Recently, the Italian daily La Repubblica published an unusual and shocking beach story. Evidently, a private Venice swimming spot on the famous Chioggia beach is decorated with posters glorifying Benito Mussolini, Italy’s former fascist dictator, born July 29 1883.
The owner, 64-year-old Gianni Scarpa, has been openly displaying Mussolini’s ideas on the walls of the Punta Cana beach club for years, some of them adorned with Nazi symbols. Scarpa is also inclined to shout messages glorifying the fascist order through a loudspeaker, reported La Repubblica.
Apologias for fascism and Nazism have been a recurrent issue in Italy since the second world war, and it goes beyond extreme-right nostalgia. Today, 72 years after Mussolini’s death, Italians have yet to make peace with their past.
La Repubblica’s exposé spurred Venice’s prefect to ask for the immediate removal of any material referring to fascism. A local association of former resistance members also demanded that the owner’s business license be cancelled.
But many of Scarpa’s clients spoke on his behalf. While they were not “fascist enthusiasts”, they insisted, a business owner should be able to do as he wishes in his own establishment.
An embarrassing cadaver
The controversy has reopened a debate about how fascism should be dealt with in Italy.
A few days after La Repubblica’s story, Emanuele Fiano, a member of parliament from the Democratic Party came up with a new law to “severely punish those who are apologetic of Italian fascist or German Nazi propaganda”.
The proposal was quickly condemned as “liberticidal” by both the populist left-wing movement Cinque Stelle and extreme-right parties such as the Lega Nord.
In recent years, the national discussion on fascism past has focused on a museum, which, former prime minister Matteo Renzi announced in 2016, would be partly funded by the Italian government. The landmark, first proposed by Mayor Giorgio Frassinetti of the Democratic Party, would be located in his northern Italian town, Predappio, and could open as soon as 2019.
Though it is home to just 6,500 people, Predeappio has been famous since the end of the second world war. It is the birthplace of Mussolini, the site of his family mausoleum and the place where the body of Il Duce himself was finally put to rest in 1957.
Though Mussolini was executed in 1945, his body saw several postmortem adventures and controversies. It was carried around by both fascist nostalgics and the post-war Italian authorities - who wanted to avoid any form of glorification - and eventually hidden in various spots across Italy, including in a convent near Milan.
The plaque at the entry of the Mussolini family crypt reads:
I would be naive to ask to be left in peace after death. There can be no peace around the tombs of the leaders of those major transformations we call revolutions. But everything that has been done cannot be effaced… [M]y only wish is to be buried next to my parents, in the cemetery of San Cassiano. - Benito Mussolini
A fascist pilgrimage
Some 50,000 people visit Predappio every year to pay homage to Il Duce, especially on anniversaries like his birth (July 29 1883), his death (April 28 1945), and the March on Rome, which brought Mussolini to power (October 28 1922).
The town, which has had left-wing leadership since 1945, struggles to deal with these tourists, though their presence enriches the local economy. The pilgrimage has encouraged the commercialisation of fascism in Predappio.
Today, vendors sell t-shirts, mugs, and glasses printed with the slogan, “I love Duce”. There are even wine labels commemorating Mussolini, including “Nero di Predappio, Eia Eja Alala”, “Vino del camerata” (which references Mussolini’s armed squad, the Black Shirts) and “L’Italia agli Italiani” (Italy for the Italians).
A museum to counter fascist ideas
Not everyone agrees with the idea of adding a Fascism museum to the mix.
The memorial, which would be housed in the former headquarters of the National Fascist Party, the 2,400-square-metre Casa del Fascio, draws its inspiration from Munich’s documentation centre on Nazism. According to Mayor Frassinetti, the museum aims to transform Predappio’s propaganda tourism into tourism of knowledge.
Some agree with him. The Italian historian Marcello Flores and museum promotors Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci and Maurizio Ridolfi, believe the initiative will change the way people look at Predappio, disassociating it from fascism and Mussolini.
They point to the positive impact of similar sites, including Berlin’s former Gestapo headquarters (now a documentation centre), which have been transformed to teach the public about the horrors of Nazism.
But many well-known historians and intellectuals oppose the fascist museum plan. Giulia Albanese, Patrizia Dogliani, Simon Levis Sullam and Carlo Ginzburg, among others, argue that the museum would actually reinforce Predappio’s symbolic association with fascism.
The museum would be surrounded by various shops that would, inevitably, make the celebration of this bellicose 20th-century ideology official. And in any case, Adolf Hitler did not get a memorial in Braunau am Inn, his hometown, they have reminded Italians, nor has El Ferrol in Spain, dedicated a museum to General Francisco Franco.
Instead, the historians say, the museum of fascism should be located in Milan or Rome, two cities that played central roles during the fascist era.
But the proposed landmark could make it seem that fascism is solely identified with Mussolini, thus absolving Italians of their collective responsibility for the 1925-1940 ventennio period, when the country turned fascist.
This is one thing that all parties can agree on: rather than reflect on the crimes perpetrated under Mussolini, Italians have preferred to focus on passive narratives in which they are the victims. Collective Italian history depicts a the nation that suffered greatly from fascism and revealed its true anti-fascist self once those leaders fell.
This vision has allowed Italians to disregard fundamental questions of national history, including the extent of popular support for fascism, Italians’ responsibility in the persecution of Jews, colonial crimes and so on.
The Bel Paese, or beautiful country, has yet to come to terms with its fascist past.