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By Luciana Castellina, from Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening in the Shadow of Mussolini, out this month from Verso Books. Translated from the Italian by Patrick Camiller.

riccione, 25 july 1943

It must have been about seven in the evening. In July it is still light at that time, although the shadows of the pine forest around us had begun to lengthen. I remember them falling on the tennis court as Anna Maria and I hit balls inexpertly over the net. She had once had polio and found it difficult to run.

Then a plainclothesman called her over and abruptly put an end to the rally, without any explanation. All she said to me was, “I have to leave right away.” And she vanished behind the policeman, whose job it had always been to watch over her and her brother Romano.

Anna Maria was Anna Maria Mussolini, daughter of Benito and Rachele. She had been my classmate at primary school and in the first two years of secondary school, 1940–41 and 1941–42. I had moved to Verona for the third year, 1942–43, but we met up again in the summer at Riccione, where our game was so rudely interrupted. Her father had been arrested that day in Rome, “detained at the Podgora barracks in Trastevere” — for “his own protection,” it was later announced, almost apologetically.

Only late that night did I understand what lay behind Anna Maria’s mysterious farewell. I found the others — mostly friends of my cousin Paoletta and therefore quite a bit older than I — in front of Hotel Vienna, where our group used to meet to play table tennis in the gardens. Being younger, I scarcely ever managed to get a word in edgewise. But they listened as I began to speak of Villa Mussolini, and of my sense that the sudden end to our game of tennis must have meant something.

The next day, cutters out at sea unfurled their bunting — to celebrate, the adults told me. On little fishing boats moored offshore, groups of holidaymakers sang the old national anthem, together with various songs from the First World War. And at lunchtime, in the place where we were boarding, tagliatelle made from rare white flour unexpectedly arrived on the table. “To celebrate,” the waitress repeated, in a discreet whisper of complicity.

This was my initiation, at the age of fourteen, into politics — so important that on the same day, July 26, 1943, I began to keep a “political diary,” as I wrote by way of a title. I used the back pages of an old exercise book set aside for cronache: that is, the Italian compositions cultivated in secondary schools such as the Collegio degli Angeli in Verona, the city where I had been obliged to live for family reasons. One of these notebooks, from a few months earlier, bore the title “The Alpini Are Returning.” It was a reference to the elite mountain combat troops of the Julia Division, who “fought valiantly in Russia and marched for long distances on the snowy steppes, and who now parade with their flags and dirty, ragged standards, testifying to the enemy’s frenzy and to Italian valor. We have our hands outstretched in a Roman salute.”

My political formation up to July 25, 1943, had followed two contradictory lines, but these had run in parallel without creating any friction. One was the Riccardo Grazioli Lante della Rovere elementary school, in Via Tevere; the other was my family. My wonderful hyperfascist schoolmistress, Giralda Giraldi Caricati, decorated our classroom walls with large colored-chalk tableaux depicting the glories of the regime: the imperial conquests, the draining of the Pontine Marshes south of Rome, the annexation of Albania and installation of Victor Emmanuel III as its king.

The dates of my “composition” notebooks always have the letter “A” after them (for anno, “year”), followed by Roman numerals indicating the age of the Era Fascista (EF for short). So, on 18 October 1939 A XVII EF — my last year in elementary school — I write: “On 28 October 1922 an army of Blackshirts marched on Rome under the command of Il Duce. After this event the fascist government, savior of Italy, gave a vigorous impulse to agriculture by reclaiming the Pontine Marshes.” The marshes feature again a few days later, since in that region “Il Duce has established a new commune, Pomezia.” Meanwhile, thanks to “the valor of our great Condottiero, another 1,800 families are leaving to work the fertile land in Libya.” On 31 October I express gratitude for another “purely fascist invention of Arnaldo Mussolini [brother of Benito]: the savings campaign, whose great day is just now being celebrated.” On 8 November 1939 A XVII EF, I write enthusiastically about our headmaster, “who came to speak to us of the famous latifundia of the ancient Romans; they did not cultivate the fields and so the plebs remained without work. But fascism has put an end to that wretchedness.”

The great novelty repeatedly discussed in these “compositions” is the school radio — a kind of loudspeaker attached to the wall above the teacher’s desk, which tells us every day of some new development. On 17 November it records the fourth anniversary of the criminal sanctions that “a coalition of fifty-two nations against Italy” inflicted on us; on 18 November it commemorates “the war against the Empire of the Negus,” and I write that the Abyssinians are “fierce soldiers, but the Italian soldiers were very courageous because the example of Il Duce inspired them with confidence”; on 10 February it recalls the Conciliation Treaty of 1929, “the work of two towering minds: Pius XI and Mussolini”; and on 8 April we are reminded of the conquest of Albania, where Italy, “as in all places, has been spreading civilization.” “Since it is washed by the Mediterranean — which, as Il Duce said, should again be called Mare Nostrum — Albania had to rejoin its Italian mother country.”

The notebook containing these literary exercises has a map of the empire on its cover beneath a large letter M, together with my membership number (125008) of the fascist youth organization, the Gioventù Italiana del Littorio (GIL). For them I receive the highest final grade: “praiseworthy.” The next year, 1940–41, I therefore move on with nearly all my old classmates to 1A of the Torquato Tasso secondary school.

The reforms instituted by Giuseppe Bottai, Mussolini’s education minister, have meanwhile replaced “grades” with two categories of “judgment” — on school performance and on “membership and activity in the GIL.” And the judgment on my first term is already that I am not “very conscientious at the GIL musters.” This cannot be a symptom of rebellious antifascism, however, since in the second term my “activity at the musters has improved.” And I have risen from the rank and file of the “Little Italians” to the elite units clad in sailor suits, which anyone attending the chic Caio Duilio school in Lungotevere Flaminio joins as a matter of course. I have even been appointed drummer, and that activity I remember enjoying immensely. (After all these years, I can still play the drum reasonably well.)

Anna Maria Mussolini was again in our class, after a long sick leave due to polio, and it was everyone’s ambition to be invited to play the usual children’s games in the afternoon at Villa Torlonia (Mussolini’s state residence from the 1920s on). I was among the privileged, and on one occasion I even caught sight of Il Duce at the door. We almost never crossed the threshold ourselves, but I remember thinking that the house was furnished appallingly.

We would remain in the gardens, where Donna Rachele sometimes put in an appearance. Here we had all a child could wish for: tree platforms, huts in the bushes, all kinds of games. Anna Maria had only to ask and a host of attendants would deliver. We did miss an afternoon snack, though: at five o’clock the police guards would bring something for Anna Maria and Romano, but not for their guests. It was beyond my mother’s comprehension that Il Duce’s family could be so badly brought up. After all, were they not from Emilia-Romagna, noted for the generosity of its people? To this day I still cannot really fathom it. The children were in the charge of policemen, who obviously had orders to bring them a bite to eat. There was no provision for us.

It was at Villa Torlonia that I first discovered cinema. At the far end of the gardens, near Via Spallanzani, there was a projection room where the Mussolinis went to see films provided by the official Istituto Luce. The Cinecittà studios and the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (the national film school) had been created a short time before, and cinema in general was part and parcel of the fascist regime. That detached building, which witnessed my initiation into the seventh art, was actually the headquarters of the International Educational Cinematic Institute — a great honor for our country, despite the breaking of the link with the League of Nations on which it had originally depended. It continued to function and to show European citizens, including in the democratic countries, how educational activities should be organized.

What we did not know was that in the interstices of these institutions, and of the journal Cinema (edited by the elder brother of my tennis partner, Vittorio), many future Communists were taking the first steps in their career. We were too young to understand that there was an ambiguity in fascism, and therefore some reason to feel attracted by that modernizing, antibourgeois dimension which found expression in Futurism. Such penchants of the “blackshirted revolutionaries” traversed the intellectual circle around Bottai’s Primato, but certainly not our classrooms filled with the most provincial rhetoric.

The ambiguity did not last long, however, even for the grown-ups. As they later recounted, the mask fell with General Franco’s landing in Spain and the support he immediately received from Mussolini.

Anna Maria was arrogant but simpatica. Fully aware of the power that came from being Il Duce’s daughter, she used it to terrorize our poor Italian and Latin teacher Mr. Gianni, a gentle figure who, like all his colleagues, was forced to wear in his buttonhole a badge saying god curse the english! The director of Tasso College, Professor Amante, boasted of treating the Mussolini children no differently from everyone else. Once he had even made Romano sit his exams again in October — an event that acquired legendary status. But Mr. Gianni did not trust his superior’s declarations. Just in case, he preferred to give Anna Maria consistently high marks. Impudent as she was, she would stand up straight, point to the girl sitting beside her, and ask, “Professore, why did I get marked excellent and she unsatisfactory, when I simply copied her homework?” And when the class was caught rioting during a teacher’s absence, she always confessed with a touch of irony: “It was me, professore.

The worst moment for Mr. Gianni came at one o’clock, on those occasions when the class was prolonged and we had to get to our feet to listen to the war bulletin. Anna Maria loved to comment aloud on the news, referring to things she had heard at home. So we knew that, when coffee was banned, the Mussolinis had already laid in sizable stocks; and we were regularly informed that her father considered Victor Emmanuel III to be a cretin.

The later course of events could not but strengthen this judgment on the monarch. Anna Maria spoke of him when I met her again shortly after the end of the war, at the home of a former classmate who had remained close to her because her mother had been a fascist activist. (In fact, she was later interned at Coltano, the camp that held those accused of trying to rebuild a party inspired by fascist ideals, the future Movimento Sociale Italiano.) “My father,” Anna Maria told me, “was overthrown because he trusted that cretin of a king.”

It was the first time I had seen her since that interrupted tennis match. I knew by then that she had been taken from Riccione that same evening, together with her brother Romano and her mother, to Rocca delle Caminate, the little castle not far from the Mussolinis’ former residence in Predappio. Clearly her father had intended to join them there, “once the ire of the people from my Romagna has been placated,” as he put it in a letter to his sister, Edvige, shortly after his arrest.

Meanwhile two years had passed, and so many things had happened. It was a sad encounter: I never set eyes on her again. She died years later of a heart attack, still quite a young woman.

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May 2014

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