As a child in fascist Italy, Clara Petacci (known as Claretta) was dutifully adoring of Benito Mussolini and the cult of ducismo. She gave the stiff-armed Roman salute while at school (the Duce had declared handshaking fey and unhygienic) and sang the fascist youth anthem ‘Giovinezza’. Her father, the Pope’s personal physician, was a convinced fascist, for whom Mussolini was the incarnation of animal cunning — furbizia — and the manful fascist soul. Claretta herself would have to wait before she met the ‘divine Caesar’.
One day in April 1932, while motoring from Rome to the seaside resort of Ostia, she caught sight of her idol behind the wheel of his Alfa Romeo. ‘Follow him!’ she ordered her chauffeur. The cars drew level, and Mussolini pulled over to confront his pursuer. Petacci was 20; he was 49. But to judge by her diaries — first published in Italy in 2009 as Mussolini segreto (Secret Mussolini) — the encounter was love at first sight. As the weeks went by, the doctor’s daughter began to court the Duce in a decorous way, first by sending him perfumed billets-doux, then by calling him on the telephone. Before long, ‘savage, ardent sex’ took place daily in Mussolini’s headquarters in Rome.
His vainglorious sexual boasting (‘They say I’ve got the most beautiful body in Italy’) worked on her like an aphrodisiac. Richard Bosworth, a research fellow at Jesus College, chronicles the ‘Ben and Clara’ affair in his absorbing new biography, Claretta, an addition to his previous histories of Rome and fascist Italy. Unfortunately for the ‘genteelly reared’ Catholic girl, Claretta was engaged to another man, while Mussolini himself was married with five children. The grandly uniformed Dux surely looked incongruous in her bedroom with its baby-pink telephone and items of pink furniture. He had had relations (or one-night stands) with hundreds of women by now, perhaps ‘as many as 400’, according to the Italian journalist Roberto Olla, whose 2012 psycho-sexual biography, Dux, una biografia sessuale di Mussolini, provides Bosworth with some of his material.
Hitler’s dealings with Eva Braun were frankly ‘arid’ by comparison. At first Claretta was brusquely mauled by Mussolini under his desk or on mattress-like cushions installed for the purpose. Towards the end of his 23-year-dictatorship, however, the Duce’s potency inevitably diminished and he became addicted to a German-manufactured aphrodisiac pill trademarked Hormovin. Taking this prototype Viagra was, in some ways, a political act as it served to prolong the myth of the Duce as the one who never flagged. Not only did he squeeze women’s breasts as if they were ‘rubber automobile horns’ (in the words of one of his British biographers), he routinely made for their genitals, Trump-style.
Until recently, Mussolini’s sexuality has largely been ignored by historians as being unworthy of study. Yet it was central to the ‘virile’ cult of fascism and the Duce’s image of himself as a man of power and ardimento — physical daring. He radiated a ‘god-like potency’ and ‘bull-like’ magnetism, according to Claretta. Her diaries, amply quoted here, record the dictator’s every movement and all his words to her, no matter how cringe-making or saccharine (‘I’d like to jump onto your bed like a big tomcat’).
Probably, she first wrote to Mussolini on 7 April 1926, when the mentally disturbed daughter of a Conservative MP, Violet Gibson, shot at the Duce at close range in Rome. (The bullet missed Mussolini’s head by a fraction, but snicked the tip off his nose.) ‘O, Duce, why was I not with you?’, the 14-year-old schoolgirl exclaimed angrily. ‘Could I not have strangled that murderous woman?’ Gibson came close to changing the fate of European history. Instead she ended her days in 1956 in a lunatic asylum in Northampton, unwept-for and disregarded. Claretta never forgot the near-fatal gunshot, and vowed to protect her Caesar-divinity from then on.
Initially, according to Bosworth, Mussolini had greeted Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 warily. A racial dogma that glorified blond northerners conflicted somewhat with the fascist cult of ancient Rome (romanità). Nevertheless, a latent tension had always existed between fascism and Italian Jews. Zionists, in particular, were seen by Mussolini as an inward-looking supranational sect, inimical to the sturdy Blackshirt bond of race and nation. ‘I’ve been a racist since 1921,’ he told
Claretta during a boating trip in September 1938, adding self-pityingly: ‘I don’t
know how they can think that I’m imitating Hitler.’
Ultimately, Claretta’s love for Benito was less romantic than ‘pathetic’, Bosworth concludes. In April 1945, with the Duce’s defeat inevitable, Claretta was executed by anti-fascists and her body strung up alongside her lover’s in Milan, not far from the site where, 26 years earlier, the fascist party had been launched. A passer-by is believed to have said: ‘One thing you can say of Petacci: she did have nice legs’ — a doll to the last.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.