Benito Mussolini smirked as he listened to Antonio Gramsci’s maiden speech in Parliament, leaning forward, hand cupped behind his ear, making a show of straining to hear: here is the Left, the pathetic, crippled, broken Left, embodied in this dwarf who can barely speak above a whisper.
When Gramsci addressed political gatherings, absolute silence prevailed because his voice, coming from his compressed chest, was so weak. If any member of the audience so much as coughed, someone was sure to hiss, “Leave!”
“Gramsci may be a big brain but he’s a sick little runt,” the Communist blacksmith Maciste declares in Vasco Pratolini’s novel, A Tale of Poor Lovers.
Corporativismo, the core doctrine of Italian Fascism, organized society into corporations subordinated to the state. Envisioned as a third way between bolshevism and democracy, corporations would bring together workers and employers in bodies which would both represent their interests politically and exercise control over their members.
Corporate: Uniting many individuals into one body. From the Latin corporatus, past participle of corporare, “form into a body,” from corpus, which originally meant a body, dead or living. It is derived from the proto-Indo-European kwrpes, “body, form, appearance,” and is related to the Old English hrif, “belly” and the Old High German href, “womb, belly, gut.” The Italian word corporativo, corporate, is derived from corpo, body, from the same Latin root, corpus, as the English.
Idiomatic Italian uses of the word corpo include non ho niente in corpo, I haven’t eaten anything; darsi anima e corpo a, to give one’s heart and soul to, corpo a corpo, hand-to-hand, andare di corpo, to empty one’s bowels; ma che hai in corpo?, what’s got into you?
I knew the word “proto-Indo-European” before I knew the word “fart.” That was the kind of family I came from. My mother was in many ways a very timid woman, but not when it came to questions of language and grammar. The word “burial” was pronounced as it is spelled, and I heard her say more than once, apropos her disagreement with Merriam-Webster on this question, “The dictionary is wrong.” She said this with the kind of fervor which other people use when they are affirming the existence of God to a backsliding child.
When I was in India, I would occasionally understand a word in Hindi or Marathi, and my first thought would be,“My mother was right.”
Proto-Indo-European is a linguistic reconstruction: a language of which there is no record and which linguists have back-formed from the similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek.
We all speak in tongues given to us by the dead.
On July 29, 1883, Mussolini was spat into this world slick with vernix, red and squalling, onto the bed on which he had been conceived, a portrait of the Virgin Mary gazing down from his mother’s side, of the leftist hero Garibaldi from his father’s.
It’s not so hard to imagine him as a baby—there was always something infantile about him, the enormous bald head above the squat body. (When I try to picture Adolf Hitler as a newborn, I only come up with a cartoonish image, complete with a toothbrush mustache.)
In 1896, when Mussolini was a schoolboy, Emperor Menelik II defeated the invading Italian army at Adwa, thwarting Italy’s hopes of making Ethiopia her colony.
France had an empire, Britain had an empire, Spain had an empire, Portugal had an empire, Germany had an empire, latecomer America had an empire, even dinky little Holland and Belgium had empires. How come Italy didn’t get one too? The Philippines, Puerto Rico, India, Indochina, Morocco, Burma, the Congo, Botswana, Mozambique, Angola, Togoland, Rhodesia, South Africa, Greenland, one could go on and on and on but for Italy nothing, nothing at all?
In 1936, an enormous sculpture of Mussolini’s head was carved from rock overlooking Adwa. Sphinxlike, he glared out over the conquered landscape.
As a youth, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and floppy cravat, his long hair flowing behind him, Mussolini stalked the streets of his hometown Predappio at night shouting out lines from Dante’s Inferno to rouse the smug bourgeoisie: “Behold the wild beast with the pointed tail / which, crossing mountains, breaks through walls and armor / behold him who sickens all the world!” interspersing his recitations with blasts from his trombone.
To avoid military service, he crossed the border into Switzerland, arriving with only two lire in his pocket. He slept under bridges and worked as a hod carrier, a mason, a butcher’s boy, an errand boy; boy, boy, boy; sometimes eating for dinner only potatoes that had been roasted on cinders, sometimes nothing at all. Once he was so hungry he grabbed food from the hands of two British women tourists picnicking on bread, cheese, and eggs—declaring later that if they had offered the slightest resistance he would have strangled them.
In his autobiographical novel Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell wrote that malnutrition leaves you “only a belly with a few accessory organs.” Orwell’s narrator had an accent that marked him as having once been a gentleman: In a doss-house which reeked of urine, another old Etonian, having heard him speak, leaned his drunken face into Orwell’s and began to sing the Eton boating song—Jolly boating weather / And a hay harvest breeze . . . Mussolini, on the other hand, had come from a solid, although far from patrician background—his father a blacksmith and his mother a schoolteacher. Still, it isn’t hard to imagine that, like the narrator of Down and Out, Mussolini might have seen a tramp coming toward him on a city street—and then realized with a shock he was seeing his own reflection in a shop window; that the future Duce, too, might have taken a perverse pride in what he was forced to endure: the hardness of the beds in spikes and hostels—that is, on the nights when he was lucky enough to sleep on more than a pile of straw; women moving away as he came toward them, as if he were a dead cat; the reek of his own flesh and clothes; the joy—how pitiful that we should feel joy at such a thing—at being able to afford a dinner of macaroni and horse liver, which brought an end to the malignant funk caused by hunger. Perhaps a starving Benito also wrote imaginary menus on scraps of paper: oysters, roast chicken, Parmesan cheese, pasta, cakes, gelato, jam, eggs. Perhaps what stood between him and utter despair was self-pitying rage.
In her memoirs, revolutionary leader Angelica Balabanoff wrote of first seeing Mussolini at a socialist meeting in Lausanne: “I had never seen a more wretched-looking human being,” and went on to note: “In spite of his large jaw, the bitterness and restlessness in his black eyes, he gave the impression of extreme timidity.” Balabanoff said he had a “terrible disease”—there was a taboo against actually using the word “syphilis”—which she suggested he might have inherited from his father. Writing after Mussolini had abandoned socialism for Fascism, Balabanoff may well have felt shame at her role in helping him rise to power in the left, at having been his mistress.
Margherita Sarfatti, a succeeding mistress of Mussolini’s, will describe Balabanoff by saying “a hunchback deformed her poor little body.”
My enemy is deformed.
My enemy’s hunchback is not just pitiable, but risible: Rumpelstiltskin, Quasimodo, Rigoletto.
My enemy is riddled with syphilis. Maybe he got the pox from sticking it into those whores who parade along the street by the harbor, who don’t even have the decency to take their johns to the by-the-hour rooms but fuck them standing up in the alleys.
Maybe he inherited it from the degenerate who fathered him. He has been filled with corruption and rot from the moment of his birth.
Giving up on the rigors of his Swiss exile, Mussolini returned to Italy in 1905, and to fulfill his compulsory military service joined a regiment of marksmen, the Bersaglieri. Their helmets decorated with long plumes from the wood grouse and their jogging at a dogtrot rather than marching gave them a rather comical appearance. After leaving the army, he again became active in Socialist politics, rising through the ranks, becoming a well-known journalist—creating his own mouthpiece, Il Popolo d’Italia. Then, breaking with most of the left when the Great War began, he supported Italian intervention and joined the military.
Is it possible to write about the trench warfare without cliché? The stink of shit and rotting bodies: humans, horses, vermin; the flies feasting on the excrement and the rats on the corpses; the soldiers holding their noses against the stink while they eat their tinned rations; knowing that tomorrow the man sitting next to you might be the stink in your nostrils or you might be the stink in his.
Grenade tossing, in which Mussolini specialized, almost sounds like a schoolboy game. The other side, from a trench a few feet away, tossed a grenade into your trench, which you grabbed and hurled back into theirs—the trick being not having it explode in your hands. He taught his troops how to hold grenades for a few moments before lobbing them so the enemy wouldn’t have time to fling them back.
He wrote in his autobiography that in February of 1917, “One of our own grenades burst in our trench among about twenty of us soldiers. We were covered with dirt and smoke, and torn by metal. Four died. Various others were fatally wounded.” His body was filled with shrapnel. He literally became a man of steel. “Flesh was torn, bones broken. I faced atrocious pain; my suffering was indescribable . . . I had twenty-seven operations in one month; all except two were without anesthetics.”
Sarfatti wrote in her biography of him, Dux: “Forty-two wounds, totaling more than eighty centimetres. The body entirely scarified and scorched. A mass of shrapnel fragments lodged in the flesh, like Saint Sebastian’s arrows. Two hours of painful treatment every day. Clefts wide enough to put a fist in, infective complications, the threat of gangrene, suppuration, fever, pain and delirium.”
The body must be violated, and it must overcome that violation.
Those clefts wide enough to be fisted must be covered over with impenetrable scars.
During the biennio rosso, the two red years of 1919 and 1920, when it seemed that Italy might follow Russia down the revolutionary path, Socialist peasants named their children “Atheist,” “Spartacus,” “Lenin,” “Rebellion,” and declared Monday rather than Sunday the day of rest.
Mussolini wrote: “[T]he episodes of 1919 and 1920 had in them bacilli which if not treated heroically are deadly for the life of a civilized nation . . . Sickly internationalism put forth its buds in this morbid springtime . . . I knew those who whipped up our degeneration . . . In a few months they had led the Italian people into a state of marasmus,” the sort of childhood malnutrition that occurs under famine conditions.
In the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, F. W. Marinetti wrote: “Literature up until now has exalted thoughtful immobility, ecstasy and sleep. We want to exalt aggressive movement, feverish insomnia, running, jumping, slap and fist.”
I don’t know Italian, and so I read these texts in translation.
The original meaning of the word “translate” was not “rendering from one language to another” but “removing from one place to another,” and was used to describe the stealing of a saint’s remains, a frequent occurrence in medieval Europe.
The moldering remnants of the body of St. Mark the Evangelist were translated from Alexandria to Venice by Venetian merchants, hidden beneath slabs of pork. The Muslim officials, searching the ship before its departure, recoiled with a cry of, “Kanzir! Kanzir!” at the sight of the unclean meat, and looked no further.
Sarfatti, who was Jewish, later wrote a memoir, My Fault, published after she had fled Italy in the wake of the 1938 racial laws, passed as Mussolini’s Italy was drawn into the orbit of Hitler’s Germany (“Italian citizens may not marry members of the Hamitic, Semitic or non-Aryan races . . . All those of the Jewish race may not have in any way Aryans as their servants in the house and as their employees . . . all those of the Jewish race are forbidden to work and study in Public and Private Italian schools,” etc., etc., etc.). In that book, Mussolini’s long convalescence after his being wounding was said to be due to tertiary syphilis which affected not just his spinal nerves, but also his eyes, his liver, and his digestive tract, and caused syphilitic tumors which devoured the marrow of his right shinbone.
I told you my enemy’s body is disgusting, that it is riddled with pox.
Unlike the tacky art of Nazi Germany, with its sculptures of muscled warriors and paintings of insipid blondes, Mussolini’s Fascism inspired modernist works, often of his head, that great pate resembling a bullet, the head of a bulldog, an unexploded mortar shell, or the glans of a penis.
In 1929, the Futurist F.T. Marinetti’s “Portrait of Mussolini” described Il Duce as having a “physiological patriotism, because physically he is built all’italiana, designed by inspired and brutal hands, forged, carved to the model of the mighty rocks of our peninsula.
“Square crushing jaws. Scornful jutting lips that spit with defiance and swagger . . . Massive rock-like head, but the ultra-dynamic eyes dart with the speed of automobiles racing on the Lombard plains . . .
“Rising to speak, he bends forward his masterful head, like a squared-off projectile, a package full of good gunpowder, the cubic will of the State.”
In that same year, the sculptor Thayaht cast a stylized bronze head of Mussolini, writing of it: “The idea of the lictorial axe, of Roman arches, of the warrior’s helmet, and of the gaze fixed on a distant future: all of these are brought together and interpenetrate to create a whole. . . . This work does not aspire to be a portrait, but rather a symbolic effigy of the dynamic power of the Man in whose hands lies Italy’s fate.”
Mussolini said: “Democracy has deprived people’s lives of ‘style.’ Fascism brings back ‘style’ in people’s lives: that is a line of conduct, that is the color, the strength, the picturesque, the unexpected, the mystical; in sum, all that counts in the soul of the multitudes. We play the lyre on all the strings, from violence to religion, from art to politics.”
And, he said: “Those who say fascism, say first of all beauty.”
Asked if a dictator could be loved, he said: “Yes, when the mass is at the same time afraid of him. The mass loves strong men. The mass is female.”
And, “When I feel the masses in my hands, since they believe in me, or when I mingle with them, and they almost crush me, then I feel like one with the masses . . . Everything depends on that, to dominate the masses as an artist.”
Italo Calvino wrote of the shots of Mussolini in profile which emphasized his “perfectly spherical cranium (without which the great transformation of the dictator into design object would not have been possible) . . .”
He shaved his head, perhaps to disguise his premature baldness, perhaps in imitation of Gabriele d’Annunzio, poet-turned-war-hero, who claimed that hair served no useful purpose in modern civilization, and being hairless was therefore a sign of higher development.
In Dux, written when she was still in Mussolini’s thrall—and he in hers—Sarfatti wrote of Mussolini as Homo Romanus, who incarnated the military and racial legacy of ancient Rome.
Although he had once denounced Rome as a “parasitic city of landladies, shoeshine boys, prostitutes and bureaucrats,” he now declared: “the immortal spirit of Rome rises again in Fascism: the Fasces are Roman; our organization of combat is Roman, our pride and our courage are Roman: Civis romanus sum.”
He was not, you understand, a Roman of the Rome which had been sacked by the Goths and Visigoths and Vandals; not of the medieval Rome that had been rife with popes and anti-popes and anti-anti-popes (—I cast thee into the outer darkness! —Oh, no you don’t. I cast thee into the outer darkness), the Rome to which Christians made pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, bearing home stories that remind me of the tales visitors tell of Detroit: a deserted city, streets eerily empty except for packs of howling dogs; a do-nothing city whose inhabitants were content to live on charity; charred shells of abandoned buildings; palaces whose owners had decamped to the far suburbs and were now colonized by vagabonds; open fields in the center of town; hovels occupied by families on the verge of starvation.
No, Mussolini was not of the Rome which rose and fell countless times throughout the centuries; the Rome in which there were endless reports of celestial omens, of statues of Christ sprouting bleeding stigmata, of animals distinctly heard to bleat, “Woe to Rome,” of barbarians of one sort or another at the gates, of fires, floods, famine, plagues, breakdowns of the infrastructure, of the looting of saints’ bones, of political feuds in which one enemy blinded the other and cut out his tongue—the mutilator, in turn, when his star fell, finding himself stripped naked, seated backwards on an ass, and driven through the streets of Rome; not the Rome of urban sprawl, of taverns and hermits’ cells hard by the most sacred, decaying monuments of the city, of money changers in the temple, of hawkers of candles, souvenirs, relics, rosaries, icons, phials of holy water, world without end. Not that Rome. Not the pagan bawd who gave travelers a come-hither wink from beneath the veil of Christianity she’d thrown over her face. Not the Eternal City that eighteenth and nineteenth century visitors, making their Grand Tours, used to navigate with maps and guidebooks, mariner’s compasses and quadrants, trailblazing their way through the jungle of a city, where they found lowing cattle and baaing sheep being herded through the ancient monuments.
No, his was the ancient Rome born of the god of war.
After Rhea Silvia was raped by Mars, she dragged herself back to her mother’s house. She cried for water, water with lemon squeezed into it, lemons from the tree in the grove at the edge of the village. She swirled the tart water in her mouth and spat over and over again. For weeks she kept spitting, long after the florid patches on her face and arms had turned from the color of a bruised peach to a deep purple, and then faded to a pale green and disappeared. The taste of his tongue in her mouth had turned into the taste of her pregnancy.
Rhea gave birth in the night, her mother’s hand covering her mouth to keep others in the village from hearing her screams and then her cry: No! No! Not two of them! The babies stared at Rhea with the same blank look Mars had in his eyes when he thrust in and out of her. Get them away from me! she screamed. Get them away from me! Her mother wrapped them in a black cloth and carried them to the banks of the Tiber, but could not bring herself to drown them.
A hungry she-wolf whose babies had been born too soon, so white and pale she gobbled them down before they were even dead, heard the two human babies mewling. She moved stealthily through the groves of ilex and wild olives, crouched behind a rock, preparing to pounce on the two strange creatures. But when the twins turned their dark eyes toward her, she recognized the harsh light of her own eyes in theirs. She licked them clean and gave them suck. Later, a shepherd found the two impossibly plump and juicy foundlings and brought them to his hut. He named them Romulus and Remus.
When they were grown, six vultures flew over Remus, standing on the Aventine Hill; then twelve flew over Romulus, standing on the Palatine.
“The gods favor me,” Romulus said.
“No, they favor me,” said Remus. “Mine were first!”
“I had twelve!”
Having no mother to send them to their rooms, their argument came to blows, and Romulus ended up killing Remus.
This was the Rome of Mussolini: The Rome of the returning Imperial armies, of the victorious generals, their faces painted red as if with blood, marching with crowns so laden with gold and jewels their heads could not support them, so slaves walking behind them held the crowns aloft. Behind them came the soldiers, then the captives; the wooden wheels of chariots loaded with loot clattered along the stone streets. His was the Rome that conquered the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Macedonians, the Sicilians, the Sardinians, the Corsicans, the Dacians, the Illyrians, the Anatolians, the Thracians, the Celts, the Mesopotamians.
But before they could become great and stolid Romans, the Fascists needed to come to power. Later there would be Mussolini’s Blackshirts marching in ranks, giving the straight-armed Roman salute as they passed before the King at the terminus of the March on Rome; later the Viale dell’Impero, the broad pedestrian avenue leading from the Piazza Venezia to the Foro Mussolini will be built, with black-and-white mosaics in the style of those which had recently been excavated at Ostia, the words DVCE, DVCE, DVCE, DVCE, DVCE repeated in sans serif Latinate font; later the letters SPQR—Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and the People of Rome—which had once been blazoned on the battle standards of the early Roman conquerers, and under Fascism will not just be carved into marble but also appear on pavement grates and manhole covers; later Italy will cast off its reputation as a land of dappled sunlight and hurdy-gurdy playing mendicants and long siestas and trains which would arrive, according to a stationmaster who rose slowly to his feet, patted his vast belly, slowly drew forth his watch, jutted out his lower lip and said, “Ah, in about—I don’t know, I suppose—half an hour or so,” followed by a shrug.
In the years leading up to Fascist seizure of power, squadristi—many of them demobilized arditi from the Great War where they had been famous for stripping to the waist and, with a bayonet clutched between their teeth and a grenade in each hand, rushing into battle giving off full-throated war whoops—descended on towns, dressed in their black shirts, where they would not only burn the offices of the local Socialist and Catholic popular parties and beat their opponents with a manganello, but also pour castor oil, a powerful purgative, often administered in far smaller doses to constipated children, down their throats, so that rivers of excrement flowed from them.
Sarfatti celebrated the rebirth of “the avenging, imaginative, joyful and slightly cruel Italian beffa” or practical joke, linking the cudgel to Guignol, and Punch’s stick in Punch and Judy shows, and the commedia dell’arte.
The opera buffa continued in the March on Rome which brought Italy’s Fascists to power: whatever the facts of the matter—the march itself more of a show than a military assault—the image of it was of a ragtag militia, a few men armed with guns, others with farm hoes, table legs, tree roots, a golf club, riding in beat-up trucks, and farm carts. Mussolini, having taken the train from Milan to Rome, appeared before the king in his battered black bowler, wrinkled black shirt, black morning coat, black trousers. In his shabby shoes, half hidden under spats dusted with talcum powder to hide their stains, he presented himself to the King, saying, “Your majesty will forgive my attire—I have come from the battlefield,” although his majesty may well have wondered why one would wear a swallow-tailed formal jacket and striped trousers to war.
Here farce didn’t follow tragedy as in Marx’s famous schemata: rather, farce and tragedy were simultaneous.
The rectitude, the order, the discipline, the virility, the efficiency, the solidity, the pomp of Fascism could not have existed without its polar opposite. For every portly Abbott there must be a skinny Costello; for every dour Laurel, a jocular Hardy; for every raw thing, a cooked.
Mussolini’s appearance before the oceanic crowds gathered beneath him in the Colosseum or the Piazza Venezia reads to modern audiences as high camp, with gestures that might have been cribbed from an aging Sarah Bernhardt playing to the stalls. He strode about in hats festooned with gold braid and embroidered eagles, bowler hats, stovepipe hats, Germanic military helmets which echoed the shape of his bald pate, black-tasseled fezzes, hats with ostrich-feather plumes, at times appearing to be in a Monty Python skit. Italo Calvino recalls that during his childhood, children of a year or two of age would be told to “make a Mussolini face,” and, with a severe look and a jutting, vexed pair of lips, would delight their parents.
The British ambassador, reporting home on this new phenomenon, described Mussolini as “a strange man” who had “lately caused some comment by driving about through Rome in his two-seater with a well-grown lion cub sitting beside him,” probably the one given to him by Haile Selassie, when the two men were on better terms than they would later be. The ambassador went on to note, “[T]he Italians seem to like this sort of thing.”
The photographs of Mussolini show his head with the eyes that can only be described by the cliché “piercing,” an apt image for the head of a regime which came to power through liberal use of the knife.
In the pictures that were everywhere in Italy, Mussolini was shown skiing bare-chested (although by today’s standards his midsection seems more than a tad flabby); in tennis whites on the court; dressed as a sailor; piloting a plane; in fencing whites; at the wheel of a steamroller—rather oddly dressed in knee-high boots, what appear to be jodhpurs, a suit jacket and a bowler hat; posed next to a Roman statue whose stance he echoes, complete with Roman salute; leading a parade of motorcycles, goggles pushed on the cap on his head, prefiguring Marlon Brando in The Wild One; with a pickaxe above his head—helping to clear the more recent accretions that had grown up around Rome’s ancient monuments; bareheaded, arms akimbo with a petulant scowl on his face, the sort that if I’d put it on as a child would have earned me, at best, a “Young lady, go to your room,” or a good thwack on my bottom; threshing wheat; en famille at the seaside in his bathing costume—its long skirt suggesting a gladiator’s tunic—with a head so out of proportion to the rest of him it seems to have been photoshopped onto his body; although the smallness of his frame serves to emphasize the robustness of his will, a small man who nonetheless towered over others.
He seems like a Ken doll being put through its paces, or perhaps to be anticipating the photographic practices of Cindy Sherman, enacting instead of stereotypes of womanhood those of able-bodiedness .
The word “incarnate,” meaning embodied in flesh, in human form—used especially when speaking of a deity—is derived from the Latin, incarnātus, made flesh; also, to put into, express, or exhibit in a concrete form; to realize, actualize; incarnato is the closely related Italian word.
Both are related to the word “carnage” (in Italian carnaggio), from the late Latin word carnacticum, flesh-meat; both the Italian and the English mean carcasses collectively; a heap of dead bodies, especially of those slain in battle; the slaughter of a great number, especially of humans; butchery, massacre.
Another related word is “carnal,” from the Latin carnālis, in Italian carnale, pertaining to the body as the seat of passions or appetites; fleshy, sensual. Carnevale, Mardi Gras, carnival, the time of flesh before the fast; carnivoro, eater of meat; carnefiche, butcher, torturer, executioner.
Pronouns referring to Il Duce were often capitalized: He, His.
In 1925, Il Duce developed a duodenal ulcer, which he largely kept in check by following a diet of yogurt, fruit, and vegetables while abstaining from meat, wine, and coffee. Still, he could sometimes be seen unbuttoning his trousers and pressing against his lower abdomen to relieve the pain.
In Mussolini’s Italy, reproductions of the Capitoline She-Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus were ubiquitous, nearly as common as those photographs of Mussolini. They seemed to declare Rome’s intention to once again conquer the world—although the she-wolf herself is an Etruscan statue, predating the Roman era: the figures of Romulus and Remus, crouched with open mouths beneath her teats, were added in the late fifteenth century. And the narrative that could be written from the look on the she-wolf’s face is not that of the founding of a great city but of raw mammalian grief: a whelpless, sorrowing mother.
Italy itself had only recently been made whole, out of a farrago of duchies and kingdoms and two-bit republics, each with their own language.
When I was in Sardinia, my landlady would talk on the phone to locals in Sardo, and the Northern Italians staying at the pensione laughed and said, “She might as well be speaking Chinese.”
The makers of the Italian nation then faced the question: What sex should this new nation be? Ah, surely, Italy was woman.
We, we sons of Italy, stepped onto the balcony of the ramshackle hotel by the sea, looking out over the cypresses the wind had carved into giant bonsai, gazing beyond to the strand. We saw our beloved mother, Italy, leaning into the wind as she made her way up the gravel path toward us, her hair blown back, the wind sculpting her clothing against her fine limbs. We thought of all the men who had loved her—the artists who had painted her portraits, the poets who had come to die in her arms—and we wondered how a woman could be both so worshipped and so bereft. She lifted her head, gave us one of her half-smiles, and we rushed down from the balcony; we put our strong arms around her thin shoulders. She inclined against us as we sheltered her from the wind.
Now that Italy had been made, it was necessary to make Italians. The people of Tuscany and Calabria and Abruzzo must be rid of their infernal habit of saying, “I once went to Italy.” We turn to them and patiently explain, “Tuscany, Calabria, Abruzzo, they are all part of Italy. You cannot go to Italy—you are in Italy already.” “Of course, Signore; yes, Signore; you are completely right,” the peasants agree. Then they turn back to one another and say, “Do you know, the Italians make pasta sauce very differently then we do?”
Ah, our poor, discombobulated nation!
And then, after the Great War, our victory was a “vittoria mutilata,” a mutilated victory, when those foreign diplomats in their top hats and swallow-tailed coats prised Dalmatia and Albania from our grasp and tried to pawn us off with Jubaland as recompense. Jubaland!
The body that has become one with the body of the nation must constantly be warding off threats at maiming, death. Mussolini fought innumerable sword duels. He had car wrecks in which he was miraculously unhurt; a plane crash from which he escaped with only a scratched face and a twisted knee; not to mention the multiple assassination attempts and near-attempts—including one in which the would-be assassin, who had been chosen by lot in a drawing held by a group of anarchists, came and confessed everything to Il Duce, handing him the Beretta that would have been the murder weapon; another by a sixteen-year-old boy whose bullet merely passed through Mussolini’s sash, although the crowd lynched the boy on the spot, tore his body apart and paraded it piecemeal through the city of Bologna. A bomb bounced off Mussolini’s car in the Portia Pia in Rome, injuring eight bystanders, but leaving Il Duce unhurt, consolidating the impression that no harm could befall him. When Violet Gibson, a mad Irishwoman, made her assassination attempt and, although she was less than a foot away from him, managed to do no more than graze his nose with a bullet, Pope Pius XI declared Mussolini was “clearly protected by God.”
Although poor Benito, in the wake of Violet’s attempt, had to go off to Libya—Italy’s Fourth Shore—with an enormous bandage on his nose, looking a bit like Lou Costello after one of his scrapes, perhaps in Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion or Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. He stood beneath the wall above the piazza at Tripoli, where an image of himself a thousand times life size, black on the white wall, scowling in his warrior’s casque, glared down, reviewing the uniformed, barefoot native troops giving the Fascist salute, followed by a regiment of camel-riders.
MUSSOLINI HOLDS ITALY IN HIS HAND, read the headline in the New York Times, reporting on his return from Libya, with a subhead: “Attempt on His Life Has Added a Glamour of Martyrdom to the Former Idolatry.”
But oh, how the mad torment him! Violet, lousy shot, failed assassin, variously described as “demented,” “a half-mad mystic,” and “a crazy Irish spinster,” whose mother, the dowager Lady Ashbourne, had previously appealed to the British Board of Control of Lunacy for help with her errant daughter. Violet had appeared unthreatening enough—perhaps protected by the cloak of invisibility thrust over the shoulders of women over fifty—to get within eight inches of Il Duce and fire off her shot. And then there was Ida Dalser, an inconvenient early wife, who had to be judged insane and shut up in a lunatic asylum, as was their inconvenient progeny, Albino Benito Bernardi, né Albino Benito Mussolini, who in 1942 died in the madhouse at Mombello, after a series of insulin shock treatments. Albino was buried in an area set aside for the corpses of the insane in the local cemetery, his grave marked only with the number 931.
In “Imperial Rome Reborn,” in the March 1937 issue of National Geographic, the author writes of being shown mosaics glorifying physical training and the ruins of Caracalla’s baths. “Vast in size and equipped with every luxury then known, they marked beginnings of Rome’s fall. Here men accustomed to hard campaigning grew soft on enervating pleasures.”
“A nation exists not only because it has a history and territory, but because human masses reproduce from generation to generation. The alternative is servitude or the end,” Mussolini wrote.
He also wrote, in his autobiography: “I caught her on the stairs, throwing her into a corner behind a door, and made her mine. When she got up weeping and humiliated, she insulted me by saying that I had robbed her of her honor and it is not impossible she spoke the truth. But I ask you, what kind of honor can she have meant?”
In 1926, a punitive tax was passed on unmarried men. In 1931, homosexual acts between men were outlawed. “Impeding the fecundity of the Italian people” became a crime, and at times was prosecuted by the government.
Carlos Scorza, the ras (the title was adapted from the Ethiopians, for no reason I have ever been able to fathom) of Lucca said, “Society today despises deserters, pimps, homosexuals, thieves. Those who can but do not perform their duty to the nation must be put in the same category. We must despise them. We must make the bachelors and those who desert the nuptial bed ashamed of their potential power to have children. It is necessary to make them bow their foreheads in the dust.” The mayor of Bologna put it a bit more crudely: “Screw and leave it in! Orders of the Party.”
At a rally in Rome, in 1933, Il Duce watched as the most productive mother from each of Italy’s provinces passed before him, the madri unnamed, but loudspeakers blaring forth the number of her progeny: “Seventeen, fourteen, sixteen.”
Although during the Fascist Festival of Marriage 2600 couples married simultaneously, each receiving a 500 lire note from Il Duce, although the propaganda newsreels showed images of the round heads of newborns at their mothers’ breasts, still Italian women said, “If Mussolini wants to come and wipe the brat’s ass, I’ll have another,” and the birth rate stubbornly refused to rise.
In her poem “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath wrote, “Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you.”
How we worried over those lines as we sat on the floor of the Women’s Building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1974.
What is it in me that wants to see an oppressive Fascist monolith, crushing everything beneath its wheel? When I was in high school, in the 1960s, people still used to say about Mussolini, almost in a whisper, “Still, he did make the trains run on time,” just as Americans of that era, hitchhiking on the Autobahn, would be told by driver after driver who gave them a lift, “And do you know who built the Autobahn?”
Why do I resist knowing that beneath that lockstep surface there was disorder, chaos, women squatting over chamber pots as their wombs gave up the little angels who had been aborted with herbal infusions or crochet hooks, drunken men being shepherded home from trattorias before they could say anything more against the state, mad people who went on being mad, bodies growing inevitably old, softer, weaker—his body, too?
But as all great foods—anchovies, foie gras, truffles—be shadowed by a sense that they are slightly disgusting, so too must these dictators appear to be simultaneously great and puny, magnificent and farcical. Let us add The Wizard of Oz to the texts which prefigure Fascism.
The murals The Apotheosis of Fascism and the History of Rome were painted in the Foro Italico—originally called the Foro Mussolini—a sports and gymnastics complex north of the Tiber. After the end of Fascism, these artworks, prominently featuring Mussolini, were hidden behind drapery.
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, traced his descent back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Prior to his 1930 coronation, lepers were exiled from Addis Ababa, so their distorted flesh was not seen in the crowds who cheered his procession along streets which had been built by Italian prisoners of war after Adwa. The assembled European and American dignitaries—of the second or third rank—were quite charmed by the fact that when they arrived at their hotels, the porters carried their luggage atop their heads. They were also amused by the fact that the assembled Abyssinian princes wore both European-style coronets and shawls made from lions’ manes. They were less pleased—to be frank, many of them were quite disgusted—at the fact that raw meat was served at the banquet. (It is an altogether different thing—surely you understand why!—when we civilized people dine on steak tartare and the robes of British royalty are trimmed with the fur of the stoat.)
When the Italian heavyweight champion, Primo Carnera, (known as “The Ambling Alp” because of his great size), fought Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium. Mussolini forbade the Italian press from printing pictures of him lying on the mat with a triumphant Joe Louis above him.
World War II is sometimes said to have begun on September 3, 1939, when German and Russian forces invaded Poland; or on July 17, 1936, when the Spanish Army, led by General Franco, rebelled against the elected leftist government, but perhaps it began on December 4, 1934, at the oasis of Walwal, Ethiopia, when Italian and Ethiopian forces clashed. One Ethiopian said: “It is 1914 all over again, and we are Serbia.”
After months of the equivalent of the gesturing and shoving and name-calling that precedes a schoolyard brawl, on October 3, 1935, Italian forces invaded Ethiopia simultaneously from the north and south. Planes, including two piloted by Mussolini’s sons Vittorio and Bruno, dropped bombs across the nation. Mustard gas was used repeatedly throughout the war, despite the fact that its use had been outlawed by the Geneva Convention.
In Italy, precious metals were donated to the war effort—the King contributing gold bullion, D’Annunzio his military decorations, the Jews of Rome the gold menorah from their synagogue. Women—including Mussolini’s wife Rachele, Queen Elena, and many brides of Christ—exchanged their gold wedding bands for rings of iron.
In the US, children played with lead soldiers representing the Italian and Ethiopian armies.
At last, we have our Empire. With our tanks and our poison gas and our banners bearing the enormous profile of a helmeted Mussolini, we have conquered that once proud race. See them kneel in the dust before us. See them bend their heads in shame. The crowds raced into the Piazza Venezia; where, with perfect Fascist stage management, light played against darkness: torches surrounding the balcony, searchlights playing over the throngs, and then the chants of “Duce! Duce! Duce!” And then at last, at last, trumpets blared, and He stepped onto the balcony and declared: “The Italian people have created the Empire with their blood, will make it fertile with their labor, and will defend it with their arms . . . Raise high, legionnaires, your standards, your weapons and your hearts, and salute after fifteen centuries, the reappearance of the empire on the predestined hills of Rome.”
In September of 1937, Mussolini spoke in Berlin at an open air meeting before 800,000 people. He insisted on speaking German, although his grasp of that language was so poor that his speech was largely incomprehensible, and midway through it the heavens unleashed thunder and lightning, along with torrents of rain. Everyone ducked for cover, and Il Duce was left standing on the dais with rain steaming down his face.
His son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, noted in his diary: “Beautifully choreographed, much emotion and a lot of rain.”
Hitler accepted the invitation proffered in return. Since Vittorio Emanuelle, once king, now, after the conquest of Ethiopia, emperor, was the official head of state, Hitler rode about in his car, leaving Mussolini feeling spurned and the emperor put out—not only, he complained, was the Führer a psychopath, he had poor table manners. Mussolini didn’t enjoy Hitler’s company—he had said the Führer was like a phonograph record with seven tunes, played over and over again—but he did want to show off Italy’s military prowess, while Hitler insisted on spending half a day traipsing through the galleries of Florence. Mussolini had once bragged that he’d only been in a museum twice in his life. He tried to avoid eating in front of Hitler, not wanting him to know the bland diet he was forced to eat on account of his ulcer. It was one thing to be a wounded warrior and quite another to be a man with chronic dyspepsia.
It was said of Mussolini that he wanted war “as a child wants the moon.”
The war he had wanted, war that would forge a new Italy, was coming closer and closer. Envoys seeking to avoid it posted like Milton’s angels over land and ocean without rest, understandings were come to, memoranda were sent via diplomatic pouch, the Pact of Steel between Germany and Italy was signed, Comrade Molotov shook the hand of Reichsauβenminister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Mussolini expressed his contempt for Roosevelt by saying “[N]ever in the course of history has a nation been guided by a paralytic. There have been bald kings, fat kings, handsome and even stupid kings, but never kings who, in order to go to the bathroom . . . had to be supported by other men.”
Sumner Welles, the special emissary of that paralytic king, visiting Rome as part of the pre-World War II jockeying over war and peace, noted that Mussolini “seemed fifteen years older than his actual age of fifty-six. He was ponderous and static rather than vital. He moved with an elephantine motion; every step appeared an effort. He was heavy for his height and his face in repose fell in rolls of flesh.” Like the Wizard of Oz, Mussolini had become “a little old man with a bald head and a wrinkled face.”
In something of the old “let’s put on a show” spirit, Mussolini decided in 1939 to stage a sporting event, to prove that he was still the masculine embodiment of Italy. Foreign journalists were called to the gardens of his villa, where, wearing a white athletic singlet, he made a series of jumps on his horse. He then changed into a polo shirt and shorts—which showed off his war scars—for a game of doubles against a famous tennis pro and a member of Italy’s football team, who pretended, according to one American journalist present, to have “difficulty in returning his soap bubble serves. Whenever the ball was returned, it floated slowly up so that a lame man with a broken arm could have hit it. Il Duce lobbed, smashed, and smiled, pleased with his triumph.”
On 10 Givgno Anno XVIII in the Fascist calendar—the 10th of June, 1940, as it is more commonly known—after Hitler’s Blitzkrieg had brought much of Europe under his sway, Mussolini stepped onto his balcony once again. As always, the crowds below were chanting, “Duce, Duce, Duce, Duce.” He jutted out his lower lip, and declared: “An hour marked out by destiny has struck in the heavens of our fatherland. This is the hour of irrevocable decisions.” Announcing Italy’s entry into World War II, he planted his fists on his hips. “We go to battle against the plutocratic and reactionary democracies of the West.” The newsreel showed loudspeakers broadcasting his voice to Genoa, Turin, Milano, Venice, Trieste, Bologna, Florence, Naples, as Mussolini continued: “It is a struggle of the fecund and young peoples against barren peoples slipping to their sunset.”
Soon, when newsreels of him cavorting on the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia were shown in Italian cinemas they were met with silence.
The Italian people soon grew weary: weary of the deaths of their sons, weary of bombast, weary of the Allied bombings, weary of the sounds of troops marching in the streets. They became a nation of those who would like to go home at the end of the day and sit down to a quiet little supper—not anything too fancy, just a plate of pastasciutta with Parmagiano cheese, yes, that and a glass of wine, or maybe two.
German time-and-motion scientists carried out a study of Italian workers, which proved they were inferior even to Russian POWs—but after all, what could one expect from a Southern race? They preferred flirting and playing cards to hard work.
Mussolini’s great bald pate began to be compared to a cabbage, a round of provolone cheese.
Mussolini nervously repeated the joke that was going around Germany: “We’ll win the war in two months against Russia, in four months against England, and in four days against Italy.”
By 1942, Il Duce seemed sickly, prone to catching every passing cold and bug. His weight and blood pressure nosedived, his face was ashen, his cheeks shrunken in on themselves. At times he rolled on the floor in an effort to deal with pain from his ulcer.
When he and the Führer wrote to each other, they passed complaints about their health back and forth like two old men bellyaching on a park bench in Miami Beach.
On the 25th of July 1943, the Fascist Grand Council voted to dismiss Mussolini.
The next day he meekly followed the Carabinieri sent to arrest him.
On July 26, 1943, the busts of him that once decorated mantels, shop windows, and makeshift altars were tied to the backs of streetcars, horse-drawn carts, and barrows, his cranium rattling along, battered against metal tracks and paving stones. His portraits were thrown into the streets where they were pissed upon, shat upon, vomited upon.
Held in an improvised prison at a ski resort in the Apennines, he wrote to his sister Edvige that he was “a bag of bones and muscles in a state of organic decay.”
(When I googled that quote to check on it, the first entry that popped up was the book where I had read it; the second was advice about composting for home gardens.)
When the Germans discovered his whereabouts—Himmler had been consulting an astrologer for information, but the secret police produced better results—he was rescued by an SS glider team. He was propped up as the leader of the Republic of Salò.
A puppet of the Germans: that phrase seems particularly apt for him, a man whose face seems to have a limited number of expressions, as if strings connected to a hand above were manipulating him through a set series of expressions and gestures: Haughty Contempt: chin up, corners of the mouth down; Setting the Record Straight: Forehead jutting out, right arm thrust forward, index finger raised. I Was Right All Along, Wasn’t I?: Arms folded across chest, head bobbing slowly up and down.
Thanks to the Germans, the family was reunited (minus of course the treacherous Count Ciano and his wife and brood) at the Villa Feltrinelli on Garda Lake. Romano annoyed their German “hosts” by playing boogie-woogie—that degenerate music produced by an inferior race. Mussolini spent hours lying listlessly on the divan in a ratty dressing gown.
The women standing in queues to buy cigarettes, hanging out their wash, the men riding the streetcar, say over and over again:
“Everyone knows he’s dead.”
“But his picture was shown—”
“Ah, it’s a body double. The old man is dead.”
This was one of those times when pronouns needed no antecedents.
One of his Blackshirts said, “Who was that man who talked like him, moved like him, whom we had seen so many times in the newsreels, but who wasn’t him?”
In the waning days of the Salò Republic, one artilleryman reported that Mussolini had “amused us when he was reviewing the troops. He waggled his backside around like a girl in heat, and some of the officers, seeing him doing that, could barely stop themselves from laughing.”
On the 10th of August, 1944, fifteen partisans were executed on orders of the Germans and their bodies left in a heap in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan.
On April 28, 1945, a Germany convoy was stopped by a partisan roadblock. After a brief exchange of gunfire, the two sides came to an agreement: the Germans would be given safe passage out of Italy, but no Italians could accompany them.
Guiseppe Negri, searching the lorries to enforce this edict, discovered Mussolini, and called out in his Lombard dialect: Gh’è che el crapun! We’ve got Big-Head.
On the 29th of April, 1945, the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were brought to the Piazzale Loreto. His corpse was shot at, pummeled, that iron head of his that had survived so much cracked open like an egg shell, oozing out, instead of yolk and albumen, blood and the slithering gray matter of his brain.
He and Petacci were then trussed up, hung by their feet like carcasses, their arms flying downward in an upside-down gesture of surrender.
St. Peter was crucified head down, feet up, as he felt himself unworthy of being killed in the same manner as his savior.
The Hanged Man of the tarot appears almost jaunty—suspended by one foot, his arms folded behind him, his jerkin defying gravity.
When Mussolini’s body was cut down on the orders of the American occupiers and transported to the local morgue, the opposite of a lying in state occurred, as people pressed forward to ogle, to stare, to curse, to spit. Samples of his brain were removed to be sent back to the US for scientific analysis, where they were kept at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital (along with the living Ezra Pound).
His body was then interred in an unmarked grave at the Musocco cemetery in Milan.
On the night before Easter, 1946, as a revolt raged in the nearby San Vittore prison, Mussolini’s body vanished. Some followers had hacked through the hard soil, and removed his body—although, corpses being messy things, they were forced to transport it in a gardener’s wheelbarrow, with the head lolling off to one side, and some bits of Il Duce fell off as he was being wheeled along.
A message was left at his grave: “Finally, O Duce, you are with us. We will cover you with roses, but the smell of your virtue will overpower those roses.”
Like Elvis, he was seen everywhere—although, unlike Elvis, he wasn’t rumored to be among the living. An anonymous caller told the police his corpse had been taken south across the Po River; roadblocks set up to keep it from being carried to Rome failed to find it. It was seen being reburied at his birthplace in Predappio. A rumor went around that Churchill had ordered it to be ferried across the English Channel. It was in the hull of a ship departing from Genoa.
In fact, it had been hidden in a house in the Valtellina mountains and from there taken to Milan, where the abbot of the convent of Sant’Angelo gave Mussolini’s bones and rotting flesh refuge in a space behind the altar, until the smell became too intense and it was stuffed into a wooden crate labeled “Church Documents” and moved to a storeroom. It was then smuggled to a fifteenth-century monastery outside Pavia, where, wrapped in two rubberized sacks and stuck in a trunk, it was hidden in the closet of a monk’s cell.
When the body was finally recovered by the authorities, the press was summoned in order to dispel rumors that his remains were still floating about Italy. It would have been ghoulish to display his bones, so instead, in a small dank room on the third floor of the police headquarters in Milan, the brown trunk with its muddied buckles was exhibited. Il Duce, it was true, had not been a large man, but even folded in half, how could his body have fit into such a crate? But as more and more reporters and photographers crowded into the small space, as the heat from the photographers’ flashes further warmed the room, the close air filled with the pungent and unmistakable odor of decaying flesh.
Giorgio Bassani begins The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with a day trip out of Rome that leads by happenstance to the montarozzi, the funeral mounds strewn across the Latium, and then to the tombs of the Etruscans, and then to the memory of the ostentatious mausoleum of the Finzi-Continis in the Jewish cemetery Ferrara.
That same urge to go to the cemetery led Pier Paolo Passolini to the foreigners’ dark garden where Gramsci’s remains were entombed. In “The Ashes of Gramsci” he found a deathly peace, contemplating “the finish of the decade that saw / the profound naïve struggle to make / life over collapse in ruins . . . (but not for us: you, dead, and we / dead too with you in this humid garden) . . .”
After more than a decade of peregrinations about Italy, Mussolini’s body was at last buried in his birthplace. Predappio is now filled with souvenir shops selling T-shirts, sweatshirts—all black, not black as in “too hip to wear grey,” but as in Blackshirts; badges, coffee cups, busts, beer mugs, refrigerator magnets, posters, calendars, bibs with Mussolini’s face and Fascist insignia, history repeating itself, after tragedy and farce, as kitsch.
In 1966, the six test tubes containing the samples of Mussolini’s brain were returned to his widow, with the compliments of the US ambassador to Italy, although the tag on the box misspelled his name as “Mussolinni.”
A few years later a McDonald’s was opened overlooking the Piazzale Loreto, eaters of il fast gazing out at the bronze slab atop a stone plinth, a memorial to the fourteen Partisans whose bodies were dumped there, with a bas-relief sculpture that suggests the naked and heroic figures featured in the Great German Art exhibitions of Nazi Germany.
In 2009, the Villa Feltrinelli, Mussolini’s last home, was opened as a luxury hotel.
In that same year, for a minimum bid of 15,000 euros, three glass vials said to contain the blood and brains of Mussolini were offered for sale on eBay, although the listing was removed hours after being posted, as eBay policy states: “We don’t allow humans, the human body, or any human body parts or products to be listed on eBay.” ☐
In addition to the work cited directly in the text, I am deeply indebted to Italo Calvino’s “The Dictator’s Hats,” Stanford Italian Review, Vol. 8, nos. 1/2, 1990, translated by Chris Bogie; to R.J.B. Bosworth’s Mussolini, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002; Sergio Luzzatto’s The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy (translated by Frederika Randall) New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Company, 2005; Philip V. Cannistraro and Brian R. Sullivan’s Il Duce’s Other Woman, New York: Morrow, 1993; Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Company, 2010; Victoria de Grazia’s How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1992; and Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1997.