ANTRODOCO, Italy — When Vincenzo Castrucci leaves his house every morning, the first thing he sees is the snow-capped tip of Mount Giano, dominated by one of Italys most spectacular fascist monuments. A forest of 20,000 fir trees spells out the letters DUX, the Latin title of Benito Mussolini, il Duce, as a woody mountainside homage to the dictator.
Castrucci — a retired railway manager in Antrodoco, a town about a two-hour drive into the mountains northeast of Rome — insists that fascism has been relegated to the past. But the vision of the forest never fails to fill him with awe, he says: “It gives me goosebumps every time.”
Badly damaged in wildfires last summer, at a time when far-right and populist parties are on the rise in Italy, the five-hectare wood has sparked a fierce debate over whether reminders of the countrys shameful past should be restored — or razed to the ground.
For some, the forest is a reminder of Italys brutal past and an inviolable part of the towns history. For others, the debate around its preservation is an ominous portent of the countrys political direction and reflects a dangerous resurgence of far-right sentiment.
In Antrodoco, the Leagues success can in part be explained by the fact that the town has been devastated by a decade of economic crisis in Italy.
For Castrucci, the forest is simply part of his family history. His father and uncle, like many of Antrodocos young men, were among the recruits that in 1938 and 1939 helped to establish the extraordinary plantation, hiking up mule tracks before dawn. “My father was fond of the forest, the whole family is,” he says.
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Residents of Antrodoco have historically supported the center right. In a parliamentary election in 2013, Antrodoco split evenly three ways between the anti-establishment 5Stars, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconis center-right party and the center-left Democratic Party.
But in an election early this month, nearly half of Antrodocos voters chose the far-right, anti-immigration League. The party also took a large share of votes in the countrys north, emerging as the largest party in the right-wing coalition in which Silvio Berlusconis Forza Italia party was expected to be the dominant force.
One possible outcome of ongoing political horse-trading is an agreement by League to support the populist 5Star Movement — which dominated the polls in Italys south — in government on a shared anti-European, anti-immigration program.
In Antrodoco, the Leagues success can in part be explained by the fact that the town has been devastated by a decade of economic crisis in Italy. The closure of factories providing the bulk of local jobs hit the local economy hard, with unemployment currently around 15 percent. “It was a protest vote,” Carla Pasqualoni, a worker at the town council, says of Antrodocos support for the far right.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1935 | Fox Photos/Getty Images
The 2016 Amatrice earthquake also left Antrodoco reeling. According to the towns mayor, Alberto Guerrieri, 290 homes are still uninhabitable. The historic center is largely abandoned. Owners of second homes in the town have stopped coming because they are frightened of another quake, Guerrieri says.
For Antrodocos new representative in parliament, League Senator and former helicopter pilot Umberto Fusco, the key issues driving voters to the polls were the economy and immigration.
The shooting of six African migrants in Macerata, about 100 kilometers northeast of Antrodoco, pushed the countrys toxic immigration debate to the forefront of the election campaign. Populist parties did not condemn the shooter, a former League local election candidate, but blamed immigration for putting pressure on society.
League leader Matteo Salvini has pledged to carry out a “mass cleaning” by deporting 600,000 migrants and increasing aid to refugees countries of origin to stem the flow of arrivals on Italys shores. “Immigration must be brought under control,” Fusco agrees.
So far, there are no official reception centers for migrants and refugees in Antrodoco. “Having lost so many homes in the earthquake it is not easy to find accommodation for them,” says Guerierri, the mayor.
But a handful of foreigners can be seen hawking or asking for spare change outside the supermarket. Simple, a furniture-maker from Edo province in Nigeria, says he had come into contact with people who held anti-immigration views. “There are some nice people here, but there are also a few racists,” he says.
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For some Antrodoco residents, the controversial forest is not a problem — or a reminder of Italys fascist past — so much as an economic opportunity.
During the election campaign, proposals to set up regular coaches to bring tourists from Rome to see the forest met with cross-party approval. “Whether you are left or right you understand that,” says Castrucci. Fusco, the League senator, also said he would back such a project.
The wood has also become a commanding symbol for neo-fascist groups, who defend its historic value. After the blaze last summer, far-right groups rushed to show support, with Alessandra Mussolini, the Duces granddaughter and an MEP in Berlusconis party, immediately offering her condolences.
The 2016 Amatrice earthquake also left Antrodoco reeling. Around 290 homes are still unhabitable | Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images
In February activists from the extreme-right neo-fascist party Casapound hiked up the mountain to replant 1,000 trees. Spokesman Andrea Antonini called it a “symbolic act.”
“We want Italy to return to being a courageous country capable of extraordinary works like those realized during the fascist era,” he said.
But Italians are divided over such repairs. Center-left MP Emmanuel Fiano, who introduced a new law to outlaw fascist propaganda in September, has called for the forest to be removed altogether. But Armando Nicoletti, who runs a cultural association in Antrodoco, says the Casapound activists should be supported: “If they show the will to restore the forest we should be grateful.”
Aside from its historical significance, the forest is also a work of environmental engineering that serves a practical purpose, according to Guerrieri. Designed by the local forestry police school, “its real purpose was not to pay tribute to the duce but to protect the town from landslides by stabilizing the mountainside,” he says.
“It is part of our history, what should we do? Destroy everything?” — An 86-year-old resident
“Monte Giano is a funnel,” he explains, pointing out the site of a mudslide that destroyed two houses since the fire. “Honoring Mussolini was just an excuse.”
While he acknowledges Casapound acted without authorization and in defiance of laws that prohibit touching fire-struck areas for five years, Guerrieri is strongly opposed to any suggestion of removing the forest and has applied for EU funds to replant it.
“The forest is part of our essence, its the symbol of our town,” he says. “Its like our bell tower.”
For one 86-year-old resident, who grew up in the Mussolini era, the forest should be preserved “as a reminder of fascism and what can happen.”
“It is part of our history, what should we do? Destroy everything?”
Hannah Roberts is a British freelance foreign correspondent and producer based in Rome.