It is often said that men think with their penises not their brains: that they let their sexual drive determine their decisions. In the news, sex lives of politicians are often prominent (dare I say, Silvio Berlusconi), but they are more likely to be ignored as a factor in historical accounts of politicians’ decisions. Not however, for Roberto Olla.
“Sex and politics, sex and power, sex and violence”. The opening of his biography of Mussolini doesn’t mince words. It is clear what Olla is going to focus on: he argues that Mussolini’s (many) lovers demonstrate and explain the consolidation of Fascism and his own personal power. But what promises to be an original, fresh and intriguing look into the rise of Fascism doesn’t quite live up to expectations.
It is well documented that Il Duce (the leader) was rather sexually active, and it forms part of the myth behind the cult of personality. Yet this is the first biography on him that delves into his private life in as much depth, focusing on how his sex life affected his decisions and basing this argument on some of his lovers’ unpublished diaries.
Mussolini’s treatment of women and the extreme number of his sexual conquests are of interest in themselves. Mussolini created a “bureaucratic organisation for his sexual activities” and appeared to have a new woman every day, as well as several long-term lovers. Secondly and more importantly, some of Mussolini’s long-term lovers shaped the fascist movement. It is said that behind every great man is a great woman. Mussolini, a powerful man, had several women behind him. Of particular note are Margherita Sarfatti, a Jewish lover, who helped create the cult of personality and is described as the nearest thing to the Italian first Lady, and Claretta Petacci who took Sarfatti’s position of influence. Petacci was staunchly pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic, supposedly shaping Mussolini in this regard. It is these two lovers whose diaries form the base of the previously unpublished evidence on the Italian leader in this book.
This is where Olla seems to have missed a trick. A look into the rise and fall of these women, would definitely bring something new to the history of twentieth century Italy, and would address the issue of Mussolini’s rise to power in a new and interesting way. But that isn’t what Olla does. Instead, he focuses on Mussolini himself, adding yet another biography of Mussolini to the crowded shelves of bookshops. As a result the book doesn’t really differ too much from the traditional histories of Mussolini’s rise to power, except the extra detail into his sexual activities. This doesn’t add much to the historical debate, it merely satiates our inherent nosiness and thirst for gossip.
There are so many different views of Mussolini in the book that after finishing it you still do not know what Mussolini was like. Some of his lovers describe him as dirty and shabby, yet others speak of him in girlish, romantic tones. Olla recognises the shortcomings of the sources he uses, but cannot verify their evidence, even when it is crucial to his arguments. Circumstantial evidence and hearsay become paramount in his account. For example Mussolini’s valet describes how Mussolini had sex with regular lovers on the carpet in the Palazzo Venezia and newcomers on the long stone seats. His only evidence: rumpled cushions on the sofa compared to only the occasional hairclip on the carpet.
In fact, the most interesting anecdotes often come from Mussolini’s own mouth: “I followed her around, paid court to her, she pleased me. One day I got her down on an armchair and, in my usual way, roughly took her virginity” being one such gem. Whilst this certainly gives us an insight into Mussolini and how he was happy to portray himself, I’m not quite so sure how much insight it provides into his rise to power. His bragging and casual attitudes to mistreatment of women may be fairly similar to some of his contemporaries, as well as some men today.
The political-historical analysis is good throughout. But the use of secondary sources for the bulk of this analysis does make you wonder what Olla is bringing to the topic, apart from sorting and sifting through the gossip. The understanding of the major events does not really differ from other accounts, and some of the most interesting anecdotes have already been published. Whilst the fact that Mussolini wrote a trashy, serialised romance for a newspaper is definitely interesting, it is a fact that was known to historians before, and doesn’t really explain his rise to power.
As you would expect, the book is primarily chronological, interspersed with vividly described anecdotes and scenes. However, Olla sometimes adds anecdotes and stories out of chronological order to emphasise a point or theme. In a large history book this is confusing and even undermines Olla’s arguments. In fact the anecdotes often seem out of place in the historical narrative, more ornamental than explanatory. Power and sex may be linked in life, but unfortunately, Olla hasn’t quite managed to expound this theory in his account of Mussolini.
Roberto Olla, Il Duce and His Women: Mussolini’s rise to power, translated by Stephen Parkin, Alma Books, £25, ISBN: 978-1-84688-135-0, www.almabooks.com