The Architecture and Planning of Fascist New Towns in Sardinia

by Ruth Lo | Mar 14, 2013
Ruth Lo documented three towns built between 1928 and 1938 on the island of Sardinia.

This collection of photographs for the SAHARA database features three fascist New Towns built ex-novo between 1928 and 1938 on the island of Sardinia. These New Towns—Arborea (formerly Mussolinia), Carbonia, and Fertilia—are significantly lesser known and studied than the New Towns of the Pontine Marshes (Agro Pontino in Italian) south of Rome.[1] This is perhaps due to the difficulty in getting to the Sardinian New Towns, and that they are not concentrated in one geographic area like those of the Pontine Marshes.

During the fascist regime in Italy (1922-1943), Mussolini instituted a series of extraordinary land reclamation programs that aimed to turn Italy’s marshes into fertile agricultural grounds. The programs primarily dealt with a large area of about 75,000 hectares south of Rome called the Pontine Marshes, where Italy’s Public Works drained the swamps to make the land arable and habitable.[2] The regime constructed New Towns throughout this region between 1932 and 1938, and many of them featured rationalist planning and architecture.

Prior to the draining of the Pontine Marshes, the fascist regime already undertook a project to reclaim the large swamp of the Terralba plains near Oristano on the western coast of Sardinia. The very first fascist New Town was in fact Mussolinia, founded in 1928.[3] However, it should be noted that the fascist regime inherited the swamp-draining project from the Sardinian Reclamation Corporation (Società Bonifiche Sarde), established in 1918 to manage water in order to generate hydroelectricity on the island. During the fascist period, the regime further constructed hydroelectric plants, such as the Idrovora di Sassu and the Idrovora di Luri (both in 1934), to continue to drain the marshes. Today in Arborea, one could still walk along the canals and see that the water management system remains an integral part of the town’s urban planning.

The architecture of Arborea shows the wide-ranging expressions of Italian modernism during fascist Italy. The buildings surrounding the town’s main piazza—including the church (Giovanni Bianchi), an elementary school, a semi-detached house for employees, the Gallo Bianco inn, and shops (all by the architect-engineer Carlo Avanzini)—are in a style vaguely reminiscent of the architecture of the mountainous region of Veneto.[4]

Chiesa del Redentore, Arborea, (1928, Giovanni Bianchi)

Just off of the main piazza on Corso Italia, however, the architecture manifests in an entirely different stylistic language. The fascist headquarter (Casa del Fascio) and the fascist youth center (Casa del Balilla) designed by Giovanni Battista Ceas showcase Italian rationalism. The Casa del Fascio features a soaring bell tower, a prominent feature of many fascist New Towns. The stripped geometric shapes and linearity of this group of buildings glaringly contrasts the architecture surrounding Arborea’s main piazza nearby.

Casa del Fascio, Arborea (1928, Giovanni Battista Ceas)

Further north along the western coast near Alghero is Fertilia, the second Sardinian New Town built on reclaimed swampland. In 1933, the Ferrarese Colonization Corporation (Ente di Colonizzazione Ferrarese) began the reclamation of the Nurra marshes, and in 1935, the engineer Arturo Miraglia came up with a master plan for Fertilia based on the English Garden City design.[5] An architectural group named 2PST (Concezio Petrucci, Emanuele Filiberto Paolini, Riccardo Silenzi, and Mario Tufaroli Luciano) later changed the plan in 1936 to articulate the separation between religious, civic, and commercial spaces based on Miraglia’s original semi-circular design for the city.[6]

Readers familiar with the buildings of Aprilia, a Pontine New Town, might recognize in my photographs of Fertilia very similar architecture. Both towns, completed in the same year, were designed by the 2PST group, and many of their main buildings look nearly identical.[7] The church in Fertilia was modeled on the one in Aprilia, although the bell tower in Fertilia was not added until 1955.[8] Also like in Aprilia, porticoed-buildings flank the main road (Via Pola) in Fertilia, which housed various fascist organizations during the Ventennio. 2PST’s designs reflect an approach to architectural style that sought to underscore what they considered to demonstrate Italian and Mediterranean qualities. Their new master plan refuted the kind of international modernism that Miraglia proposed in his original design. The polarization of the architectural styles preferred by Miraglia and 2PST is exemplified by Miraglia’s design for the elementary school. This structure features a bold rationalist style with curved forms and ribbon windows that differ greatly from the design language of 2PST’s adjacent buildings on the same piazza.

La chiesa parrochiale di San Marco, Fertilia (1936, 2PST)

Scuola elementare, Fertilia (1936, Arturo Miraglia)

The third fascist New Town I photographed in Sardinia was Carbonia, inaugurated in 1938. Unlike Arborea and Fertilia, Carbonia was not built on reclaimed land intended for agricultural cultivation. As its name suggests, this New Town was established for mining, and its purpose was to serve the regime’s goal of achieving autarchy in Italy in the late 1930s. Despite being constructed in less than two years, Carbonia boasts fine architecture by some of the most well-known rationalist architects during fascism.

The plan of Carbonia, devised by Ignazio Guidi and Cesare Valle, concentrates the town’s principal buildings around the main piazza.[9] These structures include the town hall by Enrico Del Debbio, the torre littoria and the dopolavoro by Gustavo Pulitzer-Finali, the church by Guidi and Valle, the post office by Rafaello Fagnoni, and the mine director’s house by Eugenio Montuori.[10] Away from the piazza are other notable buildings such as the hotel and the elementary school, both by Montuori.

Piazza Centrale, Carbonia (1938, Ignazio Guidi and Cesare Valle)

Piazza Centrale, Carbonia (1938, Ignazio Guidi and Cesare Valle)

The purpose of this collection of photographs is to offer a more comprehensive visual documentation of the Sardinian New Towns, which have not received the same scholarly attention as the Pontine New Towns. I have attempted to show in these images the building materials and techniques that responded to the resources on the island as well as to contemporary political situations, especially in the late 1930s when the fascist regime dealt with the constraints of autarchy.[11] These photographs also remind us that the fascist regime did not adopt a single architectural style for its New Towns, but rather, embraced pluralistic design approaches as expressions of Italian modernism.

[1] The New Towns of the Agro Pontino include: Littoria (1932, now Latina), Sabaudia (1933), Pontinia (1934), Aprilia (1936), and Pomezia (1938).

[2] See, for example, Federico Caprotti, Mussolini’s Cities: Internal Colonialism in Italy: 1930-1939 (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2007).

[3] Mussolinia was originally called “Villaggio di Mussolini,” but the name changed to “Comune di Mussolinia” in 1930. After the fall of fascism, the name changed again to “Arborea,” which continues to be in use today. Città di fondazione italiane 1928-1942 (Latina, Italy: Novecento, 2005), 251-259.

[4] The first inhabitants of Mussolinia came from the Veneto, and to this day, the culture and dialect in Arborea still demonstrate strong ties to the region. Settlers from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and Tuscany later joined the “internal colonists” from the Veneto region.

[5] This is similar to the development of the Garbatella neighborhood in Rome in the 1920s.

[6] Francesco Masala, “Storia dell’arte in Sardegna,” Architettura dall’Unità d’Italia alla fine del ‘900 (Nuoro, Italy: Ilisso, 2001), 112-113.

[7] 2PST won the competition for the master plan of Aprilia and later for Pomezia.

[8] Masala.

[9] Guidi and Valle were also the urban planners of Addis Abeba in Italian East Africa in 1938.

[10] Guidi and Valle modeled the design of the church’s bell tower after the one in the town of Aquileia in northeastern Italy. This is yet another tribute to the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, from where many of the Sardinian New Town settlers emigrated. Masala, 114-118.

[11] See, for example, Paolo Sanjust, “Materials & architectural details in the architecture of the Modern Movement in Sardinia, “ Proceedings of the First International Congress on Construction History, Madrid 20-24 January 2003 (Madrid, Spain: Istituto Juan de Herrera, 2003), 1801-1808.


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