At the end of WWII, while the Italian dream of an empire, as well as the monarchy, were swept away together with the remaining rubble of the war, another empire survived nearly intact at the very centre of the former fascist Italy. This other empire was fascist Italy’s competitor for the role of the bearer of the legacy of the Roman Empire, yet it was also its accomplice which greatly benefited from the rise of fascism in Italy. This was the empire of the Roman Catholic Church, ruled in a centralised manner from the Vatican yet with its units operating semi-autonomously in various parts of Europe and the world.
A relatively calm region at the centre of a forceful storm, as was the position of the Vatican in the middle of fascist Italy and WWII, is in meteorology known as the eye of the storm. The eye is in particular, characteristic of whirling storms such as cyclones or tornados, which arise when two bodies of air, warm and cold, meet, with warm air spiraling upward and cold air falling to the ground. It is thus a particular situation resembling a meeting of two ideologies which can be abstract, like bodies of air hovering far above the ground and whose destructive forces materialise on the ground. In the case of a tornado, the storm only becomes destructive when a cone of whirling air descending from the storm cloud touches the ground. Could this contact between heaven and earth stand for clericalism; one of the spectres haunting secular modernity?
Examining the architectural legacy of the Vatican in the fascist period, the eye of the storm with its spiraling connection between heaven and earth is nowhere more clearly visible than in the entrance rotunda to the Vatican Museums, known as the New Bramante Staircase, designed by architect Giuseppe Momo for the Pope Pius XI in 1929, just a few months after the Vatican and fascist Italy signed the Lateran Pacts which settled the nearly sixty year long dispute between the two parties over the ‘Roman Question’. The entrance to the Vatican Museums thus became an interface, or a contact zone, similarly to the Bernini’s colonnade in St. Peter’s Square, between two spheres of power which not only newly recognised each other officially, but also stroke a mutually beneficial pact reflected in the double helix of the ramps in the rotunda. This pact had ramifications well beyond the borders of the newly established Vatican State and Italy, and its ripple effect reached places such as Ethiopia, Palestine or Slovakia in a variety of forms creating a growing centripetal vortex of destruction while the eye of the storm remained largely untouched or even provided a safe haven after the war for those responsible for war crimes.