Authors: Sergio Luzzatto
Both in the size of the features and in the impact of the profile, Mussolini's head warranted the title of supreme ruler. Il Duce, circa 1939. (
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. Norâunlike Hitler, who was tough on his portraitistsâdid 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 Duceâfrom ruler to journalist, from knight on horseback to peasant farmer, from motorcyclist to airplane pilot, from faithful husband and father to Don Juanâwere 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 Warâseriously 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 feelingâlove for Il Duce's body and hatred for his corpseâlies the history of postwar Italy, where Fascism, anti-Fascism, and post-Fascism intersect.
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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 wroteâ“We must not let Italy go back to its Matteotti obsession”âsuggests. 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
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 handsâa 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,
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,
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 ropeâa 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
, the paramilitary groups that enacted the Fascist party's crudest impulses, had learned from the Arditi during the warâa 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
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
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.
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THREE DAYS BEFORE
the events in Bologna, Mussolini, celebrating the fourth anniversary of the March on Rome, told the crowd gathered under his balcony that his watchword was “a verb, to endure”âto endure day after day, month after month, year after year, letting his opponents' attacks fall away like “vile slime” as they hit the wall of Fascist resolve and tenacity.
Rhetoric aside, Mussolini's watchword points to a greater mission than politics, one that Il Duce genuinely perceived as ageless, a will to power defying time and reaching for eternity. Eternity here is not to be confused with immortality; to say something is dead does not mean it cannot last. Like other twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, Fascism tried to cloak the body of its charismatic leader with the durability of a monument, to turn Il Duce into a lasting entity not much different from the embalmed corpses of Soviet memory.