In 1938 the president of the Società Dantesca Italiana, an industrialist, and two architects made a presentation to Benito Mussolini. Their proposal was to build a Danteum in in time for the planned upcoming Esposition of 1942 in Rome, a museum, library, and homage to the great Italian poet whose works had been appropriated by the Italian Fascist government, in time for the planned upcoming Esposition of 1942. One of the architects was Giuseppe Terragni.
All architects design projects which are never built, whether for financial, ideological, or personal reasons. Guiseppe Terrangi, a successful architect, is included here because of two buildings which defined his work: the (built) Casa del Fascio in Como (1932 – 1936), and the unbuilt Danteum.
Terragni’s Casa del Fascio, Como, is considered the most important of his built works. What constrained Le Courbusier and the other practitioners of “white” architecture in the 1920s and 1930s, namely the whims of a client, were missing here. The Case de Fascio were to be the embodiment of Fascism in their cities. Como’s Casa was Terragni’s most rigorously geometric, ideological, and sociological design. This was the state – the expression of Il Duce – literally made concrete and imposed on the masses.
The Casa del Fascio, the local headquarters of the Fascist government, is as close to a “perfect” building as could be built at the time. Its plan very closely follows that of Sangallo’s Palazzo Farnese in Rome, and its facade is an unrelenting set of symmetries governed entirely by geometry. The glass enclosed central atrium was meant as the staging point for mass Fascist rallies.This is an anti-Humanist building, and as such a paragon of the International Style as it was developing between the World Wars.
Although publicly decrying Renaissance architecture, Terragni relied heavily on historic precedent when it suited him. The ground floor plan shows the entrance, cortile, arcade, and vertical circulation almost identical to the Palazzo Farnese.
Unlike Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Soviet Union, Mussolini welcomed modernist architecture. Terragni became famous in the years leading up to Italy joining in the war, with public and private commissions.
The project for the Danteum was conceived as rigidly geometric, based on the square and the golden rectangle, constructed from squares.
The levels, forms, and spaces of the Danteum are Terragni’s interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sequence of spaces experienced by the visitor leads through hell, purgatory, and paradise. As the Divine Comedy includes references to numerology and geometry, the poem could be seen as a written allegory of the physical structure of the afterlife. Terragni, in his turn, took the text and designed a physical model of that written allegory, also using numerology and geometry.
Terragni, of course, was not the only artist or architect to offer a visual depiction of Dante’s vision of the structure of the afterlife. Michelangelo (above), and Botticelli, painted canonical images.
This panel of the presentation to Mussolini shows the hierarchy of the State and history. The Colosseum as representation of the Roman Empire underpinning of Fascism, the rectilinear insertion into a non-geometric space, the sheer size of the Danteum as a non-humanistic structure, and finally what appears to be the will of the people as expressed in graffiti. Like the original Casa del Fascio, this “graffiti” is actually dictated from the party and painted as murals on the sides of the building. The monument to Dante, therefore, sits between the “graffiti” of modern popular will and the ruins of the past – origins of the modern Fascist state.