In the shadow of Chicago’s Soldier Field, hidden in dense foliage and nestled in a memorial landscape dedicated to fallen police officers and firefighters, is the Balbo Monument. It was erected to celebrate the 1933 transatlantic flight of a squadron of 24 seaplanes from Italy to the United States, under the leadership of controversial figure Marshal Italo Balbo. Although it originally stood as a unifying symbol of the Italian American community, the monument now sits all but forgotten. Yet it is not only the oldest outdoor artifact in Chicago—a nearly two-millennia-old column from the vast Roman port of Ostia—but also one of the most complicated: the column sits on a pedestal praising the new “Fascist Era” inaugurated by Benito Mussolini. Indeed, both column and pedestal were a gift from Mussolini himself, dedicated 82 years ago on Chicago’s Italian Day in 1934.
In the aftermath of the riots at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, people across the country looked at the Confederate and other problematic markers in their communities, anything ripe for appropriation by nationalist movements. The Balbo Monument came under close inspection, with calls for its removal from the memorial landscape in which it sits. City officials pushed for taking down the monument and renaming Balbo Drive in the South Loop. These efforts were met with stiff opposition from local Italian American civic leaders, who cited the enduring legacy of community building and bonding in Chicago.
Initially, alderpeople Sophia King (4th), whose ward contains the pillar, and Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose district includes the rest of the roadway, had favored removal. But after consulting with local interest groups about Balbo, King had a change of heart. “I was initially in support of the removal of the Balbo Monument, due to its link to fascism,” she stated. “However, there is much to learn from displays like this, and removing it entirely would hinder a valuable historical lesson.”
As individuals who have interacted with the monument in a class exercise, we agree with King. For educators and their students, the Balbo Monument offers an excellent pedagogical tool to reflect on an array of current issues, beyond the obvious choices of remove, repatriate, or retain.
In the wake of protests and civil unrest related to the murder of George Floyd, in June 2020 demands for the monument’s removal increased. As part of the Chicago Park District, the structure is cared for with taxpayer dollars, leading many to question why their money is implicitly supporting fascism. Why does the city of Chicago have a monument, gifted by a Fascist dictator, commemorating another Fascist? Why does it still stand? And why is there no sign or marker, apart from the faded original inscription, unreadable behind a chain-link fence? Today, the Chicago Monuments Project is evaluating the Balbo Monument’s future, alongside that of other monuments.
We do not focus here on whether Balbo should be removed from the Chicago landscape. Instead, we consider other questions raised by the monument, and, indeed, by all such abandoned markers within both urban and rural landscapes. Rather than the often hasty decision to remove statues and monuments—which Benjamin Forest, Juliet Johnson, and their students conclude is an act of forgetting—we think robust engagement with the monument, its problematic associations, and its current configuration matter in this moment. We (including the many students Kersel has dragged to the site) argue that we and the city should recommit to its monumentalization as an educational device, thereby providing a platform for conversations around fascism, Mussolini, Balbo, Italian Americans, World’s Fairs, memory landscapes, and heritage as cultural ambassadors appropriated in the service of the state. Most onlookers currently have no idea what they are passing if they even notice the column.
What is the relationship between an ancient artifact (the column has its own long history and might even have been illegally taken out of Italy) and its contemporary usage (in this case, connecting the grandeur of ancient Rome with the ambitions of Fascist Italy, by way of Italian Americans)? Does the Italian government have a case for a repatriation request? What should happen to the monument if Chicago decides it is no longer welcome in the city? As circumstances change, should a monument be reworked, added to, or removed? All these questions boil down to a broader one: If a monument sits in a landscape, but no one looks at it or remembers, what is its purpose?
One way to answer these questions is to ask. Professor Kersel spent six hours at the Balbo Monument. Still in its original Century of Progress International Exposition location, it is barely noticeable to passersby, perhaps intentionally. Positioned on the Lakefront Trail, across from Balbo, Kersel asked those in the park what they thought of the monument. For cyclists, a sign asked, “Raise your hand if you know what this is.” Runners or pedestrians were asked directly. (We realize now that better questions might have been “Why is this here?” or “What does it commemorate?”)
In the six-hour span, 924 people (cyclists, Divvy bike riders, runners, walkers) passed the monument. Approximately 184 (~20 percent) answered the query, and 195 looked at the monument: together, we categorize this as 379 who engaged (~40 percent). Eleven individuals actually turned around on their bikes or stopped running or walking to find out more about the project, in a “made you look moment.”
Of the approximately 20 percent who responded, only 13 percent knew what the Balbo Monument was, even if they had passed it every day for years. The most common question was: “Why is there no sign?” Why indeed.
Why keep a monument tucked away, off the beaten track, with no explanatory panel? “It’s as if the Chicago Park District doesn’t want to call attention to this column,” one cyclist commented. On a day of informal analysis of engagement with Balbo, we made about 40 percent of passersby look, but did we make any care?
What does it mean to care? The physical well-being of the monument and its surroundings are cared for by the Chicago Parks District, and local politicians care about their constituents and their interactions with the monument, but what of the average Chicagoan or tourist on the Lakefront Trail?
The lack of signposts, markers, or other indicators is a missed opportunity to educate passersby about the monument, its history, and its relationship to the city. Encouraging visitors to learn allows them to decide whether they care about the monument’s meaning and purpose in its current configuration.
Making the World Look
On July 15, 1933, 24 Italian seaplanes under the command of Italo Balbo landed on the shore of Lake Michigan, near the recently opened Chicago World’s Fair, called A Century of Progress. Appointed air minister in 1929 by Mussolini, Balbo was charged with building the Italian Royal Air Force, the Aeronautica. Balbo, an aviation pioneer and member of the Blackshirts—the paramilitary unit of the Nationalist Fascist Party dedicated to supporting Mussolini—was a complex individual, heralded as both hero and villain. Seemingly the very embodiment of the fair’s motto, “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts,” his transatlantic flight was a glorious story of innovation and technology. The first mass-formation aerial crossing of the North Atlantic, this feat reinforced the aviator’s goal of cementing Italy as a leader in aviation. At the same time, it linked Italy and Chicago through ingenuity and progress in the 20th century. After the arduous, 6,088-mile journey across the North Atlantic, the pilots were greeted by the masses eager to see the daring Italian flyers.
According to reports in the Chicago Daily Tribune, Balbo was met by a crowd of 60,000, including Governor Henry Horner and Mayor Edward Kelly. A year later, on Italian Day at the World’s Fair, an even greater crowd gathered in front of the plane-shaped Italian Pavilion to witness the unveiling of the monument dedicated to this aviation feat. The crowd also heard Balbo’s radio remarks: “Let this column stand as a symbol of increasing friendship between the people of Italy and the people of the United States.”
With the eyes of the world looking on, the Italian American community of Chicago was mobilized into a cohesive unit, with Balbo’s grand flight—and now, his monument—as crucial catalyst. Although most World’s Fair structures were leveled after the event, the stone plinth and column of the Balbo Monument were intended to survive. It would stand within Chicago as a lasting reminder of the ancient and modern glories of Italy.
Designed by two Italian architects, Alexander Capraro and Morris Komar, the monument is an inscribed travertine block with a Corinthian column sitting atop it. The column is possibly from a portico outside Porta Marina in Ostia, Italy. The details on how and why this particular column was acquired are murky. In their research into ancient columns from Jordan on display at the 1964–65 World’s Fair in New York, Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Jared Simard propose that “those giving and receiving the gifts often did not know the specifics of these architectural fragments. This suggests that the most important aspect of these gifts was their role in strengthening relations between Jordan and the recipients.” The action of gift giving and the ambassadorial qualities of the object cement alliances and make people look.
Why does the city of Chicago have a monument, gifted by a Fascist dictator, commemorating another Fascist?
Prior to unification, Italy had a long history of legislative efforts aimed at protecting its cultural heritage. The adoption of Law No. 364 of June 20, 1909, Legge Rosadi, codified a national law, vesting ownership of “movable or immovable things” with a “historical, archaeological, paleoanthropological or artistic interest” in the state (article 1). This law includes what Arianna Visconti refers to as “a blanket public ownership rule for all archaeological findings” (article 8). Things of “artistic or historical interest” were deemed necessary to the national identity of Italy, and under this law there were very few exceptions for the exportation of Italian cultural objects.
Whether Mussolini received permission or an export license from the Italian Ministry of Culture to send the column to Chicago is unclear. In examining the Balbo Monument in the context of cultural property law, both Felicia Caponigri and Nick Carter emphasize the problematic origin story of the column. Under the existing law, an archaeological artifact appropriated by Mussolini as a diplomatic gift may have not been his to give. Italy may now have a case for requesting its return. Nonetheless, it arrived in Chicago in time for the dedication ceremony.
More complicated than the gift was the giver. The column was a present from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The sides of the base are fasces, Mussolini’s symbol for the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF). The fasces have an ancient Roman history as thick bundles of rods tied together, sometimes with an ax attached. These were the weapons carried by the bodyguards (lictors) of the magistrates in the Roman Republic. The fasces once adorned the four corners of the monument but have been heavily damaged. The carved inscription in Italian is more legible than the English part, which is effectively unreadable today. But what the Italian script says can still shock:
This column twenty centuries old
erected on the beach of Ostia
port of Imperial Rome
to safeguard the fortunes and victories
of the Roman triremes
Fascist Italy by command of Benito Mussolini presents to Chicago
exaltation symbol memorial
of the Atlantic Squadron led by Balbo
that with Roman daring ﬂew across the ocean
in the 11th year
of the Fascist Era.
The explicit references to imperial Rome, victories, and fortunes all reinforce the Fascist ideal of Romanità. This was a spirit of esteem for all things related to Rome, a continuity of potency that justified Mussolini’s own power. Modern academics have seen the monument in various lights. Historian Nick Carter, for instance, has suggested an overtly political meaning for Mussolini’s gift: “As imperial Rome had ruled the seas, so Fascist Italy commanded the skies.”
In looking at the ancient column, fairgoers made the connection between power in the past and in the present. Chicagoans, exposition attendees, and nations were directed to look at and care about rising tensions in Europe, mediated through an ancient Corinthian column and a dedicatory inscription that reinforced the bonds between the brilliance of ancient Rome and Mussolini’s Italy. Then and now, Chicagoans were supposed to be reminded of the glories of Italy and, by extension, local Italian Americans.
Can Balbo’s Fascist associations be overshadowed by his aeronautical skills, his opposition to Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, or the conflicting accounts of his death (including persistent but now debunked rumors that he was assassinated on Mussolini’s orders)? Can we hate his sin of fascism but love the aviator? This binary view of Balbo, as either Fascist or hero, continues to define disagreements about the appropriateness of the monument.
Monuments have the power to represent and to connect; they also have the power to teach. Kersel was first compelled to look at the monument in a Museums and Material Culture class when an Italian American student identifying ancient objects in Chicago (beyond the obvious museum artifacts) presented on Balbo. In Chicago for a mere two years, Kersel was still discovering the city and had never heard of the Balbo Monument. Since then, Kersel has made students look at Balbo in almost every class.
Like Forest and Johnson in teaching on Confederate and Soviet-era monuments, Kersel introduces Balbo as part of a discussion on landscapes, memorialization, and monuments and contemplation of politically and ideologically fraught public commemoration. Making a pilgrimage to the site as a group or individually, students are typically irritable about the difficulty in locating the column.
Finding the monument is a challenge. Google Maps gives an approximate location behind Soldier Field, next to the Lakefront Trail near Burnham Harbor. There are no markers or signs, apart from the faded original inscription on the monument base. This inscription is virtually unreadable behind the chain-link fence erected in July 2020, in the wake of protests and civil unrest related to the murder of George Floyd. Many of the DePaul University students are from the Chicagoland area, and some have been to a Bears game at Soldier Field. Although they may regularly pass it on the way to the stadium, most have never noticed, let alone heard of, the Balbo Monument.
In the assignment, students are made to look and to truly comprehend. Typically, they recognize the value of the monument in teaching. So rather than advocate for its removal, most write a label that would contextualize the column in its current location, in the five-acre memorial landscape between Soldier Field and Burnham Harbor dedicated to police officers, firefighters, and Gold Star families. The Balbo Monument in its original World’s Fair location is incongruous in this setting, a point that many students observe.
Students also consistently remark on the need for an explanatory sign, which would provide some insight into what the monument is and why it is there, including its Fascist associations, the Word’s Fair, and the commemoration of an aeronautical feat. Historical markers are useful for highlighting people, events, or places of significance; it is odd that there is not one in this landscape. Can we address the problematic associations with Balbo with a label? What about digital technology? One student suggested including a sign with QR code, where visitors could take a poll on what should be done with the monument: “Save or Scrap”? Another asked, “Would anyone miss this piece if it was removed?”
In addition to spatial and contextual suggestions, students often raise the original reasons for the monument and the relationship between the Italian immigrant community in Chicago and their sense of place and pride related to the piece of Rome in Chicago. Some suggested erecting counter monuments honoring more laudable Italian Americans from Chicago, such as Enrico Fermi or St. Francis Cabrini. Does the endurance of the Balbo Monument speak to the resilience and tenacity of Italian Americans in Chicago? Or is it out of sight, out of mind? Is it true that if no one is looking, no one cares? DePaul students are made to look and to think, but can we compel the public to do the same?
Looking, Caring, and Remembering in the 21st Century
As the oldest outdoor artifact in Chicago, the column functions as a testament to the wonders of ancient Rome. At the same time, it serves the purpose of rallying support from Chicago’s Italian immigrant community. Would removing the Balbo Monument leave this community without an identity? In her comprehensive examination of the monument and law, “Malleable Monuments and Comparative Cultural Property Law: The Balbo Monument between the United States and Italy,” Caponigri states that “proponents of the Balbo monument’s permanence evoke the continued presence of Italian Americans’ ethnic community in Chicago’s landscape.” Does the monument endure due to the tenacity of the Italian American community? Can the community persist without it? Or does it endure because we have dislocated Balbo from the landscape by allowing trees to obscure our vision?
Riding along the Lakefront Trail, if you blink, you miss the Balbo Monument. There is no warning, no signpost, no marker, no reason to notice. With no context, we do not know what sits in this landscape, what it is, what it represents, or why it matters—we forget this hidden monument. Which may be what the city wants: fewer entanglements with residents, less controversy, just a remnant of a past better left forgotten. Rather than forgetting through city neglect, we argue that appropriate markers and explanatory signs, which encourage spirited and ongoing educational engagement, would make us remember.