The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When the mortar crumbled on this D.C. building, a dark history was revealed

A damaged bas-relief sculpture of a pair of fasces, the bundled rods of ancient Rome adopted by Benito Mussolini, is seen on the old Italian Embassy at 16th and Fuller streets NW. The inscription in Latin notes the year of the building’s construction: 1925.
A damaged bas-relief sculpture of a pair of fasces, the bundled rods of ancient Rome adopted by Benito Mussolini, is seen on the old Italian Embassy at 16th and Fuller streets NW. The inscription in Latin notes the year of the building’s construction: 1925. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

About two months ago, one of the workers renovating the old Italian Embassy building at 16th and Fuller streets NW was surprised when part of the exterior wall started to crumble as he cleaned it. He was even more startled by what he found behind it: an engraving in Latin and a battered pair of bas-relief sculptures of . . . well, what exactly?

The Latin was the easy part: “AEDES AD MCMXXV AERE PVBL EXSTRVCTAE” translates as “a building constructed with public funds in 1925.”

The sculptures were a little tougher. Whatever they were, they looked as if someone had taken a pickax to them in an attempt to obscure their original form. But if you know a little about Roman history, Italian history or world history, you can tell what they are — or were: bundles of wooden rods bound around an ax blade.

They are fasces. From them, we get the word fascism.

It took a while for Mill Creek Residential, the developer transforming the former embassy into 22 luxury apartments, to figure out exactly what it had. They knew that the building had been constructed three years after Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, took office. Mussolini’s name is on some of the original documentation. But the building’s plans had no reference to the inscription and sculptures.

“One photo had something over there, but we certainly didn’t know anything specifically,” said Sean Caldwell, senior managing director at Mill Creek. They thought maybe there was a time capsule secreted in the wall.

The best-known symbol from World War II is probably the swastika, appropriated by Nazi Germany from East Asian culture. But Mussolini was around before Adolf Hitler. How did fasces become a symbol of fascism?

They started in ancient Rome as a symbol of authority. Bundles of sticks around ax blades were borne by officials called lictors who worked for chief magistrates. These attendants carried the fasces to remind Romans of the power of the magistrates and the state.

When Mussolini came to power in 1922, he began appropriating cultural and architectural elements of Italy’s past, hoping to link his own rule with the glory that was Rome. Chief among these were the fasces.

Fasces weren’t carved only on public buildings in Italy. There are 12 fasces on the Justice Department’s building in downtown Washington. They also adorn the side of Memorial Bridge over the Potomac.

The wall behind the rostrum in the U.S. House of Representatives has a bronze sculpture of fasces — a reference, according to the chamber’s website, to the new philosophy of democracy that the Founders envisioned for America: “Like the thin rods bound together in fasces, the individual states achieve their strength and stability through their union under the federal government.”

So, fasces aren’t necessarily fascist, though given the date of these ones, said Jan Nelis, a scholar in Brussels who studies Italian fascism, they must refer to Mussolini.

They certainly seem to have riled someone. The panel, set in a blind window, had been covered in mortar, or “parged.” And before that happened, the fasces apparently were smashed.

It’s impossible to say for sure, but it appears someone didn’t like what they represented. It reminded me of that scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the Nazi eagle and swastika are miraculously burned from the crate holding the Ark of the Covenant.

“Correcting” fascist architecture is not unprecedented in Washington. According to Kim Prothro Williams, an architectural historian in the District’s Historic Preservation Office, the old Spanish Embassy building on the other side of 16th Street NW now has blank panels where you’d expect to see decorative elements.

“During Franco’s reign, carvings were added to the building that were later destroyed or covered over,” she wrote in an email.

What do the Italians themselves do with fascist symbols? John C. McLucas, a professor of Italian and Latin at Towson University, wrote in an email that “the overwhelming majority of them were removed or defaced when the regime fell, but the survivors are generally left intact now as elements of a period decor.”

The old Italian Embassy is a historic landmark, so some thought must be given to what happens next.

Said Joe Muffler, vice president of Mill Creek: “We’re in conversation with the Historic Preservation Review Board to talk to them about how we treat this. We don’t think it’s our responsibility to cover up a piece of history.”

And you know what they say about history: If you don’t want to repeat it, don’t forget it.

(Thanks to reader Tom Swegle for pointing me toward this fascinating story.)

Twitter: @johnkelly

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