Draining the marshes. Etruscan heritage and the Fascist spatialisation of power and myth

National Archaeological Museum

Olivia Berkowicz

In the lambent haze of the afternoon, the streets melt away by pedalling feet. Cinema Mignon disappears on the right-hand side, via Porta. S. Pietro swiftly transitions into via Carlo Mayr with its bars, greengrocers and soporific corner shops, until finally, one exits onto via XX Settembre. Recalling the way from Studio Carmelino to the National Archeological Museum in Ferrara, in my mind’s eye, the sun is always set at four or five o’clock in the afternoon when the museum opens anew after its lunchtime respite.
Kept behind wrought iron gates, the National Archeological Museum is housed in a former Renaissance palazzo constructed in 1495 by the much-lauded Ferrarese architect and military engineer Biagio Rossetti. In charge of designing the ‘Herculanean Addition,’ some theorists argue this urban extension renders Ferrara the first ‘modern’ city. The double loggia of the Courtyard of Honour opens up to the visitor, with white sculptural decorations and a portico revealing a sliver of the labyrinthine garden at the back. Although formed by the diplomatic and political relations of the Renaissance, the Archeological Museum of Ferrara straddles several dynamic moments in history, which for the sake of this text, are brought forward in light of its collection from the Etruscan civilization of Spina and the Fascist appropriation of this heritage to legitimise its sovereign rule.
The Fascist reorganisation of the countryside outside of Ferrara established a polycephalous extension of the fortressed city. An industrial zone was established in the late 1920s north of the historical centre, as part of Benito Mussolini’s ‘Battle for Land.’ Earlier in 1922, the marshes drained around the site of Spina came to reveal the archeological remnants of an Etruscan community. This discovery was instrumentalised by the Fascist government and propelled the city of Ferrara to house the archeological treasures of the Tyrrhenian necropolis.
Little more than a decade later, in 1935, the Hall of Maps was revealed to inaugurate the Etruscan collection. The Archeological Museum proposes several instances in which, as a site, it was formulated to operate as an ideological vehicle for driving Fascist policies. The Hall of Maps at the museum is but one example of how the museum exemplifies how ocularcentric modes of visualising national heritage, geography and politics are at work within the museum and history of Spina. The discovery of the archeological site was premised upon aerial photography, where – from a bird’s eye perspective – the faint, ghost-like lines of settlements and burial grounds came to reveal the locus of the necropolis in the Comacchio region.

Salvatore Aurigemma, the first director of the museum, commissioned the frescoes in the Hall of Maps to promote the Fascist mythologisation of descendance from the Etruscans and connection to the ancient Roman empire. Here too, the aerial viewpoint comes into play – a panoramic array of historical and military atlases serve to illustrate the maximum expansions of Etruscan territories within the region in the fifth century BC.
*The National Archeological Museum was explored during Ferrara Residency 2017 and 2018, which were organised by the cultural association resina.