Saturday, May 17, 2014

Predappio, Mussolini's Hometown

A four-hour drive brought me, Ruth Lo, graduate student in Italian Studies at Brown, and Dietrich Neumann, professor at Brown, to a sleepy new town in a valley near Forli. One main street, with a piazza at one end, anchored by a church, the Casa Fascio (former Fascist Party headquarters) empty, boarded up at the corner. A few stores and public buildings dressed up in rather elegant neo-classical, safe for a few rationalist buildings. 

Here was Predappio, birthplace of Mussolini.

It underwhelms.  We were there on a Saturday and it was sleepy.  And, a bit to our disappointment, the public sites were largely inoffensive.  The fasces on the Casa Fascio have been removed.  The Church has no indication (unlike the one in Sabaudia did) of its fascist roots (except for the “EF” – era fascista – date).  The Town Hall has no obvious marks of fascism or Mussolini veneration.  Nearby is the rusted, overgrown cage for a golden eagle that was once kept there as a symbol of fascism.

Half way down the spine of the town, lined with a series of buildings by the architect Di Fausto – a school, affordable housing, a health clinic – is a semi-circular, colonnaded market place, a miniature version of Bernini’s columns enveloping the believers. There are no remains of fasces.  There was once a long stairway which headed up to Mussolini’s childhood home.  But BM wanted to cultivate his impoverished upbringing and had it removed.  Now a small path leads up to a substantial farmhouse. 

Remarkably, there is a temporary exhibit in his home that is appears scholarly and even-handed.  Indeed, the brochure goes out of its way, and at length, to say that this is not meant to celebrate Mussolini, or denigrate him, only to understand his earlier years.  And it by and large does that – although the large quotes from his speeches do veer toward the veneration side.  And in the upstairs part of the exhibit, there is a bedroom, with a photo of his alleged bed (there are no original objects in the museum).  But that’s it.  No shrine.

We then stopped in to the “souvenir” store and that is where things began to turn darker.  Two stores are chock full of tsotchkes of all types, if that Yiddish word is appropriate for the subject-matter.  The three of us had wanted to see this store, for its kitschy humor.  And in a way, it was ridiculous – I bought, for example, from “nostalgia” cologne with Mussolini’s image on the front of the bottle.  But we were soon appalled by the presence of Hitler busts and swastikas.  And then the three loud, tattooed young men came in speaking German – these seemed like true neo-Nazi’s from Germany.  Dietrich, who is German-born, heard the German and looked at me in shock. These guys were stocking up on swastikas and other things that are not allowed to be sold in Germany.  (Actually, we had heard that the former mayor had tried to bad these stores from Predappio, but had obviously failed).

Things went steadily down hill from there.  We visited Mussuolini’s crypt, where hundreds of people have left loving notes for Il Duce, and dozens of organizations have placed plaques on the wall, proclaiming their loyalty to Mussolini.  

We left Predappio but felt, rightly, that we should visit one last museum – his adult home, Villa Carpena.  This place is a shrine to the man, one of those house museums where everything appears frozen in time, so that visitors might nostalgically revisit a time and a hero.  The black-shirted guide spent two hours lovingly describing every plate and cup and picture, Mussolini’s skis, his motorcycle, his suit, his bed.  Perhaps it was because it was late in the day, but I became steadily more revolted by the whole place.  The culmination was their proud new “study center,” where people could come and read their collection of fascist books and magazines, and help keep alive the dream of Il  Duce.

I was happy to get in the car and drive, quickly, to beautiful Cortona.

View from the doorway of the church, with the Casa Fascio to the left.

Casa Fascio, the boarded up former home of the Fascist Party. The liberal mayor has proposed making it the home for a serious museum on fascism, which does not exist in Italy.

A cage next to Predappio's town hall, where a golden eagle, yet another symbol of the fascist regime, was kept for years.

The view up to Mussolini's childhood farmhouse, on a hall above the main street.  Di Fausto, the town's architect planned a grand staircase, but Mussolini had it removed, in order to emphasize his modest upbringing.

The marketplace serves as gateway to Mussolini's home.

Dangerous kitsch

The "guest book" in Mussolini's crypt was filled with emotional messages of loyalty and nostalgia for Il Duce.  The whole book had been filled in the last weeks because of the huge influx of fascist sympathizers who came on the anniversary of his death on April 28, 1945, just three days after the liberation of Italy, which is a national holiday.

Villa Carpena, just outside of Predappio, was Mussolini's home with his wife, and serves as a private museum, memorial and "study center."

The theme of St. George slaying the dragon, with Mussolini in the role of St. George, using the fasce's axe as weapon.

One of Mussolini's suits laid out on his bed. Nearby is a mirror which, when viewed from a certain angel, reveals an almost holograph-like image of Mussolini.

The tour ended with a visit to the top floor of Villa Carpena and the new "study center," with inspiration imagery and words on the walls, and stacks of fascist books and magazines lining the shelves.

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