Three World War II Sites in Rome

With so much ancient history in Rome, few people associate the city with a war as recent as WWII. It is as if the thousand-year-old monuments and Roman ruins demand more attention than events that occurred while our grandparents were still alive. And that’s a shame. Not because we should linger on war, but must remember the oppression that lay in the wake and honour the victims of it – so it shall never happen again.

Some people travel to forget, but sometimes we must also travel to remember.

By Anne Leslie Saunders

These descriptions are based on my book, A Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy: Museums, Monuments, and Battlegrounds. It is sold by,, and other online retailers.

Villa Torlonia

The stately nineteenth-century complex called Villa Torlonia was home to Mussolini and his family from 1925 to 1943, when the dictator was deposed. It features a palatial mansion and other buildings set in lush gardens on Via Nomentana, near the centre of Rome. Mussolini leased this villa for a small sum from a noble Roman family. Today, Romans and tourists enjoy the villa’s lovely landscape, the new restaurant with indoor/outdoor seating, and a children’s playground.

The city of Rome acquired Villa Torlonia in 1978 and has been restoring its buildings since then. The mansion (Casino Nobile) has several floors open to visitors. Frescoes, paintings, and statues adorn the mansion’s rooms. Some of the statues date back to the Roman Empire and were found on the estate during its restoration.

At Villa Torlonia Mussolini hosted important guests, including the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and Hitler himself. Due to wartime bombardments of Rome and other Italian cities, Mussolini had air raid shelters built on the property; visitors may tour those for an additional fee.

Jewish Museum and the Great Synagogue

The synagogue and museum make up a large building complex near the Tiber River in the centre of Rome. Throughout the day, the museum’s small theatre shows a film about Jewish life in Rome from 1870 to modern times; Italian and English versions of the film alternate. Included is the dreadful story of the arrest and deportation of Roman Jews to concentration camps during the war.

The arrests began in October 1943 in the neighbourhood around the synagogue. About one thousand Jews were placed in freight cars at a nearby train station and sent to a camp in Poland, where most deportees died. More deportations occurred in the following months, as the panels on the walls describe.

In addition to showing the film, the museum displays textiles, liturgical vessels, maps, books, and scrolls in large cases. Panels describe the artefacts, explain the basic tenets of Judaism, and review the history of the Jewish community in Rome.
Visitors may also tour the synagogue, which was built in 1904 and is the largest of Rome’s twelve temples. Its splendid interior includes a dome painted in all colours of the rainbow.

After your tour, exit and look at the plaques posted on the synagogue’s walls. One lists the names of Jewish members of the Resistance who died fighting “Nazi-Fascist barbarism” and adds (in Italian): “Let their sacrifice be a warning to the oppressor and a model for the oppressed.” A second plaque commemorates the six million Jews who died in World War II. Its inscription says (in Italian): “These are not dry numbers, but a tribute of blood and tears in an injured civilization and an injury to the holy law of God.”

History Museum of the Liberation

This museum fills most of an apartment building on Via Tasso, a street near one of Rome’s grandest churches, St. John Lateran (San Giovanni Laterano). The museum’s modest façade gives no indication of the horrors that took place here in 1943 and 1944, when Rome was occupied by German forces. In the rooms that now form the museum, German police imprisoned, interrogated and tortured members of the Italian Resistance, whose goal was to free Italy from its Nazi-Fascist oppressors.

The first floor is devoted to temporary exhibits. The second floor has five rooms that formerly served as prison cells. Cell 2 is the size of a large closet and was used for solitary confinement. Messages scratched by prisoners are still visible on its walls. Examples are: “La morte è brutta per chi la teme” (Death is an evil for the person who fears it); “Medita o uomo sulla tua nullità di fronte alla grandezza dell’universo” (Man, meditate on your nothingness in comparison with the grandeur of the universe).

The third floor also has former prison cells. Prisoners’ drawings are still visible on the walls of a room used for solitary confinement, where one man scratched a British flag with the phrase “England Forever” on the flag’s base. Other rooms display wartime posters and underground newspapers produced by the Resistance.

These descriptions are based on my book, A Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy: Museums, Monuments, and Battlegrounds. It is sold by and other online retailers.

For other guides to Rome, how about discovering the Eternal City on the Footsteps of Robert Langdon in our self-guided Angels And Demons tour or check out our tips for a Budget vs Luxury trip to Rome.

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Get under the skin of Rome by staying here a bit longer than just one week. We can strongly recommend Crib Med for medium-term rentals in the eternal city.

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