 [on “consensus”]

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‘Bolletta’ of payment for domestic trash removal, Nettezza Urbana of Rome, 1928/29

About the author: Timothy J. Valente is a 2015 graduate of the School of Arts and Sciences (Honors Program) of Rutgers University—New Brunswick. He received a BA in History with highest honors, receiving the department’s Harold L. Poor Prize for his senior thesis, titled “The March on Moscow: Italian Soldiers at the Eastern Front”, that translated and analyzed soldiers’ letters and diaries from WW II; his minor subject was Italian. In addition to two sessions of study abroad at Urbino, Tim worked on WW I and WW II-era documents and photographs in the Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive as a research assistant to T. Corey Brennan under the auspices of the Aresty Research Center. He has worked in his native New Jersey as both a percussion instructor and as a sales assistant in the food industry, and plans to start graduate study in Fall 2017.

Comments

  1. Margie and Jihn says:

    Great work, Tim. Fascinating history brought to life.

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