The Albanian-Italian Skanderbeg square complex, later known as the National Theater, is symbolically and fundamentally connected with Albanians’ state formation history.
The construction of this futuristic complex marked the institutionalization of culture in Albania.
With the laying of its foundations, in January 1938, the parliament of the Albanian Kingdom approved the first law on cinema and theater in Albania, as well as the foundation of the first Institute of Albanian Studies.
Beyond cultural significance, the backstory of its construction would mark the end of an important era, that of the golden 1930s. Its collapse, today, may be the prelude to another era for Albanians.
The story begins in 1937, a decisive year for the reign of King Zog.
The monarch pompously celebrated the 25th anniversary of Albania’s independence. But the waters of his relations with the Italians, often turbulent, were on the verge of a new storm. The arrival of Mussolini’s son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, at the helm of Italian foreign policy would also change the attitude towards Zog.
Aware of these changes in Italy and the country warming up to Yugoslavia, Zogu reacted by forming a more pro-Italian government after the overthrow of Mehdi Frashëri’s cabinet.
Meanwhile, the Italians had invested heavily in two directions of their policy towards Albania. First, marrying Zog to an Italian noble, in order to carry out a customs union between the two countries, which would give Italy control over the Albanian economy.
The Italians were so persistent that, in the shadows, they disrupted some of Zog’s potential engagements with foreign nobles.
In 1937, British diplomats in Rome found that Zog’s men had been negotiating with a Hungarian countess for months, trying to persuade her to become queen of the Albanians. As soon as the Italians learned of the negotiations, they got involved some of their nobles who managed to temporarily thwart Zog’s plan.
Meanwhile, the Albanian Minister of Economy Terenc Toçi proposed a bill for the unification of customs tariffs with Italy to the Albanian Parliament. The bill would have made trading with other countries almost impossible, and Albanian lawmakers rejected it.
As a result of these developments, the end of 1937 found relations between the two countries significantly strained.
Accustomed to Zog’s stubbornness, the Italians turned to a policy of seduction with regards to the Albanian monarch. The Italian diplomat Francesco Jacomoni offered him a plan for large investments in education, something that the country had been missing for a long time.
Among the promised investments were: a new building for the French Lyceum of Korca, which would be called the Albanian Lyceum; several vocational schools; material and scientific equipment; funding for teachers’ salaries and the construction of a large library in Tirana.
The king was also provided with full funding for the new royal palace, while the Italians brought a yacht for his personal use to Durrës.
The Italians believed that they hit the bull’s eye with this new approach and, to make an even bigger impression on Zog, under the personal care of Foreign Minister Ciano, work for the construction of the Albanian-Italian Skanderbeg square complex started.
The Albanian parliament responded to this initiative for the construction of the largest and only cultural center in Albania, by passing the first Albanian cultural law, “On Cinema and Theater”, which regulated and institutionalized artistic life in the country through administrators and cultural boards.
But without the foundations of the cultural complex being properly laid, King Zog made public his engagement to the Hungarian countess Geraldine Apony, who had been his guest at the end-of-year ball.
Meanwhile, an Italian-sponsored foreign trade bill was blocked again in parliament.
Both, typical moves of Zog after having gained the construction of the complex and the irreversible commitment of the Italians to other promised investments.
However, Zog’s actions angered the Italians, who were also faced with a sudden international development, Germany and Austria’s unification. The great investment over two decades in an attempt to turn Albania into Italian “land” was being jeopardized by Hitler who was believed would extend his influence over the former Austro-Hungarian empire and, consequently, over the stubborn Albanian king.
For this reason, Count Ciano decided to confront Zog directly. He agreed to serve as witness in King Zog’s marriage to Geraldine. During the wedding, Ciano took offense at Zog’s sisters pointing out that their brother did not marry an Italian maid.
Moreover, Austrian hegemony visibly manifested in King Zog’s tastes, the freedom Zog’s sisters had in confronting him, and the possibility of Austrian influence being restored in the Balkans via the Germans “infuriated” Ciano.
A day after the wedding, Ciano insisted on a meeting with King Zog, who, although on his honeymoon, received the Italian foreign minister at his holiday villa in Durres.
The meeting only added to the minister’s suspicions. The 20-year Italian investment in Albania seemed to be going to waste. In his diary, Ciano noted that he was leaving Albania with the conviction that”a radical solution for Albania” was now needed.
Upon his arrival in Rome, he had his first meeting with Benito Mussolini. Ciano gave his impressions and demanded a total shift of policy towards Albania, even offering war as an option.
With the unification of Austria and Germany, Ciano believed that German penetration in the Balkans was only a matter of time, and even believed that, in Albania, this penetration had already started with the most special present at Zog’s wedding, an impressive Mercedes, which the German dictator Adolf Hitler had gifted to Zog.
Ciano left Musolini with a piece of copper, recently discovered by excavations in Lezha, telling him: “Behold, the figs of Cartagena”, a metaphor from ancient Rome to show how close the enemy was.
On the other hand, Mussolini’s son-in-law could not stand the fact that Zog spoke German, ordered his clothing from Vienna, and was surrounded by Viennese furniture.
A few days after returning from Tirana, Ciano drafted a formal memorandum requesting the complete annexation of Albania.
The rest of the story is familiar. Italian fascists invaded Albania on April 7, 1939.
Zogu left Albania without seeing the completion of the complex of the Albanian-Italian Skanderbeg square complex, nor that of the new Royal Palace, realized by the same architect.
The construction of the first contemporary theater in Albania came to an end with the end of Zog’s reign in Albania.