Friday, November 29, 2013

Mussolini on the road to Sainthood.

Rome provides unlikely images and stories which have delighted travellers and resident observers for centuries.

In his “Roma” (1972), Fellini was more the poet than the documentarist but he surely would delight in the juxtaposition of tourist tat on sale near the Vatican today; of another famous son of Fellini's Romagna with rather more sacred images.

After a visit with students to the Vatican’s foreign ministry this week, I was having a coffee with them in a bar back in Italy, together with an historian colleague who works on the Vatican and fascism. Next to us was a shelf full of statues of everyone of note from Romulus and Remus to the present Pope. Casting my eye over this sub-Berninian panoply, I noticed a very prominent jaw, sheathed in cellophane but still very recognisable. I turned to John and asked him “Is that who I think it is?” He nodded gravely.

Between the she-wolf, Jesus Christ and assorted saints, was Benito Mussolini, a 30 cm bust on sale at €75, a substantial enough price to tempt only true believers. (top left, photo by Peter Cardena)

It was a Wednesday morning, just after the Papal Audience so the place was choc-a-bloc and hardly suitable for a long chat with the owner, but one day soon, when they have a moment, I will go back there and ask how many they sell and to whom.

For the last 20 years or so, fascist memorabilia has been increasingly available on the open market without need to go into back alleys and sneak away with a plain brown paper bag. On Christmas stalls there are coffee cups with Mussolini in various poses and newsagents sell Mussolini calendars.

That is shocking enough and so are all signs of a rehabilitation of both Mussolini and fascism but I was extremely surprised to see him scowling out sternly from between ancient Roman and Catholic icons.

Obviously we ought to be more concerned with the modern fascists in various guises who are active in politics today across the whole of the EU but without a clear and unequivocal message that the original version and its leader are unacceptable in Italy and Europe it is very difficult to condemn the ideas of Mussolini’s heirs. There must be many tourists who make a silent equation of the moral value of people depicted in plaster on those shelves… a chilling thought.

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