The Piazza Augusto Imperatore

A creation of Mussolini

  • Katja Albada - Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences
  • Sander Kleinhuis - Faculty of Law
  • Victor Koster - Faculty of Economics and Business

The Piazza Augusto Imperatore [19]

The Piazza Augusto Imperatore as we now know it, can be seen as an exhibition of the glorious history of Rome in which Mussolini deliberately connects the past with fascism and himself. The piazza emphasizes the role of expansive imperialism in the glorious past, as well as the role of the strong, centralized leadership of Augustus in creating the Roman Empire. Central on this piazza is the Mausoleum of Augustus, built by Augustus himself in the time he fought for the power in Rome (28 BC). He built it to sent a message to the people of Rome that he would be connected to Rome for eternity, even after his own death. For this reason Mussolini probably built his piazza just here: to give that same message that he would be connected to Rome for eternity as well. Throughout the Piazza, Mussolini is associating himself with Augustus and the Roman glory of the past with fascism of modern times, thereby referring to a new era that will be as strong as the ancient one. This political tactic of Mussolini, was called Romanitá.

1. Romanitá
2. The beginning of a new era: The liberation of the mausoleum of Augustus
3. Buildings at the Piazza
3.1 The Churches
3.2 Mausoleum of Augustus
3.3 Ara Pacis Augustae
3.4 The Fascist buildings
3.4.2 Building 1: The common people
3.4.2 Building 2: The military
3.4.3 Building 3: Religion
4. Why did Mussolini built his Piazza on this particular site?


In order to invigorate and justify his fascist regime to the people of Italy, Mussolini used a political tactic, called Romanitá[1]. Romanitá emphasizes the legacy of ancient Rome and glorifying the victories, greatness and heritage of Rome of which the Italian people were very proud. By using Romanitá, Mussolini anticipated on that feeling, which made Romanitá a very powerful tool of nationalism. To bring this tactic into practice, Mussolini compared himself with the emperor Augustus(63 BC–14 AD), the first Roman emperor who won many victories and was the creator of the Roman empire.[2]. In order to achieve his victories, centralized leadership was considered necessary. Augustus was therefore the ideal example for Mussolini; through him he could justify his own centralized leadership and his wars in order to achieve a similar greatness for modern and Italy as that of ancient Rome.

In 1937, Mussolini organized the Augustea della Romanitá (the Augustan Exhibition of Romanness) [3]. This exhibition, celebrating the 2000th birthday of Augustus it linked ancient Roman legacy (Augustus) with the current Fascist regime (Mussolini), and was for that reason a powerful tool of Romanitá. Mussolini’s use of Romanitá allowed Italians to see in Fascism the opportunity for a new golden age; a new era of greatness, victory and power for Italy, as in the time of Augustus (to strengthen this idea, Mussolini started a new calendar starting with year one; on all his buildings, on which we will elaborate later, he referred to this new calendar)[4].

2. The beginning of a new era: The liberation of the mausoleum of Augustus

Paper La Tribuna[6]
The construction of the mausoleum[6]

In 1934 Mussolini[6]started a new project near the Tiber and the Via del Corso a site which we know nowadays as the Piazza Augusto Imperatore[5]. In ancient time this area was part of the Field of Mars (Campus Martius). After disapperance of the Roman Empire it became the most populated area of the city.

Mussolini called his project “the liberation of the mausoleum of Augustus”[7]. He demolished the nearby buildings (the neighbourhood around the Mausoleum and the concert hall that was on top of the mausoleum) and he constructed new buildings in fascist style[21]. Surrounded by police officers and photographers, Mussolini started the demolition himself. By doing this he showed that the ‘normal labour’ (eg. construction work), which was done by the average Italian, was honourable and necessary. The project created considerable employment which was scarce at that time. The pickaxe Mussolini used by demolishing the first stones symbolized the new political direction of fascism. Every blow of the pickaxe was a blow against the past[22]. In the vision of Mussolini Italy and fascism were to become one.

The architect Vittorio Morpurgo was chosen to design the piazza and the buildings that would define the periphery of the Mausoleum. For Morpurgo the assignment was very challenging, since there was no exact plan for the buildings on the piazza [7]. The relationship of the churches to the Mausoleum and the piazza had not yet been determined and there was no conformity wherefore the new fasism buildings would be used. The only certainty that Morpurgo had to work with was that the resulting piazza was to glorify the first emperor of Rome, Mussolini and the Fascist regime. In 1940, the design was completed. The name of the new piazza was ‘The Piazza Augusto Imperatore’. The large piazza was surrounded by new buildings on all four sides.

3. Buildings at the Piazza

3.1 The Churches

The three churches on the piazza were left untouched[8]. An important question is why Mussolini demolished all the buildings around the Mausoleum of Augustus, except the three churches. He had never been a churchgoer and his earlier anti-clericalism was never far beneath the surface[4]. However Italy had always been a Catholic country and history taught him that he would hardly emerge unscathed from a head-on struggle with the papacy. On the contrary, Church and fascism could both help each other. Friendly words from the Church would help to convince people that Mussolini could be trusted, and for Italy the clergy could be of incalculable advantage for the popularity of fascism. This is the reason why Mussolini in 1929 signed the Lateran Treaty[9]. This treaty is one of the Lateran Pacts of 1929, made between the Holy See and the Fascist government. By signing the treaty, Mussolini recognized the independence and sovereignty of the Holy See. In the treaty the border between Italy and Vatican City was determined and Catholicism became the state religion in Italy. Mussolini himself converted and showed himself as a faithful Catholic; he had a Catholic wedding with Rachele and had his children baptised[6].

The Mausoleum as it is now

The bishops not only gave substantial support to fascism in its fight against liberalism and socialism, but also strongly sympathised with Mussolini’s attitude towards women and the family. Mussolini and the Church shared the same idea that women should give birth to children and take care of the house and the family. (this attitude is also depicted in the buildings,which will be discussed later). Ideally women should give birth to twelve children(this was a political tactic called pronatalism: the stimulation of childbearing by the government) , according Mussolini, in order that Italy would have sufficient soldiers[23].

3.2 Mausoleum of Augustus

The mausoleum was built in 28 BC on the Campus Martius[10]. It was 44 meter high and had a diameter of 87 meters. The mausoleum was one of the buildings of Augustus in Rome to propagate his regime. Augustus himself, his family members and many of his successors were buried in the mausoleum. Augustus mausoleum was an inspiration for the mausoleum of Hadrianus, better known as the Castel Sant’Angelo[11].

The mausoleum as it was in ancient time[11]

On the first floor of the mausoleum there were galleries. In Roman time there were two obelisks, one on each side of the entrance. These are now standing on the Piazza dell’ Esquilino and at the Quirinal fountain. From the inside to the heart of the mausoleum ran a path which led to the chamber where the urns of members of the imperial family were standing in the three niches[12]. Around the year 410 after Christ, the Visigoths stole the urns and spread the ashes, but they did not damage the building. Years later, under supervision of Mussolini, the restoration of the mausoleum took place. At that time, it functioned as a concert hall and Mussolini brought it back to its supposed original state. He used bricks that were very similar to the original bricks, but could (if you looked closely) be distinguished as being new[13].

The Ara Pacis Augustae

3.3 Ara Pacis Augustae

The Ara Pacis Augustae is dedicated to the goddess Pax[14]. This monument was given to Augustus by the Roman Senate to honor his return from Spain. It was to show the people to whom they had to thank the peace, namely Augustus, and It was to show the people to whom they had to thank the peace, namely Augustus and to assert the emperor’s complete power[24].

For political and propagandistic reasons Mussolini reconstructed the Ara Pacis for the 2000th birthday of Augustus(1938) and placed it in a glass hall near the mausoleum [15]. This altar of peace might be considered paradoxical, since it is situated surrounded by buildings that glorify war, while the Ara celebrates peace. However, in the time of Augustus the altar was a symbol for the new golden age[25][26]. Mussolini wanted the people to believe that his reign would lead to a new golden age as well. For this reason he made the Ara part of the newly created piazza[27]. Overall, it was to underscore the glorious ancient Roman history.

The Ara Pacis was housed in a small building of travertine and glass designed by Morpurgo. This building however did not sufficiently protect altar[28]. In 2006 therefore a new building was designed by the architects Richard Meier & Partners. The high podium of the building was inscribed with the Res Gestae of Augustus , an account of his accomplishments, which was inscribed in ancient times on bronze plaques and mounted on pillars located near the entrance of the Mausoleum.

3.4 The Fascist buildings

Above view of the piazza [3]

On the piazza there are three fascist buildings. They all have differing topics and sent out a message to the public[16]. One building is dedicated to the normal working people; Mussolini refers to himself as a normal lad. The second building is dedicated to warfare; Mussolini considered that hard work and warfare was the reason of the greatness of ancient Rome. The third building is dedicated to religion; the Catholic Church was an important ally of the fascist party.

Building 1: The Common People

Building 1

Building 1, on the eastern side of the piazza (displayed in the image above) has the topic of the normal working people. This building housed the National Social Security Administration, which provided the funding of the project[17].


Above the entrance of the building there is a relief, depicting forty-two life size figures that are engaged in the labours of the countryside; tending sheeps, pressing grapes, working the land, caring for children etc. This frieze had the function of being an example of how to be a good Roman in Mussolini’s eyes[29].

In the middle, there is an inscription:



This relief honours the ordinary Italian; the workers of the land, the mothers and the people who always find a new beginning, and bring the nation greatness. The combination of the relief and inscription once again illustrates Mussolini’s attempt to associate himself with ancient Rome (the immortal people) and Augustus. This association with Augustus is most evident from the depictions of mothers on both sides of the inscription. Augustan and Fascist relief's both celebrate the fertility and motherhood. On the Ara Pacis there is a similar display of a mother holding her infants (the Tellus relief)[29].

Building 2: The Military

The second building depicts the topic of war. This building was also in use by the National Social Security Administration.

On the sides of the building, tableaux were constructed around a row of windows. Both tableaux glorify war and cover a different era of warfare: modern fascism warfare and an ancient Roman warfare. The comparison between ancient Roman armory and the modern armory is made to link the two eras. In the past it led to great victories for Rome, and now, in the present, great victories can be obtained again. The reliefs suggest that Italy can be a world power again. Is this way Mussolini associated fascism with the great military victories of the Roman past.

Western tableaux
Ancient tableaux

Left: The western tableau is decorated with relief showing Roman armor and weapons.The inscription has the following text: A•MCMXL•POST•CHRISTUM NATUM

Right: Below the reliefs, there is the following inscription: ANNO XVIII A FASCIBVS RESTITVTIS. This is a reference to the date of the completion in terms of the number of years since the establishment of a Fascist government in Italy (18 years)[30].

Mosaic triptych

The far eastern end of this building there is another tableau over a balcony, but this one is unlike the others, decorated with mosaic triptych. The article of Brangers says the following about it[18]:

In the center stands the personification of the River Tiber holding the infants Romulus and Remus. Seated at the Tiber’s feet is the she-wolf which, according to the legend, suckled the infant twins. Above the head of Tiber, the personification of the sun emerges from the sea with his horses. The two narrow side panels each depict three large figures performing various labors associated with the countryside. Below this triptych is the inscription, “HIS AB EXIGVIS PROFECTA INITIIS ROMA” [“Rome, having started from small and humble beginnings”].

This mosaic is one of the most evident examples of the use of mythic Rome to expound Fascist propaganda. In the center of the triptych are images relating to the founding of ancient city, but the figures in the narrow side panel represent the Fascist ideal of laborers working for the good of the state. The ideology is emphasized with heroic figures, which is characteristic for the Fascist arts. The article of Brangers gives also more information about the inscription used in this tableaux[10]

The inscription, mentioned above, further emphasizes the glorification of Rome in the mosaic. It is a paraphrase from Livy’s preface to Ab urbe condita [The History of Rome], “Res est praeterea et immensi operis, ut quae supra septingentesimum annum repetatur et quae ab exiguis profecta initiis eo creverit ut iam magnitudine laboret sua;…” [“The subject, moreover, is one that demands immense labor. It goes back beyond 700 years and, after starting from small and humble beginnings, it has so grown that it strains under its greatness.”]

Fascist symbol[20]

Below this mosaic, there is another Latin inscription:


In 1940, Mussolini, il Duce, ordered this place, where the spirits of Augustus
fly about in the air, after the Mausoleum of the Emperor was delivered from
the darkness of the centuries, and once the scattered pieces of the Ara Pacis
were restored and the old confining buildings were torn down, to be adorned by
seven more magnificent buildings suited to the current taste of Humanity.

The inscription is flanked by two winged victories each holding fasces.

Building 3

In conclusion, the building is a combination of war (reliefs of armor and weapons), and labor (the mosaic). According to Mussolini, war and labor made ancient Rome great and Mussolini wanted to emulate ancient Rome in his New Italy. Through-out the building he connects the old with the new and emphasizes a new beginning. Also evident is the association between him and Augustus in the inscription.

Building 3: Religion

The College of Croatia was built along the third side of the piazza. The decoration of this building differs from those previously discussed. Along the top story of the building are three mosaics. The central mosaic depicts Christ as the Prince of Peace while the two side mosaics depict scenes from the religious history of Croatia[31]. This building is literally connected to the two churches that stand beside it. Mussolini built it against one church and made a bridge to it to connect the second church. Also the religions mosaics are a link of the fascist building with the churches.

Why did Mussolini built his Piazza on this particular site?

The Piazza Augusto Imperatore as we now know it, can be seen as an exhibition of the glorious past of Rome, as well as an exhibition celebrating the greatness of Mussolini. What is interesting to observe when you are on this Piazza, is that fascist buildings surround the Mausoleum of Augustus as if they are protecting something very valuable, namely the legacy of ancient Rome represented by the Mausoleum. The Piazza symbolizes the great importance of ancient Rome for Mussolini in invigorating his own regime.

The reason why Mussolini chose this particular square to build his piazza on, is to be found in Augustus' motivation to construct his Mausoleum in the. He built it to send out a message to the people of Rome, Italy and the rest of the world that he would be connected to Rome for eternity, even after his death. By constructing the piazza and connecting himself with the glorious reign of Augustus Mussolini sent out a similar message.


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