Magazine article History Today

Il Duce's Cultural Cachet: Stephen Gundle, Joint Curator of a Current Exhibition on Anti-Fascist Art and the Decline of the Cult of Mussolini, Examines the Political Demise and Commercial Rebirth of the Italian Dictator

Magazine article History Today

Il Duce's Cultural Cachet: Stephen Gundle, Joint Curator of a Current Exhibition on Anti-Fascist Art and the Decline of the Cult of Mussolini, Examines the Political Demise and Commercial Rebirth of the Italian Dictator

Article excerpt

Anyone for a 2011 Mussolini calendar, complete with a different picture of Il Duce for each month? Or how about a wall clock featuring the dictator's face? Or a key ring, a fridge magnet, a T-shirt, a flag, a statuette, or even an app for your iPhone? The souvenir industry that has developed around the figure of Benito Mussolini is extraordinary in its variety and inventiveness. Ever since the ban on the production and sale of such items was lifted in 1983, enterprises mostly based in or near the dictator's birthplace of Predappio in the Romagna region have been dedicated to the commerce of artefacts evoking or depicting the fallen dictator. For 20 years this trade was a semi-clandestine one. The objects were on sale in only a few souvenir shops whose sole customers were the nostalgic Fascists, who visited Predappio on the occasion of the anniversaries of Mussolini's birth and death and of the Match on Rome that brought him to power in 1922. In recent years the trade has expanded. Anyone going on holiday to the Adriatic resorts of Rimini or Riccione will see the souvenirs on sale in tourist shops and motorway service stations. Other locations have also sought to cash in on the phenomenon, including Salo, the seat of the puppet regime that ruled the north of Italy under Hitler's patronage in the final months of the war, and the Passo del Furlo, a mountain pass in the Marche region that boasts a rock formation resembling Mussolini's profile. On the Internet dedicated sites as well as eBay offer a wide choice of gifts and nicknacks.

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The reasons for this bizarre revival are quite complex. Some of them undoubtedly have to do with recent political developments. The transformation of the small neoFascist party, the Italian Social Movement (MSI), in the early 1990s into a more mainstream post-Fascist party called National Alliance and the subsequent entry into government of this party in 1994 as part of a Berlusconi-led coalition had the effect of bringing the Fascist heritage into the mainstream. This was paradoxical because the party's reinvention was supposed to put an end to yearnings for dictatorship. An unintended consequence of this was renewed interest in Fascism as history. Silvio Berlusconi himself--at 73 just old enough to remember something of life in the late Fascist period--made a point for many years of refusing to take part in the annual celebrations of the liberation on April 25th, 1945. The word 'anti-Fascism', a key term in the Italian political lexicon, never passed his lips.

Other reasons are more historical in nature. The failure to institute an Italian equivalent to the Nuremberg trials after the war, combined with an official refusal to suppress the MSI, even though the republican constitution forbade attempts to revive the National Fascist Party, allowed sentiments of nostalgia and self-justification to flourish quite freely. Although all the main parties, whether of government or opposition, took firm steps to quash the Fascist cult of violence and conquest and to implant a new political culture, they failed to elaborate a shared sense of national identity. Meanwhile, the most popular illustrated magazines catered to a fascination with the people and events of the Fascist period. Mussolini's surviving family members were portrayed sympathetically while the dictator's affair with Claretta Petacci, the young socialite who died with him, was recounted as a tragic love story. All of this was widely regarded for decades as mere trivial curiosity or morbid obsession. In fact it was a harbinger of things to come.

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Certainly, some of the human sympathy for Mussolini that was voiced in the 1940s and 1950s had to do with the manner of his death and the spectacle to which his dead body was subjected. The dictator was captured and summarily shot by partisans on April 28th, 1945 while trying to escape from Italy disguised as a German soldier. …

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