Tale from the crypt – An Irishman’s Diary on Mussolini and Predappio
The Mussolini family crypt in Predappio
In the coming weeks thousands of “pilgrims” will travel up a narrow mountain road, just off the Bologna to Rimini autostrada, through vineyards and cherry orchards, to a small town in the Appenines, to do homage to a lost leader.
Predappio is where Benito Mussolini was born in 1883 and where he now rests in the imposing family crypt in the little cemetery beside the ancient church of San Cassiano.
When I visited Predappio some years back the crypt was open to the public, although there were no direction signs or public notices to mark its site, just the carved family name “Mussolini’” above the entrance. At the time the citizens were ambivalent about the presence of their returned son.
The crypt is spacious and is entered by descending steps. Here the dictator lies, as he wished, among his forbears and his siblings. The stern faces of his parents, Alessandro and Rosa, stare down from photographs above their tombs. The body of Mussolini himself lies in a side chapel with a black shirt and a plumed hat hanging on the wall. A bulky book of condolences is filled with messages of gratitude and endearment in many languages for the departed leader. Outside in the small car park a solitary old man with a three-wheeled mini-van proffered fascist leaflets.
The crypt was closed to the public a few years ago to facilitate restoration works and was opened only on three occasions a year to mark Mussolini’s death on April 28th, his birthday on July 29th, and his march on Rome to establish his fascist state on October 28th.
These anniversaries have always attracted thousands of sympathisers from Italy and abroad. With an eye on the tourist potential Predappio’s recently elected right-wing mayor, Roberto Canali, announced controversial plans to once again open the crypt all year round. No doubt trade will boom in the few shops in the town selling tatty fascist mementos – posters, key-rings, badges and, of course, black shirts.
Mussolini’s father was the town’s blacksmith and a socialist agitator and the young Benito became a rabid socialist. At nine he was sent to a boarding school run by the Salesian Fathers. The burly young bully did not last long. He was expelled for stabbing a classmate. However, his wife, Rachele, who had to tolerate his voracious womanising throughout their marriage, loyally claimed he was sent down for objecting to the Salesians’ seating arrangements in the dining hall: the top table was reserved for the sons of the local nobility at 60 lire, another table for the middle classes at 45 lire and yet another for the lower orders, including Mussolini, at 30 lire.
To battle social injustice he became secretary of the Socialist Party in the nearby market town of Forli and edited its weekly journal. Rachele Guidi, the daughter of his father’s mistress, joined him in Forli and bore him five children. Thery did not get married as the party frowned on any member who indulged in the bourgeois practice of contracting a civil or religious union. (They did have a religious marriage in Milan in 1925 when Mussolini, by then the ruler of Italy, wanted to curry favour with Pope Pius XI.)
In 1912 they moved to Milan where Benito became editor of the Socialist Party’s daily newspaper, L’Avanti. “He was the best popular journalist of his day in Italy,” says Luigi Barzini in his book, The Italians As editor he increased the circulation from 50,000 to 200,000 a day. But Mussolini was becoming disillusioned with socialism. He was expelled from the party for advocating, against official policy, Italian intervention on the Allied side in the first World War. His politics drifted from left to right and he founded the Fascist Party in 1919. Just three years later he was Il Duce, the loud-mouthed dictator of Italy.
The rest is, indeed, history: totalitarian one-party state, conquest of Ethiopia, troops to support Franco in the Spanish civil war, alliance with Nazi Germany. It all ended brutally. He attempted to escape to Switzerland with his last mistress, Clara Petacci, in the closing days of the second World War. They were captured near Lake Como, huddled in a German truck, by Italian partisans and summarily shot. Their bodies were taken to Milan, the city of many of Mussolini’s triumphs, and ignominiously hung by the feet from a grimy garage roof. Twelve years later the dictator’s body was returned to Predappio to lie in the family crypt in the quiet hills above one of his lasting gifts to Italy, the autostrada.