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Grand Orient of Italy Wins Court Battle Against Italian Senate Over Mussolini's Confiscation of Their HQ

Photo: Wikipedia Commons
by Christopher Hodapp

The Grande Oriente d'Italia (Grand Orient of Italy) has prevailed in an Italian Supreme Court ruling against the government that restores ownership of their former headquarters. The historic Palazzo Giustiniani was illegally seized in 1925 by dictator Benito Mussolini's Fascist government ,and was never returned to the Masons after the end of World War II. Since that time, the magnificent 16th century palazzo with its beautiful interior frescos has housed the offices of the Senate of the Republic, and is the residence of the President of the Senate.

The landmark decision was handed down on January 26th, and recognizes the fact that the fascist state confiscated the Masons' historic property without any due process, recompense or restitution whatsoever. The verdict comes just one year short of the 100-year anniversary of the building's seizure.

From the close of World War I until the Allied victories against the Axis dictatorships that ended World War II, Freemasonry in Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and Franco's Spain was suppressed and declared to be a so-called "secret society." Countless European Masons were persecuted, arrested, and even executed for no other crime than being a Freemason. The Palazzo Giustiniani was seized from the Grand Orient Masons by the Mussolini regime for use by the Italian Senate, and Freemasonry in Italy was banned outright by 1926. After war broke out across Europe, Masonic halls all over Axis-occupied territories were confiscated, along with regalia, furniture, artwork, and especially grand lodge membership files. Masonic buildings were frequently turned into anti-Masonic propaganda displays and museums, luridly staged with the creepiest of props (skeletons were a big hit with the public) to perpetuate the unfounded allegations that the fraternity practiced Satanic worship, blasphemies, plotted revolutions, and other creepy, nefarious intrigues.
NOTE: To clarify: the Grand Orient of Italy is the largest obedience in that country, and it is the body that the overwhelming majority of U.S. grand lodges recognize. The Grand Lodge of Italy is the second largest group, a mixed body that admits both men and women, and is not deemed regular by the overwhelming majority of the Masonic world. But in a rarity, the United Grand Lodge of England—from whom many U.S. grand lodges seek clarity and guidance—recognizes the much smaller and newer Regular Grand Lodge of Italy. The U.S. did not uniformly follow UGLE's action, and continues not to do so.
After the war ended, and Freemasonry returned, the Grand Orient was permitted to move its headquarters back into the palazzo, but it continued to principally be occupied by the Senate offices. By 1981, the Masons again moved out – voluntarily this time – into a smaller building.

From my albeit imperfect understanding of the whole situation, it certainly sounds like the Grand Orient Masons are now the Senate's new absentee landlords.

From a letter circulated this week by the Grande Oriente d'Italia's Grand Master Stefano Bisi:

"Fascist paramilitary squads violently occupied the building on 5 November 1925, as the Court itself recalled. And immediately afterwards the fascist state acquired the building, through a settlement agreement, against which appeals were already presented in various judicial offices at the time, asserting its right of pre-emption on an asset of artistic value, without however first declaring the nullity of the contract stipulated by the GOI in 1911 for the purchase of the building itself.
"This was a condition, the Court said, prejudicial for the state to be able to exercise its right of pre- emption and acquire the property. Consequently, the regime illegally took possession of the property in violation of the 1909 law on artistic assets.
On these legal bases, the United Sections of the Supreme Court of Cassation sent the case back to the Lazio Regional Administrative Court, remitting to it the assessment regarding the legitimacy of the acquisition procedure of Palazzo Giustiniani.
The Grand Orient expressed satisfaction with the court's decision and confirmed that the judicial initiative is aimed exclusively at restoring the truth of the facts to history in the full conviction that it represents the foundation of the essence of the democratic state to which the Grand Orient of Italy is proud to belong.
A victory for the Grand Master Stefano Bisi, his council and the staff of lawyers of the GOI. A very important step forward in the controversy which adds to other historic goals scored in these last years by the Italian Masonic institution.
Located close to Rome's Pantheon, the beginnings of this Roman palace were originally built as a religious residence in the mid-1500s on the Via della Dogana Vecchia. But in 1590, it was acquired by a Genoese prince named Giuseppe Giustiniani. Over time, Giustiniani's descendants bought up surrounding buildings, eventually connecting them together until it comprised the entire city block.
Great big palazzos can look mighty empty unless they get filled up with statuary, paintings, murals and other tchotchkes, which is just what the Giustiniani's set about doing. The artwork collection was reputed to be comprised of more than 1,600 pieces, including paintings by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance period, and even 1st century AD statuary excavated from the remains of Emperor Nero's infamous Baths.

Many additions and modifications were done to the palace over the centuries. Most of the ancient statuary and the most valuable art pieces were sold off over the 1700 and 1800s, and by 1826, the last of the Giustiniani family died out. The building was then acquired by the Grazoli family, and for a while it was rented out as the diplomatic residence of the Tzarist Russian Ambassador to Italy.

The massive palazzo was finally leased to the Freemasons of the Grand Orient of Italy in 1898 for 11,000 lire a year. Three years after that, the Grand Orient purchased the historic building outright for use as its headquarters, and converted several of the largest rooms into magnificent lodge meeting halls.

The ceiling of one gallery is decorated with images of King Solomon.

The same gallery today, stripped of its Masonic furnishings

Solomon looking over the plans for the Temple, in the background.

"Solomon's Judgement," the famous instance of two women claiming to be mothers of
the same newborn child. Solomon calls their bluff, and threatens to cut the child in half,
causing the liar to confess her fraudulent claim.
The opportunity to acquire the building outright was spearheaded in 1901 by the Grand Master (and Mayor of Rome at the time, by the way) Ernesto Nathan – the 7-story, 405-room palace was sold to the Grand Orient for 1,055,000 lire. Accounting for inflation since 1901 and the conversion rate between the Italian Lira and the U.S. Dollar, that original 1,055,000 lire purchase price calculates out to about US$11 billion today.

That's with a B. Give or take.

The Senate set aside space in the Palazzo for the Masons' return after WWII, but about 40 years later even that reduced area became too room for the GOI to deal with. In 1981, the notorious P2 (Propaganda Due) scandal became an international crime headline-grabber. The complex plot involved a former Grand Orient Masonic lodge being operated without a charter by its expelled Worshipful Master, Licio Gelli, with a thousand secret members as a front for organized crime, government corruption, killings, terrorist attacks, bombings, and even the theft of a substantial sum of cash from the Vatican's own bank accounts. Even today, the P2 lodge is often described as a "shadow government," made up of Masons in high-ranking military and government positions.

Even though the P2 lodge was operating illegally and the Grand Orient expelled and denounced all those involved, the European press rarely took care to explain the reality of the situation or make clear that thousands of rank and file Masons had nothing to do with Gelli's crimes. To this day, Freemasons all across Europe are frequently outed by the press and denounced as criminals

In 1985 the fraternity moved its headquarters down the road into a much more modest (but still not-exactly scruffy) home – the Villa Medici del Vascello in Rome (photo below), purchased at that time from Princess Elvina Pallavicini.

Current home of the Grand Oriente d'Italia, in the former Villa Medici del Vascello.
Photo from the GOI website.
A departure agreement made in 1991 with the Senate was supposed to provide a large area at the Palazzo for an Italian Museum of Freemasonry – which never materialized. According to a 1985 article in La Repubblica, four floors of the Palazzo remained partially decorated with imagery of the Masonic fraternity.

NOTE: My own mastery of Italian is limited to "Ciao!" and "Pronto!", asking waiters for my dinner check to be handed over to the wealthier-looking guy at the next table, and shouting down the hall for an extra roll of carta igienica. Consequently, my deciphering details from Italian articles can't be trusted. But below is my probably-terrible English translation – aided by Google Translate:
"[T]he Sancta Sanctorum remains, that is, the main temple of the Grand Orient and five other smaller temples. It is here that at least once a week, at the behest of the grand master, Armando Corona, what the Freemasons call their "ritual work" takes place. Here is the "hall of [winding] steps", here are the Workshops, "sacred spaces above and outside the world", with the entrance located to the west, the blue-vaulted roof dotted with constellations with the signs of the zenith and of the nadir, and the black and white checkered floor to recall that of Solomon's Temple.
"The Grand Master's throne is surmounted by a canopy of blue fabric with gold fringes. On the eastern wall stand the initials of the phrase: "To the glory of the great architect of the universe". The statues of Hercules, Venus and Minerva next to the three flame lamps and the three love knots symbolize strength, beauty and wisdom. Wisdom, for the Grand Master Armando Corona, was to give victory to the Senate, which for years and years had been claiming the four floors of Palazzo Giustiniani occupied by the Grand Orient.
"However, I set one condition," says Corona. "Given that our name derives from the Giustiniani Palace, it is right and indispensable that in this palace the Grand Orient preserves at least one "ubi consistam" – some rooms – in order to symbolically justify its denomination". According to the compromise, three floors for a total of approximately three thousand square meters will be sold to the Senate and - in exchange for a symbolic rent with no deadlines - the first floor will instead be kept for the Grand Orient, where Corona intends to set up a permanent exhibition of the history of Freemasonry and in which the main temple will be maintained for its esoteric rites..."
It's true that governments generally have more money than either Elon Musk or God (in that order), but something tells me that the Italian Senate has no intention of offering to buy their longtime digs back from the Masons for US$11 billion.

From Il Tempo: "Giustiniani Palace. A glimmer of light for the Freemasonry museum/Il Tempo" reported by Riccardo Mazzoni:

After a century of battles, the Freemasons managed to reopen the case of Palazzo Giustiniani, the historic seat of the Grand Orient of Italy expropriated by the fascist regime. The Supreme Court of Cassation has in fact annulled the ruling of the Council of State which had established the jurisdiction of the ordinary judge on the issue, and the TAR will therefore have to judge.
The Grand Orient of Italy had denounced the lack of the preliminary condition of the legitimate exercise of the power of the Italian State, i.e. the failure to declare the nullity of the deed of sale drawn up way back in 1911 in favor of Urbs (real estate company of the Grand Orient of Italy), with the consequence that, since the ownership deed in the company remained in force, the pre-emption decree issued by the government could not constitute a transfer deed in favor of the latter, an argument fully accepted by the Supreme Court.
The Grand Orient of Italy reiterated that the judicial initiative is aimed exclusively at restoring the truth of the facts to history, "in the full conviction that historical truth represents the foundation of the essence of the democratic state".
"The united sections of the Court of Cassation, Grand Master Stefano," Bisi told Tempo, "agreed with us: we denounced and argued that the fascist regime could not legitimately exercise the right of pre-emption on Palazzo Giustiniani because the purchase deed had not been declared null and void in our favor. Now I hope that the President of the Senate Ignazio La Russa will summon us to find an agreement to hand over at least those 140 square meters to make the museum of Italian Freemasonry as foreseen by the agreement signed in 1991 by President Giovanni Spadolini and the Grand Orient of Italy."
The judicial process was restarted by the will of the current council at the end of July 2020: thanks to painstaking work done in the archives of the Grand Orient of Italy, fundamental documents were recovered thanks to which an appeal was presented to the TAR of Lazio on 29 July 2020 against the Senate «for the investigation and declaration of the abusive occupation of Palazzo Giustiniani, the historic seat of Freemasonry which was acquired by force of public property, with a sham transaction which forced the Grand Orient to recognize the legitimacy of the expropriation". But for this renunciation the fascist state promised compensation, and this was the basis that opened the way to the appeal. The one faced by the Freemasonry of Palazzo Giustiniani was an authentic judicial ordeal, starting from the sentence of '53 of the Court of Appeal of Rome which declared the action for annulment due to the defect of consent causing violence to be extinguished "by statute of limitations", because the The action "should have been carried out within five years of the events", i.e. in the period in which fascism exercised its maximum violence. A paradoxical motivation, therefore. The Lazio Regional Administrative Court's ruling in December 2021, confirmed by the Council of State, then constituted yet another mockery, sending the dispute back to the jurisdiction of the ordinary judge. Now the Court of Cassation has brought justice, and the hope is that the final word will be put to an end to an affair which certainly does no credit to the republican state, which for decades has in fact legitimized an abuse of power perpetrated by the fascist regime with violence. Alongside judicial truth, therefore, there is also a political and institutional question of great importance: the repudiation of a false right acquired through a crime against humanity, which was in effect the persecution of the Freemasons culminating in the hunt merciless on the night of San Bartolomeo. "It cannot be tolerated," Bisi stated on several occasions, "that an undue claim by a State like Italy, which is the homeland of Democracy, Justice and Freedom, could be based on this crime." © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Pdazzo Giustiniani It was the historic headquarters of the Grand Orient of Italy (LaPresse)

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