What do 3 green rats, Benito Mussolini, Ferrari and the ancient Romans have in common? Clearly at least 3 of them are Italian, but other than that it’s a pretty eclectic list, isn’t it? Unless, that is, you’ve been to Forlì in the heart of Romagna, central Italy, where it all becomes clear. Honestly! Let me explain….!
Forlì, the ancient Romans and Mussolini
The ancient Romans and Mussolini both played significant parts in Forlì’s history. First the Romans founded it. Then dictator Benito Mussolini claimed it as his official birthplace, even though he was actually born down the road. And then he set about redecorating.
And today you’re more likely to spot Mussolini’s handiwork than the Romans’ as their fortified walls were demolished decades ago to make way for city expansion.
Forlì and fascist architecture
Young Benito had great plans to redevelop Italy’s industry, transport and education when he came to power. And Forlì was given special attention, as befits the official birthplace of the leader. So architects were drafted in to work alongside local engineers; their task to demolish and redesign large swathes of the town from scratch in the strong new fascist style taking inspiration from the Romans.
In fact, over the years, Mussolini’s regime altered quite a bit of the city making it a modern showcase for fascism. And today it’s something of an open-air museum and well worth a stroll to see if you can spot the Romanesque columns and arches of the 1920s and 30s in its apartments, schools, station and monuments. More information is available via the Atrium urban architecture website.
Forlì and the Aeronautical School mosaics
As Mussolini’s power grew, his thoughts turned from utility to military. Or more precisely, to the airforce. And so, in 1933 construction began on a new aeronautical school in Forlì, specifically designed to train Italy’s youngsters to become pilots in the Italian airforce.
But old Beni didn’t just want good pilots. He wanted good fascists too, so the school’s main corridors are covered from floor to ceiling in mosaics promoting and reinforcing fascist Italy’s power and strength intertwined with classical history and mythology.
Mussolini purposely copied the ancient Roman style of black and white mosaics, and added stories of ancient Rome hoping that the greatness of the Roman Empire would rub off on his regime. The mosaics were designed to illustrate and reinforce the history of flying for the young students.
But don’t forget, although the mosaics are considered to be one of Forlì’s hidden art treasures today, they were once a tool of Mussolini’s propaganda machine.
For example, history records that the French Montgolfier brothers were the first to fly in a hot air balloon, but the Forlì mosaics seem oblivious to this fact, showing the Italian Lunardi brothers as the first to take flight!
So where do the green rats and Ferarri come into all this?
Forlì, 3 green rats and Ferrari
One thing that stands out from the mosaics is that there aren’t many animals. Its all men, planes and maps. And lots of flying. Except in 2 places.
The first animals you notice are 3 green rats. They stand out as they’re the only things that aren’t black and white. But they seem to have no link to flying. Or do they….?
And then just round the corner, up high on the wall you’ll spot a rampant horse between two fighter planes. Maybe it looks familiar, but again, it’s a bit random.
Until a bit of research reveals that green rats and rampant horses mean bravery in the face of danger. And then the link to flying and the early air force begins to become clearer.
In fact, Italians have a phrase that sheds light on the rats. “Far vedere i sorci verdi”, literally meaning to make someone see green rats, is a way to warn your opponent that you’re about to beat them so badly that they’ll hallucinate green rats. And knowing this, the Italian Royal Air Force adopted the little green rodents 1936 as a defiant emblematic warning to their enemies. Hence the little green mosaic rats.
The rampant horse may look more familiar as today it’s the emblem of the iconic Ferrari sportscar.
But Enzo Ferrari actually took his inspiration from an heroic, Italian pilot of the first world war who had the rampant horse painted on his fighter plane.
And so it’s Count Francesco Baracca who is represented in the mosaics by the horse, not Ferrari. The flying ace achieved 34 aerial victories against the allies becoming a perfect propaganda symbol of courage and bravery for Mussolini’s aeronautical students.
There you have it, puzzle solved. Forlì in Emilia-Romagna links everything. So next time you’re looking for a peaceful spot, off the beaten track, why not pop into Forlì. It has a lot to offer from prestigious annual art exhibitions to tasty Romagnolo cuisine to modern fascist architecture. And at just an hour from Rome it makes a great addition to a vacation in Emilia-Romagna, central Italy, an area just waiting to be discovered! If you’ve discovered any hidden gems on your travels round Italy, please leave me a comment with its best bits. And in the meantime, keep exploring! Buon viaggio!
The mosaics were covered up for decades after the fall of the Fascist regime as they were deemed too controversial and painful. Today the school is dedicated to sport but its not open to the public so I recommend you arrange a private guided tour of the Atrium Route through Benedetta Orlati and her team of fabulous guides at the Forlì Federation of Tourist Guides (Federazione Guide Turistiche di Forlì) via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +39-0543-378075
If you’re planning a visit to Forlì, or anywhere in Romagna in fact, make sure to get yourselves a Romagna Visit Card. Valid for a year and costing only €14 (2016 price) it enables free entry to over 48 historic buildings, museums and galleries including Musei San Domenico and Palazzo Romagnoli, this is a must-have purchase to open the doors to the region! More info, in English, via the website.