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The Pope and Mussolini

The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

by David I. Kertzer

The Pope and Mussolini by David I. Kertzer X
The Pope and Mussolini by David I. Kertzer
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2014, 592 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Linda Hitchcock
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Political power seems to be an eternally compelling aphrodisiac. Benito Mussolini was a legendary Lothario who is estimated to have experienced casual sexual relations during his years as a dictator with as many as 5,000 women. Italian archives contain the guest registers listing the arrival and departure times of these "Fascist visitors," the preferred euphemism for the often nameless lovers and contain confirmation of the trysts in written statements from Mussolini's long-time valet Quinto Navarra.

Mussolini was an unlikely sex symbol. No towering Adonis, the "Knight" was a mere 5'6" in his tall, tight boots, and by late middle age, the youthful chiseled features had softened to rounded cheeks, a bald dome atop a plump torso and with anecdotally less than fastidious personal hygiene. This peacock strutted in a variety of ornately embellished, medal-encrusted uniforms or posed bare-chested for paparazzi.

Mussolini's complicated, long-term relationships included a handful of memorable women.

Ida Dalser In 2005, an enterprising Milanese journalist and historian named Marco Zeni uncovered tangible evidence to prove Austrian-born Ida Dalser's claim that after a long affair, she married Benito in her Sopramonte home parish church in 1914, and in November, 1915, bore him a son, Benito Albino Mussolini. Ida, the daughter of the small town mayor and newspaper owner, had studied in Paris and owned a successful beauty salon. She sold much of her personal jewelry and business to support her new husband's socialist newspaper "Il Popolo d'Italia."

Rachele Guidi However, when Benito returned home a month later for a holiday visit to his parents, he married Rachele Guidi in a civil ceremony. Rachele, whose ambition was to be a housewife and mother, and who hailed from the same village as her husband became his mistress not long after meeting Mussolini who substitute taught in her high school. Rachele had already given birth to their first child - daughter Edda, born in 1910 and soon after their wedding was pregnant with a son. Mussolini abandoned Ida whom he later denounced as a dangerous criminal when she made claims for support. As his political power increased, he ordered that records of their relationship be obliterated. Ida and the boy were forcibly hushed up, incarcerated in separate mental hospitals until their respective deaths in 1937 and 1942.

Margherita Sarfatti Margherita Sarfatti, the married, intellectual daughter of a wealthy Jewish attorney, who grew up in a grand Venetian palace, was another unlikely conquest. She saw inspired leadership in the young Mussolini. Their romance began before WWI and continued intermittently until the 1938 Italian Race Laws sent her fleeing to South America. After the war she returned home to Italy as an international correspondent.

Clara Petacci Clara Petacci, the pampered, beautiful daughter of the Pope's personal physician, was twenty-eight years Mussolini's junior and even two years younger than his oldest child, Edda. They embarked on a torrid love affair that began when she was a teenager and lasted a decade (with a break for her unhappy marriage) until their deaths, moments apart, by firing squad. It had been her choice to accompany her lover on his attempted escape into neutral Switzerland days after Italy surrendered. Darling Claretta was the only mistress with official status; installed in residence at the Palazzo Venezia with servants, bodyguards, a chauffeur and generous clothing allowance. Their affair of a lifetime was open and well documented and Clara left behind tell-all, multi-volume diaries of their most intimate moments as well as details about their daily lives including clashes over his frequent infidelity and shouting matches with his wife. The memoirs were locked in Italy's archives until 2009 after the strict 70-year secrecy rule for state documents expired.

The long-suffering Rachele Mussolini quietly raised five children and seemed remarkably tolerant of her lascivious husband and his ceaseless philandering during their 30-year marriage. She was reputedly the only person to whom he answered. When Rachele attempted to flee the country after her husband's execution, she was captured by Italian partisans who turned her over to the Americans. After a few months internment, she was released and returned eventually to her home village of Predappio in the area of Emilia Romagna where she ran a successful small restaurant. Rachele, the sturdy farmer's daughter, buried her husband in a family crypt years after the war, and lived to see many grandchildren, dying at the age of 89. Perhaps, she had the last laugh and happiest ending.

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Article by Linda Hitchcock

This article relates to The Pope and Mussolini. It first ran in the April 9, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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