When Claretta Petacci was a teenager, she covered the walls of her bedroom with pictures of Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943. He was her idol. She wore the fascist party uniform and wrote ecstatic letters to him. She was reminded of him by his image everywhere she turned – on posters, coins, classroom walls and sculptures. She was, her diaries reveal, falling in love.
That sounds like a teenage crush, to be abandoned and mainly forgotten in maturity, but Claretta never forgot. She became Mussolini’s lover for eight years, in life and death. The story is told with great skill and insight in Claretta: Mussolini’s Last Lover by R.J.B. Bosworth. He’s a research fellow in history at Oxford, the author of many books on modern Italy. He’s also the first scholar to have access to Petacci’s diaries and letters, which have languished in the Italian state archives since 1950 while courts decided their fate.
In 1945, Mussolini had been deposed and was living a shadow life as Nazi Germany’s puppet governor of northern Italy. The communist partisans were after him and he hoped that he and Claretta could escape to Switzerland or Germany. But as they left Milan, the partisans intercepted them. When they said Mussolini would be executed, Claretta begged to die with him. She said that she had given him “true love, absolute devotion,” and that her life would “mean nothing once he is dead.”
They were executed together by firing squad and their bodies were laid out at the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. Later their corpses were strung up by the heels from steel girders in the public square, a spectacle of contempt that expressed the partisan hatred of Mussolini’s long, violent, cruel regime. As Bosworth writes, the photo of Claretta, with hair flowing down, became the “visual niche” that installed her in the world’s memory.
Claretta’s diaries prove that she believed sex and power were linked, each enhancing the other. In her view, as one journalist wrote, the definition of great sex was sex with a great man. “How I adore you,” she wrote to Mussolini after making love with him. “You were so beautiful this evening, as aggressive as a lion, violent and masterful. You are the man who triumphs over other men and over life.”
You were so beautiful this evening, as aggressive as a lion, violent and masterful. You are the man who triumphs over other men and over life
Her diaries reveal that Mussolini curtly dismissed much of the world he knew or thought he knew. He believed the British were drunken, brainless pigs, he despised the French for being cowardly and didn’t think much of his fellow Italians. He had a theory that four million Italians were descendants of slaves, therefore worthless. His dislike of Jews seems to put him in a category with Hitler.
As for himself, he thought he was the greatest man since Napoleon, a point on which Claretta agreed. His goal was to raise Italy to the standards of the Roman empire.
His views of love provide an insight into the mind of a dictator. “I love you madly,” he wrote to Claretta. “I want to harm you, be brutal with you.” He had the crazy idea that violent sex “expands the vision” and makes a man perceptive.
Mussolini was rumoured to be a formidable lover – a rumour he did nothing to discourage. He once said he couldn’t count the number of women he had known. He noted that at one time in his life he had 14 lovers on the go.
Claretta’s experience could be disappointing. When he had difficulty doing his part, he blamed his mistress. He had the odd habit of warming things up by talking about previous mistresses. He had at least nine children with them (and five with his wife Rachele).
She called him Ben, he called her Clara. When they bickered she claimed that he didn’t see her often enough and didn’t do enough for her family. Her father, Dr. Francesca Petacci, was a fashionable doctor, physician to a cardinal. The family travelled in a chauffeur-driven car with Vatican number plates. Her mother, Giuseppina, was an ambitious snob who lusted after the privileges that came to friends of Mussolini – for instance, help with the laws when her husband needed it.
Bosworth tells us Mussolini actually asked Giuseppina, “May I love your daughter?” She answered yes, “The idea that she will be near a man like you is very comforting to me.” This yearning for privilege made the Petaccis encourage all aspects of Claretta’s liaison with Mussolini. The couple often met in the Petacci home.
In many accounts, Claretta has been pictured as a naive, apolitical young woman, led astray by love. Bosworth presents a different reality. It was she who frequently urged Mussolini to greater violence, advocated capital punishment against his enemies and argued for closer ties to Hitler. In 1943, Claretta believed a coup to bring down Mussolini was in the works. “Arrest them! Kill them all,” she urged. But Mussolini didn’t listen and he was deposed.
As we read these passages in Bosworth’s narrative, the scent of greed and corruption rises over the city of Rome. A totalitarian state, unchallenged by opposition, encourages its own special form of favouritism, an intimate and often fatal version of political evil.
Claretta: Mussolini’s Last Lover By R.J.B. Bosworth Yale University Press 320 pp; $36.50