By any measure, Mussolini’s Pontine Marshes project was an impressive logistical feat: five cities built in fewer than ten years on what had been, for millennia, defiantly uninhabitable swampland. Not Caesar, not seven different popes, not even Napoleon had been able to tame the malaria-infested fens; that veterans and laborers mobilized by the Fascists pulled it off, draining and clearing the land so that architects brought in by the regime could erect cities presented as opportunity-rich utopias, elevated Mussolini in many Italians’ minds to the status of a beneficent Creator.
‘Mussolini Opens Littoria, Extolling Italy’s Power,’ reported the New York Times on 19 December 1934:
Premier Mussolini today extolled Italy’s military power as the guarantee of its agricultural tranquility. He spoke at the inauguration of the country’s ninety-third province, Littoria, a farmland reclaimed from the marshes between Rome and Naples.
‘Italy must be strong from a military viewpoint so that this gigantic work will not be disturbed. The plow made the furrow, but the sword defends it.’
Littoria, a desolate swampland four years ago, is now occupied by 60,000 former service men and their families. They dwell in modern farmhouses in which they have a proprietary interest.
The cities of Sabaudia, Pontinia, Aprilia and Pomezia opened soon after. Pomezia was inaugurated on 29 October 1939, nearly two months after Germany invaded Poland and only five and a half years before partisans executed Mussolini and his corpse was strung up outside a gas station in Milan. After the war, Littoria was renamed Latina, to play down its Fascist provenance – Littoria refers to the lictors, or subordinate officers, who carried the bundles of rods, or fasces, that gave Fascism its name – but even today Littoria is still heard and seen around town, including in the bas-relief of a manhole cover, over a fasces with an axe.
‘A marsh extends along the mountain-chain,’ wrote Goethe in Faust, after visiting the Pontine Marshes in 1787, ‘That poisons what so far I’ve been achieving; / Were I that noisome pool to drain, / ’Twould be the highest, last achieving. / Thus space to many millions I will give / Where, though not safe, yet free and active they may live.’
In 1936, a businessman from New York informed Mussolini that ‘the American people would like to know what Fascism is’. ‘It is like your New Deal,’ Mussolini replied. Indeed, the Fascists put many unemployed Italians back to work building roads, bridges, canals, railway stations, hospitals, orphanages and schools. But the deal they offered was a Faustian one: while you may be active, you won’t be free.
Wiktoria Wojciechowska was born in Lublin, Poland, in 1991 and first visited Latina when she was five. Her mother’s sister had married an Italian man and moved there. For many years, Latina and its neighboring towns were the only images of Italy Wojciechowska knew; then, in her twenties, she made her first visits to Rome, Naples, Bologna and Venice, and understood that the Pontine Marshes are not your typical Italian destination. Intrigued, she began to research the area online and in Latina’s local library. Her aunt had struggled to integrate in the city, and Wojciechowska wondered whether architecture born of a nationalist ideology has the power, decades later, to discourage assimilation, even among those unaware of its history.
Wojciechowska likes to explore places when they are empty. Wandering Latina and the other Pontine Marsh cities during the Italians’ siesta, she encountered almost exclusively other non-natives, including refugees from Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia and Mali. In English or French the refugees described feeling stalled, directionless, suspended. Leaving the cities before the immigration officials had made their decision was forbidden, and meanwhile it was difficult to secure work. The migrants did not have much interaction with Italians, and perhaps for this reason were glad to be approached by Wojciechowska, and to be photographed. ‘They were sympathetic, proud and fashionable,’ Wojciechowska says. ‘It was easy and pleasant, as they liked to pose.’
There is irony, of course, in refugees seeking asylum in cities founded on Fascist principles – cities originally conceived for ‘pure’ Italians and which historians have called a proving ground for the Fascists’ attempts to colonize Africa Italiana. Today, in Latina, new arrivals must queue for documents at Palazzo M, formerly the Casa del Fascio, an enormous building in the shape of Mussolini’s initial. CasaPound, a neo-Fascist faction, has a base in the city, and the region generally supports Italy’s right-wing, anti-immigration parties. Locals sympathetic to the migrants include members of a liberal movement called the Sardines, for its mission to pack public squares with demonstrators; there is also Primo Contatto, a collective that aims to facilitate dialogue between Italians and migrants, and many lawyers help asylum seekers for free. Still, a cultish nostalgia for the era of Il Duce abides, and some residents make plain their wish that the migrants would move on. Visiting an association promoting the area’s Rationalist architecture, Wojciechowska was informed by the staff who greeted her that foreigners including ‘Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians and blacks’ were destroying the local landscape. ‘The conversation was surreal,’ says Wojciechowska, ‘as they knew I was Polish.’
Of these photographs, taken between 2017 and 2019, Wojciechowska has said that the emptiness creates an illusion that we are back in the 1930s, before the cities’ original inhabitants moved in. She couldn’t have known that streets worldwide would soon be empty, evacuated by a crisis more inclusive than any since Fascism called us to war.