In 1923, following Mussolini’s meteoric rise to power as the Duce of Italy, the Aegean islands of the Dodecanese – already taken from the Ottomans since 1911 – were formally annexed as the Possedimenti Italiani dell’Egeo. Mussolini’s vision of a well ordered fascist society would see Italy’s new possession transformed into a model Italian community through a vigorous process of Italianisation, a project to be led by the newly appointed Governor Mario Lago.


The architectural effects of this transformation can still be seen on the islands today, especially in the island of Leros with its massive Italian naval base and astonishing  Internationale style buildings, and of course in Rhodes, the largest, capital island of the chain where many of these buildings are still in use, housing the region’s municipal services. As part of this process, Lago began the construction of four model settlements in the south of  the island, dedicated to support the emergence of local industry by attracting skilled Italian settlers and their families. San Benedetto (today’s Kolymbia) and Beveragno (today’s Kalamonas) are the examples closest to Rhodes town, with Campochiaro (today’s Eleoussa) built as a logging and conservation camp tending to the nearby forested peak of Profitis Ilias, whose temperate, mildly alpine climate prompted Governor de Vecchi (Lago’s replacement in 1936) to build a magnificent Villa retreat for Mussolini himself.


The fourth and most abandoned settlement was that of  San Marco near today’s Kattavia,  which I unknowingly entered one summer afternoon a decade ago, looking for adventure in the mythical Prassonisi, the less known surfer paradise island that attracts a more alternative community of travellers. Heading south of Rhodes,  the quaint villages and green slopes of Mt. Profitis Ilias give way to a flatter, uninhabited scenery. Driving through the windswept fields, through clouds of red dust and surrounded by rolling tumbleweed I arrived to a veritable ghost town, quite reminiscent of any spaghetti western town I’ve ever watched in those old Cinecitta movies. To the left, the abandoned, crumbling silk factory that was supposed to sustain the new pioneer community (it’s entrance can be seen on the last two photos of my set, although I didn’t enter it as it was in a dangerous state of dilapidation). To the right, the impressive Albergo St Marco, possibly comprising a church or monastery, warehouse, municipal centre and temporary accommodation for newly arrived colonists.


The largest, arched hall housed the church, with nave and altar still intact, as well as a blue pastel arched ceiling. The impressive belfry and clock tower – stopped at 1600 hrs – looks like a distant copy of St Mark’s belfry in Venice. The views of the surrounding fields are beautiful, and confirm how this was probably a great choice of location for a settlement. To the right, a smaller entrance led to a colonnaded forum-like area, with rooms containing what seemed to be offices with beautiful corner fireplaces.  To the left of the church, much larger rooms could have housed bed bunks or internal stores, while the two large wings on the either side of the complex would have been used for agricultural provisions, tools and implements.

The start of the war later in the 30’s, leading to Italy’s defeat and the subsequent annexation of this Aegean paradise to Greece, meant that Mussolini’s colonisation plan never materialised, and as a result, these model villages are mostly abandoned today and their buildings and factories ruined. At the time of the visit, local farmers had been using it to house goats, and store bales of hay and agricultural implements while the walls had been defiled by tons of graffiti often carved onto the plastered wall and column surfaces, an almost institutionalised, indifference-led desecration that is quite typical in Greece.   However, I hear that the Albergo has now been renovated with a view to open as a cultural centre in summer 2017,  which will restore in part its former colonial glory and somewhat preserve the pioneering spirit of Mussolini’s dream of a model state spurred forward by hard working men and their families, who at the time were expected to – literally – conquer the earth.

(The title of the article was the name of the Opera Nazionale Combattendi‘s official magazine. It was Mussolini’s charity for combat veterans, who like legionnaires of the past, were awarded a piece of land and the means to cultivate it, as a gift by the state for their service. I have imagined that maybe some of those veterans or their families could have ended up in one of those Aegean projects. The magazine covers used are, to my knowledge, public domain)

2019 update : The Italian colonial monastery has recently been renovated to a very high standard, and turned into a lovely cafe bar – aptly named Colonia San Marco Caffe’. It is not abandoned anymore, but this doesn’t detract from its beauty as a building, neither from its forgotten history. You can now visit it and enjoy this magnificently restored space.

All photos © explorabilia

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