Translated from Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor
Through the years, there’s one story from my grandmother’s life as a girl that’s been repeatedly brought up. My grandmother, it’s said, went to Piazza Venezia to hear Mussolini speak from his balcony. There’s hardly any need to say more. Mussolini and the adoring crowd—old newsreels and archival photographs, have turned that scene into recorded history. It doesn’t take much effort to insert my grandmother’s face among the others.
Il Duce on the balcony, gazing out manfully over the heart of Rome, his jutting jaw, puffed-out chest, hands on his hips—a sea of people below him, waving flags and chanting Du-ce! Du-ce! Among them, my mother’s mother as a young girl. Her face emerges into this moment and disappears, leaving in its place the gentle woman who made fresh pasta for everyone, and prepared it and served it to her four children, then, in time, her five grandchildren.
It was always my father who’d bring up the image of my grandmother standing under Mussolini’s balcony in Piazza Venezia—though she was the one who’d probably first shared the memory with him, being the only witness to her own childhood. My father would parade that anecdote in front of me and my sister when we were little by way of explaining the difference between us—the righteous, the antifascists—and them, by which I mean “them,” the fascists. He did it every time there was some tense situation he’d provoked with my mother’s family.
The source of these tense episodes—at times ending with our sudden departure for home and then followed by weeks, even months, of silence between the two sides of the family—was never political in nature. It was, instead, rooted in my father’s congenital impression that he was being excluded, which made him aggressive, like a wounded animal. His fear of being left out, often manifesting itself in front of my mother’s parents, swept over our family through the years, an avalanche. What caused it? Maybe it was that my mother’s family was big, tightly knit, and loving, the complete opposite of my father’s family, which he often said, as if he were talking about a vendetta, would determine the destiny and unhappiness of our own.
So, in the absence of anything better to argue about, he kept coming back to the image of my grandmother going to Piazza Venezia every Sunday to clap for Mussolini and wave the fascist flag. The image was proof that we needed to keep our distance from them, at least for a while.
To be clear, my grandmother was a gentle person. She lived with my grandfather in a modest yet very dignified rental apartment on the road to Fiumicino, southwest of Rome. We’d visit them twice a year when we travelled south, down to Rome, for Easter and summer vacation. Theirs was the kind of home with a constant coming and going of people: mostly relatives, but also neighbors, who’d come by to sit for a bit in the living room and visit. If I’m remembering correctly, the front door was seldom fully closed. It was at the end of a long hallway, and someone would call out, “Anyone home?” and then come in, chatting as they did, as if they were already in the middle of a conversation that had been going on for ages.
What did I ever know about my grandmother? Very little to be honest. She lost both her parents (I think it was both), and she and her sister were raised in a convent. I know more about the convent than about her being an orphan, because she wasn’t the kind of woman who made misfortune the bedrock of her life story. From her time in the convent and the exigencies of orphanhood, she kept that bond with her sister, who lived just a few bus-stops away and was a constant presence in my grandparents’ house.
Together they had survived the death of their parents and together they would remain for their whole lives. My grandmother’s sister was a woman of few words, who I remember sitting in the living room sewing for everyone. Both my grandmother and her sister had a strong and simple devoutness, a fatalistic belief system that was evidenced by the way they automatically and purposefully inserted, “God willing,” at the end of every sentence.
My grandmother and grandfather went to mass on Sunday, arm in arm. Even though she’d been married for some time, my grandmother’s sister went alone; I don’t remember the slightest thing about my so-called “uncle.” In my memory, she’s always a figure in mourning, a widow, an orphan, with her bent spine and her tender devotion to her sister. She must have been standing under Mussolini’s balcony too—I realize that now as I write—but no one ever mentioned her presence. Even in his paranoia, my father couldn’t seem to place the entire burden of Fascism on her back.
My grandmother had married a quiet man who we knew little to nothing about. He’d fought in East Africa during World War II and been taken prisoner there and sent to America. In other words, he fought in the fascist army—yet that was never considered shameful. What he talked most happily about was the great, epic adventure of his life: his time in the American POW camp. He spoke of it as if it were a wonderful holiday. My overall impression is that it was all free cigarettes and long showers. The shower, actually, was the heart of the story about his American sojourn. This was the detail he always came back to. Prisoners were issued enormous bars of soap to take into the shower with them. They were only allowed to leave the shower after they’d used up all the soap—at least, this is how I remember it.
My grandfather was a man of few words, who for most of his life worked in a small factory that (if memory serves) assembled mailboxes, then he retired early. He went out to the countryside to pick chicory and came home and cleaned it at the living room table—the same table where all the visitors sat. In the afternoon, he’d go play cards with his friends at the coffee bar. He was inoffensive. My father claimed that my grandfather was reduced to silence by the five women surrounding him. I remember him as a happy man who was devoted to his wife and four children. And this, I think, was the crux of the matter—my grandmother was the backbone of the family. My grandfather came next; he followed her. He was the man, but he wasn’t in charge. My father found this intolerable.
What was my grandmother doing standing under Mussolini’s balcony? I don’t know; we never discussed her motivations. Naturally for my father it meant that even if she wasn’t a real fascist, she’d at least contributed to the momentum that first brought Mussolini to power, that made him Il Duce, a dictator, the man who signed off on Italy’s racial laws, the man who formed an alliance with Hitler’s Nazis.
There are a few instances I remember when he brought up the history of Mussolini’s rallies in her presence. She said that, yes, she’d gone. But she didn’t say it to either vindicate or provoke my father. She was a strong woman, whereas he was the estranged heir of a fractured family, which was why he was inclined to verbal aggression. All she wanted though was for her relatives, whether by blood or marriage, to all get along.
When she agreed that yes, she had gone to Piazza Venezia to hear Mussolini, she said it like it was a given. Did she go once, twice, ten times? I don’t know. But there she was, in that crowd with her sister. They’d been babies when they were left without a mother or father, and they went to hear this gentleman in a uniform speak about God, Country, and Family—what they most aspired to. Go to mass, be orphans, stand under a balcony and applaud—three things that went together.
When my father threw her presence at those rallies in her face, he was trying somehow to say that behavior like hers led directly to the Holocaust. My grandmother had a concrete kind of intelligence, and she understood that he was talking about historical debts, but she didn’t recognize them. Mussolini was wrong to form an alliance with Hitler—but that was a different Mussolini from the man she went to hear speak in Piazza Venezia, not the same man who made the mistake of allying himself with Hitler.
More than that, she believed in God and she believed in family, and my father was the man her daughter had married. However argumentative or not he was, she loved him like a son. Which was why even after a disastrous meal at my grandparents’ house, ending with my father telling them all they should go to hell, she never stopped telephoning to ask how we all were. To check in on her daughter, her grandchildren, and her son-in-law.
My father never hid that he’d had fascist sympathies when he was young. He associated it with a bad phase, born of reading the wrong things and a general disarray that he blamed, like almost all his mistakes, on his mother. But later he distanced himself from those far-right ideas and began to think of himself as, not quite a communist, but most assuredly a leftist.
This is the very same version of my father’s self-propagandizing that we, his family, got. It consisted of a boxed set of Gramsci’s diaries on the shelf in the foyer, a hatred for anyone who had more money than us, and a moral system that left no room for anyone not to his taste.
Everything else belonged to the cult of manliness—sports, machismo, and a completely paternalistic notion of male-female relations. Except for a brief interlude, my mother never held a job. My father told her there was no need and she accepted it. Beyond that, I was permitted to bring girls home to sleep over in my room. My sister, one year older than me, was not. About girls, he advised me to “get some practice,” by which he meant I should use them to learn how to have sex and nothing more.
Obedience was the foundation for him. As long as he had total obedience, everything moved along peacefully, especially with regard to me, the male child, with whom he sought a kind of camaraderie. In the case of dissent, he turned to weapons of intimidation and the threat of physical consequences (“I’ll beat you to a pulp…”), or psychic ones (“you and me, we’re over”). His more or less explicitly fascistic wording was an aspect of every oppressive maneuver: “Talk is worthless.” “A bridge of gold for the enemy in flight.” “More enemies, more honor.”
When, at around eighteen, I stopped trying to hide how uncomfortable all this made me—when I began tearing away chunks of my beard from my cheeks and chin, and shaking every time he raised his voice—he told me I was certifiable. That, to him, was the ultimate dishonor.
My grandmother took what she needed from those days spent standing under Mussolini’s balcony, and she left the rest. Didn’t she understand that the words shouted out by that man with the jutting jaw were saturated with violence and had the sole intention of generating allegiance? Wasn’t it obvious that when Mussolini invoked God, calling on him to witness his imperialist plot, it had nothing to do with the nuns who’d taken her and her sister in when they’d been left without a father or mother?
I don’t know and it doesn’t even matter. What matters is that they decided to extricate God, to hold God dear like the nuns who had saved them and to whom they would always be grateful. Beyond that, she married a man who, baldness aside, was nothing like Il Duce. She went for a teaching certificate and was able to find work. She taught technical drawing at a middle school for as long as I can remember.
She actually made a career of it, becoming assistant principal at her school and retiring after my grandfather did. Every morning he drove her to school and then headed toward the shore to pick chicory, and then he picked her up on the way home. He aged faster than she did, he got even quieter.
When she retired, her former students, now grown, started coming to visit. Her whole life, my grandmother voted Christian Democrat because she had the impression that it was a party of pious and dignified people. In 1992, when Italy was shaken by the corruption scandal that started with the Christian Democrats and exposed connections between the politicians and the mafia, resulting in the wiping out of all the traditional parties, she just stopped believing in politics.
When an industrialist with a media empire, named Silvio Berlusconi, rode to power on this landslide, she decided to just stick with the pope. Which is to say, stick with the representation, to her mind, of those same nuns to whom she owed her good life. After that, I believe she voted based on the solid, albeit naïve, criteria of whether or not someone seemed to her like a good person.
Then my grandfather died, as quietly as he had lived. There was a funeral held in a neighborhood church that I didn’t go to so that I wouldn’t upset my father who was staying outside, technically because of atheism, but in truth, so he wouldn’t have to feel excluded from that united and loving family. If I’d gone in, according to his paranoid logic, it would have been a betrayal of him. I was the only one who carried out his orders. But not entering the church because I feared him was a greater betrayal, one I committed against myself.
I don’t believe my grandmother ever felt like a fascist, or that deep down, my father ever really suspected her of being one. But it is a fact that the approval my grandmother and her sister demonstrated by standing their two orphaned bodies under Mussolini’s balcony, played some role in legitimizing the Fascism of the future. They were seeking something and found it there: that yelling man with his fists on his hips offered them something even bigger than a mother or father. They were two lonely girls in search of God, of a Country, of a Family.
As for my father, like millions of other Italian men, he rejected Fascism but kept Mussolini as an internalized model, without ever even recognizing it as such. He banned dissent in the household, he promulgated a domestic dictatorship based on terror, he propagandized the idea of virile masculinity, and a residual brand of patriarchy. His frailty and fears, his loneliness, desperation, and discomfort—all played a decisive role.
Like millions of other Italian men, he chose without being, I think, completely aware, to cling to an inner Mussolini. And he delegated to this internal Mussolini the very shape of himself as a man—his conduct at home, his posture when driving, his relationship with the opposite sex, how he managed his role at work, even how he took care of us.
September 25, 2022, twenty-six percent of the Italian electorate voted for a party whose identity and symbolism have been tightly connected since its founding to that of the original Fascism. Seventy years exactly after rebuilding the Partito Fascista in any form was outlawed, a fascist party now governs the country of my birth.
Almost eight million people voted for the Brothers of Italy , whose logo could be seen to represent the flame that, in a historical context, alludes to the torch burning over Benito Mussolini’s tomb. President of the Senate of the Republic, Ignazio La Russa, is the son of an official in Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. And before this, he was an exponent and secretary for two consecutive parties born from the ashes of Fascism that preceded the founding of the Brothers of Italy.
The Prime Minister of the Republic of Italy, the first woman in the history of Italy to hold this post, was born from those same ashes. She refers to Italian citizens as “Patriots.” Her Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, has appeared at election rallies brandishing a rosary, invoking family values, and the Virgin Mary.
The millions of Italians who voted in the alliance led by the Brothers of Italy—among whose ranks Silvio Berlusconi appears—don’t fill piazzas any more. They don’t gather under the balconies in Piazza Venezia. They are less visible, dispersed in the solitude of the twenty-first century—in apartments, condominiums, under the artificial glow of the Internet. Among those millions, there are not merely two orphan sisters, but rather millions of citizens who’ve been orphaned of almost everything, and there are just as many men whose inner Mussolini still has the right to vote.