A Look Into Forte Prenestino

From military fort to city dump and now a thriving self-managed social center, Rome’s Forte Prenestino has seen it all.

Forte Prenestino
Artwork at Forte Prenestino. Photo: Jana Godshall
This land is your land, and this land is my land. This land was made for you and me. 

It’s a nice sentiment that we sing and say, but do we actually mean it? Is it our land? Do we really want to share it? Most of us have limits when it comes to sharing ice-cream (gelato), so when it comes to land, people can be pretty stingy. 

From two farmers arguing over a patch of land, to countries waging war over borderlines, conflicts have continued to happen over property. Land supports the human notion of power so it usually plays a role in battle, and it figures its way into disputes around the world. Instead of being happy with our own little square patch of land and seeing how immaculate we could make it, we see our neighbor’s square and want it.  Now, we see war more commonly connected to oil, but where does oil come from? Land. Thus, our problems are always landlocked. 

Why are we short-handed when it comes to our things, our property and our land? In my own experience, it’s from the idea of something being earned. Well, I earned it. Why does everyone — especially those not putting forth the same effort — get to benefit from my hard work? Why should we split the commission? Instead of wanting everyone to be happy, successful or have any land, we refuse to share what we believe is rightfully ours because as we see it, we earned it more than them.  

This idea goes back to primitive tribes and how they shared their food. There were tribes where the hunter-gatherers shared food equally. No one got more food than the other. The hunters who ‘earned’ the food equally distributed the meals with every member of the tribe. There were other tribes who didn’t operate this way. Yes, the hunters would share the food, but the hunters got the best cut of meat. In their mind, they earned it, so they determined who got what. So in this tribe, the hunter could eat the juicy pork shoulder, while a less motivated member of the tribe might have to content themselves with a shriveled old pig testicle. You can see how these tribes contributed to what we now know as communism and capitalism. 

Street art as statement at Forte Prenestino. Photo: Jana Godshall

The equal distribution of food (land) and ideas is an ideology of communism. One work isn’t any more significant than the other; therefore everyone gets the same education, chicken breast, bed, etc. The ideologies of capitalism and communism are both good. Historically, communism has been executed by dictators and therefore led to extreme totalitarianism, which fast-forward to now and it’s easy to understand why many people have a guard up when it comes to communism. And when you talk communism to the biggest capitalist country in the world — America — communism is understood as taking away your individual liberty and your freedoms. But this isn’t the idea behind communism. In certain parts of the world, it’s understood as a form of social equality and togetherness. 

Americans thrive on freedoms, but also on a social class system and taking away this social structure would cause chaos. Can you imagine Jeff Bezos flying coach or not having access to the best medicine? And why is there better medicine or better treatment for the rich? In a capitalist society money gives you social advantages and economic resources that the poor will never have. But honestly, it’s a global epidemic because there are underfunded hospitals and schools everywhere. The problem is why does a poor child have less resources than a rich one? It’s not the child’s fault that they don’t have rich parents, and if we continue to have better programs for the rich, then society basically only functions to support creating better lives for them too. 

This notion along with poor working conditions for the lower-class incited the Industrial Revolution. People like Marx and Engels were all, ‘Whoa bro. The poor are working twenty hour days and making pennies. That ain’t right’. And they wrote a manifesto but, like any revered book, it has been severely misinterpreted. Look at how many people have misinterpreted the Bible. The Klu Klux Klan quoted Bible passages and said slavery and one white race was the word of God.

I’m getting really off track here, but my point is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, capitalism, communism, socialism all have a beautiful ideology. And honestly, capitalism is the more self-serving of these ‘isms’. The idea behind most of the ones mentioned are equality and communal based. Take my last penny. Take the shirt off my back. What is mine is yours sort of -ology. This is why people want to live on communes or intentional communities. They want to share responsibility and pleasures. Everyone can reap the rewards equally. It’s an -ology that many of us who grew up in a capitalist society tend to think of as a fairy tale or not really practical. 

Forte Prenestino
Walls around Forte Prenestino. Photo: Jana Godshall

This brings me to my first experience at Forte Prenestino, in Rome, which was incredibly memorable. I want to completely applaud the efforts this organization brings to helping the community. And they created a space that everyone in the city can appreciate. You can come and enjoy their square patch of land, and if you needed the help, you could probably even stay there.

Forte Prenestino is located in Centocelle, a gritty yet vibrant neighborhood giving those who wander her streets a look at an authentic Roman lifestyle. The fort is in a park, and right away you realize that it’s something unique. You enter via a tunnel covered in graffiti. Messages of unification and peace splatter the walls. In the middle of the entrance tunnel, there’s a poster with the following words, “The Arabic term ‘Al Masha’ refers to the communal land equally distributed among farmers. Masha could only exist if people decided to cultivate the land together. The moment they stop cultivating it, they lose its possession. It is possession through a common use. Thus, what appears to be fundamental is that, in order for this category to exist, it must be activated by common uses. Al Masha only exists if people are constantly producing it.” Permanent Temporariness, Daar. It’s evident that this fort is made for the people and by its people and that the land must be cultivated, together. And, obviously, the message goes beyond the fort. The message is that all land should be cultivated together.

The ‘Al Masha’ message. Photo: Jana Godshall

Forte Prenestino is a self-functioning social community built and created by anti-capitalists. Because this community has taken over the fort and they do not pay the government anything, they are technically squatters. In Italy, there is a much more romantic and revolutionary notion with the term ‘squatter’. And while, yes, they are essentially squatting by living rent-free and doing what they want with the land, they are doing a lot of good for the people and the neighborhood. It is a supportive community with idyllic ideas. They offer educational and creative classes, foods and goods; they offer talks, concerts, cinema nights; they have a hair salon, a bee farm, and much more. Forte Prenestino was originally built in the 1880s for the military, but by the 1950s it was an abandoned, unoccupied space, and starting in 1977 it was used as a dump by the city.  In 1986, a group of compagni (which translates to friends/comrades) decided to form an organization with Forte Prenestino as its headquarters. 

Quick historical anecdote, in the late 1800s Russian Marxists used the word KAMERAD (‘business companion’) as a way to address others in international social democracy in reference to the labor movement. Now, the word ‘comrade’ can be a trigger word in certain parts of the world, but its origins date back to international discussions over fair working environments. 

Okay, back on message. The year was 1986, and groups of Italian compangi realized the fort could be something else, something better. Okay, well it was being used as a city dump so anything better isn’t much of a stretch, but they definitely exceeded expectations. They didn’t ask for permission, but together, they created a community for like-minded individuals, and it continues to thrive today.

With futuristic metal sculptures of fictitious animals and colorful murals, it feels a bit like a post-apocalyptic faction. Imagine a hippie community, but instead of hippies they’re neo-Marxist activists. They work together for the existence of their society. I spoke with two members of Forte Prenestino, both who want their names off-the-record, so I will refer to them as The Millennial and The Original.  

When I asked The Millennial — donning a green vest and baggy jeans — how they divided up the jobs or how that process works, he quickly corrected me, “We don’t have jobs or titles. We don’t work. We participate. Together. It’s different.” Which I get because we all know the famous saying, Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. I understood that they are there to participate, rather than work, but obviously the person who can’t play the guitar isn’t the one giving guitar lessons. The person who doesn’t know the difference between Powerpoint and Excel isn’t giving computer tutorials, but I understood the sentiment, and I’m sure they all take turns taking out the trash.

Sculpture and entrance to Forte Prenestino. Photo: Jana Godshall

The problem with expanding on this system is what happens if money becomes more relative. If the reality TV show Survivor didn’t have a cash prize, I imagine the show would be really sweet, and instead of watching people lie and backstab one another, you’d watch them come together and figure out how to flourish and prosper. But when you throw a million dollars at the scenario, people get vicious. If money was on the line here in Prenestino would it make ‘participation’ different? The Millennial shook his head. I was missing the point. “It’s not about money. It’s not for money,” he said stroking his chin. 

I smiled. “Yes, but unfortunately you still live in the rest of the world, which is about money. So, how is the place more than a hobby? How is it a functioning lifestyle?” Before The Millennial was able to answer me, The Original walked up. He was a short and thin man of 70. His fitted long sleeve button down was tucked neatly in his jeans. His eyeglasses were vintage chrome metal aviators with a beveled eye frame. He didn’t have any quirks or ticks. He never touched his face or shifted his feet. He didn’t fiddle with his glasses or even have any exaggerated facial expressions.  

The Original told me that he isn’t technically a founder as he arrived in 1988, two years after it formed. I was offered a glass of natural wine, and guided by The Original throughout the entire space. It’s quite large, and while there are probably more exciting events at night, it’s really special to see the fort during the day. There are booths filled with food and wine vendors. There is a huge space for concerts and speeches. There are nooks and crannies and even an underground area which were originally cells, ‘the hundred cells’ which is what the neighborhood, Centocelle, is named after — cento, means 100, and celle, means cells. Remember, it was originally a military fort.

When I asked him how the transition from city dump to a social-center-safe-haven got started, he explained that in 1981, General Dozier, an American, was kidnapped from NATO by Red Brigades. If you don’t know, the Red Brigades were the combative organization of the Communist Party. The Red Brigades were a terrorist group, but that doesn’t mean that communists agree with the Red Brigades, because no civil person ever agrees with terrorism. 

Imagine a hundred years from now, when people read history books and learn how American republican terrorists stormed their nation’s capital and killed innocent people. It would be unfair to clump all republicans together. Not all republicans stormed the capital and killed innocent people. That was only a small percentage. Not all republicans are terrorists, right? Every big organization has extremists who throw the rulebook of humanity and normal decency away and cause chaos. 

General Dozier was eventually rescued, but the kidnapping created this nervousness around communism. The Italian police worked with the American government and wanted to interrogate all communists at that time. This caused uneasiness in the area. Communists didn’t want to leave their houses, and they definitely didn’t want to congregate. Many were arrested just for being associated with the party. It was a sensitive time. The Original explained that there were many that still appreciated the ideals of communism, but instead of forming something political they wanted to do something more outside the party. This birthed the transformation of Forte Prenestino from dump to a self-managed social center.

Forte Prenestino
Bee farm at Forte Prenestino. Photo: Jana Godshall

The Original led the way up a little hill where we could appreciate a panoramic view of the space. When we reached the top of the hill, he proudly showed me the bee farm. The organization makes honey. And as we stood there next to the apiary taking in the sun, looking down at the fort, it was easy to imagine that being a part of a social center like this could really give you a sense of community in the purest and simplest way. The reason it wouldn’t be for me is because I’m not a good team player. I would probably be the first to point out that I got toilet duty two times in the same week. I think I would fare well for a little while, but could I do it forever? Doubtful. I like creating my own schedule, and I often require a lot of downtime and something I call ‘free space hours’. I’m not ready to abandon all my necessary ‘me time’.

Graffiti at Forte Prenestino. Photo: Jana Godshall

And while I’m sure modern conveniences and tools like smartphones and social media have helped Forte Prenestino, as I stood on the hill’s edge and admired the greenery and surrounding art, I couldn’t help but think that it was probably better before — not when it was a city dump, but before Twitter and selfies and social media influencers. Now, you can have visitors and tourists stopping by the space solely for Instagram moments without really caring about the message. The conveniences the future has given us have simultaneously stripped us from not only simplicity but sincerity too. When I asked The Original what was the best time of Forte Prenestino, it came as no surprise when he told me that it was the 90s and early 2000s. At this time the fort was established but operated in a simpler way. People were more on-message. Activists were more active. There were more campaigns advocating for change. He mentioned that it’s easier to be less on-message now because there are more social functions and concerts. He pointed out that now there are those that respect the place and others who just come for the spectacle. 

The Original had his hands in his pockets. He looked at me wondering if I had any more questions. 

“And what about the world. Was it better before too?” 


I do think Forte Prenestino should be on your list of places to see when you’re in Rome. Don’t worry, you can still take the Instagram selfie next to a futuristic metal sculpture and make a peace sign under a ‘United’ banner, but at least now you have some context. This was a place built for the people by the people in direct opposition of ‘the system’. You can drink a glass of wine and peruse the space and understand just how lucky we are to walk on someone’s square patch of land and do so freely. Because, after all, the land is yours and mine.