In Possess the Air, author Taras Grescoe takes us on a tour of Rome in the early years of fascist Italy. While the main focus is on people who resisted, the unexpected character is the city of Rome itself. Many of Grescoe’s previous books have focused on urban planning issues, and this shows itself in his richly detailed descriptions of how the city evolved over time to reflect political realities. Given this perspective, Possess the Air could best be described as a travelogue, or perhaps a historical travelogue.
Grescoe begins by tracing the rise of Mussolini and the reaction of many well-heeled individuals to the new regime. (Many of Rome’s privileged classes chose to ignore Mussolini as long as their lavish lifestyles were not disrupted.) The book then shifts to a chronology of one man’s plan to do something to counter the rise of fascism.
Lauro de Bosis, a wealthy young man who had become increasingly disillusioned with Italy’s totalitarian society, wanted to help his country. His first attempt was to form the “National Alliance” and send out chain letters to those he thought might be sympathetic to his cause. After several friends and his mother were arrested, de Bosis shifted to more dramatic action and, in 1931, he flew a small plane over Rome and dropped leaflets urging people to resist, after which he was never seen again.
Despite a very romanticized depiction of de Bosis’s great stunt, Grescoe concludes that he “had played his hand too early”; it was only after 1936 that people became disillusioned with Mussolini. The book returns to the story of Rome and the fascist changes to the city before the fall of Mussolini in 1943, concluding with an examination of how that legacy can still be seen in Rome’s civic life today.
While de Bosis’s story is interesting, it’s hard to believe that his defiance of fascism is representative; it would be a fragile totalitarian regime indeed that had such a tenuous hold on its people’s hearts. That being said, Possess the Air is a beautiful read, and the focus on Rome in particular should open our eyes to how threats to civic liberty can often evolve into concrete form.