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Authors: Sergio Luzzatto

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for itself, recounting the sad story of a body attacked with fury both equal and opposite to the passion it inspired when alive. At the same time, the autopsy report must be read in the historical context of the civil war, a context dominated by death and the dead. Faced with Mussolini's battered corpse, we must remember all the partisans who were tortured, who were dumped without proper burial, all the abused corpses that never had the benefit of an autopsy. From this perspective, the violence at Piazzale Loreto, as much as it might say anthropologically or psychologically, was an eminently political event.

In the days after Mussolini was strung up, even the newspapers representing the most moderate voices on the Committee of National Liberation—papers that might have condemned the brutality—held to this view. In a way, this was logical, for a political reading of the treatment of Il Duce allowed the Resistance forces to argue that the violence against the Fascists at Piazzale Loreto was justified by what had been done to the partisans but that any reciprocal action would be illegitimate. In Rome the paper
Risorgimento liberale
praised Il Duce's swift execution and expressed no great concern about the fate of his body after death. The Christian Democrat paper
Il Popolo
wrote that Mussolini's dead body represented a distant past, to be left behind as nightmares are forgotten. Closer to the spirit of the Resistance, the left-wing press wrote about the events with greater enthusiasm. In the pages of the party daily
the Communists praised the “Jacobin” justice of the execution and wasted few words on the scene at Piazzale Loreto. The Socialist daily
wrote that the spectacle had been barbarous but that “the people were forced to execute their tyrant to free themselves from the nightmare of an irreparable offense.”

Even these few examples are enough to suggest that beneath the revolutionary fervor there was uncertainty and even some contradiction within the left. Was the fate of the Fascist dictator Jacobin justice or people's justice? Was it the hegemonic gesture of a minority deciding for all or a collective decision that the leaders had merely carried out? To put it another way, had Mussolini been executed by Colonel Valerio or by the Italian people? In the chaotic days of the Liberation it was not easy for the Committee of National Liberation to admit publicly that the Resistance had been a minority movement and that in this lay its deepest ethical value. It was easier to say that the events at Lake Como and Piazzale Loreto were “the only catharsis possible.”
At the same time, there had been tens of thousands of Italians (“20,000 is a low estimate,” one newspaper said) in the piazza that day, and the Resistance leaders knew that many, many more people had been milling around Il Duce's body than had joined them in the mountains during the hard times of the civil war. Some of the more long-sighted partisans recognized a paradox, the paradox of April 29, 1945: the spectacle at Piazzale Loreto was similar in a strange way to Mussolini's rallies in Rome's Piazza Venezia.

Was the crowd that battered Il Duce's corpse perhaps the same as the one that had hailed the dictator in headier days? Leo Valiani, head of the Action Party, had the impression that it was. The possibility was disturbing, confirming as it did that the partisan fight had been a minority cause and thus that it would be difficult to build a foundation for the new Italy on the basis of the Resistance and its values. From another point of view, however, the overlap between the people at the two piazzas held a saving—if not appealing—grace: the violence could be blamed on the Milanese crowd, the “immature mob,” freeing the partisans from responsibility.
The “disgusting” scene of the “servile” crowd attacking the bodies of Mussolini and his men, “the same crowd that cheered and trembled before them when they were alive,” allowed the partisans to distance themselves from the episode—as if they had not been the ones who chose to rest Mussolini's head on Claretta Petacci's breast, to hang up the bodies by their heels, to write the placards that bore their names.

The most explicit proof of the unease felt by some in the Resistance—their sense of bad faith, one might say—appeared in the special edition of
L'Italia libera
, the Action Party paper, published in Milan on the afternoon of April 29. Anyone who has seen footage of that morning in the square—the crowds cursing, kicking, and spitting at the bodies—cannot but be astonished by the paper's interpretation. One can only imagine that
L'Italia libera
's reporters must have been elsewhere, witnesses to some other scene:

The crowd advances in a silent, composed line, past [the mortal remains of those responsible for Italy's ruin]. It is a crowd of men and women who have, for a moment, in the glacial atmosphere of death hanging over the Square of the Fifteen Martyrs, silenced their cries, their expressions of joy over the Liberation. It is a crowd that shows no fierce emotion before these corpses of those who have paid for their grave crimes with their deaths, a crowd that knows only that popular justice has taken its course.

Ignored by Italian historians, and not by chance, the excerpt points in an obvious, even embarrassing, way to a fact that would weigh on postwar Italy. Immediately, indeed from the very day of the hanging, Piazzale Loreto constituted a taboo for the Resistance. There was no television at the time, of course, but there were also no newsreels. Beyond Milan, there was no way to know what took place in the piazza. Ingenuously—but certainly not innocently—
L'Italia libera
tried to take advantage of the circumstances to convert an orgy of violence into a respectable display of mourning.

What the newspaper had not figured on was that, in liberated Italy, photographs circulated as effortlessly as the press. The papers themselves still reproduced very few photos, but the images were printed up and passed from hand to hand. On the morning of April 29, many of Italy's best photojournalists were on hand in Piazzale Loreto, snapping thousands of shots of the extraordinary sight. Among them was Fedele Toscani, the top photographer at the Publifoto agency. “The devil Toscani” didn't miss a detail—not the moment when the partisans stuck a Fascist pennant into Il Duce's hand, making him look like a Punch figure at a carnival, nor the tableau in which Mussolini and Petacci hung head down with their arms flung out, as if in a gesture of surrender.
In the days that followed, Toscani's photos began to circulate throughout the country, along with images shot by other photographers. Very quickly a market for the pictures sprang up. Several were actually made into postcards, with the permission of the Liberation authorities.

In the golden days of Il Duce's reign, there had been great demand for photos of the live Mussolini, who was seen as a sort of talisman whose image should preside over every Fascist household. After the Liberation, many Italians were eager to get their hands on a photo of the dead Mussolini, and the pictures from Piazzale Loreto served that purpose admirably. At newsstands in Rome, wrote journalist Corrado Alvaro, customers clamored to buy copies. “I'm getting it for my wife,” one of them said.
In Milan, sales were so vigorous that some anti-Fascists felt scandalized (or perhaps guilty). “Don't you think it's shameful that they're selling those horrid photos of Mussolini and his mistress in the postures that death imposed on them?” wrote attorney Giacomo Falco to his colleague Marco De Meis, secretary to the prefect of Milan. “And do they have to sell Mussolini's photo along with Matteotti's?” The shops were doing as good a business as the newsstands, Falco went on to say, “because the crowd is so eager.”
A couple of weeks later the prefect, a member of the Action Party's national executive, ordered the immediate seizure of the photos from the shops and “any other public place.” The spectacle of Piazzale Loreto was not to be allowed to continue in the streets of Milan; men would no longer be able to take Il Duce home to their wives.

It would be a mistake to see the circulation of the pictures as Grand Guignol only. The market in the photos had a political aspect as well. To the Communists, the sale of these “tragic and grotesque” images had a positive side, serving, wrote
, as a useful warning to anyone contemplating a revival of the dictatorship.
And despite the Milan prefect's order to make the photos disappear, some fellow members of the Action Party enjoyed the spectacle of Piazzale Loreto. Years later, the writer Luigi Meneghello, a member of the Action Party in 1945, wrote of his approval at seeing “the butchered Duce.” It was “a just and good thing” that the corpse was strung up, because it allowed Mussolini, who had often seemed a buffoon in life, to reclaim in extremis “a more serious status”; hanging by his heels in front of a gas station was “appropriate and poetic.”
Irony aside, Meneghello spoke as a partisan veteran with more intellectual courage than most, someone willing to recognize in all its profundity the Manichean nature of the Resistance and its ethics.

But the most striking example of how the Piazzale Loreto photos served as totemic images for a population hungry for justice may be found elsewhere, perhaps where we might not think to look: in the village of Civitella in Val di Chiana, where on June 29, 1944, the Nazis murdered the entire male population in reprisal for a partisan attack. Among the half-destroyed houses was that of Elda Morfini, a young mother who had been widowed when her husband, Dr. Gastone Paggi, was killed. Morfini was able to take very few things from her home after it was burned by the Germans along with the bodies of the murdered men. There was a nightgown stained with her husband's blood following a last embrace, a doctor's coat and stethoscope, a few letters, and a child's toy. To these precious relics Morfini later added a newspaper containing numerous photos of Il Duce's body.

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and favorite child, learned of her father's fate in a terrible way. On the morning of April 29 she was on her way back to Italy from the Swiss convent where she had taken refuge after the execution of her husband, Galeazzo Ciano. Edda tuned her radio to the Free Milan frequency and heard the announcer describe the crowds heading toward Piazzale Loreto to view her father's corpse. Edda was bitter about the commentary, which sounded like a sportscaster's at a soccer match: “Mazzola passes the ball to Loik, who sends it over to Ferraris II…”
Like Edda Ciano, millions of Italians heard of Mussolini's execution from their radios, listening with trepidation as they sought to learn the fate of a son, a father, or a husband. Socialist leader Pietro Nenni heard the news while hoping to have word of his daughter Vittoria, who had been deported to Germany. A few hours later, as the party paper
rushed out its special edition, Nenni was gripped with conflicting emotions when the managing editor, a former Fascist, suggested they raise a glass to Mussolini's demise.

Was it a day for toasts and spontaneous national celebration? Without a full sample of reactions, the historian must be content to dig up fragments. A Turinese railway worker, owed two lire by young Mussolini for a pair of shoes, was effectively drunk with joy at the news. As he boarded a train for Milan he could hardly wait to stand before the hanging body of Il Duce and say to him, “I gave you those two lire and you never paid me back, and now there you are, so you have paid handsomely.”
At the other end of the social scale, a distinguished university professor, historian Adolfo Omodeo, expressed delight at the fall of Mussolini in his own way: “It's easier to breathe without him in the world.”
In the Vicenza headquarters of the Action Party, members toasted the courageous death of the “little tart of Egypt,” referring to Claretta Petacci.
Among other anti-Fascists, the desire to get drunk was less strong than the need for self-criticism. In the pages of
Il Ponte,
a fledgling Florentine review founded by the jurist and anti-Fascist Piero Calamandrei, Il Duce was remembered through the lens of Greek poetry: “Mirsilo is dead, but no one in this restaurant has any desire to drink to that. For twenty years, sadly, we let him live.”

Commenting on Piazzale Loreto, one Roman daily used a reference familiar to educated Italians, Alessandro Manzoni's novel
The Betrothed,
in which the obsequious parish priest Don Abbondio speaks of the tyrannical Don Rodrigo's death from the plague. “It was a great disaster, this plague, but it was also a broom. It swept away certain people—people … whom, my children, we never would have seen the end of.” The priest's satisfaction is the same feeling that Italians had at seeing the end of Mussolini: “Never again will we see him making his rounds with those thugs behind him, with that arrogance, with that air he had, with that rod up his back, with that way he had of looking at people that made them feel they had been put on earth just to flatter him. Now he is no longer and we are here. He won't be sending any more of his nasty messages to decent people. He gave us all a lot of trouble, you see, and now we can come out and say so.”

In one way or another, many Italians were like Manzoni's Don Abbondio, trembling in cowardice before the tyrant while fortune was on his side, quick to speak ill of him when he was gone. If this was true anywhere it was in Rome, a city more attuned to worship than to resistance. The Trieste poet Umberto Saba, who was working in the capital as a reporter, described the reaction of Romans to Mussolini's death in an account he titled “Totem and Taboo.” On April 30, when the newspapers and radio had erased all doubts about Il Duce's demise, there was an “unquiet air of celebration” in the working-class neighborhoods. But the next day, stopping in at the cheap restaurant where he took his meals, Saba sensed the “first symptoms of remorse.” In oblique ways, both explicitly and silently, using “words that could be interpreted only by someone used to listening to the language of the unconscious,” Saba's fellow diners expressed the uneasiness of turning anti-Fascist in the post-Fascist era, of being survivors who had no shame but could claim no merit.

BOOK: The Body of Il Duce
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