La Basilica Dei Santi Pietro e Paolo

The basilica of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, also known as La basilica Dei Santi Pietro e Paolo, is a basilica designed during the Italian fascist period. Arnaldo Foschini designed it in 1938 by the request of Mussolini himself. It was however not fully realized until long after World War II, in 1955. It is located all'EUR, in the Esposizione Universale Roma, the out of town business district of Rome, originally intended for the world's fair in 1942, hence it is often referred to as 'E42'. The church is built on the highest geographical point in the entire area, and is clearly visible not only from all over Rome, but also from people just entering the city, arriving from Fiumicino airport.

As Mussolini's relationship with the Catholic Church was a very complex one but most definitely negative, the choice for making the Church his centerpiece in his masterwork, the EUR, is interesting. Mussolini got approval from the pope at the time, Pius XI, to realize this church, and the building started in 1939. It was not finished however, until 1955 due to interferences of the Second World War. While it was delayed, it is noteworthy that the building of this church was a priority case, even when resources were limited, the Church was chosen to be continued to be built and thus its progress halted later than contemporary architectural work in progress. This was due to risk for builders and employers in 1942, which clearly was justified as the steps up to the then unfinished church turned into a battleground and multiple soldiers died. There is still a monument remembering this in front of the steps.

In order to attain a true sense of power and loyalty amongst the people of Italy, Mussolini had to compete with the supreme power of the Church. Fascism in itself is a secular political system with focus on the state as opposed to religion. However, Mussolini tried gaining supreme power in a nation that was already mostly Catholic, therefore there was a struggle to gain the trust of his people while there was another, stronger power already established. Mussolini originally tried to fight against this power, but eventually adopted the old creed of 'if you can't beat them, join them'. Thus a collaboration began with the Church to assist him in reimaging Rome as a Fascist Papal State. The idea was sound enough that he gained appropriate support and in return he made the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul (merely a cathedral at the time) the most prominent feature of his EUR district. The church served as a symbol for the union between fascism and Catholicism. As such it was a solution and mainly a tool to solve the "problem" that the Church presented to Mussolini's regime. It allowed him more freedom to gain trust in his people.

1. History of Italy
1.1 Historical Antecedents of the Fascist State: Risorgimento and World War I
1.2 The Fascist State in Italy
2. History of the Catholic Church
2.1 During the Risorgimento
2.2 Sacred Heart and the Social Kingdom of Jesus Christ
2.3 Spirituality of Therese de Lisieux
3. Esposizione Universale Roma
3.1 Current
3.2 Construction
3.3 Architecture of the EUR
3.4 Psychological Significance of Fascist Architecture
4. Architecture and Art work
4.1 Location and outer characteristics
4.2 Staircase and Statues
4.3 Saint Peter and Saint Paul
4.3.1 Significance
4.3.1 Depictions
4.4 Internal Engravings
5. Similarities to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican
6. Sources

History of Italy

Historical Antecedents of the Fascist State: Risorgimento and World War I

The Italian society was in a very precarious situation after World War I. It has witnessed the atrocities of a culture, that deemed itself technologically advanced and morally superior. The Italian state was united in 1861 and therefore very young. The Italians connected many expectations and hopes with the reunification of the former separatist political realms. Starting with the Vienna Congress 1814, the Risorgimento successively developed as a movement. Its intentions were to combat the Austria-Hungarian hegemony, to politically unite the various independent kingdoms and to continue the tradition of its great cultural heritage and imperial history.[1] Faced with developing and expanding European powers, Italy was left behind, unable to bundle its strengths and to compete in this race for influence and power. But for many Italians the unification of their country meant more than just being politically united. They sought for constitutionalism, liberalism and freedom of forei gn control. [2] The quest for personal right and warranted securities reflects the zeitgeist of a people, that was so struck by foreign intervention and constantly at the mercy of international politics and inner animosities. People longed for stability, granted rights predictability of politics. Nobody reflects this overarching yearning better than the influential contemporary politician Giuseppe Mazzini by saying: "Constancy is the complement of all other human virtues."[3] Risorgimento may have brought unity, constitutionalism and personal rights, however it was unable to avert the involvement of the young monarchy into the abomination of the cruelest warfare history has seen to that date: World War I. People were puzzled, resigned, disappointed, disillusioned. Their deepest sense for clarity, order and stability has been struck, again. Ever accelerating sequences of scientific breakthrough and technological advances have shown the prodigy of men and in the same time using it for mutual annihilation. Science delivers complex answers and politics is unable to respond to increasingly complex questions in an adequate way. People were seeking for simplification, for politics that provides simple and down to earth answers, that can explain the world.

The Fascist State in Italy

As Benito Mussolini waged his March on Rome 1922, he did this with sound ideological resoluteness. The objectives of his movement were authority and hierarchy, family and property, order and discipline. The reformation of a battered people, the continuation of an ancient empire and the unification of a nation under one leader were his goals. Fascism is a form of political leadership, but also a living as a society as a whole. Elements are nationalism and the unquestioned leadership of a single dictator or party. Its totalitarianism refutes any atomistic conception of society. One distinguishing feature from German fascism, however, was the tendency of the Italian fascism to incorporate as many as possible societal institutions and cultural streams and to find a compromise between support, recognition and suppression. Artists, for example, were allowed to engage freely in their work, as long as they unconditionally recognized the leadership of Mussolini.[4] But art also played another, pivotal role in the It alian fascist state. Art had the determining role in giving form to rhetoric and ideology. The philosopher Walter Benjamin contends, that the aestheticization of political life was the "logical result" of fascist mass politics. Due to its inherent totalitarianism people's life turned into art and created a spiritualism with which fascist idea proposed to supersede the materialism of liberalism and communism. This demand entails two aspects: the importance of art, architecture and style in the self-conception of fascism, and its metapolitical, spiritual, quasi-religious character with which it not only tried to solve the political demands of its time, but was also ready to compensate the spiritual emptiness, which has spread with secularization. By doing so, it posed a serious threat for the Catholic Church, which was already considerably weakened after losing its possessions and a declining number of followers.

History of the Catholic Church

During the Risorgimento

Throughout the 19th century, the Catholic Church experienced an unprecedented decay of power and influence. During the unification process of Italy, the Papal States lost successively territories it has possessed for more than 1000 years.[5] 1860 forces of the Sardinia-Piedmont successfully conquered the eastern two-third of the Papal States. Merely the city of Rome and surrounding land was still in possession of the papacy. However, 1870 the city was taken by forces of the newly constituted Italian Kingdom in the famous Breach of Porta Pia. From this point in time, the Catholic Church was bare of any territorial possessions and lost its status as recognized worldly power. An accelerating secularization movement in Europe accompanied this political decay.

Sacred Heart of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ

This very intimidating and utmost disappointing development for the clerics and genuine believers in the Christian God was not tolerable. Unable to establish the rule of God by force a more timid and tentative cult was evolving, as response to "the plague of our times: anti-clericalism"[6]. The Cult of the Sacred Heart, which originated in the visions of the 16th century nun Marguerite Marie Alacoque was the answer of the adverse developments in the modern world. The cult was quick in condemnation of the modern secular man. Its symbol was the bleeding heart as sign of remorse of the de-Christianization and the diminishing worldly power of Jesus Christ. The cult longed for the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Christ on earth. However, they were not militant or combative but directed to interior spirituality, based on penitence and contrition. Hence, this cult was politically barely to be mobilized. The basic ends to which the cult was striving, however, was the re-establishment of the Social Kingdom of Jesus Christ. In his encyclical Quas Primas, Pope Pius XI points out in 1925, that this Kingdom finds its legitimation in the universal relevance of Jesus to the entire humankind. Obedience and reverence to Him by all governments and powers was one of the repercussions of this view. [7]The Sacred Heart and Social Kingdom of Jesus Christ were two main pillars of Pope Pius XI. However, Pius developed the Sacred Heart idea from a passive view of faith into an active movement with the demand to actively engage in worldly politics on the basis of the ubiquitous validity of Jesus Christ. During the papacy of Pius XI, Sacred Heart became public and political. This move also characterizes the overall aspiration of Pius XI during his regency. As a historian concludes: "The main interest of the pope was the terrestrial crown".[8] In line with the merit of the Sacred Heart, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ can only be achieved by atonement, penitence and contrition. By shifting the focus of introverted spirituality to extroverted action taking, these attributes are elevated from mere pious virtues to social obligations. Equipped with this background Pius XI fought for the re-establishment of the clerical supremacy under the auspices of Roman Heritage. However, also the fascist movement considered itself as natural heir of this history. A struggle for sovereignty of interpretation ignited.

Spirituality of Therese de Lisieux

Besides the adaptations in perception and change in perspective due to the wordly developments and the silent longing for return of Christ, another important pillar in Pius' reception of faith needs to be mentioned. The spirituality of Pius XI was rooted in the teachings of Therese de Lisieux. According to her, the individual human is totally at the mercy of God. Man can nothing contribute to this relationship nor alter it in any kind of way. Nothing in human could justify the love of God. Therefore the only way to be or to have everything is non-being and having nothing. True strength is the absence of strength. Man is nothing, God is all. God transforms nothingness of being by means of mercy and grace and creates thereby confidence. Confidence, therefore, is the only way to God. Consequently Therese rejected any idea of practices, unnecessary rituals or superfluous material gadgets. Only the here and now counts, there is no past and no future, self-abandonment is the only way to experience and to unite with God. Pius XI was permeated with this line of spirituality. [9]

Esposizione Universale Roma


The Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR or E42) is currently a business district south-west of the city centre in Rome. It was intended initially by Mussolini to celebrate Fascism 20 year existence by hosting the World's fair in '42. The most famous building is the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana, which essentially is known as the square colosseum, a reinvention of the colosseum. This is important to keep in mind because there are multiple parallels between the basilica in the EUR and the famous Saint Peters basilica in the center of the Vatican just like there are between the two colosseums


In 1936 a committee was created to realize this exposition and plans were made. Most of the actual building started in 1939 however due to Italy's involvement in the second world war it was not completed and building stopped during the 40s. After the war some works were completed and other buildings were added which were in a different architectural style, no longer the fascist of the 30s and early 40s but instead in a contemporary style during the 50s. The entire EUR was almost completely finished by the time of the Olympics in Rome in 1960. The location of the district had been chosen carefully and primarily had two reasons. It was a first step to build and expand Rome to reach the seaside something that Mussolini found desirable. Another was that the plans of the EUR must be seen in light of other plans that Mussolini had, for example he already had ideas about a big airport right outside of Rome, which meant that when entering the Italian capital, the first view one would see would be the EUR with it's center piece: the basilica. It would be a first impression given to visitors, showing off the fascist ideology through its massiveness, something that Mussolini found important.

Architecture of the EUR

The entire district still has a fascist feeling to it due to the fascist architecture of the time. The style was very much influenced by Roman Imperial town planning, for example a lot of the materials used were limestone and marble, something which is traditionally associated with the Roman empire. As mentioned previously there was a committee sketching the plans for the unrealised project. This committee had grander plans than we could possibly imagine today. In the original plans there was for example a huge arch, signifying the entrance to the area, somethign which clearly shows how this would be the new Roman Empire, as Mussolini had reinvented. Hence not only were the materials a hint at the Roman Empire, even entire structures were taken and would have been reinvented in the new style. It clearly is a reference to the great emperors arches that were part of ancient Rome and its grandness. Enclosed is an image of how the arch could have potentially looked at. Note the sheer massiveness of the structure and consider what kind of view this would have given visitors just arriving to Rome as a first impression.

Psychological Significance of Fascist Architecture

Size was a constituting element in fascist architecture. It helped to provide the space for and to create the events of what Hitler called "mass experiences". By means of awe and intimidation, helplessness and submissiveness is created in the spectator. The suppression of reason and the celebration of by these "mass experiences" induced feelings and frenzies are the target. Repetition and contagion are the avenues by which the "mental unity" is achieved. That term was coined by the famous social psychologist and sociologist Gustave Le Bon in the beginning of the previous century. [10] Unification of entire people into one big idea, the eradication of deviation and individualism has ever been the main target of all totalitarianisms in history. A recent example is North Korea: "As Kim Jong Un said, the single-minded unity of the DPRK, based on one and the same idea, is the most powerful national strength."[11] Another underlying rationale of the mere feature of size is authority. No doubt should be left, who is the leader and which ideology is being followed. The susceptibility of men to authority has been very well illustrated in the famous Milgram studies. One result of these studies was, that real authority was not even necessary to make people comply to orders, but that the mere symbol to be in charge is decisive. Therefore an ideology, that is based on rather crude ideas, without an elaborate philosophy and repelling consequences for the individual needs a manifestation of its authority, in order to overshadow its shortcomings in attraction and support. However, compensating the lack of legitimacy was not the only purpose. Authority leads people to compliance. And in order to create a totalitarian society, blind obedience of every citizen is a condition. The massiveness of the cathedral was on the one hand an inevitable consequence of the ideology, but also a style of choice, because it perpetuates the logic of power and obedience: attributes, essential for Fascism

Architecture and Art Work

Location and outer Characteristics

The basilica's structure and location are well calculated steps towards answering Mussolini's problem with the Catholic Church. Located at the head of the EUR district, the church sits atop a towering hill that showcases the building for everyone in surrounding areas to see. The church's physical structure is impressively massive. The basilica's dome opens out at an impressive 32 meters internally in diameter, which is considered to be one of the most impressive in Rome.[12] For comparison, the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican has an internal diameter of 41.47 meters. With its massive size and location at the highest point of the EUR, the basilica serves as an immediate symbol of Rome to those entering from that side of the city. It is evident by Mussolini's choice in placement of the church that he desired to have it serve as an eye catching symbol of his fascist district and totalitarian ideals.

Staircase and Statues

The initial entrance to the basilica consists of a long staircase consisting of smooth, shallow, and massive steps. Each step consists of a combination of geometrical shapes that correlate with the geometrical makeup of the basilica itself. The three shapes featured are a circle, a square (in the form of a diamond), and a stripe (rectangle). Each shape can be found in the outer features of the basilica itself. The circle comes back in the shape of the dome and the few windows that dot the base of the dome. The square shape can be found in most of the basilica's architectural features. The building is very squared and rigid. The doorways and window frames are all geometrically straight and square in nature. The dome itself sits atop the square-shaped building structure of the basilica. The stripes represent the doors and the openings of the basilica's lantern at the top of the dome

The staircase serves as a means to suppress the visitor from personally interpreting the area. The symbols engraved in the massive steps all represent the church itself, which maintains the focus on the purpose for walking along the steps: to visit the church. The repetitive nature of the symbols and their straightforward message is typical to fascist art and architecture. Mussolini famously wished that Italians would not talk so much and develop so many opinions. The visuals present in the architecture of his regime served as continuous means to suppress this habit. The point of the staircase as a means to maintain focus on the church is enhanced by the way it sweeps up the hill towards the massive structure itself. The staircase serves as a straight path and when walking straight ahead (as is intended), one cannot help but have their eye guided to the massive basilica before them.

Although the focus of the church is the church itself, there are still very important religious connotations that are present in the building's architecture and interior. The first of these comes in the form of the two mammoth statues that serve as a sort "book end" for the staircase. The statues, designed by Domenico and Fransesco Ponzi Nagni[13], showcase Saints Peter and Paul in a typically fascist interpretation; this is to say that the statues themselves are designed in a typically fascist manner. For instance, the hands and feet of the saints are larger than life, whereas the rest of their bodies appear to be appropriate given the size of the statue. Likewise, the posture of the men is rigid and refined. These statues are not the typical romanticized depiction of holiness and tranquility that is expected when depicting the patron saints. Instead, the statues before the basilica at the EUR are representations of might and integrity. Peter holds his keys with confidence and proudly points to the heavens, and Paul stands calmly with his sword while outstretching his hand to welcome the public to the grand place of worship.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul


Initially it is striking to think that Mussolini chose the two specific saints to be the focus of his church in the EUR. It is striking because it seems like a random choice, at first. However, there are some things to note about the union of these saints in Catholic terms. According to the Bible, St. Peter was the first vicar and founded the Church of Antioch, where the term "Christian" first originated. Peter was appointed by Jesus Christ himself to develop the Church and to spread the word of God. Whereas, St. Paul was the founder of the Church of Rome[14] and was appointed by Jesus to head the apostolic college.[15] For Rome, the combination of these two serves not only as a representation of the Catholic faith, but as a representation of the Church Eternal (the union of the Church and the Roman Catholic Church). Why is this important for a church commissioned by Mussolini? It is a clear indication to the people of Rome that the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul was intended to serve as the church of Rome u nder fascist rule. Keeping this in mind, the problem that the church served as a solution towards becomes increasingly clear.


There are three reliefs found on the outer walls of the basilica. Each of these reliefs has been crafted by a different artist, and each represents a different pinnacle moment in the history of either St. Peter or St. Paul. The reliefs are "The Crucifixion of St. Peter" by Alessandro Monteleone, "The Beheading of St. Paul" by Carlo Pini, and "The Conversion of St. Paul" by Venanzio Crocetti.[16] Despite being created by three different artists, the three reliefs are all depicted in the same manner. Each one is very reminiscent to other fascist reliefs such as those found at the bridge before the Stadio Olimipico. They feature representations of the events featured in each scene, as opposed to attempting to show the possible reality of each event. Each relief is presented in a dramatic, yet simple manner with limited decoration and scenery. The Biblical stories depicted in the reliefs are glorified interpretations. For instance, as a form of comparison, "The Conversion of St. Paul" as featured on the basilica showcases a full choir of angels that not only cause St. Paul to fall from his horse, but they also overpower and disturb the public featured in the background. Each individual averts their eyes to the awesome power of God's glorious creatures - which is portrayed clearly by a tree being blown by a harsh wind. The story being presented in the relief is famous, but open to many forms of interpretation. What makes this typically fascist if the choice to showcase the idealistic version of the event as opposed to the potentially true and intimate nature of the event itself. Caravaggio's depiction of the same event is quite different in its focus. Where the fascist style focused on the might of God's power, Caravaggio focused on the intimacy Paul felt with God at the moment of his falling from the horse. The only indications of holy interference present in the painting are subtle; a soft light touching Paul as he lies on the ground, Paul sitting with his eyes closed, the horse trying not to touch him. However, to maintain a sense of realism, the rest of the scene in Caravaggio's painting is serene and seems to continue as if nothing had happened. A man helps Paul by calmly grabbing his horse by the reigns. The man does not seem to notice God's holy light at all and can even be seen as slightly annoyed with Paul's falling from the horse.

The significance of these reliefs stems from the same type of thought that was put into the staircase of the basilica. The reliefs leave no room for interpretation. Everything is presented clearly and in an inarguable manner. The power and might of God is blatantly present as are the events themselves; whereas other artists, such as Caravaggio, wished to stimulate the viewer's imagination to interpret the message of the artwork for him/herself. These reliefs serve as yet another means to suppress what Mussolini viewed at the Italian nature to opinionate and talk too much. By making his message clear, Mussolini has commissioned pieces of art that encourage the public to glorify the Church. By making this church at the head of his fascist district, Mussolini, in turn, encouraged the public to glorify his power as divine.

Internal Engravings

There are many engravings of Bible passages located on the walls. While the words of the engravings don't serve as clues to the problem at hand, their presence does. The engravings are clearly carved in Italian for all to read. Initially, the spaces adjacent to these carvings were bare in contrast to the frescos and mosaics not located in the basilica. This is important to note as the words of the engravings served as the most evident message within the massive interior of the church. This is yet another attempt to stifle personal interpretation while maintaining a clear point for visitors to take away from their visit.

Similarities to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican

There are many references within the Basilica of St. Peter and Paul to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. These references are a direct attempt to resolve the issue of the Catholic Church's presence during the rise of Fascist totalitarianism. The references are located throughout the basilica in the EUR-both inside and outside. A subtle but important reference to St. Peter's is located in one of the few symbolic engravings located inside the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul. One such engraving is a depiction of the famous Veil of Veronica, which is believed to be the veil used by St. Veronica to wipe the sweat from Jesus' face while carrying the cross to Mt. Sinai. The veil is believed to have an imprint of Jesus' face that is so clear that it must have been created by divine hands. What is noteworthy of having this particular image engraved into one of the walls surrounding the main pulpit of the Basilica Ss. Peter and Paul is the fact that the real Veil of Veronica is often believed to be located at St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican. This is an artistic reference to an artifact often associated with the true head of the Catholic Church in a church that was built with the intent of rallying the religious in support of fascism.

Apart from artistic references, there are similarities between the two basilicas that are astoundingly clear. For instance, located behind the Pope's pulpit in St. Peter's Basilica is an engraving of the following phrase: " are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. ... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven..." .This is a quote from Matthew 16: 18 - 19 of the Latin Vulgate. The words are in direct reference to the fact that St. Peter's Basilica sits upon St. Peter's burial site, and thus serves as the head of the Catholic Church in his honor-as St. Peter was the first vicar and founder of the Church. These exact words can be found above the main doorway to the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul in the EUR. This reference to St. Peter's Basilica is so incredibly clear that it is almost hard to understand that it did not work against the church. To make matters clearer, the Greek cross shape of the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul is a perfect recreation of the very first design of St. Peter's Basilica by Donato Bermante in 1503. The design was eventually abandoned in favor of Michelangelo's more Latin cross design. Architect Arnaldo Foschini was appointed by Mussolini to design the basilica located in the EUR. He chose to model it after the original designs for St. Peter's in the Vatican and received approval from Pope Pius XI.[17] Therefore, it is no coincidence that the grand dome, the long walkway towards the church, and the interior layout all resemble that of St. Peter's in the Vatican.


  1. Hughes 2011, p. 421 ff.
  4. Stone, 1998
  5. Knaurs Historischer Weltatlas, 2002
  6. Fattorini, 2011
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid, p 43
  9. Ibid.
  10. Gustave Le Bon, The Psychology of Revolution, trans. Bernard Miall (London: T. Fisher Unwin, [1895] 1913), 102 - 5, 158 - 60)