Several months ago, Italian model Bianca Balti joined thousands of women across the country to protest against then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, claiming that his profligate lifestyle made him an embarrassment to the nation. The whole world is laughing at us because of Berlusconi, said Balti, only to be rebuked by Alessandra Mussolini, a model-turned-politician, who called this statement an insult to the majority of Italian voters and suggested the speaker should go to France, to play the guitar with Carla Bruni.
The granddaughter of dictator Benito Mussolini saw the antics of Berlusconi, her ally in parliament, as something characteristic of a national trait and regularly expressed her admiration for him. All the more heartening it was to see other Italian women take to the streets in February, incensed by the ongoing farce. What contrast with girls queuing outside Berlusconi's bedroom or with their grandmothers who used to write to Mussolini trying to get an audience in intimate surroundings (the leader's headquarters had a special office dealing with such letters, vetting candidates and fitting rendezvous into his busy schedule).
Given the recent developments on the Italian political scene, Roberto Olla's biography cannot help pointing out certain similarities between the two leaders, Mussolini and Berlusconi; both charismatic and sexually voracious, both fabulously successful until their abrupt fall from grace, both eager to cultivate myths about themselves. However, if one sets the more obvious parallels aside, it becomes clear that the ascetic Duce bears little resemblance to the jovial host of the infamous "bunga-bunga" gatherings. Their personalities may be equally appalling, but for very different reasons. One can hardly imagine Berlusconi following Mussolini's example and taking up the editorship of a socialist newspaper for 500 lira a month (in contrast to the 700 which his predecessor earned) in order to help the party's coffers. As for their reported modus operandi with women, here the gap is also wide.
If the surviving accounts are to be believed, Mussolini never had much consideration for his conquests: he practised the Roman formula "Veni, vidi, vici", wasting little time on pleasantries. Instead, he put more effort into impressing crowds, so the image of the Duce grew ever more legendary with each public appearance, be it in a roaring auto or on horseback.
It was Margherita Sarfatti, his principal mistress and the chief ideologue of the Fascist movement, who played a crucial role in the making of the myth, in which the leader's magnetism was key. Another important influence on Mussolini was Angelica Balabanoff, a radical activist who took him under her wing in the early 1900s, telling the young provincial what books to read and what clothes to wear.
As the narrative unfolds, there emerge two distinctive patterns in Mussolini's ways with women: either impersonal lust towards or high dependency upon them. The former, complete with his cavalier approach, lack of commitment, refusal to acknowledge paternity and habitual adultery, fits in well with the idea of free love, one of the main tenets of the revolutionary school he belonged to at the start of his career, and is not that unusual even by our modern standards. It is his treatment of his mistresses as comrades in arms that deserves more attention, and Olla provides enough detail for us to imagine a personality obsessed with political power and using everything to strengthen it.
In fact, women deceived by Mussolini the man, especially his loyal wife Rachele, often showed tolerance, unlike those who were dismissed not as lovers but as confederates - a proof that they were, in essence, mesmerised by fascism more than by the Duce's personal charms. Admirers who besieged him would probably be less displeased to find out they were far from being the only ones in his life than to see this book, which mentions them in the title but has no pictures of them, only photos of their idol and his family.
Even though Mussolini once declared categorically that "women have no influence over men who are strong", he was clearly exaggerating his own independence. Olla quotes historian Karin Weiland as saying, "Mussolini was not a man who loved women, but nevertheless they were the only people he really trusted."