Dark humorists like to point out that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s only worthwhile historical contribution was getting trains to run on time.
They may have overlooked another legacy: tourist ambassador. For better or worse, association with Adolf Hitler’s wartime ally is contributing to an unlikely boom for a few destinations in Italy.
None more so than the west coast island of Ponza, where in July 1943 Mussolini was imprisoned after falling from power. Here, memories of a scantily clad and amorous Mussolini still live large among locals now reaping rewards from his brief sojourn.
“He tried to seduce my grandmother down at the Frontone beach wearing a pair of white boxers,” says guesthouse owner Silveria Aroma, pointing at a faraway patch of sand crowded with sunbathers and playing children.
Even as a prisoner, guarded by police officers, the National Fascist Party leader was, apparently irrepressible. “Mussolini was a Latin lover,” adds Aroma. “A typical Italian macho.”
As the owner of the cozy nine-bed Pensione Silvia, Aroma knows how to spin romantic tales about the tyrant’s brief “vacation.”
She’s not the only one.
Many islanders still trade in vivid, second-hand recollections of Mussolini walking around the village, writing a diary, meditating on his downfall and – perhaps strangely for a man who clashed with the Catholic Church early in his career – turning to God in prayer.
Ponza also exploits the Mussolini brand by staging hilarious summer performances about Il Duce that poke fun at him and his time on the island.
The Mussolini brand
Mussolini held his country in thrall from 1922 to 1943, until Italy’s declining fortunes in World War II led to him finally being overthrown and arrested. To conceal his location from German forces who wished to reinstate him, the captured Mussolini was moved around over the course of 1943.
That’s how he came to spend 10 days on Ponza, a crescent-shaped atoll northwest of Naples.
More than 70 years on from those dark days, there’s a resurgent curiosity about and nostalgia for the man once known as Il Duce (“the leader”). It sits alongside more troubling undercurrents of neo-fascism shown by the most zealous enthusiasts.
Ponza is one of several Italian locations exploiting the Mussolini brand to lure tourists. It’s a fine line – a 1952 Italian law bans the public glorification of fascism.
Old habits die hard
“The local police still called him ‘His Excellence,’” recalls Silverio Capone, a former village councilor and amateur historian. “When he passed by people would cheer for him and give him the Fascist hand sign.”
“People had been for years fascist, how can you pretend that all of a sudden they become anti-fascist?”
A prison isle since Greek and Roman times, Mussolini had for decades confined his political enemies on Ponza. Now it was his turn. As Italy was still at war he found himself rubbing shoulders with socialists imprisoned under his regime.
At Pensione Silvia he is said to have slept in the bed once used by Ras Imru, Ethiopian guerrilla leader and cousin of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was held captive in Ponza after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.
Swimming with Mussolini
Beyond the pension, Santa Maria bay has kept most of the charm once enjoyed by Mussolini. In summer, colorful fishing boats bob alongside local families taking a dip in the same waters once enjoyed by Italy’s tyrant.
Aroma has more tales of local lore.
“You see that balcony on the second floor,” she says. “That’s where Mussolini spent most of his time, with his head in his hands, looking at the horizon, looming over his past and future. This was his prison-house. Our building was the biggest at that time, fit to host important people such as Ras Imru and Mussolini.”
Room with a view
Pensione Silvia was painted white in Mussolini’s day. Now it’s yellow and pink with bright bougainvilleas growing on the walls.
The dictator’s one-time bedroom has a superb view of Ponza’s Roman harbor and picturesque fishing villages in the distance. Roman grottoes are dotted on the skyline as well as the ruins of Emperor Augustus’ lavish summer retreat.
“His room has the best panorama of all and is the only one with two windows,” says Aroma. “It’s constantly overbooked. I kept one of Mussolini’s personal wooden chests, now at my place. It had secret drawers but I found nothing inside – too bad,” she laughs.
Mussolini was granted a privileged exile, very different from that endured by his political opponents. He had the whole floor to himself – six rooms, a private studio, a personal laundrywoman and a cook to serve him freshly caught fish each day.
Above all, he was free to roam the island, although followed at a distance by guards. “Mussolini loved to swim and take long strolls on Frontone beach,” says Aroma.
“That’s where he bumped into my grandmother. She was collecting dried seaweed for the pigsty, she was very young with fair skin and dark hair. A sort of 1940s pin-up.
“Mussolini was struck by her beauty and stopped her. He wanted to meet her again but the guards came up and told him to move on.”
Ponza is, after all, an island for lovers. This is where, according to Homer, Odysseus was bewitched by the sorceress Circe, who used him as her sexual plaything.
Frontone beach today
In 1943, Frontone beach was deserted and wild. Today, it’s crowded with sun umbrellas and loungers, but still beautiful: pristine sands, overhanging granite crags and turquoise waters brimming with baby barracudas.