A Piece of Italy on the Shore of Lake Michigan: Considering the Fate of the Balbo Monument (20 min)


Morag M. Kersel, DePaul University


Hidden in dense shrubbery and nestled in a memorial landscape dedicated to fallen police officers and firefighters sits the Balbo Monument. The oldest outdoor artifact in Chicago—a nearly two-millennia-old column from the vast Roman port of Ostia—is also one of the most complicated: both column and pedestal were a gift from Benito Mussolini, to commemorate a transatlantic seaplane flight from Italy to the United States, under the leadership of Italo Balbo. The memorial was dedicated in 1934 at the Century of Progress International Exposition. The column functions as a testament to the glories of ancient Rome, while also serving as a symbol for Chicago’s Italian immigrant community. In the aftermath of the riots at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the civil unrest related to the murder of George Floyd, as demands for the removal of Confederate and other problematic markers increased, the Balbo Monument came under increased scrutiny. Walking, running, or riding along Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, if you blink, you will miss the Balbo Monument. There is no warning, no signpost, no marker, no reason to notice. Without context, we do not know what sits in this landscape, what it is, what it represents, or why it matters either in the past or the present. As part of a discussion on landscapes, memorialization, monuments, and public commemoration DePaul students visit the Balbo Monument, creating “labels” that contextualize the column in its current time and space. Robust engagement with the Balbo Monument, considerations of its origin stories, use as spolia, as a tool of diplomacy, and its current configuration offer an excellent pedagogical tool to reflect on an array of issues, beyond the obvious choices of removing or maintaining.