Commissioned in 1938 by Rino Valdameri, president of the Milanese Accademia di Brera, and financed by a wealthy industrialist, the Danteum was supposed to be a visual celebration of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Fascism. Immediately after Mussolini had approved the project, Valdameri commissioned architects Giuseppe Terragni and Pietro Lingeri to design a celebrative monument along the via Impero in the city centre of Rome, close to the Fori Imperiali and the Coliseum. The architects officially interrupted their work in 1941 and the Danteum, in the end, was never built. Today, there is only sparse documentation left: some sketches and drawings, a scale model, some documents and two official reports, which together explain the overall concept.The building was envisaged as a cultural centre. It was to be a stone parallelepiped, composed of three main ‘environments’ where visitors could experience an architectural and symbolic path through the three parts (‘cantiche’) of Dante’s Divina Commedia: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. In addition, there was to be other rooms for study and academic research, plus a dedication to the Fascist empire.
The Spatial Construction of the New Man’s Urban Reality
Narrative Rationalization: Staging a Collective Spectacle
When describing the Danteum, the architects Terragni and Lingeri used the word ‘temple’. The geometric ideal form that, despite their efforts, never became a building is in fact a metaphorical path intended to commemorate Dante Alighieri’s Commedia and his ‘Italian genius’. A political and literary allegory is the fil rouge one can use to read the whole project, based on precise volumetric and spatial proportions and symbolic numbers (especially 3 and its multiples, which constantly recur in the Commedia). Solid parallelepiped cut through by axis, it would be dominated by three main environments: the itinerary would begin from a narrow corridor leading – through the 100-columned ‘Obscure Wood’ ('la selva oscura') – into Inferno. This would be an ascensional sequence of 7 decreasing square spaces simulating the circles ('cerchi' or 'gironi') described by the Italian poet. On the contrary, Purgatory would be an ascent through 7 increasing and transparent squares, anticipating Heaven, a crystalline environment dominated by 33 glass columns. The result was to be completely achromatic ‘architectural poetry’, since the architects wanted to use just travertine and glass. This flow of continuous spaces without doors and windows was supposed to be empty and without any decoration – even if it seems that Mario Sironi (decoration for the external wall) and most likely Arturo Martini (sculptures portraying the doomed, within Inferno) were involved, at a certain point. All around, other ordinary and functional spaces were planned: a library and a research facility in the basement and two spaces dedicated to the Italian empire – the first in the basement, the second at the end of Heaven. Outside, just after the exit, a monolith would be a metaphor Dante’s ‘veltro’ (a dog able to positively change the world thanks to his actions). This could be interpreted as a final celebration of Mussolini, able to reform and change the entire nation with his decisions.
Overall, the Danteum is a complex project bearing a plurality of meanings. It was intended to be a solemn celebration of Dante and, as a consequence, of the ‘Italian genius’, in a crucial moment for Fascism and Italy: 1938, when the racial laws were issued. To a political dictatorship in need of local heroes, the author of Commedia was seen as the literary ‘alter ego’ of Leonardo: personifying significant moments of the national culture, they became symbols of the ‘Italian pride’, or the ‘Italian race’. Dedicated triumphal temples such as the 'Leonardesca' exhibition (1939, Milan) or a cultural itinerary like the Danteum meant not just an official consecration, but also the foundation of models, of Italian myths with strong nationalistic values. In this context, influenced by strong propaganda and a media coverage, these kinds of projects were crucial elements of Fascist society, new places where political indoctrination was a disguised subtext. Valdameri himself stated: 'the building will be a centre dedicated to Dantesque culture [… in order to] stimulate and help all initiatives supporting and affirming the Imperial nature of Fascist Italy' ('l’edificio da costruirsi sarà centro di cultura dantesca [… per] suggerire ed aiutare tutte quelle iniziative che fomentino ed attestino il carattere imperiale dell’Italia fascista' (Ciucci 1996, 573). A cultural and literary centre seemed to be the best way to embody and celebrate Fascist identity at that time. As in other cases – e.g. the Palazzo di Giustizia in Milan – culture seemed the most appropriate way to spread political propaganda. Masses of visitors and specialists were supposed to have access to the Danteum, studying, experiencing an allegoric itinerary and, at the same time, being surrounded by a jubilant hymn to the Fascist government and its empire. The idea of Empire was also a way to cement a connection between the Roman past and the Italian present, as explicitly revealed by the location of the building: via dell’Impero (now via dei Fori Imperiali), close to the most representative Roman buildings and ruins such as the Basilica di Massenzio and the Coliseum. For all these reasons, the architects could use a visionary language, almost disconnected from reality and mostly abstract and poetic: the Danteum was not a residential building (such as Novocomun), nor headquarters of a political institution (Casa del fascio), but a triumphal celebration. Conceived at the end of the thirties, idealistically designed and, in the end never built, it is also one of the last architectural chapters before WWII.
Ciucci, Giorgio. (ed.). 1996. Giuseppe Terragni 1904-1943. MIan: Electa.
Marcianò, Ada Francesca. 2008. Giuseppe Terragni. Opera completa 1925-1943. Rome: Officina edizioni.
Schumacher, Thomas L. 1997. Terragni’s Danteum. Hudson: Princeton Architectural Press.