, , ,

In my reading on Italy and archeology I came across an article on the City of Latina in the Pontine Marshes South of Rome. The Pontine Marshes is a huge swath of land South of the Eternal City, very flat marshy soil fed by numerous streams. Until the 1930’s was a very unhealthy place for humans full of mosquitos carrying malaria and land that could not be used for agricultural purposes. The former marsh is a low tract of mainly agricultural land created by draining and filling, separated from the sea by sand dunes. The area amounts to about 80,000 ha (800 km2; 310 sq mi)


In Antiquity quite a few Emperors and Senators had dreams of draining the Pontine Marshes to make it fit for agriculture. Unfortunately they did not have the engineering knowhow to make this dream come true. One of the problems of the Italian Peninsula and Sicily has always been poverty, it was true 2700 years ago and it remained true until the 1960’s when the economic miracle and rapid development helped many Italians to climb into the ranks of the Middle Class.

Italy has always been a country of Nobles (the few) and poor (the many), the Nobles owned the land and the poor worked that land for them. Garibaldi in 1860 with the Unification movement of the whole peninsula and the abolition of the great Estates sought to alleviate poverty and create land re-distribution. That did not work, the powerful resisted it and took all means possible to prevent such re-distribution of wealth. Thus millions of Italians immigrated to South and North America in search of a better life. After 1945, millions of Italians again migrated from the South to the North of the Peninsula only to find discrimination against them because of their accent, swarthy skin and poor education. This is when a wave of Italians departed for Canada and the USA yet again. In Sicily which was never part of Italy until 1870 there was talk of a referendum to join as a State, the USA.

All this to say that the vast social programs of the Fascists and Benito Mussolini, much of them inspired by the dreams of Garibaldi and of a former, long ago time of imperial glory where so popular. Even today in the current climate of economic crisis and mounting social problems, there is nostalgia for the days of the Fascist Regime (1923-1943).

Littoria is just such a result of aggressive social engineering to alleviate poverty and create wealth for the masses. The name Littoria is interesting it comes from Lictor, plural lictors or lictores, member of an ancient Roman class of magisterial attendants, probably Etruscan in origin and dating in Rome from the regal period. Lictors carried the fasces for their magistrate and were constantly in his attendance in public; they cleared his way in crowds and summoned and punished offenders for him. They also served as their magistrate’s house guard. In Rome the lictors wore togas; during a consul’s triumph or while outside Rome they wore scarlet coats.

Emperors originally had 12 lictors, but after Domitian (reigned ad 81–96) they had 24; dictators, 24; consuls, 12; praetors, 6; legates, 5; and priests, 1.


Lictors carrying Fasces 

Starting in 1922, the Italian government’s Department of Health, working with the Opera Nazionale Combattenti, developed a new initiative to combat malaria called the bonifica integrale. It featured three stages, the first being the bonifica idraulica, which would drain the swamp and control the waters. Mussolini and his party called it “the battle of the swamps” because it required the recruitment, deployment, and supply of an army of workers. In the second stage, the bonifica agraria, homesteads with stone houses and public utilities were to be constructed and the land was to be parcelled among settlers. The third stage, bonifica igienica, took measures against the mosquitos (Anopheles labranchiae), such as screens and whitewash (so the mosquitos could be easily identified and killed), and against malaria, such as distributing quinine and setting up health services.

In 1922 also, Benito Mussolini was made prime minister by the king of Italy. In 1926, the Department of Health undertook a pilot project of the new strategy in the delta of the Tiber River, reclaiming land and creating 45 new homesteads with great success, after which Mussolini climbed aboard. At his request to the Director-general of the Department of Health, Alessandro Messea submitted a plan for the Pontine Marshes. In 1928, Mussolini brought it before parliament; it became “Mussolini’s Law”, and began to be implemented in 1929. In 1939, at the incorporation ceremony of the last new city, Pomezia, the project was declared complete.


Beginning in 1930, the bonifica idraulica cleared the scrub forest, constructed a total of 16,500 km (10,300 mi) of checkerboard canals and trenches, dredged rivers, diked their banks, filled depressions, and constructed pumping stations to change the elevation in the canals where necessary. The final channel, the Mussolini Canal, empties into the Tyrrhenian Sea near Anzio. The project reached a peak in 1933 with 124000 men employed. The previous agrarian population was moved out under protest in the name of progress. Workers were interned in camps surrounded by barbed wire. The camps were overcrowded, wages were low, hours were long, food was bad, sanitation was poor, healthcare was missing, and medical attention was lacking. However, workers could quit, and the turnover was high.

The government placed about 2000 families (most from northern Italy and of unimpeachable Fascist background) in standardized but carefully varied two-storey country houses of blue stucco with tiled roofs. Each settler family was assigned a farmhouse, an oven, a plough and other agricultural tools, a stable, some cows, and several hectares of land, depending on local soil fertility and the size of the family. Mussolini used the 10-year operation for propaganda purposes, and was often photographed between workers, shirtless with a shovel in his hand, or threshing wheat at harvest time; these occasions were regularly filmed by LUCE for inclusion in nationally shown propaganda newsreels.


Fascist painting of 1933 showing the abundance of the Pontine Marshes

The new towns of Littoria (1932, now Latina), Sabaudia (1934), Pontinia (1935), Aprilia (1937), and Pomezia (1939) were founded, side by side with several other small borghi (rural villages). The carefully differentiated architecture and urban planning aspects of these towns is striking even today.


More than half a million people live in this agricultural area today