The fashionable fascist: Il Duce on the rebound
Rehabilitation agents … Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini. Photo: AP
Pasquale Moretti pulls the latest Benito Mussolini calendar off the shelf at his Rome cafe and flips it open to a photo of the pouting, strutting dictator taking part in a grain harvest.
''I was born in that era and he put bread on the table,'' the 78-year-old said. ''I cannot betray my culture.''
At the turn of each year, Mussolini calendars appear in newspaper kiosks up and down Italy. They are often tucked away with the specialist magazines, but they are much in demand, according to the manager of one firm that prints them.
The dictator ... Benito Mussolini.
''We are selling more than we did 10 years ago,'' said Renato Circi, the head of the Rome printer Gamma 3000. ''I didn't think it was still a phenomenon but young people are now buying them too.''
Sixty-eight years after the fascist dictator was strung up with piano wire from a petrol station in Milan, Mussolini has quietly taken his place as an icon for many Italians.
Among his adherents are the masked, neo-fascist youths who mounted raids on Rome schools last year to protest against education cuts, lobbing smoke bombs in corridors and yelling ''Viva Il Duce''.
A mob that ambushed British football fans drinking in a Rome pub in November was also suspected of neo-fascist sympathies.
But the cult of Il Duce has also slipped into the mainstream. Last year's decision by a town south of Rome to spend €127,000 of public funds on a tomb for Rodolfo Graziani, one of Mussolini's most bloodthirsty generals, was met with widespread indifference.
One leading businessman has proposed renaming Forli Airport in Emilia Romagna, the region of northern Italy, where the dictator was born - Mussolini Airport.
The man who gets some credit for dusting off Mussolini's reputation is Silvio Berlusconi, who described the dictator's exiling of his foes to remote villages as sending them on holiday.
Berlusconi brought Italy's post-fascists, led by Gianfranco Fini, into his governing coalition in 1994 and 2001.
''Today, Mussolini's racial laws against Jews remain an embarrassment but people don't care about his hunting down anti-fascists,'' says Maria Grazia Rodota, a journalist at Corriere della Sera. ''That became one of Berlusconi's jokes.''
Admiration for Mussolini is common in Berlusconi's circle. The showbusiness agent Lele Mora, now on trial for allegedly pimping for the former prime minister, downloaded a fascist song as his mobile ringtone. Berlusconi's long-time friend Senator Marcello Dell'Utri has described Mussolini as an ''extraordinary man of great culture''.
After Mussolini's murder by partisans in 1945 as the Allies pushed up through Italy, the country did not exorcise the ghosts of fascism, as Germany sought to. A 1952 law forbidding fascist parties or the veneration of fascism has never been seriously enforced.
''It was not used partly because banning parties was potentially anti-constitutional, and also due to a sneaking admiration for fascism,'' says James Walston, professor of politics at the American University of Rome.
Decades on, the memory of Mussolini has been decoupled from the ideology of fascism, says the writer Angelo Meloni.
''He is now a pop icon, an arch-Italian, a personality whose legend is linked to the years of consensus in Italy,'' he says.
But for Italy's neo-fascist groups, Il Duce is still very much about ideology.
''Whoever buys the calendar admires his work - the two things cannot be separated,'' says the vice-president of a group called CasaPound, Simone di Stefano. ''There is a need today for his politics, for someone who will put the banks and finance at the service of Italy. Youngsters who come to us already see Mussolini as the father of this country.''
The well-to-do streets around Piazza Ponte Milvio are plastered with posters and graffiti by neo-fascist groups, including CasaPound, and the local bars have become a hangout for gangs of right wing lads in regulation Fred Perry shirts and Ray-Ban Wayfarers.
Further down the road, the entrance to the Olympic stadium, shared by Rome's two dominant football clubs, Roma and Lazio, is marked by a massive fascist-era obelisk with ''Mussolini'' written in huge letters down the front.
Nearby, the bar run by Pasquale Moretti, where Lazio fans meet before games, contains a mini-supermarket of fascist memorabilia, from bottles of wine with Mussolini's portrait on the label, to fascist flags and T-shirts, and oil portraits of Il Duce.
''He built housing for workers, something no Roman emperor did,'' Moretti says. ''How can I not respect that?''
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