Joe Pagetta

MUSSOLINI AND ME: Confronting My Own Version of Heritage Not Hate

I’m not sure how or when it happened, but at some point, I became the keeper of my family’s photo archive. It started in a suitcase, and now resides in a flimsy aluminum lock box. Every now and then, on the hunt for a photo to mark a special occasion like a significant birthday or a Throwback Thursday on social media, I rummage through it and consider organizing it. I rarely get further than stuffing photos into an envelope marked “me.”

There are snapshots of family vacations in the Poconos (my sister and I dressed alike); great photos of my mother’s strange hairstyles and colors; plenty of people I don’t know and don’t want to know; and a fairly impressive visual timeline of my father going from an eternally cool and handsome guy in the 50s and 60s, with close-cropped hair, Ray Ban sunglasses and a style to rival Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, to someone who looks exactly like the 1970s and 80s, with a gut, longer hair parted on the side with sideburns, and tinted eyeglasses. Think Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco. I’m not sure how that happened, either.

There is also a wallet-sized, black-and-white photo of Benito Mussolini. I think I know how that happened. The fascist Italian dictator has been a part of my family for a long time. My father was an Italian immigrant who came to the United States in the early 1960s. He met my mother, a second generation Italian American, they got married, and by the late 1960s, they’d settled down in Jersey City, New Jersey and started a family. I was the youngest of three. We didn’t have a communal family library in the apartment where we lived, on the second floor above my mother’s parents, but we did have a book about Mussolini that sat on a shelf in the hutch – we called it a “china cabinet” – in the dining room. In 1985, when I was in my early teens, my whole family gathered around the living room TV to watch the miniseries, ​Mussolini: The Untold Story,starring George C. Scott as the dictator. It was a big event for my father, on par with my mother’s excitement over ​The Thorn Birdsthree years earlier. George C. Scott was no Richard Chamberlain, but he was handsome in his own way.

In the club where my father played cards with friends from the old country, there was a portrait of Mussolini hanging proudly above one of the tables.

I didn’t know much about Mussolini from my school history classes. Fascist; aligned with Hitler; part of the Axis powers, shot and killed by his own people and hanged upside down along with his mistress. That was about it. He was an evil guy, clearly. But here was my father, who seemed to love this guy for no good reason that I or my brother or sister could figure out. He expressed no anti-Semitism or homophobia, outside of the stereotypical tropes that were common back then. His boss was Jewish, and they had a good friendship. They sometimes took their wives out together on a double date. The guy who dressed the windows at the store where my father worked was gay. Other than referring to him as a “finocchio,” the Italian word for fennel — he pronounced it “finewk” — he otherwise didn’t seem to care. He also referred to black people occasionally as “moolinyahns,” his pronunciation of“melanzane,” the Italian word for eggplant. I’m not sure why Italians use vegetables as derogatory terms, especially since they don’t make sense. Eggplant is purple. Fennel is, I don’t know, excellent when paired with mandarin oranges in a salad with a little bit of olive oil.

My father’s love of Mussolini wasn’t something any of us really worried about. It was humorous, even. When my father eventually got a desktop computer in the late 90s and discovered you could set up a picture of your own choosing as wallpaper, he asked me and my sister to make it Mussolini. Sure thing, Pop.

This is not to say that my father was a perfect man with a weird fascination with Mussolini. Those evenings he spent at the Italian club playing cards sometimes turned into entire weekends in Atlantic City without advance notice, leaving my mother crying and cursing his name. Weekends in Atlantic City turned into massive debts to casinos that drained the family’s savings. He could also be verbally and physically abusive. One of my most vivid memories is of him throwing a two-liter bottle of soda at my mother. It was 7Up, because that was all we drank. We were in the basement, in the furnace room area. I don’t know what they were arguing about or why we were in there. It might have been where we kept the extra stock of soda. It hit her right in the chest. I have this other memory of when I was a little older and in my teens, of waking up with his hands around my neck. I don’t remember what he was angry about—it was the morning after a night of losing at the club—but he got off me and made a move for an acoustic guitar that I had propped up in my bedroom. I jumped out of bed and started screaming and threatening him until he left. Sometimes when I think about this second memory, I wonder if it’s true. I sounds like too good of an origin story for someone who went on to become a musician, especially when I think of another time when I was a bit younger and my father helped me repair a cheap Cort-brand Flying V electric guitar. The electronics connecting the pickups had separated, so we set the guitar up on the kitchen table and he showed me how to use a soldering gun. I’m not sure I trust that story either.

In 2000, spurred on by the death of one of his brothers, and my encouragement, my father and I took a trip together back to Italy. Considering our tumultuous history, it was risky. But I was no longer a child or even a teenager. I was a 28-year-old man open to reconciliation and in search of a connection to my heritage. Before heading south to his homeland, we decided to fly into Milan and take trains down through all the major cities. Everywhere we went, my father had to point out to me the significant landmarks connected to Mussolini. Milan was a good place to start. There is, of course, the Milano Centrale train station, rebuilt and inaugurated by Mussolini’s regime in 1931. There is the visage of Mussolini, along with Vittorio Emanuele II, on one of the spires of the Cathedral in Milan. There are numerous and remarkable Fascist-era buildings all over the city. And then there is Piazza Loreto, where the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, Clara, were dumped and then hanged upside down to be stoned and beaten with sticks. My father was determined to pay his respects at this location, and not only made me figure out how to get there from our hotel, but made me go into a cafe to ask a barista where exactly it happened. There was no marker,; and to my father’s dismay, no monument. My father even requested that I take a picture of him on the spot.

While I found this whole adventure slightly macabre, if amusing, I appreciated my father’s childlike enthusiasm. He was me visiting the corner of E Street and 10th Avenue in Belmar, New Jersey, where Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band rehearsed; or me in Montgomery, Alabama at the F.Scott Fitzgerald House. Only instead of wanting to be close to a storied musician or author, he was communing with a dead fascist dictator.

But by the time we got to Venice, I had had enough. In a journal I kept at the time, there is this entry, dated September 12, 2000:

“We nap and then head out again for coffee and discover a gallery that houses works by Dalí. Entry is expensive, but I browse the store with lithographs of Dalí, as well as plates and other ceramics designed by Picasso. Very cool. My father couldn’t give a shit. Seems the only thing he gives a shit about is Mussolini. That’s the only time he gets passionate. With a couple of Pellegrinos and some smokes, we sit awhile at Piazza San Marco and talk about WWII and fascism and socialism and Mussolini and Germany.”

It’s during that conversation that my father finally laid out his theory on Mussolini, which begins with his father, my grandfather, fighting in the Italian army when it invaded Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) in 1935. My father was one year old. Mussolini justified that invasion in plenty of ways, including the gathering of resources during the Great Depression and finding work for unemployed Italians. It was in Ethiopia that my grandfather contracted malaria, an infection that my father believed was connected to the leukemia that eventually killed him. With that as context — whether he intentionally set it up that way or not — my father went on to paint a picture of Mussolini as someone who truly cared about the Italian people, and as someone who considered Italian Jews nothing less than Italians and did not agree with Hitler’s anti-Semitic views. My father believed that Italy only aligned with Germany because if it hadn’t, the Third Reich would have rolled over Italy like it had Poland. The army was weak from the war in Ethiopia, after all. My father basically considered Mussolini a good guy who got mixed up with the wrong people.

This is an abridged and over-simplified version of that conversation. It’s been awhile since my father and I took that trip, and more than a decade since he died. The veracity of his claims about Mussolini doesn’t matter. There is plenty of material out there to support or disprove them. What matters is that I didn’t try to change his mind. I listened. I didn’t suggest that the invasion of Ethiopia was an act of aggression, and that Italy used chemical weapons. I didn’t present another view of Mussolini as a demagogue who preyed on the Italian peoples poverty with promises of greatness and a return to its Roman Empire glory days. We were not in history class. He and I were not on opposing debate teams. We were a father and a son with a couple of cigarettes by a thousand-year-old fountain in Piazza San Marco having a conversation I’d wanted to have my entire life. My father was telling me his story.

In retrospect, the context my father provided offered a clue to his thought process. My grandfather would have believed his work in the Italian army to be noble. It’s not hard to see how that might have been passed down to my father, a kid growing up poor in the south of Italy during the Great Depression and into the second World War. Considering my grandfather’s eventual death, it’s easy then, too, to see how my father would have not wanted his father’s death to be in vain.

After our conversation, there were a few more Mussolini-themed events once we got to his hometown, including an illicit conversation in the doorway of a nondescript building, followed by a walk down the block and a return to that doorway fifteen minutes later, to retrieve an 8‘’x10’’ photo of my father’s favorite dictator.

There’s a scene in Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film, ​Call Me By Your Name,when the characters and lovers Elio and Oliver stop at a stranger’s house to ask for a glass of water. Oliver notices an image of Mussolini above the doorway. “Il Duce,” he says. “That’s Italy,” Elio responds, matter-of-factly. Not knowing better in 2000, I would have responded the same way.

The trip was worth the risk. My father and I became friends after it, because, I think, neither of us tried to change the other or the past. We met each other where we were, and found something to connect to and be proud of. We understood each other.

We didn’t talk about Mussolini much in the seven years before he died, and I hadn’t really thought about the dictator much until I found that photo in my box. It was weird, but also made me smile.

I miss him. I wish he was here to meet my twin daughters, one of whom is is named after his brother, Pinuccio, whose death was the reason we went to Italy in the first place.

I don’t have a picture of Mussolini on my laptop, nor is there a picture of Mussolini hanging in any of the places I hang out with my friends. There are no books about him in my home library. And in my many subsequent trips back to Italy since my father’s death, I haven’t visited any of his favorite Mussolini landmarks. That was his history, not mine. My history is this story.