Technology's promise: the view from E42


Editor’s note: This is the second of two posts on the planned 1942 World’s Fair.

A submitted design for the Arco dell’Impero. Photo by Art Molella.

In modern society, technology is not only a tool but a potent symbol. I recently reflected on the display of invention and technology planned for the Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR or, more commonly, E42), the 1942 World’s Fair that was to celebrate twenty years of Mussolini’s Fascist regime but never materialized because of World War II. I noted that the fair aimed to blend technological modernity with a revival of ancient Rome. This post follows up with further details from the E42 archives on how Fascist ideologues looked to the past to glorify their future, defining the expo’s major themes.

Among the most striking, though unbuilt, symbols of E42 was the Arco dell’Impero—the Imperial Arch—conceived as a gateway to the fair and its district (the present Roman suburb of EUR). The monumental structure signified the Roman triumphal arch, one of the most distinctive architectural forms of ancient Rome. Mirroring the arches of Constantine and Titus in the Roman Forum, this interpretation at EUR’s entrance was to be a 795-foot-tall engineering marvel. The call for proposals for the structure sparked the imaginations of inventors and architects throughout Italy. Here was a chance to showcase Italian civil engineering expertise and the virtues of such new construction materials as reinforced concrete, aluminum, and chromium steel.
The Piazza Marconi obelisk. Photo by Art Molella.

Among the design submissions preserved in the E42 archives was the “invention,” by one Dr. Engr. Ettore Fenderl, of a matching underground arch that securely anchored the aboveground portion while doubling the space for visitors (the idea was rejected). Other plans called for four cog railways to move visitors around the massive arch, a bar, a restaurant, and even an amusement plaza featuring a parachute drop. The arch was also meant to symbolize peace and light. Plans called for it to be illuminated at night with diffuse electric lights or perhaps in neon, “like a great rainbow originating in Rome.” It was even suggested that the arch could be used for advertising, with a gigantic screen for light shows promoting corporate products.

A less spectacular monument, but one actually built, was an obelisk dedicated to Guglielmo Marconi, the “father of radio.” Designed by Arturo Dazzi under Mussolini’s 1937 commission, but not completed until 1960, the obelisk stands today on EUR’s Piazza Marconi. The panels on one of its faces celebrate Marconi’s life, while other panels present traditional religious imagery. Its vertical thrust arguably suggests a radio antenna and modernity. At the same time, the obelisk is one of the most ancient of emblems. Moreover, this one is in the Ethiopian style (as my colleague art historian Harry Rand pointed out to me), making it a clear reference to Rome’s 1,700-year old Obelisk of Axum that the Italian army looted from Ethiopia in 1937 (it was repatriated in 2005.) Addis Ababa was to be the capital of ll Duce’s revived Roman Empire, proclaimed in 1936. In fact, E42 was originally scheduled to open in 1941 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the new Empire. A great deal of meaning was packed into this one ornately carved structure.

Courtesty of the New York Public Library.

The massive buildings surrounding the obelisk on Piazza Marconi exemplify Fascist rationalism, a futuristic interpretation of Roman classical architecture. As many have pointed out, EUR evokes the surrealistic paintings of the Italian futurist Giorgio de Chirico, who, along with others of his tradition, powerfully influenced modern art and architecture. Projected as the new Rome, EUR contains one of Italy’s greatest concentrations of Fascist-style buildings, a meeting ground of Ancients and Moderns.

Another bridge to antiquity in E42 was the plan to incorporate a recent blockbuster archaeological exhibit on Roman civilization that had been organized by the Italian government in 1937 to celebrate the 2000th birthday of Caesar Augustus. With financing from FIAT, the exhibit eventually formed the core of the Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Civilization) that opened in 1955. The museum is known for its colorful, realistic models of Roman technology, including aqueducts, bridges, and such famous roads as the Appian Way. War technologies are heavily represented, with siege engines of various types, catapults, battering rams, and my favorite, the vinea, a movable shelter designed to protect Roman soldiers during assaults.

Vinea Model. Photo by Art Molella

At the conclusion of the exhibit is a room-size, 1:250-scale model of the city of Rome in the age of Constantine. Depicting Rome at its maximum expansion, the model encompasses the urban area within the Aurelian Walls. In addition to its overview of Rome’s city plan, it includes exquisite replicas of the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, and other celebrated monuments. Begun in 1933 by a craftsman named Pierino Di Carlo, the model is itself a technical tour de force, consisting of some 150 irregularly shaped pieces that fit together along the roadways. The idea of encapsulating ancient Rome in a Fascist-style museum neatly sums up the strategy of E42.

Model of Rome. Photo by Art Molella

As E42 was being planned, the New York World’s Fair opened in 1939, with its theme “Building the World of Tomorrow”; the Italian pavilion in fact was used to test some of the ideas for E42. Futurama, the New York fair’s memorable theme-ride sponsored by General Motors, depicted an American future characterized by automated highways and a vast network of expressways. E42’s Fascist planners also mapped a road—one that ran from the 4th century AD to the mid-20th century and beyond, in hopes of building the Appian Way to Modernity.


Art Molella is the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. This post originally appeared in Prototype.