The Villa Torlonia is one of Rome’s last existing examples of 17th-century grandeur. But when city authorities recently unveiled its main palazzo after a $6 million restoration, the result was anything but majestic. The 20th-century interior is ostentatious, the chandeliers gaudy and the frescoes grandiose. The reason for the jarring décor: to showcase the lifestyle of its last Italian resident, former dictator Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini lived in the Villa Torlonia with his wife, Rachele, and their children from 1925 to 1943. And while the decision to restore it in the image of a pro-Nazi Fascist may seem an odd choice to outsiders, it reflects a growing fascination among Italians with Il Duce. A spate of Mussolini-themed movies and documentaries are in the works; visitors are snapping up clothes and flags with Fascist insignias from the Villa Mussolini Museum at the seaside village of Riccione, where the family kept a summer home. Additional souvenir stores and museums are opening in his old haunts along Italy’s northern coast—their offerings include DVDs of some of Mussolini’s most famous speeches from the his balcony on Piazza Venezia. In his hometown of Predappio, where 400 volunteers have long taken turns standing as honor guards at his tomb, the number of black-shirted Fascist sympathizers who turned out to celebrate the anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome rose as high as 6,000 last October.
Italians don’t necessarily see this as the glorification of a tyrant. Instead, they see it as a way to confront—and perhaps come to terms with—their complicated past. Historically, Italy has glossed over Mussolini’s excesses. School textbooks offer a truncated version of World War II, and the public stereotype of Mussolini is that he was the man who made the trains run on time. “Italians are now taking a more detached, perhaps less hostile, look at dark periods of their recent history,” says Giancarlo Leone of RAI Cinema, which is coproducing “Vincere,” one of the new films. “These were previously, more or less subconsciously, being avoided.”
Movies like "Vincere" may indeed offer a more nuanced view of the Fascist era. "Crazy Blood," starring Monica Bellucci, presents a sympathetic depiction of Luisa Ferida, the pregnant actress shot by partisans for her Fascist ties in 1945. Another movie, "Il Sangue dei Vinti" ("The Blood of the Losers"), outlines alleged atrocities by anti-Fascist partisans against the Fascist regime. By contrast, Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio's "Vincere" ("To Win") offers a harsher look at Mussolini the man. The movie, due out next year, chronicles the life of Il Duce’s illegitimate son, Benito Albino Mussolini, who died at 27 after being tortured and apparently poisoned. The young man's mother, Ida Dalser, was also repeatedly harassed and hidden by the Fascist regime until she, too, died in mysterious circumstances. "This is a tragic story of a mother and a son, confined and dying in mental asylums," Bellocchio said when he announced the plans for the film. "It is a true Italian tragedy—a largely unknown story which will cause plenty of discussion."
Political perceptions of Italy’s Fascist era may be shifting too. Last year, 200,000 soldiers who served as volunteers protecting Mussolini were given the same status and veterans’ benefits as former resistance fighters. The move angered many Italians, but then former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose center-right coalition included the extreme-right political party of the dictator's granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini, called it a contribution to national reconciliation. In addition, an Italian court in Como is even considering opening an inquiry into whether it was really an Italian communist partisan who shot the Fascist dictator on April 28, 1945—and whether the killing was legal.
Indeed, the Villa Torlonia seems to reflect a concerted effort not to present too sanitized—or jingoistic—a view of the past. “A true democracy has no need to discard a part of its history,” said Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni when the palazzo was reopened to the public. Visitors to the villa can see some of the grim reminders of war, like Mussolini’s air-raid shelter and escape tunnels, carved out of the remains of the ancient Jewish catacombs under the house. Not far from his old bed, an art exhibition displays World War II scenes of devastation alongside G.I. posters left over from when the American and British soldiers used the villa as Allied High Command from 1944 to 1947. "The Italians are not free from their Fascist past,” says Gianni Clerici, author of the new book "Mussolini, L'ultima Notte" ("Mussolini's Last Night"), “because they have not yet processed it." The question now is whether revisiting the Il Duce era may the first step on that road to liberation.