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I unexpectedly meet Renato Ricci, Mussolini's minister of public buildings

 

The sun was beginning to fade. We had spent the day walking through the thick-walled Hadrian’s Tomb, dickering with cameo salesmen in the shadow of the colosseum and wandering in and out among the ruins where, nearly two thousand years ago, stood the Roman Senate and other public buildings.

We were about the bring to a close the outing planned by my two Roman friends when one of them said with half shrug, half laugh, “Well, now you’ve seen the old ruins. Perhaps you would - or wouldn’t you - like to take a look at the new ones?”

Puzzlement must have crossed my face, for she quickly explained, “Poor old Musso ... he left his ruins, too. I was speaking of what we used to call the Foro Mussolini, but is now named the Italian Forum.”

We drove north and west, through the gardens of the Borghesi, along the magnolia-lined avenue to the ever-crowed Pincio - the elevation high above the city from which you can look down below at the Piazza del Popolo and out across the city toward the dome of St. Peter’s.

We managed to park our new Fiat 1400 for a few moments at the Pincio. All around us where every conceivable kind of vehicle, from motorized bicycle to “Topolino” (“Mickey Mouse” - the nickname given the tiny Fiat) to a very occasional American car.

Then we would our way down to the Tiber and out toward a series of comparatively new apartment buildings, finally crossing over the impressive, wide Ponte Duca d’Aosta, to find ourselves in what might have been a modern college campus deserted for the summer.

At first we were entirely alone, free to drive in any direction among the terra-cotta-colored modern buildings trimmed in starkly contrasting white laid out for all branches of physical education and inaugurated in 1932.

We stopped at the brim of the familiar-looking white marble Stadio dei Marmi, surrounded by its 60 enormous statues of athletes in all sorts of athletic poses.
Suddenly one of my companions stiffened slightly and turned to the other.

“ Do I see what I think I see?” he began. “Or am I mistaken to believe it is Ricci?” He gestured off in the distance toward where two men stood.

The other narrowed her eyes, then exclaimed with half a glance, half a questioning look in my direction. “It is Ricci. Certainly, it is Ricci.”

Who was Ricci, I wanted to know, sensing the excitement between them.

“ It was Ricci who built all this,” one waved a hand to include the stadium, the spacious, now-empty buildings. “Ricci was both minister of public building and also minister of health under Mussolini. I myself received the medal once from him for winning one of the foot races.”

“ After five years they have let him out of jail,” said the other pityingly. “Only a few weeks ago it was, that he was finally released.”

The other started to lead the way back to the car. “In the old days we knew him,” he said. “Everybody knew him.”

“ Now most people think he is dead, hanged by the heels with Mussolini.”

I asked if there were any reason why we couldn’t talk with Ricci a little. They consulted in Italian for a moment, then agreed they couldn’t see why not.

So we headed toward the former Fascist leader along the marble rim of the stadium dwarfed as we wandered on, the the tremendous statues Ricci later told us where sent by the various Italian cities to conform to master specifications furnished from Rome.

Finally we reached the balding, tired-looking man with one hand on his hip and both feet planted firmly apart - the gesture popularized by Mussolini during his many addresses to the people from the balcony of the Piazza Venetia.

With Ricci was a somewhat larger, younger man.

“ We used to work for him, this other man,” one of my guides said in English as an aside to me. “Now he has a job and he is working, But Ricci, poor man, times are very hard, I am afraid, for him.”

Introductions were made in Italian. Ricci and I shook hands gravely. And in the awkward interval that followed - an awkwardness mainly induced by the fact that I speak no Italian, Ricci spoke very little English - I noted the neat, but far from new, grey herringbone suit and the yellow, soft-collared shirt with frayed cuffs.

Once the ice was broken, however, he explained, through my Roman friends, a few things about the huge project which he said was Mussolini’s favorite and had cost 40 millions before the war.

“ Now, I think,” he said, “it would cost many times more.”

In a little while he asked if the visitor from America would care to see the swimming pools. I replied that I would.

All five of us squeezed into the Fiat and drove down a graveled avenue, crossing short area paved in white marble.

“ Mussolini planned eventually to pave the whole roadway in white marble,” Ricci explained.

We pulled up under a porte-cochere in front of a series of broad stone steps. At the tope was a lone scrub woman with her pail and rags. She promptly recognized Ricci and permitted us to enter the deserted building, moving the paid and rags for us to pass, and looking silently after us.

Eagerly Ricci led the way across the grey marble hall, up a long flight of matching marble steps, - with here and there a broken or chipped section of marble lying loosely about - and opened a door leading into one of the most impressive indoor swimming pools I have ever seen. Some sixty feet in length, it was flanked, at either end, by intricate mosaic murals of athletic figures.

Pointing to the great plate glass windows and the outdoor terrace beyond one of my friends said, “Many times we went swimming in this pool and afterwards sat out there for our drinks. Perhaps it cost a lot of money, but it brought much happiness to many people, too.”

Next we went upstairs to another pool built especially for children, with overhead roofing that rolled back electrically at the push of a button to let in the sun’s strong rays.

Someone pointed out the words “Push” and “Pull” on the inside of the swinging doors through which we had entered. Ricci laughed nervously at this reminder of the American military personnel which had occupied the premises.

“ They made jokes about Mussolini - these American officers,” his companion said. “But we in Rome noticed it was three years after the war was ended that they left his Foro at last.”

Downstairs we went again, this time turning to follow Ricci through a concealed door into a high-walled chamber paneled to the ceiling in black-grained white marble. At one end of the room, some fifty feet long and half as wide, was a marble-encased coffee dispenser for the very black “explosive” coffee every Italian must have.

At the other, on a pedestal almost as high as my shoulders, was a gilt statute of David - the David who slew Goliath, complete with slingshot and stone in hand. Why David was there, Ricci didn’t know. All he could say was that this was the secret chamber once used as Mussolini’s private exercise bar.

“ We didn’t even know it existed, “ my Roman friends admitted.

We looked out of the windows lining one side of the room and over a small garden in back. Austrian pines twenty-five to thirty feet high were about the only feature remaining what had evidently been quite a formal, though small, arrangement.

At this point Ricci, who had kept up a fairly steady flow of conversation in Italian lapsed into a dreamy silence.

Finally, he broke it.

“ I have been to see them so many times I almost think they know me,” he remarked fondly as he gazed below at the pines he had planted as seedlings.

In the gathering twilight we walked out of the building - this ghost from the past who had led me on the tour of monuments to the past - his companion, my Roman friends and I. Past the scrubwoman once more and down the long flight of steps we went, encountering a pair of stray Romans who stopped to stare, one of them venturing a solemn handshake.

We drove Ricci to his apartment, not far from the old Roman wall. As he and the man with him alighted from the Fiat and stood completing their farewells I noted that he unconsciously assumed, once again, the stance of the dictator - his finger ring gleaming from his hand on his hip.

“ Such as strange world this is,” reminisced one of my friends as we departed. “This was a good man - an honest man who didn’t profit from his office too much. One who criticized many things the Fascisti did, too.”

“ Now that we’ve got your democracy, the Communists hold their noisy May Day parades and can paint anything they choose on our walls. But I must warn you to write carefully of what you say about this man - or perhaps they will take him back to jail.”

That night as I sat alone at dinner in my hotel I asked the waiter who brought it to my room if he had ever heard of Renato Ricci.

“ Si, si,” he answered. “He was one of the Fascisti.”

“ With Mussolini he died,” he made the expressive throat-cutting gesture.

The next day I found myself in conversation about Mussolini with a young woman who had been “married with” an American soldier, but whose marriage hadn’t worked out too well.

Now she was back home with her family, trying to support a two-year-old daughter on a salary of 20,000 lire (about $33) a month.

“ Mussolini had many, many good intentions, “ she said. “It is only five years now - and already many of the people are beginning to have nostalgia for those days of the athletic games in the Foro Mussolini.”

What about America’s post-war help to Italy - and the Marshall Plan?

“ They did what they could - the ECA,” she said, pronouncing it as a single world and not as individual letters, as all Italians do, and speaking in the past tense, as if the program were finished and done.

America is in Italy as a friend - and we do so much need help. I am so afraid of the Russian people and of being cut off from the rest of the world. It would be so terrible - what they could do to a little country like Italy.

“ If only Italy had a few good, honest men,” she sighed sadly. “But with the Italian people it always seems they want to go out of office rich.”

 

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