Death and the Dolce Vita: The Dark Side of Rome in the 1950s Stephen Gundle

Canongate Books, pp.353, £14.99

At about 5.15 p.m. on 9 April 1953, Wilma Montesi, a 21-year-old woman of no account, leaves the three-room apartment in a northern suburb of Rome that she shares with her father, a carpenter, and five other members of the family and never returns. Thirty-six hours later her body is found by the edge of the sea at Torvaianica, a fishing village close to the capital. She is lying face down in the sand, wearing all her clothes apart from her shoes, her skirt, her stockings and her suspender belt, all of which are missing. She appears to have drowned.

But why? Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Or could she have been murdered? There are no signs of violence to the body, so murder is not suspected. It is also difficult to conceive of a motive. Wilma Montesi lived an apparently blameless life, closely supervised by her mother; she mixed with other respectable members of the lower-middle class, and she was engaged to be married to a policeman. An attractive woman, she could have been the victim of a sex crime, but this, too, is excluded, because an autopsy shows that she died a virgin.

Her parents categorically rule out suicide, perhaps mainly because it would deny their Catholic daughter a Christian burial. But it also seems an improbable option. Wilma was a woman of cheerful temperament who had never shown signs of depression. She was said to be looking forward to getting married, and in the meantime she seemed to be enjoying an uneventful life in which the most exciting things she did were to go to the cinema, listen to popular music on the radio, and read gossip magazines.

So an accident it had to be. But what sort of accident? And why did Wilma go all the way to the sea, a wearisome two-hour return journey by bus and train, when she was expected home for supper? An explanation was offered. Her feet were hurting because of some new shoes she had bought, and she decided that the best way of making them better would be to dip them in sea-water. This was what she told her family. So the theory went that she had gone to the seaside to bathe her feet, but had then fainted or by some other mischance fallen into the water and drowned.

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There were obvious problems with this theory. Not only did the length of the journey seem disproportionate to the piffling nature of the mission, but why would Wilma have needed to remove her suspender belt in order to paddle in shallow water on the edge of a sandy beach? But the police accepted the theory without questioning it and, within only five days of her body being found, declared that Wilma’s death had been an accident and closed their investigation.

There, perhaps, the matter might have rested. But instead the Wilma Montesi affair developed into a full-blown scandal that caused the resignation of Italy’s foreign minister and gripped the nation by exposing the depravity and corruption that existed within the political, cultural and judicial establishments. Prominent people were found to be consorting with criminals and prostitutes. They also took part in drug-fuelled sex orgies, of which some were found to have taken place on a seaside shooting estate close to where Wilma Montesi’s body’s was found.

The owner of the Capocotta estate was Marquess Ugo Montagna of San Bartolomeo, a rich, smooth, elderly Sicilian with a criminal record and a title of dubious authenticity but nevertheless a compulsive networker who cultivated people of power and influence and prospered by trading favours with them. The Capocotta estate adjoined the much larger (formerly royal but later presidential) estate of Castelporziano where I once, as a journalist in Rome, was invited to shoot wild boar with President Saragat. No shooting goes on at either estate any more, for they have been merged and turned into one gun-free nature reserve. But even in the old days game-shooting at Capocotta seems to have been of lesser interest to many of the marquess’s guests than his evening entertainments, which usually included a lot of naked cavorting on the sand.

One of Montagna’s closest friends was a sleazy jazz musician and composer of film music called Piero Piccioni, whose father was the Christian Democrat foreign minister Attilio Piccioni, who resigned from the government when his son got drawn into the scandal. Montagna and Piero Piccioni were both eventually sent for trial in Venice for being accessories to Wilma Montesi’s death. A Roman police chief, Saverio Polito, was tried at the same time for being responsible for a cover-up. It was Polito who closed the police investigation into Wilma’s death when he embraced the implausible foot-bathing theory. All three were acquitted, and the judicial authorities concluded not only that none of them had been guilty of a crime, but also that there had never been a crime for anybody to be guilty of — that Wilma’s death had been an accident all along. There couldn’t, therefore, have been a cover-up, because there had been nothing to cover up.

So the years of thrilling press coverage of low doings in high places ended in nothingness. Rome’s Il Messagero newspaper commented at the time: ‘Of all the terrible suspicions which tormented public opinion nothing is left: no orgies, no white slavery, no boatloads of prostitutes, nothing.’ That there had ever been anything at all was thanks to a journalist, Silvano Muto, who had been investigating drug-trafficking along the coast near Rome when he thought he stumbled upon the cause of Wilma’s death. Muto wrote in a magazine article that this supposedly stay-at-home girl had in fact been a regular visitor to the area, had been recruited as a drugs runner, and had finally succumbed to a drugs overdose at Capocotta. She was then taken to the beach and her body laid out to look as if she had died in a drowning accident.

During Muto’s subsequent trial for ‘spreading false and tendentious news to disturb public order’ there erupted a bombshell that caused Montagna and Piccioni to be arrested. An embittered ex-mistress of Montagna, a glamorous and articulate young starlet called Anna Maria Caglio, accused him in court of running a drugs ring, of being responsible for the disappearance of many women, and of using Piccioni as the ‘assassin’. At the later trial in Venice, however, Caglio’s character was comprehensively denounced and her evidence ridiculed.

The Montesi scandal may well have inspired Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita, but it is difficult to go along with Stephen Gundle’s grander claim for it — that it played a critical role in Italy’s transformation from a secretive fascist state into an open modern democracy. To me it seems no more than just another of those juicy Italian scandals that crop up under any and every regime but frustratingly never get resolved. By straining to find deep significance in it, Gundle makes this book heavy going. Though we will probably never know what happened, there is unlikely to be a more thorough and diligently researched account of the scandal than this one.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: 1950s, Book reviews, Crimea, Italy, Non-fiction, Rome