Fendi, the Italian luxury brand, has rejected accusations of political insensitivity after opening its new headquarters in a building regarded as the most iconic symbol of the country’s fascist era.
The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a white marble “square colosseum” in Rome that served as a propaganda tool under Benito Mussolini, has been renovated and will serve as Fendi’s new base and home of its fur ateliers.
“What should I say? For me it is a non-issue. For the Romans it is a non-issue. For Italians it is a non-issue,” said Fendi’s chief executive, Pietro Beccari. “This building is beyond a discussion of politics. It is aesthetics. It is a masterpiece of architecture. To rebuild it today would cost more than €500m.”
Beccari, a former top executive at Louis Vuitton and a native of Parma, added: “For Italians and for Romans, it is completely deloaded, empty of any significance of that period … there was no political activity that took place here. We never saw it through the lens of fascism.”
For the fashion brand, the decision to base its new HQ in the palazzo is a symbol of the company’s commitment to its native Rome. It is also restoring the city’s Trevi Fountain. It calls the palazzo a “symbol of Italian creativity, genius and craftsmanship”.
But an exhibition located on the ground floor and dedicated to the building’s history largely glosses over the fact that it represents one of Italy’s darkest periods in modern history.
Amid huge black and white photos of the building’s stark exterior – including some shots by Fendi’s longtime creative director, Karl Lagerfeld – and sketches of furniture and lighting fixtures that were designed but never completed, there are only brief mentions of the regime that built the site and the surrounding neighbourhood. The name Mussolini is never mentioned.
Paolo Nicoloso, an architectural historian, said the building, which was designed in 1937 and opened in 1940, is undoubtedly linked to Italy’s fascist past.
“Fascism governed with Romanity, which held that there is a continuity between the [ancient] Rome that ruled the world and fascism, that wanted to at least dominate the Mediterranean,” Nicoloso said.
“From the propaganda perspective it worked well. Fascism collapsed a year later, but in that moment it had an impact, and even after. It gives an image of a fascism that built buildings.”
Nicoloso is not opposed to Fendi using the building or it being repurposed, as long as it remains intact architecturally. Indeed, Marco Costanzi, the architect who spent two years creating Fendi’s office out of what was essentially a shell without running water, wiring or ducts, emphasises that the building remains true to its architectural heritage. A rooftop terrace was added for the grand opening but will be removed.
There is a perennial criticism of Italy – especially among some foreigners – that the country has not confronted its fascist past with the same vigour and self-reflection as its former ally Germany.
For Fendi’s chief executive, viewing the palazzo with a sharp focus on the past does a disservice to hopes for Rome’s future, which he views with optimism. “Rome is on the verge of explosion. It will become a real European capital,” he said, pointing to an influx of investors he knows, who are taking a new look at the city.
“Let’s talk about what is right and what works rather than what is not right in Italy,” he said, sitting in his new office on the third floor. “It is too reductive or diminishing to say that people should not profit or praise the beauty of this, because people do.”
One critic of Fendi’s move, Owen Hatherley, an architecture expert and contributor to the Guardian, described in an article in the Architectural Review why he thought Fendi might find architecture commissioned during the Mussolini regime attractive.
It “propounds a notion of ‘good taste’ that is deeply similar to that of the fashion industry – shamelessly elitist, wilfully sinister, hierarchical, Classical, its apparent minimalism belied by an obsession with the finest possible material and the severest cut,” he wrote. “Fascist architecture, fashion, Fendi, all part of a history of amoral, elite good taste, something which appears to be becoming ever more inescapable as the lifestyle of the rich flies off into places ever more distant from that of the majority.”
Hatherley concluded: “However much the architecture of the era can be interesting and attractive, its values were deeply sick. It is right that its architecture remain tainted.”
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