A Museum of Fascism where Mussolini Was Born and Buried?

Historiography on fascism has sometimes sparked lively discussions in the, often sleepy, Italian academic historians community. However, narrating the history of fascism outside of academic books and engaging publically–and as historians–with opposing memories has still to be accomplished in a country still fearing its own past. Perhaps it is for this reason that the possibility of opening a public history museum that would feature the history of fascism is arousing strong public debate.[1] But Italy is mature enough to publically face even the most controversial and darkest moments of its history. Historians aren’t judges but skilled craftsmen of the past.

Public History against Fascist Nostalgia

pradappio_museo_urbano_casa_fascio_1930_2015Not everybody knows that Benito Mussolini was born in a small village called Predappio[2]  – “the scariest haunted town in Italy” or “the smallest town with the biggest fascist-inspired buildings”[3]  – in the region of Emilia-Romagna (population 6,500).[4]  But even fewer people know that the “Dux of Fascism” was buried in the local cemetery family crypt in 1957, some years after his death in April 1945.[5]

Because of this, Predappio hosts parades of nostalgic post-fascists dressed in black shirts, singing songs and raising their arms for the “Salute to the Duce” in ceremonies commemorating Mussolini’s birthday (29 July 1883), death (28 April 1945) or the March on Rome (28 October 1922).[6] Also, many tourists visit Mussolini’s family crypt in a village built in the 1930s as a living temple that promotes the cult of the Duce and follows the concepts of modernist architecture.[7] Visitors purchase “souvenirs” with the face of Mussolini or manganelli (batons) and relics of the fascist era in local shops and online.[8] “We can no longer delegate Predappio’s narration to the souvenir shops […], a kind of ‘commercial’ use of a public memory that appears out of context and reduced to nostalgia of the regime,”[9]  says mayor Giorgio Frassineti, who wants to offer an in-depth historical interpretation of fascism and real knowledge about the past.[10]

A Debate on the Social Role of Historians

Museums should be able to document history, and they are not about celebrating the past. This is why the municipality of Predappio is thinking about creating an Italian documentation center on the history of fascism, like the NS-Dokumentationszentrum, dedicated to National Socialism, which opened in Munich in 2015.[11]  Prominent historians have signed a manifesto[12] for a museum which would not only focus on the biography of Mussolini.[13]

But Italy still seems to fear fascist revival 71 years after the collapse of fascism and has difficulties coming to terms with its past. Some historians do not think a public history endeavor is appropriate where Mussolini was born and buried. They argue that a museum might reinforce the cult of the Duce and post-fascism memories.[14] They have no confidence in the power of applied history to contrast this legacy.[15]  Other opponents argue that Rome would be a more fitting location for a public history of fascism[16] or Milan, where the fascist party was founded in 1919. And the writer Igiaba Scego says that it would be better to build a thousand altars remembering the victims of fascism and colonialism instead.[17]

Others argue that there is still no museum for the resistance to fascism.[18]  But resistance lasted one and a half years (from 1943 to 1945) and fascism accompanied Italy from WW1 to WW2. A museum could have been built from 1945 onwards but resistance institutions wanted to document the civil war in a decentralized way on the whole territory.[19]

Of course, it is not clear why criticism against a project is voiced before planning its narrative. Narrating, exhibiting and documenting the history of fascism for a broader public remains to be done. But now, a specific project exists with the material conditions – location and budget – fulfilled. A museum will be launched after renovations in the Casa del Fascio e dell’Ospitalità, built in 1937 by Arnaldo Fuzzi (2,400 square meters on two floors and a basement).

Public History in a Museum without Borders

predappio-mappaHistorian Gianpasquale Santomassimo wrote that “forgetting and remembering are equally essential for a society that does not want to be crushed by the past and does not want to live in an eternal rootless present.”[20] Local communities want to have their history back, not only a nostalgic memory of Salò.[21] So, serious public history and an intelligently curated museum are needed in Predappio to document and contextualize fascism outside academic settings. It should aim at communicating complex forms of narratives in order to enhance public knowledge through different forms of storytelling.[22] What is at stake is the social function of historians for communicating history without fearing to publically engage with a difficult past. French historian Anne-Marie Matard-Bonucci reminds us that such a museum will not be about putting the past on trial and delivering judgments but about sharing knowledge in the social arena.[23]

The understanding of important and recent historiography debates[24] and the capacity to deliver this knowledge using objects and digital technologies are essential preconditions for any museum. One should transpose the qualitative content of academic debates into visual forms of narrative. This passage from a written academic representation of history to multi-media storytelling in interactive spaces is undoubtedly a complex endeavor when looking at violent pasts.[25] In 2012, the director of the Museum for the History of the “Risorgimento” in Rome,[26] Marco Pizzo, thought the time was right for a “museification” of the history of fascism and for recovering materials from the exhibition for the decennial of the March on Rome of 1932.[27] Today, the use of digital technologies would support and enhance this idea even in Predappio, located far from important cultural centers. As Ilaria Porciani stated during her keynote for the 2nd IFPH conference in Jinan, China (2015), “we increasingly see museums quitting their walls, becoming dislocated, almost without borders.” Predappio needs an open museum “closely bound with local history and reinforced by the territorial link between the museum and the experiences and memories of the surrounding communities.”[28]

Once polemics are settled, public historians will be able to concentrate on the “making” of such an open project. This is now the next step.

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Further Reading

  • Luzzatto, Sergio. The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy. New York: Picador, 2006.
  • Noiret, Serge. “Il Ruolo della Public History nei Luoghi della Guerra Civile Italiana, 1943-1945.” Ricerche storiche 43/2 (2013): 315-338.
  • Rapone, Leonardo, ed. Fascismo: itinerari storiografici da un secolo all’altro. Studi storici 55/1 (2014).

Web Resources

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(*) I want to warmly thank Carlo Giunchi from Predappio’s administration for giving me copies of documents and projects concerning the former House of Fascism and Hospitality.

[1] After writing a blog post in Italian about the museum project, I launched a discussion on Facebook, the most popular Italian social media. Many historians commented and argued in favor of or against the museum in a lively debate that was later added as a complement to the post itself. See Serge Noiret, “La public history italiana si fa strada: un museo a Predappio per narrare la storia del ventennio fascista,”Digital & Public History, May 19, 2016. Accessed September 12, 2016. https://dph.hypotheses.org/906.
[2] Predappio” (Forlì province) in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, on Google Maps, accessed September 12, 2016,https://goo.gl/maps/1f6xh3MGa9Q.
[3] “Dove vai? Predappio, the Scariest Haunted Town in Italy”, Tuscan Traveler, October 25, 2012, accessed September 14, 2016,http://tuscantraveler.com/2012/dove-vai/dove-vai-predappio-mussolini-haunted-home-town-italy/.
[4] Luigi Ganapini, “La Repubblica sociale italiana,” in I luoghi della memoria: strutture ed eventi dell’Italia unita, ed. Mario Isnenghi (Rome: Laterza, 1997), 439-454, and Voci della Guerra Civile: Italiani nel 1943-1945 (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2012); Claudio Pavone, A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance (London: Verso, 2013); John Foot, Italy’s Divided Memory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
[5] Massimo Baioni, “Predappio,” in I luoghi della memoria. Simboli e miti dell’Italia unita, ed. Mario Isnenghi (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1996), 501-511.
[6] This persistent “folklore” attracted The New York Times in 2011. “Duce, a Predappio il New York Times,” Romagna Noi, October 31, 2011, accessed September 14, 2016,  http://www.romagnanoi.it/news/news/723566/Duce–a-Predappio-il-New.html. See article by Elisabetta Povoledo: “A Dead Dictator Who Draws Tens of Thousands in Italy,” The New York Times, November 2, 2011, accessed September 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/03/world/europe/tourists-still-drawn-to-tomb-of-mussolini-il-duce-in-italy.html. Post-fascists demonstrators – between 500 and 1000 – arrived in Predappio for the 70th anniversary of Mussolini’s death in 2015. They were almost 1000 for the 90th anniversary of the March on Rome in 2012 (“Marcia su Roma novant’anni dopo: in 1000 invadono Predappio,”, Il Fatto Quotidiano, October 28, 2012, accessed September 14, 2016, http://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2012/10/. 28/predappio-carica-dei-1000-per-marcia-su-roma-delusi-dal-pdl-viva-lantipolitica/396095/).
[7] Sergio Luzzatto, The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy (New York: Picador, 2006). See also Luisa Passerini,Mussolini immaginario: storia di una biografia 1915-1939 (Roma: Laterza, 1991).
[8] Michele Sartori, “Dio, patria, famiglia e ritratti di Mussolini,” L’Unità, October 29, 2001, 8, accessed September 14, 2016,http://cerca.unita.it/ARCHIVE/xml/25000/23768.xml. This market of nostalgic objects is something that the municipality of Predappio and the Emilia-Romagna’s region tried to ban without success (Marcello Ravveduto, “La questione del museo nazionale del fascismo di Predappio,”Fanpage, August 5, 2016, accessed September 14, 2016, http://www.fanpage.it/la-questione-del-museo-nazionale-del-fascismo-di-predappio/. As rightly pointed out the Parri Institute Director: “Everything in us rebels when we see this disgraceful junk but it’s impossible to find a law that does justice to our anger without infringing democratic liberties. The problem is cultural. Prohibiting would be pointless.).
[9] “Many people who come and visit us ask questions about our past. Many teachers also contact the Town Hall for information, material and lessons about fascism. Our town has an important role as far as history, culture and tourism are concerned. We are not as others would like us to be. Predappio is of crucial importance for the understanding of the past, of history and of Europe […].” (Giorgio Frassineti, “Capire Predappio – Getting to know Predappio,” in Predappio city of 900 Complete guide of Predappio and surrounding area, ed. Comune di Predappio, Assessorato al Turismo (Predappio: Comune di Predappio, 2012) 4-5,  http://www.comune.predappio.fo.it/images/stories/GuidaPredappio.pdf.
[10] Frassineti follows the dream of his predecessor, Ivo Marcelli, who tried to get governmental money in the 90s for creating a “a center for the study of Fascism and to restore the principal sites,” as The New York Times informed back in 1995, ten years before Frassineti’s idea of creating a research center for the study of fascism. (John Tagliabue, “Predappio Journal: With Fascism Defanged, Mussolini is Revisited,”The New York Times, October 28, 1995, accessed September 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1995/10/28/world/predappio-journal-with-fascism-defanged-mussolini-is-revisited.html). The French newspaper Libération also commented the wish to open a museum for the history of fascism: Charles Delouche, “Un musée du fascisme contre les fans du Duce,” Libération, April 28, 2016, accessed September 14, 2016,http://www.liberation.fr/planete/2016/04/28/un-musee-du-fascisme-contre-les-fans-du-duce_1448991.
[11] See Winfried Nerdinger (ed.), München und der Nationalsozialismus: Katalog des NS-Dokumentationszentrums München (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2015) (The website of the NS-Dokumentationszentrum München is available at http://www.ns-dokuzentrum-muenchen.de/home/ (Last accessed 14 September  2016)).
[12] “As historians, we believe that the creation of a museum about the fascist period of Italian history should be positively assessed, considering the assurance of seriousness, scientific rigor, narrative ability, documentary wealth and capacity to foster popular history and teaching […]” (“Museo del fascismo a Predappio, 50 storici si schierano col sindaco Frassineti,” Forlì Today, February 8, 2016. http://www.forlitoday.it/cronaca/museo-fascismo-predappio-lettera-storici-pro-giorgio-frassineti.html (Last accessed 14 September  2016)).
[13] The “Guidelines” of the project have been republished by Marcello Flores, the historian who coordinates the advisory committee for the project, in “Predappio sì perché?” Doppiozero, April 8, 2016, accessed September 14, 2016, http://www.doppiozero.com/materiali/il-museo-di-predappio.
[14] Simon Levis Sullam, “Contro il Museo del fascismo,” Doppiozero, March 31, 2016. http://www.doppiozero.com/materiali/contro-il-museo-del-fascismo-predappio (Last accessed 14 September  2016)
[15] Contemporary historian Giovanni Sabbatucci opposed his colleague Paolo Mieli as early as in September 2015. He was against the “museification” of fascism “because of the risk of crystallization of negativity and ambiguity which such a museum would necessarily involve.” (Nicoletta Tiliacos, “Storici a confronto su un’idea nata a sinistra. Parlano Paolo Mieli e Giovanni Sabbatucci,” Il Foglio, September 16, 2015. http://www.ilfoglio.it/articoli/2015/09/16/museo-fascismo-predappio-perche-si___1-v-132799-rubriche_c403.htm (Last accessed 14 September  2016).
[16] Vittorio Vidotto, I luoghi del fascismo a Roma, speech pronounced at the conference: Urbs: Concepts and realities of public space / Concetti e realtà dello spazio pubblico, Istituto Olandese, Rome, April 2-4, 2003.   http://dprs.uniroma1.it/sites/default/files/425.html (Last accessed 14 September  2016).
[17] Igiaba Scego, “Il museo del fascismo a Predappio è sbagliato,” Internazionale, March 5, 2016. http://www.internazionale.it/opinione/igiaba-scego/2016/03/05/museo-fascismo-predappio (Last accessed 14 September  2016).
[18] Guri Schwarz, “Sì a un museo nazionale del fascismo, ma decisamente non a Predappio,” Gli Stati Generali, April 7, 2016. http://www.glistatigenerali.com/musei-mostre_storia-cultura/si-a-un-museo-nazionale-del-fascismo-ma-decisamente-non-a-predappio/ (Last accessed 14 September  2016).
[19] Istituto Nazionale per la Storia del Movimento di Liberazione in Italia (INMSLI), http://www.italia-resistenza.it/. See the conference:L’eredità della memoria. Situazione museologica e Memoria in Italia. Progetti sull’eredità della memoria a 70 anni dalla Liberazione., Modena/Bologna/Fossoli/Gattatico/Predappio, May 26-29, 2015. http://www.istitutostorico.com/eredita_della_memoria (Last accessed 14 September  2016).
[20] Gianpasquale Santomassimo, Metabolizzare il fascismo (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2004), 1-6, here 6.
[21] Remembering the whole history of fascism, not only the end of WW2, is the issue at stake here. Francesco Catastini carefully studied such a continuity of anti-fascist activities in the memory of small Tuscan local communities, from the beginning to the end of Mussolini’s “ventennio.” See Francesco Catastini, Una lunga Resistenza. Microstorie a confronto: Roccastrada e Calenzano (1922-1948) (Pisa: Paccini, 2015).
[22] In a 2013 essay, I pointed at the absence of any public history interpretation in four different realms of WW2 memory: Predappio of course, then Campo Imperatore where Mussolini was rescued by the Nazis; Cefalonia where more than 6,500 Italian soldiers were murdered by the Nazis and the recent Affile Mausoleum (Rome) in honor of Graziani, a war criminal, chief commander of the army during the Salò Republic. (Serge Noiret, “Il Ruolo della Public History nei Luoghi della Guerra Civile Italiana, 1943-1945,” Ricerche Storiche, XLIII/2, May-August 2013, 315-337. https://www.academia.edu/6209683/Il_Ruolo_della_Public_History_nei_Luoghi_della_Guerra_Civile_Italiana_1943-1945 (Last accessed 14 September  2016)).
[23] Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci, “Predappio, le musée qui divise l’Italie,” L’Histoire 424, June 2016. http://www.lhistoire.fr/predappio-le-mus%C3%A9e-qui-divise-litalie (Last accessed 14 September  2016).
[24] For recent tendencies in the historiography of fascism see Leonardo Rapone (ed.), Fascismo: itinerari storiografici da un secolo all’altro,Studi storici 1, 2014.
[25] David J. Staley, Computers, visualization, and history: how new technology will transform our understanding of the past (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2014); Erica Lehrer, Cynthia E. Milton and Monica Eileen Patterson (eds.), Curating difficult knowledge: violent pasts in public places (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Kirsten Drotner and Kim Christian Schrøder, Museum communication and social media: the connected museum (New York : Routledge, 2013), 130-149.
[26] Istituto per la storia del Risorgimento italiano. Museo Centrale del Risorgimento di Roma. http://www.risorgimento.it (Last accessed 14 September  2016).
[27] Marco Pizzo, “Il Fascismo in vetrina?” Storia in Rete, January 2012. http://www.storiainrete.com/5968/archivio-arretrati/storia-in-rete-numero-75-gennaio-2012/ (Last accessed 14 September  2016).
[28] Ilaria Porciani’s keynote “What can Museums do for Public History? What can Public History do for Museums?,” International Federation for Public History, 2nd International Conference, August 28, 2015 (see information on the IFPH website athttps://ifph.hypotheses.org/793, (Last accessed 14 September  2016)) will be published in the Italian journal Memoria e Ricerca, issue 1, January-April 2017. Predappio’s museum is “physically” located inside a plural network of local historical and memory institutions dealing with fascism, WW2, the civil war and the resistance to the Salò Republic. Since 2005, local public historians connected with the Department of Tourism and Trade of the Emilia-Romagna region have been offering “memory trips” around the Gothic Line (Vito Paticchia and Gabriele Ronchetti, Emilia-Romagna. Itinerari nei luoghi della memoria, 1943-1945 (Milan: Touring Editore, 2005).

(This post is the result of my presentation “Building a national Museum for the History of Fascism in Italy: a public debate”, during the 3rdConference of the IFPH-FIHP at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia, July 8, 2016. Accessed online September 14, 2016.https://ifph.hypotheses.org/1056 and of my former post “La public history italiana si fa strada: un museo a Predappio per narrare la storia del ventennio fascista.” Digital & Public History, May 19, 2016.  https://dph.hypotheses.org/906


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