The History of the Italian Air Ministry Building


2013-11-07 By Robbin Laird

Having visited the Italian Air Ministry building and after this summer working through the history of military aviation in the 1930s, it was natural for me to explore the history of this striking building.

The modernist building was constructed in the early 1930s and was used by the Mussolini regime to bring together the disparate elements of the fledgling Italian Air Force.

The Italian Air Ministry building. Credit Photo: Wikepedia
The Italian Air Ministry building. Credit Photo: Wikepedia

The flamboyant minster was the famous aviator, Italo Balbo.

Balbo was responsible for generating world famous flights of Italian planes across the Atlantic first to Brazil and then to the United States.  In the winter months of 1930/1931, Balbo had led a dozen Savoia-Machetti S.55 seaplanes from Italy to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

And then Balbo commanded a squadron of twenty-four “flying boats” on a round-trip transatlantic flight from Italy to the Chicago world’s fair in the summer of 1933, also celebrated in propaganda posters and postcards.

In a very well written biography of Balbo, by Claudio G. Segre, the author noted at the time of the flight across the Atlantic to Brazil that the world recognized a world-class aviator when it saw one.

If Balbo did not receive all the accolades he wanted at home, abroad he emerged as one of the giants of the flying world. The International Federation of Aviators awarded him its gold medal for the finest aeronautical undertaking of the year. He had joined the company of De Pinedo, who had won it when it was first given in 1925, and Lindbergh, who received it in 1927. 

In London and Paris the leading lights of the flying world praised his feat. Many also recalled personal acts of kindness and generosity on Balbo’s part. 

The foreign press was warm in its praise. “A Great Flight” and “Well Done, Italy,” commented two English papers. 

“One aspect of the flight which has given real satisfaction is the warmth of the foreign praise,” the London Times remarked about the reaction to the flight in Italy.

Remembering the Italian-Brazilian flight in 1930.
Remembering the Italian-Brazilian flight in 1930.

Claudio G. Segre. Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (Kindle Locations 2785-2791).

Ironically, Balbo a leading proponent of airpower in Italy, opposed the future alliance with Germany and believed that Italy would lose the war. 

Balbo also worked tirelessly for the emergence of a professional Air Force in Italy, which was common to other innovators of the day, such as Billy Mitchell.

Segre added:

His achievements as an aviator transformed him from a provincial Italian politician with a dubious Blackshirt past into an international celebrity. 

He joined Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, Jean Mermoz, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Francesco De Pinedo, Umberto Nobile, Wolfgang von Gronau, and Charles Kingsford Smith as one of the great pioneers of aviation’s “golden age,” the late 1920s and early 193os.

Like the astronauts of the 196os, Balbo in his day ranked among those who had “the right stuff.”

Claudio G. Segre. Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (Kindle Locations 1777-1780). Kindle Edition.

In the massive air ministry building in Rome, one of Balbo’s proudest achievements as minister, public tributes to him are muted. 

The most conspicuous one is over the entrance. There a marble inscription originally read, “Built while Vittorio Emanuele III was king, duce Benito Mussolini, minister Italo Balbo.” Only Balbo’s name has survived. 

A careful search also reveals his name on a column dedicated to Italian aviators who died in combat. 

The Aeronautica’s undersecretaries still use his former office today, but nowhere in the modest room is there any indication that it was once Balbo’s.

Claudio G. Segre. Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (Kindle Locations 1787-1791). Kindle Edition.

Balbo honored at Chicago World's Fair in 1933.
Chief Blackhorn and Italo Balbo at Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.

With regard to the building itself, Balbo’s biographer had these words:

The new ministry building, located in Rome’s Castro Pretorio section, between the railroad station and the university and next to an artillery garrison, was inaugurated in 1931 as part of the celebrations of the March on Rome for that year. 

Balbo’s ideas for  the building came from his visits to the United States, where he had carefully studied such facilities. The exterior, spare, bare, and sober, reflected perfectly the interior rule of life, he claimed. 

“What rule? That of simplicity, clarity, speed, elements of the modern discipline of labor. “3° Whoever carries out the orders is at the disposal of the commander, under his eyes, like “a sort of human keyboard,” he explained. 

He planned bright, open offices where glass replaced walls; he included pneumatic mail service, internal telephones, modern elevators. 

Everything was adapted to extreme speed and to the silent movement of a complex of 1,2oo employees. 

Visitors remarked on the spareness and simplicity of the furnishings-no armchairs, no rugs, no curtains. Everyone sat on simple wooden chairs.  

One of Balbo’s great innovations was the American-style work schedule-a great shock to government employees accustomed to lunch at home and perhaps a little nap before resuming their office work. 

Balbo allowed only forty minutes for lunch; at noon-early by Roman standards-everyone ate in the building’s dining hall at the same time. 

“Long rows of black marble tables, desk high, chromium-trimmed (a glorified Child’s restaurant),” according to the American racing pilot Major Al Williams, who visited it in 1936.3′ He, like nearly every other visitor, was astonished at another detail. 

“There were no chairs in the room-these officers were eating their luncheon standing.” His host explained proudly, “We have the chairs, of course-the space for them-but no time for them.” 

Claudio G. Segre. Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (Kindle Locations 2302-2306). Kindle Edition. Claudio G. Segre. Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (Kindle Location 2302). Kindle Edition.

The second photo is credited as follows:

The third photo is credited as follows:

For the book by Segre on Italo Balbo see the following: