From malaria-infested swampland to Fascist utopia: Latina, Italy

Latina, Lazio, ItalyIn the midst of a recent, stressful home move, I had to take a break from boxes to drive my eight-year-old down to a state competition (provinciale) for sprinting south of Rome, in the small city of Latina, in southern Lazio.

My little one placed first in the 400-meter competition, making me awfully proud, and we also had time for a walk around Latina – a city with an interesting (recent) history.

For those who love English and American literature, you’ll be interested to know that the infamous ‘Roman Fever’ had its origins in this region. Foreign tourists in 19th century Rome would sometimes succumb to this so-called Roman Fever.

Remember Henry James’ Daisy Miller? Out in the evening in the chilly air to admire the Colosseum with a (scandal!) handsome Italian man, she comes down with the Roman Fever and soon after dies.

Latina, Lazio, ItalyAs you probably surmised, the Fever had nothing to do with indecorous outings with handsome local men in the evenings. Instead, the swamplands south of Rome (around modern-day Latina) were the breeding grounds of the anopheles mosquito, a carrier of malaria.

Malaria affected Rome, and it certainly affected the region of southern Lazio (known as Pontino), which – for obvious reasons- was very sparsely populated at the time.

Drainage project in the Pontino

Drainage project in the Pontino

One of Benito Mussolini’s large public works was the bonifica – the draining- of the swampland around what would become Latina. The project was enormous, and many workers died of malaria while carrying out the drainage.

As part of the project, many Australian eucalyptus trees were planted, since they are known for absorbing water from the ground. They still dominate the local landscape. Foreign species of fish were introduced to the region to eat the mosquito eggs. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence was that they also managed to damage the zone’s rich biodiversity, including some local species of fish that are almost extinct now.

Founding of Latina, 1932Nevertheless, the project had a tremendous impact on the region, which became a fertile agricultural zone and attracted many residents, particularly from northern Italy (the Veneto and Friuli regions).

On June 30, 1932, the town of Littoria (the name was later changed to Latina) was founded by Benito Mussolini (see photo at left).

The Fascist architecture – known as rationalist style- was designed by many of the well-known architects of the period. The main square looks very much the same today. The town’s motto is in Latin – Latina olim palus (Latina, once a swamp).

Latina, Lazio, ItalyThere is not that much to see in modern Latina, but it’s worth a walk to see this city built on the drained swampland and still filled with interesting Fascist-era architecture if you’re passing by on your way to nearby destinations, such as the beaches at Sperlonga or Sabaudia  or other points south of Rome.

And – literature fans – you can even see the place of origin of the carriers of the famous ‘Roman Fever’… luckily eliminated long ago.

So ladies, unlike poor Daisy, you’re now safe to walk around after dark with handsome Roman men without being struck down with the dreaded Roman Fever…

Old poster for Latina (when it was still known as Littoria)

Old poster for Latina (when it was still known as Littoria)


  1. chillcat on February 25, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Fascinating Kimberly! I think the bonifica was also carried out in the north but we still have so many mosquitoes in Veneto!

    • kimberlysullivan on February 25, 2014 at 11:32 pm

      Yes, unfortunately it didn’t eliminate all the mosquitos *sigh*. At least those carrying malaria were wiped out – it’s hard to believe one risked dying of malaria in Rome not so long ago. Edith Wharton even used ‘Roman Fever’ as the title of one of her short stories.

  2. Kecia Adams on February 25, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Very cool and congratulations to your son. 400m is a tough race! As for Mussolini, surprising but understandable mixed feelings about him among the Italians. As they say, “Quando c’era lui…”

    • kimberlysullivan on February 26, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Thanks, Kecia. Yes, I agree with you – the 400m is a tough race. I’m proud of my little runner. Good point. I remember you have an Italian background, too. : ) I guess it is rather hard to imagine that someone was able to make Italian trains run on time. Unthinkable nowadays…

  3. evelyneholingue on February 27, 2014 at 7:42 am

    Bravo to your son and merci for a great post and lovely pics. Italy and Italian are fascinating, indeed.

    • kimberlysullivan on February 27, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Thanks, Evelyne. I am (admittedly) biased, but I agree that Italy is endlessly fascinating. With its history, and its distinct regional feel (including unique traditions, culture, food, architecture), I feel there is always something new to discover. It’s very much how I feel about another fascinating European country … yours. : )

  4. […] I visited the city south of Rome last year for a running race, and wrote about this interesting place to visit. […]

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