The Balbo Monument consists of a column that is approximately 2,000 years old dating from between 117 and 38 BCE and a contemporary stone base. It was taken from an ancient port town outside of Rome by Benito Mussolini and gifted to the city of Chicago in 1933 to honor General Italo Balbo's trans-Atlantic flight to the Century of Progress Worlds Fair.
The Balbo Monument includes a column that was taken from a site about 200 meters outside of Porta Marina in Ostia. The building that the column originated from is called the Prospetto a Mare which translates to the Prospectus to Sea. Due to extensive renovation that was done during the second century AD, many of the buildings throughout the settlement of Ostia were repurposed or built over. Although this building endured through years of change and innovation, there are very few records still in existence that pertain to the building's original purpose. Not far from Rome, Ostia is a harbor town that was founded by a king of Rome who ruled in the late seventh century BC. Knowledge of this first settlement did not arise from archaeological finds but texts written by sources such as Ennius, Livius, Cicero and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. In antiquity, the settlement sat at the mouth of the River Tiber but has since receded from the shoreline due to silting that occurred throughout the centuries.
While it may have started off as a colonial outpost, Ostia has been rebuilt and reinvented many times. In the 3rd century BC it was a naval base which participated heavily in the Punic Wars. Commercialization occurred later on in the 2nd century BC when grain became the main commodity that was transported through the port. There is little information about the town from the 2nd and 1st centuries BC due to rebuilding but it is known that well to do merchant families began to rule over Ostia in the latter half of the 1st century BC. This carried on well into the 2nd century AD after which Rome retook control over the city and began renovations that would cause Ostia's rise in popularity. The city rapidly became densely populated with a large international population and many types of buildings were erected. According to archaeological reports of the sites, there was a large variety of structures ranging from three-story apartment buildings, brothels, bars, shops and bakeries to baths, temples, shrines and sculptures.
The Romans built the structure and column from breccia which is a type of stone created from the combination of angular gravel and the fragments of boulders. The pillar is a greenish color, thirteen feet tall and three feet in diameter. Two Italian architects named Capraro and Komar created the base of the monument out of travertine, which is a type of lightly colored limestone that is formed when river and spring waters evaporate. They inscribed a message in Italian from the Italian people of Fascist Italy. In English the message reads:
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.
This object's purpose and meaning has experienced drastic transformations throughout the centuries. It went from being a piece of a building that had a very functional purpose in a thriving community to a ruin that a dictator pilfered. Benito Mussolini removed the pillar from its original place in order to create a monument that produced mixed emotions from people in the U.S. and abroad. The monument represents a portion of history but it is also valued as a piece of art and it stands as a symbol that has very different meanings for different groups of people.
After Benito Mussolini had the pillar removed from its original place in Ostia, he had it converted into a monument that he gifted to the City of Chicago. It was transported by boat to America and arrived in Chicago in 1934 during the Century of Progress World's fair and placed in front of the Italian Pavilion. While the fair was eventually disassembled, the column was left standing in its original place just a short distance from the shores of Lake Michigan in an often overlooked area of Burnham Park. This token was a tribute to the first transatlantic crossing made by the Italian air force and their general, Italo Balbo. At the time of this celebration, many Italians and Americans thought that this gift was a symbol of growing positive relations between Italy and America. For others, it was seen as proof that the U.S. was condoning terrorism and murder. After WWII, The Italian ambassador to the U.S. recommended that all symbols of admiration for Fascist Italy be removed. As is evident from its current existence, Balbo's pillar endured in spite of intermittent objections. There are still mixed emotions that survive to this day. Some believe the monument to be a controversial link to Fascism while older Chicago residents hold on to fond memories of an age of progress.
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