2 cm: the thickness of fascism

2 cm of plaster


Steffie de Gaetano, Alice Pontiggia, Silvia Susanna

From a modern understanding, the non-human is perceived as a sum of inert resources to be exploited. This mindset has been greatly amplified and implemented in the political strategies of the Italian fascist regime through such actions as the ‘Battle for Grain’; large land reclamation operations; and the construction of hydroelectric dams. Ruralism was yet another expression of the fascist policy which operated along the nature/culture dualism. In this project, the two terms complemented each other in the construction of an idealized rural landscape that mirrored the fecundity of the Italian race, in opposition to the infertile and weak-kneed city.

In the Sicilian context, the fascist policy of ruralization was implemented through the construction of a network of borghi di fondazione (foundation villages) in rural areas by the Ente di Colonizzazione del Latifondo Siciliano (ECLS). These urban units introduced state functionaries directly into the rural inland of Sicily, each borgo consisting of a piazza surrounded by the fascist party headquarters an Entity of Colonisation, a school, a church, a police station, a post office, a medical post, and other basic necessities. The borghi were promoted among the population as a way to break the domination of the big latifundia landowners and offer primary services to rural populations. In fact, they were instead a strategy by which to fragment these collectivities; a territorial garrison for the centralization of agricultural production. Rural dwellings were also part of the planification of the borghi: an attempt to relocate the population of the villages to dispersed residences and put down the protests for class struggle.[1]

Predating the fascist state and extending well beyond it, well rooted at the core of Italianness are the ideologies that gave rise to Unification, the (internal and external) colonization and modernization of the nation-state. Deep within these complex foundations lies a strategy of gattopardismo which operates in Italy to this day. Bearing witness to this are the land reclamation projects for agricultural exploitation which have been implemented by entities under different names since the beginning of the Italian nation-state: from the Instituto Vittorio Emanuele III per il Bonificamento della Sicilia; to the Ente di Colonizzazione del Latifondo Siciliano (ECLS); the Ente di Riforma Agricola Siciliana (ERAS); and the current Ente Sviluppo Agricolo (ESA). Of the 240 borghi proposed to be built in a mesh 10-16 km apart by ECLS, only 20 were built under Fascism and a further 39 were erected between 1950 and 1968, exemplifying the continuity of the project. Also, way after the fall of fascism in 1943, the narrative that the regime elaborated for Sicilian rurality continued to be perpetuated in state media outlets.[2]

In late summer 2021, we first visited Borgo Rizza during the first edition of the Difficult Heritage Summer School. This borgo was built in 1940 by ECLS and holds the essential administrative functions of the fascist statehood. The architecture of the borgo is designed in a strict, polished rationalist style, contrasting with the extensive rural fields that surround the hilltop on which it is situated. The representation of the fascist totalitarian state is ingrained in the appearance of the rationalist facades; more precisely, we argue, in the outermost layer of plaster and in its color. Such a thin, yet effective, state representation both culturally constructed the imaginary of the fascist state and became the medium through which state power was injected into the territories it struggled to control. The disguise of the construction material—a poor quality masonry of mixed, locally available materials— behind the plaster reveals the performativity of the fascist state, or propaganda, which constructed the public imaginary of fascist statehood. The uniform and plastered rationalist architecture was implemented across the Italian colonial empire, contributing to the creation of a homogeneous representation and collective imaginary of the state, which circulated both among the colonies and in the metropole.[3]

Apart from its propaganda effect, the project of the borghi failed when understood as an architectural, territorial and social intervention, too: the population never inhabited the houses nor used the services, leading to its abandonment. Over time, there have been numerous failed attempts to repurpose the borghi: some have been squatted; others used for sporadic leisure; and others left in decay.

[1] Samuels, J. (2015). Difficult Heritage. Coming ‘to Terms’ with Sicily’s Fascist Past. In Lafrenz Samuels, K., Rico, T. (Eds.). Heritage Keywords. Rhetoric and Redescription in Cultural Heritage. University Press Colorado.
Samuels, J. (2017). After Wheat: Revitalizing Sicilian Agriculture through Heritage Tourism. Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, 39(2), 90–99.
Distretti, E., & Petti, A. (2019). The Afterlife of Fascist Colonial Architecture: A Critical Manifesto. Future Anterior 16(2), 46-58.
[2] See Solito, V. (Director). (1950). Panorami di Sicilia. [ Documentary]. Archivio Centrale dello Stato
[3] Gupta, & Sharma, A. (Eds.). (2008). The anthropology of the state: a reader. Blackwell.