Rome — A pair of magnificent limousines built in the 1920s stand parked outside Rome's Colosseum: one a 1925 Isotta Fraschini favored by Hollywood stars of the time, the other a more sporting 1926 Ansaldo Torpedo. A few yards away, a gasoline pump and a snub-nosed electric train complete the tableau.
These are just a sample of the pieces that make up an unprecedented historical exhibition entitled ''The Italian Economy Between the Wars,'' which occupies a sizable section of that renowned landmark also known as the Flavian Amphitheater.
It is one of those rare and recent glimpses of what Italy undertook and accomplished as a nation in the years that Benito Mussolini built his fascist dictatorship. In 1982, a show of Italian art in the '30s attracted visitors from every part of the wide Italian political spectrum and caused surprisingly little controversy. The Colosseum show is a more blatant statement of the surging development of Italy's industry, agriculture, and economic growth in the '20s and '30s.
Not all of it was successful, but some enterprises were profitable and became the basis of present-day sources of national income. In 1936, the development and growth of Italian industry was second only to that of the Soviet Union, according to some historians. It was a period that saw the birth of many present-day state industrial holdings such as IRI (Institute for Industrial Reconstruction) and IMI (Italian Institute of Real Estate Development), and the growth of independent automobile industries like Fiat and Alfa Romeo. ''Every time I see an Alfa Romeo, I take off my hat,'' Henry Ford once said.
In those years, too, the aircraft industry literally took off. In 1936, a group of audacious Italian pilots flew in formation across the Atlantic to Chicago from Orbetello on the Tyrhennian coast under their fascist commander, Italo Balbo. Civil aviation mushroomed to the extent that by 1939, three Italian airlines served 71 national and international routes, with the first transatlantic air route opening in December 1939 beween Rome and Rio de Janeiro. More home industries grew under names like Olivetti, Pirelli, Agip. Italy came to the fore in the world of nuclear physics with Enrico Fermi and Ettore Maiorano, and, with radio communications fostered by Guglielmo Marconi, nationwide Italian radio was born in 1925.
In themselves, the 1,600 exhibits are an otherwise unremarkable collection of photographs, posters, documents, and printed explanations, coupled with early industrial products and sundry memorabilia - Italy's first helicopter, an early Olivetti typewriter, the first Fiat runabout car, and collections of haute couture clothing.
But the significance of the show lies not so much in the exhibits as in the era they chronicle - and in the fact that it was put on at all. It is only in this decade that Italians have begun to look at their fascist history between the wars with a dispassionate eye. Those who lived through it as adults or children tend to regard it with either nostalgia or shame. But these feelings seem to have died down: In a recent survey carried out by the weekly l'Espresso on the events which Italians feel have most conditioned their lives and their country over the last 50 years, 36.2 percent put terrorism at the top of the list, while fascism came a poor second with 16.6 percent.
''Even up to a few years ago there was a real fear that Italy could precipitate into a right-wing dictatorship,'' says Piero Melograni, a historian. ''But today there is without a doubt far less passion on all sides. ...''
Further proof of the impartial view that now prevails concerning the ''Black Twenty Years'' (Il Ventennio Nero), as the fascist period is commonly known, is that the Colosseum exhibition was organized by Rome's left-wing city government under Communist Mayor Ugo Vetere and Socialist Deputy Mayor Pier Luigi Severi, with collaboration from the Institute of Post University Studies of Industrial Organization.
''Italy's economy at that time in many cases was in line with the economic evolution of the times and with the scientific development going on abroad,'' maintains economic historian Massimo Finoia.
''We are by no means trying to exalt fascism,'' says Deputy Mayor Severi. ''We are merely trying to look more closely at an era of great transformation which goes beyond the regime of that time.''
The exhibits themselves necessarily smack of fascism. There are photographs of Mussolini wielding a pick during his rebuilding campaign in Rome and working with farmers gathering and threshing corn in the agricultural policy drive to make Italy self-sufficient in grain. A poster hails the first civil airline flight from Rome to Asmara, in Ethiopia, Italy's newfound empire.
But both the explanations accompanying the exhibits and the experiences of history have already shown the failure of so many seemingly triumphant undertakings. Italian agriculture, for example, never reached self-sufficiency. The Ethiopian empire soon came to an end. And many of the fascist building projects such as Eur (the model city just outside Rome) are deemed eyesores. The Italian film industry, so eagerly embarked on in the '30s, produced eminently forgettable films during that period, most of which were outright fascist propaganda.
In February, the exhibition goes to Turin for a few months. It may then go to New York City next spring through an agreement with Pace University of New York, where the show is to be housed.