Workers renovating the Palazzo Venezia in the historic center of Rome have discovered a secret bunker built during World War II for Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. This is the 12th bunker in Rome, the last one built, barring any future discoveries, and never finished. Nobody knew it existed until now.
The building, once home to Mussolini’s office and the balcony from which he delivered his most momentous speeches to cheering crowds, now houses the National Museum of the Palazzo Venezia. In 2011, Anna Imponente of the Superintendency for historical, artistic and ethnoanthropological goods of the Lazio region, the governmental department headquartered in the palazzo, decided to convert a small storage room into exhibition space. The room was being cleared of the wilderness of boxes that cluttered it and a partition wall taken down when workers discovered a wooden trap door in the floor. They opened it and found a flight of red brick stairs leading 20 meters (about 66 feet) underground.
Some of the older workers recalled hearing stories, almost urban legends at this point, that Mussolini had had a secret bunker built at Palazzo Venezia. Anna Imponente and Carlo Serafini, the architect in charge of the renovation work, were the first to walk down the stairs. When they reached the bottom they found a passageway of ancient Roman vaulting — there was even an ancient mosaic on the wall — which led to a cement structure which was very distinctly modern in contrast to the Roman part. It’s a space of about 80 square meters (860 square feet) divided into nine rooms circling around a massive center block. The walls are made of steel-reinforced armored concrete at least one meter (3.3 feet) thick. There was no doubt that this was indeed Mussolini’s secret bunker.
The quality of construction is exceptional. The thick walls strengthen a pre-existing structure — the 15th century foundations of the palace’s central courtyard — and ensured that the bunker was completely bomb-proof. The ventilation system is so good that even after 70 years of closure and neglect, no moisture whatsoever has accumulated. The bunker is dry and the air is clean. It’s very likely that this was intended to be a personal safe space for Mussolini and his lover, Clara Petacci.
It was never finished, however. There are pipes intended to be part of a sewage system but there’s no system. There are niches probably designed to hold large safes in which important documents and objects would be protected but there are no safes. There’s the beginning of a doorway cut into the wall which might be the rudiments of a second escape route wide enough to accommodate a small vehicle, but it’s still blocked by bricks. There’s the beginnings of a passageway headed for the Vittorio Emanuele monument, the site of another of Mussolini’s bunkers, but the connector never connected. Carpentry nails from the wooden framing for the concrete pour are still stuck in the walls. Construction appears to have been hurriedly suspended, perhaps around the time of Mussolini’s dismissal and arrest on July 25th, 1943, which he never saw coming. All the other bunkers in Rome were built earlier.
The discovery was made two years ago but was just announced. The Superintendency plans to open the bunker to the public perhaps as early as this Spring. I couldn’t find any really good, really big pictures, but La Stampa has a photo gallery that will do in a pinch.
These two videos, thankfully, have excellent footage of the opening, staircase and bunker. The first one features Anna Imponente standing by the opening, which sadly is no longer a trap door but an enlarged space with plexiglass barriers better suited to visitors but not as cool, and describing the story of its discovery. The second one stars architect Carlo Serafini doing a walk-through of the bunker and pointing out salient features. Since there are no subtitles, I’ve scared up transcripts (translations and therefore all the errors are my own) so you can follow along as you watch.
Transcript of first video
Anna Imponente: It was an incidental discovery. Nobody would have bothered to give this storage area dedicated attention. The idea was to connect the two sides of the ground floor offices. Therefore we began to modify the rooms and we found a wooden trap door and our big curiosity was in discovering what would be revealed once the trap door was opened.
Q: What did you find as soon as you went in?
A: We found — first of all the trap door had a much smaller aperture — we found the staircase that we see now, a staircase of red bricks that went down, down all the way down to this extraordinary space of a special modernist design. [indistinct] We had been told that underneath here there could be a bunker of Mussolini.
Q: And at which point were you able to confirm it?
A: We discovered this nine rooms for a total of 80 square meters all in armored cement which circle around a central ring and that made up what was probably the last of 12 bunkers built in Rome by Mussolini.
Q: Will this bunker be open for public visits?
A: That’s our intention given the curiosity that has grown around this discovery. Naturally, such denuded environments don’t speak to everyone. For them to speak to the younger people, it will be necessary to create some video, some films, find some historic pictures to recreate the tragic flavor of this period.
Transcript of second video
Narrator: The last bunker of Benito Mussolini was discovered almost by mistake. It was in the basement of Palazzo Venezia, where the offices of the Duce were, and nobody knew it. Thanks to restoration work by the Superintendency of Artistic Goods of Lazio, which is now headquartered there, it was brought to light and made accessible recently. Carlo Serafini, the architect responsible for the restoration of the spaces, guides us in the discovery of the subterranean rooms which we are showing the first images of.
Serafini: This is the access point of the bunker, where you can still see the holes left for the hinges of the steel door which would have blocked the entrance. And this is the course from the entrance we discovered. As soon as the structure begins, everything dries up and there are no traces of humidity, proof of the maximum attention paid in the realization of this work which makes it of a truly notable quality. This confirms that it was a place directly used by Mussolini.
Of the eight rooms that make up the bunker, this room has the particular feature of these two niches which in all probability were destined to hold safes, structures intended to conserve the most sensitive, important documents.
Probably there was an attempt to continue in this direction, to connect this structure with some other building, some other idea of extending the space.
Continuing in the tour of the rooms, which all circle around a filled central nucleus, this room has this wide opening which we interpret as a secondary access point to the bunker. What’s interesting about this view is the size of the concrete structure. Here we can measure exactly the size of the walls. The bunker was built in a very careful, accurate and thoughtful way with great technical skill. The fascination of this bunker is the care and professionalism that went into its construction.
Narrator: The bunker was therefore absolutely bomb-proof.
Serafini: The bunker was born inside a pre-existing 15th century structure which was then strengthened, an additional increment of its defensive abilities.
Narrator: But there are many clues that it was never used, and that therefore it was built shortly before the fall of the regime.
Serafini: One interesting thing that is a trace of the period is that you can see plans on the concrete which demonstrate that these walls were never finished. They’re level marks that would have been used when the floor was installed. It’s an indication of the stage of construction the bunker was at when work was suspended. Another indication that the bunker was never finished and work was suspended hastily is the presence of many nails and other roughing elements that demonstrate that the work was never concluded.
In every room there are two openings, one low and one high — these tubes. Probably they were probably connections to a sewer system that would have allowed them to have hygienic services [toilets and showers] in every room.
Narrator: It seems that someone has already been in the space, even though they never left any testimony to its existence. These holes you see in the walls could have been left by people who found their way into the bunker in the 20th century.
Serafini: Certainly people had already visited the bunker and were investigating, perhaps testing its armor, the steel reinforcements that were inside the cement.