Villa Mussolini, formerly Villa Carpena, is just behind the City limits of Predappio. Mussolini’s 1933 Freccia Oro motorcycle is on display in the garden. Inside is the study where Mussolini worked; the uniform he was wearing in Milan on April 25, 1945, three days before he was shot dead by an Italian partisan; and the mirror where, according to our tour guide, those who are receptive to images of the Force and receptive to messages from the afterlife can see Il Duce’s frozen reflection staring at them.
In the garden behind the villa, an excommunicated Catholic priest, Father Giulio Maria Tam, is preaching a fascist mass, which one can only name. Tam is known for telling his audience that his “real tunic is a size XXL black shirt”. It is a reference to the volunteer blackshirts, or Camici Nerewho formed the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party of Italy.
At the beginning, Tam says, “Comrade, ready!” and the assembled ones stamp their feet once in unison. “Comrade, attention!” he says next. You stomp again. Tam continues to attack homosexuals, immigrants and even the Pope. “Look at the state of the church right now,” he says, “look at how the religion has been weakened. Pope Francis has reached his peak. Religion seems to consist of peace, mercy and good Samaritans. This is the Red Cross, not the Catholic Church! So what does Mussolini say? History will prove me right.” The congregation keeps giving the one-armed fascist salute – banned in Italy. You can hear some say: “Bravo”, “Well said” and “He’s right”.
The villa’s owner, Domenico Morosini, renovated the building and renamed it Villa Mussolini in the early 2000s after buying it from one of Mussolini’s sons. Today, he says, visitors come from “France, Slovakia, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Spain, the United States, the United Kingdom . . . They come from everywhere.”
And their number has increased. According to data from the province of Forlì-Cesena, where Predappio is nestled among green hills in the Emilia-Romagna region, the number of Italians who visited the village in 2015 more than tripled compared to the previous year. During the same period, the number of foreign tourists has increased more than tenfold.
“I came to put my children on the right side of history,” proudly tells us a vendor from Veneto, who brought his 12 and 15-year-olds with him. An Austrian doctor who came with his wife says: “If Mussolini came back, he would restore order in Europe.”
Our next stop was Predappio Tricolore, one of three booming downtown fascism nostalgia shops operating despite Italy’s 1952 Scelba law, which bans the sale of propaganda and merchandise offering ‘apologies’ for the fascist regime. Application of the law has been patchy at best. Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than in Predappio.
“I’ve had this license since ’83,” says Pierluigi Pompignoli, the store’s owner. “The souvenirs we have here of Mussolini sell like the Pope in Rome.” He points to specially wrapped packets of Mussolini sugar. Merchandise also includes bronze busts of Il Duce, clothing adorned with swastikas, commemorative batons and bottles Oil di ricino, or castor oil, which was given in large doses to Mussolini’s enemies. To this day, the expression “usare l’olio di ricino‘ or ‘using castor oil’ means forcing someone to do something against their will.
Elsewhere on the shelves are wine, beer and coffee mugs adorned with Mussolini’s angular profile or Adolf Hitler’s moustached visage. Women’s thong underwear bears the fascist motto “Boia chi molla‘ or ‘Death to those who surrender.’ A white cotton baby bodysuit shows a child doing the one-armed fascist salute alongside the words ‘Educhiamoli da piccoli‘ or ‘Let’s raise them as children.’ The shop does a lively online business with customers all over the world.
Our final stop is Mussolini’s crypt, reopened for year-round viewing in 2019 (the Mussolini family had it closed in 2017) by Italy’s right-wing brothers-backed mayor Roberto Canali, whose election this year ended more than 70 years of leftism. Wing rule in the village.
Canali said he wanted to promote the crypt as a tourist attraction to boost the local economy and it actually helped. Fascist tourism is the only industry in this village. Revenue from tour tickets, memorabilia sales, restaurants and hotel accommodation brings in €20 million annually to the local economy.
The crypt, reputedly the third most visited final resting place in the world, behind those of Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, hosts a parade of people nostalgic for fascism. They came to lay flowers and kiss the plaque with Mussolini’s name on it. Her age spans half a century. Only a few dress in such a way that they reveal their political leanings. They look like people who might live next door.
It is her comments that reveal her:
“What this man has done is inexplicable. Something no other man could do. We are the ones who want his return. Long live Il Duce.”
“Mussolini is a role model to follow.”
“Giorgia [Meloni] is one of us. Now you will see how things change.”
“I believe in Trump.”
Stefano Morelli is an Italian photographer and visual anthropologist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian and publications in Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany and Qatar. Follow him on Instagram @stefanomorelliphoto.