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Today’s Question:
December 4, 1981
— Updated Feb. 5, 2009

Dear Cecil:

On a recent trek from the Loop to McCormick Place, we encountered for the first the Balbo Monument near Northerly Island. What's the story behind the Fascist gift to our city? What's the "flight across the ocean in the eleventh year of the Fascist era" mentioned in the inscription? And why does it appear as if words different from those more easily readable lie behind the English text?

— John Montgomery and [friend with hideous handwriting], Chicago

Cecil replies:

On July 15, 1933, while Chicago was aflutter with the Century of Progress Exposition and the world was not yet wise to the ways of Benito Mussolini, an Italian general named Italo Balbo led a squadron of 24 seaplanes across the Atlantic to add a little Fascist flair to the city's international hoopla. The planes landed in the lake near Navy Pier, and the airmen were greeted by hundreds of thousands of cheering yahoos, who were, according to the Daily News of the day, "ready and eager" to welcome a "twentieth-century version of Leonardo da Vinci" from "the old world, where the doctrine of fascism is swiftly transforming an ancient people into a homogeneous nation more American than the United States."

Chicagoans, demonstrating early their affection for air and water thrill shows, later renamed Seventh Street for the dauntless aviator — thus the present-day Balbo Drive — and proudly accepted a gift from Mussolini to commemorate the occasion, an 18-foot column of exceedingly rare and valuable marble that now stands just north of McCormick Place. As we are informed by the inscribed pedestal on which the column rests, it is about "twenty centuries old"; it once stood on the shore of the Mediterranean, at the Roman port city of Ostia, "to watch over the fortunes and victories of the Roman triremes." The inscription does not inform us that Il Duce's ancestors apparently pilfered the thing from the Greeks, but I suppose there wasn't enough room to go into all the details.

General Balbo, for his part, did not long enjoy the unalloyed esteem of Chicagoans, or even of his commander-in-chief. After Balbo led the bombing siege of Ethiopia and became governor of Italian Libya, his plane was shot down by friendly fire in 1940
— some say on the orders of Mussolini, apparently doubtful about the general's loyalty and perhaps fearful of his popularity as well. Later, in peacetime Chicago, a group of citizens endeavored to take Balbo's street away from him, claiming his visit was a blot on the city's reputation; they wanted the street renamed to honor a red-blooded American flying ace, one John Waldron, who had distinguished himself in the battle of Midway. Mayor Ed Kelly didn't like that idea; although several prominent goombahs stepped forward to support the change, Kelly may have feared that deleting Balbo from the map would outrage the city's Italian population. In any case, he sidestepped the issue by naming a different street for Waldron, and the city's anti-Fascist sentiment, focused on the street-name question, expired without having affected the monument.

Perhaps the monument went unchallenged because nobody could remember what it was supposed to be commemorating. The original inscription was in Italian only, and it apparently wore quickly; by the mid-1960s, it was all but illegible. Over the years, the daily newspapers and the park district (keeper of the city's monuments) received a few letters decrying this sad state of affairs, and finally, in the mid 70s, the pedestal was repaired: the Italian inscription, which had originally adorned the west face of the pedestal, was recut on the south face; the west face was filled in and an English translation was added over the faded Italian. In 1976, the Italian consul in Chicago informed the park district's minions that they had misspelled two words in the Italian inscription: auspices, which came out "suspices," and triremi, which was rendered "tiremi."

Periodically someone suggests that we really ought to do something about Chicago's tributes to Fascism (both the monument and the street), but so far nothing has come of such efforts — see these stories in the Tribune, the Reader, and Chicago magazine for more.  The column, misspellings and all, stands to this day, ensuring that Chicagoans will be ever mindful of Balbo's historic flight, the painful lessons of Fascism, the subtle machinations of ethnic ward politics, and the embarrassing inefficacy of the Chicago patronage system.  

 — Cecil Adams

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