Death and the Dolce Vita

Death and the Dolce Vita: The Dark Side of Rome in the 1950s
Stephen Gundle
Canongate Books xii + 400pp £14.99

Buy this book

A young woman lies dead in the water, a whirlwind of a murder mystery shattering the victim’s downbeat, humble family. Around the corpse swirls a grotesque array of dark forces of political corruption, social privilege, drugs, sex and money, some dogged police work and some craven cover-ups, and tricksy tabloid hacks snapping at the heels of louche protagonists and bit-part fantasists. If all this sounds more like the plot of the Danish sleeper TV hit The Killing than a work of dour history, it is for good reason. Stephen Gundle’s compelling and impeccably researched book, Death and the Dolce Vita, gives us a vision of the culture, politics and media of 1950s’ Rome – taking its first taste of the pleasures of modern glamour only a few years after the privations of dictatorship and war – through the lens of the greatest crime scandal of the day, the Montesi case.

Wilma Montesi, the 21-year-old daughter of a Roman carpenter, was found dead on a beach near Rome in April 1953. Initial police enquiries and the worst fears of the family suggested a banal if tragic accident, a bathing trip gone wrong. But soon astonishing rumours began to circulate among the highly secretive world of Rome’s aristocratic and political elites. At first these were circumstantial: why might government ministers and police chiefs be interested in such a nonentity of a girl and such a workaday accident? Before long, though, informants emerged with potentially devastating details, soon splashed across the pages of the newly vibrant popular magazine press. Talk was that Wilma was having an affair with Piero Piccioni, jazz musician and son of Attilio Piccioni, the foreign minister and a major player in Italy’s ruling Christian Democrat party. Worse, Piero was rumoured to be tied in with a network of drug-taking and orgies which took in Rome’s decadent aristocracy, its iconoclastic artistic avant-garde and its flourishing new role as a playground for film stars and scions of minor royal families. Alongside Piero, the key villain was Sicilian lothario, entrepreneur and social gadfly ‘Marquis’ Ugo Montana, whose seaside estate at Capocotta was close to where Wilma’s body had washed up. Had Wilma collapsed after a bad drug trip at a Capocotta party, or resisted when sexually assaulted? Either way, circumstantial evidence seemed to suggest Montana and a couple of his heavies had done their best to get rid of the body and make it look like drowning.

Gundle guides us meticulously through the narratives and counter-narratives of the crime, the press coverage and two key court cases, with their vast crowds of characters and deceptions. No clear verdict was ever reached: Gundle bravely offers his own tentative ‘solution’ to the mystery at the end of the book. More than the mystery, though, Gundle’s real interest as a historian of modern Italy and of ideas of glamour lies in the nexus the Montesi case shows of a nascent and deeply uneven democracy, its increasingly irresponsible free press and its still authoritarian police and politics, as well as its cosmopolitan position in a new circuit of international glamour. The last part of the book links Montesi to Fellini’s famous chronicling of Rome’s dolce vita in his 1960 film of that name. In one of his boldest formulations, Gundle sees Anita Ekberg’s triumphant bathing in the Trevi Fountain in Fellini’s film – all exuberant sexuality and bold transgression – as a glitzy counterpoint to Wilma’s doomed ‘bathing’ in sea near Ostia and in the sordid world of postwar Roman decadence, which cost her her life.

Robert S.C. Gordon teaches Italian at Cambridge University

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5