How to Decode

Posted by: on January 24, 2017   |Comments (0)|Uncategorized

Mosaics in Walkway at Foro Italico 

The students in my class, The US, Italy and the Cold War, have been using US and Soviet political cartoons as a lens through which to understand how the conflict was defined and what the stakes were.  They analyzed the symbols each side used to identify its core values and convey its message. This week we considered fascism and the government of Mussolini prior to World War II.  Mussolini, also known as Il Duce, absolutely believed in the connection between politics and art; and in 1927, a Fascist National Organization for the Fine Arts was formed. According to art historian Kate Flint, two dominant features of fascist art are monumentality and myth. Mussolini commissioned a series of public buildings known  collectively as the EUR.  These show the Fascist intention of putting a modern stamp on the glories of the past.   One of the iconic symbols of the empire in Rome is the Colosseum (see the image on the left).  The image on the right is the Fascist (re)interpretation:  the Building of Italian Civilization, also known as the Square Colosseum.









On Monday our class visited Foro Italico, a sports complex commissioned by Mussolini and built between 1928 and 1931.  After a set of readings relating to fascism, fascist art, and resistance, they considered the physical geography of the Foro Italico and the statues, mosaics, and other structures. In short, students were asked to consider the relationship between art and political ideology and to what extent art and architecture can convey political beliefs and values. Fascist public art, such as can be found at the Foro Italico, lionized Il Duce as the new Augustus and made direct connections between the greatness of the ancient Roman Empire and the future of the new Italian empire. They borrowed heavily from classical art and architecture, but did it in a modern style.  So for example, Mussolini’s obelisk clearly emulates the Augustus obelisk, but in a distinctly Fascist style.  It is 120 feet high and weighs more than 300 tons…it is monumental and obviously intended to inspire awe.

PC and CEA Students at Mussolini’s Obelisk

Mussolini’s name and an oversized “Dux” (Latin for leader) are carved into the obelisk—impossible for anyone to miss. Central motifs of fascist art include devotion and heroism, particularly of those who serve the Italian state.  From the obelisk, students then walked along the Viale di Foro Italico, a walkway that  leads to the Olympic Stadium.  Designed by Luigi Moretti, huge marble blocks on either side commemorate the founding of the Fascist state and key dates in the establishment of its colonies in North Africa.  Like their peers during the 1930s, our students walked over paths decorated with mosaics, immortalizing Il Duce, mixing athletics and myth, connecting to the glories of the ancient Roman Empire, and calling on its audience to be physically fit, to be strong, dedicated, and disciplined, and to serve the nation.  The monumental marble statues in the Stadio di Marmi and the mosaic frescoes in the Olympic pool echo and reaffirm these themes.  By the end of the site visit, it was much easier for students to decode the Fascist symbols and understand both the messages and their intended audience.

Entrance to Stadio di Marmi (Stadium of Marbles)

Churches and cathedrals are full of symbolism and packed with a multitude of meanings.  My colleague, Dr. Aurelie Hagstrom, a former resident faculty director of the PC-Rome program, used to assign a text entitled, How to Read a Church by Richard Taylor, for the students in her New Testament in the Eternal City class. The purpose of the text is to enable students to understand the main features of the churches and other holy places they visit, including decoding the symbolism of the individual animals, plants, colors, numbers, and letters.  Students learn to interpret the images in church art and to relate them to Christian teachings about God, the life of Christ, the history of the Catholic Church, the lives of the saints, and to understand the ways in which Church architecture and art intersect with theology.  This semester, students in the PC-Rome program will accompany Dr. Erik Walters on numerous site visits both to “read the churches” and to relate them to the New Testament.  They will become adept at decoding Christian symbolism and imagery.  Their first visit takes place this week when they visit the “sacred area” of the Largo Argentina, the site of the remains of sacred temples dating back to the Roman Republic.  From there, they will walk to the Pantheon, including the obelisk that stands before it.  Students will consider the iconography of Roman Emperor Augustus—the obelisks were intended to convey the continuity between the Egyptian pharaohs and the Roman emperors.  Later, many obelisks were transformed from symbols of paganism to Christian monuments with the addition of a cross, new inscriptions, and the heraldic symbols of popes.  Many of these are located in the center of a piazza or in front of one of main basilicas of Rome.  The Obelisk of Augustus, for example, was relocated in 1586 and situated in front of St. Peter’s. (Rosamie Moore,, 2015).


On Friday, many CEA and PC students will travel to Florence for an overnight trip.  There they will continue to develop their understanding of the intersection of art, theology, and history.  I will update you periodically on their progress. Thanks for tuning in and go Friars!

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Posted by: on January 24, 2017   |Comments (0)|Uncategorized