In 1938, Rino Valdameri, a Milanese lawyer and the president of the Italian Dante Society, came to Benito Mussolini with a proposal: he wanted to build a temple dedicated to Dante as part of the 1942 World Exposition in Rome. The Exposition, which had been scheduled to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of Mussolini’s rise to power, was meant to display the strength of the Fascist regime; the Danteum, as Valdameri christened the project, would help link Mussolini’s government to Italy’s rich cultural heritage. Mussolini agreed to the proposal immediately, and Valdameri commissioned two architects to bring his vision to life. Here’s all you need to know about Terragni’s Danteum.
Terragni’s Danteum: The Architects
The principal designer Valdameri commissioned for the project was Giuseppe Terragni, a 35-year-old architect based in northern Italy. Terragni had already established himself as both a talented designer and a supporter of Fascism—several years earlier he designed the Casa del Fascio, an office building for the National Fascist Party’s branch in Como, Italy. Terragni was a leading proponent of Italian Rationalism, an architectural style that aimed to combine the symmetrical order of classical architecture with the industrial minimalism of modernism. In 1926, Terragni helped form the Gruppo 7, an organization of Italian architects that advocated for strict adherence to logic and order in design.
Pietro Lingeri, another northern Italian architect, would assist Terrangi; the two architects had collaborated on several previous projects, including the Casa Rustici in Milan. Lingeri, like Terragni, was a Rationalist. He co-founded the Como MAIR (Italian Rational Architecture Movement) group in 1930.
The Danteum would be situated along the Via dell’Impero in Rome, halfway between the Colosseum and the Palazzo Venezia, the Renaissance palace in which Mussolini had set up both his government and residence. It would thus serve as an architectural link between the ancient empire and the new regime. Terragni declared that the site could not be more spiritually suitable or prophetic.
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The building’s design would also link Mussolini’s Fascist government to Italian history. Terrangi and Lingeri decided to base their design on The Divine Comedy, Dante’s long narrative poem about the afterlife. Like the poem, the building would have three main sections: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Visitors would get to travel the same journey as Dante’s character in the poem.
To enter the Danteum, visitors would first have to walk through a long passageway, bordered by two high walls, from the street. After exiting this passage, they would find themselves in a courtyard. Directly before them, barring their entrance to the building, would stand a grid of 100 marble columns.
These columns were meant to represent the selva oscura or the dark wood, in which the narrator finds himself at the beginning of The Divine Comedy. The number of columns was a nod to the poem’s 100 cantos. Each book in The Divine Comedy, except Inferno, is divided into 33 smaller sections, or cantos; Inferno has an extra 34th canto that serves as an introduction to the entire poem. Having woven their way through this marble wood, visitors would enter the building, where they would find themselves in a small antechamber, meant to recall the Limbo that precedes hell in Dante’s poem. From here they would proceed into the first of the Danteum’s three main rooms: the Inferno.
In The Divine Comedy, Inferno is a kind of upside-down mountain, composed of nine concentric circles, through which Dante and Virgil must travel in a downward spiral. In each circle of hell, sinners undergo a specific punishment based on the sin they committed during their lives. To evoke the spiral of Dante’s Inferno, Terragni and Lingeri decided to design their Inferno in the shape of a golden rectangle. When a golden rectangle is subdivided into a square, the remaining rectangle is itself a golden rectangle; this new rectangle can then be divided into another square and a golden rectangle, and so on. These increasingly small squares form a kind of spiral–in fact, one can connect the squares’ corners with quarter circles to create a golden spiral.
Terragni and Lingeri subdivided the floor of the Inferno room into eight square sections, with each sunk slightly deeper into the floor than the previous, larger section. Each square except the last would have a column at its center; the width of the columns would diminish in proportion to the size of the squares. The seven columns were a reference to the seven deadly sins, most of which make an appearance in Dante’s Inferno and all of which appear in Purgatory.
Visitors would exit the Inferno room via a long stairwell that would lead them to the building’s second level and to Purgatory. In The Divine Comedy, Purgatory is a mountain—the inverse of the Inferno’s upside-down cone. Terragni and Lingeri played with this relationship in their design. Like the Inferno, Danteum’s Purgatory room was designed in the shape of a golden rectangle, with its floor divided into eight squares. While the square sections of the Inferno’s floor have sunk lower and lower as they decreased in size, however, the sections of Purgatory’s floor would increase in height as they decreased in size, so that the smallest sections would form a kind of pyramid in the middle of the floor. The squares of Purgatory would also spiral in the opposite direction from the squares of Inferno, causing visitors themselves to spiral in a new direction.
There are no columns in Danteum’s Purgatory. Instead, there are skylights above the room’s first seven squares. These skylights would evoke a sense of light and hopefulness, just as the lack of columns would evoke a sense of emptiness. Purgatory, in Catholic theology, is a space of cleansing and rebirth—a place where sinners go to purge themselves of sin so that they can eventually enter heaven.
After leaving Purgatory, visitors would climb a set of steps up to Paradise. The Paradise room in the Danteum would have sat directly above the grid of marble columns at the building’s entrance. Like the selva oscura below, Paradise would contain a grid of columns, this time thirty-three, one for each canto of the last book of The Divine Comedy. These columns would have been made of glass, to recall the ethereal light of Dante’s Paradise. The poet describes heaven as a kind of timeless, spaceless realm in which everything is light. The ceiling above the columns would have been a transparent grid, to let in light and compel visitors to look towards the sky.
Visitors would end their journey through the Danteum by traveling down a long, final passageway. This passage would be divided in two by a high stone wall; at the end of the passage, visitors would double back around this wall to re-enter Paradise. Before doubling back, however, visitors would find themselves facing an engraved, M-shaped eagle at the end of the corridor. This eagle was a reference to the eagle of justice that appears in Canto 19 of Dante’s Paradise. It was also a reference to the National Fascist Party, which commonly used a golden eagle as its symbol. The eagle’s M shape was, of course, a nod to Mussolini himself—the incarnation, in the eyes of the building’s architects of a just ruler.
The Danteum was, indeed, as much a monument to Mussolini and Fascism as to Dante. The building’s clean, industrial style, like that of other Rationalist buildings, aligned with the Fascist government’s emphasis on order and control. It also aligned with the Fascist belief that the individual should be subservient to the whole, or the state—a belief that Mussolini himself articulated in his 1932 Doctrine of Fascism. Fascism, he wrote, could provide a life in which the individual, by self-sacrifice, the renunciation of self-interest, by death itself, can achieve that purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists. There is no room for individual expression in Danteum’s tight, mathematical design.
In November 1938, Terragni and Lingeri presented their initial designs to Mussolini. The dictator approved the plans, and arrangements were made for the building to be finished in time for the 1942 Exposition. Rumors of war were beginning to spread throughout Europe, however, so future meetings about the project were postponed. In March 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. In April, not wanting to be outdone, Italy invaded and annexed Albania. Five months later, after Germany invaded Poland, World War II officially broke out in Europe. Italy joined the fight in June 1941, and all plans for the 1942 Expo, were put aside.
The Legacy of Terragni’s Danteum
Terragni himself would not survive the war. In 1939, he joined the Italian army and was sent off to fight in Russia. After witnessing the apocalyptic Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 and the bungled Italian retreat that followed, the architect suffered a physical and mental breakdown. He returned to northern Italy, where he was hospitalized and died suddenly at the age of 39. His official cause of death was thrombosis, however, there were rumors that he died by suicide.
Although Terragni’s career was brief, his small body of work earned the admiration of his fellow architects. Le Corbusier, one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century, considered Terragni a friend and artistic comrade. Le Corbusier was particularly impressed with the Danteum. While visiting a retrospective of Terragni’s work in 1949, he stopped by a rendering of the project. “This,” he reportedly mused, “is the work of an architect.”