Father Luigi Szenik spoke German, he was a Salesian and was a guide at the Catacombs of San Callisto. He spoke German, therefore he understood what those two SS soldiers were ranting about, and all of a sudden, he began running at breakneck speed with a few of his Brothers; they snuck into those little tunnels, and pushing through passageways that only they knew of, they found themselves in front of that horror.
For months, hundreds of Roman families lived in desperation. They knew, now resigned, that their family members that had been arrested on March 23rd had been assassinated, but what was bothering them now was trying to understand where their bodies had been buried. Nobody had any idea. There were strange voices going around, and the torment had become unbearable.
In the aftermath of the liberation of Rome which came about the following June, the Salesian Brothers finally contacted the Allied forces about what Father Szenik had discovered that evening: down there, along the Ardeatina, at the point where the ancient catacombs of San Callisto are located, in the old pozzolan quarry, tens of bodies were amassed. The news spread quickly, and right away a spontaneous and dramatic procession of family members crowded into that street that led to those caves uninterruptedly, and for days on end.
At the first meeting at the Ministry of the Interior, the government assumed “the solemn commitment to erect a monument at the place of German revenge, a perennial memory of the Martyrs and all the fallen of the war of Liberation”. The priority was – in spite of the many emergencies that the devastated city was facing due to the war – to provide a proper burial for those bodies. The decision came very quickly and abruptly: to wall in the entrance to the tunnels and transform those underground passages into a gigantic communal tomb where all of the victims would be remembered. In any case, given the state of those poor remains which had lain there for months, the impossible task of identifying each one, and the many victims thatthere were, suggested that such a solution was the best one. At that point, however, something happened.
There are normal people that do heroic things and then there are heroes that do normal things — their very job, sometimes. This was the case of professor Attilio Ascarelli, a pathologist and coroner, who offered (he literally insisted to the point of convincing the authorities) the possibility of identifying each victim. An inhumane and very painful task that was performed with moving commitment by Ascarelli, who for five months — from July to November – working each day from within the caves (if the remains had been brought outside, they would have been definitively compromised, due to the summer heat), was able to give almost each one a name. An extraordinary gesture for which family members, and history, were grateful.
It was then that we realized, even due to the immense pressure of the victims’ families, that we could not limit ourselves to a burial: the nation needed to build a memorial, a symbol that not only remembered the martyrs, but that would also become an anthem for freedom. Looking back, in fact, scrolling through that dramatic list of names, all of Rome could be found: 335 civilians randomly taken as political prisoners, but also innocent ones taken during the nighttime from their homes. Soldiers, young people, the elderly, men, women, Catholics, Jews, atheists and partisans. Everyone, without distinction, joined together in tragedy. Honoring them meant remembering the price that this country had paid before becoming free again.
A competition was the path taken. An architectural competition from which arose one of the most beautiful and important works of the last century, and all this in spite of the premises imposed, that were all but encouraging. In effect, at the moment in which the winner was to be decided, the commission, presided by Luigi Piccinato, nominated two groups as equal winners. It seemed to be a Solomon-like decision — typical of those political games that don’t want to disappoint anyone — and instead, not only was it not this, but it even established that the project to be realized had to encompass the union of both these proposals. The risk of plunging into the grotesque was real, and instead, for once, an enlightened commission was able to facilitate an extraordinary project.
RISORGERE and UGA were the mottos that characterized the two winning groups: the first one was comprised by Nello Aprile, Cino Calcaprina, Aldo Cardelli, Mario Fiorentino and the sculptor, Francesco Coccia, while the second included Giuseppe Perugini with Uga de Plaisant and Mirko Basaldella. Two teams, as Aldo Aymonino will brilliantly observe, were absolutely diverse, beginning with their leaders: Mario Fiorentinei, came from a Jewish family, was arrested in a clandestine printing-house, and who escaped the massacre of the Ardeatine by only a month and Giuseppe Perugini, born in Buenos Aires, who had traveled back up the peninsula after the Allied troops had passed through, worked in the Technical Office of the American army for which he designed the cemeteries of Anzio and Cassino.
To understand the scope of their project, one must for a moment imagine what had been, until that moment – and in particular, under the Fascist regime – the commemorative monuments: magniloquent memorials that annihilated visitors with their majesty. Obviously, the first thing that the designers concentrated on was in fact, distancing themselves from all of this, taking a completely new road, an architecture that was finally democratic, solemn and obligatorily anti-rhetoric.
A square, this is how the Mausoleum appears to visitors that have crossed over the stupendous sculpture-gate by Mirko Basaldella, positioned in front of Coccia’s massive sculpture that dominates a measured space, in its own way, solemn. There, in that clearing in which the SS pushed the martyrs down from the trucks, the dark entrance to the caves opens wide. A tunnel dug in the rocks; voluntarily left by the architects the same way it was on that accursed March 24th 1944. Visitors can therefore travel the same last steps that the victims traveled, reaching the spot where the massacre took place. The darkness of the caves is ripped open by some of the holes in the rock that are nothing more than the result of the Nazi bombs that were made to explode in the sloppy attempt to forever hide that horror that even they, perhaps, felt ashamed of.
More than spectators – again in the words of Aymonino – we are, still today, witnesses of that massacre; the monument is a sort of topographical map of pain and remembrance. From there, from the womb of the Earth, another path leads to the incredible room that embraces the graves of the victims. Architecture in a compressed space, geometric but moving, now substitutes nature and the tunnels. The 335 tombs, aligned in a dramatic order, are overshadowed by a monolith, an enormous headstone, that groups the martyrs together and highlights the sacrifice that they share. Inside, there is a surprising space, severe, but at the same time touching, characterized by the subtle ring of light that runs along its entire perimeter, and that makes the large rock appear almost as if suspended. Precariousness and solidity merge, creating a static oxymoron permitted by the amazing reinforced concrete structure conceived by the genius of Riccardo Morandi. The monolith then becomes an architectonic center of the project, but not of the memorial, which on the contrary is based on anti-hierarchical relationships. The visit can begin either by the tunnels and finishing in the room, or in reverse. It is bi-directional. The relationship between these two environments – voluntarily created as an antithesis to each other – becomes exalted and amplified; it is surprising to observe the details of the surface of the reinforced concrete, treated with hammered plaster, similar to that of the stone tunnels.
Rarely in history does a project as important as this one become highlighted and honored by an architecture likewise inspired. But for the Ardeatine instead, it seems that everyone, from politicians to designers, from family members to sculptors, have worked in unison to celebrate the memory not only of the victims, but of the entire nation. Almost a second Altar of the Fatherland, an architecture that pays homage to that Italy that paid in its sacrifice for freedom with a monument that, around the world, still today, has few equals.
Translated by Emmelina De Feo