Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Looking into Casa Italiana’s alleged ties to Il Duce.
By Channing Prend
For the next 500 years, Columbia will pay an annual fee of $100 to the Italian government. This payment is part of a bizarre real estate agreement that allows Columbia’s Italian Academy to inhabit the Casa Italiana, a building located at 117th and Amsterdam. The Casa’s neo-Renaissance façade looks innocuous enough, but this agreement with the Italian consulate is just one of the building’s many oddities.
One rumor, propagated by several generations of Columbia students, is that the building served as an outpost for the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. This curious Blue and White reporter delved into the archives to discover the truth of these claims.
Interest in the Casa’s politics extended beyond the Columbia campus. A 1934 article in The Nation called the Casa “an unofficial adjunct of the Italian Consul-General’s office in New York and one of the most important sources of fascist propaganda in America.”
One of the foundations for this allegation was the questionable friendship between Casa Director Giuseppe Prezzolini and Mussolini. “Prezzolini never denied being a personal friend of Mussolini,” says Barbara Faedda, the Casa’s current Associate Director. “There were undeniable contacts and relationships with the fascist regime.” According to a Spectator Article from 1926, a portrait of Mussolini was even supposed to hang in the Casa’s library alongside a painting of Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of the University at the time. “Of course that was the twenties,” Faedda told me. “Until Italy invaded Ethiopia, many people in America and at Columbia were optimistic about the fascist regime.”
As the U.S. began to turn against Italian fascism, there was considerable speculation in the national media about the nature of the relationship between the Casa and Mussolini. “It is reasonable to assume that Professor Prezzolini is reporting to his chief on his success in furthering the cause of fascism,” declared Carlo Trescal, the editor of Il Martello , a radical political journal.
While it is unclear whether there is any validity to this accusation, the Spectator editorial board called for sanctions against Casa Italiana in 1935. “Dr. Butler has not the slightest excuse for allowing Columbia University to be utilized as a sounding-board for fascist propaganda in this country,” they wrote.
There is little proof, however, that the Casa actually disseminated any propaganda, and it’s improbable that the Italian government influenced the intellectual climate of the University generally. “Yes, Prezzolini invited many fascist scholars to speak at the Casa, but he also invited many anti-fascist scholars as well,” Faedda noted. “From a cultural point of view it was a fascinating social laboratory.”
Be they real or not, the Casa’s fascist ties will remain a pithy anecdote on admissions tours. Like the Maison Française’s past as part of an insane asylum and maintenance funding from Ghostbusters royalties. People will continue to circulate these myths, I’m sure. For, what do Columbia students love more than a scandal? Maybe things would be a little different if it were Deutsches Haus.