NEW from 1929: An unpublished letter by Mussolini sheds light on Fascist Rome’s struggle with street begging

An illustrated essay by Sarah Moynihan (Rutgers ’21)

Visitors to Rome who travel away from the popular tourist sites in the Centro Storico and to the Portuense district can find, with just a bit of difficulty, in the shadow of an overpass, the front gate of the Casa Vittoria. Located at the corner of Via Portuense and Via Quirino Majorana, the building is currently home to an unassuming day center for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

However, a dossier from the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi, recovered with the help of HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, illuminates that the Casa Vittoria was once the center of significant internal governmental controversy during the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

Built in the late nineteenth century, since 1905 it was home to the olive oil processing company Oliere dell’Italia Centrale. In 1927, this factory, which by then had had fallen into disuse, was converted by the Italian government into a new shelter for indigent beggars called a “mendicicomio”. In January of 1928, the mendicicomio was opened for operation. For the general background, see the discussion of Luciano Villani, Le Borghate del Fascismo (2012) esp. Chapter 1.

A LUCE newsreel (above) produced in November 1928, commemorating the sixth anniversary of the Fascist March on Rome (October 1922) featured the inauguration of various governmental public works projects. This included the inauguration of the newly converted mendicicomio at the Via Portuense.

The inclusion of the mendicicomio in the celebratory reel reveals that the opening of the shelter for beggars was a point of pride for the regime. Indeed, the opening was attended by various governmental officials, including the Prince of Piombino, Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, very recently (13 September 1928) installed as Governor of Rome, who presided over the event.

Despite the great pomp surrounding the shelter’s launch, documents and correspondence written by various contemporary government officials, and preserved today in Rome’s Villa Aurora, reveal that the mendicicomio was not initially as successful as the newsreel would suggest.

Detail from article on “The struggle against begging in Rome”, in Il Messaggero 24 October 1928 p5.

The Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi holds a sizeable portfolio of documents specifically regarding the mendicicomio at the Via Portuense. Among these documents is a report from the head of Rome’s Questura (police force), dated 14 April 1929, alleging that the mendicicomio was opened prematurely and was unfit for operation.

The Questore—presumably Ermanno Angelucci, though the signature is indistinct—enumerated a list of necessary systems that were lacking at the time of the shelter’s opening, which were still lacking at the time of the report being written.  Among the systems lacking were an adequately large disinfection system, an operational laundry, clothing for the residents, sufficient beds for residents, and a functional, unified operating protocol.

Additionally, the report asserted that local charities were transferring disabled patients to the mendicicomio. The report stated these patients were compounding the effects of the asylum’s shortcomings. It claimed that the commissioner had reported these defects to the appropriate authorities upon their discovery, but as of April 1929, there had yet to be a remedy.

The controversial report was summarized in a letter sent directly to Governor Boncompagni Ludovisi. These allegations gained the attention of the Governor, and that of Benito Mussolini himself.

Unpublished note of 17 April 1929, from Italian prime minster Benito Mussolini to Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi as Governor of Rome. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome.

This brings us to the newly found letter from Mussolini. Included in the dossier was a handwritten note, dated 17 April 1929, that was sent to Boncompagni Ludovisi. In it, Mussolini states that he had personally given the order to regulate begging, and indicates that he had requested the original police report. He concluded by ordering the governor to send an official to conduct an inspection of the shelter at the Via Portuense. A transcription (for which I thank Anthony MajanlahtiAmedeo Osti and Prof. Sandro La Barbera for their help) and translation (again with help from Prof. La Barbera) follows:

Caro Governatore,

Sulla ripresa dell’accattonaggio—che io stesso ho personalmente e ripetutamente constatato—mi giunge—da me richiesta l’acclusa nota della Regia Questura. Dia gli ordini perchè il Mendicicomio sia messo al punto. Era un vanto del Regime, la scomparsa dei mendicanti. Non torniamo indietro. Mandi apposito funzionario, a fare un sopraluogo.

Mussolini, 17 aprile VII

Dear Governor [i.e., Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi]

On the resumption of begging—that I myself have personally and repeatedly observed—there comes to me—on my request, the enclosed note from the Royal Police Headquarters. Give the orders that the beggar-house be brought to completion. It was a pride of the Regime, the disappearance of beggars. Let us not turn back. Send the appropriate officer to do a site inspection.

Mussolini, April 17 VII [= 1929]

LUCE image (dated 8 November 1928) of the mendicicomio in via Portuense, a former olive oil factory.

The subsequent report, written on 18 April 1929 by Raffaello Ricci, the Governor’s delegate for care services, claimed that the situation was not as dire as the report of the Questore claimed. According to Ricci, the laundry had been operating for over a month by the time the initial report had been issued. The delegate’s report claimed the disinfection system was sufficient in size and functioning. It stated that clothing items had already been distributed and that more items were in production to meet the shelter’s needs. Lastly, he clarified that the disabled patients described in the commissioner’s report were, in fact, beggars from other institutions, and therefore, it was appropriate to house them in the mendicicomio.

Detail from unpublished note of 18 April 1929, by R. Ricci, delegate for “Social Assistance” to Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi as Governor of Rome. The handwritten annotation (in blue) notes that the Governor on 19 April received this by hand, and sent a copy to the Capo di Governo Mussolini. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome.

While the archived files never reached a clear consensus on the true state of the mendicicomio in April 1929, the reports are notable for how they bring to light the motivations behind the contemporary policies regarding the homeless. These documents provide a brief glimpse into a social policy that was overtly focused on furthering the political goals of the Fascist regime.  Throughout the various reports, it was clear that administration believed the most important function of the mendicicomio, and its most significant failing, was its ability to keep beggars off of the streets of Rome.

The initial police report was explicit in its original reason for scrutinizing the shelter’s condition. It was in response to a resurgence of begging in Rome, which the commissioner referred to as “the most shameful plagues of the Capital”.  It summarized the challenges of ridding Roman streets of beggars and specified the other methods which had also been used to reduce begging in the capital. These methods included the “repatriation” of non-native Roman beggars to their places of origin, and the subjection of other beggars to “such strict measures that most of them, in a short span of time, repented, giving themselves to honest occupations”.

Prince Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi in the uniform of the Governor of Rome, ca. 1929. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome. Original black and white photograph colorized by DeOldify.

The report from the Governor’s delegate for care services spent considerable time discussing whether the re-emergence of beggars in the Capital were a result of the shelter’s deficiencies or a result of the beggars being permitted to leave the residence. In response to this, a note from Boncompagni Ludovisi recommended that Roman police prevent the beggars from leaving the mendicicomio during the day, as that would solve “the heart of the matter”.

Even the origin of the word “mendicicomio” potentially sheds light on how beggars in Rome were viewed by the regime. Mendiciomio comes from the words mendicus, the Latin word for beggar, and –comio, which comes from the Greek word meaning “to cure”. In essence, mendicicomio means a place to cure begging. This wording possibly speaks to the mindset in the regime that begging was something that needed curing, akin to a disease. Although, it is worth noting, that “mendicicomio” is similar in structure to the words “nosocomio” and “manicomio”. Both of these words were common at the time, with the former being a bureaucratic term for hospital, and manicomio being a pejorative term for mental institutions. Despite being a common term into the mid-twentieth century, a Google Ngram search shows that by the 1970s, the word mendicicomio had fallen out of regular use.

However, most telling was the letter from Mussolini. It stated clearly that “it was a pride of the Regime, the disappearance of beggars”.

Despite the questionable motivations of the public policy, the story of the shelter seems to end on a positive note. Although there is documentation of accommodations at the Via Portuense lacking adequate sanitation and maintenance up until 1932 (despite the fact that the shelter began charging a small rent in the winter of 1932 to families that were briefly allowed to reside there); when the building reverted to a home for beggars in December 1933, it appears that living conditions were finally satisfactory. A report from December 1, 1933 describes the facilities in positive terms and commends the Sisters of Charity for their management of the property.

Sarah Moynihan is a senior at Rutgers University in the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program. She is pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in Spanish. She was a member of the inaugural class of the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi internship (summer ’20), and this is her first research project which has been published. She hopes to continue her research in Italian history alongside her studies of economics. She would like to thank Dr. T. Corey Brennan for his guidance in the research and publication of her piece. She would also like to thank HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for allowing her to work with the Boncompagni Ludovisi family archive.

Detail from unpublished note of 17 April 1929, from Italian prime minster Benito Mussolini to Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi as Governor of Rome. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome.

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