Predappio is a quiet little town of some 6,100 inhabitants in the rich Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, some 150 miles north of Rome. It is known today mostly for its annual fair of songbirds and as the place where Mussolini was born in 1883. Here, more than a decade after his violent death in 1945, Mussolini was finally laid to rest like an ancient tribal king, in a stately underground “crypt”—mausoleum might be a more appropriate word—and here his remaining fans still worship him three times a year. Two of Mussolini’s favorite architects, Florestano Di Fausto and Cesare Bassani, had built the crypt in 1930, a high point in the dictator’s career.
At that time he had been courted by both Winston Churchill (“If I were Italian I would don the Fascist Black Shirt”) and Adolf Hitler (in Mein Kampf). The Pope called him “a man of Providence.” Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, compared him to Cromwell, and Cardinal O’Connell of Boston said he was a “genius in the field of government given to Italy by God.”1 He is also said to have enjoyed wide popular support. In a fascinating new book, The Body of Il Duce, Sergio Luzzatto observes that “for twenty years after Mussolini’s march on Rome of October 1922…the majority of Italians passionately loved Il Duce.” There is evidence that his popularity was particularly strong in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the country was stable, there was little effective opposition, and Mussolini had not yet begun his disastrous military adventurism. But it is difficult to accurately measure the true extent of his following in a one-party state that had resorted to government terrorism and still seriously curtailed the freedom of the press.
The reasons for Mussolini’s rise to power were complex. Italy after World War I was a divided, crisis-ridden country and conservatives, socialists, and Catholics were unable to agree on a common program. Mussolini saw the instability as a chance to build up a base of supporters, some of them angry veterans, who were willing to use violence and intimidation to achieve power. The march on Rome itself was a show of force, even though there were far fewer Blackshirts supporting Mussolini than he later claimed, and most were poorly armed. “I could have turned this deaf and grey Chamber into a bivouac for my legions,” he said to the Chamber of Deputies after being nominated as prime minister by a panicking, dim-witted king. “I could have barred up parliament and formed a government only of Fascists. I could have, but I have not wanted to, at least not for the moment.”2
It was the beginning of Mussolini’s emergence as a dictator, which in the absence of a clear Fascist majority was made possible by the intimidation and assassination of his main political opponents and, as Luzzatto suggests, by his ability to act out the role of a powerful leader—a quality that apparently held a lasting fascination for a broad cross-section of Italians. Some of his opponents were imprisoned or banished to remote islands, others fled the country. His principal opponent, Giacomo Matteotti, was found stabbed to death.
Mussolini famously built roads, bridges, railway stations, and new towns. He drained swamps and he stabilized the currency and the economy enough to win economic support from the United States and Britain throughout the 1920s. Partly owing to the influence of his Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, he tolerated modernism in the arts (though, of course, this hardly exonerates him for his deeds; nor does it explain the lingering nostalgia for him in some circles). In art and architecture, the regime drew on the work and ideas of members of the Italian avant-garde, and fostered movements like futurism and rationalism. Despite censorship, anti-Fascist writers such as Alberto Moravia managed to publish books during most of the Fascist period. In an interview Moravia described how, in 1940, the Ministry of Culture passed the decision on his La mascherata, an allegorical satire on dictatorship, all the way up to Mussolini, who ordered that it be published—then, a month after it appeared, the book was withdrawn. About the censors, Moravia told the interviewer,
They started out, however, rather liberal. With time they grew worse. Besides filling up the ministry with timid grammar-school teachers, the censors were also either bureaucrats or failed writers; and heaven help you if your book fell into the hands of one of those “writers”!3
Mussolini was not a monstrous psychopath like Hitler but he was bad enough, especially in his persecution of Jews after 1938 and his willingness to drag Italy into the worst disaster Italians had seen in centuries. By joining with the Axis powers, he bears responsibility for more than half a million casualties, bombed-out, ruined cities, the destruction of homes, public works, and fortunes, and the loss of priceless historical and artistic treasures. Mussolini entered the war through vanity and recklessness, ignoring the advice of his inner circle. They knew that the army was ill-trained and ill-equipped. His battleships were built for speed and glamour, not for withstanding artillery and torpedoes. His air force was antiquated and had only enough fuel for sixty days. He never had eight million soldiers, as he claimed, but barely two.
That a man with this record still finds a small number of admirers more than sixty years after his death is not easy to explain. On each of the anniversaries of Mussolini’s birth, his rise to power, and his death, an oddly mixed crowd—true believers in dark suits and ties together with skinheads in black shirts, curiosity-seeking tourists, and necrophiles—still descends on Predappio, as it has since 1957, when his remains were finally buried there. It keeps the police busy and gives the city a bad name. On his most recent birthday, on July 29, the municipality of Predappio complained of a recurring incubo (nightmare) on the front page of the leading regional newspaper.
In the early years of the postwar republic, it was said that the day before Mussolini’s death most Italians were Fascists but on the following day most were convinced democrats. In truth, a brutal civil war raged between 1943 and 1945 between Fascists and anti-Fascists of various political persuasions: Communists, Catholics, socialists, liberals, and monarchists. This was followed in 1945 by a second civil war, dominated by the Communists, that was perhaps even more traumatic than the first, and lasted until 1947. In northern Italy and in the so-called “Triangle of Death” (Modena-Reggio-Bologna), Communist partisans had come to regard the resistance as a class war. Italian communism had always been revolutionary, with the declared aim of seizing power by force. Communist partisans attacked not only Fascist notables but also businessmen, shopkeepers, manufacturers, landowners, farmers, and priests.4 According to recent estimates, perhaps thousands of such “class enemies” were killed. The attacks came to a complete stop only when, on the eve of a general election, the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, in a famous speech in Reggio-Emilia, warned that the violence was giving the Party a bad name.
The legacy of these civil wars left a long shadow on Italian politics and culture. In the early postwar years, many on the far right continued to regard Mussolini as a model of strong leadership. This was particularly true of members of the lower middle classes of central and southern Italy, who had not experienced the Duce’s return as a German puppet dictator in northern Italy during the final months of World War II, or witnessed the civil wars that followed. The left, for their part, saw him as Italy’s worst nightmare. But neither the Communists nor, during the first postwar decade, the Christian Democrats offered Italy an effective model of democratic government. The Communists remained suspect because of their “fraternal” relations with the Soviet Union. For the dominant Christian Democrats, “antifascism” had a far lower priority than maintaining a stable pro-Western regime through an ever-changing series of coalitions with smaller parties of the center-right and center-left.
The Christian Democrats were anti-Fascist in principle but also knew that many of their constituents had supported Mussolini. Describing Italy’s continuing dependence on former Fascist officials, Tony Judt, in his recent book Postwar, writes that “as late as 1960, 62 out of the 64 prefects responsible for Italy’s provincial administration had held office under Fascism, as had all 135 police chiefs.” Domestically, the party concentrated its efforts on building an alliance of trade unions, big industry, and the Church, while its foreign policy was governed by allegiance to the United States during the cold war. For much of these early years, the party downplayed the Fascist period. By the 1960s, however, the effects of economic growth and democratic culture had begun to transform Italian society and, as Luzzatto observes, “Il Duce ceased to hold an important place in Italian hearts.”
When postwar governments tried to deal with Italy’s Fascist heritage, they often did so with ambivalence. The 1957 Scelba Act, for example, prohibited demonstrations in which neo-Fascists wore black shirts or made the Fascist salute. But it proved unenforceable during the first major pilgrimage to Predappio that year. When they were stopped, the neo-Fascist participants simply stripped to their undershirts.
In Predappio, Mussolini’s ghost is still not exorcised. The crowds that descend on the town each year get a mixed welcome from the locals. Most consider them a nuisance. Yet in the last municipal elections no fewer than 19 percent voted for the National Alliance, the party that is the successor of the now defunct, openly neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). Gianfranco Fini, the Alliance’s national leader, also led the MSI before its dissolution. He is now Prime Minister Berlusconi’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, and has been mentioned as a possible successor to Berlusconi. According to the local tourist information office, before Fini announced his conversion to democracy in 1995, he, too, used to come to Predappio as a pilgrim to the shrine. In 1994 he still called Mussolini the greatest European statesman of the twentieth century. He has since conceded that the great man made some mistakes, mainly the racial laws of 1938. For taking this position, he has been honored in Israel on four recent visits. Ariel Sharon hailed him as Israel’s best friend in an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe.
On average, around 100,000 visitors visit the crypt every year, according to a woman I talked to in the municipal tourist information office. Very few come here for other reasons, she said. Many are Italy-firsters, hard-liners by temperament who have nostalgia for a time when Italy was still governed, as they put it, by “real men.” Some come to protest the invasion of Italy by hordes of immigrant workers, mostly from Albania but also from Africa and the Middle East. They come wearing black T-shirts with Mussolini’s picture and inscriptions on the back saying “proteggi il tuo simile—destruggi il resto” (“protect your kind, destroy the rest”).
Still others are elderly army veterans in somber suits covered with war medals. And there are noisy small mobs of young toughs, some with shaved heads, tattooed bodies, and rings in their noses, wearing black shirts inscribed “Viva Italia,” “Viva il duce” and “Skin-heads d’Italia.” They click their heels as they enter the mausoleum, give the Fascist salute, and stand stiffly to attention as they face the Duce’s tomb. The Fascist salute is still illegal in Italy but the law is rarely enforced. A year ago, Paolo Di Canio, a famous soccer player for Lazio, a Rome team, gave the salute to his fans in the bleachers and was fined a few hundred euros. Gianfranco Fini’s wife and two fellow National Alliance parliamentarians were reported to have volunteered to pay the fine for him. Unable to stem the flow of undesirable pilgrims, the leftist coalition that has run the Predappio municipal council since 1949 has at least tried to have the last word: it named the wide boulevard leading to the tomb Via Martiri della Libertà in honor of the Duce’s most determined enemies during the war, the partisans who had fought and killed him in the end.
Eleven days before the end of World War II, a detachment of these partisans caught Mussolini disguised in a German military overcoat and a helmet that covered most of his face. The man who famously wrote “if I advance, follow me, if I withdraw, kill me!” and “better to die as a lion than live forever as a sheep” had abandoned his wife and children and was heading for the Swiss frontier with his mistress, Claretta Petacci. He had brought with him an immense hoard of gold ingots, jewelry, and Swiss, British, and American banknotes lifted from the National Bank. It was, according to Luzzatto, worth about $2 billion in today’s money. A partisan commander named Walter Audisio, later a Communist member of parliament, shot and killed Mussolini and Petacci outside the ornate gate of a villa on Lake Como.
On the following morning, Audisio’s men took the bodies to Milan, which had just been liberated, and threw them on the Piazzale Loreto. The choice of place was deliberate. A few days before, on this same piazza, the Nazis had dealt similarly with the bodies of partisans they had killed. The bodies of Mussolini and Petacci were trampled, mutilated, and urinated on by men and women. Some were armed and fired into the corpses. A woman tried to shatter the Duce’s skull with a hammer. Then Mussolini and Petacci were hung head down from the roof of a gas station, their hands spread out in a gesture of total surrender, giving the bodies the appearance of inverted crucifixes. During the ensuing autopsy, the morgue door was left open, allowing all comers to walk past and watch nurses play ball with Mussolini’s liver. This horrific episode was satisfying to many at the time and shocked many others. Edmund Wilson, arriving in Milan a few weeks later, wrote in his diary that over the entire city hung the stink of this defilement: “Italians would stop you in the bars and show you photographs they had taken of it.”5
Mussolini’s corpse was hurriedly put away in an unmarked grave. From there it was abducted by Fascist loyalists. After its recovery, the government hid it successfully for twelve years. The Predappio crypt remained empty. His widow, Rachele, had prepared a massive stone sarcophagus for him inside the mausoleum. She implored the government in the name of Christian charity to allow Mussolini “to come home.” The government refused. When it finally acceded, it was the result not of Christian mercy but of political horse-trading. In the spring of 1957, the Christian Democrat Prime Minister Adone Zoli was charged with forming a new coalition to sustain his minority government. Unable to reach an agreement with the smaller parties of the center-left, he entered an alliance with the neo-Fascist MSI and the small monarchist party. In return, the neo-Fascists demanded permission to return Mussolini’s remains to Predappio. A decisive figure in this deal, as Luzzatto recounts, was Domenico Leccisi, who offered “the modest vote of a Fascist” to support Zoli’s government. Leccisi was the fanatic who, a few months after the Duce’s death, had managed to steal the dictator’s half-disintegrated body from its unmarked grave in Milan, a feat that laid the groundwork for a long career as a neo-Fascist member of parliament.6
Leccisi understood the importance of political symbols. He began his career as a writer for Lotta Fascista and by burning posters advertising Roberto Rossellini’s antiwar film Roma, città aperta. He did his best to keep the dead Duce in the news. One of his accomplices in the theft was a fashionable Milanese priest, Father Alberto Parini, the confessor of elderly rich ladies. The priest helped Leccisi hide the corpse for several months inside a small trunk deposited in the magnificent Certosa di Pavia, the fifteenth-century church and monastery that is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy.
Neither man was indicted for the theft. When Leccisi was finally arrested and the body recovered several months later, he was charged only with circulating false banknotes. Along with other prominent Fascists, he was soon given an amnesty by the then justice minister, Palmiro Togliatti, the secretary of the Communist Party. Upon his release from jail, Leccisi became a popular hero and was pursued by paparazzi wherever he went. The priest was excused for his role in the body’s theft.
After Leccisi’s arrest, the government did not want to return the body to Mussolini’s distraught widow or hold a public funeral. Instead, the corpse was hidden again on orders from the prime minister and given a secret Christian burial on the grounds of a nearby Capuchin monastery. The secret was better kept this time, but it also helped Mussolini stay in the public imagination, as the popular weeklies spent the next decade engaging in bizarre speculations about the body’s whereabouts. In 1957, when Mussolini’s coffin was finally released to the widow, thousands streamed to Predappio to welcome it. Their buses were stoned on Predappio’s main street. They kept coming for weeks on end. Forced by police to take off their black shirts before entering the cemetery, many entered in undershirts, or bare-chested, a sight reminiscent of the frequent photos showing the disrobed Duce in his better days.
He had been, perhaps, the most visible European leader, adept at being photographed in many different guises. He was the only European leader to be photographed bare-chested, whether using a spade to dig trenches to clear swamps, or jumping a hedge on his horse, or diving into a pool. He could play the farmer, the motorcyclist, the pilot—one day Don Juan, on the next a faithful husband surrounded by his growing children.
After the return of his remains, the neo-Fascists continued to cover the walls of Predappio with posters and graffiti announcing the imminent return of the Duce’s spirit in Italian life. The political culture of fascism had always been fascinated with death. For years to come, as Sergio Luzzatto observes in his fascinating book, Italians remained divided over how to deal with this disturbing legacy—or whether to deal with it at all.
Luzzatto’s account of the Duce’s afterlife in Italian politics and culture is an elegant historical essay, filled with interesting insights. It describes the sad and at times ghoulish effects of the memories of Mussolini on the political life of a young, inexperienced republic “torn between intransigence and indulgence, radicalism and opportunism, the obligation of memory and the art of forgetfulness.” Other writers, such as Curzio Malaparte in The Skin and Carlo Emilio Gadda in Eros e Priapo, have tried to deal with the subject, though often in highly colored prose. Luzzatto belongs to a different, more detached, post–cold war generation. The Duce’s body, he writes, “merits a historical study if only because it was on his corpse that the new republic pledged itself to a pacific, democratic republican future.”
When the book first came out in Italy in 1998 it was praised as important and timely. A reviewer in Corriere della Sera attributed the obsession of early postwar Italian governments with Mussolini’s corpse to the fact that the Italian nation had been formed relatively late in the nineteenth century, and with few proper founding fathers or unifying symbols. According to the reviewer, a succession of Christian Democrat governments felt compelled to hide the cadaver for years in order to ensure the survival of the fledgling postwar republic. In this book, Luzzatto seems to wander through postwar Italy much like the bewildered men and women in the opening pages of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, who roam through a dead tyrant’s abandoned mansion. He cites the partisan leader Leo Valiani, head of the liberal Party of Action and a founder of the modern republic, who witnessed the mob in Piazzale Loreto and wondered if the people that trampled Mussolini were not the same as the ones who had hailed him a few years earlier. The possibility deeply disturbed Valiani. It suggested that “the partisan fight had been a minority cause.”
Confirmation of Valiani’s fear could be found in a special issue of his own party’s paper, L‘Italia Libera, which ingenuously, but certainly not innocently, depicted the orgy of violence in Piazzale Loreto as a respectable display of mourning: “The crowd advances in a silent composed line, past the [mortal remains of those responsible for Italy’s ruin]….” Many years later, Valiani told me that watching the horrific scene reminded him of Guicciardini’s remark, in his sixteenth-century Storia d’Italia, that nobody knows his subjects as badly as their ruler.
The confusion of the postwar years came about partly because the Communist Party successfully hijacked the memory of the resistance for its own purposes. As a result, antifascism came to be widely identified with communism. The collapse of Soviet communism in 1990 contributed to the confusion over antifascism. Criticism of the resistance is now coming from the left too, most recently in Giampaolo Pansa’s Il sangue dei vinti (“The Blood of the Vanquished”),7 which provoked an intense public controversy for its discussion of the violence of the partisans. Pansa’s book was, unfortunately, written in a semi-novelized form and seemed to be based mostly on hearsay, with few verifiable sources. His principal source, for example, a mysterious woman librarian in Florence—in whose voice Pansa puts most of what he claims to know—is disguised under an invented name.
In the recent debates the history of the resistance during the war has been much referred to (and often distorted) for a variety of political purposes. Some writers and politicians have gone so far as to claim that the wartime resistance movement was nothing but a myth invented by the Communists. Prime Minister Berlusconi frivolously suggested that fascism had not been so bad, since the worst Mussolini did was to send political opponents on long vacations at pleasant tourist resorts. The moral valor of the partisans who, like Valiani and many others, had hoped to lay the foundations of a new, better Italy has been equated with the valor of the fighters for Mussolini’s repressive, short-lived Republic of Salò. For several years, there has been talk in Italy of a “crisis of antifascism.” This is the title and subject of another, disturbing, more recent book by Luzzatto, who, even as he tries to maintain a nuanced perspective, is deeply concerned by the possible political consequences of this trend.8
On Mussolini’s birthday this year, I walked through his crowded crypt with an American friend. We could not decide whether we were witnessing a serious show of empathy or a ridiculous carnevaletto, as Giorgio Frassinetti, a young geologist who serves as a Predappio city council member, perhaps all too wishfully described it. It might well have been both. At the time of our visit, the municipality of Predappio had tried unsuccessfully to block a neo-Fascist parade in honor of Mussolini by a motley crowd of old faithful and young Blackshirts. The municipality was overruled by the local police chief, who gave authorization for the parade to take place on the following Sunday. Some neo-Fascist men and women marched through the former Via Benito Mussolini to the cemetery, where they laid wreaths on Mussolini’s tomb.
The underground crypt, cut by Mussolini’s architects through the rock ground, is reached by a narrow staircase. At the head of the big stone sarcophagus is a massive, larger-than-life-sized bust of Mussolini. It empha-sizes the Duce’s main features that contributed so much to his appeal: the high forehead, the jaw defiantly thrust forward. One can almost see the eyes swiveling, the legs astride with his hands on his hips. The crypt is dramatically illuminated by hidden lights. Music comes from hidden loudspeakers. In death too, Mussolini remains a show.
Whatever their different tendencies, scholars today agree that Mussolini was a great showman. He never had a fixed “ideology,” only broad rhetorical slogans and a vaguely formulated cult of “action.” In an encyclopedia entry, Mussolini’s minister of education, Giovanni Gentile, wrote that fascism was mainly a “style” of government. Mussolini regarded “platforms” and “programs” as superfluous to effective rule. At one time or another he claimed to be an aristocrat and a democrat, a revolutionary and a reactionary, proletarian and anti-proletarian, pacifist and anti-pacifist.9 He called war and ruthless fighting (combattere) a healthy, edifying activity. (“War is to men what maternity is to women,” he declared.) He put on a show that maintained him in absolute power for more than twenty years, until, in 1943, the same king who had nominated him as prime minister curtly unseated him, and ordered his arrest. The great man, according to those who were present, meekly accepted his fate, with tears in his eyes.
George Steiner called Mussolini’s way of exercising power a “trompe-l’oeil effect.”10 Luigi Barzini wrote that the dictator’s career proved the limitations of showmanship. Mussolini considered himself an artist. He boasted to Emil Ludwig that the masses were like wax in his hands. In all great deceivers, as Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human, there is a remarkable process that enables them, in the very act of deceiving, to be possessed by their belief in themselves. This belief, Nietzsche argued, could have a persuasive, magical effect on their audiences. Mussolini’s voice, addressing tens of thousands of people from his balcony on Piazza Venezia, was undoubtedly greatly effective during the Fascist years. Seen on film or on television today, Luzzatto writes, his bombastic oratory and heavy gesticulations would appear somewhat ridiculous.
On the morning of our visit, the crypt was crowded with Blackshirts and one old man who leaned on a stick with one hand and held up a regimental flag with the other. Someone was handing out a brochure purporting to be based on Mussolini’s “Last Will and Testament” (a document Luzzatto suggests is a forgery). It claimed that before his execution he reconciled with the Catholic Church, confessed his sins, and received absolution. Three Masses in his memory were celebrated that morning at a temporary altar placed in the well-kept garden outside the crypt. A fourth Mass was held there in the afternoon. The Masses could not be held in the ornate chapel, next to the crypt, built for this purpose by Mussolini’s architects. This was so, according to Frassinetti, because the celebrating priest had been excommunicated for some reason by the Church.
The fact that Fini’s reformed National Alliance now endorses democracy and has officially renounced the pilgrimage to Predappio does not seem to have reduced the number of visitors to the crypt in recent years. The pages of signatures and passionate comments in the heavy visitor’s book suggested that by July of this year more than half the average annual number of visitors had already been there. Luzzatto cites a comment written some years ago: “Oh Duce,” it read, “may your enlightened spirit guide us to free our nation from the filthy Communist sewer…that is oppressing us.” In this year’s book I found these comments: “Glorious duce, inspire our government to destroy the sordid pack of niggers, Romanian whores and Albanian crooks who steal across our exposed borders and ruin the bel paese.” “Duce we still need you.”
Present-day Predappio did not exist before the 1930s. It was a gift of the Duce to the village of Varano di Costa, where he was born on July 29, 1883. Much of the original village no longer exists. The modest, two-story house where he had lived as a boy is today an art museum. The family lived upstairs in two rooms. Downstairs were the workshop of Mussolini’s father, Alessandro, a blacksmith, and the makeshift classroom of his mother, Rosa, an elementary schoolteacher. Both were fervent socialists, as was Mussolini in his youth. Years ago, I watched an interview on French television with one of Mussolini’s mistresses during his socialist years, the Russian socialist Angelica Balabanoff. By then a frail old woman, she complained that Mussolini had rarely washed or changed his shirt. Then she added in a shaking voice, “Mais…il pouvait…faire… l’amour!”
In the 1930s, Mussolini filled the new Predappio with large palazzi in the “rationalist” style, as well as with a few buildings in ornate baroque. There is an opulent town hall, an elaborate church, a spacious schoolhouse. All were built in the brownish-red, soft, spongy local stone. The town plan, which Mussolini had commissioned Florestano Di Fausto to design in 1926, follows the rectangular plan of an ancient Roman military encampment. Above the pretentious former Casa del fascio (“fasces” were emblems of power in ancient Rome, carried by the lictors before the magistrates of the state) rises a tall, monumental bell tower, a symbol of the party’s “potency,” according to its architect. The Fascist regime also built public housing estates in the valley below that were rented at special discounts to party members. Nearby, the carabinieri in their large headquarters kept the local population in line. Before fascism, Emilia-Romagna had been a hotbed of socialism, as it would be again after the war. Predappio was liberated, in fact, by partisans in 1944, before the arrival of the Americans.
On the morning of our visit, the three souvenir shops on the main street were crowded with black-shirted visitors—a rare sight in contemporary Italy. The shops sell statues and oil paintings of the Duce as well as blackjacks heavy enough to kill anyone hit on the head with one. They come inscribed with Mussolini’s name in capital letters. Also on sale are neo-Fascist “classics,” including the recent Mussolini the Reluctant Racist by one Nicola Spinoza, and various knickknacks, shirts, and mugs with slogans. One can buy twelve-packs of a powerful local red wine (14 percent alcohol) with Mussolini’s portrait on the label. The wine is grown on the grounds of a villa where, after her release from forced exile on the island of Ischia, Mussolini’s widow lived from 1955 until her death.
The villa is now a private museum that glorifies Mussolini’s memory. It is surrounded by a well-kept formal garden filled with statues of the Duce in various heroic poses. The villa was not requisitioned after the war like Mussolini’s other houses because he had bought it before he came to power. Elsewhere on the grounds, while we were there, Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra, a former topless model, now a member of the European parliament, was entertaining a few hundred activists of a new neo-Fascist party she has founded, drawing on a hard-core group that has split from the National Alliance.
The guided tour through the villa took us to Mussolini’s study, lined with many books, his dining room, and his bedroom, where a pair of his breeches is spread out on the double bed. One of the torn boots he wore on his last day is displayed as a relic behind glass (the other disappeared during the theft of his body by Leccisi). A note next to the telephone in his widow’s kitchen enjoined her servants, “Non fare tante chiamate” (“Don’t make so many calls”). We passed the marble busts of two of Mussolini’s idols, Julius Caesar and Vilfredo Pareto, the nineteenth-century sociologist who wrote on the rise and fall of power elites. The guide pointed to Julius Caesar and exclaimed: “Mussolini’s great predecessor!” Behind us a man wearing a fine silk suit murmured to his equally elegant young wife: “I wish we had a great man like him again.”
February 23, 2006
See Christopher Hibbert, Benito Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce (Penguin, 1962), pp. 95–98. ↩
From “The Art of Fiction No. 6,” The Paris Review, No. 6 (Summer 1954), reprinted in The DNA of Literature: The Complete Paris Review Interviews, at www.theparisreview.com /viewinterview.php/prmMID/5093. ↩
A particularly valuable eyewitness report is Ermanno Gorrieri’s La Repubblica di Montefiorino (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1966) and, by the same author (together with Giulia Bondi), Ritorno a Montefiorino (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2004). Gorrieri was a prominent partisan comandante who fought the Germans in the Apennines and in Emilia-Romagna. ↩
Europe Without Baedeker: Sketches Among the Ruins of Italy, Greece, and England (Doubleday, 1947), pp. 217–218. ↩
Many years later, Leccisi’s feat was emulated successfully and for similar reasons when Evita Perón’s coffin was abducted from her tomb in Buenos Aires. The body of a live leader still seems to figure importantly in Italian political life, as was shown recently when fascinated Italians of all political persuasions followed Prime Minister Berlusconi’s widely published facelift and hair implant operations for which he disappeared from public view for over a month. ↩
Milan: Kupfer e Sperling, 2004. ↩
La crisi dell’antifascismo (Milan: Einaudi, 2004). ↩
See Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), p. 168. ↩
The New Yorker, August 30, 1982. ↩