A brilliant young historian follows the odyssey of Mussolini's body in an original exploration of the history and legacy of Italian Fascism
Bullet-ridden, spat on, butchered bloody: this was the fate of Il Duce, strung up beside his dead mistress in a Milan square, as reviled in death as he was adored in life. With Italy's defeat in World War II, the cult of Benito Mussolini's physical self was brought to its grotesque denouement by a frenzied, jeering crowd of thousands-one eerily similar to the cheering throngs that had once roared their approval beneath Il Duce's balcony.
In this groundbreaking work, Sergio Luzzatto traces the fortunes of the Fascist dictator's body: from his charisma, virility, and magnetic domination of Fascist parades, to his humiliating execution, the ugly display of his remains, and beyond. Buried, exhumed, stolen, and hidden for ten years, Il Duce's corpse was finally laid to rest, a shrine for fanatical followers. Through this pursuit, Luzzatto shows how in a totalitarian state the body of the ruler comes to incarnate the nation. And from the indignities visited on Mussolini's corpse, Luzzatto crafts a subtle social and intellectual history of a country struggling to become a republic and free itself from the thrall of Fascism.
Elegantly written and stunningly conceived, alive with never-before-published letters, diaries, and reports, The Body of Il Duce cuts a new and compelling path through twentieth-century history.
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The Body of Il Duce
Mussolini's Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy
By Sergio Luzzatto, Frederika Randall
Henry Holdd and CompanyCopyright © 1998 Sergio Luzzatto
All rights reserved.
Tough to Eradicate
For twenty years after Mussolini's March on Rome of October 1922 — when thousands of Fascists converged on the capital and propelled their leader to power — the majority of Italians passionately loved Il Duce. Indeed, the mainstay of popular consensus for the Fascist regime was the personal charisma of Mussolini. The fact that King Victor Emanuel III was a mediocre figure both physically and politically allowed Il Duce to occupy the public stage as the vigorous personification of power. It was not the distinguished Savoy king but the son of a blacksmith from Romagna who dominated the reality and imagination of Italy between the wars.
For a tourist visiting the capital, a glimpse of Il Duce on his balcony in Rome's Piazza Venezia was as important, if not more, than a visit to St. Peter's to see the pope. The dictator's tireless motion did the rest, multiplying his appearances in Italy's streets and squares. Crowds gathered along the railway lines where Mussolini's train was expected, hoping to catch sight of the illustrious traveler through the window. "Il Duce is tireless, and the people never tire of seeing him," one propagandist wrote. Most Italians wanted to measure themselves against Il Duce's physical presence and were proud of it. "You are Italy!" shouted one Roman admirer after an attempt on Il Duce's life, a cry immediately taken up by the cheering crowd. Fascist Italy identified Mussolini's bodily self with power, and the people identified physically with their leader. As one caricaturist put it, Il Duce's body was a gigantic "commonplace" of Italian life.
Common as it was, Mussolini's body was also extraordinary, making any public showing exceptional, an epiphany. So much so that one of the literary conventions of the Fascist period was to describe Il Duce's appearance. The huge cranium, the high curved forehead, the powerful jaws, the protruding nose, the bushy eyebrows, the large dark eyes: both in the size of the features and in the impact of the profile, Mussolini's head warranted the title of supreme ruler. But Il Duce's presence was all the more impressive because he was not only ideal man but flesh and blood. So his Fascist followers were invited to look beyond the mask of power for the human face of the dictator: his deep gaze, his soft voice, his youthful smile. Even the blind could see Il Duce's gentle nature. Carlo Delcroix, blinded in the war and head of the National Association of Injured Veterans, described his leader: "I have never seen Il Duce but I do not believe the harsh descriptions I've heard. Perhaps he shows himself at his most natural to those who cannot see, but I have never perceived that terrible look on his face that artists and writers attribute to him."
Attractive and human as it was, Il Duce's body was to be observed only from afar. As scholars of absolute monarchy have made clear, the distance between a ruler and his subjects is a basic element of power. Nevertheless, the story of Mussolini's body (and Hitler's, for that matter) cannot be compared to that of sovereigns by divine right. One of the tenets of royal power in medieval and modern Europe was the dynastic principle, by which the monarchy outlived the mortal king (summed up in the familiar French phrase "The king is dead; long live the king"). In the twentieth century, however, the power of charismatic leaders was based on the uniqueness of the man at the top: after the dictator, the deluge. In the Western tradition the sovereign's physical self was secondary to his political role. In Fascist and Nazi ideology, the leader's authority derived directly from his body.
Even more than in the Third Reich, the body of the dictator in Fascist Italy became an instrument of rule, thanks partly to Mussolini's voice and his oratorical skills but also to other, nonverbal means of communication. Swiveling his eyes, contracting his jaw so his lower lip jutted out, spreading his legs, and putting his hands on his hips, Il Duce communicated through body language. Furthermore, like the ancient Romans he claimed for his ancestors, Mussolini was not embarrassed to be seen bare-chested. Nor — unlike Hitler, who was tough on his portraitists — did he seek to control the many and varied representations of him. So the dictates of propaganda and the vanity of the leader combined to turn Mussolini's body into the ideal of Fascist virility, the epitome of modern masculinity. The journalist Indro Montanelli, among others, wrote lyrically of the sensualness of the leader's body. Even fully dressed Il Duce appeared naked, impervious to drapery and clothing. "We rip off the clothing," he wrote, "going after the inimitable essentialness of this Man, who vibrates and pulsates with a formidable humanity."
But the infinite metamorphoses of Il Duce — from ruler to journalist, from knight on horseback to peasant farmer, from motorcyclist to airplane pilot, from faithful husband and father to Don Juan — were not merely the work of the regime's propaganda machine. They were also the product of Italians' collective fantasies. Like lovers in Stendhal, the men and women of Fascist Italy first imagined their ideal love object, then made Mussolini correspond to it. The Fascist press freely indulged in this form of projection. According to Franco Ciarlantini, author of Mussolini in the Imagination, numerous citizens of Savona, far from the battlefields, claimed to remember the wounded Mussolini being brought to the hospital during the Great War — seriously injured but in such high spirits that he was able to make the other patients, the doctors, and even the chaplain laugh. An Italian American in California swore he had seen the founder of Fascism in 1919 in Milan, playing with a hand grenade to test the courage of each new convert to the cause, to see if he was made of the stuff of a Fascist. A woman from Versilia, the mother of a seriously ill child, was certain that Il Duce would cure her boy because Mussolini "is now in charge of the Balilla," the Fascist youth organization. A boy from Merano, walking to Rome barefoot, told police he had taken off his shoes because he feared he would get them dirty and need a shoeshine just when he was to meet Mussolini.
The impact of Il Duce's body on children's imagination was vital since the children of the 1920s and 1930s were the future soldiers of the 1940s (and adults of the 1950s: enchanted by the living Mussolini's physical presence, they became passionate witnesses to the adventures of his corpse). The dictator as they imagined him was obviously the product of a process of indoctrination by teachers and parents. Mothers and fathers willingly guided their offspring, as did teachers, who assigned edifying writing topics such as "How I Imagine Il Duce." The indoctrination went beyond school essays. In school libraries, children found books that placed the Fascist revolution within the great events of national history, situating Mussolini in a centuries-long line of great leaders. When the school year was over, they would be sent off to summer camp with a picture of Il Duce in their knapsacks.
How spontaneous their devotion ultimately was is hard to tell. Certainly, there was excitement and a desire to be present when Il Duce came to visit an Italian city. The boys in the Balilla youth groups and the girls in the Piccole Italiane shined the metallic M decorating their uniforms. There was a mystical quality in the relationship between these young citizens and their leader. Like adults, children saw Il Duce's public presence as a religious offering, a sort of sacred host. "If only I could receive you along with Jesus," a young Florentine girl, Margherita V., wrote to Mussolini on the day of her first communion, May 8, 1936. "If only you could enter on my tongue, sit on my chest, rest on my poor heart."
The worship of the leader's body explains in part the strong theatrical vein in totalitarian regimes in general and Fascism in particular. Not only did Il Duce embody power, he acted it out. That is not to say that Mussolini's popularity was due solely to his skill as an actor, as anti-Fascists liked to think. Countless witnesses testified to the fascination Il Duce was able to exert on those who met him. One of the most expressive accounts was written in 1931 by the author Vitaliano Brancati, a young man at the time: "[Mussolini] is a monolith, all of a piece. If that piece is situated in a room, the room revolves around it; if it is situated in a crowd, the crowd bubbles up around it; if it is situated in the midst of a people, they make a pyramid around it." Fourteen years after Brancati wrote those words, the crowd at a large Italian square circled around Mussolini the monolith and beat him ferociously. The pyramid of people enjoyed the vision of his dead body hanging upside down in front of a gas station. Between the two extremes of collective feeling — love for Il Duce's body and hatred for his corpse — lies the history of postwar Italy, where Fascism, anti-Fascism, and post-Fascism intersect.
* * *
IN A COURTROOM in Chieti on March 16, 1926, four years after Mussolini's ascent to power, Amerigo Dumini and accomplices went on trial for the murder of Matteotti. Mussolini intended to turn the court proceedings into something much more than the prosecution of Matteotti's killers; he wanted to put the anti-Fascist opposition on trial. Thus, no less of a figure than the Fascist Party's national secretary, Roberto Farinacci, was appointed Dumini's defense lawyer. Il Duce also hoped that the trial would show how little Italians cared about the murder, or so a note he wrote —"We must not let Italy go back to its Matteotti obsession" — suggests. As it happened, one of the spectators as the trial opened was an unstable Irishwoman, Violet Gibson, determined to avenge the murder of Matteotti by killing the dictator. A few days later she tried to carry out the assassination on a street in Rome. Her bullet grazed Mussolini, and she was saved from the fury of the crowd only by the police. The same day someone put fresh flowers in front of Matteotti's image, and no policeman tried to stop him. (Throughout the two decades of Mussolini's rule, the funerals and commemorations of "subversives" remained a constant challenge to Il Duce.)
Attempts on Mussolini's life such as Gibson's merely strengthened his position, as they forced Italians to imagine a future without him. It was a future that frightened the majority, who feared becoming embroiled in a civil war. As a high-ranking Fascist official, Luigi Federzoni, observed, the regime was only as vital as its leader, "and that is the tragic greatness as well as the only real weakness of our situation." For Italians, the sociologist Roberto Michels commented, Mussolini's death was the equivalent of Italy's death. Proof that such thoughts occurred to many ordinary citizens is to be found in Il Duce's archives. After Gibson's attempt on Mussolini's life, a fourteen-year-old girl from a good family wrote to Il Duce to express her relief that he had survived and her hatred of the would-be assassin. "Why couldn't you strangle that murderous woman who injured you, divine spirit? Why couldn't you remove her forever from Italian soil, now that it has been touched by your pure blood, by your great, good, honest blood from Romagna?" The passionate adolescent's letter continued, "Oh, Duce, my life is dedicated to you," concluding with the signature of Clara Petacci, Mussolini's future mistress.
In September 1926 an anarchist marble cutter from Carrara, Gino Lucetti, made another attempt on Mussolini's life. Following the attempts of Friends of the People and Violet Gibson, this was the third failed effort, and it contributed to a popular impression that Il Duce enjoyed the protection of divine Providence. Fearing that Mussolini would soon wear a mystical halo if he survived yet another attack, anti-Fascist leaders in exile condemned the notion of assassination. They were backed in this by the most distinguished of Italy's anti-Fascist intellectuals, beginning with Salvemini, who was still smarting from his experience with Friends of the People. A few days after Lucetti tried his hand, Salvemini wrote in the Manchester Guardian that nothing could be more favorable to the military-capitalist alliance controlling Italy than a successful attempt on Mussolini's life. If Matteotti's murderer were out of the way, argued Salvemini, his successor would have no blood on his hands — a situation detrimental to the anti-Fascists. "The death of Mussolini would be an incomparable gift to the Fascist regime," the historian continued.
Somehow it escaped the normally astute Salvemini that Il Duce's was no ordinary body. Exiled from Italy, the historian was out of touch with the charisma of the Fascist leader. True, in 1926, the cult of Il Duce was only beginning to reach its height. That was the year Margherita Sarfatti published her hagiographic treatment, Dux; the same period saw the first of many printings of an influential biography by the journalist Giorgio Pini. A vigorous debate about realism in figure painting and sculpture had also begun, the most important figure under discussion being that of Mussolini. A highly sophisticated Fascist intellectual, Giuseppe Bottai, soon found himself alone in criticizing an official art made up of "horrible busts of decorated plaster" and of "colored prints of Il Duce in absurd postures." Before long, advertisers were competing with artists to transform the dictator into a design object. Between 1925 and 1926 two satirical magazines, L'Asino and Il Becco giallo, ceased publication. The moment had arrived in which Mussolini's image would no longer be an object of satire.
A few weeks after the Lucetti attack, there was another. An attempt to shoot Mussolini in Bologna on October 31, 1926, signaled the end of democratic Italy. All political parties except for the National Fascist Party were outlawed; the opposition press was suppressed; the death penalty was reinstated for political offenses; a secret police, the OVRA, was created, as was a special tribunal for crimes against the state. Despite decades of historical research, the facts of the Bologna assassination attempt remain hazy. According to the Fascist police, the would-be assassin was a sixteen-year-old anarchist militant named Anteo Zamboni, who barely missed Mussolini and was lynched on the spot by Fascist supporters. The anti-Fascist version of events is that the young man was the innocent victim of a plot hatched by the Fascist Party itself.
Zamboni's father and aunt were convicted as co-conspirators, and during their sentencing at the tribunal for crimes against the state, the judges cited rumors of an assassination plot circulating in Bologna before Mussolini's visit. But whether or not the shots were announced in advance, the lynching certainly was. A photograph taken near Porta Saragozza on October 30, 1926, the day before the attempt, shows a cart being pushed by a band of Blackshirts. The names of Mussolini's previous failed assassins appears on the side of the cart, with a poster showing a straw man hanging from a rope — a clear warning to anyone who might try again. The next day, after Anteo Zamboni had been stabbed to death, his killers did indeed try to string him up on a lamppost. They were dissuaded only by the powerful local Fascist boss Italo Balbo, who proudly advised that "Fascists don't hang the dead." According to Sisto Zamboni, Anteo's uncle, "Matteotti's murderers were among the lynch squad," and indeed, Albino Volpi, a Milanese Fascist militant implicated in the Matteotti crime, was part of the group that killed Zamboni.
As news of the assassination attempt spread across Italy, it unleashed a wave of violence. It was raw violence, the sort that the squadristi, the paramilitary groups that enacted the Fascist party's crudest impulses, had learned from the Arditi during the war — a military-parade show of might and a cruel celebration of the physical destruction of the enemy. There were attacks on the homes of several parliamentary deputies who had protested after Matteotti's death. In Sardinia, Emilio Lussu, a leader of the anti-Fascist Partito d'Azione, the Action Party, opened fire on a group who had arrived to kill him; one young squadrista died. Alcide De Gasperi, head of the Catholic Partito Popolare, the Popular Party (and for many years prime minister in postwar Italy), was threatened by Fascist militants as he traveled on a train. On another train, Antonio Gramsci, secretary general of the Italian Communist Party, met some of the Fascist squadristi who had been in Bologna that day. According to Gramsci, an angry crowd of Fascists boarded the train and some, who came to sit in his carriage, pridefully showed off their knives running red with blood: "After they murdered Anteo Zamboni, the Fascists lined up in front of that innocent young man's body and stabbed him so as to take home their bloodstained trophies." Gramsci was arrested and imprisoned only days later, an experience that eventually killed him.
Excerpted from The Body of Il Duce by Sergio Luzzatto, Frederika Randall. Copyright © 1998 Sergio Luzzatto. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holdd and Company.
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Table of Contents
1. Tough to Eradicate,
2. The Ox of the Nation,
3. An Unquiet Grave,
4. Mussolini, Dear Departed,
5. The Executioner,
6. The Quality of Mercy,
7. The Return of the Remains,
About the Author,