“Knowledge of the past and of the places of the earth is the ornament and food of the mind of man.” – Leonardo da Vinci
This year, my wife and I celebrated 15 years of marriage. Simultaneously, she reached an age milestone and decided that she wanted to travel for her birthday. Despite my apprehension, given the state of the world in Eastern Europe, we settled on Italy and just returned from two weeks in Italia.
Italy is everything it’s made to be: a center of culture, art, food, and romance. It’s rich in history and scenery and provides a unique experience across its provinces. From the vast history and bustle of big city Rome to Venice’s smaller and slower water-bound pace, there is a unique experience to be had wherever you go. What we experienced in Italy both confirmed and quashed stereotypes alike, and there are lessons to be learned for us in America.
What was most notable to me was that civics is a more nuanced conversation outside of the United States, not the hyper-polarized environment we are treated to in America. This is not to say that Italy isn’t polarized; it is. This is to say that at least in history conversations, the Italians proved to be more critical thinkers than your average American. As a culture that has endured millennia and often enshrined their heroes in marble and paint, they employ the Latin phrase damnatio memoriae, which means ‘condemnation of memory.’ Italians choose not to memorialize bad leaders.
With this in mind, our Italian tour guide of the Roman Colosseum spoke in mixed terms of dictators like Emperor Nero or Benito Mussolini. Unlike how the unhinged American left imagines Donald Trump, generations of Italians past endured actual dictators, emperors, and actual fascism. Mussolini famously founded the National Fascist Party and aligned politically with the Hitler regime in World War II.
Leading up to World War II, Mussolini worked to expand Italian influence in the region, and believing the Axis powers of Hitler to be holding an upper hand, he aligned his government with Hitler’s regime. Only when the Allied powers appeared to gain the upper hand did Italy remove Mussolini from power. He was subsequently caught by communists and summarily executed while attempting to flee to Switzerland.
Communists and fascists are two sides of the same authoritarian coin, but existential enemies. This was displayed in the contrasting regimes of Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler. This is often why neo-Marxists label oppositional thought as fascist, and we see this in the propaganda of the modern American left.
One of the first underpasses we crossed below on the outskirts of Rome displayed a masterful graffiti portrait of Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist philosopher and secretary of the Italian Communist Party during WWII. Gramsci is the father of the Marxist idea of cultural hegemony that we debate today. When the government declined to enshrine him in marble, modern supporters enshrined him in Rustoleum.
Our tour guide of the Colosseum cited damnatio memoriae in discussing Mussolini, which is why there are no shrines to him. She also noted that Italy’s rich history only survived the firebombing and looting of the German Reich by first remaining neutral in conflict and then strategically aligning with the Nazis. Other famous historical cultures like the French and the British were less fortunate.
Our guide noted that Mussolini gained popular support by investing in public works like expanding the borders of Rome toward seaports and excavating and restoring long-since-buried Roman civilization. After the establishment of Christianity in Rome by Emperor Constantine, many of the shrines to pagan worship were demolished or repurposed for Christendom. What we see of pre-Christian Rome today is in large part due to the efforts of the Mussolini regime.
In contrast with our Italian tour guide who was very proud of her country and rich history, an American academic gave us a tour of the Vatican. As a former digital arts student, this guide reminded me more of the requisite fifteen hours of art history I partook in as an undergraduate student. He was pompous and gave the textbook lecture version of Roman art. He dabbled in his personal politics as he described ancient works through his modern American eye. In particular, he showed irreverence for the religious as he paraded tourists through Catholic Mecca and subvertly commented on human sexuality and current affairs as they pertained to modern American movements. This probably was less noticeable to his international audience.
History is nuanced. Hero worship is unnecessary to recognize our sordid history as a species and learn from our mistakes. Critical thought requires speaking on subjects as a neutral bystander and not a member of a tribe with an axe to grind.