Authors: Sergio Luzzatto
While Audisio's would-be killer went to his destiny as a condemned neo-Fascist, Mussolini's executionerâreelected with the Communist slate for the city of Alessandriaâreturned to the Chamber of Deputies in the second legislature. At the far end of the chamber sat the man who had stolen Mussolini's body, Domenico Leccisi, a newly elected deputy for the Italian Social Movement. “Contrary to expectations, his arrival provoked not the slightest incident, not even when his path crossed with Walter Audisio's,” noted one illustrated weekly, under a picture of Leccisi entering the sanctuary of Italian democracy.
For reasons of state, Mussolini's corpse remained hidden in the convent of Cerro Maggiore from 1946 t0 1957, a decade and more, during which there were periodic rumors about Il Duce's burial place. Sometimes the rumors evaporated with the same rapidity with which they had brewed. One brief assertion, resulting from a deathbed confession by a chauffeur from Verona, had Mussolini's grave in the northern Italian city of Bressanone. The whispers that Il Duce lay in a grave at Nettuno, south of Rome, proved just as evanescent, as did the suggestion that his remains could be found under the altar at the Milanese church of Sant'Angelo.
At other times, the rumors seemed more convincing. When the press chose to delve into them, the public responded with fascination. Two Milanese photojournalistsâwho spread the word that Mussolini was buried under the altar at the Monte Paolo sanctuary, only a few kilometers from Predappio, his birthplaceâwere rewarded for their troubles with seven-month sentences for damages to a religious order. Faced with what they thought was the biggest scoop of their lives, the two had drilled a hole in the stairs leading up to the altar to search for a casket. The friars of Monte Paolo had to face some angry left-wingers armed with machine guns who accused them of encouraging neo-Fascists to make pilgrimages to the site.
Among all the rumors about Mussolini's last resting place, the most curious circulated for a few days in late October 1949. A mysterious story published in the Milan paper
claimed that the body of Il Duce had recently been buried, under a false name, in section 37 of the Verano cemetery in Rome. The reporters who then rushed to the cemetery were convinced when they located a tomb marked “Bruno MisÃ¨fari” that they had found the right grave. Not only did the initials of the man's name correspond to those of Il Duce, but the words inscribed on his tomb were suggestive:
Eternal Night is far less grave to me
Than the day I witnessed the cowardice of the strong
And the way the lowly slaves behaved like sheep.
Do not weep for me: I am glad to lie with the dead.
Was there, the reporters asked, a more fitting epitaph to the tragedy at Piazzale Loreto? Although some dates appeared on the tombstoneâReggio Calabria, 1892âRome 1936âthe journalists dismissed them as irrelevant. The minister of the interior and Mussolini's family issued denials, but the press remained unconvinced. Many neo-Fascists in the capital, moreover, were willing to entertain the
's hypothesis and so, with All Hallow's Day at hand, crowds poured into the Verano cemetery to pay their respects at the tomb of Bruno MisÃ¨fari. A young man who stood guard by the grave was mistakenly identified as Mussolini's son and the crowd paid tribute to him, too. This collective fantasy continued until November 3, when even the scandal sheets had to admit that Bruno MisÃ¨fari was not Mussolini. The name of the deceased was not the invention of some Interior Ministry functionary, nor was the epitaph a reference to Piazzale Loreto. The real Bruno MisÃ¨fari, it turned out, had been an engineer from Calabria who had been repeatedly jailed during the Fascist years as an opponent of the regime. After his death his widow had ordered the inscription, too hastily identified with the sentiments of a Fascist.
In 1950s Italy, as the fantasies about Il Duce's body ran wild, they found their most able interpreter in Roberto De Monticelli, a journalist. The son of theater actors, he had begun his career writing for
the Action Party paper. Eventually he made his way to a job at
an ambitious new weekly founded by the publisher Alberto Mondadori on the model of
. A successful magazine,
sold as many as 500,000 copies soon after it was launched. De Monticelli began a brilliant career there as a theater critic, but he was also assigned to cover the trail of Il Duce's dead body, the odyssey of some bones said to belong to Mussolini, the pilgrimages made to monasteries and sanctuaries by the faithful, the intrepid activism of some parish priests. In De Monticelli's description, Mussolini's afterlife took an intensity that could probably only have been conjured up by a man steeped in the theater. “To die, therefore to wander”: it took a writer familiar with Shakespeare to find so apt a depiction of Il Duce's posthumous fate in the collective memory.
In the autumn of 1951 De Monticelli was invited to visit the Certosa di Pavia. He wanted to investigate why large crowds were converging on the sanctuary during the mild October weekendsâmany more visitors than normal. A few weeks earlier, Father Enrico Zucca, who had played a role in the theft of Mussolini's body from the Musocco cemetery, had told a newspaper that Il Duce was buried in the Certosa di Pavia's little cemetery, just where the Franciscan brothers had relinquished the corpse to the Milan police in August 1946. Father Zucca, now in Brazil, had given this information to a French weekly and it immediately struck a chord in the Italian papers, which explained the crowds flocking to the convent.
Once on the scene, Di Monticelli found it impossible to extract any information from Father Casimiro, priest of the Discalced Carmelites, who went so far as to pretend to have lost the key to the door behind the altar where the relics were stored. But another informant turned out to be more forthcoming: this was Dr. Maddalena, the owner of the pharmacy that sold the liqueurs distilled in the convent. Maddalena knew nothing about Mussolini's burial place; still, he was happy to share his memories. He had been the
of the little town at the gates of the Certosa for fifteen years. It was heâsporting a blue scarf around his neck and a dagger in his beltâwho had received Mussolini when he made an official visit on October 31, 1932, and asked the prior to pray for him. Could anyone deny that request twenty years later, asked Maddalena, when Mussolini “had died in the way we all know”?
The pharmacist was not the only one troubled by the unhappy fate of the Fascist chief. De Monticelli paints a picture of a whole district where, if not nostalgic, people were at least sympathetic, referring not to “Mussolini” but to “Il Duce” and speaking of the mystery of the hidden body “as a sort of local curiosity or privilege.”
In Predappio, Mussolini's birthplace, the honor of having produced Il Duce had turned into a heavy burden. According to neo-Fascist journalists of the 1950s, it was “the poorest, most neglected city in Italy, the saddest and most miserable.”
While that was an exaggeration, it remained true that Predappio, a place of pilgrimage during the Fascist years, had suffered when the regime came to an end. Politically, the town had sought to free itself from its place in Fascist history by rediscovering a left-wing past that predated the March on Rome and had never been entirely wiped out. Thus, when, after the war, it seemed that Mussolini's body might be returned to his family and buried in the Predappio cemetery, the local Socialists and Communists were indignant. “Look,” they said, “they want to give him to us as a prize even though he is dead.”
But even a left-wing local government brought no peace to Predappio. Whether loved or hated, Il Duce lived deep in the hearts of the people there. As late as 1952, photographs of Mussolini still decorated the houses in the town, De Monticelli noted.
De Monticelli knew that the story of Mussolini's dead body had more to do with the living than with mortal remains. Among those living was Mario Proli, a marble cutter at work on a singular sarcophagus. True, the local anti-Fascists had sworn that Il Duce's body would never be buried in the Predappio cemetery, but that hadn't stopped Proli from carving a big slab of tufa stone that would serve as the tomb's cover, and from engraving the fasces that would decorate the cornersâpieces the marble cutter proudly showed off to
's photographer. Another local who caught De Monticelli's eye was Don Pietro Zoli, parish priest of the village of San Cassiano, where the Predappio cemetery was located. Eighty years old and not afraid to speak his mind, Father Zoli had been a pupil of Mussolini's mother. “Let Togliatti, Nenni, and Longo say what they will, the point is to bring Il Duce's body back here,” he said. “The sarcophagus is ready.”
Then there was Giacomo Fabbri, the cemetery custodian. In better times he had been one of the most popular men in Predappio as he took visitors on a guided tour to see the graves of Mussolini's parents. Now he was a “sad, fat man” who reminded De Monticelli of a reformed alcoholic living in a place thick with cheerful vineyards. Fabbri had his theory about when the body of Mussolini would return to its native soil: it all depended on when the powers in Rome would decide the time had come.
The marble cutter, the parish priest, and the cemetery custodian might have been among the living, but they were people who had outlived their time. In telling the story of Mussolini's afterlife, De Monticelli casts them in the role of minor actors, as if they were pathetic players on a stage:
They have a certain melancholy in common; there is a certain quality of being undone that makes these figures similar. They are typical secondary characters in a drama played out years ago. History left them behind like a fast train passing an insignificant and forgettable stationmaster. They stayed in place, for what else could they do? What is left for secondary characters when the protagonists have been overwhelmed by catastrophe?
It was not out of ideological sympathy for Fascism that De Monticelli wondered about the fate of Predappio's minor characters or drew eloquent portraits of Fascist bosses who had survived the ruins of the regime, men whose time had run out, who invariably had a bust of Il Duce on their shelves and a drawer full of letters from other men whose time had run out and whose days were too long. Neither was De Monticelli influenced by the conservative press, which urged “pacification” of Fascism's remnants, amounting to something close to amnesia regarding the recent past. Far from wanting readers to forget, De Monticelli felt that his job in reporting on post-Fascist Italy was to conserve memory. From his origins in the Action Party he had retained, like many fellow Resistance members, the belief that the new Italy could not flourish without having expressed grief for the old. But De Monticelli thought that compassion must be extended to all. The Italian soldiers who died at El Alamein deserved the same attention as the partisans who lost their lives in the Apennines, he thought. The corpses of Fascists buried in the Musocco cemetery seemed just as human to him as the bodies of slain Resistance heroes.
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FOR THE MOST
part, the Italian left, especially when it came to the Resistance, had difficulty freeing itself from the black-and-white logic expressed by Elio Vittorini in his novel
Men and Not Men,
discussed earlier. Playing and replaying the civil war, the literature of the left, even the most sophisticated, reserved grief mainly for the fallen partisans, depicting any compassion for the dead of the Republic of SalÃ² as absurd or degrading. In the Resistance novel par excellence,
Agnese Goes to Die
by Renata ViganÃ², a partisan's death represents the fountain of life (“The more they die, the more others come”), while the death of a SalÃ² Fascist opened a sinkhole (“the dead carry away even the living”).
Just as Manichean was much of novelist Beppe Fenoglio's early writing, in which the dead enemy was condemned to an animal existence in the hereafter, “a beast that disgusts even the God of mercy.”
Italo Calvino granted the SalÃ² Fascists the status of human beings but denied their dead any pity: it was pointless to bow one's head over the grave of a Blackshirt, for he had been on the wrong side of history. The first important leftist to propose a less brutal dichotomy was Cesare Pavese, an anti-Fascist but one who had not taken to the hills with his gun. His novel
The House on the Hill
concludes with the following memorable words:
I saw the unknown dead, the dead of the Republic of SalÃ². They are the ones that woke me. If a man who is not one of us, an enemy, becomes something like this when he dies, if he stops us in our tracks and we are afraid to step over him, it means that even in defeat, the enemy is a person. Where the dead man lies we too could lie.â¦ There would be no difference, and if we are alive, we owe that fact to the battered corpse. So every war is a civil war; every dead body resembles someone alive and demands a reason why.
In Fenoglio's later works, the novelist learned to look his Fascist enemies in the face and see their “fleshly and human” attributes. When, in
Johnny the Partisan
, Fenoglio drops the historical dimension in favor of epic fiction, he finds dignity in the sacrifices of both sides in the civil war. “Remember that without the deadâtheirs as well as oursânone of this would have meaning,” says Johnny. While Pavese and Fenoglio were widely acknowledged for their literary talents, anti-Fascists felt uneasy with the way the writers seemed to put Fascists and partisans on the same plane, as if they were distant antagonistsâancient Greeks and Persians at war.