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Il Duce’s Cultural Cachet

Stephen Gundle examines the political demise and commercial rebirth of the Italian dictator.

Portrait of Mussolini
Portrait of Mussolini

Anyone for a Mussolini calendar, complete with a different picture of Il Duce for each month? Or how about a wall clock featuring the dictator’s face? Or a key ring, a fridge magnet, a T-shirt, a flag, a statuette, or even an app for your iPhone? The souvenir industry that has developed around the figure of Benito Mussolini is extraordinary in its variety and inventiveness. Ever since the ban on the production and sale of such items was lifted in 1983, enterprises mostly based in or near the dictator’s birthplace of Predappio in the Romagna region have been dedicated to the commerce of artefacts evoking or depicting the fallen dictator. For 20 years this trade was a semi-clandestine one. The objects were on sale in only a few souvenir shops whose sole customers were the nostalgic Fascists, who visited Predappio on the occasion of the anniversaries of Mussolini’s birth and death and of the March on Rome that brought him to power in 1922. In recent years the trade has expanded. Anyone going on holiday to the Adriatic resorts of Rimini or Riccione will see the souvenirs on sale in tourist shops and motorway service stations. Other locations have also sought to cash in on the phenomenon, including Salò, the seat of the puppet regime that ruled the north of Italy under Hitler’s patronage in the final months of the war, and the Passo del Furlo, a mountain pass in the Marche region that boasts a rock formation resembling Mussolini’s profile. On the Internet dedicated sites as well as eBay offer a wide choice of gifts and nicknacks.

The reasons for this bizarre revival are quite complex. Some of them undoubtedly have to do with recent political developments. The transformation of the small neo-Fascist party, the Italian Social Movement (MSI), in the early 1990s into a more mainstream post-Fascist party called National Alliance and the subsequent entry into government of this party in 1994 as part of a Berlusconi-led coalition had the effect of bringing the Fascist heritage into the mainstream. This was paradoxical because the party’s reinvention was supposed to put an end to yearnings for dictatorship. An unintended consequence of this was renewed interest in Fascism as history. Silvio Berlusconi himself – at 73 just old enough to remember something of life in the late Fascist period – made a point for many years of refusing to take part in the annual celebrations of the liberation on April 25th, 1945. The word ‘anti-Fascism’, a key term in the Italian political lexicon, never passed his lips. 

Other reasons are more historical in nature. The failure to institute an Italian equivalent to the Nuremberg trials after the war, combined with an official refusal to suppress the MSI, even though the republican constitution forbade attempts to revive the National Fascist Party, allowed sentiments of nostalgia and self-justification to flourish quite freely. Although all the main parties, whether of government or opposition, took firm steps to quash the Fascist cult of violence and conquest and to implant a new political culture, they failed to elaborate a shared sense of national identity. Meanwhile, the most popular illustrated magazines catered to a fascination with the people and events of the Fascist period. Mussolini’s surviving family members were portrayed sympathetically while the  dictator’s affair with Claretta Petacci, the young socialite who died with him, was recounted as a tragic love story. All of this was widely regarded for decades as mere trivial curiosity or morbid obsession. In fact it was a harbinger of things to come. 

Certainly, some of the human sympathy for Mussolini that was voiced in the 1940s and 1950s had to do with the manner of his death and the spectacle to which his dead body was subjected. The dictator was captured and summarily shot by partisans on April 28th, 1945 while trying to escape from Italy disguised as a German soldier. Brought back to Milan, his body was strung up above a petrol station in Piazzale Loreto together with those of Petacci and a handful of his remaining associates. It was subjected to verbal and physical abuse from a jeering crowd that provoked widespread revulsion. Following this macabre desecration, Mussolini’s cadaver became an embarrassing focus of interest that Christian Democrat governments handled unsurely until 1957 when the then prime minister Adone Zoli, a man who himself hailed from Predappio, gave permission for the former Duce’s remains to be interred in the family crypt in the church of San Cassiano in his birthplace.

The postwar sympathy for Mussolini was fuelled by various journalists and writers, several of whom had personal axes to grind. But in most respects it was a phenomenon that went against the trend of opinion that developed in Italy from the late 1930s. It is not easy to date the start of the decline of the Fascist regime, but there can be no doubt that by 1941 the various wartime setbacks and privations had provoked an alarming rejection of Mussolini and his regime. Once a gifted worker of crowds with a rare popular touch, the Duce abolished his annual tours of the regions and rarely risked presenting himself at rallies. The popular weeklies ceased to feature him on their covers. Even some of his closest collaborators noted in their diaries that he had become a grumpy and inflexible tyrant whose political nous seemed to have deserted him. This change was attributed by some to the presence of Claretta Petacci, whose own diaries from the 1930s (published for the first time in 2009) show that his infatuation was such that he telephoned her up to 12 times per day.   

Some of the most interesting signals of the growing disillusionment with Mussolini came from the art world. Artists had been treated well under the regime and not subjected to too many pressures to conform. Nevertheless several of them were convinced anti-Fascists and more became so as time passed. One of the most striking series of paintings was produced by the Roman painter Mario Mafai (1902-65). His Fantasia sequence, realised in 1941-42, depicted wartime atrocities carried out by the Fascists. Drawings and paintings in a similar vein were composed over the following two years by such men as Renato Birolli (1905-59), whose Italy ’44 series captured the heroism and sacrifice of the partisans, and Renato Guttuso (1912-87), whose Gott mitt uns works were inspired by the massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome. Shown at an exhibition entitled Art against Barbarism organised by the Communist newspaper L’Unità, they were stark in their denunciation of Fascism and war.

Mussolini was deposed in July 1943 and arrested on the orders of the king, Victor Emmanuel III. He was imprisoned in a castle in the Abruzzo region until he was released by German parachutists and taken off to Germany before being installed at the head of the Salò regime. The day his replacement as prime minister was announced tens of thousands of Italians poured into the streets to celebrate, many of them mistakenly thinking the war was over. Groups pulled Fascist symbols off buildings, threw out busts of the Duce and made bonfires of his books and portraits. In Bologna a large equestrian statue of Mussolini that had been inaugurated in the sports stadium in 1929 was pulled from its mount and dragged through the streets. Later the horse would be melted down and turned into two statues of partisans that stand today at one of the city’s gates. 

Mino Maccari (1898-1989), a satirical artist who had once supported the regime, marked the fall of Mussolini with an exhibition of small-scale paintings of a flabby and repulsive Duce that he held at his house in Tuscany. Another artist who lived and worked in Padua, Tono Zancanaro (1906-85), had for years been producing for friends sketches and drawings featuring a grotesque figure he named ‘The Gibbo’. A corpulent, laviscious creature of indeterminate sex with a jutting jaw and a bald head, the Gibbo mimicked many of the gestures and mangled the mottos of Mussolini, leaving no doubt as to who had inspired his creator.

Mussolini’s overthrow closely followed the defeat of German and Italian forces in North Africa and the landing of the Allies on Italian soil. Icons of the dictator in the colonies were destroyed by locals and by the armies of liberation. A stone head of Mussolini created by Italian soldiers in Abyssinia, bearing a vague resemblance to the heads of American presidents at Mount Rushmore, had been the subject of a famous propaganda photograph. Before it was blown up by Allied soldiers in 1944, it was turned by the master of photomontage John Heartfield into a denunciation of Fascist atrocities in Africa. Instead of a landscape disappearing into the background behind the head, he showed a pile of skulls. 

The steady demise of Mussolini was pictured step by step by British cartoonists working for the major dailies. David Low, Illingworth and others poked fun at the once frightening and bellicose Duce who was now reduced to insignificance. They drew him as a spoilt child, Hitler’s poodle or lapdog, a fat buffoon or bag of wind and as an Italian housewife. No longer threatening, he became a laughing stock for British public opinion. 

The sheer quantity of images hostile to Mussolini testified to the downfall of the dictator and also, significantly, to the collapse of the charismatic myth that had been constructed around him. These images also unwittingly pointed to the extraordinary hold that Mussolini had exercised over Italian and international public opinion. The Duce was one of a handful of familiar world figures who could be summed up in a few gestures. After the war and his death he would lose this fame abroad. Unlike Hitler, who would be turned in popular culture into an all-purpose clown as well as the embodiment of evil, Mussolini would fade into historical ignominy. But in Italy it was different. For 20 years he had been the symbol of the country, the hero of newsreels, the subject of innumerable books and articles, a travelling politician who had been seen by millions. Consequently he had become embedded in popular consciousness during the formative phase of the mass media. Thus an extraordinary repertoire existed of his very physical being that would continue to exercise an influence long after his regime had come to an end and in spite of widespread acknowledgement of the hardship and suffering he caused his people. Mussolini, in short, has always sold at home.

Stephen Gundle is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. 

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