What Do a Wedding Cake, a Typewriter, and Dentures Have in Common?

After a week in Rome, I feel like I am finally getting the hang of navigating the city. By navigating, I mean traveling with a few friends or more from Trastevere, crossing the Tiber, and roaming the more central parts of the city that are are scattered with layers or ruins, churches, and monuments. Through my time in Rome so far, some of my experiences haven’t matched up with my expectations for the city.

I think first and foremost, I had this image in my head of Rome as the gleaming, Eternal City, not one covered with graffiti,  swarming with aggressive street vendors at all hours of the day, and piled high with trash. Maybe it’s the suburbanite in me, or the fact that I have never been to Europe before, but I was a bit disappointed with my first impression of Rome. Thankfully, after exploring a bit more with my class, I’ve had the opportunity to see more than the typical tourist traps and gain a deeper appreciation for Rome’s architectural gems. This brings me to the above picture of the Victor Emmanuel monument, which dominates the area between the Piazza Venezia and the Capitoline Hill. It’s one of the first things I saw upon entering the east side of the Tiber (besides the graffiti). It’s hard to miss. Designed in the late nineteenth century and completed in 1925, Il Vittoriano is a memorial to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a reunified Italy, which was achieved after his defeat of the papal army and Giuseppe Garibaldi’s conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1861.

Tourists seem to enjoy the monument much more than Romans, who are divided over its imposing appearance. Its eclectic mix of styles and mythologies carved into and built upon gleaming white marble makes for a rather overbearing structure. Italians often disparagingly refer to it as resembling a wedding cake, a typewriter, or a set of dentures. The monument presents Victor Emmanuel as a victorious leader on horseback, sword raised high; in an obvious attempt to associate the king with ancient Rome, Winged Victories ride in chariots atop the monument, much as they would be positioned on triumphal arches over 1500 years before.

This attempt at aggrandizement is unsurprising given that Il Vittoriano is one of many sites throughout Rome that Benito Mussolini (who first served as Prime Minister, then dictator) later co-opted to create and reinforce the sense of national identity and pride that was essential to Italian Fascism. Mussolini delivered his infamous speeches from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia, across the piazza from the monument. He further cultivated this national image of a new empire (declared in 1936) through the excavation and display of numerous ancient ruins. Through the history and classics course I’m taking here in Rome, I have learned to more critically examine the functions of monuments and memorials, which all possess double lives: the intended messages of their creators, and the histories we in the present write for them.

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