Il Duce and His Women: a rich and vivid portrait of Benito Mussolini

Roberto Olla's book is an illuminating biography takes stock of the politics of the personal in its portrayal of the Italian Fascist leader.

Il Duce and his Women: Mussolini's Rise to Power
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Several months ago, Italian model Bianca Balti joined thousands of women across the country to protest against then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, claiming that his profligate lifestyle made him an embarrassment to the nation. The whole world is laughing at us because of Berlusconi, said Balti, only to be rebuked by Alessandra Mussolini, a model-turned-politician, who called this statement an insult to the majority of Italian voters and suggested the speaker should go to France, to play the guitar with Carla Bruni.

The granddaughter of dictator Benito Mussolini saw the antics of Berlusconi, her ally in parliament, as something characteristic of a national trait and regularly expressed her admiration for him. All the more heartening it was to see other Italian women take to the streets in February, incensed by the ongoing farce. What contrast with girls queuing outside Berlusconi's bedroom or with their grandmothers who used to write to Mussolini trying to get an audience in intimate surroundings (the leader's headquarters had a special office dealing with such letters, vetting candidates and fitting rendezvous into his busy schedule).

Given the recent developments on the Italian political scene, Roberto Olla's biography cannot help pointing out certain similarities between the two leaders, Mussolini and Berlusconi; both charismatic and sexually voracious, both fabulously successful until their abrupt fall from grace, both eager to cultivate myths about themselves. However, if one sets the more obvious parallels aside, it becomes clear that the ascetic Duce bears little resemblance to the jovial host of the infamous "bunga-bunga" gatherings. Their personalities may be equally appalling, but for very different reasons. One can hardly imagine Berlusconi following Mussolini's example and taking up the editorship of a socialist newspaper for 500 lira a month (in contrast to the 700 which his predecessor earned) in order to help the party's coffers. As for their reported modus operandi with women, here the gap is also wide.

If the surviving accounts are to be believed, Mussolini never had much consideration for his conquests: he practised the Roman formula "Veni, vidi, vici", wasting little time on pleasantries. Instead, he put more effort into impressing crowds, so the image of the Duce grew ever more legendary with each public appearance, be it in a roaring auto or on horseback.

It was Margherita Sarfatti, his principal mistress and the chief ideologue of the Fascist movement, who played a crucial role in the making of the myth, in which the leader's magnetism was key. Another important influence on Mussolini was Angelica Balabanoff, a radical activist who took him under her wing in the early 1900s, telling the young provincial what books to read and what clothes to wear.

As the narrative unfolds, there emerge two distinctive patterns in Mussolini's ways with women: either impersonal lust towards or high dependency upon them. The former, complete with his cavalier approach, lack of commitment, refusal to acknowledge paternity and habitual adultery, fits in well with the idea of free love, one of the main tenets of the revolutionary school he belonged to at the start of his career, and is not that unusual even by our modern standards. It is his treatment of his mistresses as comrades in arms that deserves more attention, and Olla provides enough detail for us to imagine a personality obsessed with political power and using everything to strengthen it.

In fact, women deceived by Mussolini the man, especially his loyal wife Rachele, often showed tolerance, unlike those who were dismissed not as lovers but as confederates - a proof that they were, in essence, mesmerised by fascism more than by the Duce's personal charms. Admirers who besieged him would probably be less displeased to find out they were far from being the only ones in his life than to see this book, which mentions them in the title but has no pictures of them, only photos of their idol and his family.

Even though Mussolini once declared categorically that "women have no influence over men who are strong", he was clearly exaggerating his own independence. Olla quotes historian Karin Weiland as saying, "Mussolini was not a man who loved women, but nevertheless they were the only people he really trusted."

His ideal conception of virility meant that he could not take criticism from a man or reveal his own weaknesses to one. Only with someone who was not an actual or potential rival could he share his own doubts. Such emotional insecurity laid bare in front of a female confidante would, one surmises, cause self-contempt and lead to estrangement. Mussolini's letters to his long-term mistresses suggest that he did a lot of metaphorical crying on their shoulders. Again, this is the way many people use their friends; whether this habit is better or worse than compulsive sexual behaviour is not a straightforward question to answer.

No matter how much they were exploited, many of his paramours remained unequivocally supportive of Mussolini. They (most notably Sarfatti) helped him financially, provided ideological advice, consoled him and stayed with him until the end, as Claretta Petacci chose to do despite being offered a chance to escape (Mussolini's disgraceful end is not in the book, which finishes in 1936, leaving him at the height of his glory).  Reading about the position of women in the days of the Duce while watching Italian news full of recent examples of macho dominance, it is difficult to believe that feminism was thriving there in the 1970s. Starlets proudly accepting presents from Berlusconi could do worse than read this book, if only to see what progress has been made since the era when your badge of honour was an article in Il Popolo d'Italia, edited by a man worshipped for his great vision, rather than an expensive necklace bought by someone you call papi.

The lively narrative style adopted by Olla is good for telling stories. The book is full of entertaining anecdotes, allowing us a glimpse of Mussolini hiding his abstinence or sulking at a party, but often provides little background to important events, so the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

For instance, one of the most defining moments during Mussolini's rise to power is the one in 1915 when he did an about-face, switching from pacifism to extreme militarism and advocating Italy's participation in the First World War. This goes uninterpreted, unless one counts the duels fought by the young Benito and touched upon at the beginning of the same chapter as a convincing explanation.

Olla cites numerous documents, demonstrating that the book is well researched, and is careful to alert the reader to the fact that some memoirs were written soon after the collapse of Mussolini's regime, and therefore have to be taken with a pinch of salt. At the same time, the author himself makes occasional controversial statements - for instance, when talking about the relationship between Mussolini and Balabanoff - without pointing out sources that support other versions.

Despite these shortcomings, the book provides a rich portrait of Italy during a dramatic period of its history. An Italianate will find in it minutiae of everyday life in the country, from school education at the turn of the last century to local feasts in Romagna. Someone with a passion for arts will learn a few details about the special relationship between futurism and fascism. A left-winger will be keen to read about the days of the Second International and ponder over the speculations on whether or not Mussolini ever met Lenin.

With its range of themes by no means restricted to intimacy, Il Duce and His Women deserves a wide readership, from people interested in history to those who prefer trifles about the lives of the great and the good (or not so good, as the case may be). Even Berlusconi, now that he is no longer preoccupied with matters of state, might find the time to browse through it, sitting in a comfortable villa, perhaps in the company of a young female friend.

Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.