If your destiny is to be shot dead with your mistress, where better than Lake Como, which, in the words of Shelley, ‘exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty, with the exception of the Arbutus Islands in Killarney’?
It was in Giulino di Mezzegra, a tiny village in the mountains above the lake, that a handful of communist partisans executed the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci on 28 April 1945. The Duce was 61 and his amante 33 — two years older than his daughter Edda.
The partisans loaded their corpses and those of other Fascist leaders — executed separately down by the lake — on to a lorry and drove the 70 miles to Milan where they dumped them in Piazzale Loreto. A huge crowd soon gathered to defile the corpses, especially those of Mussolini and Petacci, which were later strung upside down from the girders of a petrol station in the square. Two days later, in Berlin, Hitler took the Roman option and committed suicide.
But Mussolini — once described by Winston Churchill as ‘the Roman genius’ — had had no intention of doing anything of the sort. He was en route for the Swiss border at the northern end of Lake Como with a small German escort when chance or God intervened to seal his fate.
Mussolini had left both his wife, Rachele, and his mistress behind in Milan. But -Petacci could not live without the Duce and had caught up with him in Como.
On its way to the border, in the village of Dongo, Mussolini’s convoy ran into a flimsy roadblock manned by a dozen or so partisans who had come down from their mountain hideout, desperate for a smoke. The Germans — anxious to get to Switzerland — agreed to let the partisans search the vehicles.
Putting on a pair on sunglasses, Mussolini disguised himself as a German corporal and sat with the German troops. But one of the partisans recognised his profile from the propaganda posters plastered on walls the length and breadth of Italy.
A few months later, having lost the general election in July 1945, Churchill went on a painting holiday to Lake Como — now super-fashionable with the likes of George Clooney, who owns a lakeside palazzo. Italy, it is worth mentioning, is a nation of conspiracy theorists — perhaps because here in Italy the conspiracy theorist is sometimes right. So, Mussolini is killed on Lake Como and a couple of months later Churchill just happens to come to Lake Como to paint? Come off it!
Thus an entire new sector of the Italian conspiracy industry was born — dedicated to proving that Churchill came to Lake Como (he came back in 1947 too, and would return at least once more) for altogether murkier reasons.
First, the conspiracy theorists say, Churchill ordered the execution of -Mussolini, which was carried out by British secret agents. Then he came to Como to destroy or recover the evidence. His motive? A secret compromising correspondence between Churchill and the Duce in which he is said to have made all sorts of embarrassing offers to keep Mussolini out of the war. Not a shred of hard evidence has ever come to light — though plenty of forged letters and other documents have. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m not an Italian.