The Woman Who Shot Mussolini
In 1926 and 1927 three attempts were made on the life of Benito Mussolini. None of them succeeded and the Fascist regime used these failures to crack down hard on all internal opposition. Violet Gibson came closest of all to killing the dictator, shooting him in the nose from close quarters in the Campidoglio Square in central Rome in 1926. Another inch and the history of Italy might have been altered forever.
As it was, Violet Gibson narrowly failed to make history but her fate was sealed. She was locked up for the rest of her life, not in prison, but in a series of asylums. She died at the age of 80 in 1956, alone, forgotten and abandoned by the world. Frances Stonor Saunders’ beautifully written book sets out to tell this extraordinary story. In doing so, she sheds light on Irish and Italian history and politics, as well as on the fate of ‘mad’ women and men in the recent past.
Gibson’s life is recounted in detail but in a way that is always illuminating. Her attempts to break away from the life set out for her (Saunders writes that she had ‘been raised to be little more than an ornament’) led to estrangement and psychological damage. Her rebellion also had a religious twist.
Born into a prominent and powerful Anglo-Protestant family in Ireland, she converted to Catholicism at the age of 26 and also flirted with the cult of theosophy. Following this radical break with her family, Gibson drifted between London, France, the English countryside, Switzerland and Italy. She also became seriously ill and had her left breast surgically removed.
In the early 1920s she was ‘treated’ in various mental health institutions. It appears that she wrestled with ideas about the moral duty to kill for a higher good. A medical file in 1923 described her as ‘violent. Homicidal’ … ‘she has shown no signs of violence’, the report continued, ‘but says she might want to try again to kill someone’.
The restless Gibson kept a close eye on the rise of the Fascist regime in Italy and travelled to Rome in November 1924. While packing ‘she had time enough to include in her luggage a small revolver’. The following February Gibson shot herself in the chest while staying in a convent in Rome, but she survived almost unhurt.
Fourteen months later, on April 7th, 1926, she tried to kill Il Duce in broad daylight. Anti-Fascism may well have played a part in her action. She had been spotted among the spectators at the trial of the Fascists who had murdered Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti earlier that year. This had ended in an absurd whitewash, with lenient sentences for the Fascists involved, which caused scandal across the world.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Mussolini sported a huge bandage on his nose and played up to stories that he was ‘immortal’. Recent comparisons have been made with the behaviour of a current Italian politician after he too was attacked in a city centre.
Meanwhile, the international establishment rallied around the Italian dictator. The British ambassador wrote that ‘happily the bullet only scratched his [Mussolini’s] nose’ and the Foreign Secretary, Austen Chamberlain, wrote to the dictator: ‘My wife joins me in congratulating you on your escape.’
In Rome, the authorities argued over how to deal with Gibson. Had she acted alone or was she part of a wider political conspiracy? What was to be done with this ‘mad’ woman? A political deal was done with British state officials, with the full agreement of Gibson’s family. The sentence was clear, ‘internment for life’.
The rest of the book is heart-wrenching. Gibson was never to be free again. After a swift hearing she was diagnosed as having acted thanks to a ‘morbid, delirious impulse’ and was smuggled out of Italy in May 1927. She was then taken to an asylum in Northampton. There she would remain until her death nearly 30 years later. Abandoned by almost every one, Gibson lived out her days in this bleak institution. She continued to hope that she would be released, but her family and the doctors who ‘treated’ her never contemplated such a course of action.
Even after Mussolini’s death in 1945 and the end of Fascism, there was no shift in the attitude towards Gibson’s incarceration. In 1956 she died, powerless until the end against the institutions (including her own family) who had conspired to write her out of history. Frances Stonor Saunders’ book operates on many levels – as a history of Fascism and of attitudes towards Fascism, for example – but it works best as an intimate, moving and elegant portrait of a tragic and rebellious life.
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